Sweet Bird of Youth

by

Tennessee Williams

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Sweet Bird of Youth: Act One, Scene One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chance Wayne awakes in the Royal Palms Hotel and hears flapping bird wings outside the window. Next to him lies an elegant middle-aged woman. When a knock sounds on the door, Chance tells Fly—a hotel employee—to enter, and Fly gives him a remedy for his hangover, which is causing his hands to shake. Chance then goes to the window and opens the shutters, and for the first time the audience fully sees his face: “he’s in his late twenties and his face looks slightly older than that; you might describe it as a ‘ravaged young face’ and yet it is still exceptionally good-looking.” When Chance tells Fly that he’ll add a tip for him on the check, Fly says, “Thank you, Mr. Wayne.” Surprised that Fly remembers his name from when he used to come to local dances, Chance tells him to forget that he has seen him.
Tennessee Williams’s initial portrayal of Chance Wayne calls attention to two things. First, he signals that Chance lives a rather rough-edged life, as made evident by his shaking hands and notable hangover. Second, Williams calls attention to Chance’s age. Although he notes that Chance is only in his “late twenties,” he goes out of his way to mention the fact that his face is “ravaged.” In doing so, Williams reveals his interest in the ways that youth and beauty fade away and leave behind the spoils of better times.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Apparently, Fly used to wait tables at the ballroom where Chance went to dances on Saturday nights with Mr. Boss Finley’s daughter. Before long, Fly exits, and a “business-like young man” named George Scudder walks into the room. Scudder reveals that the hotel’s assistant manager called him and told him that Chance had come back to St. Cloud. “So you came right over to welcome me home?” Chance asks, but Scudder ignores him, pointing out that his “lady friend sounds like she’s coming out of ether,” to which Chance replies: “The Princess had a rough night.” He then explains that his companion is “traveling incognito.” “Golly,” says Scudder, “I should think she would, if she’s checking in hotels with you.”
The nature of Chance and Scudder’s relationship isn’t readily apparent. However, it gradually becomes obvious that they have a tense dynamic, as Scudder talks to Chance as if he’s disgusted by his sexual exploits. Indeed, Scudder talks as if the Princess—whom he doesn’t even know—should be ashamed to be seen with Chance, as if Chance’s very presence is a corruption of sorts. In turn, Williams foregrounds his eventual exploration of corruption, intimating already that Chance uses romantic intrigue to sully otherwise upstanding women—this, at least, seems to be what Scudder believes.
Themes
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Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
Getting to his point, Scudder asks Chance why he’s returned to St. Cloud. “I’ve still got a mother and a girl in St. Cloud,” Chance answers. “How’s Heavenly, George?” Scudder deflects this question, saying they’ll talk about that later and glancing at his watch—he has to be back at the hospital soon, since he’s now the chief of staff. As such, he rushes on, asking Chance again why he’s returned. Finally answering, Chance says that he heard his mother is sick. “But you said, ‘How’s Heavenly,’” Scudder points out, “not ‘How’s my mother,’ Chance. Your mother died a couple of weeks ago…” He explains that they tried to notify Chance, but that he moves around the United States too much, so they weren’t able to track him down. In his absence, the church took up a collection for her expenses and buried her with a nice headstone.
The fact that Chance doesn’t even know his own mother has died suggests that he is too preoccupied by his own life to bother paying attention to other people, even if they are close to him. Indeed, Scudder is right to point out that Chance seems more interested in this woman named Heavenly than he is in checking on his mother. In turn, the audience sees that Chance’s priorities are a bit misaligned, as he clearly prioritizes his desires over his obligations.
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Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
Scudder tells Chance he ought to talk to the Reverend if he has any questions, but Chance merely says, “She’s gone. Why talk about it?” Changing the subject, Scudder says he hopes Chance received the letter he wrote soon after Chance left town, but Chance claims he’s never seen it. Asking Chance to sit, he says, “In this letter I just told you that a certain girl we know had to go through an awful experience, a tragic ordeal, because of past contact with you. I told you that I was only giving you this information so that you would know better than to come back to St. Cloud, but you didn’t know better.” When Chance asks if Scudder’s referring to Heavenly Finley, Scudder refuses to disclose names, merely saying that he came to warn him to leave St. Cloud before the girl’s father and brother heard that he was back in town.
It becomes even clearer that Chance cares first and foremost about himself and whatever he wants. This is made apparent by the fact that he says, “She’s gone. Why talk about it?” in reference to his mother’s death, instead immediately choosing to focus on other matters, such as his past relationship with a girl named Heavenly (though Scudder won’t yet affirm or deny whether or not the girl to whom he’s referring is indeed Heavenly). What’s more, when Scudder asserts that a girl went through “an awful experience” because of “past contact” with Chance, he casts him once again as someone who corrupts other people.
Themes
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Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
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Getting ready to leave, Scudder says he’ll speak to Dan Hatcher—assistant manager of the hotel—and tell him that Chance and his snoozing companion will soon checkout of their room. When Chance demands that Scudder give him more details about what has happened, he simply replies: “There’s a lot more to this which we feel ought not to be talked about to anyone, least of all to you, since you have turned into a criminal degenerate, the only right term for you, but, Chance, I think I ought to remind you that once long ago, the father of this girl wrote out a prescription for you, a sort of medical prescription, which is castration. You’d better think about that, that would deprive you of all you’ve got to get by on.”
When Scudder says that there is “a lot more to this which we feel ought not to be talked about,” he mysteriously suggests that he is in cahoots with someone else. Going on to talk about a girl’s father threatening to castrate Chance, it becomes clear that Scudder is most likely somehow involved with this father. In turn, he himself underhandedly threatens Chance. What’s more, the fact that this unnamed girl’s father wants to castrate Chance suggests again that people in St. Cloud see him as someone who corrupts the purity of others, especially through sexual exploits.
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Responding to Scudder’s remark about castration, Chance says, “I’m used to that threat. I’m not going to leave St. Cloud without my girl.” Still, Scudder insists that Chance doesn’t have a girl in St. Cloud. “Heavenly and I are going to be married next month,” Scudder says before suddenly leaving the room. Perturbed, Chance makes a phone call to somebody named Aunt Nonnie, and he asks her what happened to Heavenly, but she hangs up without giving him any information.
Although Williams doesn’t yet reveal why Chance is “used to” the threat of castration, this statement reinforces the idea that he must use his good looks and sexuality to his own benefit. Indeed, that people often want to castrate him once again underlines the idea that he is seen as someone who sexually corrupts others.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Purity and Corruption Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
At this point, the Princess starts to stir and then suddenly bolts upright and gasps, asking for help and demanding to know who Chance is. “I don’t remember who you are!” she laments, but Chance assures her she’ll soon remember and calmly fetches an oxygen mask from her bags. Once he sets her up with the mask, he says he’s surprised she’s still having these “attacks of panic,” since he thought his presence would calm her. “Give me a pill,” she demands, and when he asks what kind of pill, she says, “A pink one, a pinkie, and a vodka…” Chance then goes to the phone and calls Mr. Hatcher, trying to explain that they can’t check out because Miss Alexandra Del Lago is “suffering from exhaustion.” As he says this, the Princess shouts: “Don’t use my name!
Chance is surprised that the Princess has panic attacks in his presence, a sentiment that demonstrates just how much confidence he has in his ability to put people at ease. It’s clear, then, that he’s accustomed to having a certain effect on people, perhaps because he’s used to being seen as good-looking and desirable. On another note, the Princess’s request for drugs and alcohol—after having just woken up—underscores her dependence on substances that help her cope. Indeed, she wants to get high before the day has even truly started, thereby escaping whatever psychological distresses are plaguing her and throwing her into this “attack of panic.”
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
The Princess insists that Chance hang up the phone. When he does, he tries to tell her what Hatcher said, but she’s uninterested, saying, “Please shut up, I’m forgetting!” Accepting this, he tells her he wishes he too could simply forget things at will. As he says this, he extracts a tape recorder and sets it up on the floor before returning to the bed, where he sits down next to her. When she asks what he’s doing, he lies and says he’s looking for his toothbrush. She then discards the oxygen mask, and Chance asks her why she won’t see a doctor. “I don’t need them,” she states. “What happened is nothing at all.” She then describes her frequent panic attacks, claiming they’re nothing more than “adrenalin” getting “pumped” into her blood.
