The Night of the Iguana
The Night of the Iguana
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS 1961
Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana is the last of the distinguished American playwright’s major artistic, critical, and box office successes. First performed on December 28, 1961, on Broadway in the Roy ale Theatre, The Night of the Iguana won Williams his fourth New York Drama Critics Award. Like other plays by Williams, The Night of the Iguana focuses on sexual relationships and odd characters, including one crippled by his desires, the Reverend Shannon. Indeed, in retrospect, many critics see The Night of the Iguana as the link between stylistic eras (early/middle to late) for Williams. They argue that Williams reveals more of himself in this play than his previous work. Indeed, unlike many of Williams’s plays The Night of the Iguana ends on a positive, hopeful note. However, some contemporary critics of the original Broadway production found the play lacking form and derivative of Williams’s earlier successes, such as A Streetcar Named Desire. There has also been a lingering controversy over what the iguana, mentioned in the title, represents. The iguana, which spends most of the play tied up on the edge of the veranda, is seen as a symbol for a number of things, including freedom, what it means to be human, and Shannon. As an unnamed critic in Time magazine wrote, “Purists of the craft may object that, strictly speaking, The Night of the Iguana does not go anywhere. In the deepest sense, it does not need to. It is already there, at the moving, tormented heart of the human condition.”
Williams was born Thomas Lanier Williams on March 26, 1911, in Columbus, Mississippi. He was the son of Cornelius Coffin and Edwina (maiden name, Dakin) Williams. Williams’s father, a traveling salesman, was rarely home for Williams and his elder sister Rose. The children and their mother lived with her parents in Tennessee until 1918. That year, Cornelius Williams moved the family to St. Louis when he was hired as the sales manager for a shoe company. Williams began writing as a child, publishing poetry in his junior newspaper. In high school, he published short stories in national magazines.
After graduating from high school in 1929, Williams entered the University of Missouri, Columbia. Williams considered becoming a journalist, but he was forced to leave after two years due to financial hardship caused by the Great Depression. Williams went to work at his father’s employer, the International Shoe Company, where he was miserable. Williams returned to college for a year at St. Louis’s Washington University, before being forced to drop out again. Williams finally finished his degree at the University of Iowa in 1938.
Williams had begun writing plays as early as 1935, producing them locally. He dubbed himself Tennessee Williams in 1939, based on a nickname he acquired at Iowa for his Southern accent. Based on a group of his plays, Williams won the Group Theater prize in 1939. This led to wider recognition as well as a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1940. Williams made his living writing, even spending a half a year as a screenwriter for MGM in 1943. The experience and form did not suit him, and Williams turned to plays full time by 1944.
In 1944, Williams wrote The Glass Menagerie which firmly established his literary reputation. He won numerous accolades for the play, which had some basis in Williams’s own life. Between 1944 and 1972, Williams produced over a dozen plays, many of which were extremely successful. Williams won the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice, the first for what many critics consider his best play, 1947’s A Street Car Named Desire, and the second for 1955’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams called his style “poetic naturalism”—referring to the poetic edge present in his style of dramatic realism. Williams’s last big hit in this vein was 1962’s Night of the Iguana.
After Iguana, Williams’s plays differed in form and content, and many were not critically acclaimed nor commercially successful; many were seen as derivative of his earlier work. Williams suffered a mental collapse in the late 1960s, spending several weeks in a psychiatric hospital. His last minor success was in 1972 with Small Craft Warnings. Williams continued to write plays as well as novels and short stories, until his death on February 24, 1983.
The Night of the Iguana opens at the Costa Verde Hotel in Mexico. The hotel’s proprietress, Maxine Faulk, greets her old friend, an expelled minister named Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, as he pants his way into the hotel. Maxine tells him that her husband, Fred, has died recently. Shannon, a tour director, is distressed and has the key to his tour bus hidden in his pocket. He wants the tour to stay here because he is afraid of losing his job and he is on the verge of collapse. The reason for Shannon’s distress is revealed: His tour group consists of 11 young Baptist music teachers and he has had sexual intercourse with one of them. Everyone has found out about the liaison, including the head of the group, Miss Fellowes.
Miss Fellowes gets off the bus and confronts Shannon. She insists on using the hotel’s telephone to report Shannon to her local authorities and his employer. Maxine tries to give Shannon her dead husband’s clothing and put him into her husband’s old room. Maxine gets her employees to take the women’s luggage off the bus, as Shannon has requested. Miss Fellowes returns and continues to argue with Shannon about his conduct and the tour. When she learns about the luggage, she insists that it be returned to the bus. Maxine tries to get Shannon to give up the key but he won’t hear of it.
In the meantime, Hannah Jelkes, an artist of about 40 years of age, has appeared at the hotel and asked Shannon about rooms for herself and her elderly grandfather, a poet of minor reputation known as Nonno; he informs her that there are vacancies. When she returns with the old man, Maxine only gives them rooms when Shannon insists. However, they have no money to pay, because they usually work for their funds among hotel patrons: she as a character sketch artist, and he reads poems. After Maxine tells them they can stay for one night, Hannah confides in Shannon that her grandfather is not well and might have had a slight stroke. Shannon helps Hannah into her room, and Maxine returns, jealous of the attentions Shannon has paid to Hannah.
At the hotel several hours later, Maxine confronts Hannah. Maxine attempts to get Hannah and her grandfather to move to a boarding house, but Hannah makes herself useful then tries to sell her jade. Their conversation is interrupted by the return of Shannon and some other guests. Hannah asks Shannon about the boarding house, and he tells her it is unsuitable. Their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of Charlotte, the young woman with whom Shannon had a liaison. Shannon hides and Hannah covers for him. When Charlotte figures out that he is in his room, Shannon comes out. Charlotte tells him that they must get married, but Shannon informs her that he does not love anyone. Miss Fellowes approaches, prompting Charlotte and Shannon hide. Again, Hannah covers for them, but Miss Fellowes finds Charlotte and drags her away.
Shannon emerges wearing his minister’s frock. Hannah helps him with the collar, then sketches him. Shannon tells her he has been on “sabbatical” from his church for a year, because he had sexual intercourse with a Sunday school teacher and then committed an act of heresy. He was kicked out of his church and then sent to an asylum. Hannah decides to try to sell her paintings to the Baptist teachers and leaves Shannon in charge of her grandfather. In the meantime, some of the employees return with an iguana, which is tied to the veranda to be fattened for eating. Maxine enters and offers drinks to Shannon, who refuses.
