December 3 in Literary History: Marlon Brando Becomes a Star

The most significant events in the history of books on the 3rd of December

1857: Joseph Conrad is born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in Russian-occupied Poland. He would become fluent in several languages, including Polish, Russian, French, and English – and it would be in the last of these that he would write his classic novels, the best of which we have discussed here. Although his work did receive some encouraging reviews in the press, it was not until 1914 – when much of his best work was behind him – that Conrad would achieve commercial success for the first time, with his romantic novel Chance.

1894: Robert Louis Stevenson dies. He was trying to open a bottle of wine and suddenly exclaimed, ‘What’s that!’ He turned and asked his wife, ‘Does my face look strange?’ before collapsing from what was probably a cerebral haemorrhage. He died a few hours later. Stevenson had begun his writing career as a journalist and reviewer, and his first published books were works of travel writing. He had moved to the South Pacific in an effort to improve his health, but it didn’t work for long: he was just 44 when he died, leaving several books – including Weir of Hermiston, which he hoped would be received as a ‘great’ novel – unfinished.

1944: Craig Raine is born. He is perhaps the most famous exponent of ‘Martian poetry’, a short-lived poetic Stanley Kowalskimovement that takes as its thesis the idea that the poet should explain ordinary everyday things as if seeing them for the first time – i.e. like a Martian who has just arrived on Earth. Martian poetry had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. Raine has written two books on fellow poet T. S. Eliot.

1947: Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire makes its debut on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. In the role of Stanley Kowalski was a then-unknown 23-year-old actor named Marlon Brando, whose performance in the play would help to catapult him to stardom. The play sees the ‘daintily dressed’ Blanche Dubois arriving to stay at her sister Stella’s house in New Orleans. Stella is the meek wife to overbearing and angry, snarling husband Stanley Kowalski. Marlow’s method acting style was a huge hit: the Broadway production would run for two years, and Brando would reprise the role of Kowalski in the 1951 film adaptation.

Image: Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in the stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, 1948; photograph by Carl Van Vechten; Wikimedia Commons.

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