The Night of the Iguana

by Tennessee Williams

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Maxine has been a widow for less than a month. Her husband, Fred, snagged himself with a fishhook and died of blood poisoning. Maxine has no real option but to continue running Costa Verde, a small hotel that they owned and managed, perched high above the Pacific near the remote Mexican village of Puerto Barrio. The play is set in the period shortly before the United States entered World War II. The Costa Verde has Nazi guests who cheer at the bombing of London and other German victories.

On the scene comes T. Lawrence Shannon, always called Larry, a defrocked minister whose options are running out. He is a tour guide for Blake Tours and, in this instance, is shepherding a group of female Texans through Mexico. Miss Fellowes, seemingly the organizer and mother hen of this group, is agitated because Shannon refuses to take them to the hotel for which they had contracted. She also is disturbed by Shannon’s attentions to seventeen-year-old Charlotte, the youngest person in the tour group. Fellowes is indignant that Shannon made a play for Charlotte, but the subtext suggests that she is jealous because she herself has designs on the girl.

Larry comes into the hotel to see his old friend, Maxine. It soon becomes evident that Maxine lusts after him and, with her husband recently dead, she hopes for some sort of alliance with him: marriage, or the best she could get short of marriage. Her not insubstantial physical needs are being fulfilled through purely physical acts with her bellboys, a situation that makes her fear that she is losing their respect.

On this emotionally charged scene strides Hannah Jelkes, a New England woman slightly under forty years old, who is wheeling her poet-grandfather, Jonathan Coffin, whom she always calls Nonno, around the tropics. Nonno is ninety-seven years old. The two of them are as bereft of any real future as are Larry and Maxine. They have no money and had been turned away from every hotel in town. The Costa Verde is their last hope.

Maxine assures them that she has room for them and asks for payment in advance. Hannah informs her that they have no money but that they could earn their keep, Nonno by reciting his poetry to the other guests, Hannah by doing charcoal sketches of them and possibly by selling one of her watercolors. Maxine, unimpressed, agrees to let them stay, but for only one night. Meanwhile, a native boy delivers an iguana that is tied up and left to fatten beneath the veranda. When it reaches an appropriate weight, Maxine will cook it for dinner.

It becomes increasingly clear that Larry Shannon has no reasonable future to which to look forward. He speaks of rejoining the church, but the circumstances of his leaving it were such that he would not likely be welcomed back enthusiastically. His days as a tour guide for Blake Tours are definitely numbered and, when Blake Tours replaces Larry with Jake Latta, tempers run so high that it seems reasonable that Larry will be blackballed as a tour guide anywhere.

Larry’s problems began when his mother discovered him masturbating when he was an adolescent. She spanked him and told him that God deplored such self-abuse. Resentful of both his mother and God, Larry become an ordained minister who preached atheistic sermons and scandalized his congregations (his vengeance on God) and a lecher who sought out only girls below the age of majority (his vengeance on his mother). Now, with his options narrowing, he considers going back to preach in the church or...

(This entire section contains 1116 words.)

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swimming the Pacific to China, his way of threatening suicide.

Meanwhile, Hannah and Nonno are ensconced in the hotel. Hannah fears that Nonno suffered a slight stroke as they came through the Sierra. The old man is dying. Hannah says that she tried to persuade her grandfather to return to Nantucket, from which they originally came, but it is clear that she did not have the wherewithal even to get them as far as Laredo. Maxine makes arrangements for Hannah and Nonno to go to another hotel in town, one that would extend them credit. It is clear that Maxine does not appreciate Hannah’s presence because she senses a growing chemistry between Hannah and Larry. Larry has a confrontation with Charlotte during which it becomes evident that he had seduced her the previous night.

In this exchange, Larry is emotionally bankrupt. He tells Charlotte he loves her, but once he has his way with her, he turns mean and rejects any suggestion that the two of them might have more than the few hours of love they had recently experienced. Miss Fellowes, overhearing Charlotte’s encounter with Larry, immediately calls the authorities in Texas and gets them to issue a warrant for his arrest; Larry faces arrest if he crosses the border. One more option thus is closed to him.

Shortly after this encounter, Larry tells Hannah the story of how he seduced a young girl in his congregation in Pleasant Valley, Virginia. Hannah remains nonjudgmental, ever trying to see the good in people rather than dwelling on the bad. Larry is becoming intrigued by Hannah because, unlike his mother, she does not judge.