Nonno takes a fall in his room, and Shannon quickly helps him up and brings him out. He begins to recite a poem when Hannah returns and helps him when his memory falters. Nonno finishes and Hannah makes him sit down, though he loudly asks about how much money they have made. Shannon helps her deal with him, calming the old man down and directing attention away from the situation. They sit down to eat, and Nonno blesses the food when prompted by Shannon. Nonno shows his dementia as Hannah explains that her grandfather was a minor poet. Maxine appears with a liquor cart, and she and Shannon get into a shoving match with it after Maxine insults Nonno. Shannon leaves momentarily,
and Maxine and Hannah argue. Hannah threatens to leave, even though a storm is coming. Maxine tells her to stay away from Shannon, though Hannah denies there is any attraction. Shannon returns, and Maxine brings the liquor cart to other guests. Shannon tells Hannah she is a lady after she gives him one of her last cigarettes after he asks for it. Hannah tells him that she wishes she could help him, and he is touched. She retrieves her paintings, and they watch the storm as it hits.
This act opens in the same place, several hours later. Shannon is in his room writing a letter to his Bishop when Maxine interrupts. Maxine tells him that she is considering moving back to the United States. She also tries to coerce him to stay at the hotel with her. He leaves to mail his letter himself when he sees the Baptist teachers gathered around the bus. Jake Latta, a man from the tour company, is with them. Jake approaches Shannon and Maxine and informs Shannon that the group of Baptist teachers will now be combined with Jake’s tour group. Jake demands the key, but Shannon will not give it up. Jake believes Shannon has gone crazy. The key is finally taken from Shannon by force, and he demands severance pay. Jake leaves, taking the tour group with him.
Shannon almost follows, but Maxine makes him stay. After Maxine leaves to collect her fees from the group, Shannon nearly chokes when his cross and chain get caught on something. Hannah rescues him, but he tries to leave again. Maxine returns and has Shannon tied up to control his “crackup.” At Shannon’s request, Hannah talks to him. She also makes him poppyseed tea. He is upset about the sketch she drew of him and because she refuses to untie him. He is cruel to her, suggesting that she should add hemlock to Nonno’s tea, and while she is bothered by it, she knows why he is acting this way. Though she still will not untie him, she does light a cigarette for him and put it in his mouth. The cigarette falls underneath him and he begins to panic. While Hannah tries to retrieve it, Maxine returns and is angered by the scene. She again tries to intimidate Hannah. Shannon promises to sleep with Maxine later if she will untie him. Satisfied, she leaves to attend to other guests.
Shannon manages to free himself from the rope and immediately heads to the liquor cart. Hannah tells him that she too nearly suffered a breakdown and survived by endurance and a will to keep on going. She also is determined to stay at the hotel. Hannah convinces him to drink a cup of poppyseed tea when he asks her about her love life. She tells him that she has had two encounters and has learned to accept what she cannot improve. Shannon tries to touch her, but she tells him to back away. Shannon tries to get her to travel with him, but she refuses this request as well. She decides to pack her things for tomorrow when the iguana’s movements become loud and bother her. She asks Shannon to cut it loose. He complies after much discussion. Nonno calls her, informing her that he has finally finished his poem. Maxine returns and is upset to find that Shannon is untied. Shannon agrees to stay with Maxine. Hannah sits with Nonno, who has just died.
Jonathon Coffin is the elderly grandfather of Hannah Jelkes. He is nearly 98 years “young” and a minor poet. With his granddaughter, he travels around the world, paying his way by reciting poems to hotel guests. Coffin is somewhat senile, very hard of hearing, and uses a wheelchair and a cane to get around. His dementia increases during the night at the Costa Verde. Coffin manages to finish one last poem before he dies at the end of The Night of the Iguana.
Maxine is the middle-aged padrona of the Costa Verde Hotel. She has recently been widowed; her husband Fred has died. Even before his death, Maxine was sleeping with other men, mostly local boys. Maxine is an old friend of Shannon’s. Though he is suffering from mental collapse, she tries to ply him with rum-cocos in an attempt to get him under her control, sexual and otherwise. Shannon resists for the most part. Maxine is extremely jealous when Hannah arrives and bonds with Shannon. Maxine does not want Hannah and her grandfather to stay, but Shannon convinces her to change her mind. Maxine confronts Hannah over the connection she sees between Hannah and Shannon, but Hannah dominates the conversation. In the end, Maxine gets her way, and Shannon agrees to stay at the hotel indefinitely with her.
Judith Fellowes is the leader of the group for which Shannon is acting as tour guide. She is very angry at Shannon for his involvement with one of her charges and reports him to his superiors.
Charlotte is the young girl whom Shannon has sex with on the tour. She is very much in love with him and wants to get married.
See Jonathan Coffin
Hannah Jelkes is a middle-aged spinster from New England. She seems about 40, but could be a few years older or younger. She travels the world with her elderly grandfather, Jonathon Coffin, a poet. Together they stay in hotels and pay their way via their respective artistic skills; Hannah is an artist who paints watercolors and sketches people in charcoal and pastels. Hannah and her grandfather stay at the Costa Verde Hotel out of desperation: they are nearly penniless. In fact, Maxine does not want them to stay, but Shannon convinces her otherwise. While at the hotel, Hannah does not sell any art, but her calm serenity helps Shannon through his breakdown. She works as the opposite of Shannon in many ways. For example, she has only had two sexual encounters in her life, yet has a greater understanding of herself and life than Shannon. Though Shannon wants them to travel together, Hannah refuses, telling him to stay with Maxine. At the end of the play, Hannah is left alone when her grandfather dies and her future is uncertain.
See Jonathan Coffin
Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon
Reverend Shannon is the central character in The Night of the Iguana. He is a middle-aged minister who lost his church when he had an improper relationship with a Sunday school teacher. Shannon becomes a tour guide, leading groups in many different countries. He leads his current group to the Costa Verde Hotel after he has sex with one of his young charges. Shannon suffers a crisis verging on breakdown at the hotel. He refuses to let the group leave, fearing he will lose his job. To that end, he holds the key to the bus in his pocket. Maxine backhandedly tries to help him, by tempting him with alcohol and sex. Shannon finds his salvation in Hannah, who helps him face himself and his problems. Shannon ends up letting the group go, by force, but symbolically frees himself when he frees the iguana tied up by the veranda. At the final curtain, it is implied that Shannon will stay at the hotel with Maxine and help her run the establishment.
Sex and Sexual Desire
Many of the characters and much of the plot of The Night of the Iguana is driven by the desire for and the consequences of sexual relations. Shannon is the primary focus of these tensions. He is a minister who has lost his church, and a tour guide who, during the course of the play, loses his group and his job. In both instances, Shannon acted inappropriately towards a young woman. In the latter, for example, Shannon had sex with a young Baptist girl who was part of the group he was leading. Maxine, the padrona of the hotel, tells Shannon that many of his problems stem from the fact that his mother caught him masturbating as a child and beat him because she believed it was wrong. She believes that Shannon gets back at her by engaging in such behaviors.
