A Space Open to Sexuality: The Verandah in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana

ESSAY by Mercedes Trigos

It is rare to find a play that does not begin by giving us the setting, thus immediately shaping the way we interpret the action. Yet, because it seems so obvious and so essential to the theatrical form, we often take for granted the importance and the effects of the space the playwright chooses. Most critics who write about Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana focus, primarily, on the function of the natural environment in the play, or else on the predominant sexual themes around which the play is structured. However, the connection between the natural environment and the play’s concept of sexual expression remains unexplored.  The verandah of the Costa Verde hotel—where the play is set—operates as a representative space in which the environmental and the sexual become entangled and co-constitutional. Yet, perhaps because it seems so basic and essential to the form of Williams’s play, the importance—and the functionality—of the space in which the action is staged is frequently elided in the critical discourse. This essay, then, will consider the verandah not merely as the given setting for The Night of the Iguana, but as a space deliberately constructed as a haven within, but proximate to, the wilder spaces of the “primitive” Mexican coast and the teeming jungle.

The verandah is a space that mediates the “civilized” practice of touristic architecture and the “primitive”[1]—as Williams’s own description reads—ways of the Puerto Barrio town in rural Mexico[2]. It is a space in which the characters are encouraged to express their sexuality in measured tones, without allowing raw sexual desires and impulses to completely dictate their behavior. Williams ascribes invasive properties to the flora and fauna around the terrace, which marks the space as one that promotes intimacy and encourages confession. There is a direct relationship in the play between changes in the set and changes in the characters: as night falls and as the flowers around the terrace bloom, the characters get closer to redemption through their confessions to each other. The verandah is thus the only space that allows the characters to reach toward some type of meaning, protecting the characters from the jungle but also undoubtedly exposing them to it.[3]

The play opens with Maxine, the owner of The Costa Verde Hotel, calling out to Shannon, a suicidal defrocked priest , who is coming up the jungle-covered hill in rural Mexico trying to reach the hotel’s verandah.  Here, Williams means to use the stage “symbolically as the social and moral precipice of our times”[4]—Shannon, for example, has worked for countless tourist agencies and is about to be fired, again, for having sex with an underage member of his tour group.

The verandah is constructed, both materially and rhetorically, as a space constituted by the surrounding “primitive” environments of the Mexican coast and The Costa Verde Hotel. Williams notes that the villages in Puerto Barrio during the summer of 1940 “were still predominantly primitive Indian villages,” and that the coast “had not yet become the Las Vegas and Miami Beach of Mexico” (328).  Isolated as it is atop a hill in the middle of the jungle, the“rather rustic and very Bohemian” Costa Verde is presumably a place where visitors go to escape the routine of their lives and to release their inhibitions (328). The few guests—Shannon, a party of vacationing German Nazis, Hannah (an American spinster who has dedicated her life to pleasing her grandfather), and her grandfather Nonno—are secluded, temporally and spatially, from their modern lives, and conjoined with the natural world. As Rod Phillips observes, Puerto Barrio and the Costa Verde represent “a place almost untouched by man,” a site where modernization has not yet corrupted the “primitive” ways of the locals and has not yet completely established a separation between man and nature (60). The hotel is not merely surrounded by different types of plants, but is itself part of a wild environment, and the verandah, “slightly raised above the stage level,” forces the audience to look up at the stage from their seats, making them conscious of the wildlife that frames and almost hides the terrace (328).

Williams continues in the stage directions: “below the verandah…are shrubs with vivid trumpet-shaped flowers and a few cactus plants, while at the sides we see the foliage of the encroaching jungle” (emphasis added, 328). Here, “encroaching” ascribes an invasive, sexual quality to the jungle that is both literal and metaphorical. The phallic shape of trumpet flowers and cactuses contributes to Costa Verde’s sexual atmosphere; images of male genitalia surround the verandah and dominate the characters’ view.

The jungle and vegetation that envelop the verandah are critical components of the characters’ deliverance from their complex sexual histories. As Williams-biographer Donald Spoto notes, “what is very clear…is that to be redeemed for meaning” in The Night of the Iguana “is to find a way through the jungle,” as these characters do (249).   The verandah enables the characters to find this path through the jungle by providing them with a space—sexualized by the overabundant flora that surrounds it, but at the same time distinct and safe from the chaos of the jungle—to speak about their histories. Shannon manages to work through the “spook”—a shorthand in the play for Shannon’s repressed sexual desires that haunt him and manifest in “destructive ways throughout his life”—on the terrace, where his “recollections gather force” as he narrates them (Levin 87, Williams 335).