Maxine, sensing this, explodes at Hannah, but she soon realizes that jealousy is the reason for her outburst. A storm erupts, with a somewhat cleansing effect on the scene. Then Larry runs to the beach vowing to swim to China. Maxine dispatches her bellboys to drag him back. For his own protection, she has him tied up in a hammock. He has obviously lost his mind. She threatens to admit him to the Casa de Locos the following day.

Hannah comes in to comfort Larry and to try to soothe him with poppy seed tea. He begs her to undo his bonds, but she refuses. When Nonno calls Hannah away for a moment, however, Larry wiggles loose. When Hannah returns, she hears the iguana struggling to break free, at the end of his rope, as many of the play’s characters figuratively are at the ends of theirs. Hannah pleads with Larry to cut the iguana’s rope.

Shortly after that, Nonno calls Hannah, telling her that he finally finished his poem, which he dictates to her. As the play ends, Maxine urges Larry to stay with her to help manage the hotel, making it clear that their relationship could only be professional, not sexual. Larry tells Hannah that he had cut the iguana’s rope. She thanks him. She then turns to put a shawl around her grandfather’s shoulders and discovers that the old man is dead.


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Set during World War II, The Night of the Iguana features three main characters. Shannon, a defrocked minister and recovering alcoholic, now a tour guide for a cheap Texas-based travel agency, and Hannah Jelkes meet at a shabby Mexican tourist hotel that is run by an oversexed American expatriate, Maxine. As one of Williams’s survivor characters, Maxine supports herself, hoping some day to return to the United States to manage a motel.

Shannon’s battles are internal, involving his dismissal from the church for reasons of alcoholism and sexual promiscuities. Throughout the play, he attempts to write a letter to his superior for reinstatement in the church. His failure even as a tour guide emphasizes the illusionary nature of his attempt at reinstatement. The play opens with a conflict between him and his tour group—ladies from a Baptist college in Texas—regarding their hotel for the night. Shannon insists that they stay at Maxine’s rather than, as the tour brochure states, in the town below. Their arguments are protracted through the length of the play.

Arriving penniless at the hotel at the same time as Shannon are Hannah Jelkes and her nonagenarian grandfather, Nonno, who make their living in their travels, she by drawing portraits of tourists and he by reciting poems that he writes in his memory. Hannah has a purity and strength of character which is not of the world she inhabits.

In her behavior and her many conversations with Shannon, she is a painful reminder to him of lost ideals. Her honesty and courage contrast with the conventional hypocrisy of the American women and the smug complacency of the Germans at the hotel, one of whom constantly listens to his radio for reports on Adolf Hitler’s success in bombing England (the play is set during World War II).

Hannah, a sharp contrast to the Americans and Germans, cannot endure seeing a creature, human or otherwise, suffering. At the end, she convinces Shannon to untie a captive iguana, which has been kept tied for the next meal at the hotel. Against Maxine’s wishes, Shannon frees the iguana, just as he had earlier freed himself in his rebellion against his tour group. His act is a triumphant assertion of Hannah’s religion of kindness to all living things and of his own former beliefs. Nonno then dies, having composed his last poem, which, for once, he had Hannah write down.

With their dependencies gone—Hannah’s grandfather and Shannon’s illusions as tour guide and minister—they are free, yet they are also alone. For Shannon, there is only one possibility: to stay with Maxine and help her manage the hotel. For Hannah, there is a return to her nomadic existence. Even the nymphomaniacal Maxine, to Shannon’s surprise, becomes poetical as she invites him down for a swim in the “liquid moonlight.” When Hannah lights her cigarette, Shannon stares at her, wanting to remember her face, which he knows he will not see again.

Each of the three main characters has her or his “spooks” (Shannon’s word). His are professional failure and alcoholism; Maxine’s are loneliness and the Mexican “beach boys” she employs for business and personal reasons; Hannah’s is her spinsterish lifestyle, which she endures in crucial moments by stopping to inhale deeply. All three have met life on their terms, and all three have survived. Shannon’s freeing of the iguana is a metaphor for the resolutions of the private wars of the three main characters.

Structurally, the play’s actions are loosely plotted, consisting mostly of episodic conversations between two of the three main characters. The moral landscape is that of World War II and of the petty lives of the German and American tourists, insulated from the cruelties of the public and private battles being waged around them.