Sweet Bird of Youth
The role and contribution of Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth
Tennessee Williams’ protagonist; Chance Wayne, in the play Sweet Bird of Youth, is a persona that stimulates a perplexed, troubled kind of empathy in the reader. Chance’s constant battle with the passage of time, his demons, his past and failures as well as opposing forces such as Tom Junior and the constant rejection from the St. Cloud community, are all incitants that provoke both, a crooked sort of understanding in Chance’s decisions and actions, but also a deep disapproval of his vanity and a dream that has consumed him and made him oblivious to his obvious ethical and moral compromises. Even tough Williams himself, never felt that Chance was an effective character, the intense fluctuations between his peak-high vanity and pit-low self-pity and recognition of his own personal failures as well as the scarce instances of dignity and honesty reveal depth and a realistic quality to his character. Like many other characters in the play such as Heavenly or Boss Finely, and even the ironic name of the town where nothing good seems to happen; St. Cloud. Chance’s name carries a bitter sweet irony with it. From a young age, everyone expected him to rise up and be a star because of his looks, given his name its almost like he was destined to achieve the American dream. However things go south throughout Chance’s life which is filled with failure and moral and ethical violations that add poignancy to his name and the meaning.
Throughout the play, Chance seems to have a subconsciously lenient relationship with the truth, as his obsessive need to appear successful constantly traps him in a loop of denial which makes chronical lying easier and even a natural instinct in order to protect his dignity, or rather pride. This is evident in his nostalgic conversation with Aunt Nonnie, who has to remind him of reality; “Chance, you didn’t place second [in the national contest]. You got honourable mention”. Both Chance and Heavenly refer to the former’s missed opportunities as doors that wouldn’t open; “He went. He tried. The right doors wouldn’t open so he went in the wrong ones” Chance’s wrong doors took the form of what appears to be chronic substance abuse of both drugs and alcohol but also the fact that he essentially prostitutes his body by “making love” to rich women who paid his bills in return. Chance is clearly not a hero, yet he still manages to evoke sympathy towards his situation and even the occasional admiration of courage and persistence, this certainly proves the opposite of what Williams believed about his creation, Chance is a realistic personification of failure and how life does not always go as planned. Through Chance Wayne’s persona, the Southern Gothic characteristic of the play surfaces, presenting Chance as the outcast of a closed, asphyxiating and muting society, who, while still serving a purpose – one of charisma and a promising future – to the town’s people was once perceived as the town’s ‘golden boy’, he was characterized by Aunt Nonnie as being full of “sweetness and honesty”. However, as the years progressed and he got lost in the reality of life, and thus no longer served a purpose to the town, he gradually became shunned and ostracised from St. Cloud, being labelled the misfit. Even people who were once close to Chance, such as Aunt Nonnie, repeatedly tell him to leave St. Cloud.
Southern gothic literature developed in the midst of the civil war, which has obvious linkage to discrimination and segregation, whether it’s the black characters or misfits like Chance, discrimination inflicted by white supremacist bullies such as Tom Junior and his ‘gang’ members; Bud and Scotty, is evident in cases such as when “they picked out a nigger at random and castrated the bastard”. Chance is also subjected to potential violence, and is threatened to suffer the same fate as the castrated black man, if he chose to stay in St. Cloud, which he did. Violence is an element in both Southern culture at the time as well as the Southern gothic style, and the play is laced with an underlying, constant presence of this looming violence, which never quite surfaces but is a permanent threat to characters like Chance. Chance’s gentile southern manner also alludes to the Southern gothic style, in times of extreme emotional frustration and anger, such as when the Princess Kosmonopolis throws insult after insult to him at the end of the play, he ends up punching himself in the stomach so as to stop himself from becoming violent towards another individual, or when he refers to sexual intercourse with the princess as “…I had the honor, where I had the great honor…” One of Chance’s most hunting demons is the passage of time. He grew up in a world where people admired him for his looks, in a world where he based his whole future on his looks – making it as an actor – so the gradual fading away of his beauty and the “thinning hair” push him into a terrible spiral of desperately trying to hang onto youth, which is in fact an ungraspable thread that inevitably thins away through time. Even in his bombastic drug and alcohol induced frenzy at the bar where he tries to desperately persuade Bub and Scotty about his upcoming success – a film – he comes up with the name “YOUTH” he is immediately mocked by Bud and Scotty who can see right through his futile attempt to regain his image as the big shot who would make it out of that town.
