Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862

When Sweet Bird of Youth made its debut in 1959, it received a mixed reception. While some critics thought it was another example of Williams’s genius, others saw it as lesser Williams. Both sides, however, generally agreed that Williams’s command of language had not diminished, and the play was a box office success. Over time, Sweet Bird of Youth came to be regarded as an example of Williams on the decline.

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Walter Kerr of New York Herald Tribune was one critic who praised the play, though like most critics he had some problems with it. He wrote, ‘‘There isn’t a moment during Sweet Bird of Youth that it isn’t seething to explode in the theater’s face. Mr. Williams’s newest play is a succession of fuses, deliberately—and for the most part magnificently— lighted.’’

Several critics who liked Sweet Bird of Youth, and even some who did not, believed that Act 2 did not fit well within the play’s structure. For example, Richard Watts, Jr., of the New York Post praised the power of Williams’s writing but added, ‘‘What worried me were a number of loose ends, the lack of complete fulfillment of several characters, and the hinting at themes that were not developed.’’

Among those critics who praised the play, some were disturbed by the play’s content and themes, which were rather shocking for their day. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote, ‘‘It is a play that ranges wide through the lower depths, touching on political violence as well as diseases of mind and body. But it has the spontaneity of an improvisation.’’ John Chapman of the Daily News wrote, ‘‘I don’t see how it can be liked, in the sense that one might like the simple joys of The Music Man, but it cannot be ignored. . . .’’ He added, ‘‘Seeing . . . Sweet Bird of Youth . . . is something like finding oneself, unexpectedly and without premeditation, in a place one wouldn’t be caught dead in.’’

Other critics were more distressed by the content of Sweet Bird of Youth. Marya Mannes of The Reporter wrote

The laughter at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York these nights is made, I think, of . . . a fascination with and amusement in depravity, sickness, and degradation which makes me equally disturbed at the public, the playwright, and those critics who have hailed Sweet Bird of Youth as one of Tennessee Williams’s ‘finest dramas’ and ‘a play of overwhelming force.’

Along similar lines, Kenneth Tynan of the New Yorker argued

For my part, I recognized nothing but a special, rarefied situation that had been carried to extremes of cruelty with a total disregard for probability, human relevance, and the laws of dramatic structure. My brain was buzzing with questions. . . . I suspect that Sweet Bird of Youth will be of more interest to Mr. Williams’s biographers than to lovers of the theatre.

Other critics also dismissed the play as only interesting to those who are fans of Williams. Robert Brustein of Encounter argued

the play is interesting primarily if you are interested in its author. As dramatic art, it is disturbingly bad— aimless, dishonest, and crudely melodramatic—in a way that Williams’s writing has not been bad since his early play, Battle of Angels. But if the latter failed because its author did not sufficiently understand his characters, Sweet Bird of Youth suffers both from his ignorance of, and obsession with, himself.

Harold Clurman of The Nation concurred. He wrote, ‘‘Its place in the author’s development and its fascination for the audience strike me as more significant than its value as drama.’’

Several other critics disliked the play because of dramatic failings. Brustein, writing this time in Hudson Review, judged

Williams seems less concerned with dramatic verisimilitude than with communicating some hazy notions about such disparate items as Sex, Youth, Time, Corruption, Purity, Castration, Politics, and The South. As a result, the action of the play is patently untrue, the language is flat and circumlocutory, the form disjointed and rambling, and the characters—possessing little coherence of their own—function only as a thin dressing for these bare thematic bones.

In short, Henry Hewes of Saturday Review concluded, ‘‘the total play . . . adds up to a good deal less than the sum of its parts.’’

Sweet Bird of Youth was revived several times over the years, and the critics remained divided, with most having serious problems with the play. Of a 1975 revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Gina Mallet of Time wrote

Age has not refined Sweet Bird’s effulgent bathos. The reduction of personality to sex organs is the dynamic of skin flicks and soap operas. . . . Today it seems fatally misconceived, a sentimental melodrama instead of a savage, black comedy on southern mores.

A few critics were still impressed by Williams’s creation, including Howard Kissel of Women’s Wear Daily. He wrote

In its time, Sweet Bird of Youth was a powerful emotional experience; now it impresses one mainly because of the deliciousness of the language. The characters may not be as tragic as they once seemed, but they still have credibility as American archetypes.

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