Sex is a major theme in the play. Chance, having struggled to make it in Hollywood, has turned to working as a gigolo, someone who is hired to have sex with wealthy women, to support himself. When the play begins, he has attached himself to the wealthy Princess, giving her sexual pleasure in exchange for a lavish lifestyle at the Royal Palms Hotel. The sexual connection between Chance and Princess is less erotic than it is transactional and desperate, as Princess relies on Chance to remind her who and where she is, as she stumbles through a pill and booze-addled haze. Their sexual relationship is almost a kind of identification; each of them identifies with the other's desperation, desire for fame and glory, and wilted sex appeal.
We also learn that Chance's promiscuity has hurt the one woman he actually loves, Heavenly Finley. He details the time he lost his virginity with Heavenly in a vacant train car on the way back from a drama competition in high school. Then, we learn that, after working as a gigolo for some time, Chance gave Heavenly a venereal disease, which led to her needing to have an invasive surgery that rendered her infertile. Chance and Heavenly's relationship is a beautiful and pure one in their early courtship, but becomes much more sordid once Chance becomes a gigolo, and leads to Heavenly's fall from grace in society.
Youth and Aging
The inevitability of aging and the desperate attempt to hold on to youth as long as possible is a major theme in the play, and is referred to in the title. Chance has built up a fantasy of his own idealistic youth, remembering his courtship with Heavenly fondly, even though it was never approved by her family members. Additionally, he went to Hollywood dreaming of becoming a star famed for his youth and beauty. Now that he is older and has been unable to find success as an actor, he is trying to force this dream in hopes of winning back the community that rejected him in his youth. By the end, he realizes that time is the greatest enemy of all, and it is this knowledge that emboldens him to face the men who promise to do him harm.
Princess also has a complicated relationship to youth. When the play begins, she is aware that she is older and her ship has sailed as a young actress. She wonders how to move forward, now that her calling card—her youth and beauty—have passed her by. She suggests that perhaps the dignified way to age is by identifying as an artist, someone who makes her life a work of art as opposed to simply being in thrall to her public. She is attracted to Chance's youth, but also identifies with the ways that it is ravaged by experience and hardship.
The play takes place over the course of Easter weekend, so the theme of resurrection is an implicit but insistent theme in the play. For instance, Princess spends the entire play drenched in a fog of self-pity as she desperately hopes that she can resurrect her faltering career. By the end of the play, she has learned of her recent comeback from the entertainment reporter Sally Powers, and is ready to return to Hollywood. She endures great hardship, a "death," if we are thinking about it in terms of the biblical Easter story, but eventually is resurrected as the star she once was. It is left ambiguous whether Princess's reclaimed fame is as redemptive as she imagines it to be, but she celebrates it as a kind of rebirth.
Likewise, Chance aims to resurrect his idealistic fantasy of riding off into the sunset with Heavenly. He dreams of his youth and his connection with his high school sweetheart without paying attention to the ways that he has been disowned and demonized in the town. At the end of the play, he has not achieved his goal of traveling back into the past, but he has made some kind of peace with his fate. He is determined to face his fate, resigned to the violence that awaits him in St. Cloud. Perhaps only in a Tennessee Williams tragedy could this be understood as a kind of "resurrection."
Both Chance and Princess are performers, and this informs their tragic falls from grace in key ways. Chance was a young high school thespian who has dreamed of becoming a star after the short play he directed only got honorable mention in the state drama competition. Since that blow to his ego, he has been fighting for fame and adoration as an actor, and this desire is entangled with his desire to be with Heavenly, his high-school sweetheart. His entire sense of well-being and ego is tied up in his ability to perform, to be a star, to be seen by the world as a powerful performer. Additionally, in his work as a gigolo, his livelihood is caught up in performance. As a sex worker, he must impress upon his clients that he wants them, and perform in a way that makes them feel desired and taken care of.
Princess is the other character who is fixated on performance. A once-beloved Hollywood actress, she has turned her entire life into a movie, a glamorous fever dream filled with mink stoles, theatrical language, and the buzz of pills and drink. She ruminates on the nature of being an actress in the first scene, speaking to the audience and wondering if she is better off identifying as an artist, someone whose life is a work of art. By the end of the play, we realize that fame and acclaim as an actress is all she ever wanted, as she leaves her self-pitying languishing behind to pursue a Hollywood comeback.
Deception is another major theme in the play, represented perhaps most clearly in the character of Chance. As an opportunistic gigolo, he is often deceiving people in hopes of getting ahead. In the course of his interaction with Princess in the first scene, he plants a tape recorder beside the bed without her seeing, and gets her to talk about the illegal hashish she has, blackmailing her with the tape a few moments later. In this moment, we see that he has no real connection to the aging starlet, and wants only to use her to get what he wants.
Additionally, the main charge against Chance in St. Cloud is that he has deceived Heavenly by seducing her and then giving her a venereal disease. Because he is a gigolo he is seen as inherently deceptive and untrustworthy, and this response is demonstrated on a private and public level.
Finally, many characters are deceiving themselves, clinging to narratives that do not reflect reality. Chance is deluded about his ability to win back Heavenly and his ability to secure a career in Hollywood. Princess is deluded about the ways that her career is fading and the ways she has become dependent on drugs and alcohol. Boss Finley deceives both himself and his followers in his dogmatic and hypocritical politicking.
Part of what Chance longs for from his youth is the purity of that time, when he was in love with the beautiful Heavenly, and they could dream about a future. Now, as an adult, having worked as a gigolo for some time, he has lost the purity of his youth, and must search for ways to feel his long-gone innocence (through sex, drugs, and alcohol). He searches for purity in his life, even though his life has become sordid and anything but pure.
Heavenly is the character who perhaps most represents this archetypal idea of purity, in that she is the beautiful young daughter of a wealthy politician. However, since she got involved with Chance, who passed on to her a venereal disease that led to a scarring surgery, she too has lost her purity, both her bodily purity and the purity of her reputation. Additionally, the issue of desegregation has triggered racist suppositions among white community members about the purity of white women's sexualities.
A less central theme, but one that serves as a significant backdrop to the central action, is the theme of racism. The play takes place in the American South during segregation, in a predominately white community that is worried about what desegregation will do to the safety of the white women in the community. The racism of this community is primarily centered around worries about sexuality, the bigoted notion that with desegregation will come more interracial sexual intercourse. Boss Finley, as a strategic politician, tries to distance himself from the outwardly racist acts being committed against black men in the community, but also maintains a strict segregationist stance.
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.