“Hey! How can you toss stuff like this overboard so lightly?” So wrote Irene Selznick, Broadway producer of A Streetcar Named Desire, to Tennessee Williams, in a note she attached to a page of draft speeches from the final scene of the play in 1947 – the year it debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.
There is a lot of material “tossed overboard” by writers as they work towards a final draft, and a small trove of Williams’s notes and drafts for his Pulitzer Prize-winning work has recently surfaced. Along with the leftovers Selznick hoped Williams would keep are nearly 200 pages of working draft material for the play, and a compelling letter regarding its translation into film, all saved by Frank Merlo, Williams’s partner at the time of its composition. After Merlo’s death the papers devolved to Merlo’s brother, an FBI agent, who, in turn, gave them to his daughters.
The trove includes original working typescript material and occasional manuscript material, including tentative and revised speeches and scenes for the original play; together with a few related notes and letters, such as a substantive missive from film producer Charles Feldman outlining the adaptation process as it was happening.
It won’t be news that Williams wrote and rewrote and revised and retyped, scene after scene. What is interesting, though, is the extent to which he was called upon to defend his work, and the extent to which he was successful in doing so as it went from his mind, to the page, to stage, and finally to screen.
Highlights in this archive include the following:
• Three versions of a memo Williams wrote defending Stella’s pregnancy to Irene Selznick and Elia Kazan, the producer and director of the Broadway version that would garner the Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics Circle Award in 1948.
• A three page letter from Charles Feldman, producer of the film, providing a history of the scripting, casting, and shooting of the film, including its eventual reversion to something quite faithful to the stage version, and exploring the idea of Williams’s participation.
• Draft pages showing versions of the play’s most famous lines – Blanche relying on the “kindness of strangers,” and her reference to “death’s opposite, desire.”
In the typescript pages we see Williams reworking the dialogue and stage directions for what would become scenes 5 and 6 – Blanche’s date with Mitch, and her revelation of her marriage and the death of husband – and the final three scenes, which include Stanley’s confrontation of Blanche, Stella’s exit to have her baby, Stanley’s rape of Blanche, and Blanche’s departure with the doctor.
The most substantive pages are those bearing continually rethought expositional scenes and speeches. There are many, but a few examples will here suffice:
• On one of several draft revisions to the final curtain, Williams explains, in a pencil note: “(This is poetic completion of first scene between them in which he ‘threw her the meat.’)” And before he came up with Blanche’s most famous line – “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” – he typed, instead, “Whoever you are – I place myself at your mercy!” (A later revision, closer to the final version, is also present.)
• Stella's attempt to explain to a friend and neighbor the progression of Blanche’s illness – or, at least, the progression of Stella’s understanding of it.
• Two pages containing “Blanche’s Last Speech (revised)”: a lengthy monologue to the doctor, which was not ultimately used, in which Blanche reflects on her life and on how it will end.
• Blanche’s description to Stella of Stanley’s assault.
None of these explanations made it to the stage or screen.
Also compelling are the expected moments of insight into Williams’s life and work which he ultimately cuts, presumably to please late the 1940s censors of the stage. Most notable is the scene in which Blanche recounts to Mitch her short sad history with her first husband, the young Allan, who ultimately shot himself. In our version Williams suggests more forcefully that Allan was gay, and that personal and societal torment drove him to his final act.
Present here is evidence that Williams wrestled with some of his most famous lines. On one page he’s reworked Blanche’s lines: “Death – death. Death’s opposite is desire. Now do you wonder?” He’s taken a pencil to this and altered it to “Death’s opposite’s—desire!” and “Death—The opposite is desire… How could you possibly wonder?”
Other pages contain episodes that fatten the narrative: on one page, cut from, presumably, the birthday dinner scene, Blanche tells Stanley and Stella what is meant to be a funny story about the obsession a girl at the plant has with Jean Harlow. This story, though, of course ultimately serves to underscore her own delusions, and her family’s reaction to them. In another draft, in a later scene, Stanley explains his hatred for Blanche.
In the correspondence retained in the archive we see Williams explaining the structure of the final scene. And in two complete screenplays, representing different compositional moments, we see the adaptation and application of some of the content of this and related correspondence.