Night of the Iguana, by Tennessee Williams. Specifically, it will include the underlying themes that are brought out by Tennessee Williams. What are the playwright's beliefs about humanity, morality, cruelty, and evil in the world? What does the drama say about redemption and healing? "The Night of the Iguana" is more than a play about sex and healing, it is a play about a man who cannot find himself, and so allows others to run rampant over his life.
NIGHT OF THE IGUANA
Night of the Iguana" is a tale about characters, real characters with quirks and mental problems, such as Maxine, the brash hotel owner, and Shannon, the partly deranged tour director. The "iguana" of the title is really Shannon, who is a defrocked Reverend trying to come to terms with his penchant for underage girls, and his need to survive his latest debacle. The characters really make the play, but they are sometimes difficult to discern, and the German tourists seem superfluous and unnecessary. As one critic noted about the characters, "One trouble is that while Williams has fully imagined his personae, he has not sufficiently conceived them in relation to one another, so that the movement of the work is backwards towards revelation of character rather than forwards towards significant conflict."
Thematically, the play is almost as paradoxical as its characters. It seems to be all about sex, but there is much more to the play than that. One writer said, "For one thing it seems to be about sex, and sexual repression, when it is really about salvation, poetry, and God. And getting through the night and the night after."
Poor Shannon is the main focus of the play, a broken down minister who is seeing the failure of his life right there on the veranda of the hotel. He must get through "the night and the night after," and as the repellent iguana he represents, it is clear this is going to be difficult. Each of the characters in the play exists to move Shannon down the inevitable road toward his "night with the iguana," where he frees the tethered lizard, and finds himself ultimately tethered to Maxine. In fact, he even recognizes this tethering during the third act, "SHANNON: Their lives are fulfilled, they're satisfied at last, when they get a man, or as many men as they can, in the tied up situation."
Williams' theme is constant with his portrayals of humanity, morality, cruelty, and evil in the world. The German tourists, for all their emptiness, embody evil that is half way around the world, but could come closer any day. "HERR FAHRENKOPF: London is burning, the heart of London's on fire!"
In fact, one critic notes, "This coexistence of culture with evil, the fact that highly civilized societies not only countenance but actually become complicitous in inhuman acts, is an observation that Williams shares with other twentieth-century writers..."
Williams is clearly showing the inhumanity of humanity, and the evil that can life in even the most benign and seemingly harmless individuals.
Nonno and his granddaughter Hannah are also seemingly benign, but they are really taking advantage of the other tourists with their artwork and their poetry. They are certainly humane and fairly harmless, but their morality is skewed, and they rely on the "kindness" of others for survival. "MAXINE: Yeah, but you're also a deadbeat, using that dying old man for a front to get in places without the cash to pay even one day in advance. Why, you're dragging him around with you like Mexican beggars carry around a sick baby to put the touch on the tourists."
Clearly, Williams does not think much of humanity or morality. Since all of his characters have some flaw they are trying to cover up or fix, he does not seem to have much hope for morality or humanity either. It is not simply that some of the characters are totally immoral, it is that they do not see themselves as immoral, which makes their immorality even more pronounced. Shannon may be the most immoral of all, not simply because of his problems with his religion and sex, but because he cannot accept his inhumanity, which is why he constantly has breakdowns. As Hannah notes, he is so involved in his own problems, he cannot recognize kindness even when it is near. "HANNAH: Just been so much involved with a struggle in yourself that you haven't noticed when people have wanted to help you, the little then can?"
Shannon is immoral because he allows people to take care of him, and he leaves his future in the hands of others, because it is ultimately easier. He cannot take responsibility for himself, and so he gives the responsibility to others as he makes a mess of his life.
Maxine may be the sanest character in the play, but again, she is not the most moral person. She does not miss her late husband mostly because they had not had sex in years. She wants Shannon to stay with her, and she will even give up her Mexican consorts who have been keeping her busy at night. However, she is the character who really understands everyone around her, and she is the character that can rope in Shannon, while the others cannot. She tells Shannon quite sagely, "MAXINE: "We've both reached a point where we've got to settle for something that works for us in our lives - even if it isn't on the highest kind of level."
She understands herself, which is more than most of the other characters do, and so she is a leader, not a follower. She may be immoral, but she is humane, which also sets her apart from the other characters. She may indeed want to get Shannon in that "tied-up situation," but she does it so well that he knows he is tied up, but simply has no other options. Maxine is a very strong character that seems to always get what she wants and come out on top. She does not prey on people as Hannah does, but she certainly can recognize their weaknesses, and use them to her own advantage.
Shannon is no match for Maxine, which is why he ends up with her in the end. They both serve a vital purpose in each other's lives. Shannon has somewhere to belong, and Maxine has someone she can dominate. His "Night of the Iguana" has resulted in one heroic act where he plays "God," and then his life goes back to its quest for something he cannot find.
The play is also a treatise on healing and redemption. Shannon is looking desperately for redemption, but at least he has found a place where he can heal. Everyone in the play (except the Germans) need to heal by the end, and each one handles their healing differently. Maxine chooses to heal by surrounding herself with young men she can sleep with. Shannon heals when he symbolically destroys the "spook" that has been haunting him for so long, and speaks with Hannah about love and life, but it is clear that he will never be healed completely until he can find what is truly missing in his life, and that is his morality and his spirituality.
The play itself could be called a morality play, as the characters' morals (or lack of them) are a constant theme that holds the play together.
If we view this as a morality play, the flesh has proven victorious over the spirit. The ending is wistfully comic in the mode of "The Rose Tattoo" -- an affirmation of the healing power of sexuality. We know that for this tortured soul, the gross animalism offered by Maxine is not enough. Shannon is a man hungry for God. Curiously, as he tells Maxine that he will go downhill with her, she comforts him with the knowledge that she will help him back up.
Indeed, Maxine will always help Shannon back up, but he will pay the ultimate price, he will never be truly healed, or truly happy.
Williams' characters in "Iguana" are not far different from those in many of his other works.
Most of Tennessee Williams' characters eventually discover there is no fate worse than sex; desire maims and kills, often in the most violent fashion. Val Xavier is burnt to death, Blanche DuBois is raped and driven insane, Chance Wayne waits to be castrated, and Sebastian Venable is torn apart and devoured by children -- all because of sexual drives. Many other characters in Williams' plays are destroyed by their passions, only in less physical and sensationalistic ways.
Shannon is not destroyed by his passions as much as he is destroyed by what is missing in his life. He is destroyed not by his sexual drive, but that of Maxine, which overpowers him. He cannot help but hate those who have power over him, even if he loves them just a…