15 Facts About Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire

Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Hulton Archives/Getty Images

In a sweltering New Orleans, a wilted Southern belle collides with the dysfunctional marriage of her sweet sister and brutish brother-in-law. This is the plot of Tennessee Williams's classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947. But the story of its making and legacy is even wilder than Stanley Kowalski's screaming.

1. WILLIAMS SET THE PLAY IN HIS CHOSEN HOME.

The boy born Thomas Lanier Williams III lived in Columbus, Mississippi, until he was 8 years old. From there, his traveling salesman father bounced the family around Missouri, moving 16 times in just 10 years before abandoning them. As he forged a path of his own, Williams wandered from St. Louis's Washington University to the University of Iowa to the New School in New York City, and even spent some time working on a chicken ranch in Laguna Beach, California. But at 28, he found his “spiritual home” in New Orleans. There he officially changed his given name to the college nickname he'd come to prefer. Inspired by the culture of the French Quarter, he wrote short stories and what would become one of his most popular plays. There he became Tennessee Williams, in more ways than one.

2. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE WAS NAMED AFTER A REAL STREETCAR LINE.

Named for its endpoint on Desire Street in the Ninth Ward, the Desire line ran down Canal Street onto Bourbon and beyond. It operated from 1920 to 1948—meaning that shortly after becoming famous on Broadway, it was retired in favor of buses that were quieter and put less stress on the streets and surrounding buildings. Gone but not forgotten, one of the Desire cars was restored in 1967, and was made a tourist attraction. In 2003, the city even proposed resurrecting the streetcars and this famous line's name, but this dream died when federal funding was denied.

3. STANLEY KOWALSKI WAS INSPIRED BY TWO MEN.

The name "Stanley Kowalski" was borrowed from a factory worker Williams met while living in St. Louis. But the playwright's true muse was Amado ‘Pancho’ Rodriguez y Gonzales, a Mexican boxer who was once Williams's lover, and who argued the character he inspired should be Latino, not Polish.

Ten years his junior, Gonzalez met Williams when the writer traveled to Mexico City in late 1945. Entranced by the macho 24-year-old, Williams invited Gonzalez to move into his New Orleans home. Their relationship lasted only two years. By the time Streetcar Named Desire hit Broadway, Williams had moved on to who would be the love of his life, aspiring writer Frank Merlo.

4. BLANCHE MAY HAVE BEEN A STAND-IN FOR WILLIAMS.

As a gay man, the writer had been mocked all his life, called "sissy" by sneering peers, and “Miss Nancy” by his drunken, abusive father. In some respects, he was like Blanche, a gentle Southern soul, thirsty for love and kindness, yet dangerously fascinated by gruff men. Elia Kazan, who directed both the original Broadway production of Streetcar and its movie adaptation, once said of Williams, "If Tennessee was Blanche, Pancho was Stanley….Wasn’t he [Williams] attracted to the Stanleys of the world? Sailors? Rough trade? Danger itself? Yes, and wilder. The violence in that boy, always on a trigger edge, attracted Williams at the very time it frightened him.”

The closest Williams came to commenting on this comparison was saying of his work, "I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality. My heroines always express the climate of my interior world at the time in which those characters were created.”

5. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE WAS WILLIAMS'S SECOND BIG BROADWAY HIT.

In 1945, Williams broke through with his groundbreaking autobiographical drama The Glass Menagerie. Just a year and a half after this acclaimed production closed, A Streetcar Named Desire opened to even greater praise. Reportedly, the standing ovation lasted for 30 minutes after the curtain descended on opening night.

6. THE PLAY WAS DRASTICALLY DIFFERENT FROM ITS BROADWAY CONTEMPORARIES.

In her historical essay on Williams, critic Camille Paglia notes that A Streetcar Named Desire was a total change from The Glass Menagerie. Where the former had a "tightly wound gentility," the latter boasted "boisterous energy and eruptions of violence." But more than that, "Streetcar exploded into the theater world at a time when Broadway was dominated by musical comedies and revivals." She adds, "the shocking frankness with which Streetcar treated sex—as a searingly revolutionary force—was at odds with the dawning domesticity of the postwar era and looked forward instead to the 1960s sexual revolution."

