Sweet Bird of Youth originated circa 1956 as two plays: a two-character version of the final play featuring only Chance and the Princess, and a one-act play titled The Pink Bedroom that was later developed into Act Two of the play, featuring Boss Finley and his family.
Failed St. Cloud, Mississippi native son Chance Wayne has fled his home town, seeking to profit from his beauty and youth in New York or Hollywood (whichever of the two). When he fails as an actor and then a personality in both cities he turns to the freelance career of gigolo (it is, at least, one step above male prostitute). And as the traveling escort of his current employer, Chance returns to his home town of St. Cloud, escorting an aging, depressed, semi-alcoholic film star: Alexandra del Lago. Ms. del Lago is running away from the negative criticism she believes is the public's and press critics' response to her attempt at a cinematic comeback in a recently released film. Del Lago herself had been running away and burying herself in sex, alcohol, and drugs, until Chance recognized her while hustling in a Florida resort. He saw in her a last chance to build a relationship (taking care of her, while on their drive her back to Hollywood, with him as her escort). Chance is using his perceived gallantry to entice del Lago to give him the imprimatur of stardom which he failed to achieve on his own. As he and del Lago were driving along the Sunset Route back to California, Chance hopes that he will reunite with his childhood sweetheart, Heavenly Finley, and bring her back to Hollywood, where - with del Lago's aid - they will both achieve stardom.
Unfortunately once returned to St. Cloud, Chance discovers Heavenly is only a shadow of the girl he knew. During his last visit to St. Cloud, he had unknowingly infected her with a disease he picked up as a result of his own promiscuity. When she discovered the problem, she had to have surgery to cut the disease out and which, because of an unskilled doctor's knife, resulted in a hysterectomy. Heavenly's corrupt father and brother are determined to make Chance pay for the injury done to Heavenly. Chance worries that he will receive the same fate as a black man who was recently attacked and castrated in the town.
Using Alexandra's car and funds, Chance tries to prove to the town that he is a success, but his old friends call his bluff and see him for the washed up and washed out man he has become. Meanwhile, Alexandra receives news that the criticism she's been running from is actually praise and that her comeback could not have been better. Chance believes that he will ride with her to the top, but Alexandra has no wish for a gigolo to besmirch her good name. His youth gone, Chance does not know how to move on with his life. Though she will not recommend him for a job in Hollywood, Alexandra urges him to continue as her escort, but Chance decides to stay and accept castration.
Williams began work on the play in the fall of 1959, calling it at first The Enemy of Time. As Sweet Bird of Youth, the work-in-progress had a tryout production starring Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Drivas in Coral Gables, Florida, directed by George Keathley at his Studio M Playhouse in 1956 which began before Williams' agent Audrey Wood knew he had a new play. Elia Kazan saw it. Both he and Cheryl Crawford were "party to the secret and petitioned Audrey to let them produce and direct the new play."
The original production by Cheryl Crawford opened on March 10, 1959 at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York City. Directed by Elia Kazan, it starred Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Sidney Blackmer, Madeleine Sherwood, Diana Hyland, Logan Ramsey, John Napier, and Rip Torn. Bruce Dern also played a small role. The production was nominated for 3 Tony Awards, including Best Actress for Geraldine Page. The play ran for 375 performances.
A revival opened on December 29, 1975 at the Harkness Theatre, in a production directed by Edwin Sherin, starring Christopher Walken as Chance Wayne and Irene Worth as Princess Kosmonopolis. Irene Worth won the 1976 Tony Award for Best Actress.
A production was planned to open in 2011 with David Cromer directing and Scott Rudin serving as producer. It had been announced that Nicole Kidman would portray the role of Alexandra Del Lago. James Franco was in talks to co-star, however he dropped out for unknown reasons.
In 2012 the production did go ahead at the Goodman Theatre to much acclaim but with Diane Lane in the lead role.
After 26 years, Sweet Bird of Youth appeared in London's West End. It opened on July 8, 1985 at the Haymarket Theatre in a production directed by Harold Pinter and presented by impresario Douglas Urbanski it starred Lauren Bacall and Michael Beck with James Grout and David Cunningham. This production later transferred to Los Angeles under the direction of Michael Blakemore.
The play returned to the London stage on 1 June 2013 with a production at The Old Vic directed by Marianne Elliott and starring Kim Cattrall as Del Lago and Seth Numrich as Chance.
The play was revived in 2017 at Chichester Festival Theatre, running from June 2 to 24. Directed by Jonathan Kent, it starred Marcia Gay Harden as Alexandra del Lago/The Princess Kosmonopolis and Brian J. Smith as Chance Wayne. Co-stars included Emma Amos and Richard Cordery.
In 1962, the play was made into a feature film starring Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Madeleine Sherwood, Ed Begley, Rip Torn and Mildred Dunnock. The movie was adapted and directed by Richard Brooks. The film version earned three Academy Award nominations, all for acting: Best Actress - Geraldine Page; Best Supporting Actress - Shirley Knight ;and Ed Begley won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his Boss Finley.
Sweet Bird of Youth was made for television in 1989, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Mark Harmon, Valerie Perrine, Ronnie Claire Edwards, Cheryl Paris, Kevin Geer and Rip Torn. It was adapted by Gavin Lambert.