Sunday, September 18, 2011

Play Day: Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams, apart from writing some of the most affecting plays also has a talent for picking out hauntingly lyrical titles. A Streetcar Named Desire and Sweet Bird of Youth being the best of the lot. However, the sweetness of the titles contrasts rather starkly with the bitterness in the plays.  When Sweet Bird of Youth was first written and produced in 1959, it caused quite a stir. Mainly because it talked openly and non-judgementally about promiscuity, sex and even drugs. But none of this is really what the play is about. At its core, this play is about loneliness and ageing and the hopelessness of trying to hold on to youth.

Chance Wayne was going to be a Big Star; instead he’s become a gigolo, drifting from woman to woman and town to town. This time he’s managed to latch on to an insecure and aging movie star Alexandra Del Lago AKA the Princess who’s running away from the debacle that was her grand comeback. Chance is back in his hometown St Cloud to reclaim the love of his life, Heavenly. Years back, Heavenly's father Boss Finely had forced Chance to leave his hometown and his girl. Chance hopes to fool his former acquaintances into believing that he has made it big but everyone see’s through the false glitter. He had once been the golden boy of this town but today everyone looks at him with either pity or contempt or both.  The Princess drifts in and out of a drug induced stupor throughout the play, now leaning on Chance for comfort, now turning from him in anger.

The relationship between Chance and the Princess is very layered and bittersweet. They are bound not by love but by their desperation and despair. They have both, contempt and compassion for each other.  Each is using the other and willingly being used too. The other characters in the play seem one dimensional and somewhat stereotypical in comparison. Especially the bigoted politician and his spoilt, wayward son. Perhaps this lack of complexity is intentional, to depict a recognizable character type. Youth is a leitmotif in this play, with each character mourning its loss in some way or the other.

Williams includes very specific instructions on stage directions, lighting, scenery and even the background music which is to accompany certain scenes.  This really gives the reader a multi-layered experience unlike some plays which read pretty much like a short story.   The initial production of the play and also its movie version stars Paul Newman as Chance and Geraldine Page as the Princess.

In the foreword to the play Williams writes, “We are all civilized people, which means that we are all savages at heart but observing a few amenities of civilized behaviour. I am afraid that I observe fewer of these amenities than you do.” He is talking of himself but the same could be said of Chance and the Princess. Williams captures the savagery behind the veneer of civilization without resorting to psychobabble or rhetoric. That’s what makes Sweet Bird of Youth a disturbing yet unforgettable play.