2.0 Williams' 'Plastic Theater'
4.1 Opening Scene
4.2 Female Sexuality
4.4 Rape Scene
4.5 Closing Scene
This paper will compare and contrast the written form of Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire with the 1951 movie version. It will explain and discuss the major differences between the two, focusing on the issue of censorship as it was an important factor in the development of the play from its Broadway form into a film. As this paper will show this was due to the fact that during the 1940s and 50s the world of theater in America was much more permissive than that of film. This paper will also examine Williams' concept of a 'plastic theater', an innovative approach by him which utilized music, sound effects, movement and lighting to express abstract themes. His idea of a 'plastic theater', was closer to the world of film than to the traditional form of the stage and is evident in A Streetcar Named Desire. It influenced the adaptation of the play to the big screen.
The play A Streetcar Named Desire opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, New York City, on December 3, 1947. Following The Glass Menagerie it was only the second of Williams' plays to be performed on Broadway. Despite his relatively short history on the New York stage Streetcar was a great success, running for 855 performances. It also became the first play to win all three major awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award.
Film makers were for two years uninterested in turning the play into a motion picture despite its overwhelming popularity. This was because
A Streetcar Named Desire did not fit the standard Hollywood model for movies in the 1940s which was one of clean, wholesome family entertainment. Only William Wyler, one of Hollywood's most commercially successful directors at that time, was interested. He thought that it had the potential for box-office success, given both its popularity and its critical
recognition. However, later he abandoned the project because of the censorship requirements.
In 1951, the film of A Streetcar Named Desire was released, directed by Elia Kazan. It had grown directly out of the New York stage production, which he had also directed. Tennessee Williams wrote the screenplay for the film together with Kazan, remaining close to the original text. Virtually the entire cast was retained for the movie, including leads Marlon Brando (as Stanley Kowalski), Kim Hunter (Stella Kowalski), and Karl Malden (Harold Mitchell or Mitch). However, as Blanche DuBois, Jessica Tandy was replaced by Vivian Leigh, from Laurence Oliver's London production, due to the producers' insistence upon at least one box-office name.
The film grossed more than US $4 million, a huge amount compared to other movies of the period. In 1951 it was awarded four Academy Awards: Best Actress for Vivian Leigh, and Best Supporting Roles for Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. In addition, Best Black and White Art Direction / Set Direction was awarded to Richard Day and George James Hopkins. Marlon Brando did not win the Best Actor Award, instead it was given to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
2.0 Williams' 'Plastic Theater'
Williams was somewhat dissatisfied with what he saw as the realism of theater and wanted to create theatrical excitement in his plays. He envisaged a production in which all elements would serve his central concern with his characters, and also tried to find verbal equivalents for those characters inner selves. Being much influenced by poetry, particularly the works of Hart Crane, Williams avoided theatrical diction in his stage dialogue, instead using poetic language. He wrote speeches for his characters which are almost lyrical at times. Williams expressed abstract themes through the use of sound-effects, music, lighting and movement. These expressionistic techniques were an embodiment of a new dramatic form, what he termed his 'plastic theater',
[...] the use of lights, music, sets, and any other forms of nonverbal expression that would complement the textual version of the play. This willingness to open up his theater to more than the traditional forms of realism, allowed Williams to create a lyric drama, a poetic theater. Stage symbol, scenic language, body language were to assume important roles, accentuating the conflicts that the character themselves were articulating to audiences through their language.
The use of this 'plastic theater' is evident throughout A Streetcar Named Desire in Williams' specific stage directions, such as sound and lighting effects, set descriptions, characters' appearances etc.
As far as sound effects are concerned, each scene includes specific instructions for the blue piano, clarinet, brasses, train noises, and street vendors' cries, all of which comment on Blanche's drama.
Possibly the most important of these is the Varsouviana, a polka which Blanche and Allan were dancing to at the Moon Lake Casino. It was in the middle of this dance that Allan ran out of the casino and shot himself. Blanche feels responsible for this act as evidenced by her words to Mitch about it: "It was because – on the dance floor – unable to stop myself –I'd suddenly said – I saw! I know! You disgust me ..."
Throughout the play the Varsouviana is used to signal Blanche's memories of her past, her marriage to Allan and Allan's death. The first time the polka is heard is at the end of Scene 1 when Stanley asks Blanche about her marriage. She replies, "The boy – the boy died [...] I'm afraid I'm – going to be sick!" At this stage the reader is unaware of the significance of the music, yet from this point on it will be associated with Allan's death. After Scene 6, in which Blanche eventually reveals the significance of the polka, the melody serves to announce her thoughts and feelings of guilt over the suicide without her having to verbalize them.
