– Trisha Ray
The Spanish or Hispanic influence on Williams’ work has always been there, not centre-stage but definitely as part of the background. The Mexican woman selling flowers in Streetcar, The Gonzales family in Summer and Smoke, the Mexican ethos in Carmino Real, the Casa Verda in Iguana, etc. On Friday, July 9, 1948, at 9.30 pm, A Streetcar Named Desire, (Un Tranvia Llamado Deseo), premiered at the Patronato del Teatro’s Salia Talia in Havana. Director Modesto Centeno was staging this play for only the second time ever, outside of Broadway. The original production was still running in New York, but here in Cuba, the play was already being retouched and transformed. Violetta Casal, the actress playing Stella, gave a performance that was markedly different from Kim Hunter’s more reserved Stella on Broadway. Casal came with considerable experience in strong female roles – previously, she had appeared in Synge’s Riders to the Sea, Medea, and Desire under the Elms. For the critic Mirta Aguirre, who otherwise did not think so highly of the production, Stella was ‘a slave to sexual excess’, far more passionate and earthy than Kim Hunter would have shown her to be. Casal’s performance changed the dynamics of the plot of the play. Stella, so comparable to a delicate flower wilting in Stanley’s almost tropically hot New Orleans, suddenly becomes much more at home with him than perhaps she ever was at Belle Reve.
A Cuban production in the 1940’s might beg the question of Communist-inspired interpretations. The critic Calvert Casey found that this play was Williams’ best play – ‘the most honest and the least exploitative of the formula – the one which opened a new vision of a society which thought itself a happy one.’ Calvert had no problems, one imagines, with attacking the great American dream of prosperity inextricable from the pursuit of happiness that the play so vigorously undermines. (reference the movie somehow?)
In 1958, a desegregated version of Streetcar was performed at the Carnegie Hall Playhouse on the 17th of September, with black actress Hilda Simms in the role of Blanche. About the role, she said that ‘ Most of the plays with roles for Negro actresses are inferior vehicles,’ but that it was ‘Plausible…to play Blanche Dubois as a Creole or mixed French, Spanish and Negro ancestry. ‘The famous black playwright Charles Gordone had once said of Williams that ‘In most of his plays, I have always detected the black existential lurking between the lines. ‘The opening stage directions of Streetcar bear this out, with its emphasis on easy intermingling between the races and possibly even classes of New Orleans. The colored woman sitting beside Eunice in the first scene has been played by several famous black actresses, among them Gee Gee James, Eulabelle Moore, and Vinette Carroll. Sue-Ellen Case talks of the cultural encoding involved in an all-white production, where the good woman is blonde, fair and innocent while the vamp is a brunette, often with exotic coloring to emphasize her foreign, alien, and therefore disruptive nature. These are cultural attitudes about the relative purity, ‘goodness’ and hence desirability of different racial features. With a black leading lady, these attitudes must take a back seat to the core emotions at play. In this production, at Lincoln University in 1953, an all black cast performed the play not as a predominantly racialized production but with a focusing on ‘Williams’ presentation of human fallibilities’. Professor Pawley of LU made no concessions to racial feelings, with a magnificent disregard for race relations in 1950’s Missouri. Philip C. Kolin, in his book, Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire, studies the possibilities of this play with prima facie blind casting. He hints at the likelihood, also, of Streetcar as a multiracial production. A black Stanley throws up all sorts of interesting questions. Is he abusive because he is a bad person or because all black men are likely to be read as abusive? Which is a leading critical and performative aspect. Would Blanche be read in the same way if she had cried rape on a black man after perhaps feeling more attracted to him than she is willing to admit? To make Stanley black either demonizes him or makes him a victim of racial stereotyping. Why could black people not do ‘people plays’?
