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Review: The Night of the Iguana (1964)

Of all those that explore the troubled frontier of human psyche, there can be a few who have subjected it to a more penetrating study, and with a greater avidity for the discovery of its intricacy than Tennessee Williams. His plays centre on the lonely, the grotesque, the misunderstood, the crazed, the perverted and, ultimately, the tragic. One is surprised to know that one of America’s most loved playwrights is such a morbid purveyor of unhappy tales. And a wayward maverick, too, unafraid to challenge censorship by evoking themes like homosexuality and substance abuse. In Williams’s memoir he enumerates the countless events in which he made for “long, agonising exits” when his plays were roundly booed by the audience. Common to those who rebel against an established tradition, Williams was both reviled and admired, the acknowledgement of his astounding impact on America’s theatrical culture however unanimous. In the late 50s and early 60s especially he became a favorite amongst serious filmmakers who took to cinematic realism in enacting bleak parables of social concerns.

The chronological order of Williams’s vast output tallies with the episodic development of his personal life. The Night of the Iguana, presented in 1961, is arguably the last great play of his long career, belonging to a period when life’s various miseries had rendered Williams embittered and contemplative, contrary to the irascible and angsty young adulthood to which his earlier plays bear testimony. The story concerns a deposed ex-minister Lawrence Shannon, banished from his service after a public blasphemy of God and just released from a mental institution, acting as tour guide to a squadron of women tourists on the coast of Mexico. The play opens with the group being led to a rundown hotel managed by Maxine Faulk, an old friend of Shannon and a brassy virago, barefaced of her promiscuity. Shannon arrives on the scene a shattered man, ravaged by his paroxysms of madness and a growing disenchantment with God. He hopes to seek refuge from a badgering Judith Fellowes, who accuses him of raping her sixteen-year old ward Charlotte. Also chancing on the resort is the wayfaring duo Hannah Jelkes, an artist, and her grandfather, a self-styled poet Nonno, who keep afloat by peddling second-rate artworks. A storm is imminent.

A chief part of the dialogues is dominated by long discourses that meander several topics, most of them confusing and inconsistent, without arriving at any plausible conclusions. There seems a shared tendency in modern theatre towards inconclusive endings- the most satisfaction a play can offer to its audience is, paradoxically but truly, an absence of such satisfaction. In Williams’s case, however, he wasn’t always so fond of the tenterhooks; he was a mild tragedian that wouldn’t behead his heroes or heroines without taking into account the feelings of the audience- the execution would therefore be conducted behind a drawn curtain, but by then we were complicit enough to know what were afoot. Nevertheless in those plays a semblance of conclusion, convincing or not, can be drawn, though it is often based on the characters’ still unsolved issues and ambivalent states.

In Iguana there isn’t a traceable route that leads us out of the labyrinth; to compound the troubles there seems masses of heavy fog obstructing every possible exit. To read the play is to commit to the arduous task of giving ear to an old man’s rambling speech. There are a lot of discussions, most of which fervently taken up by Shannon and Hannah, that do not stray far from a few banal matters of what can be reasonably termed an existential crisis. One suspects that loneliness, depressing though it may be, does not engender verbosity, at least not so much as an indefatigable will to survive- preluded the play is this couplet from Emily Dickinson’s poem:

“We talked between the rooms,
 Until the moss had reached our lips,
 And covered up our names.”

John Huston’s 1964 film adaptation, blindly complying with the loose pattern of the original play, fails to summon up a force that the play would’ve lacked if Dickinson’s poem- which by the way acts as a witty riposte to the play’s wordiness- were omitted. The performance, however, is brilliant- boasting of a stellar cast of Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon, they make the tedium of the long speeches bearable and occasionally even enthralling. I especially enjoy the sequence in which Burton’s Shannon, trying to dissuade Lyon’s Charlotte from continuing their affair, walks on a floor of broken glasses. Charlotte, unable to come to terms with Shannon’s addled behaviour, takes off her shoes and joins in with the walking on broken glasses. This combination of self-inflicted pain and grudging hilarity is a genuine Williams’s touch. I am surprised to notice that something like that is absent in the play.


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