Sweet Bird of Youth is a 1959 play by Tennessee Williams. Most of the play takes place in the Royal Palms Hotel, an “old fashioned but still fashionable” hotel in St. Cloud, on the Gulf Coast.
Chance Wayne is first introduced wearing the classic Williams trope; white silk pyjamas. He starts the day with a cigarette and a ‘bromo’; an alka seltzer hangover remedy. The waiter has to mix it for him, due to his hands shaking, due to his alcohol consumption the night before.
The action plays out over Easter Sunday.
The play is split into two halves, and begins in a decadent hotel room. Drifter Chance Wayne wakes in a room with Alexandra Del Lago, incognito as the Princess Kosmonopolis. Her temporary amnesia serves as an exposition device for how they reached the hotel. Almost immediately, the men of the town begin threatening Chance. There’s an immediate sense of menace, a hint of a terrible transgression.
“The right doors wouldn’t open, so he went through the wrong ones.” – p63
The action switches to the plantation house of antagonist Boss Finley, where we learn Heavenly’s fate and state. He is a man who feels disappointed in his children and his legacy. One attempting to gain political power through a quasi religious, racist campaign.
We then rejoin Chance at the Royal Palms Hotel bar, where he has a drug and humiliation fuelled meltdown. The atmosphere is tense; the customers are preparing to watch the Finley rally. The Boss intends to lecture the public about the ‘threat’ of ‘blood pollution’. There is a simmering racial tension, flavoured with faux sexual fear, that Chance correctly labels ‘sex envy’.
After all, the Boss is impotent; and has recently had an innocent black boy castrated. He is holding up his beautiful, blonde, white daughter as a symbol of pure Southern womanhood. Playing the archetypal justification for genocide and racism; ‘protecting our women and girls’.
To… excuse some of the most heinous crimes that ever stained the history of a country, the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women. – From Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, By Ida B. Wells-Barnett
However Boss Finley’s ‘mission’ is being dogged by a scandal linked to Heavenly… and a persistent hillbilly who is stalking and heckling his rallies.
Chance is hoping that his companion, faded film star Alexandra Del Lago, will be seduced into helping him become an actor. His ambition centres on reclaiming Heavenly and being a big star. He has a childlike fixation on his first love, implied to be a yearning for his unblemished past.
“What you want to go back to is your clean, unashamed youth. And you can’t.” – p76
Using Alexandra’s car and funds, Chance tries to prove to the town that he is a success. But his old friends have grown up. They see through his posturing, call his bluff and see him for what he is. Nothing but a washed up gigolo flashing someone else’s cash.
“I don’t get by on my looks, but I drive my own car. It isnt’t a caddy, but it’s my own car.” – p84
In contrast, Alexandra learns that the disaster she’s been running from is actually praise. And that her comeback was a success. It’s a perfect and brutal illustration of the difference between Chance’s posturing style and her magnificent substance.
Despite Williams’ assertion that Del Lago’s comeback will ‘not be a progression of triumphs’, she has more to look forward to than her erstwhile escort. Her star is ascending while his falls back into oblivion. She masters her initial panic; accepts her future role; faces reality.
The made for TV movie adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Elizabeth Taylor, was included in my Prime subscription. So I thought I’d check it out. She is magnificent, playing across from Mark Harmon, who looks like a thinner, harder lived Jon Barrowman. He plays Chance Wayne well; with a swaggering, nervous, false energy.
The film makes Chance far more sympathetic. His drug fuelled, humiliating outburst in the Royal Palms bar is transformed into him wittily putting a racist in his place. His cold indifference to his mother’s death is stripped out, with her having died a year earlier.
He strikes you as less a hardened, drug addicted manipulator. Instead, more a charming small town himbo without much in the way of brains. There’s a lovely back and forth where Chance and Alexandra finish each other’s sentences. It establishes affinity and rapport; some of his lines in the play are given to her.
He actually gets to meet Heavenly, and they communicate in the ruins of a bulldozed park. The venereal disease is changed to a backstreet abortion that leaves her sterile. This detail reduces Chance’s culpability for her plight. But she still rejects him, partly to save his life and partly due to his grandiosity. After all, he has yet to come to earth; he’s still labouring under the delusion that his trick is going to make him a big star.
It is slightly amusing that the 1989 censors were happy to keep in the play’s grisly conclusion, but not the STD.
In the End
“Chance: Can you control your memory like that?
Princess: Yes. I’ve had to learn to.” – p26
Self delusion is the key theme of Sweet Bird of Youth. And the most deluded part is that Chance really thinks he loves Heavenly. Boss Finlay is portrayed as the villain, and he is; racist, violent, abusive. But few fathers would want their daughters to be with a man like Chance. He objectively treats her appallingly. To her family, he must seem like a drug addiction; destructive, disruptive and ruinous.
It should be easy to sympathise with Chance versus a cast of vicious white supremacists. But really, Miss Lucy, the mistress, is the sole sympathetic character. Even Heavenly is too broken and passive to elicit much affinity or even pity. She strikes you as that friend who stays with a boyfriend just that side of abusive; nothing that would result in a call to the police, but relentlessly awful enough that eventually you’d just get tired of hearing it.
Like most Williams’ plays, the dialogue and stage directions are rich enough to make it as good as most novels. So pour yourself a vodka martini with a lemon twist, and get stuck into this rich, corrupt vignette.