A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play, went through a number of versions in its author’s workshop, beginning in late 1944. There was an “Italian” version set in Chicago with Bianca visiting sister Rosa and her “effeminate” husband, Lucio. A later working, called “The Primary Colors,” is set in Atlanta. Blanche visits sister Stella, married to Ralph Stanley, “a healthy Irish peasant type with urban modifications.” Blanche is peppy, snazzy, and flirtatious. In another version, called “The Passion of a Moth,” Blanche and Stanley make consensual love; she is alone onstage at the curtain, packing a bag for Mobile. In the penultimate script, “The Poker Night,” a catatonic Blanche starts screaming at the end and has to be hauled off in a straitjacket. These early versions, some fragmentary and all reposing in the Harry Ransom Humanities Center of the University of Texas at Austin, are cited in passing by Brenda Murphy in her Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan, a book that contains some interesting material but is vitiated by a fashionable notion that the give-and-take collaborations she describes somehow compromise Williams’s authorship of his plays and by an inane jargon that, for example, calls blocking “kinesic encoding.” Williams apparently had trouble with the play’s ending until the last minute. He vacillated between having Blanche simply leave on her own steam, throw herself in front of a train, or go mad; he settled for a variant of the last. Apropos of this, Playbill quotes a telling anecdote. A friend told Williams of a Moscow staging of Streetcar where Blanche marries Mitch and lives happily ever after. The friend urged Williams to remonstrate, but he merely said, “Oh, Honey, no! Blanche would have conned her way out of that home in two weeks and of course she’d have married Mitch. Don’t worry about it.”
One should be thankful that Williams thought better of the Italianate Chicago draft, if only because Williams’s “Italian” plays, The Rose Tattoo and Orpheus Descending, flaunt a cornily “primitive” notion of Italians. As for Atlanta, it was, in 1947, too class-structured, too Margaret Mitchell, for this story. An Irish Stanley would have suited the South then, though, and the embryonic “Ralph” anticipates a later, more benign Kowalski, Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden. It also echoes in the play’s exchange:
Stanley’s Polish, you know. Oh yes. They’re something like Irish, aren’t they? Well— Only not so—highbrow [They both laugh …].
New Orleans doubtless represented a middle ground between the dreamland Mississippi of Blanche and the embryonic world of bowling alleys and “plants” that is Stanley’s. In one sense, the New Orleans of the play has elements of a gentrified downtown of the 1980s, with the races in contiguity and harmony and a flavor of open-air, fresh-produce communalism, but the main note was of the postwar boomtime. The Kowalskis of America had scrambled out of the social cellar during the war. Stanley, a natural leader, had risen to Master Sergeant, the highest noncom rank, and was a comer in the “plant.” Stella was—what? a secretary or riveter in the plant?—when she met Stanley. Focusing on such considerations is the spring-cleaning job done by Gregory Mosher’s recent production of the play at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Forget the mythic and symbolic static; Streetcar here emerges as a story about a certain young married couple with an in-law problem.
Blanche and Stanley are two of a kind —bright, ironic, manipulative, selfish. Listen to this from their first encounter:
My clothes’re stickin’ to me. Do you mind if I make myself comfortable? [He starts to remove his shirt.] Please, please do. Be comfortable is my motto. It’s mine too … You know you can catch cold sitting around in damp things, especially when you been exercising hard like bowling is. You’re a teacher, aren’t you? Yes. What do you teach, Blanche? English. I never was a very good English student. How long you here for, Blanche? I—don’t know yet. You going to shack up here? I thought I would if it’s not inconvenient for you all. Good. Travelling wears me out. Well, take it easy.
Aggression alternates here with accommodation; demotic coarseness holds hands with a hospitable decorum; menace is checked by manners. This civil Stanley could be used by Blanche if she plays her cards right (cards are his hobby, though) or reads him right (reading is her vocation). But her pride and silliness will ignite his insecurity and violence. It can all be foreseen in this miraculous dialogue, as taut as a violin string and as funny as a pie in the face. Williams himself and many of his critics talk solemnly of his debt to D. H. Lawrence, from whom he got only a fatuous rhetoric of sex; his true precursors are Twain and Faulkner, great native comic writers. But the artistry of dialogue like that is original, too, in its mixture of naturalistic voice and a deep, Chekhovian music of character—especially in his best women, funny and clever and, in an odd way, free.
