When a young writer lands a bit part in A Streetcar Named Desire, he steps onstage and is instantly transported into the passionate world of Tennessee Williams.
- by Richard Goodman
Many years ago, I was getting a Master’s degree at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was twenty-three. I lived in a cheap hotel near campus. A number of actors who were attending Wayne State’s celebrated theater school lived there, too. I got to know some of them and, for reasons I no longer remember, they urged me to try out for one of their department’s open-call plays. So, out of a what-the-hell spirit, I did. The play was A Streetcar Named Desire. I auditioned absurdly for the part of Stanley Kowalski. I got the role of the Young Collector, a teenage boy whom Blanche DuBois encounters when he comes to collect for the evening paper.
I’m not even sure I’d read the play before. At the audition, I simply read what they asked me to read. When I did read the play, after I got my role, I saw that the Young Collector was a small part. His entrance comes in the middle of the play somewhere and doesn’t seem to have much significance. Not many lines, maybe fifteen. When he arrives to collect for the Evening Star, Blanche DuBois pulls him into her world briefly. Then, exit.
The part of Blanche was played by a melodramatic but alluring actress. I’d watch from the wings as she and Stanley went at it during rehearsals. It was raw stuff. I learned my lines. We had dress rehearsals, the play took shape, and all of a sudden it was opening night.
I was nervous, of course. I felt awkward in my Young Collector outfit, in clothes that weren’t mine. I had all the classic fears: I’d forget my lines. I’d trip and fall. You name it, I fretted over it.
To set the scene: Blanche has met Mitch, Stanley’s friend, and she sees possibilities for romance. We’ve already had a poker game scene where Stanley, drunk, goes after his wife, Stella, who escapes upstairs to a friend’s apartment. Then the famous STELLA! Marlon Brando yells in the movie version.
Now, reunited, Stella and Stanley have gone out, and Blanche is alone in the house, waiting for Mitch to arrive.
Time for my entrance. I was given my cue, and, deep breath, I stepped out onto the stage.
And then the whole world changed.
I walked to the door on stage and knocked. Blanche opened it. I stood there looking at her:
[The Young Man appears through the portieres. She regards him with interest.]
Well, well! What can I do for you?
I’m collecting for The Evening Star.
I didn’t know that stars took up collections.
I was listening to Blanche DuBois. There were no actors. There was no play. I was a newsboy in New Orleans. It was as if I’d walked through that liquid mirror into another world, but a real world, a three-dimensional world that I belonged in. Everything about it was authentic. And what was happening was as it happened in life. I felt uneasy and thrown off balance by this woman. She was beautiful and hypnotic. What would she say next? I knew, but I didn’t know.
It was all unfolding before me. I was encountering someone irresistible, this woman, who could have her way. What did she want from me? She touched me once, on the shoulder. I could see her face so clearly, and her smile. I could smell her perfume. Then she touched me on the cheek. I was at a complete loss. Was I supposed to stay? Could I?
And then ... she kissed me.
This older woman who was everything that was forbidden to me, kissed me on the lips. Those lips of hers! Now, in a few minutes, everything in my life changed. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay, and I wanted her to kiss me again. I wanted to touch her dress and her face and I wanted her to teach me everything she knew and to talk to me while she did about how I looked like a young Prince. I was not a Collector. I was a Prince. Her kiss remained on my lips. Then she said I had to leave.
I walked slowly away and made my way off the stage in a trance. But Tennessee Williams’ world stayed with me. I walked within it for hours and hours afterward. (And still do, in a way.) It seemed more real than the actual world I lived in. Blanche DuBois had commandeered my heart. I had to see her again.
And, as luck would have it, I would, the next night, at eight o’clock.
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Richard Goodman is the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, The Soul of Creative Writing, A New York Memoir and The Bicycle Diaries: One New Yorker’s Journey Through 9/11. He is an associate professor of creative nonfiction writing at the University of New Orleans. His website is www.richardgoodman.org
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