Sweet Bird of Youth

by Tennessee Williams

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The Character of Chance Wayne

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Reviewing the original Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, Frank Aston of New York World-Telegram and The Sun pointed out, ‘‘He [Chance Wayne] is racing toward something he can never gain, while she [Princess Kosmonopolis] is fleeing the ruins of something she never had.’’ Implicit in Aston’s observation is that both of these characters—the primary ones in the play—are living in denial of their current realities. Sweet Bird of Youth explores the desperation and panic of Chance Wayne. This essay looks at Chance, his reality, how he handles it, and its evolution to a tragic end.

Chance Wayne is a twenty-nine-year-old man who cannot accept what his life has become. He has come home to St. Cloud, Florida, to try to make himself and everyone else believe that his life is what it is not. When Chance was a young man growing up, he was popular and good-looking. He attracted numerous women and was friends with the sons of community leaders. Instead of going to college, Chance left home to pursue a career as an actor. He had numerous chances to make a success of it, but felt blocked by something. He only got as far as the chorus of a Broadway production of Oklahoma. He learned a profitable way of life along the way: Chance began sleeping with rich women as a means of supporting himself. Over time, this has become his career. Indeed, the only reason he is in St. Cloud is because he is with an aging actress, Alexandra del Lago (a. k. a. The Princess Kosmonopolis). He met her when he was working as a gigolo in Palm Beach, Florida.

It is Chance’s secondary career that has created problems in his life. For many years he has been in love with Heavenly Finley, the daughter of local political bigwig Boss Tom Finley. Chance and Heavenly began a sexual relationship when she was 15 years old. They would have married if Boss Finley had not intervened and refused to allow it. Despite Boss Finley’s directive, Chance and Heavenly have seen each other periodically when Chance has visited St. Cloud. One of the last times Chance was there, Heavenly contracted an unnamed venereal disease from him. He got it from one of the rich women with whom he was having a sexual relationship. Because of Heavenly’s naiveté about what was wrong with her, the disease ran out of control and she was forced to have a hysterectomy at a very young age.

At the beginning of Sweet Bird of Youth, Chance is unaware of the harm he has caused Heavenly, or even that his own mother has died. Because Chance’s ‘‘work’’ requires him to move often, no one was able to find him to tell him what has happened. This situation is telling. While Chance claims to still love Heavenly and is saddened by his mother’s death when he learns of it, he apparently has made no effort to get in touch with them, even through an intermediary. This implies that Chance believes nothing has changed in St. Cloud. He has idealized his hometown to a great degree. The town once praised him for his small acting triumphs. While some things have changed, Boss Finley’s intense disliking for Chance has not.

Because Chance believes that no one in St. Cloud knows that he has failed to have a solid acting career, he tries to use this ignorance to build himself up in their eyes as well as his own. Though the Princess purchased his clothes, the wad of money he flashes in...

(This entire section contains 1578 words.)

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act 2 is hers, and the Cadillac he drives is hers, Chance thinks he can fool everyone in St. Cloud into believing that he is a successful actor. Chance denies the reality of his situation over and over again. As the play progresses, these fantasies about his life grow deeper, and he grows more out of touch.

In act 1, it is revealed that Chance has tricked the Princess into giving him a movie contract at a studio she owns a stake in. Though the Princess tells him the contract is full of loopholes, Chance conveniently forgets such statements. In the same act, Chance also tries to force her to pretend to host a talent contest for two young future stars. The outcome would be rigged, of course, so that Chance and Heavenly would win and be able to leave for Hollywood together. These kinds of fantasies reveal much about Chance and his desperation. If nothing else, he is extremely self-absorbed and self-centered. He has not asked Heavenly if she wants to go with him, but assumes she does, even after Dr. Scudder has told Chance that Scudder will be marrying her the following month. It also shows that he believes he can control the Princess in her depressed state. He is wrong on both counts.

By act 2, scene 2, which takes place in the hotel lounge, Chance has grown more desperate. He laid out his plans in act 1, and is now acting on them, but this scene shows just how out of touch with reality Chance is. He acts as if he is still the most popular man in town. He shows Aunt Nonnie, Miss Lucy, and just about everyone who will look his contract with Princess’s studio. When Chance describes the contest to Aunt Nonnie, he describes it as a beauty contest just for Heavenly so that she can win and then leave with him. Chance changes his stories as needed.

Also in this scene, Chance has the piano player play ‘‘his song,’’ but none of the former friends who have come in will sing with him. Chance denies that he has worked as a beach boy in Palm Beach, but makes up a movie called Youth that he will allegedly be starring in. This is to impress two men in his old group as well as Boss Finley’s mistress, Miss Lucy. They know the truth, however. Scotty, one of the men, reveals that he knows the Cadillac is not Chance’s. When the Princess comes down to the lounge to find him, she also knows the truth about him, though he cannot accept it yet. She tells him, ‘‘Chance, when I saw you driving under the window with your head held high, with that terrible stiff-necked pride of the defeated which I know so well; I knew that your come-back had been a failure like mine.’’

Despite such insights, Chance clings to his vain hopes, even after he comes face to face with Heavenly in the hotel lounge. Though Chance is doing all of this for Heavenly—or, more correctly, for his idealization of her—when he is looking her in the eye, he cannot say anything. He allows her to be taken off by her father and brother after a few moments. Chance never fights directly for what he wants. He knows by this point that he cannot have Heavenly and cannot be what he wants to be. Still, he denies the truth of the situation. As Chance watches Heavenly on television next to her father as he gives his speech, Chance tells Miss Lucy, ‘‘Tonight, God help me, somehow, I don’t know how, but somehow I’ll take her out of St. Cloud. I’ll wake up in her arms, and I’ll give her life back to her.’’

