In Sweet Bird of Youth, characters like Chance Wayne and the Princess try to keep themselves from facing difficult thoughts and feelings. Whether by using drugs or running from city to city, they both actively avoid the fact that their deepest fears—of aging and fading into irrelevance or obscurity—have come true. For the Princess, this means drinking, popping pills, running away from her everyday life, and having sex with a younger man in order to “forget” that her career has come to an end. Chance, though, is in a slightly different predicament. While the Princess at least seems to grasp that she’s distracting herself from a truth she doesn’t want to think about, Chance keeps himself in a state of denial, insisting that he still has a shot at settling down with the love of his life and becoming rich and famous. Even when it’s clear that Chance’s plans have only run him into more trouble, he still doesn’t stop deluding himself, ultimately deciding to stay in St. Cloud despite the fact that Heavenly’s brother and father plan to castrate or kill him. In this way, Williams shows the audience that denial is capable of severely distorting a person’s rationality. By comparing and contrasting the Princess and Chance’s attempts at self-delusion, he suggests that while the desire to escape or “forget” about hardship is perhaps a natural human impulse, denying reality altogether is dangerous and misguided.
In the play’s opening scene, the Princess wakes up in a hotel room with Chance and doesn’t seem to know where she is, who Chance is, or why she’s there. As the two characters begin to talk, though, it becomes clear that the Princess has willfully imposed this amnesia upon herself. She wants to forget that several weeks ago she had an embarrassing moment at the first screening of her new film, which was supposed to be her “comeback” feature and triumphant return to the entertainment industry. However, she thinks this has gone disastrously, and so has run away, choosing to drift between luxury hotels in various beach towns. When Chance references the embarrassing incident at the Princess’s screening, he calls it a “disappointment,” to which she says, “What disappointment? I don’t remember any.” In response, Chance asks, “Can you control your memory like that?” “Yes,” the Princess admits. “I’ve had to learn to.” In this moment, she reveals her eagerness to escape—and even deny—the hardships that have befallen her, somehow willing herself to block out unpleasant thoughts. The fact that she has “had to learn to” do this suggests that she sees her ability to “forget” as a defense mechanism, something that can be used as a tool to cope (or avoid coping) with things she’s otherwise unwilling to face.
Despite the Princess’s efforts to completely forget—and thus deny—her “disappointment,” it isn’t long before she’s forced to acknowledge again what happened to her at the screening. “Oh God,” she says while looking out the hotel window, “I remember the thing I wanted not to. The goddam end of my life!” She then orders Chance to help her into bed and give her some hashish so that she can smoke her memories away. She explains that drugs help her “put to sleep the tiger that rage[s] in [her] nerves,” making it clear that she uses substances to flee her inner demons. Though she can’t quite succeed in permanently denying her troubles, she can try to run from them.
Unlike the Princess, Chance doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact that he’s losing any hope of stability or success. Instead of admitting to himself that his chances with Heavenly are slim and his chances of getting famous even slimmer, he dupes himself into thinking that change automatically means progress. As such, he’s able to convince himself that his lifestyle as a gigolo drifter might actually amount to something. “In a life like mine,” he says, “you just can’t stop… once you drop out, it leaves you and goes on without you and you’re washed up.” Interestingly enough, Chance acknowledges that he might end up becoming “washed up” someday. However, he doesn’t admit that this has already happened. Despite the fact that his looks are fading, everyone in his hometown hates him, and he can’t even spend a moment with his supposed lover, he still talks about becoming “washed up” as if it hasn’t already happened. His escapist lifestyle enables him to deny the fact that he’s already reached his peak. In this way, Chance justifies his life as a pill-popping, wayward man, mistaking his attempt to deny failure for actual progress.
While the Princess’s attempts to “forget” her woes only go so far, Chance desperately clings to his delusions. Unfortunately, it’s already too late by the time he finally shows any awareness of the fact that he’ll never be able to improve upon his life’s many failures. Indeed, at the end of the play, he begins to see that his attempt to blackmail his way to fame and thus win Heavenly’s love won’t work, and so he becomes jaded and depressed, asking the Princess how to go on when life has no meaning. “I mean like your life means nothing, except that you never could make it, always almost, never quite?” he babbles. However, the audience then sees that his delusional optimism hasn’t completely vanished, as he says, “Well, something’s still got to mean something.” He says this even though it has become obvious that none of his plans will do anything to help him. As such, even when he finally faces the great disappointments he’s been running from his entire life, he still manages to deny that his escapist techniques have all been in vain, instead insisting that they must “still…mean something” after all.
This, it seems, is why Chance refuses to leave St. Cloud with the Princess, who tries to convince him to accept his failure and get out of town before Heavenly’s father and brother injure him: he would rather face physical pain than admit his own shortcomings. In turn, Williams shows the audience that denial and an inability to confront difficult emotions can cause a person to behave self-destructively.
Escapism and Denial ThemeTracker
Escapism and Denial Quotes in Sweet Bird of Youth
SCUDDER: 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. […]
CHANCE: I’m used to that threat. I’m not going to leave St. Cloud without my girl.
For years they 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…
There’s no more valuable knowledge than knowing the right time to go. I knew it. I went at the right time to go. RETIRED!
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…
You were well born, weren’t you? Born of good Southern stock, in a genteel tradition, with just one disadvantage, a laurel wreath on your forehead, given too early, without enough effort to earn it…where’s your scrapbook, Chance? […] Where’s your book full of little theatre notices and stills that show you in the background of…
Whether or not I do have a disease of the heart that places an early terminal date on my life, no mention of that, no reference to it ever. No mention of death, never, never a word on that odious subject. I’ve been accused of having a death wish but I think it’s life that I wish for, terribly, shamelessly, on any terms whatsoever.
When I say now, the answer must not be later. I have only one way to forget these things I don’t want to remember and that’s through the act of love-making. That’s the only dependable distraction so when I say now, because I need that distraction, it has to be now, not later.
Yes, well…the others…[…] are all now members of the young social set here. The girls are young matrons, bridge-players, and the boys belong to the Junior Chamber of Commerce and some of them, clubs in New Orleans such as Rex and Comus and ride on the Mardi Gras floats. Wonderful? No boring…I wanted, expected, intended to get, something better…Yes, and I did, I got it. I did things that fat-headed gang never dreamed of. Hell when they were still freshmen at Tulane or LSU or Ole Miss, I sang in the chorus of the biggest show in New York, in Oklahoma, and had pictures in LIFE in a cowboy outfit, tossin’ a ten-gallon hat in the air! […] And at the same time pursued my other vocation….Maybe the only one I was truly meant for, love-making…slept in the social register of New York!
Princess, 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, but just watched it with envy, sick envy. The spectators and the performers. I don’t mean just ordinary pleasure or the kind you can buy, I mean great pleasure, and nothing that’s happened to me or to Heavenly since can cancel out the many long nights without sleep when we gave each other such pleasure in love as very few people can look back on in their lives…
Don’t give me your Voice of God speech. Papa, there was a time when you could have saved me, by letting me marry a boy that was still young and clean, but instead you drove him away, drove him out of St. Cloud. And when he came back, you took me out of St. Cloud, and tried to force me to marry a fifty-year-old money bag that you wanted something out of […] and then another, another, all of them ones that you wanted something out of. I’d gone, so Chance went away. Tried to compete, make himself big as these big shots you wanted to use me for a bond with. He went. He tried. The right doors wouldn’t open, and so he went in the wrong ones, and—Papa, you married for love, why wouldn’t you let me do it, while I was alive, inside, and the boy still clean, still decent?
You’re going to be wearing the stainless white of a virgin, with a Youth for Tom Finley button on one shoulder and a corsage of lilies on the other. You’re going to be on the speaker’s platform with me, you on one side of me and Tom Junior on the other, to scotch these rumors about your corruption. And you’re gonna wear a proud happy smile on your face, you’re gonna stare straight out at the crowd in the ballroom with pride and joy in your eyes. Lookin’ at you, all in white like a virgin, nobody would dare to speak or believe the ugly stories about you. I’m relying a great deal on this campaign to bring in young voters for the crusade I’m leading. I’m all that stands between the South and the black days of Reconstruction. And you and Tom Junior are going to stand there beside me in the grand crystal ballroom, as shining examples of white Southern youth—in danger.
Chance, when I saw you driving under the window with your head held high, with that terrible stiff-necked pride of the defeated which I know so well; I knew that your comeback had been a failure like mine. And I felt something in my heart for you. That’s a miracle, Chance. That’s the wonderful thing that happened to me. I felt something for someone besides myself. That means my heart’s still alive, at least some part of it is, not all of my heart is dead yet. Part’s alive still…Chance, please listen to me. I’m ashamed of this morning. I’ll never degrade you again, I’ll never degrade myself, you and me, again by—I wasn’t always this monster. Once I wasn’t this monster. And what I felt in my heart when I saw you returning, defeated, to this palm garden, Chance, gave me hope that I could stop being a monster. Chance, you’ve got to help me stop being the monster that I was this morning, and you can do it, can help me. I won’t be ungrateful for it. I almost died this morning, suffocated in a panic. But even through my panic, I saw your kindness. I saw a true kindness in you that you have almost destroyed, but that’s still there, a little…
All day I’ve kept hearing a sort of lament that drifts through the air of this place. It says, “Lost, lost, never to be found again.” Palm gardens by the sea and olives groves on Mediterranean islands all have that lament drifting through them. “Lost, lost”…The isle of Cyprus, Monte Carlo, San Remo, Torremolenas, Tangiers. They’re all places of exile from whatever we loved. Dark glasses, wide-brimmed hats and whispers, “Is that her?” Shocked whispers…Oh, Chance, believe me, after failure comes flight. Nothing ever comes after failure but flight. Face it. Call the car, have them bring down the luggage and let’s go on along the Old Spanish Trail.
Of course, you were crowned with laurel in the beginning, your gold hair was wreathed with laurel, but the gold is thinning and the laurel has withered. Face it—pitiful monster. [She touches the crown of his head.] … Of course, I know I’m one too. But one with a difference. Do you know what that difference is? No, you don’t know. I’ll tell you. We are two monsters, but with this difference between us. 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. But you? You’ve come back to the town you were born in, to a girl that won’t see you because you put such rot in her body she had to be gutted and hung on a butcher’s hook, like a chicken dressed for Sunday….