Sweet Bird of Youth: A journey in search of Tennessee

Sweet Bird of Youth was torment for its author to write, and in adapting it James Graham had to confront his own fears of ageing

My confession is that I'd never read, seen or barely heard of Sweet Bird of Youth before the director Marianne Elliott introduced me to it. Possibly you haven't either. For many it's the blind spot in an otherwise familiar catalogue by that genius American playwright. It has something of a reputation for being... well, a "bit of a problem". It's a gruelling challenge to produce, certainly. But having been on this journey for the Old Vic's new production of the play, I firmly believe it's a valuable one. And, as a playwright used to writing original work (my latest This House just ended its run at the National Theatre), the notion of dramaturging someone else's play – whereby an existing text is analysed and edited – was unknown territory for me.

This is without doubt Tennessee's most personal piece. His life's turmoils are blazoned throughout it – the loneliness, regrets, the self-loathing and self-doubt. It is a day in the life of Chance Wayne, who used to be "the best-looking boy in town", returning to St Cloud at the age of 29 – not old, but not young-young any more – to get the girl. But there is violence in the air, accompanying the prodigal son's return…

What I hadn't expected was not just how the themes of this neglected masterpiece would grow to haunt me as a young(ish) man, but how much my journey in search of Tennessee, and the discovery of how much this one tortured him – really, truly, tortured him – would affect me as a playwright.

So why does Sweet Bird of Youth need someone to dramaturg it? First, I hope it goes without saying how presumptuous and unworthy I felt and still feel, fiddling and faffing at the altar of a master and one of my heroes. The reason we felt justified in our quest is because Tennessee himself confessed that this play eluded him. He spent nearly two decades writing and rewriting, long after productions had opened and closed, long after film adaptations and printed texts appeared. There are an eye-watering numbers of performable versions. In some of them characters survive, in others, they don't. Endings are sometimes hopeful, in others gruesomely tragic. Most theatres will pick one version and do that one. Not good enough said Marianne and the producers at the Old Vic. So we set off on an adventure to pull together all the strongest elements of all the drafts of all the versions in order to create the very thing that Tennessee failed to find himself – the perfect version of Sweet Bird of Youth. If such a thing is possible…

And to avoid any hubris, it obviously isn't. Art is too subjective a thing for there to be a "best" or "perfect" type of anything. All I could hope to do was compile the version that made most sense to me. And to do that, I had to work out what Tennessee's obsessions and motivations were when writing it and refusing to let go. And to find that out, I had to go to Texas. This is the world of Williams – all Southern Belles and raw masculinity; hot nights and tequila and piano music in the dusty streets.

My first thought as I pulled up a chair in the reading room of the Harry Ransom Center in Austin was an odd sort of sadness at the realisation that I and my contemporary playwrights hardly write anything down any more, physically on paper. Any future collection of my own humble dramatic efforts will be assembled entirely on a USB stick. Where's the romance in that?

Thank God Tennessee was writing in a different age, where his typed manuscripts still bore the coffee stains and the yellowing of cigarette smoke. Where his actual, real-life handwriting adorned the pages (I got far too excited by this).

It's funny how, when playwright meets playwright, the first thing we often want to talk about is not the themes of our work, or style or form or all that arty stuff. It's what font we type in. Do we double space? Final Draft or Microsoft Word? Get up early or stay up late? The process. Well here was a window into Tennessee's. He wrote Sweet Bird hopping from hotel to hotel along the gulf coast – very much the world of the play. I know this because he typed his draft on the hotels' own stationery, with their logos inscribed upon them. Names like "The St Charles, New Orleans" or "The Robert Clay, Miami". It made it possible to track his progress through the States and through the play. As though he were chasing it back to his own troubled past in the South. Or running from something in his present, perhaps.

It was seeing comparatively mundane aspects of playwriting that excited me – like watching him search for character names (which always feels overly important – I'm sure my contemporaries will agree). He got more confident and romantic. Valerie becomes the much more quixotic Heavenly. Phil Beam becomes the more screen idol-sounding Chance Wayne. As Kim Cattrall, who plays the Princess, also known as Alexandra Del Lago, in our show, observed in rehearsal to me: once our hero was given that name, his tragic fate was sealed.

Names are important.

Punctuation is also important. It was a thrill to work out Tennessee's code – how his ellipsis (…) would differ in meaning to a dash (–) in ways that are different from my own. These are a writer's tools (I've recently discovered the joy of the semicolon in expressing the intended rhythms of my sentences). In building my own draft, it felt like slipping on someone else's tool belt. It wasn't mine, but it fitted.

And so what are the results? Well, I encourage you to come and see. My commitment from the beginning, in uniting the different narrative strands, was to return the play to Chance Wayne. Possibly this is because his dilemmas resonate so strongly with my own. He is 29 years old, and so was I when I began, obsessing irrationally about age in that hinterland between youth and middle age. He is beginning to panic about the choices he has made, which render him unsettled when friends back home have grown roots. He is a self-destructive character, standing in the way of his own happiness in relationships and life due to his insecurities and flaws. He is paralysed by the unstoppable passage of time, and his inability to reconcile past bad behaviour. Ditto, ditto, and so on. And it's this raw pain that I have tried to bring to the fore, amid all the poetry and romance that is standard Tennessee. Everything that hurts about the human condition is here. Tennessee once described this writing period as the toughest of his life. He looked himself straight in the mirror and asked hard, ugly questions about what he saw. I think it only right we don't shy away from that here.

That's not to say it isn't funny. Because life is funny, even when it hurts. That's not to say there isn't humanity, and hope. There is hope simply in the writing of, and telling of, and in our case retelling of, these stories. Because in getting together in theatres and looking at who we are and what we do, there must always be hope that we can save ourselves.

But does Chance save himself? Well, that would be to give away our ending…

'Sweet Bird of Youth', Old Vic, London SE1 (oldvictheatre.com; 0844 871 7628) to 31 Aug

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee