Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire, one of the most critically acclaimed plays of the 20th century, opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. And while shocking its mid-20th century audience with its unabashed brutality and sexuality, when the curtain closed on opening night, the audience erupted into 30 minutes of applause. The play and its actors received a number of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the show would run for more than 800 performances. In 1951, the film adaptation of the play would receive 12 Academy Award nominations, and four Oscars.
Unsurprisingly for a piece of mid-20th century theater or art, this modern masterpiece had several deep connections to Greenwich Village.
The story centers on Blanche DuBois (Jessica Tandy in the play, Vivian Leigh in the film), a former Southern Belle who finds herself destitute and moves into the two-room New Orleans flat of her sister Stella (Kim Hunter in both) and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando in both). Blanche and Stanley despise each other from the outset, and in the climactic scene, he rapes her. In the play, Stella does not believe her sister, and it finishes with Blanche being led away in a straight jacket. The film’s ending was edited from the original screenplay, with Stella leaving Stanley, due to pressure from the Catholic Legion of Decency. Elia Kazan was the director for both the play and the film.
The play and the film both powered Marlon Brando’s meteoric rise. Brando arrived in New York City in 1943 to pursue and study acting, following his sisters who had preceded him to do the same. He studied at the American Theatre Wing Professional School, part of the Dramatic Workshop of the New School, with influential German director Erwin Piscator. He first stayed with his sister who lived near Patchin Place. In his autobiography, he talked about the “ecstasy of sleeping on the sidewalk of Washington Square.” He would go on to live in other locations in Greenwich Village, including 43 Fifth Avenue and 7 St. Lukes Place.
Kim Hunter also made her home for many years in Greenwich Village, in an apartment over the Cherry Lane Theatre. Following the release of A Streetcar Named Desire, she appeared in a couple of films, but was then blacklisted in Hollywood after her name appeared in “Red Channels,” the Red Scare pamphlet which named supposed communists in Hollywood (though Hunter herself was actually never a member of the Communist Party). Like many blacklisted actors, she would nevertheless have a long and successful career on the stage. Hunter lived above Cherry Lane Theatre until she died in 2002.
Of course Streetcar’s the playwright Tennessee Williams had strong connections to Greenwich Village too. He was an itinerant traveler of the world, but spent much of his professional career in New York City, primarily in Greenwich Village. In 1939, following the recognition of some of early work, his literary agent enrolled him in the playwriting seminar of John Gassner at The New School for Social Research, which landed Williams in the heart of Greenwich Village, beginning his long love affair with the area. The San Remo Cafe was among his favorite haunts, and later he also enjoyed the Off-Off Broadway theaters as they took hold in our area. In fact, at the 13th Street Repertory Theater at 50 West 13th Street, he proclaimed that the future of theater in America was not in big Broadway theaters, but in small, independent houses such as the 13th Street Repertory.
So although set in New Orleans (another favorite location of Williams), Streetcar has deep roots in our area.