Streetcar on Walnut Street — Blanche, Stanley and Stella waltz in new production at Walnut Street Theatre

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Post By Michael Andre

The Walnut Street Theatre at 9th Street first opened its doors on 2 February 1809. To celebrate their 200th anniversary, the Walnut has mounted a new production of A Street Car Named Desire. A German director friend groaned at the news; she cattily if wittily remarked: a chestnut on Walnut! But it’s a great play. And in September 1947 it happened to premiere at the Walnut starring Jessica Tandy, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden and Marlon Brando. People who have seen the subsequent film may not understand how the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency eviscerated the play.

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Susan Riley Stevens (Blanche DuBois) and Jeffrey Coon (Stanley Kowalski) from the new Walnut Street Theatre production. Photo by Mark Garvin

The play moves slowly by contemporary standards, slow as a novel, slow as the Mississippi. It’s set in New Orleans. Blanche Dubois played here expertly by Susan Stevens arrives at her sister’s house in the French Quarter —  only to “blanche” at the violence and sexuality of her Polish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski (Jeffrey Coon). The play is easily construed as a 40s Freudian battle between Blanche and Stanley for the soul of Blanche’s sister, Stella (Sandra Struthers).  Stella is the vibrant and healthy star to which the ethereal Blanche and the carnal Stanley can only aspire.

Sandra Struthers (Stella Kowalski) and Jeffrey Coon (Stanley Kowalski). Photo by Mark Garvin
Sandra Struthers (Stella Kowalski) and Jeffrey Coon (Stanley Kowalski). Photo by Mark Garvin

Stanley wins. He breaks Blanche. “Whoever you are,” a confused Blanche says to the psychiatrist who leads her away at the play’s end, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” [Tennessee] Williams himself finally succumbed to just such a liquor and pill-fueled madness.  And what did the Hays Office change?

The Blanche in the play had unknowingly married a closeted gay man. When she learned the truth, she cruelly drove him to suicide.  Such things happened; and their representation ran uncensored on a Philadelphia stage in 1947. But a mass audience could not be subjected to degenerates and perverts in a 1950s movie house. Williams was forced to re-imagine Blanche’s husband as poet. He was a poet killed by his wife’s bad notice.

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Jeffrey Coon (Stanley Kowalski) and Susan Riley Stevens (Blanche DuBois) Photo by Mark Garvin

Vivien Leigh, who played Blanche in London and in the subsequent film, considered the change ludicrous. Leigh knew a thing or two about madness. And yet, as a poet myself, I kind of like the film’s suicidal husband. My aunt said very mean things about my verse. If I had shot myself like Blanche’s husband, she’d have felt really bad. I should have done it! It’s too late now though. My aunt ultimately went crazier than Blanche. But the etiology was not some guilty Freudian unconscious. It was a brain tumor.

Yes, being a poet is always a bitch. Nor is it ever easy being gay — even in 2009. But it’s easier now than it was in 1947. Some things do eventually change for the better. They used to  call it progress.


Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando as Blanche and Stanley from the film.

–Michael Andre’s books of poetry include Studying the Ground for Holes and Experiments in Banal Living. He has a blog at Unmuzzled Ox. He last wrote for Artblog about the James Castles exhibit at the PMA.

Tags

michael andre, streetcar named desire, walnut street theatre

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