Sweet Bird of Youth is about desperate people clinging to the vain hope that the ravages of time will not touch them, will not take their youth, hopes, and dreams. With Chance and Princess, as with Heavenly and to some extent Boss Finley, the loss of sexual functioning symbolizes this challenge.
The play also contains subplots about racial and sexual purity, expressed crudely by Boss Finley and his cronies. The castration of the black man before the play begins is balanced with the impending castration of Chance. These events in turn hinge on the quasi-castration of Heavenly by way of her hysterectomy; even Boss Finley experiences a kind of castration as his mistress publicly ridicules him. This emphasis on the brutality of sexual imperfection as an important theme of the play earned for Tennessee Williams savage reviews.
Some early critics believed that the lack of emotional content in the relationships overshadowed the use of sex as a metaphor for youth. Despite frequent references to the deep and long-lasting love between Chance and Heavenly, when they do cross paths they do not exchange any word or touch. Moreover, Chance has come to town somehow not knowing that his mother has died and been buried; nor does he know of Heavenly’s infection and operation, although he was not prevented from communicating with Aunt Nonnie, for example.
The invective of Boss Finley as he crusades for purity, the viciousness of the sexual relationships, and the violence among the men all play into the symbolism of Easter, with its promise of resurrection. The play opens on Easter morning, and the tension—the promise of violence—builds toward a deceptively peaceful ending. Boss Finley states to his faithful that on Good Friday he saw an effigy of himself burned, and on Easter he returns with his message of purity to St. Cloud.
The heckler is distinctive in this play as the only voice of conscience. He alone protests the hypocrisy and shame all around him. Notably, when he is beaten the action proceeds without protest.