In February of 1955, for instance, Nick and Edna Stewart of the Ebony Showcase Theatre of New York presented a version of Streetcar directed by Paul Rodgers with Camille Canady as Blanche Dubois. Canady’s performance was widely applauded. Her ‘exacting portrayal with proper shading and seasoned skill’ drew a great deal of praise. Canady as Blanche, as is evident, was fair-skinned, sharp-featured and properly haughty about her aristocratic lineage. She played Blanche as a victim in the second production of Streetcar at the Ebony Showcase Theatre in November 1956, in an elegant metaphor of the hunter and the prey in flight. James Edwards, a very popular black actor of the times, played Stanley as a brooding hulking man somewhat but not entirely derivative of Brando. In a 1965 mixed-race production of the play at Howard University, of the two sisters one was black and the other white. Remarkably, reviewers found that this added a whole new dimension to the play, in context to the civil rights movement in the USA at the time. One reviewer, Beauchamp, said explicitly that in such an effectively sincere play it was evident that Sally Crowell and Loretta Greene, a white Blanche and a black Stella, should not be unlikely sisters. In 1974, a German production of Streetcar, directed by Charles Lang, with the black actor Gunther Kaufman playing Stanley had a restraining order slapped on it because it went too much against the author’s wishes, ie that Blanche seemed to be enjoying the rape ‘too much’ among other things. A compromise had to be reached where Kaufman had to effectively go white-face, with lighter skin and a straight-haired wig. The only way to avoid this was to reinstate the cut scenes from Williams’text and restore the original ending. Possibly the German audiences were less concerned about Stanley’s race than about the sanctity of Williams’ script, although Kaufman’s inclusion may well have been seen as an unjustifiable experiment by Lang.
Stanley to Blanche, however, is an ape, a being of the lower orders against whom Stella must be warned. Rape is not so much a sexual act as an act of establishing power, and Blanche, that charming bigot, may well have been sexually starved and then coerced into this extreme form of contact involving male power, even if it was via a Creole male. Richard Dodds famously said, ‘That Blanche could be black is reasonable; no race has a monopoly on shattered dreams.’ The fact that Blanche and Stanley represent two very different American dreams, one of the elegant decadent South and one of the land of democracy and civil liberties, makes their power struggle all the more inevitable. In the Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 1982 production of Streetcar, Blanche played a femme fatale with Lowell Smith’s Stanley as her hapless victim. Colorism also played a part in several mixed race or black productions – the fairer, higher educated blacks setting themselves apart from the ‘field-nigger’ type of black created a divide not easily overcome by even Williams’s marvellously protean scripts.
In the text of the play, with the rough Polack Stanley, the German Hubbel as landlord, the Mexican Pablo on the scene, and Blanche’s gay husband lurking in the background, perhaps Mitch is the only satisfactory man because he is fully and rather anonymously white in the traditional American sense. Therefore Blanche and Stella identify him as sensitive and ‘superior to the rest’. The complexities of race relations inform and shape the narrative so that a black Stanley, a high-yaller Blanche, a noticeably white Mitch, or a Stella who is darker and more sensual than her sister, change the reading of the story at every turn. It is not surprising that this play, more than others, has been subject to so many interpretations and reinterpretations, for the numerous tragedies of the last century is shot through it with a universality that goes far beyond race, class, geography or language, making it a play about people first and foremost.
At the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Allegheny Community Theatre, Pittsburgh, on September 17, October 22, the production of the Glass Menagerie that was seen by Attilio Favorini of the University of Pittsburgh had, and I quote ‘Carol Teitel, for example,(who) is allowed to take great risks with Amanda. Forswearing the traditional image of faded beauty and slipping Southern gentility, her Amanda has adapted very well to the move to St. Louis and the lower middle class. The shrill nasality of the Midwest has conquered the languid rhythm of the South in her speech. Teitel makes Amanda laconic and vigorous, both father and mother to her children. The resulting gain in authenticity partially offsets the loss in emotional dynamics. On balance, Shaktman and Teitel’s risk pays off, for it gives us a truer perspective on the familial relations than Tom has himself.’ Tom’s part is played by one David Snell, who failed to show the transitions between the boy and the man in the play, possibly, one might venture, as a result of the greater degree of power appropriated by Teitel’s reading of Amanda in the play, that might have taken the spotlight away from the boy-man and given it to the mother-figure.
