Although he lived and continued to write until 1983, Tennessee Williams' 1961 play "The Night of the Iguana" was to prove his last success on Broadway. Williams painstakingly wrote the play based upon earlier short plays and stories. In the Broadway production, Patrick O'Neal and Margaret Leighton played the lead male and female characters, the Revered Lawrence Shannon and Hannah Jelkes. The venerable Bette Davis who craved for top billing in the show, played the secondary female character, Maxine Faulk. When Davis left the production, Shelly Winters replaced her.
A lengthy play in three acts, "The Night of the Iguana" requires slow, careful reading. The action is less overt and violent than in much of Williams. The play is set in the summer of 1940 in what Williams describes as "a rather rustic and very Bohemian hotel, the Sosta Verde, which, as its name implies, sits on a junglecovered hilltop overlooking the 'caleta,' or 'morning beach' of Puerto Barrio in Mexico". World War II hangs over the play. The guests at the hotel include a family of Germans on vacation. The head of the household is the president of a firm that manufactures tanks. The family is unabashedly Nazi and follow the progress while on their holiday of the Battle of Britain. They offer largely comic interludes to the internal, private drama of the play.
Williams wrote that the theme of this play is "how to live beyond despair and still live." In Shannon, Hannah Jelkes, and Mrs Faulke as well the play shows tormented lonely people "at the end of their rope" who strive to make a human connection and to find meaning in their lives. The iguana in the title of the play shares the condition of the characters. A group of boys have caught a large lizard and tied it by the neck under the hotel with the goal of killing and eating it the next day. At a climactic moment, Shannon recognizes the suffering iguana as one of God's creatures and cuts it loose. The play's human characters strive to free themselves from the ropes that bind them.
Shannon is an ordained minister who lost the only pulpit he ever held when he had sex with a young girl and then gave a blustering sermon in church in which he denied the existence of a God who was a "senile delinquent" or an "angry, petulant old man". For ten years he has been giving tours in various parts of the world while suffering from alcoholism and frequent mental breakdowns. He is leading tours to Mexico for a small Texas bus company and his final group, consisting of 11 unmarried women from a Texas religious college for women, refuse to travel further with him after he has had sex with a 16year old girl who accompanies the women. The women refuse to stay at the Sosta Verde and with Mrs. Faulke, the proprietor. The lusty but frustrated Mrs Faulke has just been widowed and she has designs on Shannon, who had been a friend of her husband. Hannah Jelkes comes to the hotel shortly after Shannon in the company of her grandfather, 97. Hannah, 40 and never married, is an artist and her grandfather is a poet. There is an immediate, unstated attraction between Hannah and Shannon.
The play develops slowly. Williams explores the past lives of the primary characters and their attempts at finding peace. Shannon has a severe emotional breakdown when he loses his job as a tour guide. He and Hannah have a lengthy and close emotional evening of talk but cannot reach physical intimacy. Shannon stays on as a companion to Mrs Faulke to comfort her, help with the hotel, and satisfy its female guests. Hannah must deal with being alone.
Hannah is probably the key figure in the play and an unusual character for Williams. She is from New England rather than from the South. She is also measured, restrained, and philosophical. "Accept whatever situation you cannot improve" Hannah advises Shannon during the evening of their emotional intimacy. The play explores spiritual themes. It appears to reject the "senile delinquent" view of God (a caricature of monotheism) in favor of a more spiritual Eastern form of pantheism, perhaps, or stoicism.
John Lahr's new biography, "Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh" (2014) puts "The Night of the Iguana" into the context of Williams' life and offers insights into the writing and editing of the play, its themes and production, and the difficulties of working with Bette Davis. I learned a great deal from Lahr about Williams and about "The Night of the Iguana." The play is more about the universal human feelings of loneliness, despair, and hope than it is about the specifics of Williams' own difficult life.
Robin Friedman This is my second Tennessee Williams play, having read A Streetcar Named Desire a couple of years ago. I admit that it’s fortunate I didn’t start with The Night of the Iguana as my introduction to the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, because my somewhat lukewarm reception of this may have steered me away from reading another. I was swept away by Streetcar – the imagery, the New Orleans atmosphere and the tension between the characters. I felt almost as if I were a participant on that stage. This one didn’t have the same effect. There was a large gap between me and the players; I was perhaps like one sitting in the back row of the theater with a bit of an obstructed view.
