Sweet Bird of Youth

by

Tennessee Williams

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

Summary
Analysis
While the Princess writes traveler’s checks for him, Chance tells his life story. He says he was born with “a wish or need to be different.” The people he grew up with, he explains, mostly still live in St. Cloud, working in business and leading stable lives with wives and children. “The little crowd that I was in with,” he says, “that I used to be the star of, was the snob set, the ones with the big names and money. I didn’t have either…What I had was…” Interrupting, the Princess shouts: “BEAUTY! Say it! Say it! What you had was beauty! I had it! I say it, with pride, no matter how sad, being gone, now.” Chance goes on, saying that he always felt destined for something better than the average life in St. Cloud. “I wanted, expected, intended to get, something better,” he says.
Both Chance and the Princess invest themselves in their own “beauty.” In fact, this superficiality means so much to them that it’s the primary thing they talk about when reflecting upon their respective pasts. Chance, for his part, has always felt that his good looks mean he’s destined for “something better” than the people with whom he grew up. With this, Williams showcases the vapid assumption that beauty entitles a person to success.
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Chance tells the Princess that he has done things nobody in St. Cloud has ever done, like sing in the chorus of a big New York show or pose for magazine photos. “And at the same time [I] pursued my other vocation…Maybe the only one I was truly meant for, love-making…slept in the social register of New York!” He goes on to claim that as a gigolo he always gave people more than he ever took, saying, “Middle-aged people I gave back a feeling of youth. Lonely girls? Understanding, appreciation! An absolutely convincing show of affection. Sad people, lost people? Something light and uplifting!” However, he never let this life completely ensnare him, periodically returning to St. Cloud to see Heavenly and to make everybody “buzz with excitement” about his arrival. Before long, though, he was drafted and sent into the Navy to fight in the Korean War.
Chance believes he has had an extraordinary life built upon his handsome looks and irresistible charm. In truth, though, it’s easy to see that he has only attained a small amount of success in the acting world, which has driven him to become a gigolo. Although he frames this profession as having enabled him to do fantastic things, it’s probably more accurate to say that working as a gigolo is something he only does out of necessity.. And yet at the same time, he does seem to derive some sort of pleasure out of his experience, as evidenced by his enthusiasm regarding his ability to give people “a feeling of youth” or “appreciation.”
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Purity and Corruption Theme Icon
Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
Proceeding with his life story, Chance admits that he hated the discipline of the Navy. “I kept thinking, this stops everything,” he says, explaining that he was eager to leave the military. “By the time I got out,” he says, “Christ knows, I might be nearly thirty! Who would remember Chance Wayne? In a life like mine, you just can’t stop, you know, can’t take time out between steps, you’ve got to keep going right on up from one thing to the other, once you drop out, it leaves you and goes on without you and you’re washed up.” After finding grey hairs one day, he had a nervous breakdown and got a medical discharge from the Navy, returning to St. Cloud to find his old friends and fellow townspeople chilly and reserved whenever he spoke to them.
Once again, Chance feels as if he deserves more than the average person. Because he’s handsome and charming, he can’t fathom the idea of growing old in the Navy. The fact that he has a panic attack after finding several gray hairs only reinforces his obsession with superficial notions of beauty.
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After getting discharged from the Navy, Chance’s relationship with Heavenly became vitally important to him. At this point, the Princess interrupts him and asks if Heavenly is the reason he’s come to St. Cloud. He confirms this is the case, and shows the Princess a snapshot of Heavenly posing nude on a sandbar. He tells her he took this one night at low-tide when Heavenly was only fifteen; the same age she was when she lost her virginity to him (he was two years older). “Princess,” he says now, “the great difference between people in this world is not between the rich and the poor or the good and the evil, the biggest of all differences in this world is between the ones that had or have pleasure in love and those that haven’t and hadn’t any pleasure in love.”
When Chance says that the “great difference between people in this world” is whether or not they’ve had “pleasure in love,” he reveals the strange way he conceives of love: not as an emotional experience or true connection between people, but as something that satisfies desire and lust. This is important to keep in mind as Sweet Bird of Youth progresses, since Chance’s love for Heavenly often seems as if it has more to do with rather arbitrary pleasures than genuine connection.
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Chance tells the Princess that he always has had Heavenly’s love to come back to. “Something permanent in a world of change?” she asks, and he says, “Yes, after each disappointment, each failure at something, I’d come back to her like going to a hospital…” Unfortunately, though, Heavenly’s father has never approved of him. “Didn’t I tell you that Heavenly is the daughter of Boss Finley, the biggest political wheel in this part of the country?” he asks the Princess before going on to explain that Boss Finley believes his daughter deserves a better man than him. Apparently, the last time he was in St. Cloud, Heavenly told him to meet her out on the sandbar, but she wasn’t there when he arrived. After a while, she came and circled the sandbar in a boat, shouting things like, “Chance, go away,” and “Chance, you’re a liar.”
Since the Princess uses sexual intercourse as a way of escaping her misgivings about growing older, it’s unsurprising that she sees love as “something permanent in a world of change.” For her, intimate connection is an outlet for her unaddressed emotional turmoil. This may well be the case for Chance, too, since he believes Heavenly’s love is something he can consistently return to, suggesting that he depends upon her affection to help him feel grounded. On another note, Boss Finley’s rejection of Chance aligns with the idea that many people in St. Cloud see him as a low-life who will corrupt otherwise good people.
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Because of his troubles with Boss Finley, Chance explains, he needs the Princess’s help. He then tells her what he has in mind: he will show Heavenly the acting contract drawn up by the Princess. Then the Princess will start using her real name, Alexandra Del Lago, in order to attract the press. Once she has the media’s attention, she’ll announce a local contest “to find a pair of young people to star as unknowns in a picture [she’s] planning to make to show [her] faith in YOUTH.” Of course, the contest will be rigged so that Chance and Heavenly win, at which point they’ll travel to Hollywood. For now, though, Chance says he’s going to borrow the Princess’s Cadillac because he wants to drive around town to attract attention.
Although Chance claims that he wants to get famous in order to settle his relationship with Heavenly’s father, it’s hard to deny the notion that his vanity also has something to do with his desire to become a well-known actor. Indeed, he further demonstrates this vanity when he says that he wants to borrow the Princess’s Cadillac so that he can simply be seen driving around looking like a big shot in his hometown. Moments of vanity like this ultimately give the impression that Chance wants to be successful just so that he can be admired, not simply for the sake of true love.
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Having heard his plan, the Princess calls Chance a “lost little boy,” though she admits she wants to help him “find himself.” She then tells him to come kiss her. “I love you”, she says, then turns to the audience and asks, “Did I say that? Did I mean it?” Regardless, she goes on hugging him. Eventually, he breaks their embrace and sets off to drive around in the Princess’s Cadillac while she herself waits in the hotel room, wondering when she’ll see him again.
When the Princess kisses Chance and says “I love you” to him, she surprises herself. However, her sudden overflow of affection isn’t actually very shocking, considering that they want the same things: beauty, fame, and admiration. Further, because she feels old, she relishes his youthful presence, and seemingly mistakes her admiration for love.
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