Chance has not given up at the beginning of act 3. He again tries to force the Princess into helping him. Though the Princess is prepared to continue to use him as her employee, he will not let go of the idealized life he wants. Chance calls Sally Powers, a famous Hollywood gossip columnist, and forces the Princess to talk to her. His idea is that the Princess will tell Powers about him and Heavenly, two future movie stars. The plan backfires when Powers informs the Princess that her latest movie is anything but the disaster the actress thought it was. She is back on top, at least temporarily. The Princess never mentions Chance and Heavenly. The flaws of Chance’s desperate plan are obvious. Even if the Princess had gotten Powers to mention them as future stars, how would the situation have changed? Chance is grasping at straws that do not really exist.

Chance is told numerous times to leave town and is given several opportunities to do so. He refuses to leave with either Miss Lucy or the Princess in act 2, scene 2, and they are just two of several characters that warn him. But Chance cannot do it. This wanna-be actor is performing the role of his life. He cannot let go of the idea that Heavenly is his, and that he is more than a gigolo. He has set himself up in a losing situation, which he realizes by the end. He says in the last pages of the play, ‘‘Something’s got to mean something, don’t it, Princess? I mean like your life means nothing, except that you never could make it, always almost, never quite?’’ Chance has never outgrown St. Cloud and the role he played there. The world may have been Chance’s stage, but the folks back at home in St. Cloud were the only audience he cared about. When that is gone, there is nothing left for Chance.

Source: Annette Petrusso, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale Group, 2001.

Time as the Enemy

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Sweet Bird of Youth is Williams’s most eloquent expression of his recurrent theme that time is ‘‘the enemy.’’ In the face of time’s relentless advance, transient youth takes flight, deserting those who trusted it. In one of the finest examples of Williams’s plastic theater the theme pervades not only the characterization but also the words and action, as well as the setting and sound. It is a forceful and compassionate drama of one decisive day in the lives of a man and a woman played out against a background of sleazy politics and impending violence in a small Southern town.

The female lead is a Hollywood star who reluctantly retired when her youth and beauty faded. While traveling incognito, she changes her name from Alexandra Del Lago to Princess Kosmonopolis, from Williams’s recurring symbolic rural lake to the city and Cinderella’s ultimate title. Her twentynine- year-old male escort is to suffer shock after shock as he comes to realize that appearance and youth, on which he has staked his life so far, must inevitably go down to defeat by ‘‘the enemy, time.’’ Gambling on his good looks, he expected to achieve fame and fortune in the movies and so far has gone from bit parts to beach boy, encouraged by what Williams sees as ‘‘the Cinderella story . . . our favorite national myth, the cornerstone of the film industry, if not of the Democracy itself.’’ Appropriately, his name is Chance.

The play, like others by Williams, takes the form of a visit. The action begins with the couple’s arrival on Easter Day, implying hope. But by the end only despair is left for Chance. As the play opens, they have checked in at ‘‘a fashionable hotel somewhere along the Gulf Coast, in a town called in St. Cloud,’’ Chance’s hometown, where in high school he was a ‘‘star.’’

Act 1 takes place in their hotel suite, where literally and figuratively circling each other, Chance and the Princess reveal the immediate and distant past, which brought them to the present instant. She is traveling in style, fleeing from failure. So shocked was she at her appearance in close-up at her comeback film’s premiere that she ran up the aisle and out of the theater, in ‘‘interminable retreat from the city of flames.’’ She seeks refuge in drink, drugs, and sex. Chance has made this detour on his trip with the Princess to show off in his hometown the expensive clothes, the Cadillac, and the acting contract the Princess has signed with him during their journey, ‘‘notarized and witnessed by three strangers found in a bar.’’ Besides Hollywood stardom Chance has another impossible dream, to marry his hometown sweetheart, Heavenly, his ‘‘one true love,’’ whose father has other ideas for her future.

In some ways the Princess represents Chance’s dream of fame, although even he can see that she is far from happy, but she has one thing Chance lacks—talent. Chance brags that he had won an acting contest; the truth is that he received only honorable mention. Yet his illusions of stardom may be realized by means of the contract, which he will attempt to enforce by blackmailing the Princess after he has secretly tape-recorded her using drugs. But age and experience will be on her side. She is a survivor. Chance, who has only his youth and good looks, is destined to be a victim of time.

As the Princess lies asleep, a mask over her eyes blotting out the reality she cannot face, the first caller at their suite is young Doctor Scudder. He warns Chance to leave town; as a ‘‘criminal degenerate,’’ he is threatened with castration for infecting ‘‘a certain girl,’’ who is now engaged to the doctor. Although Chance and Heavenly have been lovers since high school, her father will allow her to marry only if the man is wealthy. This has led to Chance’s pursuit of easy money as a gigolo to rich women, but he has gained nothing but a venereal disease. Unknowingly, he has transmitted it to Heavenly. The events of the day and the relationship with the Princess destroy Chance’s dreams and teach him the bitter lesson that his youth will desert him as he reaches the noon of his life.

The Princess and Chance are among Williams’s best character creations. She recognizes that she is a ‘‘monster,’’ but she has confidence in her talent. She also is realistic about the ravages of time, recognizing the transience of her comeback (which she is to learn later has been successful). She is imperious, tough, self-indulgent, vulnerable, and alone. She tries to reach out when she feels some stirring in her heart for Chance, and there is the hope of caring companionship, if not love, between them. But when he rejects her she realizes that she is, and always will be, a loner. She knows she has to make it alone; she is not dependent on ‘‘the kindness of strangers.’’ (Although one commentator classifies her with ‘‘women who have known happiness but who have lost their mates and who try to overcome the loss,’’ there seems to be little justification for this in the text.)

The Princess is aware, as Williams points out in his stage directions, that ‘‘the clock is equally relentless to them both.’’ Her long aria in act 1 explains that she retired from films because her looks were fading and her youth was gone, but she was still ‘‘unsatisfied and raging’’:

PRINCESS: . . . If I had just been old but you see, I wasn’t old. . . .

I just wasn’t young, not young, young.

I just wasn’t young anymore. . . .

CHANCE: Nobody’s young anymore. . . .

(all Williams’s ellipses)

The play’s change of setting and shift of emphasis between acts 1 and 2 had its critics and its defenders. As Walter Kerr wryly observes, ‘‘Sweet Bird of Youth was. . . . quickly p op ular, and quickly attacked. Many things were said: that the political second act was the real play and should have been developed, that the personal story of the first and third acts constituted the real play and that the second should have been omitted.’’ While Benjamin Nelson criticizes the play’s ‘‘blatant lack of unity’’ and claims that ‘‘act one has almost nothing to do with act two,’’ careful observation indicates that act 2 dramatizes conflicts established in act 1, namely between Chance and Boss Finley, Chance and the peers he left behind, and Chance and the Princess.

The act is a merciless mirror of small-town prejudice and its antagonism, rooted in envy, toward Chance. Scene 1 takes place on Boss Finley’s plantation, always inaccessible to Chance because he was born on the wrong side of the tracks, and scene 2 is set in the hotel cocktail lounge where Chance’s former pals, now his enemies, congregate. Not that Chance’s condescending attitude endears him to these men. A reminder of his high school dreams of Hollywood stardom is his confiding to the bartender, whose job Chance formerly held, that he designed the uniform, based on a costume Victor Mature wore in a foreign legion film, and, he says, ‘‘I looked better in it than he did.’’

In scene 2 Williams creates in the cocktail lounge, almost entirely through offstage effects, all the hoopla and hype of a political rally. Car sirens, band music, headlights, and flashbulbs herald Boss Finley’s arrival with Tom Junior and Heavenly, as they march through on their way to the platform in the ballroom, where Boss will deliver on ‘‘all- South-wide TV’’ his ‘‘Voice of God’’ speech. (A Cinderella figure himself, Boss rose from obscurity to prominence when, he claims, God spoke to him.) He says God told him to take violent action against ‘‘all of them that want to adulterate the pure white blood of the South.’’ At the bar Miss Lucy, Boss’s mistress, whom he has treated cruelly, protects the Heckler from discovery. When she comments that Boss ‘‘honestly believes’’ God has spoken to him, the Heckler counters: ‘‘I believe that the silence of God, the absolute speechlessness of Him is a long, long and awful thing that the whole world is lost because of. I think it’s yet to be broken to any man, living or any yet lived on earth,—no exceptions, and least of all Boss Finley.’’

Then the back wall of the set becomes a huge television screen, with Boss’s head filling the screen as he warns of the threat of ‘‘blood pollution’’ from the black race. In counterpoint to the speech Miss Lucy is warning Chance to leave: as punishment for infecting Heavenly, he has been threatened with the same fate as that suffered by a black man apprehended at random—castration.

On the TV screen the camera swings to the Heckler interrupting Boss Finley with a question about Heavenly’s operation, then we see Boss trying to quell the outbreak of disturbance, and then, offscreen, the Heckler comes tumbling down the lounge stairs, beaten by Finley’s henchmen. In eight minutes of sheer theatricality Williams has left no doubt of the threat to the state and the threat to Chance by the sanctimonious preacher of hate. Although Williams states ‘‘social consciousness . . . has marked most of my writing,’’ and the truth of his remark can be seen in the wider implications of his works, this is the only specific intrusion of politics in the major plays. It dramatizes the dangers inherent in the Boss Finleys who claim God has spoken to them and directs their actions. This climactic scene closes act 2 with political conflict, while act 3 brings to a head the personal conflict between Chance and the Princess.

Williams’s seventh sense of theatrical instinct is no-where so evident as in his reaching a note of high drama as the end approaches. He creates a magic that is so memorable it is forever associated with this play. Chance phones an influential gossip columnist to have the Princess announce him as a ‘‘discovery’’ to star with Heavenly in a new film called Youth. Instead, the Princess learns that her movie is not a flop but a hit, ‘‘the greatest comeback in the history of the industry.’’ Her transformation from fugitive back into movie queen, in the course of a brief telephone conversation, is pure theater and pure Williams—humorous, lyric, compassionate, and true. It concludes:

CHANCE: Here, get her back on this phone. . . . Talk about me and talk about Heavenly to her.

PRINCESS: Talk about a beach-boy I picked up for pleasure, distraction from panic? Now? When the nightmare is over? . . . You’ve just been using me. . . . When I needed you downstairs you shouted, ‘Get her a wheel chair!’ Well, I didn’t need a wheel chair, I came up alone, as always. . . . Chance, you’ve gone past something you couldn’t afford to go past; your time, your youth, you’ve passed it. It’s all you had, and you’ve had it.

Chance reacts furiously, forcing her to look at herself in the mirror, to see that her youth and beauty have gone. Instead, she says she sees ‘‘Alexandra Del Lago, artist and star!’’ The difference between her and Chance, she tells him, is that ‘‘out of the passion and torment of my existence I have created a thing that I can unveil, a sculpture, almost heroic, that I can unveil, which is true.’’

But Chance can only wonder why he never got the chance to make it: ‘‘Something’s got to mean something, don’t it, Princess? I mean like your life means nothing, except that you never could make it, always almost, never quite?’’

Chance in some ways resembles Val in Orpheus Descending. Both are young men who have chosen the easy path of ‘‘corruption’’ in life but who, at the ages of twenty-nine and thirty, feel the pressure of time. Both have a true love for a woman but are defeated by outside forces—the small town and its denizens who gang up on Val for a mistaken breach of conduct and, in Sweet Bird, the political force of Boss Finley, which punishes Chance for a personal reason, being a ‘‘criminal degenerate’’ whose venereal disease, transmitted to Heavenly, has resulted in her hysterectomy. The Heckler, of course, believes the operation to have been an abortion, illegal at that time. Chance is the more complex and human of the two, for, while both young men have fallen prey to corruption, Chance’s own misguided ideals bring about his downfall. Unlike a true tragic hero, he never attains a signifi- cant recognition—that the fame and fortune he seeks are not inevitably the reward of good looks (especially as Hollywood demonstrates otherwise). The personal truth he does realize at the end, that his youth and attractiveness are fleeting, makes him a pathetic rather than a tragic figure.

