“The Night of the Iguana” by Tennessee Williams

I never really got Tennessee Williams. But then again, I don’t think I’ve tried very hard. On the face of it, his works should be right up my street: I love drama, after all, and just about anyone who knows anything about drama rates Williams as among the finest; I love writers of the southern States – William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, different though they all are from each other; and I like works that project emotional intensity. Tennessee Williams cannot be faulted on any of these points.

Yes, it is true that I had once dismissed his works as “overheated melodrama” – but that was in my younger days: now, older and, hopefully, a bit more mature in my judgement, I realise that it shouldn’t bother me if a work is “melodramatic”: as I had argued in an earlier post, it is entirely legitimate for an author to depict extreme and even violent emotions. And as for “overheated” – at what temperature precisely is a work heated to just the correct level? It is one of those glib, undefined terms that one should never, I think, use in literary criticism.

And in any case, my views of Tennessee Williams are mainly based on the film versions of his plays, and, having seen none of them on stage, and having only read a small handful (and that decades ago in my student days), I am not really sure how close these film adaptations are to the original works. The most famous of these films is A Streetcar Named Desire, its impact due to a great extent to the sheer intensity of the young Marlon Brando’s screen presence; but – and this may be due to my shortcomings as a viewer – I couldn’t really understand the central Blanche Dubois character: I could see what she was, but didn’t feel I was given any indication of why she was so – of what it was either in her psyche or in her environment that made her like this. But it is a work held in such high regard, that it’s best to reserve judgement till I’ve reacquainted myself with it.

I remember a few other films also – Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – and The Night of the Iguana. And it was with the last of these that I decided to start off my Tennessee Williams season. Quite often, one gets a good impression of a writer by reading a number of that writer’s work in close succession, and I am hoping that a reading of a dozen or so of his most highly regarded works would help dispel whatever prejudice I might harbour, and maybe even reveal to me a writer of genuine worth. After all, a reputation as high as that of Tennessee Williams could not have emerged from nothing.

I vaguely remembered the John Huston film from the early 60s with Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr; and I remember having enjoyed it quite a bit.  The play itself is set in its entirety on the terrace of a run-down hotel overlooking the Mexican coast; the fairly long opening section of the film depicting the coach tour before reaching the hotel appears to have been the invention of the film-makers, strongly suggested though it is by what we find in the play’s exposition.

This exposition itself is very skilfully handled. It is one of the hardest things in a play to write expository dialogue without giving the impression that these characters are speaking these lines purely for the audience’s benefit and not their own; but Williams’ technique, both in this regard and in others, is seamless. Laurence Shannon, a former priest who had been locked out of his own church, is acting as a tour guide for a group of conservative Baptist ladies from Texas, and, as is fairly obvious, he is on the verge of a mental breakdown. He appears to have bedded a very young lady from the group, and the other ladies – quite understandably, it seemed to me – are after his blood. This particular hotel is not on the tour company’s itinerary, but Shannon insists, for reasons not made entirely clear, on keeping them there for as long as he can.

The proprietor of the hotel, Shannon is shocked to hear, has recently died, and his wife, the middle-aged and sexually predatory Maxine, who doesn’t seem entirely heartbroken about her recent loss, is now running the place. The only other guests (cut from the film, perhaps wisely) are a family of caricature Germans, described in the most grotesque terms in the stage directions: they are enthusiastic Nazis listening excitedly to wartime propaganda on the radio (this play is set in the early 40s). What these characters are doing in the play I really have no idea: for all their buffoonery, they seem too sinister to provide adequate comic relief, but too absurd to be taken seriously in dramatic terms.

Into this environment of the grotesque and the near-insane, all drenched by a merciless tropical sunlight, there enters a couple at least as strange as any of the other characters seen so far, but more subdued in their colouring: one of them is Hannah, a middle-aged spinster who makes a meagre living from sketching tourists; and the other is her grandfather, nearly a hundred years old and obviously close to death, who describes himself as the world’s oldest performing poet. Through the rest of the play we hear this aged man attempting to finish – while his mind still holds out – one final poem. One doubts whether this poem would make any list of the great American poems of the century, but the effect of its repetition on stage has about it a sort of incantatory power:

How calmly does the olive branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer
With no betrayal of despair

Some time while light obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever, and from thence
A second history will commence … etc.

