Sweet Bird of Youth

by Tennessee Williams

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913

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 this led to a hushed-up hysterectomy that cost her emotionally and Boss politically. Boss and his henchmen are discussing how to get Chance out of town just as he arrives at the driveway of the house.

Chance has come to see Aunt Nonnie, who knows where Heavenly is. Aunt Nonnie feels tenderly about Chance and his romance with Heavenly. She promises Boss that she is trying to get Chance out of town so that violence can be avoided. As Boss talks with Tom Junior and other supporters, it becomes clear that Boss has his own guilty secrets to hide. Chance leaves without Heavenly learning that he is in town.

Boss Finley summons Heavenly. He wants her to appear alongside him at a political rally that night wearing a white dress to symbolize purity. Heavenly refuses; she is cynical and bitter, recalling how Boss forced her away from Chance earlier, when they wanted to marry. She confronts Boss with his duplicity, and he tells her that Chance is back in town but will be removed. The curtain falls.

The next scene takes place in the hotel lounge shortly before Boss’s rally. In the complicated choreography a number of characters move in and...

(This entire section contains 913 words.)

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out—Aunt Nonnie, the heckler, Princess, Miss Lucy (Boss’s mistress), and other townspeople. Chance, drinking and taking pep pills, swears his love for Heavenly and proclaims his grandiose dreams of escape with her to a better life. He knows what Boss Finley will be discussing at the rally—the recent castration of a black man—but he is heedless of the danger of staying in town through the night. Princess appears, dazed and drugged, to swear her faith in Chance.

As Boss Finley’s entourage arrives at the hotel for the rally, Chance and Heavenly come face to face for a moment just before Boss takes her onstage with him. Tom Junior confronts Chance with the story of Heavenly’s health problems. Tom exits without hurting Chance, who is left alone onstage briefly with the heckler. As Miss Lucy reenters the cocktail lounge, the heckler leaves and goes to the hall where the rally is, intending to confront Boss Finley about his hypocrisy. The television in the lounge shows the heckler’s questions and how he is beaten. The scene ends as Heavenly collapses at the rally.

The third act opens in the hotel bedroom at midnight. Boss’s henchmen have come to remove Princess from the hotel and to find Chance, who has been waiting out of sight outside. He enters as they leave and has Princess talk by telephone to a Hollywood entertainment reporter, who tells her that the film in which she made her comeback was a success after all; her confidence bolstered, she refuses to mention Chance and Heavenly to the reporter. Princess and Chance talk wistfully about the futility of trying to beat time. A state trooper comes to escort her away from town. Boss’s henchmen enter the room for Chance. The play ends as Chance addresses the audience to ask for understanding.

Dramatic Devices

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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 telephone ringing, ringing, ringing for Heavenly breaks in to bring the discussion back from the general to the specific.

During the cocktail-lounge scene—arranged, again, with the suggestion of a room—Williams specifies that the heckler is to be portrayed as El Greco would portray a saint. The heckler is given a certain pallor, a lanky build, that contrasts with the fullness of build and conventional clothing of the other characters. The others are morally bankrupt, whereas the heckler is constant in his denunciation of Boss Finley’s style of rule.

During the rally scene, which takes place offstage, the action can still be followed through a curious device: The rally is carried on the television in the cocktail lounge, but the television is larger than life, the projected image taking up an entire wall of the stage set. Although the volume is adjusted up and down, the image of Boss Finley as a deus ex machina is unavoidable. At the climax of the scene, as the heckler is beaten, the action is split: The heckler has fallen into the lounge, but the television image contains Heavenly’s reaction.

Sweet Bird of Youth was met with derision because of its surfeit of brutality and its alleged sexual perversion, but the integrity of the sets as they reflected the vision of the story only served to reinforce Tennessee Williams’s reputation as a dramatic poet.

Historical Context

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In 1959, the United States was on the verge of major transitions, primarily on the home front, though the ever-escalating Cold War between America and the U.S.S.R. was also a constant threat. The country was expanding. Two new states were admitted in 1959: Alaska and Hawaii. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was near the end of his second term. In 1960, Democrat John F. Kennedy would be elected to the presidency, defeating Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard M. Nixon.

Many observers believed that Nixon lost at least partly because of his image and attitudes expressed during televised debates with Kennedy. In the 1950s, politicians were televised for the first time. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist hearings were televised. Conventions were aired for the first time in 1952. In 1959, the Federal Communications Commission upheld an equal time rule for political candidates. The power of television was soon realized, then exploited, by politicians.

Eisenhower’s United States was relatively economically strong in 1959. The country was recovering from a recession in 1957–1958, but generally sound. His government spending bill was scaled down, putting fiscal responsibility before both military and domestic concerns. Credit cards had only recently been introduced; they would have a great effect on the American economy in the coming decades. American Express issued its first credit cards in 1958.