7. IT CEMENTED WILLIAMS'S REPUTATION AS A MAJOR VOICE IN AMERICAN THEATER.

The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson proclaimed, "Mr. Williams is a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human." A Streetcar Named Desire went on to run for more than 800 performances, and would win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Jessica Tandy earned a Tony Award for originating the role of Blanche, and Williams was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

8. STANLEY KOWALSKI LAUNCHED MARLON BRANDO.

At 23, Brando was a method actor who was drawing praise in a string of Broadway roles. The year before A Streetcar Named Desire debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York critics had voted him "Broadway's Most Promising Actor" because of his powerful performance in Maxwell Anderson's Truckline Café. His portrayal as Kowalski delivered on that promise, and then some. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote that he seemed "a tiger on the loose, a sexual terrorist … Brando was a brute who bore the truth." And this intensity was captured in the 1951 film adaptation, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination for what was only his second film role.

9. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE REDEEMED WILLIAMS'S HOLLYWOOD REPUTATION.

Following the success of The Glass Menagerie's Broadway run, Warner Bros. hired Williams to draft an adapted screenplay for a movie version. But seeking a more commercial offering, they hired another writer to tack on a happy ending, behind Williams's back. The result was a critically panned dud that the playwright denounced as a "travesty." Nonetheless, Williams returned to Warner Bros. with A Streetcar Named Desire. This time, however, the director and most of the cast from the Broadway show were kept on for the film, which went on to earn an impressive 12 Academy Award nominations, winning four, including Best Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter) and Best Actress (Vivien Leigh).

10. JESSICA TANDY WAS THE ONLY LEAD OF THE BROADWAY PLAY NOT CAST IN THE MOVIE.

Hollywood didn't care about her Tony or her rave reviews. Warner Bros. needed a big name to assure the film's success. So Tandy was dropped in favor of Leigh, who'd played the role of Blanche in a London production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but more importantly was a household name thanks to her first Oscar-winning role, that of Scarlett O'Hara in 1939's historical epic Gone With The Wind.

11. THE FILM WAS TAMER THAN THE PLAY.

With mounting pressure from a public concerned about the influence movies have on children, Hollywood created The Motion Picture Production Code, a series of guidelines about what was acceptable and not in film. Thus, A Streetcar Named Desire's movie adaptation was forced to tone down some coarser language, and cut some of its most scandalous elements, like Blanche's promiscuity and her late husband being a closeted homosexual. For instance, in the play Blanche demands of her sister, "Where were you? In bed with your pollack!" In the film, she says, "In there with your pollack!"

12. WILLIAMS FOUGHT TO KEEP BLANCHE'S RAPE FROM BEING CUT.

Following their climactic confrontation, the play implies Stanley rapes Blanche. But Warner Bros. felt this was too dark for the movie. Williams and Kazan sparred with the studio over this. The former argued, "[The] rape of Blanche by Stanley is a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate by the savage and brutal forces of modern society." Like in the play, this grievous crime occurs between scenes, but its implication is clear by the violent events that lead up to a fade to black.

13. ONCE AGAIN, HOLLYWOOD TACKED ON A HAPPY ENDING.

The compromise on including the rape was that Stanley would have to be punished for the act. So just as they did with The Glass Menagerie, Warner Bros. softened the end of William's acclaimed tragedy with a script change. In this case, a line is included, where Stella declares she won't go back to her abusive husband. It's a stark contrast to the play, which concludes with the stage direction "He kneels beside her and his fingers find the opening of her blouse," as Stanley coos to her. Williams would go on to say the adaptation was "only slightly marred by [a] Hollywood ending."

14. THE FILM MADE A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE ICONIC.

Brando's tour de force performance may not have won him the Oscar, but his brutish performance, tight white t-shirt, and signature "Stella!" cry made the movie one that would not be forgotten. Today, the play is considered a classic, and has been revived on Broadway eight times. In 1999, the movie adaptation was added to the National Film Registry, which aims to preserve "culturally, historically or aesthetically" works of cinema. And in 2005, the American Film Institute included Kowalski's agonized scream of "Stella! Hey, Stella!" among its 100 greatest movie quotes of the last 100 years. It came in at number 45.

