In Sweet Bird of Youth, the inevitability of aging wears on characters who have come to depend on a superficial kind of beauty. Chance, an aspiring actor, has no true talent as a performer. Nonetheless, he has spent his life chasing the minor success he enjoyed as a young man, always believing himself worthy of fame. A ladies’ man and gigolo (male escort), he’s supported himself by exploiting his youthful vitality and appeal, but this can only take him so far, as it’s clear his good looks will soon fade. This is perhaps why he decides to blackmail the famous but over-the-hill actress Alexandra Del Lago: he’s desperate to attain success before he loses his youthful beauty, which is his only asset. Interestingly, Alexandra Del Lago willingly goes along with his scheme—she too understands what it’s like to be terrified of aging, since she feels as if she’s recently lost her status in the entertainment industry because she’s no longer young and relevant. Unable to accept the inevitability of time and aging, then, both she and Chance turn to drugs and sexual debauchery, grasping desperately for happiness. This is because both of them of them have invested themselves in values that are, in the end, shallow. In turn, Tennessee Williams satirizes the vapid sense of importance people place on youthful beauty, demonstrating that it’s a mistake to invest oneself in something so fleeting.
Chance Wayne and Alexandra Del Lago are in distinctly different situations, but the problems they face are similar. Alexandra (the “Princess”) has at least enjoyed a successful career as a Hollywood star. Now, though, she’s depressed because she’s no longer a gorgeous young actress. Chance, on the other hand, has never actually gotten the fame he wants, though he hasn’t completely lost his good looks. Still, though, time is having its way with him, as his hair is thinning and his face is “ravaged.” Despite their differences, Chance and the Princess both feel sorry for themselves and worry about their advancing ages. However, Chance still wants to keep trying to become famous, whereas the Princess has resigned herself to the fact that she has lost everything she ever cared about. After he tells her that he wants to use her to become famous, she tells him, “At some point in your life, the thing that you lived for is lost or abandoned, and then…you die, or find something else.” Surprisingly, this sentiment suggests that the Princess is aware of how foolish she was to invest herself so wholeheartedly in youth and beauty, which don’t last. Unfortunately for her, there’s nothing left to “live for,” since she has focused all these years solely on her career as star. Now, it seems, there’s nothing for her to do but “die,” unless she can “find something else.” For her, this means throwing herself into a life of drugged stupor, as made evident by the fact that she smokes hashish while issuing this advice to Chance. As such, she hasn’t truly “found” anything of value, once again suggesting that she simply feels lost now that she can’t depend upon her youth, which is long gone.
As a child and teenager, Chance was incredibly attractive. Because of this, he believed he deserved a special, spectacular life. In fact, not only did he think he deserved this, but he simply assumed everything would work out for him, thinking his beauty would attract good things. Having returned to his home of St. Cloud, he looks condescendingly at his peers, who lead ordinary lives. “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 […],” he explains to the Princess. “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.” The fact that Chance “expected” to get “better” things than the people he grew up with just because he was handsome proves his rather shallow belief that beauty naturally leads to happiness and value.
But despite Chance’s expectations, he didn’t go on to “get something better” than his peers. In reality, he garnered only the most minor of successes in the theater world, and his main claim to fame was as a gigolo, which he refers to as “maybe the only [vocation he] was truly meant for.” Regarding this, he says, “I gave people more than I took. Middle-aged people I gave back a feeling of youth.” In this moment, Chance frames youth as a valuable commodity, something that people seemingly need and will pay to get (an idea the Princess reinforces by agreeing to help him get famous as long as he sleeps with her). Given this framework, it’s no surprise that he finds himself distraught at the idea of aging.
By the end of the play, Chance finally faces the fact that he can’t stop the passage of time. “Time—who could beat it, who could defeat it ever?” he laments. By this point, he understands on some level that he’ll never be famous, that his looks are gone, and that they were never even enough to make his life extraordinary in the first place. Faced with this realization, he has little to “live for,” which is why he says, “Something’s got to mean something, don’t it, Princess?” As the critic Lanford Wilson writes in an introduction to the text, this is a play about “the tragic loss of youthful beauty and innocence when that’s all one has to offer.” Even the Princess, who did have fame, has lost the “youthful beauty” that defined her life for so long. As such, both she and Chance find themselves reaching in vain for meaning in the wake of their faded youths. In this way, Williams warns that the passage of time remains uninfluenced by superficial concerns of youth and beauty, thereby suggesting that people ought to invest themselves in more authentic, meaningful values.
Youth, Beauty, and Time ThemeTracker
Youth, Beauty, and Time Quotes in Sweet Bird of Youth
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!
By the time I got out, 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.
I got the idea I wouldn’t live through the war, that I wouldn’t come back, that all the excitement and glory of being Chance Wayne would go up in smoke at the moment of contact between my brain and a bit of hot steel that happened to be in the air at the same time and place that my head was…that thought didn’t comfort me any. Imagine a whole lifetime of dreams and ambitions and hopes dissolving away in one instant, being blacked out like some arithmetic problem washed off a blackboard by a wet sponge, just by some little accident like a bullet, not even aimed at you but just shot off in space, and so I cracked up, my nerves did.
In her father, a sudden dignity is revived. Looking at his very beautiful daughter, he becomes almost stately. He approaches her […] like an aged courtier comes deferentially up to a crown princess or infant. It’s important not to think of his attitude toward her in the terms of crudely conscious incestuous feeling, but just in the natural terms of almost any aging father’s feeling for a beautiful young daughter who reminds him of a dead wife that he desired intensely when she was the age of his daughter.
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….