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This essay is adapted from an older essay of mine, discussing the dramatic treatment of characters who "look back with longing to a time that has been sweetened in the remembering" in plays written by Tennessee Williams.
Sweet Bird of Youth is a play by Tennessee Williams that concerns itself with looking back to the past. The main character, Chance Wayne, is a wannabe actor who earns his money as a gigolo, and returns to his hometown with a Hollywood star who believes her comeback picture has flopped. However 'Youth' does not manage to fulfil its aims as successfully as other work by Williams, and little use is made of music and the small symbolic elements are not developed enough.
Chance Wayne's chief memory is of his time with his former lover, Heavenly Finley, and his aim is to be reunited with her. Unfortunately for Chance, circumstances have seen to there being little chance of this occuring, as he managed to pass syphilis onto Heavenly previously, leading her to have her ovaries removed in an operation. Somewhat understandably Heavenly's family now seek vengeance, in the form of the castration of Chance. Even Heavenly now wants nothing to do with Chance, but he still expects to win her back.
Chance remembers how the town regarded him before his fame became infamy, "Man, how that town buzzed with excitement", but the reasons for his returns were not for his family, but for Heavenly. Chance believes that the biggest difference between people is those who experienced "pleasure in love" and those that haven't, and since he believes Heavenly and himself experienced this, they will never forget each other.
In some respects Chance has similarities to Jim in 'The Glass Menagerie', they were both high school heroes and they both played the lead role in plays to great acclaim, but the rest of their lives fail to live up to their initial success. Alexandra Del Lago identifies this in Chance, "a laurel wreath on your forehead, given too early, without enough effort to earn it." This is where the similarities end, for Jim comes across as a nice guy, while Chance couldn't be described like that;he's somewhat an egotistical monster, not that bothered about the death of his mother and seems completely unaware of the concept of modesty.
Chance's greatest problem is the departure of his one marketable commodity - his youth, as he is caught up in the drag of time. This is remarked up on by Aunt Nonnie, who tells him,
"What you want is to go back to is your clean, unashamed youth. And you can't."
Chance still believes that he can still become a star, but his experiences have changed him, he no longer has the freshness of a young man. He admits this to Alexandra, "time does it. Hardens people," but time has done more than just that to Chance. Alexandra, viewing Chance with pity, is reminded of Frank Albertzart. She fears Chance may share his fate, an early death brought on by disillusionment and failure, so she notifies him about his misfortune,
"you've gone past something you couldn't afford to go past; your time, your youth, you've passed it. It's all you had, and you've had it".
Although Chance genuinely believes he could still 'make it', he has accumulated enough bad memories during his adult life that, despite not accepting amnesia as an affliction, (after Alexandra announces her intention to forget) Chance pronounces his envy, "there's nothing better than that, I wish I could do it." There is one occasion where it emerges that Chance has managed to forget something, when he claims that his play 'The Valiant' was second in "that lousy national contest," and Aunt Nonnie corrects him saying the play got fourth place, or honourable mention.
However egocentric Chance appears, it should be noted that he is not the only person in St. Cloud to have fond memories of his past. Aunt Nonnie remembers when he was "the finest, nicest, sweetest boy in St. Cloud" while Miss Lucy recalls that "Chance Wayne used to be so attractive I couldn't stand it.". Significantly these endorsements are both from women, the male characters appear more antagonistic towards Chance. Is this because they are jealous of his sexual virility and they feel threatened by Chance's propinquity? Could this be the real reason for Chance's castration?
Alexandra Del Lago also has fond memories of the past, remembering when she was a 'real artist' not a 'monster'. But they have not sweetened for her and mention of her recent past prompts her to declare, "I want to forget anything." Indeed her memories of the reactions of the audience at the premiere of her come-back picture seem exaggerated after it is revealed that it has "broken box-office records".
Boss Finley, Heavenly's father, prefers to look back to a previous time. Boss see himself as a christ-like figure whose mission is to ensure black and white blood are not intermingled, believing he was called down by God to the South when he was fifteen. The incident which appears to indicate to me that his memories have sweetened is his tale to Heavenly about his present to his dying wife. Was laughter really her reaction or is this just an old man attempting to justify his actions to himself?
It is hard to feel sympathy for the characters in 'Sweet Bird of Youth', as despite their problems most of the characters are living a life of luxury, but come across as a pretty disagreeable crowd. This doesn't mean that it is a bad and unredeemable play, it just doesn't keep up to the high standards set by Williams's earlier output.
Written in 1996 for CSYS English.
This write-up refers to the play, not the film referred in Demeter's work above. Like most Hollywood treatments of Tennessee Williams, several elements and references of a sexual nature had been removed (many of these changes were necessary to secure approval from the Production Code), and a saccharine 'feel-good' ending added.