15. EVERY SPRING, NEW ORLEANS THROWS A FESTIVAL IN HONOR OF THE PLAY.

Called the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, the annual five-day event celebrates Williams's world-famous work, showcases emerging writers, and provides educational opportunities for literary students. It also offers tours of the French Quarter locations where Williams walked, conversed and worked, like the Hotel Maison de Ville, the restaurant Galatoire's, which gets a mention in Streetcar; and the apartment where he lived with Pancho, which overlooked the Desire line.

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Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

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10 Fascinating Facts About Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac reading poetry.
Jack Kerouac reading poetry.
Phillip Harrington // Alamy Stock Photo

Around midnight one September evening in 1957, Jack Kerouac and his girlfriend, Joyce Glassman, went to the local newsstand. They were looking for the morning issue of The New York Times and its review of Kerouac’s new book, On the Road. There it was, on page 27: a rave review by critic Gilbert Millstein, who declared that “Its publication is a historical occasion.”

That one review changed Kerouac’s life, making him the most famous Beat Generation member and allowing him to publish numerous novels—many of which would draw from his own life.

1. Jack Kerouac’s childhood nickname was “Memory Babe.”

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father, Leo, was an insurance salesman and later owned a print shop; his mother, Gabrielle, was a homemaker. French, not English, was his first language, and throughout his life, he felt a cultural estrangement as a French-speaker in the United States.

As a child, Kerouac had an astounding memory: He could accurately remember scenes and conversations from the past, which caused his friends to call him “Memory Babe.” He would use this talent in his novel The Town and the City to describe the typical New England family life. According to biographer Ann Charters, since his boyhood life wasn’t as idyllic as the story required, he combined elements of his own childhood alongside memories of his friends’ lives.

2. A friend inspired Jack Kerouac to be a writer.

After skipping the sixth grade, Kerouac attended Bartlett Junior High School, where he met Sebastian Sampas. The two shared a love of theater and literature and formed a deep friendship. Thanks to Sampas’s influence, Kerouac joined the school’s Scribbler’s Club. In his Lonesome Traveler, published in 1960, Kerouac wrote, “Decided to become a writer at age 17 under influence of Sebastian Sampas, local young poet who later died at Anzio beach head” in World War II. Kerouac married Sampas’s sister, Stella, in 1966.

3. Jack Kerouac’s poems were influenced by a Japanese poet.

Seventeenth-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō used Buddhist themes like nature, enlightenment, and the cycle of life, along with plain language, when writing haiku poems. Kerouac loved haiku, writing copious amounts of it and incorporating it into his novels—though he disregarded the syllable count many associate with the form, saying instead that “Pop———American (non-Japanese) Haikus” were “short 3-line poems, or ‘pomes,’ rhyming or non-rhyming, delineating ‘little Samadhis’ if possible, usually of a Buddhist connotation, aiming towards enlightenment.” A sample of his Bashō-inspired work:

In my medicine cabinet
the winter fly
Has died of old age

—Kerouac

As the author’s friend, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, would say, “He’s the only one in the United States who knows how to write haiku… [he] talks that way, thinks that way.”

4. Jack Kerouac got married to escape jail.

In 1944, future Beat writer Lucien Carr murdered his friend David Kammerer. Carr claimed that Kammerer was gay and had been stalking him; Carr also said that Kammerer was continuously making advances at him, even though Carr turned him down. Carr claimed that, to protect himself, he had stabbed Kammerer to death with his Boy Scout knife. (This type of excuse for murder would later come to be known as the “gay panic defense.”) After filling Kammerer’s pockets with rocks, Carr dumped his body into the Hudson River. He then went to see his friends Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs; Carr said he and Kerouac went to a nearby park to dispose of the evidence. Later, Kerouac was arrested and jailed as a material witness to the crime.

