Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6148
Among the four generally acknowledged major American dramatists—Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams. Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee—Williams holds the distinction of being the poet in the theater. The same year, 1944, that The Glass Menagerie opened in Chicago, some of his poems were published in Five American Poets. Revised, some of these poems reappeared in a later volume, In the Winter of Cities (1956). Williams’s poems contain many of the themes, images, and musical qualities that dominate the style of his plays. One of his most famous characters, Tom Wingfield, was nicknamed Shakespeare by his fellow workers in a shoe factory because, as a loner, he wrote poems rather than join in their social amenities.
Williams’s most prominent and all-inclusive theme is the effect of an aggressively competitive society on sensitive characters such as Laura and Tom Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie), Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire), Brick and Maggie Pollitt (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Alma Winemiller (Summer and Smoke, 1947), Catharine Holly and Sebastian Venable (Suddenly Last Summer, 1958), and The Reverend Shannon and Hannah Jelkes (The Night of the Iguana, 1961)—all social outcasts in society.
Related to the theme of the outcast is that of the poet-artist. Laura has her collection of glass animals, Tom his poetry, Blanche and Alma that extraordinary delicacy of Williams’s heroines which made irreconcilable the conflict between mind and body, Sebastian his poetry, and Hannah (the daughter of a ninety-seven-year-old poet) her portrait painting. Basic to the artistic nature is the insistence on, indeed passion for, truth and an equally persistent hatred of hypocrisy. The consequence of this love-hate duality is the doomed fate of the artist, who is therefore frequently depicted in Darwinian images of fragile creatures devoured by monstrous animals in the fight for survival of the fittest.
The dominance of the strong over the weak and of the “normal” over the poetic friend finds its most recurrent expression in Williams’s work in repressed, perverse, or abnormal sexual experiences, demonstrated most delicately in the life of Laura and most violently in that of Sebastian. Between these extremes are found Blanche, Brick and Maggie, Alma (a “white-blooded spinster”), and Shannon and Hannah (a strong and practical support of her nonagenarian poet-father).
The landscapes of the plays are as important as are the characters and the themes; all are inextricably bound upon one another. The world of Laura and Tom is that of the 1930’s, in which the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, suggested in a reference to what is generally regarded as the most famous painting of the twentieth century, Picasso’s Guernica, are ignored by a United States described as a school for the matriculation of the blind. More immediately, the Wingfield family is imprisoned in a shabby apartment described as resembling a cage (a symbol that evokes the same situation in O’Neill’s 1922 play The Hairy Ape).
Blanche’s New Orleans is dominated by the images of two streetcars, one named Desire and the other Cemeteria, with Blanche’s stop on that famous streetcar ride being the Elysian Fields. The landscape inhabited by Alma Winemiller includes a statue of Eternity in a public square—wings outstretched—and the office of a doctor: the eternal pitted against the ephemeral, the idealistic or spiritual against the physical. In their separate battles for survival, Brick and Maggie, a childless couple, find themselves in a southern mansion, opposing the insensitivities of a normal family with the famous “no-neck monsters.”
The most exotic of Williams’s landscapes, perhaps, is the veritable hothouse of Suddenly Last Summer—a luxuriant, junglelike profusion of an Henri Rousseau painting, again in New Orleans—created by Sebastian’s mother in order to provide her son with the necessary seclusion and atmosphere for his poetry writing. Like Blanche, Sebastian and his mother travel, but their journey takes them to the Galápagos Islands (or the Encantades, the “enchanted isles”), where Galápagos sea turtles flee from flesh-eating birds, and then to Italy, where the symbolic eating of human flesh occurs.
Williams’s themes are dramatized in three major styles in The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Suddenly Last Summer. These styles—poetry, theatricality, and lush symbolism—at their strongest, are found, respectively, in the realistic expressionism of The Glass Menagerie, the naturalistic theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire, and the exotic surrealism of Suddenly Last Summer. Perhaps the least successful of the styles he employed is illustrated in Small Craft Warnings, written in the mode of Maxim Gorky’s Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths, 1912) and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946). A gathering of a variety of social outcasts in a California oceanside bar, a means to examining a cross-section of society, becomes a pale reincarnation of characters in his earlier plays.
