Sweet Bird of Youth

by Tennessee Williams

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Critical Context

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Tennessee Williams readily admitted that the sometimes repellent and warped lives portrayed in Sweet Bird of Youth contained much of his own experience. Drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex were part of his makeup, and they grew out of the darkly hypocritical society of his native Deep South. This was by no means the first of his plays to expose the hyperbolic vice that had grown into him. The 1959 production of Sweet Bird of Youth came soon after two of his most violent plays, Orpheus Descending (pr. 1957, pb. 1958) and Suddenly Last Summer (pr., pb. 1958). They, too, feature unusual, violent death scenes and bear the theme of personal atonement for social ills.

Despite the morbid aspect of much of Williams’s theatrical work, Sweet Bird of Youth carries the mark of his early poetic gift. His authentic ear for the language of the South, as well as his innate grasp of the region’s rich and complex social fabric, gave each of his plays an appealing glint, no matter how difficult the subject matter. In this respect, Sweet Bird of Youth does not stand out particularly from his other works. Conspicuously missing from this and other late works, however, is the more genteel presentation of plays such as The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945).

By the time Sweet Bird of Youth was produced, it was clear that Williams drew his characters from a closetful of symbolic figures who appeared repeatedly throughout his literary life—the sexually ungrounded middle-aged woman and the pure young girl, the sinister political boss, the sensitive young man, and so on—each of whom carried his or her heavy emotional baggage. Although Williams’s plays seldom intersect the everyday world, his characters inhabit a real world of theatricality.

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Critical Overview