(Isaac Butler’s work appeared in Slate, 2/1. Excerpted from The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2022 by Isaac Butler Photo: Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcar Named Desire. John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images. Via Pam Green.)
“An impossible, psychopathic bastard,” fumed one.
Marlon Brando was cast in Streetcar almost against his will, and he was not the first choice for the role of Stanley Kowalski. Originally, producer Irene Selznick had wanted John Garfield for the part, but negotiations broke down over Garfield’s demand to be cast in any future film of the play and his refusal to commit to a long stage run. Bill Liebling, an agent whose wife, Audrey Wood, represented Tennessee Williams, thought Brando was perfect for the part of Stanley but couldn’t reach him to tell him to audition. By the summer of 1947, Brando had drifted away from acting after being fired from a Tallulah Bankhead vehicle. He didn’t have a phone or an easy way to be reached.
Liebling had to put the word out on the street, telling everyone he knew that if they happened to run into Brando, they should tell him to call the office. On Aug. 20, Brando finally auditioned for Elia Kazan, who immediately knew he was right for the role. Irene Selznick, however, was still hopeful they could get Garfield or, failing him, someone else famous. Williams’ last play, The Glass Menagerie, had been a hit, but Streetcar was still a risk. A name star would make the show a surer thing. Besides, wasn’t this kid too young for the part? Kazan persisted. Selznick agreed to cast Brando, but only if they could get him to audition for Williams at the playwright’s house in Provincetown. Brando told Kazan he had no money to make the trip. Kazan gave the young actor bus fare and told Williams to expect him.
Brando was always irresponsible, but his irresponsibility reached spectacular heights when he was ambivalent and conflicted, as he was about both acting and the role of Stanley Kowalski. He’d been mistreated by Tallulah Bankhead, mistreated by acting teacher and director Erwin Piscator, who had demanded an obedience from Brando that he was incapable of giving when he was a student, and mistreated by his father, whom Stanley resembled in more ways than one. Did he want to do this? Did the ever-restless Brando want to commit to doing the same thing eight times a week for the foreseeable future? While he tried to figure that out, he spent Kazan’s bus fare on supplies for a party at the apartment of his friend Maureen Stapleton.
When a week went by and Kazan hadn’t heard anything, he phoned Williams, only to learn that Brando had never shown up. At that moment, Marlon was hitchhiking to Provincetown. There, he met up with Ellen Adler—daughter of his acting mentor Stella Adler, and his former lover— and trudged over to Williams’ house. When he arrived, Williams and his friends were sitting in the dark, occasionally getting up to pee in the woods. A fuse had blown, the toilet was broken, and the house was full of artists who had no idea how to fix either. Marlon quickly repaired both toilet and fuse, wowing the assembled guests. “He was just about the best-looking young man I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. That night, Marlon read the role for Tennessee, who could see, moments after Brando started talking, that they had found their Stanley.
Soon all of America would see what Williams saw in Marlon Brando, and would embrace both him and the strange new kind of acting he embodied. This new way of performing was remarkably suited to a style of playwriting that emerged alongside it. As Brooks Atkinson described it, “There had been a latent feeling after World War I that something could be done to solve the problems of human existence rationally.” In the interwar years, dramatists like Clifford Odets, Thornton Wilder, and Robert Sherwood had channeled this optimism into their work, only to watch, aghast, as the problems of the ’30s were “concluded … by the desperate organization of the nation into a war machine to produce goods and armies to kill human beings.”
A new darkness entered American drama in response. During World War I, plays about the military had been, in Atkinson’s formulation, “fond propaganda.” During World War II, however, Americans wrote plays like Arthur Laurents’ Home of the Brave, a difficult drama about a Jewish soldier’s survival guilt, or John Patrick’s The Hasty Heart, about wounded servicemen in Burma. Even John Van Druten’s smash romantic comedy The Voice of the Turtle, about a jilted actress who begins a romance with a soldier on leave, is shot through with melancholy.
There was lighter fare to be found—Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Mary Chase’s Harvey, and Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday joined revivals of The Front Page and Lady Windermere’s Fan—but serious American drama had only gotten more pessimistic. It also turned inward, the same direction in which American acting increasingly pointed. The end of World War II did nothing to abate this pirouette toward darker, more introspective territories. Anxiety over what the war had done to the human soul found its way both into film noir and into Arthur Miller’s searing Ibsenian drama All My Sons, which portrayed the ideal small-town American family as a mirage hiding war profiteering and corruption. The 1946–47 season in which All My Sons premiered on Broadway also included Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a play whose characters fritter their lives away in an alcoholic haze, prisoners of empty lies and pointless dreams.