Chance’s obsession with retrieving his youth may also originate from a deep sense of guilt and regret, which may also correlate to why after years Chance tries to reconnect, or rather reposes Heavenly. Throughout the play Heavenly is objectified by everyone around her. Her father views her as a damaged good that brought shame to her family, he also uses her as a symbol of pureness and virginity for the public approval, her brother, Tom Junior, also seems to have such strong feelings about what Chance did to her but that again this anger is linked to his own personal pride, and even Chance contributes to Heavenly’s objectification. For Chance, Heavenly is a symbol of his youth, she was his lover when they were young and full of potential, she was part of his life while it was still good, before he begun failing at everything he set out to do, before he ended up going to the Korean War only to learn he was not equipped to handle it, and before becoming a beach boy masseuse who “rubbed oil into big fat billionaires”. Heavenly has become his quest, his holy grail and the only thing that can redeem him.
Even if Chance’s love for Heavenly is sincere, at some point it becomes an excuse. He has lost all opportunities, and has come to an age where making a living out of his looks is getting difficult to say the least, and so all he has left to go back to is his past. Heavenly is his past, and possibly one of the few good memories he still keeps with him, along with her nude picture which for him appears to be a very sentimental and intimate object, however this constant predicament of Heavenly being the reason behind all his actions and decisions turns her into an object. The way Williams sees it is that the film industry can either offer instant success or instant failure. For Chance Wayne, it was the latter, and even thought the ‘Cinderella’ story is a feasible outcome for some, many are left behind in the ruins of failure. A European audience might ask, why wouldn’t Chance move on from his American dream, and come to terms with the fact that for him, at that age, it was futile to believe he still had a shot? However it is important to understand that an American audience can relate more the Chance’s determination and denial as the American dream is a reality embedded deeply in the American psyche. The particular myth that a happy ending is possible is indeed rooted in the American consciousness, and that is why both Chance’s tragic ending and Alexandra Del Lago’s bitter sweet one are so wry.
All through the play, we find our opinions about Chance changing. In the beginning of the play his vanity appeared to be sky high, in instances like his first encounter with Georg Scudder in Act One, Scene one, where he even puts up a nonchalance about his mother’s death; “she’s gone. Why talk about it?”. As the play progresses he keeps up with this attitude of superiority even at the bar in Act 2, Scene 2, where he tries to impress the towns people with a song he used to sing, only to be embarrassed and humiliated with rejection. Towards the end of the play, we see another side of Chance arise, or maybe a more honest and realistic one. He finally begins to reveal the intense self-loathing that he is going through, which explains his very necessary moment when he directs a punch straight to his stomach after learning about the operation Heavenly went through while the Princess was provoking and intimidating him. The repeated refrain of people constantly warning chance to leave and his constant rejection of it, suggests that Chance seems to have a death wish as a form of self-punishment. In his final conversation with the Princess Kosmonopolis, he sounds defeated, with the last hints of determination for a last dignified act; staying in St. Cloud a facing the consequences. Chance provokes confused feelings that range from pity, admiration, and even disgust in the reader. He is an individual lost in the expectations versus the realities of life, and caught up in a time where violence was an easy, and for many, an acceptable means to an end. Tennessee Williams underestimated the depth and realness that Chance Wayne provides to the play, as he embodies real life reactions to failure as well as how easy it is for someone to get lost down a rabbit hole of denial and self-deception that often originate from our flaws and weaknesses.