Streetcar has its problems. Poor Blanche’s past is overloaded: the maudlin and phony saga of gay young husband Allan’s suicide; the grim family deaths; the seduction of students; her service as a one-woman bordello for a local army camp; various unspecified misbehavior at the Hotel Flamingo. Williams piles it on, almost spoiling the Blanche realized onstage with such lurid self-projections. And the ending he perhaps never got right. What occurs never seems the ineluctable fate of this woman. That Moscow ending might have something to say for itself.
Gregory Mosher, best known as a stager of David Mamet plays, announced that he did not have “a reinterpretation … to offer.” But his scrubbing away of encrustations amounts to one. The set, by Ben Edwards, makes sense for once as an actual apartment. Staircase and street, where quiet chats and passionate reconciliations occur, are stage right; the bathroom, where fantasies breed, is stage left; the important icebox is in the middle. We are not in “the mind of Blanche,” which is just as well. As was the case in the original production in this theater in 1947, the play’s eleven scenes are interrupted by curtain-lowering pauses; this fits with the slow, languorous tempi throughout. The performers are all excellent, impersonating actual, ordinary, plausible people and not monsters or morons, as is the danger with productions operating too much in the shadow of the 1951 Kazan-Brando-Leigh film. Jessica Lange shows up in a smart white suit; she is a tired and strained but funny Blanche. Miss Lange excels in those long sisterly chats (the two sometimes a stage apart) with the Stella of Amy Madigan. Madigan’s loose, laughing energy paints a happy Stella—intelligently and not bovinely happy. She likes and resembles (to a point) Blanche. Mosher stages the sexual passages between Stella and Alec Baldwin’s Stanley as playful routines. The curse of familiarity is off even the desolate and much-parodied bellowing of “Stella!” as Madigan boldly subdues Stanley’s pain by stroking his back with her feet. Baldwin tries to keep Stanley as ordinary as possible; he risks losing a certain “explosiveness” but it is a risk well taken. Baldwin cannily stresses Stanley’s dull bewilderment at Blanche; there is for a good while a chance Stanley can be contained. Seeing the Mitch of Timothy Carhart is, again, like meeting Mitch for the first time; this Mitch is not goofy but articulate and attractive and decent—and believable as a pal of Stanley’s. Aida Turturro does wonders with the upstairs neighbor Eunice, a simple, sensible, and kind woman.
Jessica Lange finally holds the thing together, though, with her convincing picture of an ironic and grown-up woman boxed in by her own lies. True, her voice is small, and she could have done without the accent altogether (the script is not, after all, in dialect and there is no reason to go on echoing the intonations of Vivien Leigh). But Lange captures a Chekhovian sadness by the end. The whole ensemble shows how to use movie stars—use smart ones.
Streetcar now looks to be what the Thirties had been trying for in so many earnest, humorless ways—a first-rate play of American urban life.
Damon Runyon published his short-story collection Guys and Dolls in 1932. Guys and Dolls: A Musical Fable of Broadway was put together in 1950 with book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. The Runyon cosmos of gamblers, chorines, and salvationers is a cloudless fantasy of sin, sex, love, and redemption perfect for the form of musical comedy. The current revival at the Martin Beck Theatre takes Guys and Dolls in just the right direction; it becomes a flamboyant parable and a kinaesthetic dream. The overall look is that of a hallucinatory brilliance (direction by Jerry Zaks; sets by Tony Walton; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Paul Gallo). A cop stalks about in a Day-Glo mustard suit; dancing girls perform in blue in their scarlet Hot Box club; gamblers sport pastel zoot suits; Havana, weekend hotspot, is all tropical white; a sewer is like the inside of an artichoke; the bold chromaticisms of New York streets—that is, the Times Square of Runyonesque mythology—by day and by night and at predawn 4 A.M. light (the lovely “My Time of Day”) recall palettes from Stuart Davis to Edward Hopper. Runyonland becomes one of the great inventions of the American theater.