By saying that her panic attacks are merely “adrenalin” getting “pumped” into her blood, the Princess tries to normalize her anxiety, breaking it down into a tangible biological process and thus making it less likely to overwhelm her emotionally. Of course, while this might help temporarily, it is a rather escapist attitude toward emotional health, and it becomes clear that the Princess is actively trying to avoid her own thoughts. Indeed, she even says she’s trying to “forget” something—talking about her panic attacks in this chiefly physiological manner helps her sidestep whatever it is she’s trying to put out of her mind.
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“You’re full of complexes, plump lady,” says Chance. “Why do you call me that? Have I let go of my figure?” the Princess asks. “You put on a good deal of weight after that disappointment you had last month,” he admits, but she feigns ignorance, hitting him with a pillow and saying she doesn’t remember any “disappointment.” “Can you control your memory like that?” he asks. “Yes,” she replies. “I’ve had to learn to. What is this place, a hospital? And you, what are you, a male nurse?” To this, Chance explains that he takes care of her but that he’s not a nurse.
Once again, it becomes clear that the Princess has forced upon herself a mental block of sorts. Chance, for his part, seems to know exactly what she’s trying to “forget,” but this doesn’t stop him from referencing it, referring to it as her “disappointment.” Nonetheless, the Princess is determined to avoid the matter, and so she continues to exist in a state of self-enforced amnesia as a way of denying whatever emotional trauma befell her “last month.”
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The Princess tries to get a better look at Chance, saying that she doesn’t mind “waking up in an intimate situation with someone,” but that she prefers to know what that person looks like, at least. Unfortunately, though, her glasses broke, so she can’t quite make him out. “Your voice sounds young. Are you young?” she asks. “My age is twenty-nine years,” he replies. He also tells her he used to be the “best-looking boy in this town.” This prompts her to finally put on her broken glasses, look at him, and say: “Well, I may have done better, but God knows I’ve done worse.” She then feels his chest and is pleased with what she finds.
Williams again goes out of his way to present Chance as a strikingly good-looking man, but also makes sure to note that Chance’s beauty is fading. Indeed, even Chance himself says that he used to be the “best-looking boy” in town. In this way, the audience understands that Chance has in recent years undergone a gradual transformation as he replaces his youthful looks with his current “ravaged” appearance. Of course, the Princess herself is older than he is, and so she remains pleased by his relative youth.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
The Princess wants to call the manager to ask where she is and who she’s with, but Chance tells her to calm down, pulling her to himself on the bed. As she lies against him, she muses, “It gives you an awful trapped feeling this, this memory block….I feel as if someone I loved had died lately, and I don’t want to remember who it could be.” Chance then asks her if she remembers her own name, but she says she feels like there’s some reason why she prefers to keep this secret. “Well, I happen to know it,” Chance says. “You registered under a phony name in Palm Beach but I discovered your real one. And you admitted it to me.” To this, the Princess says, “I’m the Princess Kosmonopolis.” “Yes, and you used to be known as…” Chance says, but the Princess cuts him off.
Although Chance’s motivations regarding his relationship with the Princess aren’t yet clear, it’s obvious that his intentions aren’t entirely wholesome, since he actively stops her from calling the hotel manager to ask who he is. What’s more, it’s worth noting that he leverages her apparent attraction to him in order to keep her from calling the manager. He uses his good looks and charm—his sexual energy—to his advantage by convincing her to come lie in his arms. In doing so, he’s able to redirect the Princess’s attention, encouraging her to continue her own efforts to deny certain painful memories.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
Chance helps the Princess piece together how they met. She says the last place she remembers traveling to is Tallahassee. He confirms that they drove through that city and she decided to get blackout drunk in the backseat while he drove them out of Texas on the Old Spanish Trail. “I didn’t stop here,” he says. “I was stopped.” When she asks if a cop stopped him, he says, “No. No cop, but I was arrested by something.” The Princess then goes to the window and looks out at the ocean, which suddenly jars something loose in her memory. “Oh God, I remember the thing I wanted not to. The goddam end of my life!” she shouts, slouching back to the bed and ordering Chance to get out “the stuff.”
