Tennessee Williams wrote: “This is a play about love in its purest terms.” Surprised? Don’t be. The heart needs a home. But, if a heart is tormented by unrealistic Guilt, it has a hard time opening up to the love that offers a place to nest. That’s The Night Of The Iguana’s Reverend Dr. Lawrence T. Shannon. A shut out and shut down Episcopalian minister who doesn’t know love from lust or misguided temptation from real desire. What’s his #1 problem? He’s confused about what is realistic to need.
Shannon’s father’s a clergyman and two grandfathers are Bishops. So he believes he must fit that mold. When he fails to be the man he thinks he’s supposed to be, he’s tortured by an internal battle he can’t imagine winning. What Spook ties Shannon up? And why is it so hard to fight? Could it be that he doesn’t know what’s unrealistic about his fantastical self-hate?
Love In Its Purest Terms
Shannon (Richard Burton) finds love in its purest terms at Hotel Mismaloya in Puerto Vallarta one rainy and turbulent August night, The Night Of The Iguana. It happens when his Spook is once again chasing him and two loving women are there to help.
Not without their own conflicts of course, but who doesn’t have them? And that’s part of the story. But, what these two women give Shannon saves him. One accepts him for who he is, in spite of his demons. That’s Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner). She’s there to “get him back up” when his Spook takes over.
The other woman sees his goodness. Even when Shannon can’t see anything redeeming in himself. That’s Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr). And, we find, she knows quite a lot about taming Spooks. Yet, Shannon must go through a furious internal war to let this real kind of love reach through his almost impenetrable walls.
Broken Walls & A Torturous Conscience
The Night Of The Iguana begins at St. James Episcopal Church with an embattled Shannon on the pulpit. Stumbling anxiously over his words:
“He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that has broken down and without walls…(he yells) All right! you know! That’s why you’re here. To see this city with its broken walls … to sit in Judgement.” Shannon believes he needs his walls.
But, walls aren’t human. Everyone needs people and human contact. We’ve all “inherited” hungers. Normal ones. Yet, Shannon believes his hungers get him in “trouble.” And, they sort of do. So, it doesn’t help that when he lets down his walls (impulsively, no less, with a young girl), he’s hit with a fire and brimstone Guilt.
Shannon must keep his rigid walls and Episcopalian rules. Because God is watching (now a tormenting evil eye inside him; a “cruel senile delinquent who blames the world and all he created for his own faults.”) This unkind God is his conscience. Its Judgmental eyes follow him everywhere.
He can’t escape. Even as far as Mexico. He’s leading tours “conducted by a minister of God,” of the beautiful Puerto Vallarta. Yet, now his internal Judgement is on the bus in the form of the priggish and prudish “Happy Days Are Here Again” ring-leader of the Southern Baptist women on his tour. Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall).
Shannon’s walls are meant to restrain Temptation. But, could we say his temptation is really about normal human need? Not normal to Shannon, though. He’s confused. And, Temptation is about to challenge him again.
Fighting Temptation? Or Human Need?
Shannon is a lonely man. Of course, he is. He needs human contact and love like anyone else. But, to Shannon, a man of the cloth shouldn’t need it. He tries to keep his walls. But, when young innocent girls profess their love – wouldn’t that stir up his need to be loved plus normal sexual desire?
Desire isn’t normal to Shannon. Even though in the natural world, it is. On the tour, he stops the bus on a bridge. Scrubbing clothes in the river below are the open faces of the women of Puerto Vallarta. Smiling upwards. “A moment of beauty, Miss Fellowes. A fleeting glimpse into the lost world of innocence.”
He’s certainly lost his. And, he feels, robbed a young girl of hers. You see, Shannon gave into Temptation and lost his willpower with a 16-year-old parishioner who professed her love.
There’s a lot to understand about Shannon’s temptations. He’s not a pervert; he needs love but doesn’t know how to get it. Did he have normal teenage experiences? Not likely with his guilt-inducing childhood. So, he’s immature, backward, and little more than a teenager himself when it comes to sex and love.
Yes, need is human. But, Shannon just feels Guilt. He’s good-looking. And he can’t seem to get away from seductive and beautiful 16-year-old girls, like Charlotte Goodall (Sue Lyon). Even on a bus tour with Southern Baptist women in Mexico.
Is It Lust Or A Need For Love?
Temptation won’t leave him alone. Charlotte sits next to him on the bus, as Miss Fellowes leads her church ladies in “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Charlotte’s trying to get free of the sexually terrified Miss Fellowes’ clutches. She’s Charlotte’s chaperone.
