Charlotte Capers, Tennessee Williams, and the Mississippi premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire

Charlotte Capers, Tennessee Williams, and the Mississippi premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire

Kolin, Philip C

PREMIERING ON DECEMBER 3, 1947, ON BROADWAY, Tennessee Williams’ s A Streetcar Named Desire ran for 855 performances and transformed Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter into stars. Streetcar was the first play to capture all three coveted drama honors-the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Critic’s Circle Award, and the Donaldson Award-and brought its Mississippi-born author enormous fame in America and around the globe. The play quickly took the international theatre by storm in a glittering string of national debuts-in Mexico City and in Brussels in December of 1948 and the following year in Amsterdam and in Rome (with sets designed by Franco Zeffirelli) in January; in Athens and in Gothenburg, Sweden (directed by Ingmar Bergman) in March; and in Paris (in Jean Cocteau’s adaptation) and in London (directed by Laurence Olivier) in October.1 Even after Streetcar closed its Broadway run in 1949, two distinguished road companies continued to bring the play to major cities across the United States. Coming to Jackson, Mississippi, in late 1949, the second road company (featuring Ralph Meeker as Stanley and Judith Evelyn as Blanche) premiered Streetcar in Williams’s home state on the evening of December 12th at the Jackson City Auditorium. The event merits attention both as a record in the stage history of Williams’s play and as a reflection of Mississippi theatre/culture in the late 1940s.

One of Jackson’s most literate citizens, Charlotte Capers, reviewed the Mississippi premiere for the December 13, 1949, issue of the Jackson Daily News. An archivist at and later director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Capers was an “occasional columnist” for the Jackson Daily News, the Jackson State Times, and the Delta Review.2 She was also a close friend and early bibliographer of Eudora Welty and even played the character of Charlotte in Welty’s The Ponder Heart at Jackson’s Little Theatre.3 Her review, which follows in its entirety, shines with Capers’s homespun wit and literary acumen.

“Streetcar” Players Win Audience Acclaim by Charlotte Capers

As Streetcar has been reviewed over a period of years, won both Critics and Pulitzer prizes, and played in London and Paris, there should be no trick to reviewing it Except that Jackson audiences are different from audiences in NewYork, London, and Paris and possibly even Chicago. And so a bit of amplification from both sides of the footlights should be in order.

To the query often heard last night in the City Auditorium: “Why would anyone write a play like that” one could reply that so good an authority as Aristotle once said something similar to this: The function of drama, through exercise of the emotions of fear and pity, is to act as a catharsis on the human soul. We know this is a misquote, but it seems to take care of the gist of the thing. Then one might add: Life sometimes is like that And further, Mr. Thomas Lanier (Tennessee) Williams, of Columbus, Mississippi, and New York, must by now have quite a hunk of folding money as a result which transferred its hapless passenger to the streetcar called Cemeteries and deposited her at Elysian Fields.

So we have established, we hope, quite a few good reasons for Mr. Williams to write a most unpleasant play about the disintegration of a woman’s soul and mind. Now from the audience side of the footlights, we quite agree that with death and disaster abounding in the headlines, it seems silly to pay three dollars and ninety cents to witness more than two hours of stark tragedy. It seems especially silly to pay anything to witness anything in the City Auditorium, which had its usual hazards last night, including heat, poor acoustics, and seats placed at intervals that would have cramped a midget That is, it seems unless vou get a particular bang out of exceptionally fine acting, and are moved by a human experience that could happen and on occasion does happen in New York, Paris, London, Chicago, and possibly even Jackson.

The disintegration of Blanche DuBois, who was witness to a long parade in the graveyard, was brilliantly interpreted by Judith Evelyn, who used her voice expertly to capture the jumpy illustration of neurasthenia. Her last scene was high tragedy. We found ourselves worrying about her throat muscles, if she screams “Fire” so convincingly every night. If she tires of poor broken Blanche she can surely endorse any cigarette and make a comfortable living. Peggy Rae, who some of us met last weekend when she visited Bally Whitney here, did a nice job as Eunice, the neighbor upstairs. Jorja Caruight as “Stella for star,” couldn’t have been better, as the unwholesome influence of Blanche destroys her home and she fights old loyalties for new.

