Multiplying Metatheatre: Reproduction in Tennessee Williams's _Sweet Bird of Youth_

Laura Michiels

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)


Tennessee Williams's writing is characterised by repetitions of various kinds. The (auto)biographical slant to his theatre and the playwright's complex relationship with dramatic realism raise the issue of the repetition of reality. Williams's (re-)appropriation of his own material by means of continuous revision and adaptation of other artists' work in his plays can be broadly categorised as intertextual and transmedial repetitions. The aim of my paper is twofold. First of all, I would like to show that the 1959 Broadway success _Sweet Bird of Youth_ centres on one specific type of repetition, namely reproduction. Furthermore, I will demonstrate that the text's contemplation of reproduction self-reflexively hints at its convoluted origins.

The play's plot introduces the absence of (pro)creation. Like her impotent father, Heavenly Finley is not capable of having children, the result of a hysterectomy. Boss Finley's henchmen seek to castrate the protagonist Chance Wayne because they hold him responsible for the injury their leader's daughter suffered. The punishment in question will not only prevent the male protagonist from reproducing but can also be viewed as reproductive. It mirrors Heavenly's plight as well as the penalty exacted on a young African-American whom Finley's racist supporters considered lecherous, too. Chance Wayne decides to wait for his executioners since he experiences his financial dependence on the aging film star Princess Kosmonopolis as the figurative equivalent of the sentence he now faces.

Whereas (pro)creation appears impossible, the characters are capable of producing ever-degenerating copies of their own behaviour, a corollary of the text's concern with (traumatic) memory and its ensuing reproduction. The play's action is set in motion by Chance Wayne's final comeback to St Cloud. His first comeback - after he was discharged from the army - had already been less than successful. Even so, Chance keeps on coming back until the inhabitants of his hometown deem him nothing less than a criminal degenerate. The male protagonist's repeated comebacks mirror the Princess's: she resides in St Cloud since her return to the silver screen resulted in disaster. In the context of a play deeply concerned with film and stardom, mechanical reproduction also has a part to fulfil. Boss Finley finds out about his daughter's past by means of a faded photograph of which more copies than Chance ordered exist, to cite but one example.

Writing _Sweet Bird of Youth_ proved a particularly gruesome venture for Williams. Once the playwright created the plot by conjoining three older stories, he developed his text over even more versions than was usually his habit. Williams kept on reproducing the same material under slightly different guises. It is hence not surprising (pro)creation is lacking from the final play and ever-degenerating copies are ubiquitous. By means of its concern with reproduction, Chance Wayne's story thus stages the process through which it came into being and can be considered metatheatrical.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication6th Graduate Students Conference of the Belgian Luxembourg American Studies Association
PublisherAmerican Embassy (BE), 25 Apr 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Williams, Tennessee
  • Sweet Bird of Youth
  • Metatheatre
  • (Pro)creation
  • Mechanical Reproduction
  • Film


Dive into the research topics of 'Multiplying Metatheatre: Reproduction in Tennessee Williams's _Sweet Bird of Youth_'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this