Finley’s forces are even more deadly than the towns-people in Orpheus Descending, for Finley stirs up state-wide racial hatred. Because of his political prominence and ambitions, Boss, who never could accept Chance as a son-in-law, is as ruthless in his family relations as in his political aims. Chance’s former schoolmates, whose clothes and jobs he derides, form a chorus of men who join forces against him with the sinister Youth for Finley, a kind of junior Ku Klux Klan. They also demonstrate another facet of youth, its group violence. Their brutality is first seen against the Heckler, who is ‘‘systematically beaten.’’ Even though the final moments are quiet, their menacing members surround Chance at the end, and we assume he will be castrated, the fate with which he has been threatened.

Williams in his Sunday New York Times article of 8 March 1959 (often used as the play’s ‘‘Foreword’’), prior to the opening of Sweet Bird of Youth, answers the charge that his plays are violent: ‘‘I write about violence in American life only because I am not so well acquainted with the society of other countries. . . . If there is any truth in the Aristotelian idea that violence is purged by its poetic representation on a stage, then it may be that my cycle of violent plays have had a moral justification after all.’’

In Sweet Bird of Youth Williams perfectly achieves his ideal of plastic theater, in which characterization, action, language, setting, and sound create an artistic unity expressing the theme. As always, the dialogue characterizes the speakers. In Williams’s large cast of memorable women the Princess has her unique idiom—tough, resilient, decisive, knowing. In act 1, scene 1, she sizes up Chance after he tries to blackmail her: ‘‘I hate to think of what kind of desperation has made you try to intimidate me, ME?. . . . You were well born, weren’t you? . . . with just one disadvantage, a laurel wreath on your forehead, given too early, without enough effort to earn it.’’ Then she sets forth her terms of employment for Chance in a passage that reminds us that time is even more of an enemy to her, being older than Chance:

Forget the legend that I was and the ruin of that legend. . . . No mention of death, never, never a word on that odious subject. I’ve been accused of having a death wish but I think it’s life that I wish for, terribly, shamelessly, on any terms whatsoever. When I say now, the answer must not be later. I have only one way to forget these things I don’t want to remember and that’s through the act of love-making.

She can be lyric as well. In act 2, scene 2, after Tom Junior has threatened Chance, she hears a strain of thematic music, which Williams calls ‘‘The Lament.’’ She describes time’s loss in a passage that creates its own music through assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, repetition, and rhythm:

All day I’ve kept hearing a sort of lament that drifts through the air of this place. It says, ‘Lost, lost, never to be found again.’ Palm gardens by the sea and olive groves on Mediterranean islands all have that lament drifting through them. ‘Lost, lost.’. . . [Williams’s ellipsis] The isle of Cyprus, Monte Carlo, San Remo, Torremolenas, Tangiers. They’re all places of exile from whatever we loved. . . . Chance, believe me, after failure comes flight. . . . Face it. Call the car.

Unlike Chance, however, she at least has the assurance of her talent as she faces her faded looks in the mirror. Although she is clear-eyed about time, the defeater, she will still go on; as she says monosyllabically to Chance at the end, ‘‘Chance, we’ve got to go on.’’ This motif of going on despite obstacles will be repeated by Hannah, almost verbatim, in The Night of the Iguana.

Chance’s idiom is less distinctive, but Williams’s artistry heightens what could be the banalities of the less educated. Almost entirely monosyllabic, his speeches are nevertheless sharp, so that the give-and-take with the Princess, which occupies the entire first act, reveals the characters of both. When in scene 1 the Princess asks if he has any acting talent, Chance replies: ‘‘I’m not as positive of it as I once was. I’ve had more chances than I could count on my fingers, and made the grade almost, but not quite, every time. Something always blocks me.’’

Because Chance and the Princess are on the stage so much of the time, and the portraits of them are so detailed, the other characters are less well developed. Heavenly has very little to say; she is acted upon instead of active, a direct contrast to the Princess. Nonnie, Heavenly’s ineffectual but kindly maiden aunt, who is sympathetic to Chance, resembles her counterpart in Williams’s film Baby Doll and his one-act play The Unsatisfactory Supper.

Like Jabe in Orpheus Descending., Boss Finley is one of Williams’s few characters without redeeming qualities, unless it be his (misguided) love for his daughter. In his one encounter alone with Heavenly, in scene 1 of act 2, there is, ‘‘in her father,’’ Williams points out, ‘‘a sudden dignity’’: ‘‘It’s important not to think of his attitude toward her in the terms of crudely conscious incestuous feeling, but just in the natural terms of almost any aging father’s feeling for a beautiful young daughter who reminds him of a dead wife that he desired intensely when she was the age of his daughter.’’ Boss’s idiom resembles Big Daddy’s, in that it is gruff, colorful, and proudly uneducated. In addition, because Boss is not sympathetic, his speeches reflect his sense of power; he is used to giving orders and seeing them obeyed.

When Heavenly suggests that he has ‘‘an illusion of power,’’ he replies, ‘‘I have power, which is not an illusion.’’ She informs him that, if she is accepted, she is ‘‘going into a convent.’’ Boss shouts: ‘‘You ain’t going into no convent. This state is a Protestant region and a daughter in a convent would politically ruin me.’’

With great economy but deadly aim and sure theatricalism Williams portrays in Boss Finley the danger of a corrupt, power-hungry politician who will destroy anything that stands in his way and anyone who threatens his public image. The symbol of this image and the danger it implies is the stunning stage effect in scene 2 of act 2, in which the entire back wall of the stage becomes an enormous TV screen, on which appears ‘‘the image of Boss Finley.’’

