A Streetcar Named Desire is a famous American play written by Tennessee Williams. The play is considered in modern society as an icon of its era, as it deals with a culture clash between two symbolic characters, Blanche DuBois—a pretentious, fading relic of the Old South—and Stanley Kowalski, a rising member of the industrial, inner-city immigrant class.
Streetcar came shortly after Williams's first big success, The Glass Menagerie of 1945. While Williams kept writing plays and fiction into the 1980s, none of his later works lived up to the critical reputation of his first hits. Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948 for the play.
In 1951 a movie of the play, directed by Elia Kazan won several awards, including an Academy Award for Vivien Leigh as Best Actress in the role of Blanche.
In 1995 it was made into an opera with music by Andre Previn and presented by the San Francisco Opera.
The play presents Blanche DuBois, a fading Southern belle whose pretensions to virtue and culture only thinly mask her nymphomania and alcoholism. Her chastity and poise are an illusion which she presents, to shield others - and herself - from her reality. Blanche arrives at the house of her sister Stella Kowalski in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where the seamy, multicultural ambience is a shock to Blanche's nerves. Explaining that her ancestral southern plantation Belle Reve (translated from French as "Beautiful Dream") has been "lost" due to the "epic fornications" of her ancestors, Blanche is welcomed to stay by a trepidatious Stella, who fears the reaction of her husband Stanley. Blanche explains to them how her supervisor told her she could take time off from her job as an English teacher because of her upset nerves.
In contrast to both the self-effacing Stella and the charming refinement of Blanche, Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, is a force of nature; primal, rough-hewn, brutish and sensual. He dominates Stella in every way, and she tolerates his offensive crudeness and lack of gentility largely because of her self-deceptive love for him.
The interjection of Blanche upsets her sister and brother-in-law's system of mutual dependence. Stella is swept aside as the magnetic attraction between the oppositely-charged Stanley and Blanche overwhelms the household. Stanley's friend and Blanche's would-be suitor Mitch is similarly trampled along Blanche and Stanley's collision course. Their final, inevitable confrontation results in Blanche's nervous breakdown.
Blanche and Stanley, together with Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, are among the most recognizable characters in American drama.
The reference to the streetcar (tram) called Desire is symbolic, as well as an accurate piece of New Orleans geography. Blanche has to travel on a streetcar named "Desire" to reach Stella's home in Elysian Fields, presenting an abiding theme in the play that desire and death are mutual aspects of the same pathos. Blanche's sorrow is that the pleasure brought from desire is only short-lived and ultimately doomed, much like her streetcar journey.
Themes and Motifs
Illusion versus Reality
A recurring theme found in "A Streetcar Named Desire" is an ever-present conflict between reality and fantasy, actual and ideal. Blanche does not want, "...what's real, but what's magic." This recurring theme is read most strongly in William's characterization of Blanche DuBois and the physical tropes that she employs in her pursuit of what is magical and idealized: the purple shade she employs to cover the harsh white light bulb in the living room, her chronically deceptive recounting of her last years in Belle Reve, the misleading letters she presumes to write to Shep Huntleigh, and a pronounced excess to alcohol consumption.
Notably, Blanche's deception of others and herself is not characterized by malicious intent, but rather a heart-broken and saddened retreat to a romantic time and happier moments before disaster struck her life when her loved one Allan Gray committed suicide during a Varsouvian Polka. In many ways, Blanche is understood to be a sympathetic and tragic figure in the play despite her deep character flaws.
There is also a strong presence of sexism within the play. Throughout the play, women are portrayed as the "weaker sex" while men are shown to be in control. The gender struggle is apparent when Stella submits to Stanley's authority rather than come to the aid of her sister. The tragedy of Blanche is representative of the struggle of women in the South.
Abandonment of Chivalric Codes
In most fairy tale stories, the ailing princess or the damsel in distress is often rescued by a heroic white knight. "A Streetcar Named Desire" is characterized by the conspicuous absence of the male protagonist imbued with heroic qualities. Indeed, the polar opposite of what a literary chivalric hero might be is represented in the leading male character of the play, Stanley Kowalski. Stanley is described by Blanche as a "survivor of the Stone Age" and is further depicted in this primitive light by numerous traits that he exhibits: uncivilized manners, demanding and forceful behavior, lack of empathy, crass selfishness, and a chauvinistic attitude towards women. The replacement of the heroic white knight by a character such as Stanley Kowalski further heightens Williams' theme of the demise of the romantic Old South in "A Streetcar Named Desire." Stanley, it should be noted, is not a villain in the literary sense of the word. His actions do not reflect a motivation to actively pursue the destruction of an individual as the primary goal, but rather the callousness and destructiveness of his actions bear a direct result from his incapacity to empathize and his instinctive, primitive desire to own or dominate. Stanley, as a result, is a symbol for the rising new values and attributes of industrial, capitalist America that has come to replace the chivalric codes of the dashing gentleman caller of the Old South.