Attacked in the 1950’s by Time magazine and by some critics, such as George Jean Nathan and Mary McCarthy, for his increasing violence, depravity, and vulgarity, Williams found his critical stature bolstered not only by prestigious awards but also by other critics and by scholars whose analyses have offset what seem, in retrospect, like incredibly puritanical earlier views. In 1971, Ruby Cohn wrote that although she regards Williams’s plays as narrow in range and his heavy reliance on symbols as weakening the drive of some plays, in his best work “Williams expands American stage dialogue in vocabulary, image, rhythm, and range.” It is the impact of Williams’s poetic language and imagery on the American stage that remains his distinctive contribution to American drama, even though they are extravagantly overdone in his lesser plays.
C. W. E. Bigsby, a British scholar of American drama, contends that with the single exception of the plays of O’Neill, those of Williams, Miller, and Albee are undoubtedly “the outstanding achievement of the American theatre.” In his obituary on Williams, Frank Rich, a critic for The New York Times, places Williams second only to O’Neill.
The Glass Menagerie
First produced: 1944 (first published, 1945)
Type of work: Play
In the Depression era, an unhappy St. Louis family of three—mother, son, and daughter—is caught in a struggle between economic survival and keeping some semblance of beauty in their lives.
Williams begins The Glass Menagerie with a comment by Tom Wingfield, who serves as both narrator of and character within the play: “Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” In one sentence, Williams has summarized the essence of all drama. To the very end of the play, he maintains a precarious balance between truth and illusion, creating in the process what he contends is the “essential ambiguity of man that I think needs to be stated.”
Williams suspends the audience of his interplay between reality and illusion by having Tom, who has run away from home, serve as a storyteller. As he remembers bits of his past, he fades from the role of narrator into the role of character and then back again, providing a realistic objectivity to a highly subjective experience. The transitions between past and present are accomplished by the use of lighting, legends (signs), and mood-creating music. Both outsider and insider, Tom cannot escape from the memories that haunt him; traveling in some foreign country, he sees or hears something that reminds him of his past. In writing a memory play, Williams successfully balances past with present, illusion with reality, fragility with brutality, mind with body, freedom of the imagination with imprisonment of the real world, and other unresolvable paradoxes of life. The combining of narrator and character in one person is itself a paradox, as Tom tells his story both from the outside looking in and vice versa.
Tom Wingfield’s story is about himself, a young man who finds himself working as a stock clerk in a shoe factory to provide a living for his mother, Amanda, and his sister, Laura. The father has long since deserted the family. Only his larger-than-life photograph hangs on a wall to remind Tom of a father “who left us a long time ago” because, as a telephone man, he had “fallen in love with long distances . . . and skipped the light fantastic out of town.”
Both the photograph and the family’s economic plight serve to remind Amanda of the many “gentleman callers” she might have married instead of her ne’er-do-well husband. She escapes into the past even as she attempts to make things happen in the present, supplementing Tom’s income by selling women’s magazines over the telephone. She also attempts to provide Laura with some means of earning a living by sending her to a business school to learn typing. Rather than having Laura become a barely tolerated spinster among her relatives, Amanda wishes to see her able to support herself. Amanda’s instinct for the preservation of the family (reality) and her memories of her girlhood and the many gentleman callers (illusion) give her life a balance in a world that otherwise would be overwhelming in its dreariness.
Laura, a victim of her family situation, is painfully conscious of her “crippled” condition, one leg being shorter than the other. She throws up from nervous indigestion in her early days at Rubicam’s Business College and, after that experience, spends her time walking in the park and visiting the art museum, the zoo, and the “big glass house where they raise the tropical flowers.” She herself is a hothouse flower, needing special care. In the family apartment, she has still another escape, her collection of glass animals, the most singular of which is a unicorn, a nonexistent animal. In a Darwinian world, her survivability, like the unicorn’s, is questionable.
