Concerning Beauty and The Night of the Iguana


It may be a futile task for anyone to attempt a purely objective analysis of a work of art.  I say that not because I adhere to the ridiculous maxim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or because I believe that beauty is an inherently subjective matter; in fact, I hold both of these statements to be false.  I believe there is such a thing as objective beauty–a rose, a sunset, and a pietà are beautiful regardless of one’s capacity to appreciate them.  However, while I do believe in objective beauty, I believe one’s response to that beauty can only ever be subjective.  The French writer Stendhal responded rightly when upon viewing Michelangelo’s sculpture of David in Florence in the 19th century, he fainted at the sight of its magnificence and as a result had an entire syndrome named after him.  I have never been to Florence and thus have never seen the David in person, however, I suspect that I would not faint in its presence, though the problem is mine and not Michelangelo’s (nor David’s).  I have seen hundreds of photographs of the statue, and while I fully accept that to experience it in person would be a thousand times more sublime than to see only a photographic reproduction, that I have seen so many images of it–even inadequate images of it–I have doubtless been numbed to its full aesthetic impact.  Fortunately for Stendhal, he had not been numbed by photographs and coffee table art books, and was thus able to properly gauge its true beauty.

I say all of this to point out that for me to attempt to objectively discuss a work like Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana would be an exercise in futility, because it is a work that I hold dear, not only because I respond emotionally to it, but because in some ways I feel as though I might have written it; nay, I almost feel as if I did write it.  I say this not out of vanity (indeed I’m quite certain that I’ve never in my best work come close to equaling the poetry of this play), but because like Stendhal seeing the David, I wept upon reading the play for the first time several years ago, and might just as well have fainted.

Last night, my girlfriend and I went into Houston see Theatre Southwest’s revival of what many critics consider to be the last of Williams’ major plays.  Personally, I disagree with that analysis.  I find it hard to discount later works such as Small Craft Warnings, or even experiments such as In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel or Vieux Carré as minor works, though Iguana was undeniably the last of his major Broadway successes.  Regardless of one’s views on late-career Tennessee Williams, I find The Night of the Iguana to be not only Williams’ greatest work, but one of the two or three greatest works ever written for the American stage–in close company with Eugene O’Neill’s towering, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

The production itself was adequate, though far from anything like Broadway standards.  The facilities were intimate, the set was well designed, and the performances were satisfactory, with a couple of them being quite good.  But those elements only really matter to an extent.  I suspect it would take a poor production indeed to fully extinguish the lyricism of Williams’ prose.

For decades, audiences and critics seem to get lost in his characters various sexual tropes–in this case the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a disgraced Episcopal minister turned tour guide with an eye for sixteen year old girls, not to mention the recently widowed Maxine Faulk, owner of a dilapidated hotel in the rainforest on the Mexican coast, who amuses herself with a couple of Mexican cabana boys, and Hannah Jelkes, the virginal New England spinster whose story of the two “love encounters” in her life provides the play with one of its most moving sequences.  Yet as much as sexual confusion is a recurring theme throughout Williams’ work, to say that the play is about sexual confusion is to mistake the forest for the trees.  The story is no more about sexual disfunction than it is about an iguana, though like the titular iguana–captured and tied up by the cabana boys to be later fattened and eaten–sexual disfunction becomes a convenient central metaphor (the iguana, like Shannon, is literally at the end of his rope).  Williams’ real concern here is the spiritual and emotional battles which we all fight, and the genuine healing power of human sympathy and kindness.

The Rev. Shannon has long since been locked out of his church for “fornication and heresy”, two vices which he practices with relish as much outside the church as in, and has turned to leading tour groups to see the wonders of God’s world with a minister of God.  His latest tour is a group from a Baptist women’s college in Texas, but prior to the plays opening, the good reverend has either seduced or been seduced by (depending on who you ask) the youngest member of the group and having been found out, takes a detour to the remote, coastal hotel owned by Maxine and her recently deceased husband.  His plan, such that it is, is to hold up until he can first suffer a nervous breakdown and regain his emotional sanity, and then second, dissuade the group from either a) filing charges against him of statutory rape, or b) calling the tour company to get him fired.  Enter Hannah Jelkes and her grandfather, Nonno, who at age 97 is the “worlds oldest living and practicing poet”, hoping to finally complete the poem he has been working on for the last twenty years.

If the play had ended after the second act I’m convinced it would still be a major work of American theater, but it’s the third act which elevates it to a level with few peers.  Here Williams unleashes his entire arsenal of emotional turmoil, compassionate humanism, and poetic reverie.  What stands out is not the more lurid aspects of the characters lives, but the compassion with which Williams views them and his utter lack of condescension in dealing with human weaknesses and flaws.  He casts a caring eye, neither condemning nor condoning his characters foibles, but rather suggesting that through kindness and understanding lies the hope to heal past traumas and induce emotional and spiritual growth.

Though in part kicked out his church for heresy, the Rev. Shannon’s vision of God as a tropical thunderstorm rather than the “senile delinquent” which he had been preaching, brings him closer to orthodoxy than I suspect even he intended.  His desire to preach the “gospel of God as Lightning and Thunder”, while certainly a personal and mystical vision, becomes unintentionally closer to the depiction of God in the Book of Job as arriving in a whirlwind.  But God operates through a variety of means, including the natural world and a kindly spoken word.  Both things are beautiful, and I would argue objectively so, because they both point to an Ultimate Beauty.  To Job, God appeared as a whirlwind, but lest we forget that to Elijah he appeared as a still, small voice.  So what then are we left with?

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

“Sometime while night obscures the tree
The zenith of its life will be
Gone past forever, and from thence
A second history will commence.

“A chronicle no longer gold,
A bargaining with mist and mould,
And finally the broken stem
The plummeting to earth; and then

“An intercourse not well designed
For beings of a golden kind
Whose native green must arch above
The earth’s obscene, corrupting love.

“And still the ripe fruit from the branch
Observe the sky begin to blanch
Without a cry, without a prayer,
With no betrayal of despair.

“O Courage, could you not as well
Select a second place to dwell,
Not only in that golden tree
But in the frightened heart of me?”

Beautifully said, Nonno.  Most beautifully said, indeed.  Stendhal was right to faint upon seeing the David and Hannah Jelkes was right to thank her grandfather for composing such a lovely poem, so it seems only right for me to thank Tennessee Williams for writing such a lovely play and then cry after reading it one more time.


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