It succeeds, it seems to me, in dramatic if not necessarily in poetic terms

However, the play itself does have a certain poetic quality to it. Its climactic sequence is not violent, as it might well have been: rather, it comes in the form of a quiet, intimate scene between Shannon and Hannah, in which an offer of moral redemption appears to be made, though not taken.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Tennessee Williams has such complete technical control: the pacing of the drama, the ebb and flow of the tension, the depiction of Shannon’s desperation and of Hannah’s stoicism, or, indeed, of Maxine’s fleshy sexuality, are all admirable, and quite clearly the work of a man who had completely mastered stagecraft. From a noted dramatist, such technical expertise is only to be expected. But the depiction of Hannah goes further than that – it is more than merely admirable: Tennessee Williams imbues her presence with a grace, with a sort of radiance, but without any sense of sentimentality or of the maudlin.

However, I can’t say I was entirely convinced by the play as whole. Too much that is important is left too vague. We can see Shannon’s desperation: like the iguana that has been captured and tied up to be fattened for the dinner table, Shannon is at the end of his tether. But, once again, I needed to know how he got to this stage: what is it in his psyche, in his environment, that has led to this? And similarly with Hannah: what is it that drives her to travel penniless through an inhospitable world with her old and decrepit grandfather? Why is she, too, so lonely? One does not, of course, seek answers to all questions in a work of art: indeed, in any art of any substance, it is essential to convey a sense of mystery, because, after all, the questions of life that can be answered with ease are not really questions that are worth posing. It may well be that there can be no clear explanation for Shannon’s incipient mental breakdown, or of Hannah’s outcast state. But when questions such as these are barely so much as considered, I can’t help feeling that there are major holes in the dramatic texture.

However, the obvious qualities of the play – its sure pacing, its theatrical effectiveness, its marvellously fluid dialogue, its sense of the poetic, and, finally, its hint of a possible redemption – cannot be ignored. I shall most certainly persevere with Tennessee Williams.

15 responses to this post.

  1. Have you read the Roman Spring of Mrs Stone? I thought it was fantastic–much better than I expected.

    Reply

    • I haven’t read that – indeed, I’ve only vaguely heard of it. It isn’t often that an author excels in both prose fiction and in drama – Chekhov is a very conspicuous exception – and this certainly seems worth a look. I’ve bought myself about a dozen or so of his plays to read through.

      Reply

      • I picked up the book title on the blog of author Charles Lambert. He had a post “the best books set in Italy,” and since he’s British but lives in Italy, I thought he probably had picked some good ‘uns.

  2. Posted by Evie on April 9, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Thanks for this. It’s one of his plays I don’t know (ie haven’t seen it performed at all). I do like things left vague, and don’t see that as a dramatic flaw at all – I like things left to the imagination. Your rational side – and need – is often much stronger than mine, that’s something I’ve often noted in our bookish discussions! Rational explanation (of the world, not just literature) is overrated, for me. The reasons for a person’s state of mind or actions does not need to be explained in order for the play to work – for me at least; some things we have to accept, and the key to dramatic success is the way the part of their lives we are presented with plays out – that is either well constructed and convincing or it is not. But that’s my personal approach to literature generally – I understand why you might see this as a problem.

    Have you seen Suddenly, Last Summer? There is a film with Liz Taylor and Katharine Hepburn, but also a more recent one – the earlier one is better. The only one I have seen on the stage is The Glass Menagerie – I do wish more theatres would do some classic 20C plays more often…

    Reply

    • Hello Evie, I think one problem is that I encountered Tolstoy at a very early stage in the development of my literary taste, and, unconsciously (to a great extent), his literary values have shaped mine. Tolstoy had to explore to as much depth as possible why the characters are as they are – what forces, internal or external, have shaped their consciousness. I suppose you are right in that there is no reason why we should expect Tolstoy’s literary values to be apparent in the works of other authors, but early impressions do tend to be lasting ones. Certainly, I did find myself asking, repeatedly, “why are these characters like this?” but it may well be a wrong question to ask.

      However, the theme of the our pasts shaping our present is one that continues to fascinate me, both in life and in literature.

      I’ll certainly read more of Tennessee Williams’ plays: this play certainly displays a very individual poetic sensibility. (And I think I ave to read these plays, because if I am to wait for stage productios, I’d be waiting for ever.)