One big issue in the late 1950s was civil rights. The civil rights movement that exploded in the 1960s was based in part on events of the 1950s. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This case focused on education, addressing the legality of separate schools for whites and blacks. The court ruled that separate was not equal, and that most schools for blacks were far inferior to those attended primarily by whites. Court-ordered desegregation of schools became a public tug-of-war. The actual process of integration was very slow, and many southern states, especially Virginia, fought integration, even as late as 1959 and beyond. True integration was not completed until the 1960s.

In 1959, Eisenhower tried to convince Congress to enact a seven-point civil rights program in a special session. Despite such measures, states like Tennessee continued to hold white primaries in which blacks could not vote. Racism was still rampant in the South. In 1956, Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at and/or assaulting a white woman. His killers were acquitted, though they were obviously, and later admittedly, guilty. Events like the castration of an innocent African American mentioned in Sweet Bird of Youth were not unheard of.

Despite such crimes, moral standards were changing in the United States. In 1959, the Supreme Court ruled that the postmaster general could not decide what was too obscene to be sent through the mail. The case concerned a book by D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover. While single men were seen as swinging bachelors, women were supposed to be desirable, but untouchable until marriage. Yet the Kinsey Report on sexual activities of Americans in the early 1950s showed that Americans regularly had extramarital sex and that homosexuality was common. Depictions and discussions of sex became more common in movies, novels, and music. Though the government had organized public health officials to diagnose and treat venereal diseases in the post-World War II period, there was a slight rise in rates of syphilis and gonorrhea at the end of the 1950s as complacency set in.

Women’s roles were also changing in this time period. More women were working outside of the home, but most were limited to jobs in the service industry or to clerical and assembly line positions. Fewer women attended college than in the 1940s. Only about thirty-five percent of college students were women at the end of the decade, and thirtyseven percent of those left before graduation, most to get married. Career options were limited. There was only one woman in the United States Senate in 1959, Margaret Chase Smith. In the 1960s, women’s roles would change and career options would start to expand. By the 1970s, there would be a burgeoning feminist movement. Big changes in American life were on the horizon in 1959.

Literary Style

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SettingSweet Bird of Youth is a drama set at the time the play was written in the late 1950s. All the action takes place in two settings over the course of one day, an Easter Sunday, in the Gulf Coast city of St. Cloud, Florida. A majority of the action occurs in the Royal Palms Hotel. All of acts 1 and 3 take place in one room in the hotel. The Princess and Chance Wayne occupy this room. Act 2, scene 2 occurs in the cocktail lounge and palm garden of the hotel. The other setting is the home of Boss Finley, specifically the terrace. These settings emphasize a specific time and place—the South during the 1950s, when racial and class tensions were still high. Chance has chosen to return to St. Cloud to reclaim his girlfriend Heavenly and his youth. Yet much of the play takes place in a hotel where he is really not welcome, not where Chance lived as a youth or other places where he might have more fond memories of the past (though he did work in the hotel at one time). This impersonal setting underscores the kind of life Chance now leads and its problems. A hotel is also a central place where the community meets, creating opportunities for Chance to run into people that he used to know.

Special Effects and Images Throughout Sweet Bird of Youth, Williams calls for a cyclorama (a large wall placed at the back of a room or stage) on which to project images onto the stage behind the action. The images are not supposed to be realistic, but are intended to help set the mood of the play and underscore the setting. For most of the play, the image is a grove of palm trees blowing in the wind. The wind goes from soft to loud, depending on the action of the scene. When the wind is loud, it blends with the musical score in a specific sound/song called ‘‘The Lament.’’ This is used in act 1, scene 1, for example, when the Princess’ memory finally returns and she first mentions that she is in hiding after what she believes has been a disastrous career move. Other images include a daytime image of the calm sea and sky, and a nighttime scene of a palm garden with branches and stars.

A significant use of the cyclorama occurs in act 2, scene 2, during Boss Finley’s speech. An effect is created so that Miss Lucy, Chance, Stuff, and others are watching the televised rally in the hotel bar while it is occurring on the same stage. Because the rally takes place in another part of the hotel, Boss Finley, Heavenly, Tom Junior, and the Heckler, among others, walk by the bar and off stage into the ballroom. Those in the bar view the rally by ‘‘turning on’’ the television, which is actually a projection of a big television screen against a fourth wall on the set.

The volume of the television is very loud at first, making it seem as if Boss Finley is yelling. Stuff, a Finley supporter, is happy with the volume. Miss Lucy complains about the noise and turns the sound down, only to have Stuff turn it up again. When Stuff turns it up, Boss Finley is saying that he does not condone the castration of the innocent black man. Moments later, the Heckler appears on screen. Projecting the television in this matter emphasizes the kind of power Boss Finley thinks he has. He believes he is bigger and louder than anyone else. Because of their tense relationship with Boss, both Miss Lucy and Chance want to turn him down, hearing his message but limiting his impact.

