The Night of the Iguana and the Elements of Drama
On October 23, 2018, I attended the University of Southern Mississippi’s production of The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams. Upon entering the theatre, I was eager to witness how Southern Miss Theatre would portray and interpret this show. Because of the complexity of Tennessee William’s writing and complex perception of the human condition, I wanted to dissect this production as a whole to delve deeper on the overall effectiveness of the play. With the nature of Tennessee William’s work in mind, I wanted to gain a firm understanding on the route that this specific production took and how successful it was as a fully mounted piece of drama. Subsequently, in this paper I decided to discuss and analyze the effectiveness of Southern Miss Theatre’s The Night of the Iguana as it pertains to Aristotle’s six elements of drama set about in his Poetics (Plot, Characters, Theme, Diction, Music and Spectacle) and how each element fueled their efforts to provide a successful or unsuccessful production.
The show begins with raucous portrayal of a dilapidated resort in the sweltering summer heat of Mexico. The story follows a debased, defrocked minister named Lawrence Shannon. He is a tour director in Mexico. Shannon has been leading a southern Baptist women’s college on a tour of Mexico, but he finds himself in a bit of turmoil, because he could not resist acting on his attraction to Charlotte Goodall who is the sixteen year old niece Judith Fellowes who is the leader of the touring Baptist group. Miss Fellowes in turn expresses her discontent with Shannon because of the sexual acts he participated in. Because she is only sixteen anything he did with her would be considered statutory rape; therefore she retorts that she will ruin him.
As a rebuttal and to protect his dignity, Shannon steals the bus key and strands the women at the hotel which is run by Maxine Faulk, the manager and friend of Shannon. Unable to cope with his emotions, Shannon tries to subdue the tour group who have turned on him for pursuing sexual relations Charlotte, a minor, but his situation only gets more complicated with Maxine, who is obviously interested in having a significant relationship with him, but only pursues a carnal relationship. Adding to this chaos, Hannah Jelkes, a middle-aged spinster, shows up to the resort with her dying grandfather Nonno whose dying wish is to finish his last poem. I would consider this to be the inciting incident of the play due to Hannah’s mere existence in Shannon’s life changes the entire dynamic of the show. Jelkes finds herself at the mercy of Maxine, the owner of the hotel, because she has nowhere else to stay and no money. Shannon deliberately contradicts Maxine and offers Hannah Jelkes a place to stay knowing how much power he has over Maxine. The play ultimately hinges on the innate and primal evolution of human connection between Lawrence Shannon and Hannah Jelkes. Their relationship in turn provides the through line of the play and furthers the plot until we reach the climax where Lawrence Shannon becomes emotionally unstable and has a mental breakdown. The play ends with the releasing of the trapped Iguana. This act attempts to redeem Shannon’s character, but also provides a parallel to Nonno’s declining health, and thus ends the play.
One of the six components of drama, character refers to the human beings represented in the play. Aristotle stresses that the central idea of theatre or drama is not to imitate human personalities, but to represent human action and reaction. Character is the second most important in Aristotle’s hierarchy of the element of drama. The representation of character should always be beneficial to furthering the plot. Each character in The Night of the Iguana enhanced the plot, except for the German family, the Baptist church group, and the two Mexican boys. In the latter I would like to focus on the characters that I felt helped further the story the most.
Contrary to popular belief, I do not think that Shannon’s character provides much in terms of keeping the momentum flowing throughout the play, but he introduces the stasis of the piece and keeps the audience aware that these are not normal circumstances. He always seems nerves and on edge. His appearance is always awry and disheveled which does not give much for growth throughout the play. I do believe that Jonathan Swindle did an amazing job with portraying Reverend Lawrence Shannon, but the character did not lend itself to supporting a direct through line or meaning in the show.
In fact, Jonathan’s character constantly disagreed or caused disarray whenever there was a conversation about God or religion. With the addition of Hannah Jelkes, the show gained a character that possessed moral understanding to combat the other two characters, Shannon and Maxine. Hannah’s character even was blocked on the highest platform to represent how she is morally superior to the other characters. Later we find out that she does not have the perfect life and that she has a sort of sordid past. This complexity only feeds into Aristotle’s idea of characters. Humans are complex multifaceted beings with a past that lingers into the present to affect how they act. Hannah’s character was an effective contrast to Shannon who so obviously lives in the moment and seems more of an imitation of a person than an actual human being. In this production the other characters such as the Germans and the Mexican ranch hands seemed to follow more of a Shakespearean role as stock characters who solely existed to diffuse tension, add tension, or provide comic relief. This interpretation took me out of the realm of the play. I believe Tennessee Williams wrote The Night of the Iguana with these characters included to introduce metaphors and symbols that were not present in Southern Miss Theatre’s production. Their production seemed to go in this direction in order to focus on a touchy topics aggressively while providing people with a reprieve, but I don not feel it was the strongest choice.
Tennessee Williams tends to map out everything for his viewers, but while there are many blatantly obvious themes in this show, there are some that are not so obvious. Some of the obvious themes for The Night of the Iguana include Sex and Sexual Desire, Man Versus God, Man Versus Self, etc. The major theme that I feel this specific production chose to highlight was Man Versus Illness. This show was centralized around how mental illness and illness in general affect those with it and those around it. The first theme is sprinkled throughout the whole play in every single scene. The show even opens with a dramatic event of Shannon sleeping with a minor. This is not behavior we see in healthy individuals. This is our first indication that Shannon is mentally sick and that something is wrong with him. This theme drives the entire play, but is not directly limited to Shannon’s journey. If one looks at Nonno and his rapid decline we can see how illness has impacted him and his granddaughter, Hannah. His parallel represents the softer lighter side of illness that creeps up on people, but Shannon’s represents the loud repulsive side of illness.
