By Chris Baker
(A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training '90), Production Dramaturg for The Night of the Iguana, and Assistant Professor of Dramaturgy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“The Night of the Iguana is a play,” Tennessee Williams said, “whose theme, as clearly as I can put it, is how to live beyond despair and still live.” From 1950 to 1961, he developed it from a short story into a one-act and then a full-length Broadway-bound play. It was a tumultuous time, both professionally and personally. Director Elia Kazan, who had shepherded A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Sweet Bird of Youth to commercial successes, turned to projects with other writers. The Kazan-less A Period of Adjustment received tepid reviews in New York, fueling Williams’ constant fear of failure. The playwright’s turbulent relationship with his partner Frank Merlo ended. As a new decade began, Williams was in transition, caught between success and failure, security and loss, despair and living. The Night of the Iguana reflected that conflict and volatility and would itself prove to be a transitional play in many ways: after The Night of the Iguana, Williams fell out of favor, lambasted for his experiments in dramaturgy, rejected for his move to more existentially despairing themes.
The play opened on December 28, 1961, directed by Frank Corsaro and featuring Bette Davis as Maxine, the proprietress of a run-down hotel in the middle of the Mexican forest. It ran for 316 performances, garnered awards and nominations, and was Williams’ last Broadway “success.” To many, it was also his last great work, the final entry in a succession of beautifully lyrical Southern plays that began with The Glass Menagerie in 1945 and earned two Pulitzer Prizes along the way. Iguana shares with those plays Williams’ trademark rhythmical and flowing dialogue, heat-soaked passion, and rich characters. It also has Williams’ characteristic animal imagery; the titular iguana joins a sweet bird, glass unicorn, moth, and snake in the writer’s menagerie of creatures that are trapped or in peril, relying on the compassion of strangers or the sensitivity of loved ones to set them free. Thrown together in a jungle resort, Iguana’s characters—from the defrocked minister, Shannon, to the oldest living poet, Nonno, to the lusty Maxine—are all escapees and outcasts, the very fugitive kind that peopled so many of Williams’ earlier works. The playwright, a fugitive kind himself, was dedicated to being their champion and poet laureate.
The play is set in the dilapidated Costa Verde Hotel in the midst of the Mexican forest. The Reverend Shannon has been run out of his church for fornication and unorthodoxy and now acts as a courier and tour guide. At the start of the play he is leading a group of Baptist women through Mexico. Dissipated, on the verge of a breakdown, and surrendering to his desires with a teenage member of the Baptist tour group, Shannon is at the end of his rope, like the iguana tied up under the veranda, whose only hope of freedom is death. Shannon is comforted by Hannah, a transient quick-sketch artist, and her grandfather, the poet Nonno, as well as by Maxine. Also at the hotel are a German industrialist and his family, who celebrate the news of the burning of London. “Fiends out of Hell,” says Shannon of the Germans, “with the voices of angels.” Shannon’s crisis of faith and despair of existence is met with a peculiar kind of faith in Hannah, who trusts that human beings really can reach outside themselves across gateways to one another.
If The Night of the Iguana is the last of one kind of Williams play, it is also the beginning of another; a gateway to the playwright’s later, more experimental works such as The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, Two Character Play and The Gnadiges Fraulein. The settings of the earlier plays, however fictionalized, are not only recognizable but also function as part of the social commentary of those plays. In contrast, Iguana’s setting, though based on the Acapulco hotel where Williams stayed in 1940, does not seem like a real jungle at all. Rather, like a painting of Henri Rousseau, it is an obviously artificial rendering of natural wildness that is at once both deceptively simple and seductively dangerous. Williams cut his characters off from the real world to contain them in a sweltering observation chamber with lush botanical trappings. They are, says scholar C.W.E Bigsby, “in a kind of limbo in which causality seems momentarily suspended. They become laboratory specimens.” Even the Nazis seem less like reminders of world politics than dangerous species who broke in from another cage. Williams used this technique before in the fantastical Camino Real, in which characters were trapped in the imaginary confines of a walled street. But where Camino was peopled with recognizable figures such as Lord Byron, Casanova and La Dame aux Camélias’ Marguerite, Iguana’s characters are wholly Williams’ creation, made, it seems, for the purpose of the experiment.
In Williams’ late plays, the playwright often uses techniques associated with Beckett, writing of trapped characters in universes whose logic remains unexplained. Trying to make meaning out of their existence, the characters self-consciously role-play, challenging the differences between reality and the artificial. The characters in Iguana are also “actors in a play,” explains Williams, “which is about to fold on the road, preparing gravely for a performance which may be the last one.” Though Iguana is by no means Absurd, it is much closer to Williams' elliptical later plays than it is to The Glass Menagerie.
The Night of the Iguana, then, is perhaps best understood as a threshold play, poised between the lyrical, cause-and-effect dramas that secured Williams’ reputation and the departures in form and substance that occupied his later plays. Williams himself described the work as “more of a dramatic poem than a play… bound to rest on metaphorical ways of expression… Some critics resent my symbols, but let me ask, what would I be without them…Let me go further and say that unless the events of life are translated into significant meanings, then life holds no more revelation than death, and possibly even less."
Some of the information in this essay can be found in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama by C.W.E. Bigsby, Tom by Lyle Leverich, "Before the Fall—and After: Summer and Smoke and The Night of the Iguana" by Thomas P. Adler, and Hartford Stage Notes (Spring, 2003).
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