Stanley Kowalski: from Page to Performance


How do you react to the character of Stanley Kowalski? Chances are that if you know Elia Kazan’s 1951 film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, or even if you have merely encountered publicity shots and stills from the film, you view will be coloured by Marlon Brando’s interpretation of the role. This is hardly surprising as all drama is, in the words of one critic, ‘a collaborative activity’ between, among others, dramatists, directors and actors (Shiach, p.55). A play is never just words on a page, it is written to be staged. Nevertheless, some critics have been surprised by Brando’s charismatic rendering of Stanley, arguing that there is too great a gap between page and performance. Brando’s Stanley, they say, is too engaging, too ‘sensitive (Griffin, p.75). The audience identifies too strongly with Stanley’s distrust of Blanche, with consequence for their response to the film as a whole.


What sort of consequences? Any reading of the play prompts all kinds of difficult questions. Is Stanley a brutal monster or a pragmatic survivor? Is Mitch a beneficiary of Blanche’s ‘temporary magic’ or, as Stanley claims, simply a victim of her ‘lies’? If Stanley is played as being sensitive these questions resolve themselves fairly straightforwardly. What may be lost, however, is the thought-provoking ambiguity of William’s original play. Do the critics have a point? Does the play provoke a more ambivalent response towards Stanley than the film?


Brando and Stanley

It can be an intriguing exercise to compare the Marlon Brando version with the presentation of Stanley in the play, and then to speculate why certain changes were made. In fact, the film offers plenty of evidence of a coarse, aggressive Stanley. For example, he is heard – though not seen – beating up Stella, he eats meat with his bare hands, and his first shown, in a change to the play, at the centre of a violent ‘ruckus’.


Willams, who wrote the screenplay, skillfully sets this commotion in the context of the bowling alley, thus linking Stanley’s aggression to his highly competitive nature. We may compare the similarly economical way in which Stanley is introduced in the play, heaving up a blood-stained package to Stella. The vigorous physicality, the echo of the primitive hunter-provider, the coarse sexual connotations of the contents of the package (‘Meat!’), and the visible blood, suggest passions close to the surface, all provide the audience with a condensed impression of Stanley’s character.


In both play and film, Williams is adept at using such elements as scenery, props, music, human movement, sound effects, costume and lighting to convey meaning and character-points. Nevertheless, the detailed verbal cues provided in William’s eloquent stage directions are only a contributing factor – albeit a crucial one – to the final ‘construct’ that is the character on stage or screen. Audience reaction may also be influenced by the director’s input, what he chooses to emphasise and to ignore. Important lines may have to be cut. The censors may have to be appeased. Much depends too, on the personal qualities of the actor, the tone in which he delivers the lines, his appearance and bearing. As we have seen, Brando’s Stanley is by no means always ‘sensitive’. In certain key scenes, however, he can seem surprisingly dignified.


Stanley and Blanche at war

Let’s take as an example the first confrontation between Stanley and Blanche, over the loss of Belle Reve. In the play, this occurs in scene 2. At the beginning of this scene, Stanley’s domestic authority is carefully established by means of the ‘lordly composure’ with which he accepts Stella’s kiss, his demands for supper and Stella’s request for money. As the scene progresses, this order is shown to be threatened by the intrusion of Blanche into his ‘territory’. Stanley’s composure vanished and his vision is do distorted by jealous rage that he appears to mistake her cheap ‘costume jewellery’ for ropes of pearls.


Blanche’s arrival in Stanley’s domestic kingdom, her eloquence, her accoutrements and her strangeness, all work to expose his ignorance and shortcomings. He is unaware that rhinestone is ‘Next door to glass.’ His clumsy grasp of legal matters might impress Stella (‘My head is swimming!’) but the audience is more likely to share in the mockery of Blanche’s flirtatious exclamation: ‘My, but you have an impressive judicial air!’ His attempts to convey the impression of a well-connected man of the word (‘I have a lawyer acquaintance who will study these out.’) appear idiotic even to Stella. In the end, becoming, as the stage directions inform the reader ‘somewhat sheepish’, Stanley resorts to telling Blanche about the baby – an arguably cruel bid to restore his compromised dignity. After all, Stella has asked him to keep the secret on the grounds that Blanche is in too nervous a ‘condition’ to bear the news. The play, then, offers many cues that might serve to undermine the character of Stanley in the eyes of the audience.


Standing on his dignity

The film, however, ignores these prompts and presents a much less compromised Stanley. Brando’s character is seen doggedly, even confidently, asserting his rights under the ‘Napoleonic Code’. When he tells Blanche: ‘You see … a man has to take an interest in his wife’s affairs – especially now she’s going to have a baby.’ His tone is far from ‘sheepish’ but is rather that of a man quite reasonably protecting the interests of his family. The film-Stanley’s dignity and ‘reasonableness’ throws into sharp relief negative aspect of Blanche that are already present in the scene – for example her artifice and manipulation – but in so doing, downplays the rich ambiguity available in the text.


Another example of Brando’s surprisingly dignified delivery comes as Stanley reveals Dame Blanche’s ‘pack of lies’ to Stella. In the play (scene 7), Stanley can barely contain his glee. His loss of self-control and tendency to exaggerate are once more on display. He uses crowing and exultant exclamations (‘No, sirree, Bob!) and colourful imagery (Blanche is ‘a school of sharks’). At times, his language fancifully evokes the ethos of the Wild West folklore, as he imagines her being run out of town: ‘Yep, it was practickly a town ordinance passed against her!’ In stark contrast, Brando’s tone in the film I calm, measured and righteous. Tellingly, some of Stanley’s more gloating lines (e.g. ‘Boy, oh boy, I’d like to have been in that office when Dame Blanche was called on the carpet!’) are omitted. Indeed, Brando’s Stanley only becomes heated when talking about the need to protect Mitch, thus suggesting that he is motivated purely by the male code of loyalty that has sprung out of their war time service.


Illusion and reality

What is the effect of Brando’ change of tome here? In this scene, Williams juxtaposes Stanley’s presentation of the ‘truth’ about Blanche, his ‘thoroughly checked facts’, with Blanches contrapuntal singing in the bath. The song’s refrain, ‘But it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me!’ is no doubt whimsical and escapist, but points to another kind of truth, one that is subjective, poetic and more forgiving of human failings. Blanche later tells Mitch, ‘I didn’t lie in my heart’, and while this is open to question, it is also the case that the unrestrained Stanley of scene 7 might cause the audience to question his command of reality. Is the picture he paints of ‘Dame Blanche’ accurate or an unfair caricature? How well does he know his own motivations? Is it significant that by the end of the play, his marriage to Stella will be founded on a lie? It could be argued that the play maintains an ambivalent attitude towards the two versions of ‘truth’ presented through the characters of Blanche and Stanley, perhaps suggesting that everyone’s ‘take’ on truth is shaped by their own needs, prejudices and fears. This section of the film, on the other hand, appears to endorse Stanley’s scornful attitude to Blanche’s imagination and lies, and this is largely on account of Brando’s restrained performance. Once again, the film has shed some of the play’s interesting ambiguity.


Dressing up the play

Costume is also used to influence the audience’s response to Stanley. In scene 5 of the play, he is described as wearing typical garb, ‘his green and scarlet silk bowling shirt’, symbolic of competitive instincts and vivid manhood. The film springs a surprise. Stanley, last seen covered in oil, enters wearing a smart jacket, and proceeds to change into a shirt and tie. Why is Stanley associated with these images of respectability? One answer is that this is perhaps not such a deviation from the character of Stanley as depicted in the play. As quiet survivor Stella remarks, Stanley is ‘the only one of his crowd that’s likely to get anywhere’. Perhaps his smart attire is an intimation of respectability soon to come for this aspiring couple.


In some ways, Stanley presents an attractive image of social mobility celebrated as part of the American Dream. His ability to change, to adapt, so necessary for survival, is made evident. In the previous scene, Blanche has begged her sister not to ‘hang back with the brutes’ but ‘brutish’ Stanley’s ability to look civilized exposes her assessment as naïve. Ironically, it is while wearing these clothes hat he hints to Blanche that he has learnt something of her disreputable past. For a moment, in a stunning transformation, the coarse poker-playing drunk becomes a bastion of American decency. Furthermore, Stanley’s smart clothes are later echoed by those of the Young Man (very young and innocent in the film), with whom Blanche flirts. Through costume, Stanley is subtly linked to a world of respectability, which immoral Blanche threatens. Again, Stanley’s distrustful attitude to Blanche is validated by the film.


Stanley: predator or sex-object?

The possibly distorting effects of Brando’s attractiveness should not be underestimated. In the text, Stanley is described as being highly sexed. The stage directions tell us that sexual pleasure is the ‘centre of [Stanley’s] life’. Sexuality itself is a driving force in the play. For example, the ‘things that happen between a man and woman in the dark’ create a powerful bond between Stella and Stanley that Blanche cannot break. However, one critic (Hern, p xxxiii) has argued that Williams may actually be mocking Stanley’s limitations. Certainly the descriptions of ‘gaudy seed-bearer’ and ‘richly feathered male bird among hens’ suggest something base and comically grotesque.


In the film, however, this element of criticism disappears in the emphasis on Brando’s good looks and stunning ability to wear a torn tee-shirt. It could be argued that the film fails to distinguish between being highly sexed and being sexually attractive, indeed connives in Stanley the rapists own delusion that his advances are being welcomed. In its treatment of the rape, symbolised by Blanches image frozen in a crack mirror, the film seems very unwilling to convict Stanley. There is almost a sense that Blanche’s panicky expectation of rape puts the idea into Stanley’s head. Certainly, Brando’s movements are not as threatening or as full of intent as they seem in the stage directions. The film even omits Stanley’s unambiguous line, ‘We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!’


Maintaining the American Dream

Brando’s sympathetic portrayal of Stanley may reflect the needs of America in the 1950s. For all his faults Stanley is proud to be ‘one hundred percent American’. He represents the life-blood of immigration that kept America’s manufacturing industry strong and competitive, and maintained the material prosperity of the American Dream. His own competitive instincts, aggressive need to be the best and pragmatic approach to life ideally suit him for success in this milieu. Through the baby, he and Stella are associated with progress and the future. Perhaps Americans wanted to see this embodiment of their success in a more attractive light and did not want to be reminded that such a society inevitably victimized vulnerable ‘soft people’. For Williams the rape represented ‘the ravishment of the tender … by the savage and brutal forces’ of his society, but the film cannot sustain this interpretation. By omitting the images of the ‘human jungle’ that precede the rape in the play, the film is less explicit in its criticism of social factors. Blanche is presented less as a victim of a ruthless, dog-eat-dog culture than as a neurotic woman.


Indicting the ending

Brando’s Stanley, then, denies a sympathetic response to Blanche, and is too aesthetically pleasing to represent savage society. Ironically, however, the ending of the film indicts Stanley far more fiercely than the play does. Williams did not want to make a ‘black-dyed villain’ out of Stanley and bitterly criticized the ending of the film, which sees Stella reject Stanley with the words ‘Don’t ever touch me again.’ Williams called this ‘a total contradiction to the meaning of the play.’ In what way? Hollywood seems to have demanded the imposition of a conventional moral framework in which Stanley the rapist is punished. However, this is a cosy denial of the play’s much harsher meaning that ‘life has to go on’ and that life is blind. While victims like Blanche are forgotten, Stanley is seen as the survivor in all of us, an instinctive force, at once brutal but also necessary. Perhaps this accounts for the play’s fascinating ambivalence towards Stanley, an ambivalence which the film simplifies, first by being dazzled by the force that Brando’s Stanley represents, and then by turning around and hypocritically condemning it.




Taken from an article by Christopher Holland in The English Review, April 2003