“They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, then transfer to one called Cemeteries, then ride six blocks and get off at — the Elysian Fields!” So begins the opening lines of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play, spoken by would-be femme fatal Blanche Dubois.
Tennessee Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for this 1947 play, which tells the story of Blanche, an aging southern belle who, after a series of devastating personal losses pays a visit to her sister Stella in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Stella lives in a shabby, run down two flat with her brutish and bullying husband Stanley Kowalski (played by then-unknown Marlon Brando.) Blanche is immediately both intimidated by and attracted to Stanley, who becomes relentless in his quest to expose dark secrets from Blanche’s past.
Rest assured, the secrets are very dark — there was a marriage to a gay man resulting in his suicide, for which Blanche feels responsible. There were clandestine hotel encounters, possible prostitution, and an affair with a high school student that ended her career. (Blanche had been a teacher.)
What follows is Blanche’s psychological demise. There is a controversial rape scene, the birth of a baby and Blanche’s threadbare conclusion as she is hauled off to a mental institution:”I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”
In 1951 the play was made into an academy award winning movie, starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Kim Hunter as Stella. (Hollywood did its best to tone down the homosexual sub plot as well as the rape scene.)
In the end, Stanley, Stella and Blanche were all victims of their own desires. Stanley wanted power, Stella wanted love and Blanche wanted security. Or did they?
The true genius of this play is its conflicting virtues and sexual politics. It is very hard to name a hero or a villain. Tennessee Williams was quoted as saying he wrote the play for the “mentally ill and the misunderstood.” He had a mentally ill sister whom he commemorated in ‘The Glass Menagerie’. Tennessee himself had a few nervous breakdowns, as did Vivien Leigh. And yet — I could have sworn the author was rooting for Stanley the whole time.
Although the names ‘Desire’, ‘Cemeteries’ and ‘Elysian Fields’ are actual New Orleans destinations, the symbolism will not be lost on mythology fans. The Elysian Fields in Greek mythology is the soul’s final resting place — ironically a resting place of the heroic and virtuous. The names imply that it is our desires that bring our demise (the cemetery) and then take us on the Elysian Fields — a parallel of Blanche’s streetcar journey.
At any rate, nothing says ‘Desire’ like this steamy scene between Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando. “HEY STELLA!!”