Like his mother and sister, Tom, suffocated by the mindlessness of his job, has created his own world, writing poetry at work and earning the nickname “Shakespeare” from his fellow workers. He spends his evenings attending motion pictures, which in the 1930’s also included live acts, frequently those of a magician.
All three family members hold in precarious balance their respective worlds of reality and illusion. In an ironic sense, all three are like the husband and father who sought escape.
The catalyst for a change in the family situation is Laura’s inability to continue in business college and Amanda’s decision that a gentleman caller must be found for Laura. Much against his better judgment, and after many emotional arguments with Amanda, Tom gives in to her repeated requests that he invite a fellow worker, Jim, to dinner. On that fateful day, a rather ordinary one which Williams succeeds in making extraordinary, Jim arrives.
Predictably, Amanda has bought new furnishings—a floor lamp and rug—and new clothes for Laura. Appearances, so important to Amanda, have improved, but ironically Laura is seized with a nervous attack. To make matters worse, the electricity goes off during the dinner, Tom having failed to pay the electric bill.
Candles, however, save the day. Laura recovers a bit, and in one of the most touching scenes in American drama, she enjoys a brief romantic moment with Jim—a dance and kiss. In that dance, however, the unicorn, swept off its shelf, is broken, a symbol of Laura’s shattered dream when she is told by Jim that he is already engaged to someone else.
Following one final, desperate argument with the bitterly disappointed Amanda, who shouts to him to “go to the moon,” Tom runs away, not to the moon, as he says, but “much further—for time is the longest distance between two places.” He attempts “to find in motion what was lost in space.”
Williams’s techniques, in addition to the use of a narrator, are those made famous by Bertolt Brecht, a German dramatist whose expressionism influenced many modern dramatists. Among the Brechtian techniques found in The Glass Menagerie are its use of lighting, the signs (legends) that provide the audience with information, and music that enhances either the romance or the harshness of the mood of the moment. Brechtian techniques make for a loosely told story in episodic scenes rather than a tightly knit sequence of actions that produce high drama.
A Streetcar Named Desire
First produced: 1947 (first published, 1947)
Type of work: Play
In a run-down 1940’s New Orleans French Quarter setting, Blanche DuBois, Williams’s most famous Southern belle finally resolves a lifetime of psychological and cultural conflicts.
On a streetcar named Desire, Blanche DuBois travels from the railroad station in New Orleans to a street named Elysian Fields, where her sister, Stella, pregnant and married to Stanley Kowalski, lives in a run-down apartment building in the old French Quarter. Having lost her husband, parents, teaching position, and old family home—Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi—Blanche has nowhere to turn but to her one remaining close relative.
Thirty years old, Blanche is emotionally and economically destitute. The most traumatic experience in her life was the discovery that her husband—a poet whom she had married at the tender age of sixteen—was a homosexual. Soon after she had taunted him for his sexual impotence, he committed suicide. Their confrontation had occurred in Moon Lake Casino, ubiquitous in Williams’s plays as a house of illusions. In her subsequent guilt over his death, she found temporary release in a series of sexual affairs, the latest having involved one of her young students and resulting in her dismissal.
She is horrified at the circumstances in which her sister Stella lives and at the man to whom she is married. Polish, uneducated, inarticulate, and working class, but sexually attractive, he has won Stella by his sheer masculinity. Stella, according to production notes by director Elia Kazan, has been narcotized by his sexual superiority. A fourth important character, Stanley’s poker-playing companion Mitch, is attracted to Blanche. She is attracted to his kindness to her, for he is gentle in his manner, as Stanley is not. Blanche refers at one point to having found God in Mitch’s arms, a religious reference frequently made by Williams’s characters at important moments in their lives.