The second theme that I would like to focus on is The Need for Freedom. This theme is not as prevalent, because it’s not as conspicuous. The want or need for freedom can be found in each and every character. Shannon is searching for freedom of self, freedom from his own mind, and freedom from the spook. Shannon’s character wants so badly to be free whether it be escaping from life, swimming to Australia, or just being able to exist without persecution.
We see him consistently acting like a caged bird. That is why we as an audience immediately drew the parallel to him and the iguana that was tied up under the house by the neck. It was nice to see how Shannon was able to set the iguana free which ultimately led to his one moment of lucidity at the end of the play. This theme also finds itself resonating in the character of Nonno. We first feel this notion when Nonno say, I think I will finish it here. This small statement seems to be unimportant, but with it he essentially gives himself permission to leave his earthly body by finishing his last poem. In both of these instances, we see two characters freeing themselves from their proverbial shackles.
The tone of this production was that of a telenovela. Everything was over the top and in your face. It had its serious moments, its exploitative moments, and its comical moments, but most of the time it skirted the lines of becoming melodramatic. The comical moments came with the diction of the play. This is true in that the language of the time period and each character’s regionalisms and nationalities fed into specific tropes associated with said character.
It seemed to be more of an episodic drama than a contemporary drama. The highs and the lows were drastically portrayed and realism was almost completely disregarded. At some points it became hard to watch because of how dramatized everything was from the blatant insanity of Shannon to the stereotypes of the Southern Baptists and all other stereotypes in between. I am not sure of the direction Shannon Bain wanted to take with this, but playing into the stereotypes on made the tone less dramatic and borderline-stale. With the diction being so stylized and the tone being dramatized, I felt that I lost some of the meaning of the play that could have been rectified by having these characters be played in a realistic manner.
I believe that the music was the least impactful element, but it was all in all a beneficial addition to the show. The sounds that were designed by Alexis Bryner Bowen were helpful when it came to the story because it set the atmosphere for each scene. I think the overall sound design was successful as well. I appreciated the canned recordings played from offstage to inform the audience of what happened offstage. It was a smart way to relay the expository action without having the actors yelling their lines from offstage or casting additional supernumeraries to play unnamed stock characters. While I think the sound design was successful, I do believe that the pacing and overall rhythm of the play stalled the progression of the play. Most of the time, the characters sped through the lines without fully reveling in their meaning. Tennessee Williams never writes something to just fill space. Every word has a purpose. The fast pace gave the show a more staccato or broken tempo from action to action that lulled the audience.
Thus, the play seemed much longer than it is. This also begs me to ask why did the director choose this specific edition of the play? This play has been done as a one act, two act, and three act production. Could a different version have impacted the tempo? I do think that the tempo in the second act was much more melodic and helped provide clarity to the plot. While the tempo may not have been a complete success, I do believe that the instrumental music did a good job of setting the tone of specific scenes. I found that when Pancho played the guitar to underscore the scene, it brought out the seriousness of each scene. The somber music was an adequate way to accompany the dark, taboo themes in the show.
The Night of the Iguana has many examples of spectacle, but the ones that stuck out the most were the use of characters as caricatures, and the use of lighting to accent the events. Shannon Bain really focused on using the characters as props that emote singular actions. The Mexican boys were there to embody the stereotypical Mexicans with the sombreros asleep under a tree. The Germans were exaggerated as a part of their characters to make them seem one dimensional happy individuals to contrast the horrors that were going on in Germany at the time. I think their caricature play was meant to contrast those who had dramatic turmoil i.e. Shannon, Hannah, Maxine, and Nonno. It also lent itself to creating an illusion that there is some sort of stability in the play.
The second spectacle that I would like to mention is a bit more subtle, but the lighting became a massive addition in that the it seemed to mimic the onstage action. When moments were more intense the lighting dimmed and faded to a more dramatic design. The lighting was subtle until the show reached its high points, specifically the storm. The storm was vividly demonstrated by a darker lighting plot with sporadic lightning strikes. It became interesting to see how the lighting would accompany the character’s actions. It also made it evident which characters were supposed to be benevolent and which were not. A specific moment that I found particularly successful was during the curtain call. Each character was lit from the back to provide an angelic glow to symbolize the relinquishment from mortal coils.
Overall, this production was well put together but seemed to falter the deeper one digs into the overall effectiveness of delivering a central message.
After the show ended, I was left with the question of, What was the meaning of this specific production? Why did the director choose this direction in the current political climate? It goes back to the unrealistic nature of how the characters were portrayed. Instead of being invested in the characters and their journey, the audience looked more toward being entertained. I feel that this production was successful in connecting the audience to the character of Nonno and Hannah, but relied too heavily on stereotypes and social stigmas to create character development. One thing that stuck with me after the production was over was how damaging mental illness is and how it affects others, but I could not really pinpoint a specific action statement or central idea for this production.
Each element of drama was present in the written play and Southern Miss Theatre’s production of The Night of the Iguana, but each element seemed to tell a different story. The plot leaned toward a story about illness. The characters told more of a dramatic account of occurrences during the night of the iguana. The themes paralleled the story that the plot set forth, but it was never truly clear what statement was being made. From this production, it seemed that illness was portrayed as a burden. It was entertaining, but left the audience asking Why? If this production’s main objective was to showcase strong acting, but not provoke the audience to feel something then it was a success. Contrarily, I believe that in today’s climate, it was a missed opportunity to shed light on toxic masculinity and comment of sexual assault as well as mental illness, but instead it only rested at the surface level of such important issues. Theatre is supposed to ask a question, but I am unsure of what question this specific production set out to ask.