Sweet Bird of Youth

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For the film adaptation, see Sweet Bird of Youth (film).
First edition
(publ. New Directions)

Sweet Bird of Youth is a 1959 play by Tennessee Williams which tells the story of a gigolo and drifter, Chance Wayne, who returns to his home town as the companion of a faded movie star, Alexandra Del Lago (travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis), whom he hopes to use to help him break into the movies. The main reason for his homecoming is to get back what he had in his youth: primarily, his old girlfriend, whose father had run him out of town years before. The play was written for Tallulah Bankhead, a good friend of Tennessee.


Sweet Bird of Youth originated circa 1956 as two plays: a two-character version of the final play featuring only Chance and the Princess, and a one-act play titled The Pink Bedroom that was later developed into Act Two of the play, featuring Boss Finley and his family.[1]

Failed St Cloud native son Chance Wayne, has fled his home town and region; seeking to profit from his beauty and youth, in New York, or Hollywood (whichever of the two, was the winning lottery ticket). When he fails as an actor, or a personality in both cities; he turns to the freelance career of gigolo (it is; at least, one step above male prostitute). And as the traveling "escort", of his current "employer", Chance, returns to his home town of St. Cloud, Mississippi, "escorting", an aging; depressed, semi-alcoholic, film star, Alexandra del Lago. Ms. del Lago, is running away from the negative criticism she believes (in her depression), is the public; and press critics' response to her attempt at her cinematic comeback in a recently released film, in which she starred. del Lago had been running away on her own (and hiding herself in sex, alcohol, and drugs), until Chance; saw her (stoned out of her right mind) in a Florida resort, where he was "working"; and recognized who she was. He saw in her, (and in the state of her emotions, his last chance, to build a relationship (taking care of her, while on their drive her back to Hollywood, with him as her "escort" of course). Chance wanted this act of "gallantry" on his part, to result in del Lago's gratefully giving him, her imprimatur of stardom, in Hollywood, which he had neither had, nor found initially. Ideally, As Chance was driving he and del Lago along the "Sunset Route" back to the west coast and California; he came to hope that he would reunite with; and take back to Hollywood, his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Finley, from the gulf-coast Mississippi city of St. Cloud. And that they would both (with del Lago's assistance, to both), achieve stardom.

Unfortunately in St Cloud, Wayne discovers that Heavenly is only a shadow of the girl he knew; for during his last visit to St. Cloud, Wayne had unknowingly infected her with a disease he picked up from his own promiscuity. When she discovered the problem, she had to have surgery to cut the disease out and which, because of an unskilled doctor's knife, turned into a hysterectomy. Heavenly's corrupt politician of a father and her goon of a brother want to make Chance pay. There has recently been the castration of a black man in the town (in a twisted attempt to keep the South's white purity), and Chance is warned of the same fate.

Using Alexandra's car and funds, Chance tries to prove to the town that once loved him that he is a success, but his old friends can call the bluff and see him for the washed up and washed out man he is. Alexandra receives news that the criticism she's been running from is actually praise and that her comeback could not have been better. Chance believes that he will ride with her to the top, but Alexandra has no wish for a gigolo to besmirch her good name. He has passed his youth and he does not know what to do without it. Though she will not recommend him for a job in Hollywood, Alexandra urges him to continue as her escort, but Chance decides to stay and accept castration.

Production history[edit]


Williams began work on the play in the fall of 1959, calling it at first The Enemy of Time.[2] As Sweet Bird of Youth, the work-in-progress had a tryout production starring Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Drivas in Coral Gables, Florida, directed by George Keathley[2] at his Studio M Playhouse in 1956[3][4] which began before Williams' agent Audrey Wood knew he had a new play.[5] Elia Kazan saw it.[6] Both he and Cheryl Crawford were "party to the secret and petitioned Audrey to let them produce and direct the new play."[7]


The original production by Cheryl Crawford opened on March 10, 1959 at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City. Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Sidney Blackmer, Madeleine Sherwood, Diana Hyland, Logan Ramsey, John Napier, and Rip Torn. Bruce Dern also played a small role. The production was nominated for 4 Tony Awards, including Best Actress for Geraldine Page. The play ran for 375 performances.

A revival opened on December 29, 1975 at the Harkness Theatre, in a production directed by Edwin Sherin, starring Christopher Walken as Chance Wayne and Irene Worth as Princess Kosmonopolis. Irene Worth won the 1976 Tony Award for Best Actress.

A production was planned to open in 2011 with David Cromer directing and Scott Rudin serving as producer. It had been announced that Nicole Kidman would portray the role of Alexandra Del Lago.[8] James Franco was in talks to co-star, however he dropped out for unknown reasons.[9]

In 2012 the production did go ahead to much acclaim but with Diane Lane in the lead role.


After 26 years, Sweet Bird of Youth appeared in London's West End. It opened on July 8, 1985 at the Haymarket Theatre in a production directed by Harold Pinter and presented by impresario Douglas Urbanski it starred Lauren Bacall and Michael Beck with James Grout and David Cunningham. This production later transferred to Los Angeles under the direction of Michael Blakemore.

The play returned to the London stage on 1 June 2013 with a production at The Old Vic directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Kim Cattrall as Del Lago and Seth Numrich as Chance.

Film and television adaptations[edit]

1962 feature film[edit]

In 1962, the play was made into a feature film starring Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Madeleine Sherwood, Ed Begley, Rip Torn and Mildred Dunnock. The movie was adapted and directed by Richard Brooks.[10][11]

1989 Made-for television version[edit]

Sweet Bird of Youth was made for television in 1989, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mark Harmon, Valerie Perrine, Ronnie Claire Edwards, Cheryl Paris, Kevin Geer and Rip Torn. It was adapted by Gavin Lambert and directed by Nicolas Roeg.

Cultural references[edit]

  • "Youth of a Thousand Summers" by Van Morrison is based on this play.
  • In the Robert Zemeckis film Death Becomes Her (1992), lead character Madeline Ashton is depicted as the star of a Broadway musical adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth called "Songbird!"
  • The song "Sweet Bird of Truth" by the rock group The The is a reference to the Tennessee Williams play.
  • A reference to the Tennessee Williams play (and indeed Williams himself) was written by Bernie Taupin in his lyric for Elton John's song "Lies," from John's 1995 album Made in England.


  1. ^ Kolin, Phillip; The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia; pp. 262-263 ISBN 0313321019
  2. ^ a b Lahr, John Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.
  3. ^ The World of Tennessee Williams by Richard Freeman Leavitt, Kenneth Holditch, Hansen Publishing Group, 2011. ISBN 1601820003
  4. ^ Thomas W. Ennis, "Robert Drivas" The New York Times, July 1, 1986.
  5. ^ Barranger, Milly Audrey Wood and the Playwrights Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. ISBN 1137385472. p. 48.
  6. ^ Elia Kazan and Sweet Bird of Youth at [1].
  7. ^ Barranger, Milly Audrey Wood and the Playwrights Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. ISBN 1137385472. p. 48.
  8. ^ Kidman Returning To Broadway Contact Music. 17 September
  9. ^ Kennedy, Mark (August 30, 2011). "James Franco And The 'Sweet Bird Of Youth': Actor Drops Out Of Would-Be Broadway Debut". The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 12, 2011. 
  10. ^ Variety film review; February 28, 1962, page 6.
  11. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; March 10, 1962, page 34.

External links[edit]