Kerouac couldn’t post bail, so he asked his girlfriend, Edie Parker, to borrow the money from her parents. Edie, however, wouldn’t do it unless he promised to marry her, which he did. Kerouac also said they would move to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he’d get a job to repay the loan. On August 22, Kerouac married Edie Parker and was soon released. He made good on his promises, but their marriage would soon go downhill and was eventually annulled.

Kerouac later referenced Kammerer’s murder in his autobiographical novel Vanity of Duluoz, writing that he had told the character based on Kammerer where the character based on Carr was going on the night of the murder and had watched “him rush off to his death.”

5. Jack Kerouac didn’t take care of his daughter.

In late 1950, Kerouac married Joan Haverty, and in February 1952, Haverty gave birth to their daughter, Janet Michelle. But the couple separated before Janet was born, and Kerouac denied paternity, refusing to make child support payments.

6. Jack Kerouac and Gore Vidal slept together.

Author Gore Vidal first met Kerouac in 1949 at the Metropolitan Opera, but beyond a little flirting, nothing happened. That would change in 1953, when Kerouac and Vidal met again at New York City's San Remo Cafe. Kerouac had intended to introduce Vidal to Burroughs, but Kerouac flirted relentlessly with Vidal, and Burroughs eventually left. After that, according to Vidal, he and Kerouac went to the nearby Chelsea Hotel, where they had sex. Later, Kerouac would write a fictionalized account of the encounter in The Subterraneans: “[He] is a well-known and perfectly obvious homosexual of the first water, my roaring brain---we go to his suite in some hotel--I wake up in the morning on the couch, filled with the horrible recognition, ‘I didn’t go back to Mardou’s at all.’”

7. Alan Watts wasn’t a fan of Jack Kerouac’s interpretation of Buddhism.

Kerouac published his novel The Dharma Bums, which portrayed his fictional alter ego learning Buddhism, in 1958. Kerouac’s portrayal of Buddhism was popular among the youth of the day, but famous Zen teacher Alan Watts wasn’t a fan.

“Beat Zen is a complex phenomenon,” Watts wrote. “It ranges from a use of Zen for justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life to a very forceful social criticism and ‘digging of the universe’ such as one may find in the poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and, rather unevenly, in Kerouac. But, as I know it, it is always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen.”

Watts would publish his famous written work, Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen to distinguish between formal Zen and the Beat’s style of Zen. To Watts, formal Zen was liberation from conventional thought, while the Beat’s style of Zen was simply a revolt against culture or social order.

8. Jack Kerouac has been accused of anti-Semitism.

When Kerouac sat down for an interview at New York’s Northport Public Library in 1964, he talked about a wide range of subjects, among them his friend Allen Ginsberg, religion, and race relations. He also discussed his views of Jewish people. According to Paul Maher in Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, the author had a theory “that the strife over civil rights for African Americans was initiated by an ‘invasion’ of Russian Jews into America.” Kerouac reportedly stated, “After they [Jewish people] had established themselves here, they then took the Negro out and flung him at America and hide behind his skirts so that we will forget about anti-Semitism because we’re worried about Negroes now.” These statements led to Kerouac being accused of anti-Semitism—which he vehemently denied.

9. Jack Kerouac liked to paint.

Writing wasn’t Kerouac’s only talent: The author was also an artist. He drew his first self-portrait when he was 9, and created vast amounts of artwork—working in everything from pencil to oils to watercolors—as an adult. Like the characters in his novels, Kerouac often based his artworks on people he met.

10. Jack Kerouac was an influence on Hunter S. Thompson.

As a 21-year-old, future Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson did not have kind words for Kerouac or his work, writing in a letter that “The man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia. The Dharma thing was quite as bad as The Subterraneans and they're both withered appendages to On The Road—which isn't even a novel in the first place.” A few years later, Thompson called Kerouac’s Big Sur a “stupid, sh**ty book.” But his opinion seemed to have mellowed with age: In 1994, he reportedly said he “never would have become a writer were it not for On the Road,” and acknowledged four years later that Kerouac “was a great influence on me.”