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 male travelling companion of an over-the-hill declining A-list movie actress Alexandra Del Lago (travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis); who’s running away from her now clearly visible loss of youth as a film actress. Wayne hopes to use her 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. Wayne believes that thru Del Lago his path to success is now clear; and with Del Lago as his entry ticket to Hollywood success, he'll be able to take his old girlfriend back with him.
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 loves Heavenly Finley. Wayne’s good looks buy him an entry ticket (as a servant) into the world of Heavenly Finley. But her youthful distraction toward his physical beauty, is misunderstood by Wayne. He believes that Heavenly's attraction toward him could be exploited; it could be used to transport him out of his lower station in the social hierarchy. And that by marrying her, he could secure a permanent place for himself, on the “right side” of the tracks.
Heavenly is the daughter of wealthy 'Boss' Thomas J. Finley, a corrupt and ruthless politician/businessman who has a strong belief in chastity and parades his daughter around in a white dress showcasing her as the perfect virgin. Finley doesn't like bastards; nor, the orphaned, nameless, poor, and overly ambitious "men on-the-make", they all grow up to be. Moreover, Heavenly is Boss Finley’s instrument for his political ambitions. She's not Chance Wayne’s (or anyone Finley considers less than well bred); escape capsule to be used by Wayne to land himself safely in the social strata of the upper classes, the “Promised Land” of Wayne ambition; but a place where Finley believes Wayne could never belong; and especially, not with his daughter.
Chance (as a waiter and pool life-guard) meets Heavenly at the Finley's country club. After Chance and Heavenly have quietly begun a friendship, Chance approaches Boss Finley, seeking permission to see Heavenly formally, en route to a future proposal of marriage. Finley can easily sense in Chance the overpowering atmosphere of aspiration and hunger for escape; masquerading as a chaste infatuation with his daughter. But Finley (older and wiser) has seen and dealt with such men many times before. He knows Wayne’s attraction to Heavenly is a drowning man’s attraction for a life-vest. It is a means to an end, it is not an end of itself. And Finley will never allow it. So, he easily entices Chance with the distraction of the American Dream of fame and fortune in Hollywood, just to get Chance to leave town, and he sends his daughter away on a long tour of Europe to get her away from Chance as well.
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