Sweet Bird of Youth

by Tennessee Williams

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Themes and Meanings

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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.


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Sex Throughout Sweet Bird of Youth, the idea of sex and its consequences affects nearly every character’s life. Having failed to make it as an actor, Chance’s ‘‘career’’ consists of working as a gigolo, selling sex and/or companionship to rich, lonely, often older ladies. He met Princess Kosmonopolis while employed at a Palm Beach resort. Because of Chance’s liaisons with many women, he gave his girlfriend, Heavenly Finley, a venereal disease the last time they were together. The innocent Heavenly unknowingly let the disease progress unchecked and eventually had to have a hysterectomy. Sex robbed her of her youth and her ability to have children. Because of this incident, everyone wants Chance to leave town, either for his own safety or to punish him. He does not leave, and it is implied at the end of the play that he will be castrated.

For some characters, sex is related to power and money. Princess Kosmonopolis forces Chance to have sex with her at the end of act 1, scene 1. Because she is in a fog about him during the scene, he tries to take advantage of the situation, demanding that she sign some traveler’s checks for him. She only does this after the act is consummated. Along similar lines, Boss Finley keeps a mistress, Miss Lucy, at the hotel. When he learns that she has claimed he is too old to have sex, he takes his revenge. He brings her a diamond clip in a jewelry box, but snaps it closed on her fingers, injuring her, when...

(This entire section contains 892 words.)

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she opens it. He then leaves her, taking the gift with him. The theme of sex drives much of the action of the play, directly or indirectly.

Time, Youth, and Aging Many characters in Sweet Bird of Youth are obsessed with aging and the ravages of time. Though Chance is twenty-nine years old with thinning hair, he is still handsome enough to attract women like the Princess. Yet the only woman Chance truly wants is Heavenly, who shared a romance with him beginning when she was fifteen years old. Several characters point out to him that she has changed. Because of the sexually transmitted disease Chance gave her, she has had a hysterectomy. Heavenly tells her father at one point, ‘‘Scudder’s knife cut the youth out of my body, made me an old childless woman. Dry, cold, empty, like an old woman.’’

But Chance believes that if he can take Heavenly away, nothing will have changed; they will move to Hollywood, and Chance will finally be successful as an actor. Heavenly is a symbol of his youth and his promise that he has lost along the way. When Chance and Heavenly meet face to face, they can say nothing to each other. Still Chance cannot give up on his last vestige of hope and submits to what is implied to be castration at the end of the play.

Princess Kosmonopolis shares Chance’s fear of aging. She is really Alexandra del Lago, a middleaged movie actress who knows that Hollywood favors the young. She does not want to retire, but ran out of the premiere of her latest movie when she saw herself on screen. The Princess is hiding out from her identity, drinking and smoking hashish in hopes of dulling the pain. Chance is a sympathetic distraction, though she is under no illusions about his intentions.

At the end of the play, when Chance tries one last time to get her to help him and Heavenly escape by telling a Hollywood gossip columnist about them as actors, the Princess learns that all is not lost. Her movie is a hit and she is praised as having made a comeback. She never mentions Chance and Heavenly. Though the Princess realizes that her victory over time is only temporary, and that eventually she will be tossed aside by Hollywood because of her age, she relishes her short-term victory. Aging and time are parts of life that cannot be avoided, but only Chance cannot accept that by the end of the play.

Politics and Hypocrisy While many characters have their hypocritical moments and attitudes, Boss Finley is the biggest example of hypocrisy in the play. Much of this hypocrisy is linked to political ambitions, though some of it is personal as well. An upcoming political election is an important part of the play. Finley is having a televised rally to address voters about the recent brutal castration of an innocent African American. Those who castrated the man wanted to make sure it was known that white women would be protected in Florida. While Boss Finley wants to keep white blood ‘‘pure,’’ he condemns the crime in his speech and calls himself a friend to men both black and white.

When The Heckler asks a question related to Boss’s hypocrisy, he is beaten. He is the only character who directly challenges the Boss. Chance only does so indirectly. Because Chance will not leave town, he, too, is castrated, with the implicit consent of Boss Finley. Heavenly points out another hypocrisy of her father’s. While he married her mother for love, he will not allow his daughter the same privilege. He uses her, and others, to show how powerful he is, though this power is invariably linked to politics and/or hypocrisy.