The action of the play, then, as in Greek tragedy, consists of the final events in Blanche’s life. Tensions grow between her and Stanley, even as her physical attraction to him becomes palpable. She expresses her contempt for his coarseness and animality. In scene after scene, she reminds him constantly of their cultural differences. Their hostilities develop into a Strindbergian battle of the sexes for the affection of Stella. Blanche eventually loses not only Stella but also Mitch, a possible husband.
The theatrically ironic climax occurs on Blanche’s birthday while Stella is in the hospital giving birth to her baby. Blanche has prettied up the apartment for her birthday. Drunk and inflamed by Blanche’s taunts into proving his superiority, Stanley rapes her in what is Williams’s most famous and most highly theatrical scene. Simultaneously repulsed and attracted by his sheer rawness, Blanche acts out her final rebellion against her genteel but sexually repressive background, as though to punish herself for violating her “soul.” Her struggle with Stanley is the last in a series of losses in Blanche’s life. Her delicate sensibility already strained to the breaking point when she had first arrived, she breaks down and at the end is led away to a mental institution.
As in The Glass Menagerie, there are candles, these on Blanche’s birthday cake. Like the lights that go out in Laura’s life and that forever after haunt Tom, Blanche’s are symbolically extinguished. In the red pajamas that Stanley wears for the occasion, the blue candles on the cake, the extravagantly old-fashioned dresses that Blanche wears, the festive decorations, and Williams’s use of music and lights, the illusions of Blanche’s world are highlighted. In contrast, the repulsive vulgarity and the attractive animality of Stanley’s world are symbolized in details such as the opening scene in which Stanley throws Stella a package of raw meat and the famous beer-bottle-opening scene at the birthday party. Such violently opposing images are the hallmarks of Williams’s highly theatrical poetry.
Even more than in The Glass Menagerie, when Tom descends the staircase of the Wingfields’ St. Louis apartment for the last time, Blanche’s arrival at the Kowalskis’ home suggests a descent into the lower regions. It is her final descent into a mythical underworld, in which, like Orpheus, she is psychologically mutilated and eaten. In this modern American variation of the Greek myth, which Williams dramatizes more directly in Orpheus Descending (1957) and more violently in Suddenly Last Summer, one of the stops the streetcar makes is Cemetery; the Elysian Fields, ironically, is Blanche’s last stop before her insanity and death.
The play’s strongest effects can be found in Williams’s use of language and in the many symbols. The lines remaining in the memories of those who have seen A Streetcar Named Desire epitomize the strong contrasts which lie at the center of the play: Stanley’s bullish bellowing of “Stella, Stella” and Blanche’s confession, “I have always been dependent on the kindness of strangers.” Brutishness and reason, body and soul, mastery and dependency vie for survival within Stanley and Blanche.
In the loss of Belle Reve and the acceptance by Stella of a new life—the world of Stanley and of the kind but inarticulate Mitch—Williams, like Anton Chekhov in Vishnyovy sad (1904; The Cherry Orchard, 1908), dramatizes the replacing of one era by another. Like August Strindberg in Fröken Julie (1888; Miss Julie, 1912), Williams sees the social aristocracy being replaced by a coarser but more vital one. Social Darwinism is the basis for the change. As Stella rejects the old values and asserts dominance, audience sympathy for Blanche’s vulnerability grows measurably. Regarded generally as Williams’s most compactly constructed play, A Streetcar Named Desire is a dramatization of a heroine with few, if any, peers in her impact on the consciousness of the American theatrical tradition.
Summer and Smoke
First produced: 1947 (first published, 1948)
Type of work: Play
Alma Winemiller finds the irreconcilability of the conflict between body and soul impossible and eventually gives up one for the other.
Stylistically, Summer and Smoke is Williams’s realistic compromise between the poetic expressionism of The Glass Menagerie and the violent theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire. Although Summer and Smoke is more conventionally realistic than the other two, it is also his most allegorical statement on the conflict between the soul and the body, between innocence and experience, and between eternity and life—themes taking various forms in all of Williams’s plays. The play is also one of Williams’s three treatments of a character named Alma, the other being an earlier short story, “The Yellow Bird,” and a later play, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1964).
