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 Jelkes has withdrawn from life rather than try to deal with it; and Charlotte is rebelling against her father by throwing herself at any man she can.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