Sweet Bird of Youth

Sweet Bird of Youth Summary and Analysis of Part 3


Act 2. The terrace at Boss Finley's Victorian Gothic home. Williams writes, "the tableau is all blue and white, as strict as a canvas of Georgie O'Keefe's." Boss and Scudder are talking about the fact that Chance had sex with Heavenly when she was only 15, and took her picture naked on Diamond Key. The pictures circulated when Chance got them developed, Boss says.

Scudder encourages Boss to cancel a rally he is hosting, so that he can take Heavenly on a short cruise on his boat, The Starfish. Boss refuses and calls to his son, Tom Jr., to see if Chance has checked out of the hotel. Tom says he has not, as Boss tells Scudder that Dan Hatcher, the assistant manager at the Royal Palms, is keeping him informed of Chance's movements.

Scudder and Boss argue about the fact that Scudder was in charge of seeing that Heavenly got an operation secretly, but failed. They discuss the fact that Chance is traveling with Alexandra Del Lago, who is ill and from whom they must separate him. "My daughter's no whore," Boss says, "But she had a whore's operation after the last time he had her...I want him gone by tomorrow—tomorrow commences at midnight."

Tom Jr. asks if he can use the boat, and Boss agrees, before calling to Heavenly, who is lying on the beach. Scudder begins to write up a prescription for Boss's cough, but Boss insists that he has had it all his life and tells Scudder to tear up the prescription. Suddenly, Chance appears in the driveway and calls to Aunt Nonnie, who runs onto the veranda. She tells Boss that she was trying to discourage Chance from being in St. Cloud, but he would not listen. She guesses that the men are planning to use violence to get Chance out of town, and asks them to let her do it.

Boss tells Nonnie to fetch Heavenly, and scolds Nonnie for once encouraging his daughter's affair with Chance. Nonnie replies, "I remember when Chance was the finest, nicest, sweetest boy in St. Cloud, and he stayed that way till you, till you—" before going off to get Heavenly.

Boss and Tom Jr. discuss that Boss is running for office with his son on the ticket. Tom figures that his father is lucky to have him, but Boss insists that his son's reputation, as a drunk driver, college flunkie, and a rabid partier, have all compromised his campaign. When he references Tom's promiscuity, his son fires back that he has also been promiscuous, having had an affair with someone named Miss Lucy, a woman Boss allegedly keeps in a $50/day suite at the Royal Palms. Boss denies this, as Tom insists that Lucy says he is too old to be a lover.

Upset, Boss addresses the audience directly, telling them that they ought to mind their own business. As Heavenly enters, he tries to talk to her, but she resists. A servant, Charles, turns on a coach lamp and Williams writes, "The light change is not realistic; the light doesn't seem to come from the coach lamp but from a spectral radiance in the sky, flooding the terrace." Heavenly looks at the Gulf. Boss looks at Heavenly with admiration, as Charles interrupts them to say that a phone call has come in for Heavenly. Boss tells him to say Heavenly is not in.

Boss goes to Heavenly and confronts her about her lack of discretion, which he says always turns her into a scandal. She talks back, insisting that Boss made the scandal himself by preventing her from marrying Chance when he was "still young and clean." She talks back to him, insisting that he married for love, but would not let her do the same. She references his mistress, Miss Lucy, and the fact that he broke her mother's heart, but he seems not to remember this.

Trying to win Heavenly's affection, Boss tells her to go to the store, Maison Blanche, and buy clothes with unlimited credit. He goes on a long monologue about making an oil deal that has made him rich, and tells Heavenly to buy whatever she wants. He tells Heavenly a story about a diamond clip that her mother loved that cost him 15,000 dollars. Heavenly asks him if he buried her mother with it, and he tells her that he took it back to the jewelry store immediately, but would have bought it for any price. Heavenly begins to laugh, then starts screaming and runs towards the house, but Boss grabs her.

He says: "Last week in New Bethesda, when I was speaking on the threat of desegregation to white women's chastity in the South, some heckler in the crowd shouted out, 'Hey, Boss Finley, how about your daughter? How about that operation you had done on your daughter at the Thomas J. Finley hospital in St. Cloud? Did she put on black in mourning for her appendix? Same heckler, same question when I spoke in the Coliseum at the state capitol."

Heavenly tells her father that it was worse for her, since she had to have the operation and now is unable to bear children. She tells him she's entering a convent, but he shouts that he forbids her from joining her mother's religion. He insists that she must attend a convention that evening with him. Speaking on the stakes of his campaign he says, "I'm all that stands between the South and the black days of Reconstruction. And you and Tom Jr. are going to stand there beside me in the grand crystal ballroom, as shining examples of white Southern youth—in danger."

When Heavenly refuses, Boss tells her that he is going to punish Chance, maybe even kill him. He leaves, menacingly, suggesting that he is going to visit Miss Lucy.


In Act 2, we are transported out of the claustrophobic hotel room and to the estate of Boss Finley, Heavenly's father and the man who wants to see Chance's downfall. Boss is intent on seeing Chance's demise, after the latter not only took his young daughter's innocence, but circulated nude photos of her throughout the community. A powerful man, Boss has many connections within the community that allow him to keep close tabs on Chance, so that he can finally orchestrate the young man's demise.

While the men in Heavenly's family seem to categorically despise Chance Wayne, the women have more ambiguous feelings towards the young man. Aunt Nonnie, Heavenly's mother's sister, goes to warn Chance to get out of town and tries to convince Boss not to use violence against Chance. We then learn that she once encouraged Heavenly's relationship with Chance, as she pins some of the blame for Chance's degeneracy on Boss himself. The moral universe of the play is complicated and confusing to the audience. None of Williams' characters are straightforwardly moral or "in the right." Instead, the opinions they hold are portrayed as subjective.

If Chance and Princess share a relationship to public life that has to do with entertainment and show business, the Finley family's relationship to the public eye is within the similar but significantly different arena of politics. On the veranda, Boss discusses with his son the pitfalls of politics, and the fact that every politician must answer for the sins of those who live with him. Boss complains about Heavenly's sexual misconduct and Tom's drunk driving and partying, and the fact that it ruins his reputation as a politician. In this interaction, we see a kind of parallel with Princess and Chance's discussion of fame and performance, but the rules of the game are much different, and have to do with a kind of moral platform that politics creates.

Williams uses formal theatrical disruptions to change the dramatic space at various points. One way he does this by allowing characters— such as Princess and Boss—to speak directly to the audience to reveal more about their inner lives in a given moment. This creates a confidence between the character and the audience and further complicates the already complex moral universe of the play. Both Princess and Boss are older characters who are harder to understand than other characters, but they are able to talk back to any misperceptions that might be occurring amongst the audience members. Then, when a servant turns on a light, a disruption occurs within the reality of the stageworld, creating a more poetic and, as Williams puts it, more "formal" division. The atmosphere created onstage is one that seems almost suspended in time, a kind of explosion of the emotional core of the relationship between Boss and Heavenly.

While the moral universe of the play is rather ambiguous, there is no doubt that Boss Finley is the play's vicious antagonist. A virulent segregationist, political manipulator, and horrible father, he represents the hypocrisy of Southern gentility. While he himself has sinned and hurt others, and while his politics have had catastrophic effects on the lives of others and the environment, he has no remorse for the ways he has done harm. He is the archetype of old and stubborn sanctimony, of pure politics without any sense of ethics or character.