In 1940s Mexico an ex-minister, the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, has been locked out of his church after characterizing the Western image of God as a "senile delinquent", during one of his sermons. Shannon is not de-frocked, but he is institutionalized for a "nervous breakdown". Some time after his release, the Rev. Shannon obtains employment as a tour guide for a second-rate travel agency. Shortly before the opening of the play, Shannon is accused of having committed statutory rape of a sixteen-year-old girl, Charlotte Goodall, who is accompanying his current group of tourists.
As the curtain rises, Shannon and a group of women arrive at a cheap hotel on the coast of Mexico that had been managed by his friends Fred and Maxine Faulk. The former has recently died, and Maxine Faulk has assumed sole responsibility for managing the establishment.
Struggling emotionally, Shannon tries to manage his tour party, who have turned against him for entering into sexual relations with the minor, and Maxine, who is interested in him for purely carnal reasons. Adding to this chaotic scenario, spinster Hannah Jelkes appears with her moribund grandfather Nonno who, despite his failing health, is composing his last poem. Jelkes, who scrapes by as traveling painter and sketch artist, is soon at Maxine's mercy. Shannon, who wields considerable influence over Maxine, offers Hannah Jelkes shelter for the night. The play's main axis is the development of the deeply human bond between Hannah Jelkes and Lawrence Shannon.
Minor characters in the play include a group of German tourists whose Nazi marching songs paradoxically lighten the heavier themes of the play but suggest the horrors of World War II; the Mexican "boys" Maxine employs to help run the hotel who ignore her laconic commands; and Judith Fellowes, the "butch" vocal teacher charged with Charlotte's care during the trip.
The Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon was partly based on Williams' cousin and close friend, The Reverend Sidney Lanier, the iconoclastic Rector of St Clement's Episcopal Church, New York. Lanier was a significant figure in the New York theatre scene in the 1950 and 1960s, started a Ministry to the Theatre Arts and would become co-founder of the experimental American Place Theatre in 1962. Lanier resigned from his ministry in May 1965.
The play premiered on Broadway at the Royale Theatre on December 28, 1961, and ran for 316 performances. It starred Patrick O'Neal as Rev. Shannon, two-time Oscar winner Bette Davis as Maxine and Margaret Leighton as Hannah. Davis left the production after four months and was replaced by Shelley Winters.
Davis' role was Maxine, a lusty life-force of a woman, with some good comic lines, who is offstage for a significant part of the play, while Hannah is on. Hannah is a role along the lines of Williams' greatest female characters, like Blanche DuBois and Summer and Smoke's Alma Winemuller, women possessed of extraordinarily refined sensibilities and grace. But for her intrinsic strength of character, Hannah is a departure for Williams. Hannah, a single woman in service to others, serves as an inspiration to Shannon for her inner strength, a strength denied to Blanche and Alma in their plays, although they share other similarities. The play featured Alan Webb as the dying grandfather to whom Hannah is devoted, Louis Guss, Bruce Glover and James Farentino. The production was directed by Frank Corsaro (Bette Davis in her memoir Dark Victory, wrote that she banned Corsaro from rehearsals shortly before opening). The play was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Leighton, as Hannah, won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.
The 1964 film version was directed by John Huston and starred Richard Burton as Rev. Shannon, Ava Gardner as Maxine and Deborah Kerr as Hannah. It also featured Sue Lyon, Cyril Delevanti, Grayson Hall (who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance) and Barbara Joyce (later an acclaimed artist). The screenplay was written by Huston and Anthony Veiller.
The film won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design (B&W), and in addition to Hall's nomination, was also nominated for Cinematography (by Gabriel Figueroa) and for Art Direction. The film removed the Nazi tourist characters from the original stage version. The character of Jake Latta is also eliminated and Shannon is fired through a comical telephone call.
There is also a 2000 Serbo-Croatian film adaptation of the play, directed by Janusz Kica.
The 1976 Broadway revival at the Circle in the Square Theatre was directed by Joseph Hardy, scenery and lighting H. R. Poindexter, costumes by Noel Taylor, production stage manager Randall Brooks, and stage manager James Bernadi.
The opening night cast featured Richard Chamberlain (Rev. Shannon), Gary Tacon (Pedro), William Paulson (Pancho), Ben Van Vacter (Wolfgang), Jennifer Savidge (Hilda), John Rose (Herr Fahrenkopf), Amelia Laurenson (Frau Fahrenkopf), Matt Bennett (Hank), Barbara Caruso (Judith Fellows), Allison Argo (Charlotte Goodall), William Roerick (Nonno), Benjamin Stewart (Jake Latta), Dorothy McGuire (Hannah), and Sylvia Miles (Maxine).The Circle in the Square Theatre also staged a 1988 revival starring Nicolas Surovy as Rev. Shannon, Maria Tucci as Maxine and Jane Alexander as Hannah.
In 1996, a Broadway revival was directed by Robert Falls, and featured William Petersen as Rev. Shannon, Marsha Mason as Maxine and Cherry Jones as Hannah. This was based on a 1994 production staged by the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
In London, a 1992 production at the Royal National Theatre featured performances by Alfred Molina as Rev. Shannon and Eileen Atkins as Hannah. This production was directed by Richard Eyre.
A critically acclaimed 2005 London production at Lyric Theatre starred Woody Harrelson as Rev. Shannon, Clare Higgins as Maxine and Jenny Seagrove as Hannah. This production was directed by Anthony Page.
In 2017, the American Repertory Theater production included James Earl Jones as Nonno, Amanda Plummer as Hannah, Dana Delany as Maxine, and Bill Heck as Rev. Shannon.
"The Night of the Iguana" is a song by Joni Mitchell from her 2007 album, Shine. It is a thematic and lyrical adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play.