Seventy-five years ago this year, Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” premiered on Broadway. The first performance received a seven-minute standing ovation, and the play has virtually never disappeared from the stage since. In a new exhibition, The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) goes “Backstage at A Streetcar Named Desire” to recall the iconic work’s creation and its lasting legacy.
Sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co., the exhibition combines selections from THNOC’s wide-ranging Tennessee Williams holdings—many of them seldom displayed—with loans from multiple institutions, including a browsable version of Director Elia Kazan’s production journal, Thomas Hart Benton’s celebrated painting “Poker Night” and the Oscar statuette awarded to Vivien Leigh for her performance as Blanche DuBois in the 1951 film adaptation.
The collection also offers exhibit goers the chance to see the original manuscript of “Streetcar” under its first name “The Poker Night,” photos of the first cast members to portray the main characters in the play and more.
“’Streetcar’ struck a deep chord in a postwar America, where the old social order and notions of morality and social convention were rapidly changing,” says Mark Cave, the exhibition’s curator. “The play and subsequent film also appealed to international audiences, creating throughout the world an image of New Orleans that still lingers to this day.”
Fresh off the Broadway success of his play “The Glass Menagerie,” Williams resided off and on in the French Quarter from December 1945 to January 1947. From the window of his apartment at 710 Orleans St., he could see the back of Saint Louis Cathedral, whose chiming bells Blanche DuBois would deem “the only clean thing in the Quarter.” He later moved around the corner to 632 1/2 Saint Peter St., where he could hear the clatter of the Desire streetcar as it rumbled down Royal Street. The Remington typewriter Williams used to write “Streetcar” in those apartments is one of the many THNOC holdings on view in the exhibition.
Williams considered several different titles as the play developed—including “Interior: Panic,” “The Moth,” “The Primary Colors,” and “The Poker Night”—before settling on “A Streetcar Named Desire.” After tryout engagements in New Haven, Connecticut, and Philadelphia, “Streetcar” arrived on Broadway on December 3, 1947, opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the production continued for a remarkable 855 performances.
Among the multimedia displays in “Backstage at A Streetcar Named Desire” is an audio recording of the play circa its Broadway run featuring the voices of stars Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy. The excerpted scene is a rare opportunity to hear Tandy, who won a Tony Award for her performance, in the role of Blanche. A QR code in the exhibition allows visitors to extend their “Streetcar” journey into the streets of the Vieux Carré via the French Quarter Tours smartphone app. A new walking tour on the free app, which also features themed tours of sites important to the neighborhood’s social and cultural histories, delves into the play’s French Quarter references and Williams’ experiences there as a resident.
Visitors will also have the opportunity to live the magic of “Streetcar” through five, in-gallery immersive theater experiences. As they travel through the exhibit, the audience will find up to 12 actors performing scenes as different characters.
“If you can imagine how a cat would feel in a cream-puff factory, you can imagine my joy at being back in the Quarter,” wrote Williams in January 1946, shortly after moving to Orleans Street. “Backstage at ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ offers new glimpses inside the creation, performance and legacy of what is arguably the nation’s best-known and most widely adapted play, created from and in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
“Backstage at A Streetcar Named Desire” is available to view now until July 3, 2022, on the first level of THNOC’s Tricentennial Wing at 520 Royal St. Admission is free. Advance reservations are recommended and may be made at my.hnoc.org. For more information, visit hnoc.org/streetcar.