The opening of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 3, 1947 proved to be a watershed in the history of American theatre. The cruelty, agony, gritty dialogue and smoldering eroticism shocked the audience, but they responded with prolonged, enthusiastic applause to Williams’ “poignant and luminous” story that, coming on the heels of his pathos-ridden The Glass Menagerie established him as the foremost figure in American drama and transformed Jessica Tandy as well as the then relatively unknown Kim Hunter and Marlon Brando into stars of the first magnitude.
Williams’ masterpiece, considered by many to be the finest American drama of the 20th century, became an international sensation with a string of dazzling national debuts in Mexico City and in Brussels in December, 1948, and the following year in Amsterdam and Rome—with sets designed by Franco Zeffirelli—in January; in Athens and in Gothenburg, Sweden—directed by Ingman Bergman—in March; and in Paris in Jean Cocteau’s adaptation, and in London—directed by Laurence Olivier—in October. (Olivier, apologetically, wrote to Tennessee: “I honestly think the play is a little long.”).
When Streetcar closed on Broadway in 1949 after a run of 855 performances, two distinguished road companies continued to bring the play to cities across the nation. The first road company starred Anthony Quinn as Stanley and Uta Hagen as Blanche (the film version with Vivian Leigh was released in 1951); the second road company, which staged the Mississippi premiere, featured Ralph Meeker and Judith Evelyn. Meeker assumed the role after a highly successful run as Henry Fonda’s understudy in Mister Roberts and went on to star in Inge’s Picnic (1954). His most memorable film role is of Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s film production of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). You might remember Evelyn as Miss Lonelyhearts, the alcoholic spied on by James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).
The Mississippi premiere of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire was held on December 12, 1949 at the Jackson City Auditorium. The performance was reviewed by the inestimable Charlotte Capers, the principal architect and most distinguished director of the Mississippi Department of Archives & History as well as a literary light in her own right. Capers’ review catches the power of the performances (though thinks Meeker’s Stanley as “too simian”), and after giving an Aristotelian justification to questions of, “Who would write such a thing?” (to achieve “a catharsis of the soul”) states that:
“To the audience that complained about the theme of the play, we would suggest that before buying tickets, they check the subject. Certainly it was not an evening of entertainment, and anyone who went expecting to be entertained was disappointed. There were a few moments of intense pity, shattered by misplaced laughs. We couldn’t place the blame here, perhaps the cast, perhaps the audience.”
With this Capers testifies that theatre-goers in Jackson were just as shocked as those in the seats at the Ethel Barrymore (almost precisely) two years before, and while perhaps not as enthusiastic, experienced the same catharsis of soul, the same revelations theatre provides in its highest forms.