There is nothing like a very good read in the sun. To me, it’s the closest thing to perfect pleasure. It is, the times when I don’t have a very skilled lover. And lately, Paris has been uncostumarily sunny for March. So I have taken the happy habit to laze in a park (the Jardin du Luxembourg) with a book before or between classes. After several re-readings of the Millenium trilogy (I know!), I picked a play by my favorite playwright on the shelf. I have admired Tennessee Williams ever since I first read A Streetcar Named Desire, when I was twelve. I was young and maybe naive and the sultry, sexy, dark play opened doors to a world where the hot and damp Southern air is also filled with lies, secrets and passion. I followed with Suddenly, Last Summer, A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll,The Rose Tattoo, The Night of the Iguana and many more. Everytime, I enjoy the ride in this other world that the Deep South still was fifty years ago. It’s a world filled with Southern Belles and Big Daddies, where you drink mint julep and display good manners -in public, at least. But it’s far from perfect, it’s violent and racist and it tries to live on the remains of a past glory.
Sweet Bird of Youth is a story of past glory and past prime. The play opens with The Princess and Chance Wayne waking up in a hotel room in St-Cloud (somewhere near New-Orleans), his hometown. The Princess is an aging Hollywood diva who has panick attacks and forgets her loneliness and fading beauty in the arms of young lovers. Chance is an aspiring actor who survives by giving older women pleasure with a price. Funny enough, those two don’t consumate until later into the play. Chance is back in St-Cloud for his girl, Heavenly. Heavenly’s Papa, Boss Finley, is not to happy with the return of the “criminal degenerate” who took his little girl’s virginity and gave her something else in the process. Boss Finley and Tom Junior, his son, are determined to salvage the girl’s reputation by getting rid of Chance, one way or another. So, the clock is ticking for everyone. The Princess is mourning her past beauty. Chance wants to put his gigolo days behind and longs for a future with Heavenly -a future he could obtain through blackmail and mendacity. Heavenly is still young but she lost her innocence and purity. The clock ticks, time is the real enemy. But I think, what the play is really about is the eruption of modernity and youth in an archaic world where keeping up appearences is all what’s left. Pretending the past glory is still here when it crumbled years ago. I loved it, needless to say, the violence, the sex, the shame, the self-disgust and the realization that you blow your chances and that now is too late. It’s dark and you can’t expect happy endings from Tennessee Williams, but somehow it gave me a much-needed rush of energy to try to acheive my own dreams. Because who wants to end up like The Princess or Chance or Heavenly: emptied?
I wish I could have seen it on the stage in 1959, with Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn and Shirley Knight, all directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan had the fortunate idea to adapt the play for the screen with the same cast, so when I see it, it’ll be a little as if I were there.