      I don’t think I’ve seen the film version of “Suddenly Last Sumer”, but I have the Penguin edition of it featuring a most alluring picture on the cover of a young Elizabeth Taylor in a swimsuit. Sorry to be sexist, but…

      Reply

      • Posted by Evie on April 10, 2012 at 12:33 am

        No, not sexist! Elizabeth Taylor was stunningly beautiful in her youth, and that is to be celebrated!

        Thanks for your comments – I do think it’s a sign of good literature that when it challenges our expectations or our idea of what good literature should involve or even just our tastes, we nevertheless want to think about it more and read more of it. Sorry, that’s not at all well put – it’s 1.30am, struggling to sleep but also, clearly, to string a decent sentence together!

  3. Posted by alan on April 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    I never got too see the movie “A streetcar named desire”. It seemed to be on TV regularly when I was young but my father expressed a hatred for it. The only other movies he hated as much were Powell and Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes”, and “Gone With The Wind”. This hate also applied to all soap operas, which were banned viewing. The only common point of reference I can see is a possible impatience with ‘melodrama’, but that is not a term he would have used. Seeing “The Red Shoes” in later years I could only enjoy it as a visual art, but it’s impressive enough as that.
    I think that I gained more than I lost, but on the other hand I do respect your recommendations, so I’ll put Williams on my lengthy ‘to read someday’ list.

    Reply

    • I can’t honestly think of anything that the three films you mention have in common!

      I am only starting to read Tennessee Williams, and although I am impressed by many elements in the one play I’ve read so far, I don’t know that I understand his work sufficiently well to give an unqualified recommendation.

      Reply

  4. I’m nearly always awed by Tennessee Williams (I’ve been toying with writing a post about the prefaces he wrote for some of his own and for other writers’ works; they’re almost invariably minor masterpieces). It’s an interesting question you raise, about needing to know what’s in a character’s psyche, what in his or her environment led them to the state they inhabit when the curtain opens (and closes). Maybe it’s because I grew up in the American South, but curiously, I’ve never felt this need in reading (or watching) Tennessee Williams’ work. To me his plays touch on ineffable qualities in his characters that often strike me as having an unusual emotional depth, resonance and recognizability, and a kind of broken stuntedness of the sort one sometimes encounters in living people – for whom the origins of their pathologies are usually more indeterminate and complex than in anything even so astute an observer of human emotions as Williams wrote. But there’s also a slightly, intentionally kitsch, caricatural element in many of his plays that I think contributes a bit to the distancing one might experience with regard to the characters.

    Is “Camino Real” on your list? I saw a performance of that years ago that still ranks among the most memorable pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott, I hadn’t known you had grown up in the southern States. Although I have no connection whatever with the Southern states (apart from a couple of work visits, one to Dalls, and another more recently to Atlanta) I find myself drawn to their literary traditions. Apart from acquainting myself with Tennessee Williams’ plays (and yes, Camino Real is certainly on my list) I am currently alternating between teh short stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. (I’ll post about them when I have read a bit more, an have had time to digest them.)

      I keep remembering a line from Eugene o’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (not a Southern play, I know, but a great personal favourite of mine) in which Mary Tyrone says “the past is the present, isn’t it/ It’s teh future too.” This has long fascinated me. I suppose that if aythors have certain themes that are of particular interest to them, then so do readers, and the theme of the past shaping teh present, of the past, as it were, living in the present, is something that fascinates me. And I can’t help feeling that I don’t really have an adequate understanding of the present without knowing the past that has shaped it.

      As I say in my response to Evie above, this is possibly due to my acquaintance with Tolstoy at a very early stage: Tolstoy had to understand in as much detail as he could what it is that makes any character as they are and not otherwise. Ibsen, another giant in my personal pantheon, was similarly fascinated by the past being part of the present – to such an extent that many of his plays (Rosmersholm is an obvious example) are, in effect, almost entirely exposition – although, of course, being teh great artist that he is, he found ways of making exposition dramatic. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, too, is a delving into the past: throughout this very long play, the characters keep revisiting their past obsessively, trying to ake some sort of sense of it; and this revisiting of the past becomes itself the substance of the drama.

      But of course, just because this is a theme that partcularly fascinates me, there is no reason why every author should address it. Tennessee Williams is new territory for me, and I must be prepared to be challenged. I am, I must admit, a bit worried by the element of kitsch you mention, but i have certainly found more than enough in The Night of the Iguana to make me want to continue my exploration of his work.