Charlotte, in her teenage ways, is a seductress. But, really, she has a fantastical view of love. She isn’t looking for sex. Instead, she imagines that “Larry” as she insists on calling Shannon – loves her and will marry her.
In Charlotte, we don’t have any ordinary Temptation. She’s is desperate for love. More than that though, she’s the picture of Shannon’s own confusion between lust and a human need for love.
Plus, love is the perfect remedy for terrible Guilt. No wonder he needs it so much. For now, Shannon struggles. The Spook is fast behind him. Charlotte follows him everywhere. Into his room at night. He can’t get her out.
The panicked Miss Fellowes screams, “Charlotte!” and warns him: “Just leave her alone. Don’t make me take steps.” But, it’s Charlotte who won’t leave him alone, putting him to one test after another. “I’m flying home. I’ll be waiting for you across the border.”
He tries: “Honey, the only border I’m crossing is the border of sanity. A man with no rules over his spirit …” Yet, as strongly as he fights desire (not the slightest for love) Shannon falls when Charlotte says: “I’ll rule your spirit. I’ll hold you,” and kisses him.
How could he resist human contact? But, Fellowes’ incriminating eyes catch them. “You’ll be through,” she yells, as she looks for a phone to call her brother, the Judge, in Texas. She’ll have his hide. Is there any escape now?
The Voice Of Judgment
Miss Fellowes is the voice of Shannon’s internal Judgement. He can’t escape the eyes of a punishing, incriminating God. Panicked, he takes over the bus and runs.
Like the madman he now is, Shannon charges past the hotel in Puerto Vallarta where they are supposed to stop. As the ladies scream, he veers the bus up a winding road at breakneck speed. Finally, screeching to a halt at his old friend Maxine Faulk’s Hotel Mismaloya.
Shannon opens the bus door, grabs the distributor cap and his suitcase, and takes off. Yelling for “Fred.” He’s taken back a rather crazed control. He must get away from the murderers “Lizzie Borden” and “Madame La Farge,” personified in Miss Fellowes. Mostly, from his own guilty fears.
But, old Fred, Maxine’s husband who’s always calmed Shannon’s Spook (his battle with Guilt and Failure), is “dead.” What can he do now? He’s going downhill fast. He begs Maxine to help. She agrees.
Maxine, a voluptuous, brash, tell-it-how-it-is beauty, comfortable with sex and desire, will help in ways Shannon can’t imagine. First things first, though. The distraught Shannon tells Maxine: “The butch vocalist is traveling with a military escort. She’s trying to get me fired and pin on me a charge of statutory rape.”
Shannon’s tortured by his conscience for succumbing to a kiss. Maxine will help with his demons. And so will the spinster Hannah Velkes who soon arrives with her 97-year-old famous Poet grandfather (Cyril Delevanti), writing his last poem.
Fire & Brimstone Of Self-Hate
Maxine may be capable of sex just for sex, but even she knows “the difference between loving someone and just going to bed.” Deeply capable of love, she loved old Fred. And, she loves Shannon. Even though she can’t admit it.
Shannon must learn the difference between lust and love too. But, he has to walk through fire and brimstone (and broken glass) to get there. Charlotte (standing in for his own conflicted longings) won’t leave him alone. He’s at the end of his rope.
He pleads with the 16-year-old Temptress: “Let me tell you something. A man has just so much in his emotional bank balance and mine has run out.” He’s walking on pieces of a broken glass (the splintering pieces of his mind): “I’d walk on Brimstone through hell to get you out of my room.”
She won’t stop: “I don’t believe you don’t love me.” “I love nobody.” Mostly, Shannon does not love himself. In fact, he’s consumed with self-hate. For his guilty human desires, not close to understanding how normal they are.
Living in “hell and damnation,” he bodily throws Charlotte out of his room. She screams. A young woman slighted, she gets Hank (Skip Ward), the young bus driver, to fall in love with her.
Shannon can’t let himself love. And, he desperately needs help for his unrealistic guilt.
Unrealistic Guilt & An Understanding Ear
In walks, Hannah: “What is it, Mr. Shannon?” “When you live on the fantastic level but need to operate on the realistic level, that’s when you get spooked. I am spooked, Miss Jelkes.” But, Shannon doesn’t know “the fantastic” from “the realistic.”
He believes that the voice of his nightmarish Guilt and failures (personified in Miss Fellowes) are very real indeed. They aren’t. His guilt is overblown. That’s why it tortures him. To him, needing and wanting anyone or anything is a sin. He’s supposed to be above human emotion. And, because he’s not – he’s failed.
But, only in his eyes. Hannah knows about Spooks. A kind and understanding force, she doesn’t judge him. She’s not the “senile and blaming” God inside his head that can’t allow for human shortcomings.