- The Night of the Iguana was adapted as a film in 1964. This version was directed by John Huston and starred Richard Burton as Shannon, Ava Gardner as Maxine, and Debra Kerr as Hannah.
Shannon is not the only character driven by lust. Maxine also engages in numerous affairs—and did so while married to her now-deceased husband. When Shannon arrives at the hotel, she immediately begins trying to seduce him with her body and rum-cocos. She wants to control Shannon through sex. Maxine becomes extremely jealous when Shannon shows interest in Hannah, the spinster from New England. Unlike Maxine and Shannon, Hannah is not motivated by sexual desire. She has only had two sexual encounters in her life. Hannah helps Shannon through his crisis, but refuses his sexual advances. After the worst has passed, Shannon decides to stay and live with Maxine, seemingly the only option, sexual or otherwise, that he has left open.
Alienation and Loneliness
Underlying the theme of sex and sexual desire, is alienation and loneliness. Both Maxine and Shannon fear being alone, in their own way, while Hannah has a seemingly secure relationship with her grandfather that prevents true alienation from the world. Maxine desperately wants Shannon to stay with her and help her run the hotel that her recently deceased husband left her. She tries everything in her power to control him: leaving her shirt half open; plying him with rum-cocos, knowing he has a problem with alcohol; tying him up when he seems really crazy. She wins in the end because Shannon is just as alone as she is. He lost his church and his status as minister long ago. His job is not conducive to forming positive long-term relationships: the groups come and go, and he is left alone. Shannon has no real friends except Maxine and her now-dead husband. They join forces at the end because this is the only solution to their loneliness.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the history of American and German expatriates in Mexico during World War II. Why were people like Shannon, Hannah, and Maxine drawn there?
- Compare and contrast Shannon with another sexual character, Stanley Kowalski from Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. Why are both emotional cripples? How do they deal with their sexual desires?
- Explore the psychology behind Shannon’s story of his mother and how it affects the sexual choices he makes with women.
- Research the iguana and its habits. What does the animal’s characteristics add to its symbolic meaning in The Night of the Iguana? Where else has the iguana been used in art?
Hannah’s fortunes turn counter to Maxine and Shannon’s. Hannah’s only companion is her elderly grandfather, the poet Jonathon Coffin. The old man is practically senile and requires her constant care. But, unlike Shannon and Maxine, Hannah is not really lonely. She has someone to take care of, someone who loves and depends on her. While she may be sexually alienated, she is not lacking what seems to be a permanent human relationship. However, Hannah’s grandfather is old, and he dies at the end of play. Having already refused Shannon’s offer to be traveling companions, Hannah has a future as uncertain as Shannon’s was at the beginning of The Night of the Iguana.
Each of the characters in The Night of the Iguana lack permanence. Only Maxine desires it from the beginning, in her quest to convince Shannon to stay with her to run the hotel. The fact that the play is set in a hotel—a place filled with temporary residents—epitomizes this condition. Shannon has lived a transitory life since he was expelled from his church. Being a tour guide involves dealing with different groups of people, leaving him little opportunity for a lasting relationship. Even when Shannon tries to make a connection—by sleeping with one of his tourists—it is an impermanent gesture. He does not want to marry the girl, though she wants so marry him. Shannon refuses Maxine’s sexual overtures throughout the play for similar reasons: he almost fears permanence. Hannah and her grandfather live an analogous life. Though they have an unspecified home base in New England, they choose to travel the world, living in hotels. They pay their way by selling Hannah’s art and reciting Nonno’s poetry to hotel patrons. They are an independent entity that does not seek or embrace permanence, except in each other. But even this situation is only temporary. Jonathon Coffin dies at the end of the play, leaving Hannah in a situation that is even less permanent than it was before. There is no indication of her next move, but Shannon chooses to embrace permanence by staying with Maxine and running the hotel.
The Night of the Iguana is a drama set in Mexico in 1940. All the action takes place in one location: the veranda of the Costa Verde Hotel and several rooms that open up on to it. The veranda serves as a passageway between guests’ rooms and the beach, and many characters walk through. The veranda also has several components key to the story: the hammock, the railing, and its underside. The hammock is Shannon’s favorite spot and where he is placed when he is tied up. Shannon’s cross gets caught in the railing, and he is nearly choked to death. The iguana is tied up underneath the veranda, thrashing about, until Shannon frees him. The rooms that open up on the veranda are separate cubicles with screen doors. During the night scenes, when the veranda is illuminated, the action inside the rooms is highlighted. Such illumination and separation, which occurs primarily in the second half of the play, emphasizes the loneliness of the room’s occupants.
The events in The Night of the Iguana are underscored by symbols. The most prominent is found in the title: the iguana. The iguana is caught by local boys who work at the hotel and tied up underneath the veranda for fattening. When the time is right, the local boys will kill and eat the animal. This does not happen, however. By the end of the play, Shannon has cut the reptile loose, at the request of Hannah. The iguana could represent a number of things. Many critics believe that it represents Shannon, who is also tied up during the course of the play. Like the animal, Shannon is straining against the bonds of society and fighting a losing battle. The iguana could also be seen as a symbol of the human condition. There are other symbols at work in the play. The spook that Shannon claims is following him can be seen as his conscience. The rum-cocos, which Maxine constantly tries to push on Shannon, are a symbol of her sexuality. The storm that threatens throughout the play parallels Shannon’s life-changing dilemma.
Several of the characters in The Night of the Iguana are described wearing specific kinds of clothing that underscore their actions. In Act II, Shannon dons his long-unused minister’s shirt and collar, as well as a cross. He wants to symbolically reconnect with his past as well as prove to the tour group that he was once a minister, but the button on the collar is so worn that it immediately pops off. He cannot even wear the garb. Later, he nearly chokes himself to death on the cross. At the end of the play he gives Hannah his cross to fund her journey back to the United States.
At the same time Shannon puts on his minister’s clothes, Hannah emerges from her cubicle wearing an artist’s smock with a silk tie. It is carefully daubed with color to complete the look of a working artist. Hannah wears this smock when she tries to convince hotel patrons to allow her to sketch them for a fee. It makes her look “authentic,” though she is an artist no matter what she wears. The outfit defines her for others, rather than for herself. Unlike Shannon, she is fairly secure in her identity. Costumes also define Maxine who wears a half-unbuttoned shirt when she first sees and tries to seduce Shannon.
The early 1960s marked a transitional time in American history. In 1961, for example, President Dwight
D. Eisenhower left office. The new president was the youthful, more liberal John F. Kennedy. Change was not limited to the United States: political and cultural turmoil could be found worldwide and the United States was often involved.
