Analysis of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana

Unlike all of his earlier plays except Camino Real, The Night of the Iguana (1959) is set outside the United States and does not in any significant sense concern southerners. It also differs from almost all the plays after The Glass Menagerie in being free of serious violence.The play is set on the west coast of Mexico, a town called Puerto Barrio, in the Costa Verde Hotel. It is the summer of 1940.

Act 1

Maxine Faulk owns the Costa Verde Hotel in Puerto Barrio, where the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon has taken his tour group of begrudging Baptist travelers from Texas, including a young love-struck woman named Charlotte Goodall and her overbearing chaperone, Miss Judith Fellowes. Stumbling onto the porch of the hotel, Shannon greets Maxine and falls into a hammock, breathing heavily. Calling for help with baggage, Maxine offers Shannon a drink, which he refuses, instead asking to speak with Maxine’s husband, Fred (who died two weeks before Shannon’s arrival). Shannon calls for Hank to lead the ladies up from the bus, while he complains about his tour bus full of women to Maxine; he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, for he has engaged in sexual relations with Charlotte (one of the tourists), who is not of legal age. Frau Herzkopf and Herr Herzkopf enter and troop down toward the beach, and Maxine explains their presence as favored guests in her hotel. Hank appears, complaining that the women on the bus will not walk up to the hotel because they have found out about Charlotte’s seduction and are in an uproar about it.

Miss Fellowes charges in and demands that Shannon hand over the bus key. She is dissatisfied with the conditions of the trip and demands that Maxine let her use a phone. Hannah Jelkes appears, looking for the hotel manager. A vagabond artist, accompanying her elderly grandfather poet, Hannah asks for a vacancy; securing two rooms, she disappears to fetch her grandfather, Nonno. Miss Fellowes accuses Shannon of cheating the women of their hardearned money. She also chastises him for being a defrocked minister. Shannon loses his cool and chokes out the command, “Don’t! Break! Human! Pride!” Miss Fellowes charges back to the bus to try to stop the porters, who are collecting the luggage.

Nonno and Hannah enter. Hannah tries sweetly to persuade Maxine to let them entertain the other hotel guests in exchange for accommodations. Nonno interrupts the negotiations with incoherent and random phrases. Hannah explains, due to a recent stroke, Nonno falls victim to narcoleptic episodes. Maxine begrudgingly grants them a room, promising to find them another hotel in the morning; she leaves to tend to the luggage dilemma. Shannon heads to the beach “for a swim,” and Nonno pipes up again with a few verses from his poem, which describe the nondespairing attitude of a skyward-tilting orange branch.

Andreas Voutsinas (Director) – Theatre of the Society for Macedonian Studies – Central Stage (17/04/1991)

Act 2

Several hours later, Maxine and Hannah appear on the veranda to set the tables for supper. Maxine refuses to let Hannah stay at her hotel on credit, even after Hannah offers her jade jewelry for payment. Shannon and the German tourists appear from the beach, calling for beer. Maxine goes to fetch the beer and Charlotte enters, calling for Shannon. He quickly ducks into his cubicle, but Charlotte hears him and demands that he marry her, as she is in love with him. Shannon refuses, saying that his “emotional bank account [is] overdrawn” and that he does not love her. Miss Fellowes approaches, scolds Charlotte for conversing with Shannon, and forbids her to be near him. She happily boasts that a warrant for his arrest has been issued in Texas.

Hanna fetches Nonno for supper and Shannon reappears from his cubicle, dressed in a clerical robe to prove that he has not been defrocked. Hannah begins to sketch his profile as Shannon reminisces about his life: An Episcopal minister, Shannon had a nervous breakdown after he was seduced by a young Sunday school teacher. He gave a blasphemous sermon that angered his congregation, who then locked him out of the church. Shannon spent time in an asylum and gave up the ministry to become a tour guide. He now spends his time searching for a personal idea of God. When he asks to see his portrait, Hannah asks him to promise that he will give gentle sermons if he ever returns to the church. She believes people need someone to guide them beside “still waters.”

