In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education declared racial segregation in American schools to be unlawful. Five years later, Tennessee Williams published Sweet Bird of Youth against a backdrop of political change; segregationist Jim Crow laws were repealed as the nation sought a new era of racial unity. Unfortunately, while laws changed, in many places, opinions did not. Many Southerners rejected racial unity and progress towards equality, clinging to segregation, and warning of the threat of black intrusion in white lives.
Williams developed the idea for Sweet Bird of Youth from a play that he wrote in 1952, called The Enemy: Time. It tells the story of a drifter and gigolo named Chance Wayne as he returns to his hometown with a faded movie star. Chasing his lost youth, Chase is returning to the Gulf Coast in hopes of winning back his ex-girlfriend, the daughter of a powerful local politician and vehement segregationist.
When the play first appeared, Williams actually made two plays out of it; a one-act play called The Pink Bedroom, which became Act Two of the final two-act play; and a two-character play featuring only Chance and his movie star. The first staging of the play starred Williams' good friend Tallullah Bankhead for whom he had written the role of Princess. It debuted far from Broadway, in Coral Gables, South Florida, at the Studio M Playhouse. It was not until Elia Kazan and Cheryl Crawford saw the play in Florida that it became a viable Broadway production. Crawford petitioned Williams relentlessly to allow her to produce a version of the play on Broadway, and when he relented, it premiered under Elia Kazan's direction at the Martin Beck Theater. The role of Chance Wayne was played by Paul Newman, with Geraldine Page taking over the role from Tallullah Bankhead. It was both a critical and commercial success and was nominated for three Tony Awards, including one for Page for Best Leading Actress in a Drama.