One of the biggest threats to the American mainland in the 20th century was Cuba after Fidel Castro rose to power. In 1961, the United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Cuban exiles, backed by the American government, led an invasion into Cuba at the Bay of Pigs—the operation was a dismal failure. The Soviet Union, the United States’ most formidable enemy, placed missiles aimed at the United States in Cuba. The Soviets later remove their missiles from the island after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The Soviet Union and the United States eventually began discussing disarmament in Geneva later in the decade.
In the early 1960s, the United States also became involved in the on-going conflict in Vietnam. Military aid and advisors were sent to American allies in the region. By the end of the decade this involvement would become extremely controversial and create a rift in American society.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940: The United States watched the beginnings of World War II and considered intervention. Eventually the country was drawn into the conflict.
1961: The United States watches the beginnings of the Vietnam conflict. Eventually, the country was drawn into the war.
Today: While there are no widespread wars, the United States retains a position as the world’s peacekeeper and considers intervention in numerous localized conflicts.
- 1940: The growth of war-related industry drew nearly 12 million women in the workforce. However when the war ended, women’s pay went down and they earned much less than men.
1963: The beginnings of the modern feminist movement take root, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Today: Women struggle to balance the demands of work and home life. There is still a significant disparity in pay: women earn much less than men for the same work. The feminist movement is on the decline.
- 1940: Some methods of birth control have been available for several years, though many are still restricted. Attitudes towards sex are becoming more liberal.
1961: The birth control pill is introduced, giving women more control than ever over their bodies.
Today: Birth control has become even more convenient. Devices such as Norplant can be inserted into a woman’s arm and work for up to six months.
- 1940: Nazi Germany forces the beginnings of Jewish repression. This takes many forms in different countries, including restriction of movement and denial of basic human rights. The Auschwitz concentration camp is built.
1961: Nazi official Adolph Eichmann is convicted in Israel for his role in the death of six million Jews during World War II.
Today: Efforts to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust are widespread. Movies on the topic, such as Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful, are popular and win numerous awards.
Despite these conflicts, the United States became dominant in the political and cultural climates of the world. The economy boomed, and American businesses grew rapidly at home and abroad. Americans were prosperous. Disposable goods were developed and the youth market boomed. While America developed a reputation for technical innovation (for example, Telstar, a satellite owned by AT&T transmitted television signals for the first time), the Soviet Union put the first man, Yuri Gagari, in space in 1961. Such incidents drove home the fear that the American education system was not up to the demands of the modern society that was emerging.
One of the biggest changes in the United States concerned women. There was mounting tension due to the schism between women’s traditional roles and changing society. More women entered the workforce, many of whom were married. During World War II, many women joined the workforce to support the war effort as many men went off to fight in the war. When men returned home, they took back most of the jobs, but women continued to work, though only part-time or in traditional women’s professions. By 1960, 36% of women were in the workforce, accounting for 32% of total workers. The feminist movement gained momentum when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. In this book, she argued that women should seek self-fulfillment. Though they may have found such fulfillment in the workforce, they were still responsible for the majority of household chores.
The lives of women did not only change in the workforce. Women’s fashion also became looser. In the 1960s, it became acceptable for women to wear pants in more formal social situations for the first time. In general, women dressed less formally overall, and younger women embraced fashion that changed from season to season. Women also married at a later date, and the divorce rate grew. There was more sex outside of marriage, and premarital sex became more common. In 1961, the birth control pill became available on the open market, making contraception easier than it had ever been for both single and married women. Such changes marked the emergence of modern society in America.
Many critics believe that The Night of the Iguana was Tennessee Williams’s last great play. Howard Taubman of the New York Times writes, “For Mr. Williams, The Night of the Iguana marks a turning point. When compared with the best of the preceding plays, this work of subtle vibrations reflects a profound change. It goes beyond the elimination of the explosive and shocking gestures, which have given some of the other works the fillip of being sensational and scandalous, and reaches into the playwright’s attitude towards life.” A concurring critic, Harold Clurman of The Nation, finds Williams’s writing to be superb. He says, “The writing . . . is lambent, fluid, malleable and colloquially melodious. It bathes everything in glamour.”
Numerous critics believe the character of Hannah is key to the play’s success. An unnamed critic in Life argues, “The Night of the Iguana is Williams’s best play in many seasons, and Hannah drives home—more explicitly than any of his other characters ever has—the heart of his writing.” Taubman agrees when he writes, “No character of Mr. Williams’ invention has had the heartbreaking dignity and courage of Hannah Jelkes....” Even an unnamed critic in Time, who calls the plot “sketchy,” finds something to like. This critic writes, “It is Hannah’s kindness to be cruel.”
The other main character, the fallen Revered Shannon, is seen by most critics as more typical of Williams, but he still has some distinctive attributes. Clurman of The Nation argues that “There is very little indulgence in the portrait of Reverend Shannon.” Glenn Embrey in his essay “The Subterranean World of The Night of the Iguana,” believes Shannon’s fate defines him quite differently than other tortured souls in Williams’s plays. He writes, “The main character of The Night of the Iguana seems to escape the violent fate usually in store for Williams’s heroes. True, desire has been ruining Shannon’s life for the past ten years, but at the climax of the play he manages to form what promises to be a lasting sexual relationship with a mature woman. This optimistic ending appears to make Iguana very different from the serious plays that precede it; for the first time hope breaks across Williams’s bleak world.”
One source of controversy among critics is the function and power of the minor characters. Some see the group of German tourists who pop in and out of the story as extraneous. These critics believe the Germans serve no real function in the plot but to give it a sense of time and some comic relief. Other critics like them for their reactions to the main plot.
Some critics dislike the play overall, but find moments of merit. Richard Gilman in The Commonweal writes “The talk is that the play is Williams’s best since Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the talk, for once, is right. But it seems doubtful that is right for the best reasons. . . . [T]wo things have mostly been ignored. The first is that The Night of the Iguana perpetuates nearly all of Williams’s failings as a dramatist....” Similarly, an unnamed critic in Newsweek writes “At no time does Iguana achieve the single, dramatic clap of thunder that will clear the troubled air....”
Other critics who dislike the play find it too similar to previous plays written by Williams. Robert Brustein in The New Republic writes “In The Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams has composed a little nocturnal mood music for muted strings, beautifully performed by some superb instrumentalists, but much too aimless, leisurely, and formless to satisfy the attentive ear. . . . [H]e has explored this territory too many times before—the play seems tired, unadventerous and self-derivative.” John McCarten of The New Yorker finds fault in the use of the characters. He writes “The Williams genius for making assorted bizarre types believable is in evidence, all right, but our interest in them is aroused only sporadically.” Later in his article, Brustein of The New Republic writes, “let us put down The Night of the Iguana as another of his innumerable exercises in marking time.”