      And thanks for mentioning his prefaces: I’ll look them up. I’ve often felt, for instance, that Shaw’s prefaces were often finer than his plays!

      Reply

  5. Williams has always been something of a complicated case for me. Like Scott, I grew up in the American South. In my case, my family history there stretches back centuries (part of my dad’s family came to Louisiana as part of a late 1700s Spanish government scheme to settle Canary Islanders there in return for military service against the British in “West Florida” or modern-day eastern Louisiana, and my mom’s family was part of the great “Scotch-Irish” migration west from Virginia and the Carolinas to places like Tennessee and Mississippi; I recently learned that my great-great-grand-uncle became colonel of the 13th Tennessee (Confederate) Infantry at the Battle of Chickamauga after his CO’s promotion). My mother, though she (for some reason) doggedly refused to reveal her own genealogical details, persevered in a near-religious pride in her Southern background, and, “surprisingly” enough, loved Tennessee Williams.

    It’s not hard to see why, to a certain extent. I always suspected that Mom saw herself as Blanche Dubois or Amanda Wingfield, and thought she positively reveled (and revels) in the near-Grand Guignol melodrama that Williams’ storylines can sometimes evoke. We had a copy of “Glass Menagerie” in the house, and I’m pretty sure there was a Williams play in a collection of modern drama therein (I can remember Wedekind’s “Lulu” and Camus’ “Caligula,” but for the life of me can’t remember the Tennessee Williams entry–I won’t even start thinking about the issues that sentence just conjured, at least right now). What I thought she missed was the damage those kind of fantasies could wreak on her offspring (sexuality aside), damage I always thought Williams’ work was pretty directly focused on addressing. So I think we both derived equal satisfaction in some ways, though on very different levels. That said, it’s hard for me to think of it positively nowadays. Part of it was learning of Eugene O’Neill in college. I haven’t read “Long Day’s Journey” or “The Iceman Cometh,” but have read “Mourning Becomes Electra” and “The Hairy Ape.” They seem to strike much more keenly than Williams’ stuff. A friend of mine (largely in return for my introducing him to O’Neill) lent me “Camino Real,” and I found it terribly hard to take seriously (part of it might have been learning that Eli Wallach played “Champ” in the premiere, and just after seeing “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I wonder if my expectations were twisted). It’s good to read of a relative newcomer finding value in his work, and encourages me to give it a second chance (especially as I’ve never read–or *seen*–“Night of the Iguana”).

    Reply

    • I should add that while the work of some playwrights seems almost equally good on paper as it does on the stage, Williams’ plays, to me, really need to be seen to be fully appreciated (and while some of the film versions are quite good, nothing really matches a good stage production). I can think of few modern playwrights who were so generous in terms of creating characters while keeping actors in mind, and who carved out such a large space for actors’ interpretations. I can well understand why Camino Real was “hard to take seriously” on paper. In the small theater where I saw it, in which the action surrounded the audience on three sides, the play came off as a kind of magical circus and dream. Too bad one can’t just dial up a great performance like that.

      Reply

      • Hello Scott, I’m actually a an of reading plays: it is a bit different from watching a good production, but it has its own rewards, I think, and can be just as valid an experience. And if I’m to wait for good stage productions of these plays to come round, I’ll end up never seeing them at all!

    • Hello Wendell, and sorry for having taken so long to reply. I get the feeling from reading your post that you perhaps feel a bit too close personally to Tennessee Williams plays to be entirely comfortable with them. I suppose also that Grand Guignol, as a genre, does run the risk of appearing absurd, but one has to take these things on their own terms. It is, perhaps, all too easy to see Tennessee Williams’ as “overheated melodrama” (as I used to do), but if this prevents me from appreciating that which is of genuine value, then perhaps that’s not the best approach to take.

      As for Long Day’s Journey into Night, that is a play that, for some reason, resonates with me very powerfully, but nothing else that I’ve read by O’Neill really comes up to that level. But that play has long been a bit special to me.

      Reply

  6. Posted by alan on April 12, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Off topic, but could one of you please tell me what would be a good military history of the U.S. civil war for a European who knows nothing to read? I’ve had Bruce Catton’s “Army of the Potomac” trilogy suggested to me recently but it’s a big project so I’d like some other opinions if possible. Thanks.

    Reply

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