It seems as if Chance has his own personal demons that he can’t fully escape. This is perhaps why he feels like he was “arrested by something” in St. Cloud, as if he couldn’t possibly pass by without attending to whatever it is that is bothering him. Of course, the audience has already learned that he is a wayward man who seems to travel as a way of escaping his personal demons, but now he seemingly feels the urge to confront whatever it is he’s been running from. The Princess, on the other hand, still wants to live in a state of ignorant bliss, but this proves difficult—looking out the window, she remembers what she’s been trying to forget, a fact suggesting that pure denial is impossible when it comes to psychological distress.
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When Chance fetches “the stuff,” he says, “This isn’t pot. What is it?” As he sets to rolling a joint, the Princess explains, “What is it? Don’t you know what it is, you beautiful, stupid young man? It’s hashish, Moroccan, the finest.” As a follow-up, he asks how she got it through customs when she came back to the United States for her “comeback,” and she explains exactly how she smuggled the drug into the country. She then turns to the audience and says, “For years they all told me that it was ridiculous of me to feel that I couldn’t go back to the screen or the stage as a middle-aged woman. They told me I was an artist, not just a star whose career depended on youth. But I knew in my heart that the legend of Alexandra Del Lago couldn’t be separated from an appearance of youth…”
In this scene, Williams reveals that the Princess is a famous actress. Given that she delivers a monologue about the relationship between fame and youth, it seems likely that what she wants to forget—and the reason she does drugs—must have to do with the end of her career. Indeed, she has always seen her fame as directly related to “an appearance of youth,” investing herself in a superficial sense of beauty that inevitably must fade. Since she has built a life that “depend[s] on youth,” she now finds herself adrift as a middle-aged woman whose beauty has faded. 
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Continuing her monologue, the Princess says that there’s “no more valuable knowledge than knowing the right time to go,” which is why she retired from show business. This, she says, is when she discovered hashish and other drugs that help her “put to sleep the tiger that raged in [her] nerves.” Indeed, she claims that she couldn’t “get old with that tiger still in [her] raging,” so she chose to numb that internal turmoil with drugs and “young lovers.” “Me?” Chance asks, and she says, “You? Yes, finally you. But you come after the comeback.” Going on, she explains that when she went to the screening of her cinematic comeback, she saw that the “screen’s a very clear mirror.” Seeing her face blown up unforgivingly on the screen, the audience gasped, and she heard them whisper, “Is that her?”
The Princess is horrified by the idea that an entire audience would see her as unrecognizable. This embarrassment only reinforces her initial feeling that there’s “no more valuable knowledge than knowing the right time to go,” and so she suddenly wishes that she called it quits with her acting career instead of making a comeback film. After all, a negative reaction to her looks only confirms her own fears about her faded beauty. This is perhaps why she addresses the actual audience in this moment—by breaking the fourth wall, Tennessee Williams demonstrates just how much the Princess cares about what other people think of her.
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Proceeding with her story about her cinematic comeback, the Princess explains that she stood up in the theater and ran out. Because she was wearing a long dress, though, she tripped down a set of stairs, and when people helped her up, she simply fled. “Flight,” she says, “just flight, not interrupted until I woke up this morning…” Looking at the hashish joint, she says, “Well, sooner or later, at some point in your life, the thing that you lived for is lost or abandoned, and then…you die, or find something else. This is my something else…”
What the Princess has “lived for” isn’t acting or the art of theater, but youth and beauty. This is why her life seems to come to an end when she’s forced to suffer the embarrassment of growing old in the public eye. As a reaction to this, she simply flees, thinking she can escape her troubles by running away, having sex with younger men like Chance, and doing drugs.
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Princess,” Chance says, turning his attention to the hashish, “don’t forget that this stuff is yours, that you provided me with it.” He then goes on to reiterate the fact that she smuggled drugs into the country. “You had a fair supply of it at that hotel in Palm Beach,” he reminds her, “and were asked to check out before you were ready to do so, because its aroma drifted into the corridor one breezy night.” The Princess shrugs this off, saying she’s sure that she must not have introduced the drug to Chance. In fact, she suddenly remembers that drug use was what “brought [them] together” in Palm Beach. “When you came in my cabana to give me one of those papaya cream rubs,” she says, “you sniffed, you grinned and said you’d like a stick too.”
