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TDR: The Drama Review 45.4 (2001) 163-164

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Book Review

Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire

Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire. By Philip C. Kolin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; 229 pp.; illustrations. $54.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Of all the metaphors that present themselves in discussing that most persistent framing question of drama theory--What is the relationship between dramatic texts and their theatrical productions?--my personal favorite is the image of the text as a house occupied by successive generations of inhabitants, each shaping it to their particular cultural style, ideology, ethos. From this perspective, Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire is a veritable "Grand Hotel" that has offered its special brand of turbulent hospitality to some of the biggest names in the theatre of the last century. It is not only legends like Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan that make the theatrical biography of Streetcar such a saga. Other icons--whose celebrity eventually derived from other sources altogether--have also "visited" Williams's masterpiece at decisive moments in their careers, leaving its overwrought psychocultural territory more complicated than they found it. Figures as different and distinguished as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Uta Hagen, Jean Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, Lucino Visconti, Franco Zefferelli, Vittorio Gassman, and Marcello Mastraonni all come into the story of this momentous artistic "habitation."

As authoritatively told by Philip C. Kolin, the saga of Streetcar begins with the delicious paradox that this most "American" of plays gained its iconic status through a series of important foreign productions. That is, Streetcar came to exemplify American drama partly because it offered international theatremakers a convenient and ideologically satisfying aesthetic handle on America itself. While Kolin does not pursue the circuitry of this cultural construction, his detailed account of the international premieres of the play, with his careful description of each director's staging, provides the basis as well as the inspiration for such work to be done (on this and other American plays). Kolin's opening discussion of the play's American and international premieres lays out the main areas of representation that were differently inflected by the ideological positions of the various directors. The differences begin with the ways the play's mythic New Orleans was realized, and then go on to its undeniably class-based conflict. The first production of A Streetcar Named Desire opened at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway on 3 December 1947. It inaugurated the legendary collaboration between Williams, Kazan, and designer Jo Mielziner. The production instituted what was to become an enduring debate about the play's generic identity as well as its aesthetic location somewhere between the starkest naturalism and a new American expressionism (Brenda Murphy's apt term for the compromise achieved is "stylized realism" [1992]). Mielziner's famous transparent set (said by Arthur Miller to have issued in an "era of gauze" on the American stage [in Murphy 1999:2]) proved to be the perfect meeting place for Kazan's political view of Williams's intensely psychological drama. The production's attention to the competing claims of public and private, the objective [End Page 163] world and subjective experience, situated Streetcar in the vanguard of contemporaneous American cultural discourses--discourses that would make the following two decades the most ideologically contentious of the so-called American century.

Kolin's discussion of the original production (chapter 1) admirably lays the groundwork for fully appreciating the vastly varied history of the play, which is the subject of the succeeding four chapters, covering, respectively, the international premieres, revivals, re-visionings/deconstructions, and translations into other media. While every chapter is filled with interesting information and illuminating analysis, the chapter entitled "Recasting the Players: Expanding and Radicalizing the Streetcar Script" is naturally the most intellectually expansive, allowing Kolin's expertise (not only as a leading authority on this play but as one of our best Williams scholars) to identify the special challenges and contributions of experiments like mixed-race productions, all-black productions, and cross-gender cast productions. For example, his discussion of Belle Reprieve (1991), the queer/camp adaptation of Streetcar...


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