01 September 2011

Re-reading ‘The Night of the Iguana’ by Tennessee Williams

Patrick Comerford

As I prepare and plan for a presentation on cultural expressions of Anglicanism, I have been re-reading the 1961 stage play by Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana. The play, which had its Broadway premiere fifty years ago on 28 December 1961, is based on an earlier short story he published in 1948. But I first got to know The Night of the Iguana through John Huston’s Academy Award-winning 1964 film adaptation, starring Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr.

John Huston’s 1964 movie received the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, and Grayson Hall was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. The movie was also nominated for Cinematography (Gabriel Figueroa), Best Costume Design (Dorothy Jeakins) and Art Direction (Stephen B Grimes). During filming, much media attention was given to Richard Burton, who brought Elizabeth Taylor to the location shoot. He was at the peak of his career and had played another anguished cleric that year in the title role of Thomas à Becket in Peter Glenville’s Becket. A year later, Burton and Taylor were in Dublin together for the filming of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

The Night of the Iguana is set in Mexico in 1940, and the Revd Dr T. Lawrence Shannon, the central character, is played in the movie by Richard Burton. Larry, who is a much deeper and more complex character than Graham Greene’s “whiskey priest,” is a 35-year-old disgraced Episcopalian priest. Throughout the play, he is constantly denigrated by the main female character, Maxine Faulk, as “black Irish,” and she refers to him at different times as a “crazy, black Irish protestant son of a ... protestant!” or as “this black Irish bastard,” or as “this ... crazy black Irish mick, you! You Protestant black Irish looney.”

In Ireland, we might interpret the term “black Protestant” in a way that Tennessee Williams may have known, but that was not his primary intention. These racist references to the Irish, and putting Irish people in the same category as black people had a different impact in the US in 1961: the Civil Rights campaign in the South was reaching its climax, and John F Kennedy had been sworn in as President earlier that year.

Throughout the play, Williams draws heavily on his own life story. He was born Thomas Lanier Williams III, and his father, Cornelius Coffin Williams (1879-1975), was a hard-drinking travelling shoe salesman who spent much of his time away from his home and family. His mother, Edwina (Dakin) Williams (1884-1980), was an archetypal “Southern belle” with social aspirations that descended into snobbery and behaviour that was neurotic and hysterical.

Saint Paul’s Church, Columbus, Mississippi, where the Revd Walter Dakin baptised his grandson, Tennessee Williams

One of the main early influences on his life was his grandfather, the Revd Walter Dakin (1857-1955), an Episcopal priest who baptised him soon after his birth. The playwright spent much of his childhood years in his grandfather’s rectories, first in Saint Paul’s Parish in Columbus, Mississippi, and then in Saint George’s Parish in Clarksdale, Tennessee, from 1917 to 1933.

In an interview in 1958, three years after his grandfather’s death, the playwright said: “The two most wonderful people in my life were my grandfather, who was an Episcopal clergyman, and his wife, my grandmother. I was born in the Episcopal rectory and I grew up in the shadow of the Episcopal Church.” Dakin “was higher church than the pope,” Williams said of him, and he loved to travel.

When young Tom Williams was 17, his grandfather took him on a tour of Europe that he led. Years later, his grandson would return the favour. The role of the tour leader later became an important theme for Tennessee Williams in The Night of the Iguana.

The storyline

Richard Burton as the Revd Dr T. Lawrence Shannon before his Virginia parish in The Night of the Iguana

In the play and in the movie, the Revd Larry Shannon has been locked out of his suburban church in Pleasant Valley, Virginia, following a brief affair with a teenage Sunday school teacher and after a Sunday sermon in which he rejected the Western image of God as “a senile delinquent ... an angry, petulant old man ... a bad-tempered childish old, old, sick peevish man.”

Instead of being defrocked, he is sent to a psychiatric institution to be treated for a nervous breakdown. After his release, he begins working as a tour guide for Blake Tours, a second-rate travel agency. His slogan is “Tours of God’s World Conducted by a Minister of God.”

Despite Maxine’s taunts, Larry seeks to maintain his dignity: “Don’t you realize what I mean to Blake Tours? Haven’t you seen the brochure in which they mention, they brag, that special parties are conducted by the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, D.D., noted world traveller, lecturer, son of a minister and grandson of a bishop, and the direct descendant of two colonial governors?”

Shortly before the opening of the play, Shannon is accused of the statutory rape of a 16-year old girl, Charlotte Goodall, who is part of his latest party of tourists.

As the curtain rises, Shannon is arriving with this group of women at a cheap hotel on the coast of Mexico that has been managed by his friends Fred and Maxine Faulk. Fred has died recently, and Maxine now has sole responsibility for managing the hotel.