George Brandt believes Williams’s cinematic style is illustrated by this scene, which is an attempt ‘‘to turn the playhouse into a picture theater.’’ But it should be remembered that Williams had studied theater at the New School with Erwin Piscator, a proponent of the use of back-projected film to achieve stage effects. Piscator’s wife, Maria Ley- Piscator, presents a strong argument for Williams’s use of the latter technique.

The epigraph for the play is by Hart Crane, whose work Williams greatly admired: ‘‘Relentless caper for all those who step / The legend of their youth into the noon.’’

It is a warning to ‘‘all those’’ whose hopes depend on the legend of their youth that it will not survive the bright light of the sun when they reach the noon of life. Entitled ‘‘Legend,’’ Crane’s poem begins: ‘‘As silent as a mirror is believed / Realities plunge in silence by.’’

Constant reminders of the passing of time and of youth are Williams’s symbols of the clock and the mirror. At the climax of the play, in act 3, Chance forces the Princess to confront in the mirror the reality of her aging face, a sight she confesses was so terrifying to her when it filled the screen at the preview of her comeback film that she fled: ‘‘The screen’s a very clear mirror. There’s a thing called a close-up. . . . Your head, your face, is caught in the frame of the picture with a light blazing on it and all your terrible history screams while you smile’’. But she is not defeated, for she tells Chance that in the mirror she sees herself as ‘‘artist and star,’’ while his mirror image discloses ‘‘a face that tomorrow’s sun will touch without mercy.’’

In a rhythmic, onomatopoeic elegy Heavenly also laments the loss of her youth. The operation, she says in scene 1 of act 2, ‘‘cut the youth out of my body, made me an old childless woman’’: ‘‘Dry, cold, empty, like an old woman. I feel as if I ought to rattle like a dead dried-up vine when the Gulf Wind blows.’’ And Aunt Nonnie, Chance’s only confi- dant in St. Cloud tells him the truth about his return: ‘‘What you want to go back to is your clean, unashamed youth. And you can’t.’’

Despite its lyric dialogue, Williams thought of the action of this play as realistic, yet sudddenly, just before the play ends, it shifts gears. The closing moments are nonrealistic and poetic. In the hotel room—and what can be more transient to reflect time passing?—Chance and the Princess sit side by side on the bed, directly facing the audience, ‘‘like two passengers on a train sharing a bench.’’ The metaphor is that of a train trip, a journey through life. The Princess points out sights along the way:

PRINCESS: . . . Look [Williams’s ellipsis]. That little donkey’s marching around and around to draw water out of a well. . . .—What an old country, timeless— Look—(The sound of a clock ticking is heard, louder and louder.)

CHANCE: No, listen. I didn’t know there was a clock in this room.

PRINCESS: I guess there’s a clock in every room people live in.

A trooper enters, and Tom Junior is at the door. The Princess pleads, ‘‘Come on, Chance, we’re going to change trains at this station. . . . So, come on, we’ve got to go on. . . . Chance, please. . . .’’ (both Williams’s ellipses). But Chance shakes his head, and she departs, as he at last realizes that life is a journey in time and that he is approaching the end of the line.

Yet at the end, with everything gone and violence imminent, defeated Chance retains his dignity, as he asks: ‘‘Time—who could beat it, who could defeat it ever? Maybe some saints and heroes, but not Chance Wayne.’’ Williams points out in his stage direction that ‘‘Chance’s attitude should be self-recognition but not self-pity—a sort of deathbed dignity and honesty apparent in it.’’ As Tom Junior and three other men hover in the doorway, ready to strike, Chance advances to the front of the stage and addresses the closing lines directly to the audience: ‘‘I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding—not even that—no. Just for your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.’’

In the 1959 Broadway premiere Geraldine Page as the Princess and Paul Newman as Chance were outstanding in evoking the poetry of the play and in preserving the magic of the final scene. In a 1945 interview Williams had asserted that ‘‘the poetic theater needs . . . more fine, intuitive actors. . . . We’ve gotten into the habit, actors in the Broadway theater, of talking like parrots. And poetry dies through that form of delivery.

Although director Elia Kazan did well with the realistic scenes, Page’s and Newman’s own considerable talents were responsible for realizing the poetry and the magic that made the production memorable. Their familiarity with Williams’s characters no doubt helped, as they had already achieved outstanding interpretations as Alma in Summer and Smoke and as Brick in the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In a role allegedly based on actress Tallulah Bankhead, Page brought out every facet of the part, quick-silver in her changes from imperious to pathetic, from brittle and determined to resigned and caring. Newman was equally impressive as Chance, his underlying desperation perceptible beneath the bravado.

Good newspaper reviews the following morning of 11 March led to long lines at the box office, with Brooks Atkinson of the Times pronouncing the play one of Williams’s ‘‘finest dramas.’’ ‘‘Williams Drama Attracts Throngs’’ was the Times headline. Magazine reviewers were somewhat more critical. Harold Clurman, commenting on the curtain speech, asked: ‘‘What is it we were asked to recognize in ourselves? That we are corrupted by our appetite for the flesh and clamor of success? That we are driven to live debased existences by the constrictions and brutality which surround us? That the sound instincts of our youth are thus frustrated and turned to gall? And that we have an inordinate fear of age, for the passing of time makes us old before we mature?’’ Marya Mannes deplored the ‘‘violence of corruption and decay. . . in which a poet’s imagination must feed on carrion.’’ In a more reasoned consideration of the play Robert Heilman feels there is insufficient sympathetic development of the character of Chance, which resembles that of Brick, in that both men experience a ‘‘premature glory,’’ which then fades. Interpreting Chance’s actions as ‘‘so shallow and preposterous that the self-recognition is hardly plausible in terms of character,’’ Heilman wonders how the ending can work, when Chance addresses the audience ‘‘like the Doctor in the morality play.’’ But for the audience in the theater the ending does work.