We could quarrel with Ralph Meeker’s Stanley, for surely no one is that simian. His rolling gait, achieved no doubt to underscore his male animalism, reminded us only of Jack Tar walking a quarterdeck in a high wind at sea. Far better was Jim Nolan’s carefully delineated Mitch, who needed somebody, but not Blanche. Best of all was the highly imaginative set, representing two rooms in a New Orleans slum.

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. Also, we mention the same old rule about ladies taking off hats. This should apply with triple force on the flat floor of the Auditorium. Otherwise, the audience was most courteous, and responded enthusiastically to the actors, a good deal less than enthusiastically to the play itself.4

With her Welty-like wit and sensitivity to the peccadilloes of her fellow Jacksonians, Capers begins her review by supposedly separating Jackson theatregoers from those in London and Paris. Yet, on a closer reading, her review demonstrates how much these diverse audiences have in common when seeing a production of Williams’s play. She emphasizes the universality of Williams’s art by pointing out that audiences in all parts of the country-and the world-appreciate and are moved by “exceptionally fine acting” and that the “stark tragedy” of Blanche DuBois is very much a part of life, and a key factor in any audience’s own catharsis. Even the objections that some in the City Auditorium raised about why anyone would write a play filled with “death and disaster,” the ingredients of Blanche’s “disintegration,” were remarkably similar to what critics and audiences worldwide also asked. Jacksonians were no different from Londoners, and in point of fact they may have been even more tolerant of Williams’s work. Interestingly enough, Jacksonians did not fault Streetcar for its bold and errant (at least by 1949 standards) sexuality; insofar as Capers’s review is concerned, the objectionable “theme” was madness, or death. One London reviewer, J. C. Trewin, on the other hand, castigated Williams’s play as “a squalid anecdote of a nymphomaniac’s decay in a New Orleans slum.”5 No such outrage was recorded in Jackson on the evening of December 12th, 1949.

Evaluating the second road company’s performance, Capers clearly was at a disadvantage not having seen a performance on Broadway or by the first road company with Anthony Quinn as Stanley and Uta Hagen as Blanche. Accordingly, Capers does not compare Evelyn’s Blanche with the original Blanche of Jessica Tandy or her successor, Uta Hagen. (Vivien Leigh’s filmed Blanche was two years off.) Nonetheless, Capers astutely caught the power of Evelyn’s Blanche, with its “high tragedy” and neurasthenic madness.. Capers, accurately too, identifies Stella’s predicament, caught between allegiance to the old, decadent way of life her sister represents and the new order of “animalism” symbolized in Stanley. Her remarks on Ralph Meeker’s Stanley as being too “simian,” however, were wide of the mark. The Jackson audience saw a much calmer Stanley with Meeker’s performance than they would have with Brando or Quinn, whose thundering brutality terrified audiences.

The Capers review is also important for what it says about Williams’s reputation in Mississippi as well. She emphasizes that he is from Columbus and New York, a Southerner and an acclaimed national playwright both. A few early reviews of Streetcar in New York identified Williams as a native Tennessean because of his name. Capers also boldly confronts charges heard in Jackson that Williams wrote about such horrid events merely for the money. While she concedes the financial success that Streetcar brought Williams, she goes beyond that to defend his art as being both realistic and terrifying. “Life is like that,” and the life that Williams depicted in Jackson that night in December was rooted in a strong sense of Southern place and custom, which should have been easily recognizable to the audience, or so Capers implies.

Finally, amid Capers’s justification of Streetcar on the basis of its powerful expression of human emotion stand her own talents as a Southern writer and critic. Just as Streetcar mingles timeless myth with Southern custom and setting, Capers’s review blends literary learning with humor and the more quotidian affairs of her native city. In her foreword to the Capers Papers, Eudora Welty observed that “most of these pieces [Capers’s stories] were written to amuse” (p. 10). Capers also uses humor by linking Meeker’s Stanley with Jack Tar walking a quarterdeck” and opining that Evelyn’s voice qualifies her for a cigarette commercial. Capers’s impatience with the rude manners of some Jacksonians and her comments on the deplorable conditions of the City Auditorium as a theatre portray her as an aggressive champion of the arts as well as a sincere apologist for Tennessee Williams. In a sense she was trying to educate the audience about a different kind of dramatic entertainment and in doing that she could not have reviewed a more powerful representation of art than the most important play by Mississippi’s (and the nation’s) distinguished playwright.

Copyright Mississippi Quarterly Spring 1998

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