Maxine Faulk (played in the movie by Ava Gardner) is a lusty life-force of a woman, with some good comic lines. She is off-stage for a significant part of the play while the second major female character, Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr in the movie), is on.

The movie begins with the episode in Act 2 in which Larry tells Hannah of the earlier nervous breakdown that followed his affair with “a very young Sunday school teacher” – when “the kneeling position turned to the reclining position” – and his sermon the following Sunday that outraged his parishioners and caused them to walk out.

After the titles, the movie then begins its main story at the point a few years later in a scene where Larry is sitting outside a church somewhere in Mexico and slightly drunk. He is now a tour guide for the second-rate Texas tour company, Blake Tours, and is taking a group of teachers from the Baptist Female College in Blowing Rock, Texas, in a beaten, sweltering bus to Puerto Barrio in Mexico.

The group’s brittle leader is Judith Fellowes (Grayson Hall), a vocal teacher who is described as “butch” by the other characters. She is one of Tennessee Williams’s few overtly lesbian characters. Her 16-year-old niece, Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon), flirts with Larry and tries to seduce him while the rest of the tour group is visiting a baroque church. Charlotte’s aunt, Judith Fellowes, accuses Larry of trying to seduce her niece and sacks him, declaring also that she wants to ruin him. That evening, Charlotte sneaks into Larry’s room and there is a confrontation when he ejects her. Charlotte is portrayed as an adult molester, while Larry is dismayed, dishevelled, and desperately afraid of losing his job as Judith Fellowes rages at him for seducing a minor and for being a poor tour-group leader.

In a moment of deep despair, Larry commandeers the bus and its passengers, and he tries to prevent Judith Fellowes from calling his boss by stranding the bus at the cheap Costa Verde Hotel in Mismaloya, outside Puerto Vallarta. He mistakenly thinks the hotel has no phone, and the battle between the unconscious lesbian and the “man of God” with a weakness for young women is lively as Larry plays for time and tries to keep Judith from contacting his employer.

Larry thinks the hotel is still run by his old friend named Fred Faulk, but finds out that Fred has died a month earlier, and that the hotel is now run by Fred’s widow, Maxine, who is more interested in Larry than her current two maraca-shaking cabana boys or bellhops, Pedro and Pancho, who comically ignore her laconic commands. They are Pedro and Pancho in the play, but are re-named Pedro and Pepe in the movie.

Compounding this chaotic scenario, a 40-year-old single, beautiful and chaste itinerant painter from Nantucket, Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), arrives at the hotel with her ageing 97-year-old grandfather, Jonathan Coffin (“Nonno,” Cyril Delevanti in the movie). Nonno is a second-rate poet who is trying to complete his last poem before he dies. Interestingly, Coffin was the middle name of Tennessee Williams’s father, while his grandfather, the Revd Walter Dakin, died at the age of 98. Nonno and Hannah have run out of money and Hannah barely makes a living as a travelling painter and sketch artist, but Larry convinces Maxine to give them rooms, although Hannah soon finds herself at the end of her rope and at Maxine’s mercy.

Hannah is one of Williams’s greatest female characters, alongside Blanche DuBois in A Street Car Named Desire and Alma Winemuller in Summer and Smoke. These are women with extraordinarily refined sensibilities and grace, but Hannah has an additional intrinsic strength of character. As a single woman in the service of others, she serves as an inspiration to Larry with her inner strength, a strength that is ultimately denied the like-minded Blanche and Alma in the other plays.

The stage play also includes four German tourists – Herr and Frau Fahrenkopf, their daughter Hilda and their son-in-law Wolfgang – who regularly burst into singing the Horst Wessel and other Nazi marching songs and who listen with glee to news of the German blitz of London. Perhaps they represented Southern racism at the time, although they do not appear in the screenplay.

At the opening of Act 3, Maxine finds Larry writing a letter to the Dean of the Divinity School at Sewanee. When he died in a New York hotel in 1983, Tennessee Williams left the rights to his literary estate to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, in honour of his grandfather, the Revd Walter Dakin, an alumnus of the university, which is owned by the 28 southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church.

Maxine interrupts Larry’s letter writing, telling him that his life has been one long struggle to get back at God by preaching “atheistical sermons” and to get back at his mother through his affairs with young girls. He snaps back: “I have never delivered an atheistical sermon, and never would or could when I go back to the Church.”

Maxine misunderstands Larry’s theology and what he was saying in his sermon. The context is important – 1961, the year of the Broadway premiere of The Night of the Iguana, was also the year that saw the publication of Gabriel Vahanian’s book, God is Dead. Five years later, on 8 April 1966, Time magazine published its controversial stark black-and-red cover asking: “Is God Dead?”

