New Orleans is a city unlike any I have ever encountered. Music is treated like a religion there. Just sitting on my girlfriend’s porch, I could hear brass players nearby at nearly any time, day or night. Walking along Frenchman Street and throughout the Quarter, I heard mind-blowing talent on every corner and in nearly every bar. The music just spills out all over the place and in the streets. The architecture and colors of the buildings with years and years of history all throughout, give the city an energy of majesty and grace, as well as debauchery and grit. There is an air of continuous magical celebration and unapologetic raw individualism. Most of my time was spent in and around the French Quarter so I can’t possibly claim to have a true understanding for the entire city and its spirit, but I got a taste.
After a couple of days knee-deep in the day and night life with my girlfriend as my guide, I decided to reach out to the folks at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival for advice on places to visit while I conducted my research. In reply to an e-mail, the beyond-generous Brooke Hanneman sent me a mountain of information and suggested landmarks to visit. With a new focus and a feel for the area, I set off to really hone in on Stanley Kowalski, Tennessee Williams, and their world.
I walked over to Galatoire’s, the restaurant where Williams frequently ate and where Stella takes Blanche for a night out. Standing there outside, looking through the window, was like peering into a time capsule. With its warm low lighting, black and white floor tiling and gold/green floral wallpaper, you can squint and almost believe you were looking into the mid 19th century. An elegant-looking place for fine dining that Stanley wouldn’t care much for, the restaurant made me feel (as Stanley) like an outsider, too. I now had a picture in my mind for every time I delivered the line, “I ain’t goin’ to no Galatoire’s for supper.”
I went over to 722 Toulouse Street to see the old boarding house where Williams lived in 1946 and was said to have written STREETCAR. He rented the attic room for $10 a month. Also, I dropped by 632 Elysian Fields (the home of the Kowalskis). Though the area doesn’t quite resemble these days what Williams describes for the play, the feel and sky remain the same. You’ll find the bike shop “A Bicycle Named Desire” at this address. As I wandered, I began to piece together a solid amount of sense memory for the neighborhoods and the French Quarter that provide the backdrop for Previn’s opera.
At Brooke’s suggestion, I also turned my focus to the conflict in Salerno in WWII. An aspect of Stanley that is often overlooked is his time as a Master Sergeant in the Army Corps of Engineers and the violence he must have witnessed. These men were responsible for providing water, opening highways, bypassing blown bridges, and locating — and deactivating every minefield they encountered. I tried to imagine the stress Stanley must have felt, handling mines while witnessing friends blowing up around him. I’m convinced without a doubt that Stanley suffered from what’s now called PTSD. This could explain his quick temper.
My cousin spent two tours in Afghanistan in the Marine Corps servicing helicopters among various responsibilities. We spent an evening on Skype talking about his experiences through training and ultimately in a warzone. He described the grueling gauntlet of boot camp where many folks don’t make it through. He also shared stories of bases attacked in the middle of the night and of working 12-hour shifts as a mechanic. Completing jobs like his quickly and efficiently meant the difference between a marine’s getting to safety or being a target. Above all, the camaraderie and his fellow Marines’ tough but compassionate behavior in these times stood out.
Each day, I’ve looked over the play and text: Williams lays Stanley out in great detail through his detailed stage directions. “Animal joy in his being is implicit in all [Stanley’s] movements and attitudes,” Williams writes. “Since earliest manhood the center of his life has been pleasure with women, the giving and taking of it, not with weak indulgence, dependency, but with the power and pride of a richly feathered male bird among hens.”
Even with all this research and time spent considering the background, experiences and motivations of Stanley Kowalski and the history of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, I feel nowhere close to finished or satisfied, nor will I ever. The discoveries we make onstage, we also share with the audience, and especially in an opera as rich as STREETCAR, that’s a joyful opportunity. I hope you’ll join us.
You can find a wealth of information on STREETCAR and Tennessee Williams here.
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