Its allegorical realism consists of Williams’s apparently simple and clear portraits of three women, the most important of whom is Alma (her name means “soul”), the daughter of a minister and his increasingly senile wife. Like Laura Wingfield, Alma has a deformity. Hers is of the soul rather than of the body: a chastity of mind that in the early years of her life repressed her sexuality. Slowly it has developed into a revulsion against the physicality of sex and then, later in the play, becomes an unconventional (for her) appetite for the physical aspects of sex.
Rosa Gonzales, on the other hand, the daughter of the owner of Moon Lake Casino (a recurrent symbol of the pleasures of the body in Williams’s plays), is the embodiment of physical (sexual) attraction, the allegorical opposite of Alma’s chastity-dominated soul. A third character, Nellie Ewell, a former piano pupil of Alma, represents a balance between the extremities represented by Alma and Rosa. Eventually, she marries Dr. John Buchanan, the young doctor who has been, at various times, attracted to Alma and Rosa. As a character, Nellie is even less developed than is Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and is much less interesting dramatically. Even their names suggest their world of respective fates: Alma, purity; Rosa, the glow of life; and John and Nellie, normality.
Alma, the minister’s daughter who has grown up next door to John, and John, the son of a doctor, are representative small-town American characters. John had his taste of an exciting life away in medical school, but Alma retained her small-town interests. Still in love with John, she has remained the product of the polite and conventional southern white, Protestant ethic. Her life consists of participation in local events, such as the town picnics at which she sings.
John, just graduated from medical school, returns home, still sowing his wild oats. He is attracted sexually to Rosa and, in one brief and unsuccessful encounter, to Alma. Characters change, as John slowly settles into the domestic and professional routines of a doctor’s life, and Alma reverses dramatically, giving herself up to the claims of the body. She is seen at the end leaving for Moon Lake Casino with Archie Kramer, a traveling salesman. Roger Boxhill, in his 1985 study of Williams’s plays, sees John’s change as developmental and Alma’s as fundamental.
The mixture of the realism of small-town life with allegorical symbolism contrasts with the artistry of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Symbols and their meanings tend to have a one-to-one ratio, a characteristic of the allegorical style. There is, for example, the opening scene at the fountain square, with the statue of an angel of eternity, her wings outspread and her hands cupped as through ready to drink. Lights flash on and off the statue at various points in the play, indicating the change that is happening to Alma. At the end, as she walks away with the salesman, she waves her hand in what seems like a good-bye, first to the angel and then to her house. Seen by some as an allegorical treatment of the conflict between body and soul, the play is seen by others as a painfully sensitive farewell by Alma to the values of her southern small-town legacy. The world to which she bids farewell is a variation of that of Amanda and Laura Wingfield, Blanche DuBois, and women characters in later plays.
The young Dr. Buchanan is one of Williams’s rare healthy survivors in the conflicts generated between body and soul. Like Stella, Nellie married. Unlike Stella, her marriage represents an ascent, rather than a descent. As decent and “normal” human beings, Dr. Buchanan and Nellie are juxtaposed against the pathetic Alma. With its theatricality and poetry muted by the allegorical style, Summer and Smoke is less forceful than The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, but it is nevertheless a moving drama.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
First produced: 1955 (first published, 1955)
Type of work: Play
In a wealthy southern ancestral home, a family celebration becomes the scene of major confrontations.
In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the cat is Maggie Pollitt, married to Brick, the favorite son of a wealthy plantation owner, Big Daddy, and the hot tin roof is the desperate measure she takes to regain her husband’s sexual interest and to lay claim to her husband’s family fortune. Opposing her are Gooper Pollitt, Brick’s brother, and Gooper’s family, consisting of his pregnant wife and their five children (Williams’s famous “no-neck monsters”). Finally there is Big Mama, whose current status with her husband is much like Maggie’s with Brick.
