Throughout the play, many references are made to theater and performance and the ways that performance shapes life. One of Chance's traumatic memories, a memory that has haunted him and driven him to come back to St. Cloud to prove himself, is a memory of losing a state drama competition. Ever since then, he has chased fame and glory as an actor, which is part of why he's attached himself to the once-famous movie starlet Alexandra Del Lago. Additionally, he talks about the performance that goes into his work as a gigolo, suggesting that he puts on all kinds of performances in order to please his clients.
Boss is another character that relies on theater and performance, in an extended sense, in order to achieve success. As a political actor, he puts spins on narratives, tells theatrical stories, and tries to save face in the public eye through a kind of pretension and performance. This is yet another way that performance appears in the play.
Easter Weekend (Allegory)
The play is set during Easter weekend, which seems incidental, but also has an allegorical significance. Indeed, several of the characters are looking for a personal resurrection of some sort; some achieve it, while others do not. Boss is looking to resurrect his political career, Princess mourns the loss and eventually celebrates the resuscitation of her film career, and Chance wants to resurrect his formative relationship with Heavenly. Thus, the setting of the play during Easter resonates symbolically with the plights of the characters.
Castration and Surgery (Symbol)
Castration and surgery are some of the traumatic threats within the play. Set against the backdrop of desegregation, Sweet Bird of Youth references the violence that white Southern men perpetrated against black Southern men at that time in an effort to prevent interracial sexuality. As the play begins, we learn that a black man was recently castrated by a group of white attackers on the pretense of protecting white women from black sexual advances. This castration is symbolic of a racist system that feels threatened by racial equality, funneled through a particular sexual fear of emasculation.
Additionally, Heavenly's brother and community want to harm and castrate Chance for having given her a venereal disease. After contracting the disease, Heavenly had to receive surgery to cure it, but the surgery has rendered her infertile. This act is symbolic of the ways that Heavenly has been corrupted by Chance, rendered "useless" and unable to procreate. It also represents the violence of the society in which she lives, the horrors of the invasive surgery to which she was subjected, a punishment for her love for Chance. Now, a group of men want to harm Chance and bring him to justice to teach him a lesson. In the play, castration and invasive surgical procedures are symbols for the ways that society punishes free sexuality.
References to mirrors—the ladies’ room mirror on which something is written in lipstick and the “fourth wall” mirror in Chance and Princess's hotel room—represent the ways that the characters are grappling with their own images, with the struggle of self-reflection, distortion, and the passing of time. The ravages of time and aging are major themes, and the mirror serves as a symbolic motif.
Sea Birds (Motif)
The title of the play turns the concept of youth into a "sweet bird," so it is no surprise that birds, while not especially central to the play, recur as an imagistic motif throughout the play. At many different points, we hear the call of sea birds outside the window of the hotel room in which Princess and Chance are staying, symbols of the youth to which they both wish to return.
Sweet Bird of Youth Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sweet Bird of Youth is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.