In this essay, Petrusso examines the so-called “happy” ending of Williams’s play via the motivations of its three main characters.
One source of controversy among critics of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana is the decision of Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon to stay at the hotel with Maxine Faulk at the end of the play. Glenn Embrey, in his essay “The Subterranean World of The Night of the Iguana,” argues “the ending isn’t as believable as it is formally pleasing and optimistic. Even according to the overt level of drama, the ending sounds suspiciously like the product of wishful thinking. For one thing, it comes rather suddenly and unexpectedly; an hour’s exposure to human compassion, a cup of poppy tea, and a bit of Oriental wisdom hardly seem sufficient to eradicate habits and attitudes hardened over ten years.” Embrey misses the undercurrents of the play. Shannon has no choice but to stay at the hotel, and the events of the play—particularly his interaction with Hannah, which leads to personal growth—make the decision seem like the right one. By looking at each corner of the primary character triangle—Shannon, Hannah, and Maxine Faulk, the hotel owner—the reasons for Shannon’s decision and the seemingly happy ending become much more clear.
When Shannon arrives at the hotel at the beginning of Act I, he is a desperate man looking for a friend; that friend is Fred Faulk, Maxine’s husband. Unfortunately, Fred is recently deceased, and Maxine is more interested in a companion to keep her company and help her run the hotel than in being Shannon’s friend. Shannon’s problems are numerous. Ten years earlier, he was an Episcopalian minister leading a church in Virginia. He was locked out of his church after he seduced (or was seduced by, according to Shannon) a Sunday school teacher and gave a sermon the following Sunday that was full of heresy. Shannon became a tour guide, traveling around the world. Over the years, he continued to lose jobs as he acted inappropriately towards female clients. He comes to the Costa Verde Hotel while working for Blake Tours, the only company he has not been fired from. But he has recently seduced (or been seduced by) Charlotte, a sixteen-year-old Baptist school teacher, who was a member of his latest tour group. The head of Charlotte’s group, Miss Fellowes, has found out about the affair and is furious. Costa Verde is to be Shannon’s refuge from this storm. He is not altogether mentally well, and he keeps the key to the bus in his pocket so the group has to stay there while he sorts out this mess. His intentions are not clearly thought out.
Shannon places the blame for his problems on everyone but himself. He believes he is followed by a “spook”—his past which haunts him. He does not even take responsibility for the seductions: he blames the girls for the affairs. He does this despite the fact that after at least two of these sexual encounters he hits the women involved, perhaps an acting out of his own guilt. Shannon is a weak man who constantly associates with weak, immature women. He is fundamentally lonely as well. By leading tour groups, he makes few real, long-term connections with people. Tourists come and go, and he never sees them again. Shannon is desperate for real contact, but does not have the means or the capacity to find it. He has to stay in control, but he cannot do it very well. When he first arrives at the hotel, Maxine immediately tries to control him and make him into Fred by putting him into Fred’s clothing and Fred’s room. Shannon pulls away from these offers; He is not ready to accept such a fate just yet.
Soon after Shannon’s arrival, Hannah Jelkes appears, trying to find rooms for herself and her elderly grandfather, the minor poet Jonathon Coffin. The first person she meets is Shannon, who helps convince Maxine that they should stay, if only for one night. Hannah is the opposite of every woman with whom Shannon has had any type of relationship—she is a New England born and bred spinster, about 40 years of age. In many ways, Hannah has been and still is as desperately lonely as Shannon, but she handles it with serenity. Unlike Maxine, she does not try to seduce him from the first. Instead, she wants to help him. Hannah is a saint, the answer to prayers Shannon should have said.
Hannah does for Shannon what Maxine (and apparently the young women he has slept with) could never do: give of herself unconditionally in a helpful, non-sexual manner. For example, she covers for him when Miss Fellowes and Charlotte are looking for him. But one event is particularly telling. Near the end of Act II, while engaged in conversation with Shannon, Hannah reaches into her pocket for her cigarettes. She only has two left, and returns the packet to save the smokes for later. Shannon asks for a cigarette, and Hannah selflessly gives him the packet. He throws them away and
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a play by Tennessee Williams first performed in 1955, also concerns a character, Brick, who is plagued by self-deception of a sexual nature.
- The Male Experience, a nonfiction book published by James A. Doyle in 1983, explores male psychology, focusing on their sexuality and masculinity.
- “The Night of the Iguana,” in One Arm, and Other Stories, is a short story by Tennessee Williams published in 1948. The play is based on this story, though many of the elements are very different.
- The American Expatriate: No Land’s Man, a nonfiction book published by John Fowles in 1964, discusses Americans living and working in foreign countries, including Mexico.
- Our Lady of Babylon, a novel published by John Rechy in 1996, explores relationships between the sexes, women’s sexual behavior, and sex roles in history.
gives her a tin of better quality cigarettes. Shannon questions her about the act, but Hannah does not think the moment is much of anything. She tells Shannon, “Aren’t you making a big point out of a small matter?” Shannon replies, “Just the opposite, honey, I’m making a small point out of a very large matter.” This event gives Shannon hope and a certain closeness with the serene woman.
In the events that follow at the end of Act II and throughout Act III, Hannah continues to bolster Shannon’s sense of self and give him life-changing advice. She tolerates his histrionics. To help Shannon help himself, Hannah has him help Nonno (her grandfather) on several occasions. She gets Shannon to admit that what he did to those girls in his charge was wrong, though he denies it to almost everyone else. After Shannon is tied up for fear that he might hurt himself, Hannah is the only one he will speak to calmly. She tells him, without judging him, that he is enjoying the penance involved in being tied up on the hammock, suffering like Christ for his sins. No one else, not even Maxine, can tell him such things.
Hannah takes it further. She even admits that she respects him—something that no one to that point has said. This gives him the strength soon after to break out of the ties that bind him. Hannah also feels sympathy, even empathy for his loneliness, which he fully appreciates. One piece of advice that she gives to him is “Accept whatever situation you cannot improve.” This advice changes the course of his life, though he does not realize it at that moment. Because of this connection, Shannon wants to travel with Hannah, but she refuses the offer. She is only there to help, not serve as a crutch. She only asks that he free the iguana, as she has freed him. She can only give so much of herself.
Shannon logically turns to Maxine, the woman who has pursued him from the moment he set foot in the hotel. Maxine is the opposite of Hannah in many ways, though they share common traits. She, too, is desperate, but is sexually aggressive and insulting to Shannon. As mentioned earlier, Maxine tries to literally get Shannon to take the place of her dead husband by giving him Fred Faulk’s shoes, clothing, and room. Knowing that Shannon has had problems with alcohol in the past, she continually tries to get him to drink rum-cocos, which he always turns down. Maxine wants to control him, but her methods alienate Shannon. Maxine does not respect Shannon for much of the play, yet she admits at the beginning of Act III “it’s . . . humiliating—not to be . . . respected.” Further, Maxine senses the connection between Shannon and Hannah and is extremely jealous. Maxine wants to be rid of her rival, but she has met her match in Hannah. Even Shannon points out that she will not win such battles.
