The Night of the Iguana

by Tennessee Williams

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The So-Called "Happy" Ending of Williams's Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1696

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 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.

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.

Return of the Iguana

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 893

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 poker-game 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 lady-tourists, 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 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.

Williams as Phoenix

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1100

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, mythmaker, 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 elegiac 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 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 élan 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 counter-image, 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.

A Little Night Music

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1013

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 vivisection 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.

Source: Robert Brustein, ‘‘A Little Night Music,’’ in the New Republic, Vol. 146, no. 4, January 22,1962, pp. 20,22-23.

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