The 1962 film, written and directed by Richard Brooks, at least preserves the performances of Geraldine Page and Paul Newman as well as some of Williams’s dialogue in their scenes together. Yet the banal new dialogue and the flashback scenes detailing the love affair between Chance and Heavenly (Shirley Knight) reduce the work to an average movie, with an ending that negates the premise. Williams complained that the happy ending was ‘‘a total contradiction to the meaning of the play.’’

Sweet Bird of Youth represents Williams at his best in combining realism, lyricism, and theatricalism. The characters are so realistically drawn, down to the last detail, that their names have become tags for real-life types—a Southern politician who wins votes by appealing to fears of racial discord is a ‘‘Boss Finley,’’ a good-looking young man who expects to succeed without talent, a ‘‘Chance Wayne.’’ At the same time, Williams’s universal theme, expressed in symbolism, stage effects, and heightened speech, unites with his sure sense of theatricality to produce a work that enriched both his reputation and that of the American theater.

Source: Alice Griffin ‘‘Sweet Bird of Youth,’’ in Understanding Tenessee Williams, Matthew J. Bruccoli, General Editor, University of South Carolina Press, 1995, pp., 197–215.

The Fugitive Mind

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Sweet Bird of Youth (1959), currently being revived at the Royal National Theatre, in London, picks up Williams’ story at the panicky moment of the hardening of his spiritual arteries. In Sweet Bird of Youth, the most underrated of his great plays, two self-confessed monsters, Chance Wayne and the Princess Kosmonopolis, a.k.a. Alexandra Del Lago, act out the division in Williams’ warped heart between being big and being good. The sense that time is running out on the Princess’s career and, as his name implies, on Chance’s opportunity is what gives the play its peculiar giddy climate of frenzy. Richard Eyre’s vivid but unsubtle production— what might be considered an acrylic version— nonetheless allows us to see the grandeur of Williams’ writing and to appreciate how much of America’s competitive ethos he explores in his idiosyncratic meditation on the monstrous. ‘‘I’m a peculiar blend of the pragmatist and the Romanticist and the crocodile,’’ Williams said in 1973. ‘‘The Monster.’’ The notion of monsters crops up first in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), when Maggie admits that in her struggle to survive she has mutated, ‘‘gone through this—hideous!—transformation, becomehard! Frantic!—cruel!!’’ And in The Night of the Iguana, the last great play in the Williams canon, the monster—the eponymous iguana—is literally at the end of its tether under the veranda of Maxine’s Costa Verde Hotel, trying ‘‘to go on past the end of its goddam rope,’’ Shannon says. ‘‘Like you! Like me!’’ The iguana is eventually freed; but Williams never was. Sweet Bird of Youth, set on Easter morning, is a kind of resurrection play—a day-dream of atonement, in which Williams faces up to the sin of his separation from others and the dilemma of lost goodness.

The word ‘‘monster’’ has its root in the contrary notions of marvels and warnings; and Sweet Bird of Youth probes the ambiguities between achievement and destruction. ‘‘We are two monsters, but with this difference between us,’’ the Princess, a movie star on the run from the imagined failure of her Hollywood comeback film, says to Chance, her young ‘‘pitiful monster,’’ who is attempting a comeback of his own, by blackmailing her into being his ticket to theatrical fame and fortune. ‘‘Out of the passion and torment of my existence I have created a thing that I can unveil, a sculpture, almost heroic, that I can unveil, which is true.’’ Here Clare Higgins’ husky voice and ravaged face invest the Princess’s panic and vanity with a compelling ferocity. Dazed and demented, the Princess sprawls on the silk sheets of the hotel double bed, squinting at her gigolo through cracked eyeglasses. ‘‘Well,’’ she says, in a line resounding with a lived sense of rapacity and loneliness, ‘‘I may have done better, but God knows I’ve done worse.’’ Higgins isn’t always so successful at finding the humor in the Princess’s knowing detachment— partly because she lacks a star’s deadly imperialism, and partly because there’s no chemistry between her and Robert Knepper, who, as Chance, hasn’t a whiff of sex or loss about him. This results in some strange readings. ‘‘Monsters don’t die early,’’ the Princess says, hectoring Chance. ‘‘They hang on long. Awfully long. Their vanity’s infinite, almost as infinite as their disgust with themselves.’’ Higgins punctuates these cauterizing lines with a wiggle of her hips.

Sweet Bird of Youth, which dramatizes Chance’s twenty-four-hour return to the Gulf Coast town where the legend of his youth began and where it will end, is full of mordant commentary on the soul’s decay. ‘‘The age of some people can only be calculated by the level of . . . rot in them,’’ Chance says to the Princess. ‘‘And by that measure I’m ancient.’’ The cavernous darkness that fills the stage at curtain rise is the perfect ambience for the immensity of shame they’re in retreat from. Anthony Ward’s monumental louvred bedroom shutters, which reach from floor to ceiling, make the point as spectacularly as Williams’ poetry. The characters long to be redeemed from their dead hearts. ‘‘Once I wasn’t this monster,’’ the Princess says to Chance, surprised to find herself feeling ‘‘something for someone besides myself’’ and momentarily looking to him for salvation. ‘‘Chance, you’ve got to help me stop being the monster that I was this morning, and you can do it.’’ She is a big winner in the American sweepstakes who is terrified of losing; he is a big loser who is terrified that he’ll never win. She is trying to hide from the memory of achievement; he is trying to manufacture achievements to hide in. Together, they are a kind of psychological composite of Williams. ‘‘Somehow we Americans have never stopped fighting,’’ Williams said, in 1958, of the corruption brought on by the fever to win. ‘‘The very pressure we live under, the terrific competitive urge of our society brings out violence in the individual. We need to be taught how to love. Already we know only too well how to hate.’’

