The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sweet Bird of Youth opens on Easter morning in the bedroom of an old-fashioned grand hotel, the Royal Palms. Chance Wayne rises from bed, where Princess Kosmonopolis (the alias of actor Alexandra Del Lago) is sleeping uneasily. Fly comes to the door with coffee and recognizes Chance, who has just returned to his native St. Cloud. Fly leaves, but immediately another voice is heard outside the door; it is Scudder, who enters and warns Chance that he is unwelcome in St. Cloud because he disgraced Heavenly Finley. Chance says he will stay until he can get Heavenly to leave with him.

Scudder leaves as Princess awakes from a stupor of alcohol and drugs. She does not remember how she got to St. Cloud or who Chance is. As she struggles to her senses Chance explains that he accompanied her as she fled from another state, where she had attended the disastrous premiere of a film with which she had hoped to make a comeback. As they talk, they resume drinking and smoking hashish. Unbeknownst to Princess, Chance is tape-recording their conversation, and he soon lets her know that he intends to blackmail her. She has the power to put him in films—his dream—and with the recording he has the power to ruin her. Princess, acquiescing, now wants Chance to make love to her; that is how she forgets pain and time and shame.

After Chance has made love to Princess, she gives him a mock screen test: He is to tell his life story. He describes a youth of frustration, without money or fame. All he had was beauty and erotic power. By the time he was discharged from the Army, he was past his prime, he explains, and that is when he found real love with Heavenly. Now that love for Heavenly has brought him back to St. Cloud.

Heavenly is forbidden to Chance; at their last meeting she warned him away. He has returned to St. Cloud to find her, and (with Princess’s cash and expensive car) he wants to take her away in style to a film career in Hollywood. As act 1 ends, Chance leaves Princess at the hotel and goes in search of Heavenly.

Act 2 opens at Boss Finley’s seaside mansion. Boss knows that Chance is back in St. Cloud. He is incensed because earlier Chance had infected Heavenly with venereal disease, and...

(The entire section is 913 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

One of the striking parallels between the themes of Sweet Bird of Youth and its stage appearance is the bareness of the sets. The stage directions call for a number of special effects that are used to accentuate the starkness of the themes. While the dialogue is at times flowery and rich, the sets are minimalist.

The action in different scenes is unified by one cyclorama specified by Williams. Projections of abstract images occur throughout. The most important of these, and the most constant, is a grove of palm trees. Wind plays through the palms, with the sound rising and falling according to the mood of the action, at times interspersed with a musical lament. The images on the cyclorama change somewhat according to the time of day.

During the first act, the stage is dominated by a large double bed. There is little else but several incidental props to enrich the Moorish style of the bedroom, and only the suggestion of walls. Thus, the bed, the focal point of the stage, also sets the central theme of sexual interaction. In the first scene of act 2 as well, the action is played against the suggestion of walls, this time on the veranda of Boss Finley’s mansion. Williams strongly guides the lighting to a specific paleness—the colors of a Georgia O’Keeffe canvas, he says—as a backdrop to the sinister machinations of Boss Finley. Boss fancies himself a savior, and so all the characters here are instructed to wear white. The...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

In 1959, the United States was on the verge of major transitions, primarily on the home front, though the ever-escalating Cold War between...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Sweet Bird of Youth is a drama set at the time the play was written in the late 1950s. All the action takes place in...

(The entire section is 887 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1959: Political use of television is still in its infancy, though it soon becomes a major force in elections.


(The entire section is 189 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Compare and contrast the character and motivations of Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth with Val Xavier in Orpheus Descending...

(The entire section is 142 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Sweet Bird of Youth was adapted as a film in 1962. This version was directed and written by Richard Brooks. It stars Paul Newman as...

(The entire section is 76 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Suddenly Last Summer, a play written by Williams in 1958, shares thematic and dramatic concerns with Sweet Bird of Youth.


(The entire section is 105 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Aston, Frank,’’Bird of Youth Stormy Drama,’’ in New York World Telegram and The Sun, March 11, 1959....

(The entire section is 244 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Harold. Tennessee Williams. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1999.

Clurman, Harold. “Theatre.” Nation, March 28, 1959, 281-282.

Devlin, Albert J., ed. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1986.

Falk, Signi. Tennessee Williams. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

Hayman, Ronald. Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else Is an Audience. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

Kolin, Philip C. Tennessee Williams: A Guide to...

(The entire section is 96 words.)