Maxine enters with her porters, who have caught an iguana. Hearing a crash in Nonno’s room, Shannon goes to help the old man down to supper. Nonno embarrasses Hannah by asking her how much money she has made selling her paintings. Shannon gives Nonno five pesos to calm him. Hannah laments the “dimming out of the mind” that accompanies old age. Maxine offers everyone cocktails. She then bickers with Shannon, and turns on Hannah, warning her to stay away from Shannon. Hannah is surprised (and amused) that Maxine considers her a threat. She assures Maxine that she has no interest in Shannon. Shannon returns, and offers Hannah a smoke, as a rainstorm approaches. Reaching shelter under the porch, Shannon watches the storm and bathes his face in the downpour.

Act 3

A few hours later, Shannon and Hannah sit on the veranda—Hannah reading a book and Shannon writing a letter to his bishop. Maxine criticizes Shannon for being rooted in his guilt concerning his masturbatory pleasures. (Maxine once overheard a conversation about the source of Shannon’s mental instability: His mother once paddled him for masturbating as a little boy and told him the paddling was better than what God had in store for him.) Maxine says that since that incident, Shannon has been subliminally spiting his mother (and God) by seducing young girls and preaching blasphemous sermons. Jake Latta, a tour guide for Blake Tours and Shannon’s boss, arrives. Fiercely reluctant, Shannon hands over the bus key. Shannon demands his severance pay, to which Miss Fellowes objects. She informs him that she has made certain that he will be “blacklisted from now on at every travel agency in the States.” Delirious with rage, Shannon runs down the hill and urinates on the ladies’ luggage.

When Shannon returns, Maxine orders her porters to tie Shannon in a hammock, while she goes to fetch the bill for the tourists. The German tourists enter, tormenting Shannon, who is panicking in the hammock. Hannah shoos them away, and Shannon asks her to untie him; Hannah refuses to do so until he has calmed down. Brewing poppy tea for him, Hannah surmises that Shannon enjoys his panic attacks as they are easier than a crucifixion. Shannon tries viciously to wrench himself free from the hammock, and Hannah calls for Maxine, who sits on him and threatens him with a trip to the asylum. Shannon calmly sips his tea. He escapes from his prison and makes himself a “rum-coco” cocktail.

Hannah reveals the story of her life: how she herself had a nervous breakdown, how she is accustomed to traveling alone with her grandfather, and how she feels about being a spinster. Noticing a scuffling sound under the veranda, Hannah inquires about it. Shannon tells her that it is an iguana, tied up and “trying to go on past the end of its . . . rope.” Hannah begs Shannon to untie the animal; he refuses, at Maxine’s request. Nonno suddenly calls from his room, requesting that Hannah record his finally finished poem. Maxine enters, ready for a swim, and finds that Shannon has escaped the hammock. Shannon appears from below the veranda and tells Maxine that he has set the iguana free. Maxine invites Shannon for a swim and asks him to stay and help manage the hotel with her. Exiting to the beach, they discuss their plans for renovating the hotel. Alone with Nonno, Hannah speaks to the sky, asking God to let her stop where she is. Nonno’s head drops and Hannah knows he has died. She hugs him.

COMMENTARY

“Flight could be called Tennessee Williams’s natural existence” (Leverich, 370), and the escape Williams made to Mexico in the summer of 1940 was intended as an antidote to the difficult ending of his relationship with the Canadian dancer Kip Kiernan. Expecting, as did his character, the defrocked minister, T. Lawrence Shannon, “to be dead before the summer was over” (Spoto, 82), he stayed at the Hotel Costa Verde—real-life model for the hotel in The Night of the Iguana—which was inhabited by people “of two classes, those who are waiting for something to happen or those who believe that everything has happened already” (Leverich, 377). During his stay there, Williams began a creative process that extended over two decades, took his subject matter through several formal permutations (including letters, an essay, a short story, and a one-act version), and at last culminated in a full-length play.

The Night of the Iguana which premiered in 1961 was Williams’s last critical and commercial success. With remarkable synchronicity, the play’s thematic links and the accolades it received appear to close a circle, back to his breakthrough play, The Glass Menagerie, and “its breadth of spirit and [. . .] unangry, quiet voice about the great reach of small lives” (Spoto, 116). Donald Spoto’s observation chimes uncannily with the closing remark of Howard Taubman’s review, which attributes to The Night of the Iguana “a vibrant eloquence in declaring its respect for those who have to fight for their bit of decency” (Taubman, New York Times, 1961).

