Common Themes in ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ and ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

There are some obvious connections in terms of theme between these two plays.

The Inevitable Passage of Time

 

In ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, the theme is in the title, up front and centre for all to see.  It is concerned with youth and its inevitable passing.  The protagonist, Chance Wayne, is only 29 but his looks, like his opportunities in life, are waning.

He has been a beautiful young man, feted for his appearance and gifted with the adulation of his peers.  He has had the love of a beautiful girl from a wealthy family.  He has had the opportunity to go out into the world and make something of himself, but he has never achieved his potential.  As years have passed, his habits have become dissolute, his morals questionable, and by the time the play begins he knows that he must make a final stand.  If he is ever to achieve his dreams, marry his girl in St Cloud and be the success story everyone expected him to be, he must use whatever means are to hand, be they fair or foul.  Sadly, his headstrong, thoughtless and selfish ways have brought him back to a place where he is now regarded as a criminal degenerate.  Having polluted Heavenly Finley, the beautiful daughter of the rich and influential Boss Finley, with a sexually transmitted disease that has resulted in her having a hysterectomy, not only has he killed his own chances of happiness, he has killed hers too.  Youth is gone from both Chance and Heavenly, and no amount of posing and pretence can bring it back.  When Chance finally faces up to this harsh truth, he faces up to his own empty future – the core of the play’s tragedy.

While ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is less obviously concerned with the passage of time and the fading of youth, Blanche’s fear of strong light and constant lying about her age suggests that she too, like Chance, seeks to keep the onward march of time at bay.  By hiding in the shadows, her aging skin is hidden, the lines of her experience rendered invisible.  She needs to pretend that she is younger in order to deceive herself that there are still options left for her; that a suitor, like poor manipulated Mitch, can sweep her away from the terrible mistakes she has made in life.  To the last, Blanche clings to the delusion that Shep Huntleigh, a rich former beau, will take care of her and make all well in her world.  Even when Stanley has forcibly shown her the pointlessness of her pretence, the illusion is one that sustains her.  Blanche, like Chance, has wasted her youth.  She has made poor choices and allowed her morals and standards to slip, to the point where, we are told, she has been chased out of Laurel (the symbolic home of her potential for a good and happy life) with a ruined career and reputation.

Illusion versus Reality

Both Chance and Blanche deal in illusion.  Both seek to hide the simple truth in order to gain an advantage for themselves.  While Blanche’s machinations are to ensnare a mate (and a saviour), Chance wants to show the world that he had ‘made it’.  He thinks, foolishly, that by parading through St Cloud in an ostentatious car, spending money that is not his, presenting a confident demeanour, he can silence his critics and those who think he is a wastrel.  This childish fancy is soon proved pointless.  Chance’s travelling companion is known in the town, and nobody is fooled by his performance.  He has only shown up his own shallowness and immaturity.  Similarly, Blanche’s attempts to fool Mitch into believing she is young and pure backfire.

He asks her why she will never go on a date with him in the daylight, and when he learns the truth about her from Stanley, he feels used and hurt, attempting to take from Blanche what he feels has been denied him.  Ironically, he is still attracted to Blanche but her lies, added to her history, have made her someone he cannot respect.

Relatedly, in counterpoint to the theme of illusion goes the theme of the necessity of facing reality.  In ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, Boss Finley is the voice of cold, hard truth, insisting the Chance be made of pay for his past misdemeanours in the most gruesome way imaginable.  He sees Chance as a threat to his daughter and to his own reputation and will stop at nothing to ensure that Chance is punished.  Castration appears to be his chosen mode of reprisal, but there are hints that other violence, to the point of murder, may also be in the air.  We know for a fact that boss Finley is a cruel and intolerant man, who has power and status on his side.  We know that he is responsible for the castration of another man who stepped beyond the boundaries of what Boss Finley deems acceptable behaviour.  We also see him deal with the heckler, a man who tries to force the Boss to admit to truths he would prefer be hidden from public view, in a starkly violent way. He is thrown down some stairs and beaten severely. How much greater is Chance’s misdemeanour?  How much worse will his punishment be?

Stanley takes the same inflexible view in his dealings with Blanche.  He tells her he doesn’t deal in pretence, saying that in order to respect a person, they need to lay their cards on the table.  He suspects her of financial misappropriation and overhears her telling Stella that she is too good for her ‘animal’ husband.  This threat to his dignity and marriage provokes Stanley’s determination to expose Blanche’s secrets and he feels, like Boss Finley, entirely justified in all his actions.  Facing up to reality, for the protagonists in both plays, is the beginning of the end for them.  For Chance, castration is the end of his dream of a glorious future with Heavenly.  He cannot imagine any longer that there is the possibility he can make her happy.  For Blanche, being forced to admit that she is not young, is not pure and has little hope of a decent future or happiness, comes at the expense of her mental stability.  Already fragile, Stanley breaks her pride and her spirit and forces her to face the truth, that she is an alcoholic, promiscuous, immoral wreck who is one short step from life on the street.

The Dangers of Sexuality

Sex and its consequences is a further theme that conjoins these two plays.  In both dramas we see characters who are defined by their sexual relationships.  Chance is, in common parlance, a gigolo.  He uses his physical attactiveness to help him get by.  His sexual misadventures have brought Heavenly’s tragic experiences upon her and effectively, destroyed any hope for a future they might have had together.  Heavenly considers herself to be dead on the inside as a result of her hysterectomy and now seeks solace in a convent, although her father has other plans for her.  Princess Kosmonopolis, Chance’s current financial supporter, uses sex as an emotional crutch.  She tells us it enables her to block out the things she fears, the things that haunt her, such as her loneliness, her declining years and her waning career.  She blackmails Chance into sleeping with her, turning his feeble attempt to extort a film deal from her against him, showing herself to be a more experienced ‘monster’ than he.  Although Chance has tried to keep the Princess’s interest by withholding his physical charms from her, she eventually demands them in return for the financial backing he needs.  He refers to this later as a form of castration. She has taken his sexual power from him, along with his male dominance.

In ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, Blanche is slightly horrified to witness the animal attraction between Stanley and Stella. She finds it difficult to comprehend, which makes the audience curious about the nature of her own numerous sexual liaisons. Stanley is able to assert a degree of control over Stella through his sexual prowess and reminds her more than once about the ‘coloured lights’ they make together when they are alone.  Blanche makes the mistake of attempting to flirt with Stanley when she first meets him.  She has learned to use her sexuality as a way of manipulating men.  Unfortunately, Stanley’s nature makes him distrustful of predatory women.  When he eventually forces himself on Blanche, it is symbolic of his domination of the situation.  Blanche’s subsequent mental disintegration suggests that he has broken her, not just physically asserting dominance, but doing so psychologically too.  Blanche’s memory of her dead husband is also directly tied to sex.  Having found him in bed with a man, she tells him he is disgusting and he subsequently shoots himself. At no point in either play does sex appear in a particularly positive light.  Its consequences are always negative, tied in with the desire for power, the threat of violence, sickness or death.

 

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