It was on this day in 1947 that the play A Streetcar Named Desire premiered on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York City. Tennessee Williams began writing the play three years earlier, during rehearsals for The Glass Menagerie (1945), whose success overwhelmed him so much that he fled to Mexico, where he kept scribbling a story about a dreamy, possibly mentally ill Southern belle named Blanche who comes to live with her sister, Stella, and Stella’s violent husband, Stanley. Early titles included The Moth, The Poker Night, and Blanche’s Chair in the Moon.
The play’s frank depictions of sexuality and violence onstage shocked the audience, but at the end of the evening, the applause lasted 30 whole minutes. In the New York Times, theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, “This must be one of the most perfect marriages of acting and playwriting.”
The play starred a young, startlingly handsome 23-year-old named Marlon Brando from Omaha, Nebraska. About Brando, who came to see him at his home in Provincetown, Williams said, “There was no point in discovering him, it was so obvious. I never saw such raw talent in an individual. He was very natural and helpful. He repaired the plumbing that had gone on the whack, and he repaired the lights that had gone off. And then he just sat calmly down and began to read. After five minutes, Margo Jones, who was staying with us, said, ‘Oh, this is the greatest reading I’ve ever heard, even in Texas!’ And that’s how he was cast in Streetcar.”
Marlon Brando went on to portray several iconic film characters, like Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979) and Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972). He says he learned how to play Stanley Kowalski by watching boxer Rocky Graziano during his gym practices. Brando gave Graziano two tickets to A Streetcar Named Desire. After watching the play, Graziano exclaimed, “The curtain went up and on the stage is that son of a bitch from the gym, and he’s playing me!”
When Stanley Kowalski cries in agony for his wife in the rain, tearing his shirt in distress, Brando dragged out her name in one long plea: “Steeeeellllllaaaaaa!” It’s become such a famous interpretation that it’s been referenced in film and on television shows like Seinfeld and The Muppets. There is even an annual competition in New Orleans called “The Stanley & Stella Shouting Contest,” also known as the “Stell-Off.” It takes place in Jackson Square in the French Quarter and winners get bowling alley passes and beer.
On writing A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams said: “A play just seems to materialize; like an apparition, it gets clearer and clearer and clearer. It’s very vague at first, as in the case of Streetcar, which came after Menagerie. I simply had the vision of a woman in her late youth. She was sitting in a chair all alone by a window with the moonlight streaming in on her desolate face, and she’d been stood up by the man she planned to marry.”