Although the Princess has just told a long story about herself—one in which she reveals her deepest insecurities—Chance is rather uninterested. Instead of engaging with her tale, he changes the subject. Although it’s not yet clear to the audience why he brings up drug smuggling now, his abrupt interruption of her story emphasizes his inability to empathize with others. Indeed, rather than listening with kindness to the Princess’s story and talking to her about her emotional troubles, he coldly shunts the conversation in another direction, one that will benefit him somehow, though it’s not yet clear how.
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Apparently, Chance gave the Princess a false name—Carl—when they first met, and this makes her suddenly suspicious of him. However, he reminds her that she too has been using a fake name. Acquiescing, she says, “Yes, to avoid getting any reports or condolences on the disaster I ran from.” As she goes to the window, The Lament—a strain of plaintive “thematic” music that periodically plays throughout the production—issues faintly from above. Finally, Chance articulates what, exactly, he wants out of his relationship with the Princess. “You said that you had a large block of stock, more than half ownership in a sort of second-rate Hollywood studio, and you could put me under contract,” he says. Apparently, when she first said this, he had her sign a notarized contract. Still, though, he wants to make sure she follows through.
Throughout the play, Williams uses The Lament to signal shifts in the general mood and atmosphere. In this moment, The Lament seems to play because the Princess has once again mentioned “the disaster” from which she has fled, and doing so inspires a strange mood, one that destabilizes the play’s ordinary feeling. Yet again, though, Chance remains completely uninfluenced by the Princess’s distress. Instead of kindly talking to her about what’s going through her head, he reminds her that she promised to help him become famous, once more revealing just how obsessed he is with himself.
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Chance says that he has been conned too many times to fully trust things that might still be “phony.” In response, the Princess admits that she could technically still get out of the contract if she wanted to. “Do you have any talent?” she asks, referring to his acting skills. “I’m not as positive of it as I once was,” he says. “I’ve had more chances than I could count on my fingers, and made the grade almost, but not quite, every time. Something always blocks me…” As he says this, The Lament fades back in, and the Princess asks him if fear is what holds him back. “No,” he says, “not fear, but terror.”
Now that it’s clear Chance wants to become a famous actor, it’s easier to understand his intentions and motivations. He expresses a self-awareness in this moment, one that suggests that he understands he’s not especially talented as an actor. Of course, this only increases his desperation, which is why he wants to use the Princess to launch his career. As The Lament plays, the audience sees that he is “terrified” of failure.
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Chance,” says the Princess, “come back to your youth. Put off this false, ugly hardness and…” Before she can finish, he says: “And be took in by every con-merchant I meet?” She then insists that she’s not a “phony,” prompting him to ask what—in that case—she wants from him in order to go through with their deal. Smiling, she calls him to the bed, saying that they ought to “comfort each other a little.” He then reveals that he has recorded their entire conversation, replaying the moment when she admitted that she was in possession of smuggled drugs. Understanding that she’s been blackmailed, she asks Chance what he wants. He then urges her to sign traveler’s checks over to him, but she refuses, saying that first he must have sex with her.
In this moment, both Chance and the Princess drop all pretenses of treating each other with dignity. Instead, they bluntly state what they want from each other, since each of them wants to use the other as a means to some end. In Chance’s case, he intends to blackmail the Princess into making him famous. In the Princess’s case, she intends to sleep with Chance as a way of forgetting about her troubles and—perhaps—her old age. As such, it’s not hard to see that their relationship is twisted and corrupted by ulterior motives.
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The Princess says she’ll help Chance on the condition that he never mention death or her failing health. Furthermore, he must always give her what she wants (sexually) without question or hesitation. “I have only one way to forget these things I don’t want to remember and that’s through the act of love-making,” she says. “That’s the only dependable distraction so when I say now, because I need that distraction, it has to be now, not later.” Chance then asks if she’s ashamed to demand this sort of thing, and she says, “Of course I am. Aren’t you?” In response, he admits he is, too. Nonetheless, they close the shutters and get into bed together.
In many ways, Chance and the Princess are perfect for one another. Although they’re both seemingly incapable of engaging with one another on a genuine, human level, they each want something that the other has, and see no issue with a transactional relationship. Void of passion or affection, they each use each other to chase something they want, all the while denying the things they fear most. For Chance, this means using the Princes to become a famous actor and thus deny the fact that he’s talentless and running out of time. For the Princess, this means sexually exploiting Chance’s good looks to escape the reality that she no longer has what matters most to her: youth and beauty.
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