Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"Collecting Evidence": The Natural World in Tennessee Williams' the Night of the Iguana

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"Collecting Evidence": The Natural World in Tennessee Williams' the Night of the Iguana

Article excerpt

The nature essay, the treatment of nature and landscape in fiction, and the role of nature in poetry, have all been the subject of recent studies, as critics turn their attention to this important--yet until now relatively unexplored--field of literary study. Not surprisingly, critical attention concerning nature has focused on the three main genres in American letters which have most often and most directly concerned themselves with the natural world: poetry, fiction, and the natural history essay. American drama, long seen as a predominantly urban genre --a product of Broadway--has gone virtually unnoticed during the recent resurgence of interest in nature writing. Such an omission is unfortunate, since there are a number of works in the world of theatre which can provide useful and valuable information about humankind's relationship to the natural world.(1) Although in this study I will limit my discussion to one play by one playwright--The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams--I would like to suggest that there are many other plays, and many other playwrights, to consider regarding nature and American drama. An extended study of the natural world as it has been depicted in this "fourth genre" could yield some surprising rewards.

The natural world is strongly present in all of the major plays of Tennessee Williams. No matter how urban their immediate settings may be, there is always a natural or pastoral setting in which Williams' characters may take refuge. Often this refuge is a mental one--an escape through memory to a simpler, more idyllic past. Amanda Wingfield, the matriarch of The Glass Menagerie (1945), escapes the drudgery of her small tenement apartment by recalling the days of her youth on Blue Mountain.(2) Blanche DuBois, in A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), has her memories of Belle Reve plantation to soften the reality of her life in an impoverished section of New Orleans. Other Tennessee Williams plays put their characters in closer touch with the natural world, as in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), in which the action takes place on a plantation in the Mississippi Delta region.

But important though it may be in these earlier plays, the natural world plays a relatively small role in them--as either an idealized pastoral memory or a stylized local color setting. In Williams' 1961 production, The Night of the Iguana, however, the playwright relies on nature as a source of both symbol and theme to a much larger extent. More than any other work in the Williams canon, and indeed perhaps more than any work in American drama, The Night of the Iguana is a play which is firmly rooted in the natural world.

In his introductory remarks on the play's stage setting, Williams makes clear that the locale for this production be markedly different from the rather bleak urban landscapes which characterize Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire. In their place is the kind of natural setting that Amanda Wingfield and Blanche DuBois could only dream about: the jungle shaded verandah of the rustic Costa Verde Hotel. Translated, the name means "green coast" and Williams' description of the area supports the claim; his words describe a place almost untouched by man. In 1940, when the play's action takes place, he recalls:

   The west coast of Mexico had not yet become the Las Vegas and Miami Beach
   of Mexico. The Villages were still predominantly primitive Indian villages,
   and the still-water morning beach of Puerto Barrio and the rain forests
   above it were among the world's wildest and loveliest populated places. (5)

Into this paradise Williams brings his protagonist, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon. He is presented as a man on the verge of a breakdown: his suit "crumpled" he is "panting, sweating and wild-eyed." "His nervous state is terribly apparent" Williams writes. "He is a man who has cracked up before and is going to crack up again--perhaps repeatedly" (10). …

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