“SHANNON HAS GROWN DURING THE PLAY AND BECOME A MAN THAT UNDERSTANDS HIMSELF. AT LEAST HE HAS MORE AT THE END THEN HE DID AT THE BEGINNING OF THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, WHICH IS ABOUT AS HAPPY AS THE ENDING GETS”
When Shannon threatens to get totally out of control, Maxine is the one who has him tied up. She says that she has dealt with his breakdowns before and threatens to send him to the nuthouse. Yet despite such problems and Maxine’s own flaws, by the end of the play she is exactly what Shannon needs. She is the rest of his cure, the part that Hannah cannot provide. After Hannah has refused him and he has set the iguana free, Maxine can finally give him that rum-coco. She can finally get him to go swimming with her, something he has also refused to do. Maxine is aware of his past, but now that Shannon has been able to give up control—free his iguana as it were—he can live with it.
Shannon stays at the Costa Verde not just because he has nowhere else to go (he gave his crucifix with an amethyst in it to Hannah to provide for her return to the States), but because the hotel is the sight of his healing. Shannon will get what he needs there: a cure for loneliness, mature sexual companion or companions, a stable place to live. It makes sense as he has examined his soul and may be still vulnerable to the world. He also has no money or job, and there may be a warrant for his arrest in Texas. The hotel and Maxine are about the only place Shannon can safely live in. Hannah’s protection was only short term. This ending is not necessarily the “positive” one that some critics make it out to be. Shannon has lost everything and is living with a woman who has been both mean and helpful to him. His future has numerous uncertainties: How long will the relationship with Maxine last? Will he have another breakdown? If nothing else, Shannon has grown during the play and become a man that understands himself. At least he has more at the end then he did at the beginning of The Night of the Iguana, which is about as happy as the ending gets.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Tueth reviews a 1996 revival production of Williams’s play. Comparing the 1961 play to recent revivals of other playwrights’ works, the critic found Night of the Iguana to have weathered the decades quite well, calling it a “beautiful and compassionate play.”
The American theater is now at the stage of maturity in which a theater season needs to include some revivals of what might be considered American classics. Not all such revived plays bear up well under the test of time. For instance, two recent Broadway revivals of popular plays by William Inge, “Picnic” and “Bus Stop,” have come across almost as period pieces from the pre-sexual-revolution era of the 1950’s. Tennessee Williams, however, seems to be faring much better, especially in one current production.
The Night of the Iguana, which opened in 1961, is generally considered to be Williams’s last Broadway success. It enjoyed considerable attention at the time, running for almost a year and winning the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and a Tony award for its leading actress, Margaret Leighton. A popular film version followed in 1964, starring Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner. It has now returned to Broadway at the Roundabout Theater, starring Cherry Jones, who won the Tony Award and several other honors as Best Actress last season in another Broadway revival, “The Heiress.” Also in leading roles are the Chicago actor William Petersen and the Broadway and Hollywood actress Marsha Mason. The production is in the reliably sensitive hands of Robert Falls, who guided a juicy revival of another Williams play last season, “The Rose Tattoo.”
The story is set in the jungle, the lush tropical setting of a Mexican tourist hotel—but also in the tangled, interior landscape of Williams’s favorite people, his company of the lost, lonely and frightened. The Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Petersen), an Episcopalian priest who has been locked out of his church for his heretical views of God and his behavior with young women of his congregation, now leads bus tours through “God’s landscape.”
Suffering from fever, nervous exhaustion and the threats of his angry customers, he has guided his tourists to a hotel run by his old friend, Maxine Faulk (Mason), a brassy, recently widowed woman. Soon after his arrival, he meets Hannah Jelkes (Jones), a New England spinster who travels about with her 97-year-old philosopher-poet grandfather. Psychologically they are all at the end of their rope, like the iguana that Maxine’s Mexican houseboys have caught and tied up until they can slaughter it for dinner. They spend one night together fighting off their demons and maneuvering for new chances at life.
William Petersen’s portrayal of the priest emphasizes his erotic helplessness and the pain of his doubts about God, whom he calls “his oblivious majesty.” Marsha Mason wisely avoids too much “earth-mother” posturing, conveying instead a sexual playfulness and genuine concern, as a woman who realizes that she misses her deceased husband more than she suspected and now sees an attractive replacement in their old friend, Shannon. Cherry Jones’s controlled movement and diction first express the necessary self-reliance and desperate discipline of her situation, then the bravado of a pokergame bluffer and eventually a heart as vulnerable and knowing as Maxine’s and as hungry and frightened as Shannon’s.
The first act can be a bit off-putting simply because of its noise. Petersen, as Shannon, has the opportunity to express anxiety about his fate, regret for his misbehavior and doubts about divine benevolence, but he insists on declaiming all of these matters at top volume. Also the grandfather is supposed to be so hard of hearing that Hannah and others have to shout much of their dialogue toward him. The arguments between Shannon and the ladytourists, too, could be played more lightly (and more quietly). They have much more comic potential than is exploited in this production. Newcomer Paula Cale, as the young tourist currently infatuated with Shannon, exhibits every nervous quality and none of the charm of a 16-year-old girl, adding to the general mayhem and prompting one to ask how someone even as confused as Shannon could succumb to her whining and twitching. Finally, the presence of German tourists at the hotel (the action of the play is set in 1940), as examples of the Nazi master-race mentality to contrast with the fragile human beings who fascinate Williams, serves mostly to provide a series of interruptions. Someday perhaps a director will feel free to eliminate these
“THIS IS NOT ABOUT LIFE IN 1940 OR 1961 OR 1996. THIS PLAY IS TIMELESS IN ITS EXPRESSION OF OUR DEEPEST YEARNINGS FOR CONNECTION, FOR ASSURANCE, FOR HOPE AND MAYBE EVEN FOR GOD.”
caricatures from this otherwise beautiful and compassionate play.
Act two is the payoff in this production, to which perhaps the noise of Act One is a necessary prelude. Shannon is eventually strapped into a hammock to prevent him from committing suicide, and Hannah prepares him some poppy tea. It is night, the tourists have departed, a lightning-storm has ended, and the place has quieted down. There then ensues a soul-baring conversation between these two lost travelers that expresses for the spell-bound audience every hope and fear Williams sought to examine in his whole dramatic career. Their intimate conversation becomes a duet of longing and questioning, culminating in the classical benevolence of Hannah’s observation, “Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind, violent.” The spiritual “one-night stand” of the minister and the spinster achieves the kind of universal sympathy for our wounded lives that we have always found in great theater.
