Sweet Bird of Youth

by

Tennessee Williams

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Sweet Bird of Youth: Act Three Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Later that night, the Princess makes a call to the front desk from her hotel room and urgently requests that somebody get her a driver to take her out of this “infernal” place. “Scattered sounds of disturbance” can be heard outside the window, and something is burning in the hotel garden. While the Princess is on the phone, Scotty, Tom Junior, and Hatcher knock on her door and tell her to let them in. When she does, Tom Junior tells her she must leave because of her association with Chance. The three men then force their way inside and search for Chance. When they finish, they tell the Princess that they can arrange to have her driven out of St. Cloud, offering to have a police officer escort her through the mayhem. Just as they leave, Chance sneaks into the room.
When the audience last saw the Princess, she had just heard The Lament. Caught off-guard by its plaintive sound, she realized that beach towns like St. Cloud only offer temporary exile, not true escape. Now, it seems, she intends to act upon that realization by getting ready to leave and asking Hatcher, Tom Junior, and Scotty to help her leave this place, which she now sees as nothing less than hellish (“infernal”). Rather than running away from her past by hiding out and numbing herself with sex and drugs, she has decided to move on. After all, living like a hermit in a fancy hotel won’t enable her to forget the fact that she no longer has her youthful beauty, and she seems to—on some level—understand this.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
Chance looks like “he has gone a good deal further across the border of reason.” The Princess tells him she’s waiting for a driver, but he insists he’ll drive. “You couldn’t drive through the Palm Garden. Will you listen to me? I listened to you this morning, with understanding and pity,” she says, going on to tell a story of her own. “I remembered young men who were what you are or what you’re hoping to be. I saw […] [their] eyes, voices, smiles, bodies clearly. But their names wouldn’t come back to me.” This, she says, bothered her, so she started thinking about one man in particular, a man who she once fired because he held her too tightly during a dance scene. Apparently, she saw this man recently in Monte Carlo. “He was with a woman of seventy, and his eyes looked older than hers,” she says.
Here the Princess tells Chance a cautionary tale about people who never accept their limitations and failures. Having seen that Chance is “a good deal further across the border of reason,” she perhaps feels like she must help him come to terms with the fact that his pursuit to become a successful actor—and to win over Heavenly—is actually working against him. Before long, he will have the sad eyes of a man much older than his actual age, but he won’t have accomplished anything. In this way, the Princess suggests that people can waste lifetimes doing what Chance has been doing during the play: indulging unrealistic fantasies.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
Continuing her story about the young actor she once fired, the Princess says she found out that the man made a life of hanging out in casinos and bars “like a blind, dying lap dog.” Not long after she saw him, she says, “he drove his Alfa-Romeo or Ferrari off the Grand Corniche. […] I wonder what they found in [his cracked skull],” she says. “Old, despaired-of ambitions, little treacheries, possibly even little attempts at blackmail that didn’t quite come off, and whatever traces are left of really great charm and sweetness.” Turning to Chance, she tells him that he is the same as this man. “Will you please try to face it so we can go on together?” she asks.
When the Princess says, “Will you please try to face it so we can go on together?” she emphasizes just how important it is for Chance to finally accept his own failures. Indeed, he must “face” his shortcomings in order to move on with his life. Of course, this is much easier said than done, especially since Chance is quite adept at deluding himself into believing he has what it takes to become famous.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
Chance shakes off the Princess, picks up the phone, and dials the operator. As the Princess tries to convince him to leave with her, he asks the operator to connect him to a certain Hollywood reporter with whom the Princess has a close personal relationship. As he tries to connect with this reporter—getting shunted from one number to the next in an effort to track her down—the Princess delivers a self-aware monologue to the audience, saying, “I seem to be standing in light with everything else dimmed out.” She later muses about her faded fame and youth, saying: “Monsters don’t die early; they hang on long. Awfully long. Their vanity’s infinite, almost as infinite as their disgust with themselves…”
Similar to how she addressed the audience in the beginning of Act One, the Princess now turns to her spectators and speaks to them directly. This time, though, she’s even more cognizant of her situation, finding herself capable of commenting on the spotlight shining down on her. When she first addressed the audience, she did so simply because she loved attention: it was only natural for her to tell her story to a group of curious listeners. Now, though, she faces the audience as a way of questioning the value of fame. This is why she comments on the lighting, trying to examine how her experience as a performer obsessed with public presentation has influenced her life as a whole.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
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Finally, Chance gets the reporter on the phone and gives the receiver to the Princess. As he does this, he whispers, “Tell her that you’ve discovered a pair of new stars. Two of them.” Holding her arm tightly, he says, “And lay it on thick. Tell her to break it tomorrow in her column.” Despite this, the Princess starts talking to the reporter about her comeback film. Much to her surprise, she discovers that the movie has actually been received quite well, and that people are saying her “talent” has “grown,” that it has developed “more depth” and “power.” Chance, for his part, listens to her end of the conversation and fervently tries to force her to talk about him. “Talk about me and HEAVENLY!” he hisses. When this doesn’t work, he says, “Hey. Talk about me!”
