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.

Plot[edit]

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, Mississippi native son Chance Wayne has fled his home town, seeking to profit from his beauty and youth in New York or Hollywood (whichever of the two). When he fails as an actor and then 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, escorting an aging, depressed, semi-alcoholic film star: Alexandra del Lago. Ms. del Lago is running away from the negative criticism she believes is the public's and press critics' response to her attempt at a cinematic comeback in a recently released film. Del Lago herself had been running away and burying herself in sex, alcohol, and drugs, until Chance recognized her while hustling in a Florida resort. He saw in her a last chance to build a relationship (taking care of her, while on their drive her back to Hollywood, with him as her escort). Chance is using his perceived gallantry to entice del Lago to give him the imprimatur of stardom which he failed to achieve on his own. As he and del Lago were driving along the Sunset Route back to California, Chance hopes that he will reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Finley, and bring her back to Hollywood, where - with del Lago's aid - they will both achieve stardom.

Unfortunately once returned to St. Cloud, Chance discovers Heavenly is only a shadow of the girl he knew. During his last visit to St. Cloud, he had unknowingly infected her with a disease he picked up as a result of 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, resulted in a hysterectomy. Heavenly's corrupt father and brother are determined to make Chance pay for the injury done to Heavenly. Chance worries that he will receive the same fate as a black man who was recently attacked and castrated in the town.

Using Alexandra's car and funds, Chance tries to prove to the town that he is a success, but his old friends call his bluff and see him for the washed up and washed out man he has become. Meanwhile, 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. His youth gone, Chance does not know how to move on with his life. 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]

Pre-Broadway[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]

Broadway[edit]

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.

London[edit]

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.

Notes[edit]

  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]