In 1951, Elia Kazan directed a movie based on the play; see A Streetcar Named Desire (film)
The play is referenced in Pedro Almodovar's 1999 Academy Award-winning film, All About My Mother, in which a Spanish-language version of the play is seen being performed by some of the supporting characters. However, some of the dialogue is based on the 1951 film version, not the original stage version.
Opera and Ballet adaptations
In 1995, the opera, A Streetcar Named Desire composed by André Previn with a libretto by Philip Littell, after the play by Tennessee Williams had its premiere at the San Francisco Opera during the 1998-99 season. It featured Renee Fleming as Blanche.
The play has also been the basis for several ballet productions, including ones for the Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Stuttgart Ballet. A 1952 ballet production, which was staged at Her Majesty's Theatre in Montreal, featured the music of Alex North, who also composed the music for the film version.
The original Broadway production was produced by Irene Mayer Selznick, which opened on December 3, 1947 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Selznick originally wanted to cast Margaret Sullavan and John Garfield, but settled on Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, who were both virtual unknowns at the time. Brando was given car fare to Tennessee Williams' home in Provincetown, Massachusetts where he not only gave a sensational reading, but did some house repairs as well. Tandy was cast after Williams saw her performance in a West Coast production of his one-act play Portrait of a Madonna. The opening night cast also included Kim Hunter as Stella and Karl Malden as Mitch. Later in the run, Uta Hagen replaced Tandy, and Anthony Quinn replaced Brando. Hagen and Quinn took the show on a national tour and then returned back to Broadway for additional performances. Early on, when Brando broke his nose, Jack Palance took over his role. Ralph Meeker also took on the part of Stanley both in the Broadway and touring companies. Tandy received a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. The production received no other Tony nominations. Brando portrayed Stanley with an overt sexuality that made him, the character of Stanley, and Tennessee Williams into cultural touchstones. Brando's magnetic performance caused audiences to sympathize with Stanley in the opening scenes of the play, effectively implicating them in Stanley's eventual brutality towards Blanche. Brando, Hunter and Malden went on to appear in the film version.
Vivien Leigh, who won an Academy Award for the film version, appeared in a 1949 London production, at the Aldwych Theatre, which was directed by her husband, Laurence Olivier. Bruno Colleano starred as Stanley.
Tallulah Bankhead, who Tennessee Williams had in mind when writing the play, starred in a 1956 New York City Center Company production directed by Herbert Machiz. The production, which was staged at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, also featured Gerald S. O'Loughlin as Stanley and Frances Heflin as Stella. The production was not well received and only ran 16 performances.
The first Broadway revival of the play was in 1973. It was produced by the Lincoln Center, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre, and starred Rosemary Harris as Blanche and James Farentino as Stanley. Only two months after the production closed, Lincoln Center artistic director Jules Irving replaced Ellis Raab, who directed the first revival, with himself as director and put on another production, this time at the St. James Theatre. This production featured Lois Nettleton as Blanche and Alan Feinstein as Stanley. Irving's wife, Priscilla Pointer also appeared in the production.
Also in 1973, a specially billed "25th Anniversary Production" of the play was produced at the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles Music Center, with performances running from March 20 to April 28. Tennessee Williams personally selected Faye Dunaway to star as Blanche opposite Jon Voight as Stanley. The production, which also featured Earl Holliman as Mitch and Frances Lee McCain as Stella, was directed by James Bridges.
A 1974 London production, staged at the Piccadilly Theatre, starred Claire Bloom as Blanche, a role that Bloom calls her favorite. Martin Shaw played the part of Stanley, with Joss Ackland as Mitch and Morag Hood as Stella. New York-based stage veteran Edwin Sherin directed the production. 
In 1983, a London production directed by Alan Strachan opened at the Greenwich Theatre and a few months later transferred to the Mermaid Theatre. This production, produced shortly after Williams' death, featured Sheila Gish as Blanche, with Clare Higgins, Duncan Preston, Keith Edwards, Roy Heather and Cilla Kanyua. Williams had written to Gish to say that he was looking forward toward seeing her performance. This production was delayed because Williams' literary executor, Maria St. Just, demanded that Gish be replaced because Gish was wrong for the part. Gish, however, played the part to great acclaim. 
A 1986 production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival featured Blythe Danner as Blanche, Christopher Walken as Stanley, Sigourney Weaver as Stella and James Naughton as Mitch. This production was directed by Nikos Psacharopoulos, who also directed the 1988 Broadway revival.
A 1988 revival, which was sprung out from the 1986 Williamstown production, was produced by Circle in the Square Theatre, starred Aidan Quinn as Stanley, Frances McDormand as Stella, and Blythe Danner as Blanche. Both Danner and McDormand were nominated for a Tony Award in the same category, Best Actress in a Play. The production itself was nominated for Best Revival.
A highly publicized 1992 revival starred Alec Baldwin as Stanley and Jessica Lange as Blanche. This production proved so successful that it was filmed for television. The stage revival was staged at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the same theatre the original production was staged in. It featured Timothy Carhart as Mitch and Amy Madigan as Stella, as well as future Sopranos stars James Gandolfini and Aida Turturro. Gandolfini was Carhart's understudy. Baldwin received a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play.