The setting is the verandah of a somewhat wornout hotel on the edge of a cliff on the Pacific coast of Mexico. It is 1940, and while the rest of the world is embroiled in the horrors of World War II, the characters here are experiencing their own form of personal suffering. The defrocked minister, Larry Shannon, is on the verge of a mental breakdown, while the hotel’s proprietress, Maxine, has just lost her husband. The penniless Hannah arrives with soontobe ninetyeight year old grandfather, Nonno. This pair evoked the most sympathy from me, and I did admire the rich descriptions of the two. "Hannah is remarkablelooking—ethereal, almost ghostly. She suggests a Gothic cathedral image of a medieval saint, but animated. She could be thirty, she could be forty: she is totally feminine and yet androgynouslooking—almost timeless." The wheelchairbound Nonno: "He is a very old man but has a powerful voice for his age and always seems to be shouting something of importance. Nonno is a poet and a showman. There is a good kind of pride and he has it, carrying it like a banner wherever he goes." Hannah fears Nonno has very little time left in this world, and Nonno is determined to find inspiration to finish writing his first poem in twenty years.
The last act was the redeeming point in the play. The interaction and dialogue between Larry Shannon and Hannah was absorbing. The themes of loneliness and a desire for human connections were depicted with skill and passion. I felt I had moved up from my back row seat to one center and front. The fate of the iguana, who earlier in the play was caught and tied by rope under the porch, failed to ignite any intense emotion, however, although I did manage to grasp the symbolism of the poor creature. This is one example of a play that I believe I could appreciate more fully had I watched rather than read it. I’ve heard good things about the movie dramatization as well, so I might just give that a chance if ever I feel so inclined.
"We all wind up with something or with someone, and if it’s someone instead of just something, we’re lucky, perhaps . . . unusually lucky." Last year I read what is considered the big three of Tennessee Williams' plays: A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie. When the Goodreads group the Southern Literary Trail selected Williams' The Night of the Iguana as an upcoming group read, I was intrigued to read one of Williams' other works. A master American playwright who focused on the failings of the human experience, Williams' words are not to be missed; thus, I was more than intrigued to immerse myself in his 1962 work taking place on a veranda of a Mexican rooming house.
It is 1940, and World War II is raging in Europe. Maxine Faulk is newly widowed and spent her life savings in caring for her now deceased husband Fred. Now alone, she is left as the proprietress of a Costa Verde, Mexico rooming house, when she would rather be back in the United States. From the outset, it is clear that Faulk is embittered with her station in life and tries to take out her emotions on all who cross her path, everyone from her Mexican employees who become her lovers to close friends. Nowhere is this clearer than in her relationship with a defrocked southern reverend T. Lawrence Shannon. An old friend of Fred who was looking to come to Mexico to reminisce on old times and drink away his sorrows, Shannon is surprised to find out that Fred passed away a mere two weeks prior to his arrival. More appalling to Shannon is the behavior of Maxine Faulk who attempts to make a pass at him with every opportunity that she gets. This tete a tete between the two leading protagonists sets the stage for a three act play full of memorable characters and dialogues.
Also vacationing in Mexico are a busload of young women, a family of Germans looking to escape the fighting in their country while still supporting the Third Reich, and a spinster artist named Hannah Jelkes along with her nonagenarian grandfather, the poet Jonathan Coffin. This diverse cast of characters has traveled the world for a myriad of reasons and all land on Faulk's doorstep in Costa Verde. Unfortunately, Faulk does not have the monetary funds to support any guests besides Shannon and devises charades to have all of her potential guests removed to other rooming houses or hotels. As a result, the tension between Faulk, Shannon, and Jelkes comes to a head until it reaches its climax in the third act. I grew to disdain Faulk while sympathizing with Jelkes' station in life as I read through this emotional rollercoaster.
