Review of “The Night of the Iguana” by Tennessee Williams

I read the play The Night of the Iguana and also watched the movie starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, and Sue Lyon.

Apparently, Tennessee Williams based many of the characters in his plays on not only himself but his family members, all of whom were so dysfunctional that he had no problem coming up with plot and dialogue enough to win four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Night of the Iguana was written in 1961, and was based on a short story Williams wrote in 1948.

The lead character, Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, has been accompanying a Baptist women’s group who contracted for a cheap tour of Mexico run by Blake Tours, the current employer of Reverend Shannon. He is giving tours out of desperation because he was locked out of his church after a mental breakdown.

As the play begins, Ms. Fellows, the leader of the Baptist group, is incensed at Shannon for allegedly seducing young Charlotte Goodall, and threatens to call Blake Tours and get him fired. Thus, rather than deliver the ladies to the expected hotel on their way to Puerto Vallarta, Shannon takes them to Costa Verde Hotel (which he mistakenly believes is phoneless) in Mismaloya on the coast. Here he hopes his friends Maxine and Fred Faulk will rescue him. He discovers that Fred had died the previous month however, the hotel now has phone service, and Maxine is in need of rescuing herself. In fact, all of the characters in some way or another are at the end of their rope, like the iguana trapped out in the back of the hotel.

The cause of Shannon’s anguish are many: a crisis of faith (reconciling theology with what he sees in the world around him); a crisis of identity (reconciling his own hypocrisy with who he wants to be); desperately wanting to believe in something (but finding the God of the Bible “infantile”); rage against his parents and against God (apparently he’s still unhappy over an injunction against masturbation, inter alia); and a deep loneliness that cannot be satisfied by numerous ephemeral sexual encounters. The other characters also reveal inner turmoil: Maxine is bored and frustrated with her job and her love life; Ms. Fellows is a repressed lesbian; Ms. Jelkes has withdrawn from life rather than try to deal with it; and Charlotte is rebelling against her father by throwing herself at any man she can. Whether the characters can escape from the demons driving them to the end of the mental ropes that bind them is the question explored by the play.

Discussion: Shannon is purportedly an amalgam of the playwright’s maternal grandfather (an Episcopal priest), his father (a hard-drinking traveling salesman), and himself, someone considered sexually deviant with frequent bouts of alcoholism, depression and “crack-ups,” who feared he would go insane. Maxine, the hotel proprietress, is thought to represent Williams’ mother, and indeed, Maxine acts rather motherly toward Shannon, at least if you accept that some mothers also have a Freudian attraction to their sons. Hannah Jelkes, the strange spinster who comes to stay at the same hotel, is supposedly modeled after Williams’ sister Rose, who, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was given a prefrontal lobotomy in 1937. But the Hannah/Rose in this play manages to overcome “the blue devil” of madness, and learns to “endure.”

There are some interesting differences between the movie and the play. While generally hewing pretty close to one another, the movie omits some of the more scandalous religious and sexual statements made by Shannon. Also Shannon is quite cruel to Maxine in the play, and most of those cutting remarks are left out of the movie. I imagine this was in order to ensure Shannon would be a more sympathetic character, or perhaps, because Maxine was, after all, Ava Gardner.

Evaluation: It was rather difficult for me to warm up to these characters or even care very much about any of them. They were all just TOO CRAZY. I did not find the play inordinately dated, although if it were really set in modern times, I believe most of the characters would be taking antidepressants or even lithium, and there wouldn’t have been much of a play.

Rating: How does one rate a “classic” that one wasn’t particularly taken by? I think in this case I’ll eschew the number system, and go for the universally understood “meh.”

Published Signet/New American Library, 1961

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17 Responses to Review of “The Night of the Iguana” by Tennessee Williams

  1. Steph says:

    Ah, the classic “mehcommendation” as I like to call it! 😉 I read a few Tennessee Williams plays in highschool (ah, The Glass Menagerie), but never really warmed up to him. There are few plays I enjoy reading rather than seeing, though I never mind dipping into an Oscar Wilde or, of course, Shakespeare!