The estrangement between the silently suffering Brick and his loquacious father is the result of Brick’s dropping out of professional football and sportscasting and his turning to alcohol. Pained by the suicide of his best friend, Skipper, Brick says he must drink until he hears a “click” in his head, a guarantor of relief from his pain. Big Daddy’s inability to understand Brick is fueled by rumors that Brick and Skipper’s closeness was homosexual in nature. The strain between Maggie and Brick is caused by Maggie’s having gone to Skipper to confront him with his possible homosexuality. Shortly thereafter, Skipper committed suicide. Brick’s loss of Skipper is intensified by Maggie’s having made something dirty of what he said was a pure love.
Contrasting strongly with Brick, Gooper is successful both as a lawyer and as a prolific breeder of children. Gooper’s family, particularly his wife, resents Big Daddy’s favoritism regarding Brick and take advantage of every opportunity to change the situation. Thus the battle lines are drawn on what was to be a festive occasion, a celebration of Big Daddy’s sixty-fifth birthday. Maggie, playing on Big Daddy’s favoritism, lies about being pregnant and then attempts to seduce Brick into making her pregnant. In a climactic scene between Big Daddy and Brick, the latter drops a bombshell: the true prognosis of his father’s cancerous condition.
The play exists in several versions, the original having been altered by Elia Kazan for the premiere in New York in 1955. The original version was partly restored in 1974 and completely performed in 1990. In the three major productions, Barbara Bel Geddes, Elizabeth Ashley, and Kathleen Turner, respectively, played Maggie, the different versions allowing each to play distinctively different Maggies. In the original version, Brick does not support Maggie in her lie to Big Daddy, and it is uncertain whether Maggie has wooed Brick from his alcoholism and whether in his own mind Brick was convinced that his feeling for Skipper was platonic. Also, Big Daddy does not reappear on stage after his big scene with Brick.
The play’s structure is unwieldy and irregular, in contrast with the rhythmically expressionistic structure of The Glass Menagerie or the rapidly developing tensions in A Streetcar Named Desire. Maggie’s long speeches are like operatic arias, accompanied by the equally long silences of Brick. Similarly, the towering role of Big Daddy seems at times to vie with Maggie’s. Both have the same purpose: to rescue Brick and to rehabilitate him.
Despite Maggie’s titular role, her sexual attractiveness, and her sympathy-evoking, if “mendacious,” attempts to triumph over Gooper’s family, it is the strong emotional honesty between Big Daddy and Brick for which Williams writes his most compelling moment in the play. Big Daddy’s sudden and unexpected confrontation with the imminence of his death (at a time when he was looking forward once more to testing his sexual prowess) and Brick’s silent suffering of pain and guilt over Skipper’s death brilliantly counterpoint Maggie’s attempt to create life, even when that attempt involves a distant husband and a lie that she hopes to turn into a truth.
The big scene between Big Daddy and Brick is magisterial in the former’s disclosure of all the lies he has put up with all of his married life and his true feelings toward Big Mama, Gooper, Mae, and their five noisy children. Torn between his hatred of them and his reluctance to make Brick, an alcoholic, the legatee of his will, he insists on honesty from Brick regarding his drinking and his relationship with Skipper. It is Big Daddy’s reference to homosexual innuendoes regarding Skipper that causes Brick to disclose Maggie’s jealousy of his clean friendship with Skipper during their road trips as professional football players. He accuses Maggie of destroying Skipper by suggesting to him a “dirty” relationship. Big Daddy, however, refuses to allow Brick to “pass the buck,” whereupon Brick, inflamed, taunts Big Daddy with the irony of the requisite happy returns of his sixty-fifth birthday “when ev’rybody but you knows there won’t be any.”
