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The Theater: Tramway’s Progress

2 minute read

A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’ drama about a genteel nymphomaniac, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critic’s Circle Award in Manhattan two seasons ago. Last week, still thriving on Broadway, Streetcar threatened to become a parliamentary issue in London and a scandale in Paris.

Fortnight ago, Sir Laurence Olivier’s production of the play, starring his wife Vivien Leigh, opened in the West End and was greeted by all-night queues a block long. The critics sang the praises of Actress Leigh and Director Olivier, but gave Williams’ script a mixed chorus of grudging praise and abuse. Samples: “I feel as if I had crawled through a garbage heap” . . . “Blatant, crude sex.”

Some critics seized on the fact that the U.S. play was co-sponsored by Britain’s Arts Council, and tax-exempt as a cultural offering by a non-profit-making producer. They demanded an airing in Parliament. With tickets selling into January, an official of the producing firm asked plaintively: “How did we know the thing was going to make money?”

Last week, Un Tramway Nommé Désir rolled into Paris in the costliest production ever given a U.S. play in France. Adapter-Producer Jean Cocteau, Parisian jack-of-all-arts, had treated it to a few touches of his own. In each seduction scene, a spotlight shifted to a Negro woman doing a belly dance in the background. Cocteau had also salted the dialogue. One critic noted that he had used “merde at least ten times, and it was one of the milder expressions.”

The Paris critics managed to look unblinkingly shocked. Sample, from Le Figaro: “Stripteases, bizarre morbidities, riots, drunken orgies, poker parties, shriekings, eroticism . . . obscenities and rapes, with just a bit of sexual deviation tossed in for good measure . . . Two years of fighting in line before countless theaters in two hemispheres for this tramway seems a strange kind of lunacy.”

At week’s end, Parisians, like Londoners, had joined the lunacy wholeheartedly. Said the Paris theater manager: “The greatest sensation the American theater has ever given France.” Streetcar still had stops to make in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Australia.

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