Despite the Princess’s self-awareness—her willingness to look critically at her life as an actress whose livelihood depended on vanity—she can’t resist talking to the reporter about her comeback film. This is because she still needs validation from others. Although her “vanity” is “infinite,” so is her “disgust with [herself]” (to borrow her own words). As such, she finds it impossible to refrain from hearing what the reporter has to say. Meanwhile, Chance acts like a petulant child, insisting that the Princess talk about him and Heavenly. It’s worth noting that when the Princess doesn’t listen to him, he shortens his message, demanding: “Talk about me!” This reveals that he views Heavenly as secondary to him—yet another indication that his love for her is not incredibly genuine.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
The reporter on the phone tells the Princess that everybody wants her to star in another film. Dazed and content, she tells the reporter she’ll call her back, at which point she drops the phone and tells Chance that her movie has broken box-office records. Ignoring Chance’s indignation that she didn’t mention him, she starts thinking aloud about how she’ll need to spend a week in a “clinic” and then another week at a ranch before reappearing as an actress.  “Get her back on the phone,” Chance orders. “Talk about me and talk about Heavenly to her.” Finally hearing him again, the Princess replies: “Talk about a beach-boy I picked up for pleasure, distraction from panic? Now? When the nightmare is over? Involve my name, which is Alexandra Del Lago, with the record of a—You’ve just been using me. Using me.”
Chance has a one-track mind throughout the entirety of Sweet Bird of Youth: he wants to become famous, and he wants to succeed in his relationship with Heavenly. The Princess, on the other hand, gradually drifts away from such superficial concerns. However, when she receives positive feedback about her comeback film, she completely forgets all about her newfound resolve to live less superficially. As such, Williams suggests that fame and the idea of widespread popularity can be hard to resist, even if a person recognizes the downsides of living a life dedicated to something fleeting and unfulfilling.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Chance,” the Princess continues, “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.” In response, he urges her to look in the mirror and admit what she sees. “I see—Alexandra Del Lago, artist and star!” she says. Then she makes him look in the mirror, and before he can say what he sees, she says the mirror holds the very same face as the failed actor she knew who drove his car off a cliff. “Face it—pitiful monster,” she says, touching his head. “Of course, I know I’m one too. But one with a difference. Do you know what that difference is? […] Out of the passion and torment of my existence I have created a thing that I can unveil, a sculpture, almost heroic, that I can unveil, which is true.”
Here the Princess offers a key distinction between Chance and herself. Although they want the same things and are obsessed with similar ideas regarding fame, popularity, and success, Chance has almost nothing other than his youthful good looks, which have begun to fade. The Princess, on the other hand, has actual talent. Indeed, she is a respectable actress, one good enough to push beyond the limits of her own faded beauty. In other words, she has talent and has worked hard to develop that talent, while Chance has only ever gotten by on his appearance.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Purity and Corruption Theme Icon
Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The Princess says that Chance, unlike her, isn’t a “monster” with a “difference,” but just a sorry man who’s in danger of getting castrated by his lover’s brother. Just then, the sound of loud wind rushes through the room, and the Princess and Chance back away from each other. Suddenly, the Princess finds herself exhausted. “Age does the same thing to a woman…” she says, as “something uncertain appears in her face and voice betraying the fact which she probably suddenly knows, that her future course is not a progression of triumphs.” Then a sense of resolution creeps into her “fearful, lonely, and tender” eyes: “I am going, now, on my way,” she says.