Lange appeared again as Blanche in a 1996 London production that played at the Haymarket Theatre. It was directed by Peter Hall and featured Toby Stephens as Stanley and Imogen Stubbs as Stella.  It was rumored that Madonna was interested in playing the part.
In 1997, the Steppenwolf Theatre company produced a revival in Chicago. The production, which was directed by Terry Kinney, featured Gary Sinise as Stanley, Laila Robins as Blanche, John C. Reilly as Mitch and Kathryn Erbe as Stella.
Glenn Close headlined a London revival at the Royal National Theatre in 2002. This production was directed by Trevor Nunn and featured Iain Glen as Stanley, Essie Davis as Stella and Robert Pastorelli, a "close" friend of Close, as Mitch.
A 2005 revival, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company, starred John C. Reilly as Stanley and Natasha Richardson as Blanche. Earlier, Reilly had played Mitch opposite Gary Sinise's Stanley at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. It also featured Amy Ryan as Stella and Chris Bauer as Mitch. Ryan was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play, and the production also received nominations for Best Costume Design of a Play and Best Lighting Design of a Play.
In 1955, the television program Omnibus featured Jessica Tandy reviving her original Broadway performance as Blanche, with her husband, Hume Cronyn, as Mitch. It aired only portions of the play that featured the Blanche and Mitch characters.
The multi-Emmy Award-winning 1984 television version featured Ann-Margret as Blanche, Treat Williams as Stanley, Beverly D'Angelo as Stella and Randy Quaid as Mitch. It was directed by John Erman and the teleplay was adapted by Oscar Saul. The music score by composed by Marvin Hamlisch. Ann-Margret, D'Angelo and Quaid were all nominated for Emmy Awards, but none won. However, it did win four Emmys, including one for cinematographer Bill Butler. Ann-Margret won a Golden Globe award for her performance and Treat Williams was nominated for Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie.
A 1995 television version was based on the highly successful Broadway revival that starred Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange. However, only Baldwin and Lange were from the stage production. The TV version added John Goodman as Mitch and Diane Lane as Stella. This production was directed by Glenn Jordan. Baldwin, Lange and Goodman all received Emmy Award nominations. Lange won a Golden Globe award (for Best Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie), while Baldwin was nominated for Best Actor, but did not win.
In 1998, PBS aired a taped version of the opera adaptation that featured the original San Francisco Opera cast. The program received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Classical Music/Dance Program.
Comparison with other works
As described above, Williams was writing in the familiar literary tradition of the Southern Gothic. Faulkner was soon to win the Nobel Prize for his many books set in a fantasy landscape of decadent (but chivalric) aristocrats shouldered aside by coarse (but vital) hustlers and ethnics like Stanley-- who, despite the torn T shirt, is a successful engineer, not a laborer. Faulkner's and Erskine Caldwell's successful work would have led theater-goers attending this new "Southern" play to expect events a bit beyond those in the normal world; poetry, despair, alcohol, and scantily draped bodies sweating in the heat. The cry, "You've lost Belle Reve?" was perilously close to cliche even by Williams's time. One could claim that the theatrical genre dates from the works of Chekov, who explored the parallel decay of the upper class in turn of the century Russia. A very dedicated Marxian may wish to argue that Stanley represents the proletariat (working class) which desires to overthrow the bourgeoisie-- but the student should know that this interpretation has not been popular among Williams's critics. Blanche, with her aristocratic pretensions, is no bourgeois. It is Stanley who is a coarse, but genuine petit bourgeois: his life revolves around marriage, sex, his home, the money he fears Blanche is cheating him out of, the son he hopes for, and his immediate personal pleasures.
Streetcar revival in New Orleans
Over 50 years after the play opened, the revival of the streetcar system in New Orleans is credited by many to the worldwide fame gained by the streetcars made by the Perley A. Thomas Car Works, Inc. which were operating on the Desire route in the play, and have been carefully restored and continue to operate there in 2004 (though not on the Desire route.) Streetcars along the Canal Street in downtown New Orleans are up and running. The one on St Charles Avenue is still out of service due to Hurricane Katrina.
American animated series The Simpsons made specific reference to the play with a "musical version" of it in the episode entitled "A Streetcar Named Marge." The musical presented by the characters in the show was a deliberate and effective attempt on part of the show's creators to completely, perhaps direly, miss the point of the original play, a quality that is exemplified by the line: "You can always depend on the kindness of strangers....a stranger's just a friend you haven't met!" Marge experiences an epiphany as she realizes the similarity between her boorish husband, Homer, and the character of Stanley. After the episode aired, The Simpsons' writers received negative feedback for the portrayal of New Orleans in the musical's opening number. In the song, the city is compared to Sodom and Gomorra and is said to be filled with drugs, prostitution, and "tacky, overpriced souvenir stores." The writers of the show later stated the intent of the song was not to comment on the city of New Orleans but to parody a song from the musical Sweeney Todd.