The Night of the Iguana

by Tennessee Williams

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The Play

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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 hotel. Although he has in his pocket the ignition key for the bus, the women are refusing to get out of the vehicle—except for Fellowes, who soon storms the hill and demands to use the hotel telephone to call the headquarters of Blake Tours in Texas. While Fellowes is on the telephone, Maxine shaves Shannon’s face, tells him that he can have Fred’s room permanently, offers him Fred’s shoes and socks, suggests that he let the women leave without him, and makes it abundantly clear that she wants sexual favors from him. What she does not want is two more customers who arrive at the hotel—Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather, Jonathan Coffin, the two of them penniless, she a portraitist and he a ninety-seven-year-old poet in a wheelchair. Shannon convinces Maxine to take them in for at least this one night.

Act 2 opens upon the same day several hours later, near sunset. Maxine sets the tables on the verandah for dinner and informs Hannah that she must leave tomorrow. It becomes increasingly apparent throughout this second act that Maxine feels competitive with Hannah for Shannon’s attention. Clearly, Maxine wants to use Shannon’s alcoholism to weaken his resistance to taking her as his lover and settling at the hotel permanently. He consistently refuses the drinks she offers him, going so far at one point as to pour hers on the back of one of her young Mexican employees who has caught an iguana and is tying it to the verandah with a rope. Having announced to Maxine in the first act that this is his last tour and that he is going back into the clergy, Shannon hides in his room when the young schoolteacher with whom he had the affair seeks him in order to discuss marriage. Instead, she is caught by Fellowes and marched off to the section of the hotel where they are staying temporarily, and Shannon comes out onto the verandah, where Hannah is now alone. During the course of their private conversation, which extends over dinner, he expresses his...

(This entire section contains 952 words.)

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admiration for her as “a lady, a real one and a great one,” tells her the cause of his expulsion from the church, and confesses the extent to which he is, as he says in act 1, “at the end of my rope.” Hannah responds to him empathically and tells him that she wishes she knew how to help him.

While act 2 ends with a fierce, tropical rainstorm into which Shannon extends both hands from the side of the verandah, the rain has stopped when act 3 opens several hours later. Shannon is now sitting alone at a table on the verandah, intensely engaged in writing a letter to his bishop—to ask for forgiveness and acceptance back into the church, he informs Maxine when she interrupts him. She scoffs at his plan to return to the clergy. Her desire to have him stay with her is as strong as ever: “We’ve both reached a point where we’ve got to settle for something that works for us in our lives,” she tells him, “even if it isn’t on the highest kind of level.”

Shannon’s ultimate decision to remain with Maxine, made apparent in this third and final act, is brought about partly by the arrival of another tour guide who assumes responsibility for the group of teachers. The guide and the bus driver restrain Shannon and take the bus key out of his pocket; after he runs down the hill (offstage) and urinates upon the teachers’ luggage, Shannon is again restrained and this time tied in a hammock on the verandah. Gradually—with the help of Hannah’s tea and conversation—Shannon calms down, frees himself of the rope and the hammock, and decides, at Hannah’s urging, to cut the iguana loose from its rope below the verandah. Hannah’s grandfather completes his last poem and dies sitting on the verandah, Shannon goes swimming with Maxine, and the audience watches Hannah bend slowly over her dead grandfather and place her head against his as the curtain comes down.

Dramatic Devices

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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 any moment the Fahrenkopfs, a wealthy, hedonistic, grossly physical German family. Whenever he appears, Herr Fahrenkopf—beside singing German marching songs with his family—is carrying a shortwave radio to which he listens for the latest German report on the Battle of Britain, at the climax of which this wealthy tank manufacturer shouts ecstatically, “London is burning, the heart of London’s on fire!” Such a partisan and inhuman celebration over war’s destruction of life, as well as the marching songs and the Germans’ frequent demands for beer or champagne, serves as a device by which Williams can magnify Shannon’s personal war to a global one between nations. Shannon’s natural desire and need for communion with others have become, through years of repression, crippled and uncontrollably monstrous. Repression imposed upon people by religious extremists, Williams seems to suggest, is no less destructively inhuman that that imposed upon them by political extremists.

Another dramatic device Williams uses also needs mentioning: the iguana Maxine’s young employees capture and tie to the verandah with a rope. They intend to fatten it up and then eat it. Since Shannon says several times that he feels he is at the end of his rope, since the iguana strains at the end of a real one, and since Shannon—after learning respect for Hannah and the unifying wisdom of her ways—ultimately cuts the iguana free, it is clear that Williams intends for his audience to perceive the lizard metaphorically as Shannon. Like the iguana that will chew its own tail or leg off to get free of a trap, so long as Shannon remains restrained from living naturally and uninhibitedly he devours himself from within.

Places Discussed

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Costa Verde

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.

Historical Context

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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 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.

Literary Style

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SettingThe 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.

Symbolism 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.

Costumes 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.

Compare and Contrast

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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.

Media Adaptations

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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.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES 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.

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.


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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 Albert J. Devlin. Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 1986. This collection of conversations and interviews between Williams and a number of interviewers provides an easy-to-follow overview of what Williams sought to achieve in his plays. A good starting point for those interested in Williams.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide