‘The Night of the Iguana’ by Tennessee Williams – At the End of their Ropes

‘The Night of the Iguana’ by Tennessee Williams   a play (1961) – 137 pages

‘Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it is unkind or violent.’ – Tennessee Williams,  The Night of the Iguana

‘If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.’ – Tennessee Williams, Conversations With Tennessee Williams


‘The Night of the Iguana’, written in 1961, was Tennessee Williams’ last hit play, running for ten months and 316 performances on Broadway in its original run.  As Howard Taubman in his original review of the play stated, Williams is “writing at the top of his form”.  Williams had had a spectacular run of hits on Broadway and in the movies including ‘The Glass Menagerie’, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, ‘The Rose Tattoo’, and ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’ as well as the movie ‘Baby Doll’.

In 1963 Williams lost his long-time lover and personal secretary Frank Merlo who must have been a stabilizing influence on him.  The loss plunged him into a near catatonic depression and increasing drug and alcohol use resulting in several hospitalizations and commitments.

But Williams’ fabulous glory days were beyond compare.  He dominated the American theatre in the late 1940s and 1950s as no one has done since.  Nearly all of his plays then were turned into well-regarded movies. The film rights to ‘The Glass Menagerie’ were the highest that had ever been paid for a Broadway play.  Even today his plays are constantly being revived on Broadway.  A new production of ‘The Night of the Iguana’ is scheduled for Broadway in 2015.

‘The Night of the Iguana’ is unique in that it takes place in an exotic resort on the west coast of Mexico.  Just like the two iguanas tied up at this cheap hotel, the humans here are trying to escape their personal plights but are at the end of their ropes.

The play centers on a bus driver named Shannon.  A former minister who was kicked out of his church, Shannon is now driving a tour bus full of traveling woman teachers.  Shannon has a brief adventure with an underage girl accompanying the group, and the group leader wants to report him to the bus company management.  So Shannon deflects the bus from its normal route to this remote resort run by his friends, in hopes of not getting reported.  The woman who runs the resort, Maxine, has lost her husband about a month ago and is trying to lure Shannon with her sexual charms to stay and help her run the resort. Shannon resists. Meanwhile there are an old man and his granddaughter, Nonno and Hannah, staying at the hotel who are also trapped in a hopeless gypsy-like existence.  The conversation between Shannon and Hannah near the end of the play is one of the most moving scenes in all of theater.

The timeframe of the play is 1940, and there are some German tourists at the resort who are rejoicing in the bombings of London which they hear about on their radio, much to the unspoken annoyance of everyone else.

USDespite its Mexican backdrop, ‘The Night of the Iguana’ is still very much a Southern Gothic like most of Williams plays.  Nearly all the main characters are transplanted from the American South.   It contains what you would expect from a Tennessee Williams play, raunchy flamboyant characters who are emotionally overwrought and seeking moral redemption.   Williams is particularly good with his female characters in that each has her own distinct personality and way of being.

”Purists of the craft may object that, strictly speaking, The Night of the Iguana does not go anywhere. In the deepest sense, it does not need to. It is already there, at the moving, tormented heart of the human condition.” – TIME magazine reviewer

I also watched the excellent movie adaptation of ‘The Night of the Iguana’ starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr.

A new biography of this tortured genius, ‘Tennessee Williams – Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh’ by John Lahr, has recently been published.


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