One truth after another tumbles from the opera-like duet between father and son, replacing the lies with which both have lived. Big Daddy’s anger is that of a man betrayed, as he leaves the stage howling with rage. Although he does not appear in act 3, he is heard offstage crying out in pain. The scene between Big Daddy and Brick is one of two legendary father-son confrontations in American drama, the other being that between Biff and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
With much of the humor and theatricality of A Streetcar Named Desire, but without its compact structure, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains a compelling play. The names of Big Daddy, Maggie, and Brick have been imprinted permanently on the American stage along with those of Amanda, Laura, and Tom Wingfield; Blanche DuBois; and Stanley Kowalski.
Suddenly Last Summer
First produced: 1958 (first published, 1958)
Type of work: Play
Catharine Holly, despite the threat of a lobotomy, finds peace when she is finally able to tell the truth of the fate of her cousin, Sebastian Venable.
“Suddenly last summer” is a refrain that runs through the many interrupted attempts of Catharine Holly to tell a psychologist the truth about what happened to Sebastian Venable along the harbor of an Italian resort, Cabeza de Lobo. He had been protected all of his life by his mother, and he had used her the last few years of his life to procure partners for his sexual appetite. On her part, Mrs. Venable will go to any length to preserve the reputation of her son as a poet, for to her “the work of a poet is the life of the poet” and vice versa. Together, she and Sebastian traveled widely and luxuriously for twenty years. During each summer, he composed a poem, which Mrs. Venable had compiled into a gilt-edged volume. Then one summer he suddenly stopped writing. It is what happened this summer, the final one in Sebastian’s rapidly deteriorating life, that Catharine, like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner, must tell.
When Mrs. Venable had a stroke one summer, Sebastian asked Catharine Holly, his cousin, to travel with him in his mother’s place. Loving her cousin, even when she realized that she was being used as a lure to attract homosexual partners for him, she subsequently witnessed his physical mutilation by a mob of hungry young Italians who tore at his flesh, stuffing their mouths as they did so.
The play is set in the Garden District of New Orleans, a contrast with the old French Quarter setting of A Streetcar Named Desire. The setting includes the surrealistically lush, fantastic garden “which is more like a tropical jungle.” Everything about the garden is violent—its colors, its harsh and sibilant noises that resemble “beasts, serpents and birds, all of a savage nature.” Throughout the play, harsh noises as background underscore the harshness of the action.
In this setting, one year after her son’s death, 1936, Mrs. Venable, in an attempt to preserve her son’s memory, threatens to contest her son’s will, which leaves a substantial amount of money to Catharine. Suffering from the trauma of witnessing the death of Sebastian and from her inability to stop his mutilation, she has been under intense psychological stress. The plot of the play involves the arrival of Catharine, her mother, her brother, a doctor, and a Catholic sister at the Venable residence. The psychologist has come to discover the truth and Mrs. Venable to preserve her illusion about Sebastian.
When Catharine finally reveals all, with the help of a drug, her revelation includes an even more lurid detail: Mrs. Venable had, like Catharine later, been a procuress for her son’s sexual habits. The play concludes with Mrs. Venable’s attempt to strike Catharine upon the latter’s concluding her story with the graphic details of Sebastian’s mutilation.
At one point, Catharine’s need to tell the truth, a truth so horrible that even God could not change it, is a contrapuntal theme to Mrs. Venable’s talk about Sebastian’s search for God, whom Sebastian had once tried to find in a Buddhist monastery. That search is linked with another trip on which she had taken Sebastian—to the Galápagos Islands, where they witnessed giant sea turtles (after being hatched) fleeing from flesh-eating vultures. Most turtles did not survive. In that experience, she says, Sebastian had seen God. Ironically, that Galápagos image, Mrs. Venable’s legacy to her son, became a fulfilled prophecy.
The action of the play, consisting of Catharine’s many attempts to tell the truth, ends with that truth finally being told and with her finally finding some respite from the mental torture of living with her story for the past year, unable to utter its horror.
The Night of the Iguana
First produced: 1961 (first published, 1961)
Type of work: Play
In a seedy Mexican tourist hotel during the off-season, three expatriate Americans are caught up in a private war among themselves and with a group of tourists.
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.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support