Sweet Bird of Youth is really Chance’s story, but the play’s flawed structure skews the focus. In an attempt to give a larger dimension to Chance’s relationship with his beloved childhood sweetheart, Heavenly (who has to be sterilized because of his betrayal), and to give more coherence to Chance’s ultimate fate—his castration by the henchmen of Heavenly’s draconian father, Boss Finley—Eyre has boldly assembled his production script from seven drafts of the play. The retooling is generally effective (although giving the role of Heavenly to Emma Amos, who is neither delicate nor believable, cancels out much of the narrative gain). Eyre deserves enormous credit for having mounted three major Williams revivals since he took over as director of the Royal National Theatre, in 1988. ‘‘I think the neglect of Williams by the British theatre, let alone the American theatre, has been absolutely shameless,’’ he told me. ‘‘I deeply underrated Williams. I didn’t see him in the way that I do now, as a moralist and the best writer of English prose in the theatre of this century.’’ The prose is wonderful; but, having tampered with the script, Eyre is oddly timorous about adapting Williams’ stage directions, and, as Williams instructed, allows Chance and the Princess to speak their long arias to the audience, and not to each other. This may be Williams’ scenic way of indicating the isolation of two major-league narcissists, but it bogs down the play’s momentum. As if to recoup it, the production mistakes agitation for desperation.

But there is no mistaking Williams’ dream of salvation. At the finale, the Princess, forced by Chance to call a Hollywood gossip columnist on his behalf, learns that her film is a hit. In that instant, she is reborn Alexandra Del Lago, ‘‘redeemed’’ by fame to her former invulnerability. She immediately forgets about Chance. Her vainglorious volteface is hilarious and lethal. The kingdom of self is reasserted, and the monstrous invoked once again. ‘‘I climbed back alone up the beanstalk to the ogre’s country where I live, now, alone,’’ she says to Chance, who refuses to be part of her entourage and to leave with her, despite Boss Finley’s threats on his life. The parade has passed Chance by, as the Princess reminds him. ‘‘Chance,’’ she says, ‘‘you’ve gone past something you couldn’t afford to go past; your time, your youth, you’ve passed it. It’s all you had, and you’ve had it.’’ Chance, who has been notoriously irresponsible—he arrives in town unaware of his mother’s death or Heavenly’s operation— now owns up to his dereliction. He stops running, and chooses not ‘‘the spurious glory’’ of the Princess—the kind of fame he first glimpsed as a Broadway chores boy in ‘‘Oklahoma!’’—but the Christian glory of self-sacrifice. In Eyre’s production, Chance’s pill-popping and manic behavior make his decision to stay and face down his tormentors more resigned than heroic. ‘‘Something’s got to mean something,’’ Chance says, in a line unfortunately cut from Eyre’s production. The castration— what Williams referred to in a letter to Kazan as ‘‘the quixotic, almost ridiculous choice, to stay and atone’’—is a kind of leap of faith: an expression of Williams’ own longing to reclaim his belief. Eyre’s production emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the act by having the Boss’s men advance on Chance with torches. While Chance’s back is to us, his arms shoot out from his body as if he were crucified; and as the lights fade he falls backward with his pelvis thrust upstage at the approaching mob.

Salvation was easier for Williams to create in his plays than in his life. Drugs, drink, and dementia eroded much of his power of penetration and organization in the particularly chaotic period between 1964 and 1969, which he called his ‘‘Stoned Age.’’ After that, what remained to him was his ‘‘left-over life,’’ a gradual attenuation of friendships and of energy. ‘‘I feel like a sinking ship,’’ he wrote his new agent, Bill Barnes, in 1973, ‘‘but things have a habit of going on.’’ When his plays could no longer find a receptive audience, Williams put himself and his moral drama directly before the public. Asked to explain his conversion to Catholicism, he said, ‘‘I wanted to have my goodness back.’’ But he never really regained it. ‘‘To the world I give suspicion and resentment mostly,’’ he wrote in 1980, in the introduction to his collected short stories. ‘‘I am never deliberately cruel. But after my morning’s work, I have little to give but indifference to people. I try to excuse myself with the pretense that my work justifies this lack of caring for almost everything else. Sometimes I crack through the emotional block. I touch. I hold tight to a necessary companion. But that breakthrough is not long lasting. Morning returns, and only work matters again.’’ Williams’ particular poignancy is that he saw the light but didn’t want it enough.

Source: John Lahr, ‘‘The Fugitive Mind,’’ in New Yorker, Vol. 70, No. 21, July 1994, pp. 68–71.

Three Dark Plays

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Sweet Bird of Youth is a Southern Gothic horror story in which a sexually errant male is both punished and deified. Chance Wayne is a gigolo who sells his body in exchange for promises of stardom. As his name blatantly indicates, though, his chances are waning; and at the awkward transitional age of thirty, he grasps with increasing desperation for the movie star fame that eludes him. When we first see him, he is in the middle of his most fevered scheme, playing the male nurse to a fading actress, and prepared to blackmail her (for possession of hashish) into pushing him and his girlfriend into the movies.

Chance is one of Williams’s desperate dreamers, a good-looking small town boy whose ambitions exceed his talent. Like many Williams characters, he is trying to hold on to the fleeting ‘‘sweet bird of youth.’’ Traveling with aging prima donna Alexandra del Logo, Chance returns to his home town of Saint Cloud expecting to find it exactly as he left it. He soon learns that the memory of his former glories has dimmed. His mother has died, his girl’s father won’t let him see her; Chance returns home a fallen hero, and like Val Xavier in Battle of Angels, he is pursued and finally destroyed by the town rednecks. Chance’s emphatic sexual presence is a threat to the men of the town, and like Val, Chance is regarded as a diseased intruder who must be expelled in order to insure the health of the community.

The character is so beleaguered that he himself comes to think that he deserves his awful fate, offering himself to his pursuers as a kind of sacrifi- cial victim. Immediately before he is castrated by them, he speaks directly to the audience: ‘‘I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding— not even that—no. Just for your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.’’ Many critics were puzzled by the character’s request, for Chance is not convincing as an Everyman. Robert Brustein charged:

Since Chance has had about as much universality as a character in an animated cartoon, to regard his experience as an illuminating reflection of the human condition is a notion which borders on the grotesque. For Sweet Bird of Youth is a highly private neurotic fantasy which takes place in a Terra Incognita quite remote from the terrain of the waking world.