SymbolismSweet Bird of Youth is replete with symbolism. All the action takes place on Easter Sunday. The use of this symbolic day of rebirth has been interpreted in several different ways. Boss Finley claims he has been reborn during the rally. On Good Friday, his effigy was burned at a local university, yet he is still alive and in charge on Sunday, preaching on television. By his side is his daughter, Heavenly, who has just been publicly humiliated by the Heckler. The Heckler is severely beaten. But Boss Finley rises above it all. Some critics believe that Chance Wayne has undergone a compacted reversal of the Easter cycle, beginning with Chance’s resurrection in the morning and castration (crucifixion) at night.

Another use of symbolism in the play is found in some of the characters’ names. Chance Wayne’s chances in life are indeed on the wane. Heavenly Finley’s first name brings up a number of contradictions. She may still be beautiful, and heavenly to Chance and her father, but she is dead on the inside because her love has been denied and she has had her childbearing abilities taken away at an early age. Though Princess Kosmonopolis is only the alias of the actress Alexandra del Lago, she acts like royalty. She does not accept being condescended to and is always in charge. Kosmonopolis suggests Greek words that mean worldly and city. She is above the petty world of St. Cloud, merely using it for cover as she hides from her real world. These kinds of symbols enrich the text and add some definition to the characters.

Compare and Contrast

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

Today: The power of the internet is still limited for politicians, but is expected to become a big factor in the coming years.

1959: There are limited roles for older actresses in Hollywood movies, primarily mother and grandmother-type roles.

Today: While there is a still an emphasis on youth in Hollywood, there is a greater variety of roles for older women in movies, reflecting the many roles women play in society.

1959: Images of sex and violence are limited in the movies, in part because of a code that restricts such images.

Today: While there is a movie ratings system in place, there are only tenuous limits on how sex and violence are depicted.

1959: Sexually transmitted diseases are diagnosed and treated in both men and women, though many, especially young women, are not taught how to avoid getting them.

Today: Because of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and better sexual education, many young women (and men) are aware of the possibilities of sexually transmitted diseases and know how to avoid getting them.

Media Adaptations

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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 Chance Wayne, Geraldine Page as Alexandra del Lago, and Ed Begley as Boss Finley.

Another film version was made in 1987. It was directed by Zeinabu Irene Davis.

A made-for-television version was filmed in 1989. It stars Mark Harmon as Chance Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor as Alexandra del Lago, and Cheryl Paris as Heavenly Finley.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Atkinson, Brooks, ‘‘The Theatre: Portrait of Corruption,’’ in New York Times, March 11, 1959.

Brustein, Robert, ‘‘Sweet Bird of Success,’’ in Encounter, June 1959, pp. 59–60.

———, ‘‘Williams’s Nebulous Nightmare,’’ in Hudson Review, Summer 1959, pp. 255–60.

Chapman, John, ‘‘Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth Weird, Sordid and Fascinating,’’ in the Daily News, March 11, 1959.

Clurman, Harold, Review in The Nation, March 28, 1959, pp. 281–83.

Hewes, Henry, ‘‘Tennessee’s Easter Message,’’ in Saturday Review, March 28, 1959, p. 26.

Kerr, Walter, Review in the New York Herald Tribune, March 11, 1959.

Kissel, Howard, Review in Women’s Wear Daily, December 31, 1975.

Mallet, Gina, ‘‘Petit Guignol,’’ in Time, December 15, 1975.

Mannes, Marya, ‘‘Sour Bird, Sweet Raisin,’’ in The Reporter, April 16, 1959, pp. 34–5.

Tynan, Kenneth, Review in New Yorker, March 21, 1959, pp. 98–100.

Watts, Jr., Richard, ‘‘Tennessee Williams Does It Again,’’ in New York Post, March 11, 1959.

Williams, Tennessee, Sweet Bird of Youth, New Directions, 1959.

Wilson, Edwin, ‘‘The Desperate Time When Youth Departs,’’ in the Wall Street Journal, December 8, 1975.

Further Reading Griffin, Alice, Understanding Tennessee Williams, University of South Carolina Press, 1995. This critical study offers in-depth discussion and analysis of a number of Williams’s plays, including Sweet Bird of Youth.

Nelson, Benjamin, Tennessee Williams: The Man and His Work, Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1961. This critical biography includes a discussion of Williams’s plays through the beginning of the 1960s, including Sweet Bird of Youth.

Williams, Tennessee, Memoirs, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975. This autobiography encompasses Williams’s life and career.


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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 Research and Performance. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Londre, Felicia Hardison. Tennessee Williams: Life, Work, and Criticism. Fredericton, England: York Press, 1989.

Stanton, Stephen S., ed. Tennessee Williams: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide