Sweet Bird of Youth is a 1959 play by Tennessee Williams which tells the story of a gigolo and drifter, Chance Wayne, who returns to his home town as the companion of a faded movie star, Alexandra del Lago (travelling incognito as Princess Kosmonopolis), whom he hopes to use to help him break into the movies. The main reason for his homecoming is to get back what he had in his youth: primarily, his old girlfriend, whose father had run him out of town years before. The play was written for Tallulah Bankhead, a good friend of Williams.
Sweet Bird of Youth originated around 1956 as two plays: a two-character version of the final play featuring only Chance and the Princess, and a one-act play titled The Pink Bedroom that was later developed into Act Two of the play, featuring Boss Finley and his family.
In St. Cloud, native son Chance Wayne has fled his home town, seeking to profit from his beauty and youth in New York or Hollywood (whichever of the two). When he fails as an actor and then a personality in both cities, he turns to the freelance career of gigolo. As the traveling escort of his current employer, Chance returns to St. Cloud in an attempt to win back his childhood lover, escorting an aging, depressed, semi-alcoholic film star: Alexandra del Lago, who is running away from the negative criticism she believes is the public and critical response to her attempt at a cinematic comeback in a recently released film.
Del Lago also had been running away and burying herself in sex, alcohol, and drugs until Chance recognized her while hustling in a Florida resort. He saw in her a last chance to build a relationship (taking care of her while on their drive back to Hollywood, with him as her escort). He is using his perceived gallantry to entice del Lago to give him the imprimatur of stardom which he failed to achieve on his own. As he and del Lago are driving along the Sunset Route back to California, Chance hopes that he will reunite with Heavenly Finley, his childhood sweetheart, and bring her back to Hollywood, where – with del Lago's aid – they will both achieve stardom.
Unfortunately once returned to St. Cloud, Chance discovers Heavenly is only a shadow of the girl he knew. During his last visit to St. Cloud, she got pregnant. When she discovered the problem, she had to have an abortion and because of an unskilled doctor's knife, she was hospitalized and the abortion resulted in a hysterectomy and her sterility. Her powerful and corrupt father and brother are determined to make Chance pay for the injury done to Heavenly. Chance worries that he will receive the same fate as a black man in town who recently was attacked and castrated.
Using Alexandra's car and funds, Chance tries to prove to the town that he is a success, but his old friends call his bluff and see him for what he has become. Meanwhile, Alexandra receives news that the criticism she has been running from is actually praise and that her comeback could not have been better. Chance believes he will ride with her to the top, but Alexandra has no wish for a gigolo to besmirch her good name. With his youth gone, Chance does not know how to move on with his life. Although she will not recommend him for a job in Hollywood, Alexandra urges him to continue as her escort, but he decides to stay and accept his inevitable punishment in St. Cloud.
Williams began work on the play in the fall of 1959, calling it at first The Enemy of Time. As Sweet Bird of Youth, the work-in-progress had a tryout production starring Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Drivas in Coral Gables, Florida, directed by George Keathley at his Studio M Playhouse in 1956 which began before Williams' agent Audrey Wood knew he had a new play. Elia Kazan saw it. Kazan and Cheryl Crawford were "party to the secret and petitioned Audrey to let them produce and direct the new play."
The original production by Cheryl Crawford opened on March 10, 1959 at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City. Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Sidney Blackmer, Madeleine Sherwood, Diana Hyland, Logan Ramsey, and Rip Torn. Bruce Dern also played a small role. The production was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Actress for Page. The play ran for more than a year and 375 performances.
A revival opened on December 29, 1975 at the Harkness Theatre, in a production directed by Edwin Sherin, starring Christopher Walken as Chance Wayne and Irene Worth as Princess Kosmonopolis. Worth won the 1976 Tony Award for Best Actress.
A production was planned to open in 2011 with David Cromer directing and Scott Rudin serving as producer. In 2012, the production showed at the Goodman Theatre to much acclaim, with Diane Lane in the lead role.
After 26 years, Sweet Bird of Youth appeared in London's West End. It opened on July 8, 1985 at the Haymarket Theatre in a production directed by Harold Pinter and presented by impresario Douglas Urbanski; it starred Lauren Bacall and Michael Beck with James Grout and David Cunningham. This production later transferred to Los Angeles under the direction of Michael Blakemore.
The play returned to the London stage on 1 June 2013 with a production at The Old Vic directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Kim Cattrall as Del Lago and Seth Numrich as Chance.
The play was revived in 2017 at Chichester Festival Theatre, running from June 2 to 24. Directed by Jonathan Kent, it starred Marcia Gay Harden as Alexandra del Lago/The Princess Kosmonopolis and Brian J. Smith as Chance Wayne. Co-stars included Emma Amos and Richard Cordery.
Main article: Sweet Bird of Youth (1962 film)
In 1962, the play was made into a feature film starring Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Madeleine Sherwood, Ed Begley, Rip Torn and Mildred Dunnock. The movie was adapted and directed by Richard Brooks. The film version earned three Academy Award nominations, all for acting: Geraldine Page for Best Actress, Shirley Knight for Best Supporting Actress, and Ed Begley for Best Supporting Actor, which he won.
Main article: Sweet Bird of Youth (1989 film)
Sweet Bird of Youth was made for television in 1989, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mark Harmon, Valerie Perrine, Ronnie Claire Edwards, Cheryl Paris, Kevin Geer and Rip Torn. It was adapted by Gavin Lambert.