Furthermore, lighting is used to create mood and atmosphere in the play. For instance, towards the end of Scene 10, prior to the rape, Blanche becomes more and more frightened of Stanley. This is expressed in the stage directions for lighting:
Lurid reflections appear on the walls around Blanche. The shadows are of a grotesque and menacing form. [...] Through the back wall of the rooms, which have become transparent, can be seen the sidewalk.
As Blanche's fear increases, the scene becomes more impressionistic; that is, reality becomes distorted by her subjective vision of it. The lighting takes on a sinister aspect while "The night is filled with inhuman voices like cries in a jungle." As the walls become transparent life on the street can be seen simultaneously with the interior of the apartment. As the exterior and interior menace mingle in Blanche's perception, so also is the distinction blurred between subjective and objective reality.
Williams' use of detailed set description can be found at the very beginning of the play:
The exterior of a two-story corner building on a street in New Orleans which is named Elysian Fields and runs between the L&N tracks and the river. The section is poor but, unlike corresponding sections in other American cities, it has a raffish charm. The houses are mostly white frame, weathered grey, with rickety outside stairs and galleries and quaintly ornamented gables. This building contains two flats, upstairs and down, faded white stairs ascend to the entrance of both.
Also included in these stage directions are details of colors, scents and even atmosphere. Thus from the opening moments of the play the quaint charm, poverty and decay of this location are established, along with the fact that it is different from other American cities.
Williams' concern with his characters' appearance becomes obvious with Blanche's arrival in Scene 1:
[...] Her appearance is incongruous to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a fluffy bodice and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district. She is about five years older than Stella. Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.
Although this is the reader's first contact with Blanche, Williams has already established some of the basic aspects of her character. It is apparent that she is out of place in the Kowalskis' world, and that their way of life is alien to her. The image of a moth hints at her fragility and that, most likely, she will not survive for long in this environment.
This concept of a 'plastic theater' was unlike anything else on the stage, and was unique to Williams' personal vision of how theater should be. As Hardison Londré puts it,
No other has come as close to creating a poetry of the theater embodied in dialogue, scenic environment, and in such theatrical devices as music, symbolic props, sound and lighting effects – all combining to create a seamless lyric impression.
This vision changed the way other playwrights viewed the world of stage. According to Esther Jackson, this "[...] may be one of his [Williams'] most lasting contributions to American dramaturgy."
The use of this 'plastic theater' in A Streetcar Named Desire means that the experience of reading the play is quite different from that of reading another playwright's work. William's attention to detail means that the reader is able to form a vivid mental picture of the scenes which are unfolding, and can even get a sense of the atmosphere of the play. Thus it is possible to contrast the written text of the play with the movie. This 'plastic theater' also results in Streetcar being very cinematic. It is somewhat closer to the format of a movie than most other plays, making it eminently suitable for a film adaptation.
Despite Streetcar's suitability for a film adaptation there were still several difficulties to overcome in translating the play onto the big screen. Kazan and Williams did not only face the usual aesthetic challenges involved in such an endeavor. There were also several alterations forced by censorship requirements. A Streetcar Named Desire challenged the Production Code's censors with its bold adult drama and sexual subjects, i. e. rape, homosexuality, and female promiscuity. The Production Code was:
A self-regulatory code of ethics created in 1930 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (M.P.P.D.A.), under Will H. Hays, and put into strict effect on July 1, 1934, with Joseph I. Breen as director of the Code Administration. The code set forth general standards of "good taste" and specific do's and don't's concerning what could and could not be shown in American movies.
The world of the stage, by contrast, had no such ethical guidelines and was, on the whole, more permissive. Theater-going audiences in the 1940s and 50s were able to see plays in which the content was very different from that of Hollywood movies. Generally speaking, these plays were more challenging and thought-provoking, often dealing with themes which were not present in American films. A Streetcar Named Desire, with its controversial subject matter, certainly fell into this category.
The movie faced censorship from three different sources: the Production Code Administration, also known as the Breen Office, the production company, Warner Brothers, and the Catholic Legion of Decency:
 All references to the play in this paper are from Williams, Tennessee. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Vol. 1. New York: New York Publishing Corporation, 1971.
 A Streetcar Named Desire. Dir. Elia Kazan. Warner Brothers, 1951.
 Roudané, Matthew C. Introduction. The Cambridge Companion to Tennessee Williams, ed. by Roundané. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 3.
 Williams, p. 355.
 Williams, p. 268.
 Williams, pp. 398-399.
 Williams, p. 399.
 Williams, p. 243.
 Williams, p. 245.
 Hardison Londré, Felicia. Tennessee Williams. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979, p. 23.
 Jackson, Esther Merle. The Broken World of Tennessee Williams. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965, p. 89.
 Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 3rd ed. New York: Crowell, 1984, p. 934.