Though nearly 30 years apart, both plays share a preoccupation with the notion of escape and the conflict between reality and fantasy. Self-absorbed to the point of ignoring the world at large and its events—be they the bombings of Guernica or of London—the characters in both plays seem to be kissing cousins in their garrulous speechlessness. The barely concealed casting of family members is a prominent feature of the autobiographical Glass Menagerie, and Williams does it again in Night of the Iguana, when he bases Nonno (the Italian word for grandfather) on his maternal grandfather, the Reverend Walter Edwin Dakin, who had been a surrogate father to young Tom and his sister, Rose. Although Jonathan “Nonno” Coffin, grandfather of Hannah, “ninety-seven years young” and “the oldest living and practicing poet,” shares part of his name with Tennessee’s father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, all of his spirit and frailties are those of Walter Dakin. Other family members have made their way into Night of the Iguana via the Wingfield family of The Glass Menagerie. The resemblance is most conspicuous in the case of Hannah Jelkes, whose description echoes almost verbatim that of Laura Wingfield: She is “ethereal, almost ghostly. She suggests a Gothic cathedral image of a medieval saint, but animated” (Iguana, preface). Whereas Laura embodies Williams’s sister, Rose, on a nearrealistic level, Hannah is “a projection of what might have become of Rose” (Leverich, 376)—or Laura. She is not the only one who has matured in this fashion. Shannon, a latter-day Tom Wingfield, appears always to teeter on the brink of leaving—the church, Blake Tours, life. Forever on the move, he consistently fails to move on, aware of and “spooked” by the impossibility of escape. Finally, MaxineFaulks’s abrasiveness, pragmatism, and behavioral malaprops call to mind Amanda Wingfield, as does her tendency to smother people she cares about. In terms of setting, resemblances between The Glass Menagerie and Night of the Iguana are less readily apparent, but their locales, too, share telltale elements of mood and function. Atmospherically, the Saint Louis tenement is surprisingly close to the jungle-locked hotel on the Mexican coast and its ramshackle veranda: Heat and confinement render both places womblike, simultaneously both shelter and prison. Given these parallels, it is easy to see how The Night of the Iguana could be perceived as “somewhat aimless and self-derivative . . . [lacking] an organizing principle, though it covers familiar terrain” (Brustein, 26). However, the play is a natural progression, a “grown up” Glass Menagerie and not merely because its protagonists—and its author— are older and, in some cases, wiser.

In The Night of the Iguana, there is an overriding clash of the physical and spiritual. As far as Shannon is concerned, body and soul are as irreconcilable as matter and antimatter, one necessarily annihilating the other. Early on, Williams offers a subtle hint at this mutually destructive potential when Maxine comments on Shannon’s letter of contrition to his bishop, “If this is the letter, baby, you’ve sweated through it, so the older bugger couldn’t read it even if you mailed it to him this time.”

The physical—sweat, in this instance—has blotted out spiritual meaning. Shannon has been caught in the middle of this explosive conflict, and it shows. The first metaphoric squalls of the “gathering storm” that is the mood throughout most of acts 1 and 2 (Belden, 33) blow a “panting, sweating, and wild-eyed” Shannon before them, and he certainly appears to have been subjected to this mode of travel over a long distance and for a long time. In fact, the defrocked priest, locked out of his church in (the suggestively named) Pleasant Valley for committing statutory rape and heresy, is about to lost his secular flock of tourists for the same offenses. The description of his Gladstone bag— “beat-up [and] covered with travel stickers from all over the world”—seems equally suited to the man himself, “who has cracked up before and is going to crack up again—perhaps repeatedly.”

Shannon has fled to the Costa Verde Hotel, fully expecting to find Maxine’s husband, Fred, who “knew when [Shannon] was spooked” and was privy to “how [his] problems first started.” Ironically, the hotel and its owners have since been encroached upon by the presumptive safety barrier. The jungle is, of course, the very epitome of natural eros and its rampant cycle of life, and as such it is both fertile and destructive. Its climate has made the cabin roofs leak, and “old Freddie the Fisherman is feeding the fish—fishes’ revenge on old Freddie.” Gifted, as is the jungle itself, with an earthly sensuality that cannot be satisfied by her young Mexican men alone, the widowed Maxine is looking for someone literally to fill Fred’s shoes—and bed. Shannon, by his very presence, has won and resists her advances in the way he invariably weathers events that leave him unsettled: by resorting to socially unacceptable behavior. Lindy Levin concisely diagnoses this as a result of the “anarchy of the unconscious and the emotional costs of denying the tension of opposites that one is asked to endure” (Levin, 88).

A different but equally threatening reality intrudes in the shape of the women of the Baptist Female College—and the not-quite-17-year-old Charlotte Goodall, and her chaperone, Judith Fellowes. The intrusion is one Shannon has precipitated himself, by withholding the bus keys in an act of tourism “heresy” that mimics his agnostic outburst on the chancel of Pleasant Valley church. Both instances were preceded by sexual transgression, and if the latter was a refusal of spiritual guidance, the first is a refusal of secular guidance. The results are the same: Shannon will be ousted from Blake Tours just as he has been ousted from his church. Williams reinforces the parallel through Judith Fellowes’s constant reminders of Shannon’s disgrace and, somewhat more obscurely, by Shannon’s reference to the two women as “the teen-age Medea and the older Medea.” According to Greek mythology, the sorceress Medea, wife of Jason the Argonaut, had a penchant for killing in rather unsavory ways people who offended her. The murder that stands out is that of Glauce, Jason’s second wife, whom Medea gave a wedding robe of poisoned cloth. Unable to remove the robe once she had putit on, Glauce was burned alive by the poison. Shannon, professing to be wedded to the cloth, also cannot take off his figurative robes, burning—with despair and fever—as both “Medeas” make a point of driving home his sexual and social offenses.

With the arrival of Hannah Jelkes and Nonno, yet another ingredient is thrown into the already volatile mix. Shannon immediately warms to the old poet. One can hardly avoid suspecting that Nonno is intended to be a much older, future version of Shannon, who still refuses to take his charges where they expect to be taken, who still has visions of impending death (albeit with reason now), and who still— as a result of actual rather than psychological blindness—refuses to recognize the people around him as who and what they are. This parallel is supported by the remarkably similar, if more antagonistic, relationship between the Narrator and the playwright Williams sets up in his 1975 novel, Moise and the World of Reason. Almost inevitably, Hannah, who is Nonno’s guardian angel, becomes that of Shannon as well, and her spirituality constitutes a counterpoise to Maxine’s sensuality. With Shannon a—quite literally—captive audience in the hammock and Nonno giving a George Burns–type impersonation of the Almighty in this not-somedieval morality play, the allegorical fight between the two opposing forces unfolds on the veranda, and it is, in the truest sense, a fight for Shannon’s soul.

The rivalry between the two women is apparent from the beginning, but what is equally obvious is that it is one-sided in terms of claims of ownership. Unlike Maxine, who—squatter-fashion—affirms her right of possession by physically sitting on Shannon, Hannah, the “New England spinster who is pushing forty,” has no sexual designs on Shannon. She wants to help, but “ethereal, almost ghostly” as she is, physical touch is not for her. Her and Shannon’s kinship is of a different type, grounded in a familiarity with demons that each recognizes in the other. What “the spook” is to Shannon, “the blue devil” is to Hannah, and in both cases the conflict is the same, namely, that of reality and fantasy. In order to straddle the gap, they both play their part—Shannon that of the ascetic, Hannah that of the artist—and their dressing- up for dinner in act 2 offers a foreshadowing of the predictable outcome of their shared drama:

For a moment they both face front, adjusting their two outfits. They are like two actors in a play which is about to fold on the road, preparing gravely for a performance which may be the last one.

The fundamental difference between them is that Hannah has learned to endure the conflict between what is and what ought to be, whereas Shannon persists in fighting it. “Endurance is something that spooks and blue devils respect,” she says. The truth of this remains doubtful. As Shannon flings coco shells into the bushes to drive away the spook, she takes a few deep breaths. Neither action is likely to bring about change. All that has truly changed is that their respective performances are about to end: Shannon will lose his job and be left with nowhere to go, and Hannah’s hard-selling artist act will become unnecessary with the death of Nonno, irrespective of whether she decides to go on as before. Spooks and blue devils remain, however.

See? The iguana? At the end of its rope? Trying to go on past the end of its goddamn rope. Like you! Like me! Like Grampa with his last poem!

The iguana remains trapped at the end of its tether. As it is tied, it would indeed have to chew off its head to get away. The only one who—figuratively speaking—masters that trick is Nonno. For everyone else a higher power is required to effect the escape.

The central symbol of the captured iguana, only unraveled at the end of the play, serves as a profoundly evocative illustration of Shannon’s plight, as everything that happens to him finds its echo in the fate of the lizard. Pursuit, capture, escape, and recapture are mirrored, and as the iguana is tied to a post underneath the veranda to be poked and prodded by the Mexican boys, so Shannon is tied into the hammock to be poked and prodded by the Fahrenkopfs. When Shannon, playing God, frees the iguana, the message clearly seems to be that he is, after all, the “god” capable of freeing himself. Though obvious and blunt on the surface, the image has another, less apparent but highly suggestive layer, and it casts into doubt the play’s qualified happy ending.

When Shannon at last accepts Maxine’s offer, he appears to have reached a compromise with himself, some form of a bearable modus vivendi. What remains unanswered, however, is the question of whether this iguana has been set free or whether he has merely found some more rope to stretch. The purpose of capturing an iguana is to fatten and eat it. And, as Shannon observes, “Mrs. Faulks wants to eat it. I’ve got to please Mrs. Faulks. I am at her mercy. I am at her disposal.” With this perspective, escape truly is impossible.

Andreas Voutsinas (Director) – Theatre of the Society for Macedonian Studies – Central Stage (17/04/1991)

CHARACTERS

Faulk, Maxine

The owner and proprietor of the Costa Verde Hotel, Maxine loves Shannon and is jealous of his acquaintance with Hannah Jelkes. Maxine wages war against Hannah for Shannon’s attention. In the end, she is permitted to keep Shannon at the Costa Verde Hotel.

Fellowes, Miss Judith

She is a beastly Baptist matron from Texas. The chaperone of Charlotte Goodall, Miss Fellowes wages a campaign against Shannon, whom she accuses of seducing and robbing the young woman.

Goodall, Charlotte

She is a young tourist who is seduced by the defrocked Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, who is now a tour guide in Mexico. She thinks she is in love with Shannon and professes her love publicly, causing a major upset within the touring party of prudish Baptist women.

Jelkes, Hannah

She is an ageless vagabond artist who travels the world with her grandfather, Nonno, selling her paintings and Nonno’s oral recitations of his famed poems. She is Shannon’s saving grace. Deeply sensitive and wholly dedicated to those in need, Hannah has courage and strength that are guideposts in her own life. Hannah has a peaceful melancholy that is not present in many Williams characters. She is a paragon of spiritual harmony despite the difficulties she has faced during her life.

Nonno

Jonathan Coffin is Hannah Jelkes’s aging grandfather. At 97 years, Nonno is composing a new poem, which is presenting some difficulty, given his failing memory. However, the recitations Nonno gives throughout the play provide a metaphoric background for Shannon’s psychological problems.

Shannon, the Reverend T. Lawrence

In his mid-30s, Shannon is a “black Irish” Episcopal minister who denies that he has been defrocked and now leads tropical tours for Blake Tours. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Shannon seeks refuge from his problems at the Costa Verde Hotel. When he becomes involved with a young tourist named Charlotte Goodall, he is fired from Blake Tours and harassed by the group of Baptist women with whom Charlotte travels. Shannon meets Hannah Jelkes at the Costa Verde Hotel, during a time when he is questioning his existence and place in the universe. Having struggled and endured many disappointments, Shannon learns to accept his life as a defrocked minister, and with Hannah’s help, he finds answers to questions that have plagued his life.

FURTHER READING
Adler, Jacob H. “Night of the Iguana: A New Tennessee Williams?” Ramparts 1, no. 3 (1962): 59–68. Brustein, Robert. “Revisited Plays, Revised Opinions.” New Republic, June 17, 1996.
Leverich, Lyle, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995. Levin, Lindy. “Shadow into Light: A Jungian Analysis of The Night of the Iguana,” The Tennessee Williams Annual Review 2 (1999): 87–98.
Parker, Brian. “Introduction to a One-Act Version of The Night of the Iguana,” Tennessee Williams Annual Review 4 (2001): URL: http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2001/index.htm
Spoto, Donald, The Kindness of Strangers. Boston: Da Capo, 1997.
Taubman, Howard. “Theatre: Night of the Iguana Opens,” New York Times, December 29, 1961. p. 10.
Thompson, Judith J. Tennessee Williams’s Plays: Memory, Myth, and Symbol. New York: Lang, 1987.



Categories: American Literature, Drama Criticism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Theatre Studies

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