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Sweet Bird of Youth


The Play

Sweet Bird of Youth is a 1959 Tennessee Williams play which tells the story of a vigorous but aging movie star trying to recapture her youth, and a driven yet somewhat unscrupulous young man who is seeking stardom and true love. It deals with the classic themes of age versus youth, love versus hate and good versus evil.

The original title of the play was "The Enemy, Time," which essentially means the same thing as "Sweet Bird of Youth." "Sweet bird" suggests that, almost before we know it, youth flies away. Youth is sweet and has a buoyant quality, while the enemy, time, is what makes the sweet bird fly. Tennessee was very careful about his titles. The play, which has its lyric and lurid moments at the same time, is about the end of many things, and therein lies the dramatic cliff Tennessee constructs for the viewer: all of the characters are on their last chance. No one escapes having to choose, but it's fascinating to see what each of the characters do when faced with their choice.

Chance Wayne is a Hollywood playboy determined to become a star, who teams up with Alexandra Del Lago, a washed-up Hollywood actress, on his way back to his small-town home. The town clamors at the reappearance of the charismatic Chance, who claims to have found fame and fortune in Hollywood, while the mysterious Alexandra lies in a drunken stupor in their hotel room. Alexandra convinces Chance she can make him a star, so he protects her reputation while rediscovering his love for his hometown sweetheart, Heavenly, whose heart he broke when he disappeared to find fame. Chance's attempts to reignite his passion for the naive Heavenly deeply angers her vengeful father, the bigoted politician Boss Finley, who will stop at nothing to see his daughter's lost innocence avenged.

Characters

Chance WayneThe Princess Kosmonopolis
FlyGeorge Scudder
Boss FinleyTom Junior
CharlesAunt Nonnie
Heavenly FinleyPianist
StuffMiss Lucy
The HecklerPage
VioletEdna
ScottyBud
Hatcher 

The Playwright:

Tennessee WilliamsThomas Lanier ("Tennessee") Williams, (1911 - 1983), was an outstanding American playwright and the author of film scripts, short stories, novels, and verse. He was known for his innovations in theatrical technique, as well as for his Southern idioms, compelling dialogue, and themes that--for their time--often seemed strange or shocking. Williams vividly conveyed the sexual tensions and suppressed violence of his tormented characters, usually with compassion as well as irony. He won Pulitzer Prizes for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Williams wrote, "At the age of 14, I discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable."

The form of Sweet Bird of Youth is poetic and the characters in it are larger than life. Tennessee was not a naturalistic writer. He wrote archetypes (Boss Finley, Chance, Heavenly) and there is a Shakespearean sense in his characters being that size. Some of Sweet Bird of Youth's most dramatic moments are like arias, delivered directly to the audience. Tennessee Williams wrote beautiful language in his plays.

His compassion for his characters was extraordinary. Chance is certainly not a villain; even Princess, who says she is a monster, finds compassion for him. He was not necessarily a moralist, however. He lays issues out for the viewer, but they don't lead in a particular direction or preach to the audience.

The play has religious overtones because it takes place on Easter Sunday; however, it is likely that the rituals and symbols of religion appealed to Tennessee as a dramatist. Much of the humor in the play comes out of tragedy, out of the absurd obsessions of the characters, although Tennessee could also write witty lines for his characters.

"I don't think the play is meant to be only about a woman who takes drugs and meets a hustler. I don't believe it ever was about that. But that was the aspect that was shocking in '59. I hope what we can now deal with in this production is the price of success and age and youth and loss of innocence ­how these elements are part of all our lives. Tennessee knew that time cannot be stopped. That's the tragedy of the play. Things go. Things fade. Things end. It's the central issue of being human and yet in the face of this, a certain nobility can appear. That's what I think Tennessee wrote about."
~ Artistic Director Michael Kahn

References:
1. Simon Fraser University at Harbour Centre
2. Harold Pinter
3. Daily Bruin UCLA
4. The Shakespeare Theatre

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