On the verandah, the characters long  “to reach out to one another,” as Kenneth Holditch argues in “Acts of Grace,” and to connect through frank discussions of their sexual histories (146). Holditch, referring to Williams’s one-act version of The Night of the Iguana entitled Two Acts of Grace, notes that Williams believed that it was essential for human beings to ‘connect,’ to ‘communicate’” (146). Shannon relates stories that involve masturbation and fornication with young girls; Maxine explains her sexually frustrated relationship with her late husband Fred, evinces her sexual attraction for Shannon, and confesses to having passionate sexual encounters with Pedro and Pancho, her young and attractive Mexican employees; Hannah finds a “sympathetic interest” in common with Shannon after confiding that she facilitated a man’s masturbation in a sampan by providing him “a piece of [her] clothing” (420, 417). This sympathetic interest can be read as the dramatic manifestation of Williams’s claim that “nothing…gives more meaning to living” than “a pair of desperate people who [have] the humble nobility of each putting the other’s desperation, during the course of a night, above his concern for his own” (147).

Once the iguana is “tied by the throat,” the night commences to take over as “the light…gradually, steadily dim[s]” on stage and the verandah becomes increasingly intimate (423, 373). The two events are inextricably linked; the capture of the reptile announces nightfall and makes it the “night of the iguana.”  The “full pearly-moon” is “decorated by night insects, large but gossamer moths that have immolated themselves on its surface;”specifically, these night moths sacrifice their bodies to the light and delicately filter some of the brightness the “great pearly globe” imparts (373). The mosquitoes, after the storm, become “particularly vicious,” forcing Shannon to “[slap] at [one] on his bare torso” (388). As the trumpet flowers, these flying insects (fauna) have infiltrated the verandah, turning the characters’ visual and corporal attention directly to nature’s presence.

The animals present in the region, especially the iguanas, have a specific relevance to sexuality and its expression.  For instance, when the guests of the hotel learn that the iguana was captured for “a feast,”[5] they are bewildered (371). At the sight of the animal, Frau Fahrenkopf, a German hotel lodger, “strikes a grotesque attitude of terror as if she were threatened by Jack the Ripper,” and says, awestruck at the idea of eating it, “Eat? Eat? A big lizard?” (372). In contrast, we learn that Maxine consumes iguana meat and considers it “mighty good eating,” (372). The stew typically prepared with these creatures is believed to possess healing properties—“various human ailments and particularly impotence…are cured or relieved by the flesh”[6] (emphasis added, Burghardt and Rand 406). Maxine’s[7] enjoyment of iguana as a delicacy encompasses the restorative and aphrodisiacal properties attributed to the animal, and signals her heightened sexual desires. She is described as being“rapaciously lusty” (Williams 329).

Despite its intimate proximity to the jungle, the verandah is not exclusively marked as a “primitive” space.  In fact, the terrace is constituted as the innermost safe space within nature and the wild. The entrance to the verandah—the opening that leads to the pathway that connects the hotel with the highway and beach—is “maskedby foliage,” isolating the space from its surroundings (328). The foliage obscures the view of the highway that is the characters’ link to the world outside the jungle and the veranda.[8] As Shannon “divides the masking foliage” to peek out towards the jungle, Maxine tells him “the spook…is out there”—not on the verandah, but in the flora and the world it constitutes (391). Moreover, the iguana never enters the space of the terrace, reinforcing the idea of the terrace as a protected but nonetheless liminal space. Even surrounded by a version of nature that influences how the characters behave, the terrace does allow the characters to completely abandon their “civilized,” ways.

With the epigraph to the play, the last stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “I Died For Beauty,” Williams foreshadows how the intimate connections that yield redemption and meaning for the characters may only take place in the presence of nature and during moments of crisis, such as being at “the end of [one’s] rope”:

And so as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names (qt. in Williams 327)

“We” refers to the two souls buried next to each other who have died for virtues—one for beauty, the other for truth. They form an everlasting connection once the “moss [reaches their] lips, /And cover[s] up [their] names.” Likewise, Williams’s closing poem, which Nonno composes throughout the play, requires “a bargaining with mist and mould” before “a second history [can] commence” (Williams 425). The characters must interact with nature-—whether it is jungle, moss, or flowers and cactus plants-­—in order to find meaning and begin a new history, they must find a different way to express their sexuality that acknowledges nature and instinct but is also not entirely wild. According to Nonno’s poem, the characters are “beings of a golden kind” who must come in contact with their “native green” so that it can “arch above/ the earth’s obscene, corrupting love” (425). As the grass and moss of Dickinson’s poem covers the tombs of the two virtues while they talk, thus erasing and connecting their identities, native green must overcome the corruption and obscenity of earth’s love in Nonno’s poem. As Phillips explains, Nonno “turns to images of nature as a source of courage as he faces his impending death” (67).

The verandah, like the tombs, exposes the characters to nature and, at the same time, protects them from its invasive powers. Nature encourages sexual expression but manmade structures or practices level it. Although remarkably sexualized, the terrace remains a balanced space, tinged with civilization amidst the primitive atmosphere of this specific tropical rainforest. Williams presents a place where the characters are encouraged to express sexuality without surrendering to sexual desires.[9] In this space open to sexuality, on the night of the iguana, Shannon connects with Hannah, finally “[believing] in something or in someone,” choosing to continue living and to forgo “the long swim to China”—suicide (Williams 408, 405).

Works Cited

Burghardt, Gordon M and A. Stanley Rand. Iguanas of the World: Their Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. New Jersey: Noyes Publications, 1982.


Devlin, Albert J. and Nancy M. Tischler. The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams Volume II 1945-1957. New York: New Directions, 2004.


Embrey, Glen. “The Subterranean World of The Night of the Iguana,” in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1977.


Holditch, Kenneth. “Acts of Grace,” in The Night of the Iguana. New York: New Directions Books, 2009.


Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática, La Población Indígena de México. México: INEGI, 2004.


Levin, Lindy. “Shadow Into Light: A Jungian Analysis of The Night of the Iguana.” The Tennessee Williams Annual Review. Issue 2: 1999.


Phillips, Rod. “‘Collecting Evidence’: The Natural World in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana.” The Southern Literary Journal. Vol. 32.2. 2000: 59-69.


Spoto, Donald. The Kindness of Strangers The Life of Tennessee Williams. Boston, USA: Little Brown and Company, 1985.


Tenebaum, Frances. Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.


Tischler, Nancy M. Student Companion to Tennessee Williams. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.


Williams, Tennessee. “A Summer of Discovery,” in Where I Live Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1978.


—. “Letter to Margaret ‘Margo’ Jones,” in The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams Volume II 1945-1957, edited by Albert J. Devlin, and Nancy M. Tischler. New York, New Directions, 2004.


—. The Night of the Iguana in Tennessee Williams Plays 1957-1980. New York: The Library of America, 2000.




[1] I use this term as Williams does in the stage directions, as a way of expressing a connection to nature and distance from modernization. This does not include the negative connotations associated with the term.

[2] Mexico was one of Tennessee Williams’s “favorite places”; he was “delighted by the sexual license and carefree life of the region.” See Nancy M. Tischler, Student Companion to Tennessee Williams (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000), 122.

[3] See Williams, “A Summer of Discovery,” in Where I Live Selected Essays, (New York: New Directions Books, 1944), in which Williams argues that “nothing…gives more meaning to living” than “a pair of desperate people who ha[ve] the humble nobility of each putting the other’s desperation, during the course of a night, above his concern for his own” (147). See also Kenneth Holditch, “Acts of Grace,” in The Night of the Iguana, (New York: New Directions Books, 2009). Holditch claims that Williams “believed that it was essential for human beings to ‘connect,’ to ‘communicate,’” referencing Williams’s one-act version of The Night of the Iguana entitled Two Acts of Grace (146).

[4] Tennessee Williams, “Letter to Margaret ‘Margo’ Jones,” in The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams Volume II 1945-1957, edited by Albert J. Devlin, and Nancy M. Tischler (New York, New Directions, 2004), 114.

[5] Translated from “Tenemos fiesta!”

[6] Furthermore, according to these writers, Chiapas, where the play takes place, is one of the three regions in which the consumption of iguanas primarily occurs. Emphasis added.

[7] The portrayal of Maxine as a “simple, sensual woman,” specifically as the owner of Costa Verde, connects her to the representation of the verandah as a sexualized space (372). She goes night swimming with her young Mexican employees, and “wear[s]…a blouse that is half unbuttoned” (342, 329). She unabashedly shows her body, has “her hips…thrust out at Shannon,” and does not mind when the “Mexicans” or “Germans…pinch” her butt in the town or in the hotel (380, 381).

[8] This seemingly nonexistent exit mirrors the “mosquito-net curtains” that “[screen]”[8] and replace doors in each of the hotel’s rooms towards the back of the verandah. The “cubicle bedrooms”are merely “screened,” not closed off with doors. The fact that they are curtains suggests the ease with which the screens can be opened and the privacy of the room’s occupant disrupted. The rooms are not completely closed; nature remains ever-present. The characters cannot escape the verandah or its ecology. Once inside Costa Verde, they cannot ignore its encouragement to communicate, to confess.

[9] In Freudian terms, this would mean to express sexuality knowing which impulses to repress or express—allowing neither repression to cause trauma, nor expression to be entirely unlicensed.


Mercedes Trigos (MAPH ’13)  is an essayist, translator, and teacher. Her research interests include modernisms, avant-garde literature, transnationalism, and translation theory.

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