  2. Jenny says:

    So far, I’m sorry to say I’ve never really loved any of Tennessee Williams’ plays, though I’ve read them rather than seen them performed. Not to say that I don’t feel Blanche DuBois is an invaluable addition to our lives, but I’m just not wild about the play itself. (alas!)

  3. bermudaonion says:

    That’s how I am about Tennessee Williams in general – I just don’t understand his work.

  4. Emily says:

    Ah, the crazy. Must admit I like – even, dare I say, RELATE TO, the crazy. But, I can definitely understand how it could be a turn-off to the more sane among us. I thought one of the more delightful touches in terms of meta-crazy in the original play was the troupe of gallivanting German tourists singing Nazi marching songs and yelling for beer. Adds such a bizarre, sinister, yet also funny atmosphere. Williams had a very dark sense of humor, which I like.

    Also, on a more serious note, what touched me about Maxine this time through is how she’s really dealing with intense grief, but one doesn’t notice right away since she is still so bawdy. It’s this tricky question of how to process about the death of someone she loved, yet from whom she’d grown apart for years before he died.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the singing Nazis – I forgot to add that this bizarre aspect of the play was also omitted from the movie. I wasn’t sure why, unless it just seemed to add silliness to an otherwise sober plot.

  5. Barbara says:

    When I was a teenager, my parents and I stayed often at a small motel in Key West where Tennessee Williams frequently came to swim laps. He wore an olive drab bathing cap and was quite businesslike about his swimming. Meanwhile, his “stud” of the moment would lounge around trying to look sexy. I thought TW was the most exotic creature I had ever seen, and I also thought he was definitely crazy. As for his plays – I’m not impressed.

  6. “meh” I like that…in fact, I just may have to steal that for a future review!!!

  7. kiss a cloud says:

    I also thought the characters crazy! It was fun but I felt like the play needed more sober moments. After processing the whole thing, though, I kind of understood what Williams was getting at. Outer self vs inner self. Physicality vs emotions. I want to appreciate his craft more. I did think it was somewhat dated, but still in a way that I found tolerable and even very enjoyable. It was like reading a for-real black-and-white film.

  8. Margot says:

    Back in the sixties everyone raved and carried on about Williams’ writing. I really didn’t get it. It seemed too depressing to me.

  9. Teresa says:

    I’ve always been a Tennessee Williams fan, mostly because of the crazy. I don’t really like his characters, but they fascinate the heck out of me. And they’re crazy in unexpected, odd ways. Take Hannah–she seems so wise and put together, but then she doesn’t seem to have a grip on reality. I can’t decide what I think of her, and that ambiguity is what keeps me interested.

  10. Frances says:

    I do crazy as well. I find the precarious sanity of the characters absolutely riveting. Two words that Claire mentioned in her post – frantic and frazzled. The pace just races me along and I find myself vicariously occupying the same perilous positions of mind and material condition that the characters do. Wildly exciting for me despite the flaws.

  11. Lisa says:

    Just the description alone makes me think “meh!” It’s pretty much a given that crazy and Williams go together but usually you can at least care about the characters. Kudos for giving it a go!

  12. EL Fay says:

    Thanks for all the real-life background to this play. I had no idea!

    Was Miss Fellows really a repressed lesbian? I got the impression that was just something Shannon said to insult her. But it would go well with the rest of the play if she was.

  13. Richard says:

    Although I enjoyed the print edition of Iguana for the most part, Jill, I can definitely understand it eliciting a “meh” reaction from others. Didn’t bowl me over or anything like that. Loved the point you and Claire were discussing about it reading like a b&w film because it felt that way to me at times and not really in a good Maltese Falcon kind of way either!

  14. Eliyah says:

    I have to say I love this play, i think the crazy is awesome and once I had got over the ‘funny’ aspects and humiliating position that Shannon was placed in, I could really feel for the characters and it worked for me.

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