Over a long night, Larry is battling his weaknesses for both flesh and alcohol. Charlotte continues to create trouble for him, and he is “at the end of his rope,” just like the iguana kept tied up all night by Maxine’s cabana boys and which gives its name to the title of the play and the movie. Larry suffers a breakdown, Pedro and Pepe truss him up in a hammock, and Hannah ministers to him there with poppy-seed tea and sound pastoral and spiritual counsel.

When Charlotte finally gives up on Shannon, she turns her attentions to Maxine’s toyboys, Pepe (Fidelmar Duran) and Pedro (Robert Leyra), and dances provocatively in a beach-front cantina. This episode is not in the play and leads to a funny attempt by Charlotte’s next champion, the bus driver Hank (James Ward), to fight the boys who bob and weave, evading his every punch and playfully pounding him.

The fight, the earlier pursuit of Larry into the water by Charlotte, the later pursuit of Shannon in the water by Pepe and Pedro, and Maxine dancing in the waves with Pepe and Pedro, are all added to the play, which on stage takes place entirely on the hotel veranda. The fight is lively, photogenic, and funny in a way that is different from the animus of Judith Fellowes for Larry and Charlotte’s throwing herself at him. Both of these involve dark humour, but the fight is farcical and funny.

Sacrifice and salvation

However, the play’s main plot involves the dialogue and developing bond between Hannah and Larry. What begins as a comedy turns into a serious look at something that compares to the dark night of the soul. Even though humorous tones remain throughout the play and the movie, significant attention is now devoted to this conversation touching on a host of issues from salvation to sacrifice and to death.

Hannah can see through to Larry’s real undercurrent of faith and knows that at some time in the future he is going to return to a meaningful ministry with a pastoral heart for people who need it. In the conversation between Larry and Hannah, there are constant juxtapositions of the words “God” and “Death,” and now Larry seeks to bring Hannah back to confidence in her faith.

Like the iguana, captured and tied to a pole by the Mexican bellhops, Hannah and Shannon have come to the end of their tethers. This metaphor is intensified when Shannon tears at his golden cross around his neck, as if to free himself from its constraints and the old images of God. But he cuts his neck and cries out: “No, no, it won’t come off, I’ll have to break it off me.”

Hannah frees him from the entanglement and, we can imagine, from his inner hurting too. She compares his twisting suffering in the hammock with Christ’s suffering on the cross, and she asks him if he is indulging himself in “a comparatively comfortable, almost voluptuous kind of crucifixion to suffer for the guilt of the world.”

Hannah frees Larry of the ghosts that have continued to haunt him, and he frees her of her feelings of being alone, forlorn and abandoned. When Larry gives her his valuable gold pectoral cross with its fine amethyst, he also gives her an understanding of time and the eternal. The freedom they give to each other is symbolised in Larry’s decision to free the iguana that has been captured and tortured by the Mexican bellhops – the tortured and crucified body is freed as these sinners are freed from their sins, their guilt and their past.

The characters try to make some resolve of their confused lives with the final reconciliation of Larry and Maxine as they decide to run the hotel together. Hannah stoically walks away from her last chance of love, but realises she has been freed. Hannah’s grandfather delivers the final version of the poem he has been labouring to finish, and the play closes with the old poet closing his eyes and dying.

In a way, we are being told that our images of God as “a senile delinquent ... an angry, petulant old man,” even as “a bad-tempered childish old, old, sick peevish man,” are dead. But certainly God is not dead.

The theological lessons

In an interview, Tennessee Williams said, “The drama in my plays, I think, is nearly always people trying to reach each other. In The Night of the Iguana …Hannah and Larry Shannon meet on the veranda outside their cubicles, which is of course an allegorical touch of what people must try to do ... the only truly satisfying moments in life are those in which you are in contact, and I don’t mean just physical contact, I mean in deep, a deeper contact than physical, with some other human being ... I think it’s the only comfort that we have, of a lasting kind ... And I have seen it happen between two people. I can’t think of any better example than my grandparents who were so close together they were like one person.”

His grandfather Walter is reflected in Nonno. His grandparents Walter and Rosina together are reflected in Larry and Hannah. No doubt, more than a little of Tennessee Williams is reflected in both of them too. And Tennessee Williams seeks to reflect the work of Christ in each of these characters too. “My work,” he once explained, “is full of Christian symbols. Deeply, deeply Christian. But it’s the image of Christ, his beauty and purity, and his teachings...”

