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8 June 2021

From the NS archive: A Streetcar Named Desire

22 October 1949: The play has undertones of poetry, but does not quite come off.

By RD Smith

“A Streetcar Named Desire”, one of Tennessee Williams’s best-known plays, premiered on Broadway in 1947. It was a highly controversial production, concerning money, sex and mental illness. Critics decried it as decadent, vulgar and sinful – and they did so again when it came to London two years later, in a production at the Aldwych Theatre directed by Laurence Olivier. In this New Statesman review, published ten days after opening night at the Aldwych, RD Smith considers that “the author’s tone and intentions absolve him of any charge of vulgarity”, yet is unimpressed by the play in general, which he says is melodramatic and uses cliched symbols. He is impressed, however, by the acting of the cast of Vivien Leigh, Renée Asherson and Bonar Colleano, which is “sincere, direct, and accomplished”.

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If you have read the Sunday papers on this production at the Aldwych you will probably be thinking that Mr Tennessee Williams has written a masterpiece. “A garbage heap”; “crude bellowings of sex”; “the reptile house at the Zoo”; “talk like cesspools”; these are phrases we used to see only when an artist has been lucky enough to hit the gutterpress where it hurts them most. Unfortunately A Streetcar Named Desire is not another Ghosts; Mr Williams is not Ibsen or Hardy or DH Lawrence; and Laurence Olivier’s production, though scrupulously clear of any pornographic emphasis, does not bring out the play’s undertones of poetry – firm, delicate and logical undertones which sound far differently from the jukebox cacophony of No Orchids for Miss Blandish.

Stanley Kowalski, a tough common sexy Polish-American, and his wife Stella, who comes from a decayed upper-class family, live in Elysian Fields, a shabby riverside district of New Orleans, melodious with hot trumpet and blue piano, and reached by a streetcar named Desire. Stella’s sister, Blanche DuBois, a brittle prinked-up faded beauty, disdainfully takes refuge here, and nourishes her dreams of happiness and respectability on the bottle, hot baths, romantic or neurotic passes at Stanley and his neighbours; and, above all, by dramatising in conversation her past life. At 16 she had married a poet, whom she found to be abnormal; in her inexperience and resentment at her helplessness she let him see her disgust; he shot himself. After that her life degenerated into a scramble for escape from the misery of reality. She took to drink and sex, but held on to her dreams. Some of this she tells us herself in talks with her sister; the damaging part is uncovered by Stanley, who is humiliated by her taunts, and angered by her unsettling of his happy domestic life. He throws her into despair by insisting that she must leave, takes away her last hope of security by warning off a friend who is about to marry her, and then, while his wife is having a baby, forces her into bed. In the final scene Blanche is led off to an asylum.

Told like that the play sounds cheap enough, but the author’s tone and intentions absolve him of any charge of vulgarity. The crudeness and violence of some of the incidents and dialogue are necessary agents in Blanche’s breakdown, and valid symbols for the author’s aversion to life as it exists. There is no exploitation of violence as in many films, nor any of the pinching and fumbling that whoop-up another play that shocked the Sunday newspaper. Where the dialogue is banal, it is deliberately banal, flattened and lowered for the purpose of dramatic irony, as in Mr Williams’s earlier play The Glass Menagerie, which worked out the same theme in a more respectable environment.

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In that play the heroine lived in a world of illusion, and she became as remote from life and as fragile as her own glass animals; the hero was a manufacturer of dreams, who picked the lock of his trap with symbols, and came to his truth by the path of illusion. Blanche DuBois is an ill-fated member of the same family. “I don’t want realism,” she says, “I want magic.” Pinned under the glare of reality her magic fades. As she is led off by the doctor she sums up her life with the unendurable pathos of the mad – “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

It is this terrible loneliness, this solitary agony, that we feel unbearable. By comparison with this horror the violent incidents of the plot – the drunken brawling, the love-making, the bad language – are seen (or should be seen) as subsidiary evils committed by people who are themselves not evil, who, indeed, in some important qualities, are positively good. It is not the people who are vile but the conventions, the false values and the mass-produced idealism of an acquisitive society that prevent people enjoying either simple reality or complex dreams.

The play does not quite come off, because there is a too great discrepancy between the cliché quality of the symbols Mr Williams has chosen, and the individual quality of his feeling: the hot trumpet and blue piano and four-letter bonhomie carry too many different associations for us to be able all the time to accept the significance he wishes them to bear, and so, though they are always effective theatre, their effect is melodramatic, and obscures the central theme. And there is too much talk in some scenes, too much making sure a point is not going to be missed, so that when it does arrive we are past caring about it. Finally the end of the play, with its insistence on the physical details of her apprehension, weakens and coarsens the pathos achieved immediately before, when we realise that her expected gentleman friend from Dallas will be the doctor from the madhouse.

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The acting throughout was sincere, direct, and accomplished, and Vivien Leigh gives a wonderful performance in a part that would tax even a great actress. Her make-up as a tired crumbling beauty, her voice with its nervous tension and drinker’s hoarseness, and her self-consciously genteel bearing are triumphs of art. The pathos of the lost despairing creature she most successfully conveys, and if she stops short at this side of the character, and is not able to give us the lustier appetites, that is not her fault, and we have no right to carp when she has given so much.

Renée Asherson is simple and directly honest as the sister, but I could believe neither in her passion nor in her old southern ancestry. Bonar Colleano was a plausible choice for Stanley. He is virile and charming: but he has an intelligence that cuts like a razor, and it is almost impossible to think of him as a brute. Moreover, he lacks the technique to give variety to dialogue, and offered us a one-note performance, strong and convincing but monotonous. The director must accept responsibility for these limitations, as he must our gratitude for the dexterity of the production for which, however, Jo Meilziner’s favourite scenic dodge of painted gauze (to give simultaneous setting of indoor and outdoor scenes) was not specially appropriate. After this remarkable if imperfectly achieved piece Mr Williams will either develop more positive values, or decline into the most successful playwright of our day.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)