When the wind whips through the room, the scene’s mood changes. Suddenly, the Princess is swept up in a certain kind of strange existential epiphany, as she states that “age” castrates women. When a man gets castrated, he is no longer able to reproduce. Similarly, when a woman ages, she eventually loses the ability to procreate. Although this idea of castration is somewhat tangential to the matters at hand, Williams uses the concept to consider how Chance and the Princess fear that they will be stripped of their ability to do what they think they’re destined to do. By talking to Chance about castration, the Princess is forced to think again about the fact that she has lost her youthful beauty. Even though her comeback film has apparently been successful, this doesn’t change the fact that she is growing older. Perhaps her first comeback was a success, but there’s no telling how long she’ll be able to remain in the public eye. In turn, her eyes reflect a “fearful, lonely, and tender” quality as she slowly realizes that her problems haven’t all disappeared simply because her comeback went well. However, one thing has changed: she is ready to accept this reality, ready to go “on [her] way.”
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
Before leaving, the Princess asks Chance if he’s coming or staying. “Staying,” he says, loosening his tie. She tugs on his arm, saying that because their names are connected, anything that happens to him will implicate her, so they must stick together. “Whatever happens to me’s already happened,” he says, prompting her to ask what he’s trying to prove. “Something’s got to mean something, don’t it, Princess? I mean like your life means nothing, except that you never could make it, always almost, never quite? Well, something’s still got to mean something.”
Although his prospects are quite grim, Chance refuses to leave, as leaving St. Cloud would mean giving up on his efforts to become famous and win over Heavenly. Of course, neither of these prospects seems likely, but Chance is a stubborn man capable of deluding himself into thinking that he has a shot at getting what he thinks he deserves. In this scene, though, a new hint of desperation has edged into his voice, as made clear by what he says about finding meaning in life. “Something’s got to mean something, don’t it, Princess?” he asks, perhaps feeling like he has wasted too much time and effort to walk away from his pursuits now. Regardless of his multiple failures, then, he decides to stay and face whatever is coming his way.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon
Slowly, The Lament fades in and plays until the end of the play. The Princess tells Chance once more that they must “go on,” but he says he can’t because he has “gone past” his youth. When she tries to tell him he’s still young, he says: “Princess, the age of some people can only be calculated by the level of—level of—rot in them. And by that measure I’m ancient.” At this moment, the sound of a ticking clock joins The Lament. “Time,” Chance says, “who could beat it, who could defeat it ever? Maybe some saints and heroes, but not Chance Wayne.” From outside the room, Tom Junior calls the Princess and tells her that her driver has arrived. She rises, opens the door, and confronts Tom.
This is the first time in the play that Chance admits that he has “gone past” his youth. Previously, he only ever alluded to his fading beauty by—for example—referencing his thinning hair. Now, though, he says that his body is full of “rot,” making him “ancient.” Of course, this is in many ways true, since he has an illness that is no doubt affecting his physical health. By calling this disease “rot,” though, he aligns himself with Boss Finley’s ideas about the corruption of purity—whereas his body used to be young and healthy, now he sees it as “rot[ten]” and old, as if his very life has corrupted his previously clean form.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Purity and Corruption Theme Icon
“Come on, Chance,” the Princess says, urging him to come with her. Looking up, Chance only shakes his head—after a moment, the Princess finally leaves. Tom Junior then whistles for Scotty, Bud, and another man, who immediately appear and advance upon Chance. As they approach, Chance stands and says: “I don’t ask for your pity, but just for your understanding—not even that—no. Just for your recognition of me in you, and the enemy, time, in us all.”
Although Chance’s final words in the play sound as if they carry profound wisdom about the ways all humans are destined to succumb to the unforgiving effects of time, it’s worth noting that this does nothing to address the actual reason why Boss Finley and Tom Junior want to harm him. After all, Boss Finley doesn’t care about how hard it is for Chance to grow old—what he cares about is the fact that Chance treated Heavenly poorly, giving her an STD without even mentioning it and then running off to continue his life of irresponsibility. Even in this last moment, then, Chance is unable to step outside of his own experience to acknowledge that he has harmed others. Instead, he continues to obsess over the fact that his youth is gone, an altogether natural and unavoidable fact of life, but one he can seemingly never come to terms with.
Themes
Youth, Beauty, and Time Theme Icon
Purity and Corruption Theme Icon
Love, Obsession, and Pleasure Theme Icon
Escapism and Denial Theme Icon