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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 354-355
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A Streetcar Named Desire
Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire. By Philip C. Kolin. Plays in Production Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; pp. xix + 229. $54.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.
As the century drew to a close, New York audiences witnessed one of the most extreme revisionings ever of a classic American play when director Ivo van Hove stripped bare both stage furnishings and actors alike and made an onstage bathtub the focal point of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Had van Hove's 1999 production at the New York Theatre Workshop opened a little earlier, it would certainly have merited more than passing mention in Philip C. Kolin's stage history [End Page 354] of a work that, for a half-century now, has been "interrogated" and "destabilized," "radicalized," and "deconstructed." Kolin justly characterizes Streetcar as a seminal example of what he calls "stylized realism" in drama, formally innovative in its presentation of "interiority" and thematically daring in its treatment of "sexual politics."
This prodigiously researched volume--Kolin consulted literally hundreds of production reviews--meticulously describes the intense theatrical collaboration that resulted in the play's original and highly acclaimed 1947 production. It then goes on to record major restagings worldwide (from Mexico City to European capitals to Tokyo to South Africa); over thirty years of revivals around the United States from the mid-1950s on, including crosscast and multiracial ones; and adaptations to other media (film, ballet, television, opera), before concluding with a chronology of almost four dozen major productions. Through it all, Kolin displays an unerring instinct for choosing from the reviews just the phrases necessary to help readers see with their mind's eye what was happening on stage.
Williams's play has, over the years, attracted great actresses--Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Uta Hagen, Arletty, Claire Bloom--and great directors and designers--Elia Kazan, Jo Mielziner, Luchino Visconti, Franco Zefferelli, Ingmar Bergman. And, in Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, it has given American drama two of its most enduring and indelible characters. Blanche has been variously the "soft and shimmery" tragic victim, a "Foucaultian . . . poisoned disrupter," an oppressor attracted to The Other, an arrogant bigotted racist, and a sensualist who achieves sanctification. Stanley has veered between the brute animality, orality, and "phallic gestures" that turned Marlon Brando into a sexual icon and a complex if sometimes beleaguered person of wit, insight, and intelligence.
A production history such as this takes on its greatest value when it prompts scholars and theatre practitioners to rethink the text. Reading about earlier innovations, such as Bergman's decision to place a movie theatre called Desire, or the Pleasure Garden--showing a film entitled "Night in Paradise"--directly upon the stage; or Jean Cocteau's adaptation that emphasized disparagement of the immigrant Stanley as a displacement of racial prejudice in a heavily black New Orleans; or the Japanese premiere that hinted at a connection between Blanche as an "unwelcome intruder" and the army occupation forces, can help alter staid perceptions and revision the text anew in imaginative and sometimes provocative ways. Many of the productions Kolin recounts reveal a much more politicized Streetcar than the original one, with increased emphasis on proletarian protest and class struggle, particularly in Italy, England, and through the black or interracial castings in America.
In his discussion of the 1951 film of Streetcar, Kolin usefully reminds readers that Williams upended the traditional female position by making "the male anatomy the object of desire"--a point that somehow seemed to elude Susan Bordo recently in The Male Body where she neglects to discuss the homosexual gaze in screen versions of 1950s plays by Williams and others. Yet, despite its potential usefulness in disputing a misreading of Blanche as a character in drag, the discussion (however welcome) of the queer/camp Belle Reprieve in a production history of Williams's play is a little like including Hamletmachine or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in a stage history of Shakespeare's tragedy. And even though Andre Previn's...