We can see the image of Christ in the gentle grandfather and in the compassionate granddaughter. We see Christ in the fallen priest who, in the end, gives up his 22-carat gold cross for the relief of the painter and gives up himself to the domesticity of Maxine, the hotel proprietor. We see the image of Christ in Maxine who, despite her rough manner, gives shelter and sustenance to the poet, the painter, and the priest. And we see the image of Christ in Larry’s challenge to those he sees as hypocrites and Pharisees, whether they are Episcopalians in a church in Virginia on a Sunday morning, or Texan Baptists on tour bus in Mexico.

The play raises serious questions about our images of God, about theodicy, about the meaning of atonement and salvation, about love and the difference between sexual appetite and true love, as well as challenging racism and prejudices about religious affiliation and sexuality. Maxine speaks her mind without hesitation when she begins to accuse Judith Fellowes of being a lesbian. But Larry sees the cruelty in her words and cuts her short: “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognised the truth about herself, it would destroy her.”

We are invited to consider the cruelty and the weaknesses of the flesh. The taunting of the tethered iguana that gives its name to the play is a metaphor for our cruelty to one another, and for all who find themselves at the end of their rope – in this instance, Larry and Maxine, the destitute Hannah and her elderly poet grandfather, and Judith Fellowes, although she may not appear to be aware of what is strangling her.

For theologians and theology students, I also find the play raises important questions about priesthood and ministry. Throughout the play, Larry is concerned with man’s inhumanity towards God. The seemingly damned tend to emerge from humiliations and disillusionments with a renewed will to live and to try to make the best of situations they would previously have regarded as unbearable. Despite being removed from parish life, he remains a priest and there is always the possibility of his return to parish ministry.

But who is the true priest in this play? I think Hannah is the true priest. She holds out to Shannon the possibility of finding a new, deeper understanding of God, and a new meaning of the cross, atonement and redemption. She ministers to his needs and in so doing she presents Christ to him and presents him to Christ, offering Larry a renewed understanding of salvation and a fresh opportunity to recommit himself to the Church, to its mission and to the world.


John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana put Puerto Vallarta on the map as a holiday destination in 1964, and the resort continues to look like a respite from the seemingly disintegrating characters. Time magazine said: “Huston and company put together a picture that excites the senses, persuades the mind, and even occasionally speaks to the spirit – one of the best movies ever made from a Tennessee Williams play.”

The bequest from Tennessee Williams to his grandfather’s former seminary and university in Sewanee was reported by Time magazine in 1983 to be worth $10 million. In his will, he created a Walter E. Dakin Memorial Fund for creative writers at the University of the South in memory of his grandfather who graduated from the Divinity School in 1895. When his sister Rose died in 1996 after many years in a psychiatric hospital, she bequeathed another $7 million from her part of the Williams estate to the University of the South.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute


Charles Kinnaird said...

Wonderful commentary on a great film! I saw it televised years ago and was captivated by the story. Thanks for bringing it all back for us here.

katia said...

Focus on American Intellectual Film-Classics. John Huston’s “The Night of Iguana” (1964) – Overcoming the Conformist and Belligerent Ego: Birth of a Human Internal World
The Courage to Transcend the Pious Philistinism of Conventional Religious Belief – Liberation of Reverend Lawrence Shannon
“The Night of Iguana” by John Huston (1964) is describing what today, in a time of growing joblessness, pauperization and desperate need for any kind of work can be seen less and less – when a person searching for the meaning of life is able, for the sake of internal truth, to lose job, career and a stable future as soon as having all this contradicts his/her moral ideal and/or essential understanding. Reverend Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton who knows how to be emotionally intense in an intelligent way) found himself in this very situation and was punished for “deviating” from the prescribed “faith” when he tried to explain to his parishioners that their egoistic and indifferent belief of philistines dreaming of personal salvation regardless of what is going on around them, is not a proper way to believe.
Losing job and a stable future opened for Shannon a whole new perspective of following his spiritual transformation not in a traditional sense, like changing one denomination or religion for another, but changing religion for spirituality of living. In spite of dangerous moments appearing when a person having thrown away the old identity and values is trying to find new meaning of living, Larry, with the spiritual help of two amazing people he meets by chance, is able to go through his ordeals.
We, viewers, follow Shannon shifting his life from the pomposity of the churches and cathedrals, domes and steeples to a barely bearable existence on a miserable salary, to a world of beauty and tranquility of nature and, finally, to a world where meaning is the other side of living. Huston’s film is a call for worldly spirituality.
Debra Kerr, Ava Gardner and Richard Burton are at their best considering the not easy conditions of acting in Hollywood films (today the situation is even more difficult) when actors need to act “charismatically”, irradiate the perfume of appeal to the public, worry about not being understood by viewers with passive/lazy perception, and try in a talented/unique way to imitate the clichés of emotional self-expression.
victor enyutin