This is not about life in 1940 or 1961 or 1996. This play is timeless in its expression of our deepest yearnings for connection, for assurance, for hope and maybe even for God.
Source: Michael Tueth, “Return of the Iguana” in America, May 4, 1996, pp. 24–25.
In this essay, Gilman reviews a 1962 production of Williams’s play, stating calling it the playwright’s best work since Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Gilman concludes that Night of the Iguana’s better points make up for Williams’s less stellar dramatic offerings.
By now it should be clear that Tennessee Williams’ real subject is the painfulness (not the tragedy) of existence, and the fate of human dignity (not of the soul) in the face of suffering. It should also be clear that however neurotic Williams himself may be and however widely neurosis enters into and affects his work, there is little point in looking for the roots of his art, and less in searching out the meaning of any particular play, on one or another categorical Freudian plot of ground; because to Williams everything is painful—sexuality, touch, communication, time, the bruteness of fact, the necessity to lie, the loss of innocence. And finally it should be clear that toward his material Williams has alternately been elegist, soothsayer, my thmaker, immolator, exorcist or consoler—none of the incarnations final and no one incarnation carried through to finality.
Unfortunately, nothing is clear. The state of Williams criticism is a jungle, in which every hot opinion flourishes. You may find the three or four or seven critics you most respect each sending up a different species of leaf. No American playwright, except possibly O’Neill, has been so much praised or damned for the wrong reasons, just as none has so successfully (and to the exacerbation of the problem) straddled the popular and elite camps. And no playwright has so helped to muddy his work’s image by coyness, obfuscatory pronouncements, false modesty and inability to accept that when you eat the cake it is gone.
Thus Williams’ new play came to us and was greeted with the familiar irrelevancies and extraneous considerations, and the familiar embarrassment. It was dismal to read his breast-beating acceptance of the Chicago critics’ unfavorable notices. (The Chicago critics indeed! Can anyone imagine Brecht, O’Casey, Giradoux or even O’Neill deferring to Claudia Cassidy?) And now that the supreme court has reversed the verdict, what has the playwright to say? What, for that matter, does the new verdict, the New York talk, have to tell us about “The Night of the Iguana?”
The talk is that the play is Williams’ best since “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” and the talk, for once, is right. But it seems doubtful that it is right for the best reasons or that it tells the whole story. In the general eagerness to rediscover a humane or optimistic or elegaic or non-apocalyptic Williams, the Williams of “Streetcar” and “The Glass Menagerie,” two things have mostly been ignored. The first is that “The Night of the Iguana” perpetuates nearly all of Williams’ failings as a dramatist; the other is that the renewal, the moving up from the depths of “Sweet Bird” and “Period of Adjustment,” is precisely of a kind to throw light on what those weakness are.
Essentially, it is the never-settled dilemma of what kind of playwright to be. The problem divides here into three. The decor: a detailed, exact reproduction of a seedy Mexican hotel near Acapulco, circa 1940; realism at the zenith (flakiness of walls, lushness of vegetation, real rain), yet also attempts at “poetic” atmosphere, suggestions of symbolic values. The text: an amalgam of hard realism, expert and winning, and sloppy lyricism; the dialogue used conflictingly to advance the plot or create character or establish vision or as abstract self-sufficiency. The structure: two nearly separate plays, a first act of tedious naturalism filled with supererogation and subsidiary characters of strictly commercial lineage (a Nazi family, a lesbian, Mexican boys lounging darkly); and a second wherein much is stripped away and a long central anecdote with its attendant effects rests securely on a base of true feeling and dramatic rightness.
The anecdote, neither so long nor nearly so shocking as that in “Suddenly Last Summer,” but having much the same purpose, to establish and compel assent to the play’s central difficult proposition, is only partly detached from the main flow of action, struggling to issue from it, correct it, illuminate it and give it permanence. It is an example of what Williams does best, as so much of the earlier business exemplifies what he does worst.
Told by a forty-year-old woman who has lived a life of celibacy while shepherding, on a nomadic, Vachel Lindsay-like existence, her aged grandfather, a minor poet who will read his work for coins and is fighting against failing powers to complete his last mysterious poem, a prayer for courage, the story constitutes a revelatory experience to set against the despair over the inexorability of erotic compulsion with which the play is otherwise largely concerned. There is a possibility that it would lose much of its splendor without the incandescent purity of Margaret Leighton’s performance as the woman, but one tends to think that it would be hard to destroy.
What is so new in it, and in the play, for Williams, is the announcement of chastity as a possibility, as well as unromantic pity for the sensually driven. For the man to whom it is told, and who exists on the stage as wound for Miss Leighton’s ministrations and arena for her victory (sadly, he is played unclearly and with spurious force by Patrick O’Neal), is an Episcopalian priest who has been
“NO AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT, EXCEPT POSSIBLY O’NEILL, HAS BEEN SO MUCH PRAISED OR DAMNED FOR THE WRONG REASONS.”
defrocked for committing “fornication and heresy in the same week” and has become a tourist guide in Mexico, where he maintains an unbroken line of lust and self-pity.
At the play’s end he is not healed nor are his circumstances altered—his last act is in fact to accept ruefully his condition, marked out for him by the person of the female hotel-owner, a woman of absolute appetite and primitive sensuality—acted with great gum-chewing, buttocks-wriggling, nasty elan by Bette Davis. But what has happened to him, and to the audience whose surrogate he is as Val or Brick or Chance Wayne could not be, not even Blanche or Maggie, is that there is now a sense of destiny continued under a placating star, that the painfulness of what we are and are driven to do is eased by being faced and by being given a counterimage, tenuous but lasting; and the whole thing has managed to work because for once there are no false moves, no violence seeking meaning but exhausting it, no orgasmic aspirations and no proliferation from a center without its own center.
It is almost enough to compensate for all those other things, that ephemeral, debased theater, that Williams hasn’t yet ceased to give us. Indeed, as memory pares away the inessential, it does compensate.
Source: Richard Gilman, “Williams as Phoenix” in the Commonweal, Vol. LXXV, no. 18, January 26, 1962, pp. 460–61.
While Brustein says that Williams’s play offers some enjoyment, he ultimately finds Night of the Iguana to be “too aimless, leisurely, and formless to satisfy” a discerning theatregoer.
