The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
When the curtain rises for act 1 of The Night of the Iguana, the audience sees the broad verandah of the rustic Costa Verde Hotel in the midst of a tropical jungle. The midday is clear and sultry. Down the hill on which the hotel is situated can be heard the excited voices of numerous women, and it is this disturbance that brings a stout, swarthy woman around the turn of the verandah and into the audience’s direct view. She looks down the hill a moment and suddenly recognizes one of the people, a man; she laughs and calls his name—Shannon. The woman is Maxine Faulk, she and her late husband Fred are old acquaintances of T. Lawrence Shannon. Having climbed the hill, Shannon tells Maxine that he had hoped to see and talk with Fred, because he feels emotionally unstable and Fred’s conversation was always helpful at such times.
Once an ordained Episcopal minister but expelled from the church for heresy and fornication, Shannon has been a tour guide for ten years, the last five with Blake Tours, and he is now guiding a busload of schoolteachers from Baptist Female College, Texas. Shannon’s immediate problem is that he has had sexual relations with the youngest of the women; the woman in charge of the group, Judith Fellowes, is outraged and intends to report him. His need for Fred’s companionship has prompted him to abandon the tour’s scheduled route and stops, and now he cannot persuade Fellowes to accept stopping for a time at Maxine’s...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
That all the play’s central action takes place on the hotel’s verandah not only minimizes scenic or set demands but also allows Tennessee Williams to communicate two central motifs: that individuals are essentially separate or divided from one another, and that an individual’s internal wars are manifested externally as wars between people.
Along the back wall of the verandah are several doors to separate rooms or cubicles. The doors themselves are screened with mosquito-net curtains, which are, during the night scenes, made transparent by lights within the rooms; thus, the occupant and interior of any given room are visible to the audience during part of the second act and all of the third. While the walls of these separate rooms are necessary and beneficial, they are also—figuratively speaking—causes of alienation insofar as they become emotional and psychological barriers between people. Hannah, although respecting people’s rights to their separate rooms, believes in the necessity of escaping such divisions and breaking through “gates” for open communication between people, even if what is gained is only—instead of one-night stands—“One night . . . communication between them on a verandah outside their . . . separate cubicles.”
By arranging for all the play’s central action to take place on the section of the verandah hotel guests must cross on their way to the beach, Williams can introduce and bring into focus at...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Costa Verde. Hotel in Mexico, its name literally means “green coast” in Spanish. Williams describes it as rustic and bohemian, situated at the crest of a hill that overlooks a beach. He also notes that it is important to recognize that this is not the Mexican coast of his present, but of the early 1940’s—the temporal setting is as important as the spatial, given the important role of the German tourists and their blatant Nazi attitudes.
The entire play takes place on the roofed veranda at the front of the hotel. The rest of the setting is presented only as hints: background noises, glimpses of light and motion, shouts by the principal characters to unseen servants. Behind this wide veranda upon which folding tables are placed for supper, there is a row of small cubicles, each shrouded with mosquito netting. During the night scenes, they are lighted from within and serve as miniature interior stages within the main stage. Williams masterfully uses this constrained setting to keep the focus of his story tightly on the problems of the tormented characters.
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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.
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...
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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...
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Compare and 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...
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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?
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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.
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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.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
FOR FURTHER STUDY
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....
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Arnott, Catherine M., comp. File on Tennessee Williams. New York: Methuen, 1987. This brief overview is aimed at secondary school students and others who may be unfamiliar with Williams’ work. It is easily accessible and, although brief, accurate and well written.
Bigsby, C. W. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee. Vol. 2 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Bigsby is one of the best-informed critics of modern drama. In this volume, he offers sound interpretive insights into Williams’ writing career and into his standing among mid-century American dramatists.
Falk, Signi L. Tennessee Williams. 2d ed. New York: Twayne, 1978. This revision of Falk’s earlier Twayne volume on Williams is very accessible, offering a sound overview of Williams’ career and excellent interpretations of his individual plays. The chronological table at the beginning is especially useful.
Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985. Spoto’s excellent biography deals with the man, his background, his demons, and his individual plays and stories, all in accurate detail.
Williams, Tennessee. Conversations with Tennessee Williams. Edited by...
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