The choreography is flashy, but Guys and Dolls is less a dance show than a song show—a personality show, really. The four principals are perfect. Peter Gallagher as inveterate gambler Sky Masterson and Josie deGuzman as gospeller Sarah Brown bring the right charm—not too serious, not too light—to these potentially dull ingénue roles. Their story of mismatched love has to play; it is their music (“I’ll Know”; “I’ve Never Been in Love Before”) that proffers a happiness alien alike to the rigidities of the mission and the squalors of the sewer. The comic leads are extraordinary. Nathan Lane is the permanently befuddled but besmitten Nathan Detroit, hotter for the dangers and excitements of the next crap game than for the narcosis of matrimony. Detroit carries a lot of the book, and Lane’s skills at comic characterization and delivery make the book almost as joyous as the musical parts. Miss Adelaide, star dancer at the Hot Box, perennial fiancée of Detroit, and deliverer of “Adelaide’s Lament [A person can develop a cold],” “Take Back Your Mink,” “Sue Me,” and “Marry the Man Today,” is the soul of Guys and Dolls. It is thus uncommonly satisfying to note that Faith Prince, who was murdered in the deadly Nick & Nora, returns triumphantly to life in the spring of this show. Miss Prince wrings the neck of every convention of the showgirl-hungry-for-respectability role but at the same time softens and sweetens Adelaide from the brittle caricature Vivian Blaine made of her. Not unlike Jessica Lange as Blanche a few blocks north, Miss Prince finds the person inside this pile of wacky blonde eccentricities. She reminded one critic of Judy Holliday, but I thought of the likable raunch of Jean Harlow.
Miss Prince is helped by the modulations added by orchestrator Michael Starobin to the original orchestrations. Mr. Starobin will forgo and defer and soft-pedal the in-your-face climaxes of the songs; there is a light dusting of jazz syncopation here that goes with the “italics” of the rest of the production. (Everyone is overmiked, but that is a widespread vice today—one eschewed, however, at the current revival of the other Loesser masterwork, The Most Happy Fella.)
C. S. Lewis wrote: “no genius is so fortunate as he who has the power and wish to do well what his predecessors have been doing badly. He need neither oppose an existing taste nor create a new one: he has only to satisfy a desire which is already aroused… . Perhaps it is under such conditions that the perfect work comes, ripe and not over-ripe: a Jane Austen following on a Fanny Burney, a Racine on a Corneille, an Ariosto on a Boiardo.” In this spirit, one might call Guys and Dolls the Pride and Prejudice of musicals, a sunny and perfect work poised between periods. A decade earlier, it would have been a shapeless revue. A decade later, it would have been sociology. Loesser, not Rodgers/Hammerstein, now seems the heir of Gershwin (Gershwin would be, of course, not Fanny Burney, but a combination of Fielding and Richardson). After Guys and Dolls, the next significant “New York” musical was the 1957 Bernstein/Sondheim West Side Story, which may be said to have begun the “musical” era we are still in.
This era is epitomized by Falsettos, a William Finn musical very much in the Sondheim mode. In Act I, with no book, five characters sing of their problems, relationships, and psychiatric coping. Indeed, one character is a psychiatrist; the others are husband, husband’s male lover, wife, and young son. This part centers on the difficult adjustments to be made by the wife (she has a conventionally show-stopping number called “I’m Breaking Down”) and the son, Jason (one ensemble is called “Everyone Tells Jason to See a Psychiatrist”). A nonstop barrage of pseudo-Puccini psychopatter drums into us that we must fall in love and accept love and tolerate love and love love. To trite and formulaic music, the lyrics crack Broadway jokes about Judaism, homosexuality, and psychiatry. The performers are so overmiked that one seems to be present at the lip-synched playing of a recording. Where is that voice coming from?
In the second act, the lover dies of AIDS. In the tradition of Shirley Temple movies, it is the child who proves the wisest and most reconciling person around. After a futile plea to God to please cure the patient, Jason insists on having his Bar Mitzvah at the dying man’s bedside. (Before that, there are lots of tired jokes about Jewish kids who can’t play baseball.) Mr. Finn reheats old conventions and adds to the pot instant new conventions. Two lesbian neighbors (one the attending physician and the other the Bar Mitzvah caterer) join the two male lovers in singing about “we four unlikely lovers.” But it is all generic; no people, just correct types, are created in the art of Mr. Finn. The lover’s death lacks artistic force for we scarcely know anything of the man —except his emblematic victimhood. He might have been a stranger hit by a car. What we see are squash games and then a hospital room. In Falsettos the audience is expected to do the work of the imagination. Eric Bentley once remarked of Paddy Chayefsky that he “doesn’t even bother to write characters; he writes audiences.” In this respect, Mr. Finn emulates Chayefsky.
- Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan: A Collaboration in the Theatre, by Brenda Murphy; Cambridge University Press, 201 pages, $37.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 10, on page 57
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