In The Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams has composed a little nocturnal mood music for muted strings, beautifully performed by some superb instrumentalists, but much too aimless, leisurely, and formless to satisfy the attentive ear. I should add that I prefer these Lydian measures to the unmelodious banalities of his Period of Adjustment or the strident masochistic dissonances of Sweet Bird of Youth; for his new materials are handled with relative sincerity, the dialogue has a wistful, graceful, humorous warmth, the characters are almost recognizable as human beings, and the atmosphere is lush and fruity without being outrageously unreal (no Venus flytraps snapping at your fingers). With this play, Williams has returned once again to the primeval jungle, where—around a ramshackle resort hotel near Acapulco—the steaming tropical underbrush is meant to evoke the terrors of existence. But he has explored this territory too many times before—the play seems tired, unadventurous, and self-derivative. Furthermore, the author’s compulsion to express himself on the subjects of fleshly corruption, time and old age, the malevolence of God, and the maiming of the sensitive by life has now become so strong that he no longer bothers to provide a substructure of action to support his vision. The Night of the Iguana enjoys no organizing principle whatsoever; and except for some perfunctory gestures towards the end, it is very short on plot, pattern, or theme.
One trouble is that while Williams has fully imagined his personae, he has not sufficiently conceived them in relation to one another, so that the movement of the work is backwards towards revelation of character rather than forwards towards significant conflict. “The going to pieces of T. Lawrence Shannon,” a phrase from the play, might be its more appropriate title, for it focuses mainly on the degradation and breakdown of its central character—a crapulous and slightly psychotic Episcopalian minister, very similar to the alcoholic Consul in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. Thrown out of his church for “fornication and heresy”—after having been seduced by a teenage parishioner, he refused to offer prayers to a “senile delinquent”—Shannon now conducts guided tours in Mexico, sleeping with underage girls, coping with hysterical female Baptists, and finding evidence of God in thunder, in the vivesection of dogs, and in starving children, scrabbling among dungheaps in their search for food. Other characters brush by this broken heretic, but they hardly connect with him, except to uncover his psychosexual history and to expose their own: The Patrona of the hotel, a hearty lecherous widow with two Mexican consorts, out of Sweet Bird of Youth; Hannah Jelkes, a virgin spinster with a compassionate nature, out of Summer and Smoke; and Nonno, her father, a ninety-seven-year-old poet—deaf, cackling, and comatose—out of Krapp’s Last Tape. The substance of the play is the exchange, by Hannah and Shannon, of mutual confidences about their sexual failures, while the Patrona shoots him hot glances and the poet labors to complete his last poem. When Shannon goes berserk, and is tied down on a hammock and harassed by some German tourists, the iguana is hastily introduced to give this action some larger symbolic relevance: the lizard has been tied under the house, to be fattened, eaten, and to have its eyes poked out by native boys. Persuaded by Hannah to be kinder than God, Shannon eventually frees the iguana, tying its rope around his own neck when he goes off, another Chance Wayne, to become one of the Patrona’s lovers. But though Shannon is captured, Nonno is freed. Having completed his poem about “the earth’s obscene corrupting love,” he has found release from such corruptions in death.
The materials, while resolved without sensationalism or sentiment, are all perfectly familiar: the defeated perverse central character, punished for his perversity; the Strindbergian identification of the human body with excrement and defilement; the obsessively sexual determination of every character. But by keeping his usual excesses to a minimum, Williams has provided the occasion for some striking performances. Margaret Leighton, especially, has endowed the stainless Hannah with extraordinary sensibility and tenderness, plumbing depths which Williams himself has been unable to reach since his earliest work. Bette Davis, playing the Patrona in flaming red hair and blue jeans, bats her pendulous lids on her laugh lines and is always on the surface of her part, but she is still a strongly felt personality; Alan Webb’s Nonno is humorously senescent; and Patrick O’Neal plays Shannon with suppressed hysteria and a nagging, relentless drive which sometimes reminds one of Fredric March. Always on hand to produce rain on the stage, Oliver Smith has stifled his passion for opulence in the setting, within which this gifted ensemble seems to find its way without directorial eyes (Frank Corsaro’s name is still on the program but I detect his influence only in a couple of Method Mexican extras).
For all its virtues, though, the play is decidedly a minor opus. A rich atmosphere, a series of languid scenes and some interesting character sketches are more than Williams has offered us in some time, but they are still not enough to sustain our interest through a full evening. Perhaps Williams, identifying with Nonno, has decided to think of himself as only “a minor league poet with a major league spirit,” and there is enough fatigue in the play to suggest that, again like Nonno, he feels like “the oldest living and practicing poet in the world.” But even a minor poet fashions his work with more care and coherence than this; even an aged eagle occasionally spreads its wings. I am inclined to persist in my heresy that there is at least one more genuine work of art left in Williams, which will emerge when he has finally been able to objectify his personal problems and to shape them into a suitable myth. Meanwhile, let us put down The Night of the Iguana as another of his innumerable exercises in marking time.
“WHILE WILLIAMS HAS FULLY IMAGINED HIS PERSONAE, HE HAS NOT SUFFICIENTLY CONCEIVED THEM IN RELATION TO ONE ANOTHER.”
Source: Robert Brustein, “A Little Night Music,” in the New Republic, Vol. 146, no. 4, January 22, 1962, pp. 20, 22–23.
“The Violated Heart” in Time, January 5, 1962, p. 53.
Williams, Tennessee. The Night of the Iguana, in Three by Tennessee, Signet Classic, 1976, pp. 1–127.
Brustein, Robert. “A Little Night Music,” in the New Republic, January 22, 1962, pp. 20–23.
Clurman, Harold. A review of The Night of the Iguana, in the Nation, January 27, 1962, pp. 86–87.
Embrey, Glenn. “The Subterranean World of The Night of the Iguana,” in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, University Press of Mississippi, pp. 325–40.
Gilman, Richard. “Williams as Phoenix,” in the New Republic, January 26, 1962, pp. 460–61.
McCarten, John. “Lonely, Loquacious, and Doomed” in the New Yorker, January 13, 1962, p. 61.
Taubman, Howard. “Changing Course: Williams and Rattigan Offer New Styles,” in the New York Times, January 7, 1962, sec. 2, p. 1.
“Tennessee in Mexico” in Newsweek, January 8, 1962, p. 44.
“Tough Angel of Mercy” in Life, January 22, 1962, pp. 67, 70.
Boxill, Roger. Modern Dramatists: Tennessee Williams, St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
This book covers Williams’s career as a playwright, focusing on his major plays, including The Night of the Iguana.
Hardison Londre, Felicia. World Dramatists: Tennessee Williams, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1979.
This book critically discusses each of Williams’s plays in-depth and includes a chronology of his life.
Hayman, Ronald. Tennessee Williams: Everyone Else is an Audience, Yale University Press, 1993.
This is a critical biography of the playwright, covering his entire life and career.
Williams, Dakin and Shepherd Mead. Tennessee Williams: An Intimate Biography, Arbor House, 1983.
This is a biography of the playwright, written by his younger brother.