Williams treats his Adonis as both the purest and the most depraved character in the play. Chance is both childlike innocent and tortured self-flagellant, both pagan sensualist and Christian sinner. He laments the loss of the innocence he had when he and his girl Heavenly were young, unashamed lovers; and yet he celebrates his vocation (‘‘maybe the only one I was truly meant for’’) as a professional lover: ‘‘I gave people more than I took. Middleaged people I gave back a feeling of youth. Lonely girls? Understanding, appreciation! An absolutely convincing show of affection. Sad people, lost people? Something light and uplifting! Eccentrics? Tolerance, even odd things they long for.’’ Though he is self-loathing at times, Chance nonetheless feels he is superior to Heavenly’s dictatorial father Boss Finley: ‘‘He was just called down from the hills to preach hate. I was born here to make love.’’

Chance, then, is both healer and destroyer; his body soothes the lonely and the no longer young just as it has infected Heavenly, for Chance is an Adonis who spreads venereal disease. (As Kenneth Tynan noted: ‘‘None of Mr. Williams’s other plays has contained so much rot. It is as if the author were hypnotized by his subject, like a rabbit by a snake, or a Puritan by sin.’’)

Chance is guilty because he has robbed Heavenly of her innocence and her womanhood (she has had to have a hysterectomy as a result of the disease Chance passed on to her) and because he has squandered his own youth on a succession of onenight stands with strangers. He regards his punishment as only just, and the courage he shows in the face of catastrophe is dearly meant to vindicate him. As John Hays has written, he ‘‘ironically gains in manliness at the moment he faces the loss of his manhood.’’ Chance is cleansed by willfully surrendering himself to castration. The play thus equates castration with resurrection—‘‘a very personal and psychological resurrection,’’ as Hays notes, rather than ‘‘the spring-time renewal of fortune Adonis was credited with.’’

Typically for Williams, as Arthur Ganz has suggested, it is only after the character ‘‘has been punished and destroyed [that he can] be revered.’’

The punishment, though, is not consistent with Williams’s celebration of Chance as a healer and restorer. Robert Brustein pointed out the contradiction: ‘‘The bird not only represents purity but. . . the male sexual organ. If the bird is a phallic image, then Chance’s sweetness and youth are associated with sexuality. . . and his purity is terminated only when he is castrated, not when he turns to more perverse pleasures.’’

Chance is both Christ crucified for our sins (as the final speech makes clear) and Adonis, the unashamed, joy-creating god of fertility. Williams’s play is both Christian fable and pagan myth. The play’s unresolved conflicts are derived from the author’s private neuroses, but he is showman enough to convert his personal obsessions into exciting melodrama. Although Williams tries to give the story religious significance, at heart Sweet Bird of Youth is a glossy shocker about sex and politics.

The hero may be the protagonist of both a popular romance and a symbolic religious pageant, but the play’s two supporting characters, Alexandra del Lago and Boss Finley, are rooted firmly on the level of garish melodrama. Alexandra is such a rich character part that it is possible to overlook the fact that she is incidental to both the story and theme. Her try for a comeback, we learn, was disastrous because Alexandra del Lago at forty-seven has too many wrinkles to attempt the kinds of parts that made her a star when she was young. As she enters the play, she’s on the run from her unsuccessful new career, and she’s determined to forget failure through hashish and Chance. But improbably, Alexandra finds out that her comeback was not the fiasco she has imagined it was, and she is once again a star. In a flash, she forgets her promises to Chance, and she is on her way back to Hollywood. Williams elaborates the actress’s role in the play much more than he needs to. Aside from eliciting his life story from Chance, Alexandra is necessary only as a thematic reinforcement of Chance’s lust for success and his fear of growing older. Both characters regard time as the enemy; the actress ‘‘knew in her heart that the legend of Alexandra del Lago couldn’t be separated from an appearance of youth.’’ Aware of the corruption of these two characters, Williams nevertheless sympathizes with them; typically, he wants both to punish them and to save them.

His feelings about Boss Finley are much less complicated. Williams claims he was unsuccessful with Finley because he hated him so much: ‘‘I have to understand the characters in my play. . . . If I just hate them I can’t write about them. That’s why Boss Finley wasn’t right. . . because I just didn’t like the guy, and I just had to make a tour de force of his part in the play.’’ But like Alexandra, Boss Finley is a wonderfully outgoing character. He is a backwoods politician who savors his power; and he is a fraud who is used to having his own way. He forces his defiled daughter Heavenly to stand before his constituents as a symbol of virginal Southern maidenhood. The old man resembles Chance in thinking of himself as a healer: ‘‘I have told you before, but I will tell you again. I got a mission that I hold sacred to perform in the Southland. . . . When I was fifteen I came down barefooted out of the red clay hills. . . . And what is this mission? . . . To shield from pollution a blood that I think is not only sacred to me, but sacred to Him.’’ Williams uses Hollywood glamor and Southern bigotry as tokens of universal corruption, but his treatment of movies and politics as tainted pursuits is too sketchy to serve a serious symbolic function.

Sweet Bird of Youth is tawdry and carelessly constructed. The first two acts have little connection to each other as the action moves disjointedly from Chance and Alexandra to Boss Finley; act 2 ends with a chaotically dramatized political rally; and in act 3, the destinies of Chance and Alexandra are uneasily integrated. But the play has vitality, and this gaudy story of movie stars and Southern demagogues is absorbing on a superficial level.

Source: Foster Hirsch, ‘‘Three Dark Plays,’’ in A Portrait of an Artist: The Plays of Tennessee Williams, 1979 Kennikat Press, pp. 58–62.


Critical Overview