PLAYBILL PICKS: Tennessee Williams' Five Most Memorable Divas, Including Maggie the Cat

By Robert Simonson
13 Jan 2013

Jessica Hecht as Blanche at the Williamstown Theatre Festival
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire.

No female in the Williams cast of characters looms as large as Blanche DuBois. Nearly every lady the playwright created clings to illusions of untarnished reputation, a rosy future and the innate beauty of life, but none so tenaciously as Blanche, whose best years have long peeled away from her by the time she lands on the doorstep of her proletariat sister Stella and Stella's brutish husband Stanley. Battering her butterfly wings against age-disguising Chinese paper lanterns, she's broken by a world robbed of grace and gentility. "It's an incredible role," said Elizabeth Marvel, who played Blanche in Ivo van Hove's notorious 1999, avant garde interpretation of the play at New York Theatre Workshop. "It's hard to find a woman he wrote that isn't a fantasist. I think what's so striking for me about Blanche is it's so clear I needed to understand Tennessee to play the part. That was my research. I spent a lot of time reading his letters and such. He wrote himself into that role so totally, in a way that you don't find in other characters, like in The Glass Menagerie. There's that personal touch in it."

Shirley Knight — a noted Williams specialist (Williams wrote A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur for her) — played Blanche twice, once at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, and once at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia. "I felt it was a part I was born to play," she said, calling Blanche her favorite Williams role. "I think Blanche is his most poetic character, and, of course, his poetry is so remarkable. I did the role twice because I wasn't quite sure I had done my work on it. I loved her demeanor. And the humor." (Knight is currently starring in an Off-Broadway production of Williams' late-career play In Masks Outrageous and Austere at the Culture Project.)

Playbill cover from the original 1947 Broadway production.

Though the general public perception of DuBois is as a tragic figure, most actresses who have played the part agree with Knight that the character's sharp sense of humor can not be denied, and must be emphasized to achieve a full interpretation of the woman. "Her text is incredibly funny if you play it honestly, because she's so witty," said Jessica Hecht, who played Blanche at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in a 2011 production directed by David Cromer. "She finds a great sparring partner in Stanley and in her environment." Emily Mann, who is directing the new Broadway production of Streetcar, admits that "Blanche is a tragic beater — she's like a moth. She flutters and is attracted to the light. She is a romantic beauty." But Mann, too, believes many actresses "miss the humor in Blanche. And the strength. I knew Tennessee at the end of his life. He said about Southern women, 'They look like butterflies, but there's steel underneath.' They're all survivors."

Hecht concurs. "They're deeply intelligent characters," she said. "They're not only steely, they're so resourceful in their desire to get out from under their circumstances. They're a product of a time when you couldn't get the life you wanted."

"It's wonderful for one's ego to play someone who is so victimized," observed Marvel of Blanche, "but I don't think there's an ounce of victim in her. And that's the trap many actresses fall into. Blanche is a tenacious bastard, and an alcoholic, and a manipulator, and a lot of things to poke a stick at."

Read about the original 1947 Broadway production of Streetcar in the Playbill Vault, the most comprehensive Broadway database on the internet.