This Day In Literary History
On December 3rd, 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire, the classic play by the legendary American playwright Tennesee Williams, opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Williams had written the steamy play while living in an apartment in New Orleans, rewriting the script numerous times and changing the title as well. Early titles of the play included The Moth, The Poker Night, and Blanche's Chair on the Moon.
A Streetcar Named Desire told the story of Blanche DuBois, a fading but still attractive Southern belle who comes to stay with her sister, Stella, and her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowlaski, while taking time off from her teaching job after suffering from a nervous disorder.
Actually, she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. On the surface, Blanche may seem like a virtuous, cultured Southern belle, but that's just an act to conceal her alcoholism, mental illness, and delusions of grandeur.
Blanche is also a nymphomaniac, driven to sexual addiction after catching her husband, Allan Gray, having an affair with another man, which resulted in the end of their marriage and Allan's suicide.
Stella, who knows that her sister is a nymphomaniac, is hesitant to let Blanche stay with her, for fear that she'll seduce her husband. Stanley is a brutish, domineering slug who abuses Stella both emotionally and physically, but his beastly nature and animal sexuality are what attracted her to him.
The arrival of Blanche predictably upsets the unhealthy co-dependent relationship of Stella and Stanley. When Blanche sets her sights on Stanley's friend Mitch, Stanley determines to unmask her Southern belle facade. He learns about her past and confronts her.
Finally pushed to the breaking point, Stanley rapes Blanche in a fit of rage, which is alluded to rather than shown explicitly. The attack drives Blanche to a nervous breakdown, and she ends up being committed to a mental institution.
When the kindly doctor takes her away, Blanche utters her famous line, "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
The original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire starred Jessica Tandy as Blanche, Kim Hunter as Stella, Karl Malden as Mitch, and a 21-year-old newcomer named Marlon Brando as Stanley. The play caused a sensation with its sexual themes and violence.
The play also won Tennessee Williams a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Four years after it opened, a feature film adaptation was released. Directed by Elia Kazan, the highly acclaimed movie featured Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden reprising their Broadway roles, and Vivien Leigh as Blanche.
Due to the stifling restrictions of the Hollywood Production Code, which would remain in effect until the ratings system was adopted in 1968, the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire omits, changes, or waters down elements in the play deemed too objectionable for the screen.
By making these sometimes drastic changes, the film could get the PCA (Production Code Administration) Seal of Approval it needed. At least, that's what director Elia Kazan thought he had done. But then the film ran afoul of the notorious Legion of Decency.
During the Production Code era, the Catholic Legion of Decency acted as an unofficial film censorship board. They rated films and expected Catholics to abide by their ratings. If they rated a film Condemned, all Catholics would be forbidden to see the picture under the pain of mortal sin.
Priests were encouraged to loiter in the lobbies of theaters showing condemned films, take down the names of parishioners who failed to heed the Legion's rating, and deny them communion. Priests were also encouraged to organize picket lines at certain films.
In addition to the imposition on Catholics, the Legion also organized national protest rallies to encourage people of all faiths to boycott Condemned films. To avoid a costly boycott, studio bosses would order directors to negotiate cuts with the Legion to get them to drop the Condemned rating.
Despite Elia Kazan's restraint in adapting Tennessee Williams' play, the film was still threatened with a Condemned rating by the Legion of Decency. While Kazan was away making his next movie, Warner Brothers canceled the premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire.
The studio made several minutes of cuts to the film without his knowledge or consent. The Legion of Decency dropped its Condemned rating, but Kazan was livid. He made one final appeal, asking Warner Brothers if they would release both their censored version and his director's cut of the film.
Kazan wanted audiences to decide for themselves which version to see, but the studio refused, as the Legion of Decency mandated that only their approved version of the film could be released or the Condemned rating would be reinstated.
Elia Kazan's director's cut of A Streetcar Named Desire would remain unseen for over forty years, until Warner Brothers finally restored the film in 1993. Several years after Streetcar's original release, Kazan and Tennessee Williams teamed up again.
Their new film, Baby Doll (1956), an adaptation of Williams' classic one-act play, Twenty-seven Wagon Loads of Cotton, would prove to be another challenge to the Hollywood Production Code and the Legion of Decency, with its steamy sensuality and dark humor.
Quote Of The Day
"I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really." - Tennessee Williams
Today's video features a complete live performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. Enjoy!