Hannah brings Shannon out of his shell. A replacement for old Fred who was “better than any headshrinker,” she asks questions and she listens. He tells her about his sin, “fornication and conduct unbecoming to a man of the cloth.” He’s punishing himself for being the “bad man” he believes he is.
And now, after Charlotte, he’s beside himself. The Spook is catching up. He’ll take a long swim to China if Miss Fellowes “proves his Guilt.” Hannah Jelkes will stop him. So will Maxine.
Truth About Shannon … & It’s Not “Bad”
There is love around. Hannah’s platonic love and the love that shows its face in Maxine’s jealous fit. She thinks she’s caught “vibrations” between Shannon and Hannah, and she blurts out: “Just that is enough to put me in a lather and don’t ask me why … just look at him. Broke, spooked, and as good as Fred …” (impotent Fred).
Maxine’s trying to convince herself there’s no reason to love him. But Hannah knowing, Maxine’s brutal words come out of her own pain, stands up for Shannon. She knows life can bring a person down: “only his circumstances, not the man himself,” she says.
Yes, there’s more to Shannon than meets the eye. He can be kind and understanding, even towards Miss Fellowes. When she threatens to get him blacklisted so he’ll never work again, Maxine defends Shannon by taunting Miss Fellowes with her hidden lesbian sexuality.
But, Shannon stops Maxine, despite his own hostility. Why’d he shut her up? “Miss Fellowes is a very moral person. If she ever recognized the Truth about herself, it would destroy her.” He knows. But, Shannon’s misguided when it comes to seeing “the Truth” about what he believes is his “terrible personal failure.”
Hannah sees he’s a man with difficult circumstances and human frailties. Like everyone else. But, in Shannon’s self-hate, he believes the Spook has proved there’s no place for Shannon on the “realistic level,” or in the world.
He tears the gold cross off his neck and runs to take that long swim to China. Hannah and Maxine grab him; tying him up in the hammock to fight off the “Daddy of all Spooks.” With their support and love.
The Night Of The Iguana & Walls Come Down
The iguana outside Hotel Mismaloya and Shannon have somethings in common. Both are tied up and both can be eaten. Shannon is eaten up by the Spook of Guilt and despair. Plus, he’s in a battle over letting in love, and he strikes out at Maxine: “Go with your beach boys. Don’t let my presence stop you any more than old Fred’s.”
Hannah takes him to task: “That was cruel, Mr. Shannon. I can’t stand for a person I respect to behave like a small cruel boy.” “What do you respect in me …?”“I respect anyone who’s had to fight hard for … his bit of goodness.”
She sees Shannon’s goodness. And, she tells him his real problem: “You need to believe in someone or something.” She knows what she believes in: “wanting to help each other through nights like this. One night communications outside our separate cubicles.”
Shannon muses …“You don’t mean physical, do you?” No, she doesn’t. She means letting the walls down. Breaking the barriers that keep people away from love. Real love. In the feeling sense. Hannah knows. That kind of love is love in its purest terms. A home.
It’s what she has with her Grandfather: “I think of a home as something two people have between them in which each can nest, rest, and live; emotionally speaking.”
A Home For The Lonely Heart
That nest is in the heart of another, where “you’re never alone.” Can Shannon let anyone into his heart? Or is he destined to believe he’s a man undeserving of love? His Spook tells him so. But, to outwit his panics, he must let in love.
He’s let Hannah help him and she cuts him loose. The Spook is exorcized (at least for now.) Together they cut loose the Iguana. Can Shannon cut himself some slack and let down the walls against human contact any living soul needs? Even his?
Yes, maybe he can. Maxine, still jealous and distraught, offers Shannon and Hannah the hotel. She’s leaving; “fed up with the place (and love).” Yet, the deal is: Shannon stays: “There has to be a man on the premises. The one basic rule of hotel administration.”
The one basic rule of love. Hannah’s gone, but he tells the unraveling Maxine he isn’t leaving: “that is if you really need a man around here.” Maxine cries: “It’s not hot yet Shannon, why don’t we go down to the beach?” Shannon’s taken a big leap. He’s not quite sure he’ll be able to get back up.
Maxine won’t let him fall: “I’ll always get you back up, baby.” They’ll help each other. His Spook isn’t gone for good. But he’s breaking through his certainty that there’s no road out of Guilt. It’s a beginning. A line from Grandfather’s last poem says it all:
“Oh, Courage! Could you not as well select a second place to dwell? Not only in the golden tree, but in the frightened heart of me.” Perhaps our Shannon might get the courage to know the difference between unrealistic Guilt and real human need. Maybe then he will find a home in Maxine’s open, willing and loving heart.