Monday, December 3, 2012

This Day in Theater History (Brando Rides Williams’ ‘Streetcar’ to Fame)

December 3, 1947—When A Streetcar Named Desire opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, it did more than thrust Tennessee Williams to the front of a new generation of American playwrights, or confirm Elia Kazan as the most important theater director of his generation. In Marlon Brando, Broadway discovered the exemplar of the new, more naturalistic "Method" style of acting.

When the 23-year-old actor made his way up to Cape Cod, Mass., where Williams was staying, to audition for his career-making role as Stanley Kowalski, he had to his credit only three small, albeit scene-stealing, Broadway credits, in I Remember Mama, Truckline Café and Candida. But when Williams saw the actor (who fixed the plumbing and wiring at Williams’ house before he sat down to read for the role), he knew instantly that he had found the embodiment of the coarse but sexually charged brother-in-law of Blanche DuBois.

That latter quality—sexuality—is essential to the role. But amazingly, at least one production I saw forgot that. In 2005, the Roundabout Theatre Co. cast John C. Reilly as Stanley. (I wholeheartedly agree with Ben Brantley’s dismissal of this mistake: “Imagine Karl Malden playing Ralph Kramden in ‘The Honeymooners.’")

Let's be kind and grant, though, that greater minds than those at the Roundabout missed why Stanley's animal magnetism--which, of course, not only leads wife Stella to stay with him but, at the end, to distrust Blanche's account of his rape of her--is so important. After a tryout of the play in New Haven, playwright Thornton Wilder was asked for his opinion of the show. 

"It was like having a papal audience," Williams remembered in his memoir. "We all sat about this academic gentleman while he put the play down as if delivering a papal bull. He said that it was based upon a fatally mistaken premise. No female who had ever been a lady (he was referring to Stella) could possibly marry a vulgarian such as Stanley.
"We sat there and listened to him politely. I thought, privately, This character has never had a good lay."

One fascinating instance of alternative casting at the time of the original production would have come closer to Williams’ intent, at least. Irene Mayer Selznick, in her Broadway debut as a producer, wanted some box-office insurance, and pushed for John Garfield as Stanley. She undoubtedly remembered his role opposite Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice when she thought of the erotic heat he might generate. Moreover, the actor, at 33, was closer than Brando to Stanley’s age as conceived by Williams, and as a fellow member of New York’s legendary Group Theater with Kazan, he would have shared a kind of shorthand with the director.

But the film star’s insistence on non-negotiable items (e.g., more lines and a short time commitment) led Selznick, Kazan and Williams to look elsewhere.That led to an opening for Brando, and an opportunity to showcase the "Method style" of acting then beginning to gain traction in New York at the newly formed Actors Studio. Originally formulated by Russia's Konstantin Stanislavski, then promulgated by Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Elia Kazan at the Actors Studio, it called for actors to internalize the experience of the characters they portrayed.

What might that original Streetcar have looked like? The closest facsimile is, of course, Kazan’s translation of the play into his 1951 film, which not only had him at the helm but also three of the original quartet of principal roles—Brando, Kim Hunter as Stella, and Karl Malden as Mitch. The one difference, though, was an essential one: Vivien Leigh rather than Jessica Tandy as Blanche.

Kazan would have had no problem eliciting tension between his two film co-stars to mirror that between Blanche and Stanley. As production began, Brando grew annoyed at Leigh’s fussiness, and felt frustrated, in a Stanley-like way, by her charms. He admitted to friends that he wanted to sleep with Leigh so badly that his teeth hurt, but couldn’t do so because of the on-set presence of her husband, Laurence Olivier.

In the case of the Tandy-Brando relationship, Kazan had to work harder. While guiding and prodding Brando, his student at the newly formed Actors Studio, at every turn, he offered Tandy virtually no tips on how to approach her role. Maybe he figured the 38-year-old English actress was an old pro and would figure it out.

(On the other hand, it wouldn’t have been beyond him to artificially create an adversarial relationship between his stars. Five years later, on the set of Viva Zapata!, he approached Brando and Anthony Quinn separately, telling each how much the other actor loathed him. When it came time for their climatic fight, the realism was something to behold.)

Brando’s unconstrained sexuality (onstage, he drew constant attention to his lips by constantly chewing gum, swilling from a beer bottle, or smoking a cigar) allowed Williams to begin to develop one of the central motifs of his career: the stud as destroyer. “We’ve had this date from the beginning,” Stanley leers as he begins to rape Blanche. The character represented the last step in the downward spiral begun by her sexual adventureousness—a trait that lost her a job as a schoolteacher for seducing a student. The equation—Eros equals death, or at least psychic obliteration—would be repeated in the novella and film The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (again starring Leigh) and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.

Streetcar marked the point when Williams was still in most control of his material and his life. With a 30-minute standing ovation at the conclusion of the show at the Barrymore, not to mention the first of his two Pulitzers, the play brought the playwright to an emotional high. 

For Brando, it marked the point when he rewrote the rules for stage acting. Then he decamped for Hollywood, where he could use his skills before millions more, and for millions of dollars more—all the time relying on his improvisational skills and cue cards to cloak his rebellious refusal to learn lines. Broadway lost something when he left, but so, it turned out, did the star.

(The photo of Marlon Brando, taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1948, while the actor was still in Streetcar, is now part of the Van Vechten Collection in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.)

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