Williams, as with all of his drama, paints a solid picture of the time and place of his work. The Germans while minor characters provide a link to the outside world, and their vacationing points to escape from the horrendous war raging around the world. Conversely, the other hotel guests are all Americans who have come to Mexico to escape some emotional downfall they have experienced in one way or another. Williams creates memorable characters full of emotional baggage in Faulk, Shannon, and Jelkes, as well as Jelkes' grandfather Nonno. Jelkes appears as a hustler to Faulk while a shrewd judge of human character to outside observer. No where is this clearer than in the fate of a tied up iguana who comes to symbolize the human suffering in the world, in the world war, and the fate of humans to play gd in light of the tortures occurring in Europe at the time. Perhaps, Williams wrote this in hindsight to state his views on the war, but, regardless, the multifaceted characters and emotionally charged dialogues between them result in a heady denouement.
While not quite at the level of A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana was an emotional read and speaks to the brilliance of Tennessee Williams as a playwright adept in focusing on the failings of human character. This play is selected for January, and I feel it is an apt way to begin a year in a heated discussion about human emotions and where people rise to the occasion and fail physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I look forward to eventually reading through all of Williams' work, and The Night of the Iguana was a timely reminder to me of the excellence of his dramas as a leading American playwright of the 20th century.
4 stars I have always wanted to read this book after seeing the film but I somehow never got around to it. It actually took the weather here in France to point me in the right direction. We have had so much rain recently that for some obscure I kept on muttering the title of this play because I knew that a storm had been involved (although I couldn’t remember in what context) from the time I saw the film.
The play is set at the Costa Verde Hotel (which appears to have known better days) in Puerto Barrio, near Acapulco, on the west coast of Mexico. So the setting is exotic in itself but there’s something exciting about reading a play, especially with the asides and comments on and off the stage that are thrown in. I do like a bit of action I must confess and the shouting and roaring, I believe, adds to the atmosphere. For example:
(Wild with rage she turns to Maxim)
(Voices continue, fading, Shannon returns brokenly to the veranda. Maxine shakes her head)
(Rushes off, shouting at the Mexican boys)
(Pedro goes into a leisurely loping pacer and disappears through the foliage)
(Cutting in, with the bonking sound of a panicky goose.)
AND finally, the most important one:
(The Mexican boys appear with a wildly agitated creature, a captive iguana tied up in a bag…The iguana will naturally have to be masked and should not be heard until he is mentioned in Act …)
I loved that.
The title really intrigued me too. I kept on trying to imagine why the iguana was in the title and if so, how would it appear in this book. I did know that:
“Storms figure greatly in Williams’s work and in all the Night of the Iguana iterations, and as we see here, they have literary associations that connote apocalyptic turning points that carry within them the hope of release. All that will be needed to carry out the stormy climax of the story is the captive iguana to signify the key characters’ plight—that they are all in their own way at the end of their ropes.”
So when the iguana finally made its entrance and, I continued reading, I could see why it was there and also its importance. I could indeed see the iguana’s plight as shown in the above comment that I came across from another review but to me it meant “choice”. The comparison between what was a defenceless, captured animal with no choice due to this, and the choices of the four main characters, those of the defrocked cleric, the Reverend Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon, who is prone to the odd nervous breakdown with sexual pursuits thrown in, especially young girls; the penniless Hannah Jelkes, a globetrotting artist accompanied by her grandfather Nonno, an endearing poet and nonagenarian (what a splendid sounding word) who recited poetry to guests in hotels and finally writes that fantastic poem for Harpers, and the hotel owner, Maxine Faulk, who is an old friend of the cleric.
Maxine is rather taken with Shannon and is more than welcome to share most things with him, including her bed. Shannon likes to hedge his bets and sees in Hannah, a sort of kindredspirit. He tries to determine what her sexual appetite is like and she rather shyly admits to two encounters when it is pretty obvious that her needs and wants are different to Shannon but still there is the prospect of a new life. So… what would you do? Take the safe route or the possibility of adventure and a new life, even if there are uncertainties and hardship? I know which route I would follow.
But the ending was not what I expected it to be. Drat!
One thing is for sure. Should the opportunity ever arise that I can see this play, well I’ll jump at it. I loved this book/play. It has stayed in my mind's eye, to be savoured when I need to revisit it.
Splendid Mr Williams! I salute you for bringing such pleasure to mere mortals such as myself. Lynne.