Roundabout’s Glass Menagerie was one of the most heralded productions of the 1994-95 New York theatrical season. The highly respected Chicago director Frank Galati mounted it, with Julie Harris as Amanda Wingfield. Steve Vineberg of the Threepenny Review says of the production ‘On the stage of the Roundabout, Julie Harris takes a straightforward, no-nonsense approach to the role, and she’s a whole lot better than most Amandas, she gives a strongly grounded realistic performance, yet she rises to the demands of the poetry in her Blue Mountain reminiscences. But she can’t make you care about this character, or make the apparatus of the play work.’
The 2004 production of this play at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC had Sally Field as Amanda Wingfield, where festival director Michael Kaiser wished to present fresh interpretations of familiar productions. Brett Ashley Crawford of the American University gave them an extremely favourable review – Tom and Amanda the only two sane people in an otherwise warped world, struggling to deflect their hatred of crushing circumstances on to each other as the only ‘safe’ targets. Field reads Amanda as a very modern woman, coping as well as she can, taking refuge in nostalgia and the white lies of a gracious lady to compensate for the social handicaps that Laura cannot yet hide. This Amanda acts only out of love – her neuroses seem eminently forgivable character flaws, but only here.
Returning once again to the issue of race, Glenda E. Gill, of the Michigan Technological University, said of ‘Classics in Chocolate’, “Barbara Crews Johnson, a native of Birmingham and a college student whom Cochran cast in eleven roles, including the title role in Philip Yordan’s Anna Lucasta and Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, was someone who was changed by the power of theatre. “I never thought about race in playing any of the roles … I had to know that Amanda was poor. Anna Lucasta went into bars and picked up men, asking for ‘Double Gin’.”Black theatre as we know it today rarely existed. Intraracial prejudice, however, did.” Another important actress, one Dora Scruggs Washington, said famously, ‘We did not think of ourselves as black persons playing white roles. Drama is universal.’
There are readings of Streetcar that discuss its gender politics, up to and including drag, like John S Bak’s paper ‘Vestis Virum Reddit’, the influence it had on American theatre as a whole, and both plays’ tendency to find the discord between the unified but purely imaginary whole and the real and fragmentary nature of what we are given by the characters. It is fitting that these two living texts grow and flourish, also fitting that they should twist and droop, blossom and wither as the seasons change. With each new generation of inhabitants comes a rehearsal of the same story with all the improvised flourishes of a newborn storyteller that enriches and magnifies the existing plot. Apart from the reinterpretations already mentioned, Blanche, so obviously both the generous accommodator and the nymphomaniac, can be offset by a Mitch conspicuously veering towards drunkenness and a complete nervous collapse. At the Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis on June 16, 1975, the director Ken Ruta took the intriguing decision to allow the story to be told from the men’s point of view. Once Blanche’s rose-coloured glasses are taken off, we find the possibility of a madly exciting New Orleans that swamps the stage, with its life, vigour, and unmistakable rhythms of music and violence. Here the Stanley is excitingly sensual – the kind of male Life magazine used to call a ‘real man’ – and the rape takes place to the accompaniment of a saxophone and a drum. And the Mitch we see here is a mama’s boy, a degenerate, a social outcast, who can ask, in drunken seriousness “So, you are visiting Stelly and Stanla?” Here Blanche is the intruder who must go. Her removal means a return to a normalcy she is not expected to even understand. Leaving the extremely problematic and of course biased sexualisation of this production aside, it is a powerful testament to the influence of the story teller on the story and its various forms. No wonder that Williams was so wary of giving permission to adapt his works in his lifetime – it can be no very pleasant thing to see one’s creation being mauled about to suit someone else’s vision. However, the fact remains, that in the houses built by Williams, men and women will come and go, living and speaking as they please, and leaving a little of themselves behind with every successive taking over of his stories.