Sweet Bird of Youth
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 "traveling companion" of a faded movie star, Alexandra Del Lago (travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis), with whom he hopes to trade (his "escort services"); for her mentoring of his aspirations of a career as an actor in Hollywood. Having succeeded in the first part of this plan (becoming the kept-man of the older/richer woman); Wayne is presently planning to visit his old girlfriend from High School; and convince her to accompany him and Ms. Del Lago back to Hollywood; where, she too, could seek her fame and fortune. The plot illuminates the many reasons why this is sheerest fantasy.
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.
Self-professed as coming from the "wrong side of the tracks" of St. Cloud, Florida, Chance Wayne has ambitions to raise himself well above his current or potential social standing in the community where he and his family live. His ambition has attracted him to Heavenly Finley; and his good looks have attracted her. She is youngest child; and, only daughter the wealthy and politically powerful, 'Boss' Thomas J. Finley, a corrupt and ruthless politician/businessman who has a strong desire to protect his power, his position and his family. He is conservative, puritanical, and deeply suspicious of both ambition and youth, and Chance Wayne embodies both. Chance met Heavenly at Finley's country club, where he was a waiter. In his youth, ambition and hunger, he presumes to approach Boss Finley, seeking permission to see Heavenly formally, in-route to a future proposal of marriage.
To this effrontery; Finley delivers a smooth-talking brush-off to Wayne; telling him how he needs to move more quickly (than settling down to start a family) to seek his fortune (and to start anywhere other than in St Cloud; and in any direction, other than towards Heavenly). Then, he tells Wayne that he's sent Heavenly to Europe on an extended tour (return date not disclosed). Upon hearing this; and being momentarily uncertain as to what to do; Wayne readily accepts Boss Finley's advice to take the couple of hundred dollars in cash that Finley is offering; and board the first train leaving St. Cloud, and terminating in a city, far enough away to guarantee "success".
Years later, Chance returns to St. Cloud with temperamental and drunken movie star Alexandra Del Lago. She intends to retire because she is embarrassed about her last movie role. Chance hopes to blackmail Del Lago with a surreptitious tape recording in order to get a part in a film. However, Chance is distracted by Heavenly and stops pursuing Del Lago. Heavenly still loves Chance and wants to escape her dictating father. Boss Finley wants to run Chance out of town again, but it will be a little more difficult this time, if only because of the notoriety of Miss Del Lago.
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. James Franco was in talks to co-star, however he dropped out for unknown reasons.
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.
Film and television adaptations
1962 feature film
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.
1989 Made-for television version
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.
- "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.
- Kolin, Phillip; The Tennessee Williams Encyclopedia; pp. 262-263 ISBN 0313321019
- Kidman Returning To Broadway Contact Music. 17 September
- 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.
- Variety film review; February 28, 1962, page 6.
- Harrison's Reports film review; March 10, 1962, page 34.
- Sweet Bird of Youth at the Internet Broadway Database
- Sweet Bird of Youth (film) at the Internet Movie Database