Williams wrote: "This is a play about love in its purest terms." It is also Williams's robust and persuasive plea for endurance and resistance in the face of human suffering. The earthy widow Maxine Faulk is proprietress of a rundown hotel at the edge of a Mexican cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean where the defrocked Rev. Shannon, his tour group of ladies from a West Texas women's college, the self-described New England spinster Hannah Jelkes and her ninety-seven-year-old grandfather, Jonathan Coffin ("the world's oldest living and practicing poet"), a family of grotesque Nazi vacationers, and an iguana tied by its throat to the veranda, all find themselves assembled for a rainy and turbulent night. This is the first trade paperback edition ofThe Night of the Iguana and comes with an Introduction by award-winning playwright Doug Wright, the author's original Foreword, the short story "The Night of the Iguana" which was the germ for the play, plus an essay by noted Tennessee Williams scholar, Kenneth Holditch. "I'm tired of conducting services in praise and worship of a senile delinquent--yeah, that's what I said, I shouted! All your Western theologies, the whole mythology of them, are based on the concept of God as a senile delinquent and, by God, I will not and cannot continue to conduct services in praise and worship of this...this...this angry, petulant old man." --The Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon, fromThe Night of the Iguana
I grew up knowing them, but, as my dad said when I mentioned that I was reading the play along with my "Non-Structured" blog pals, how much of these characters and their interactions can you really understand at the age of fifteen? It is, as he pointed out, an "adult" story, and not just because it involves themes of sexual desperation and sexual contempt—Shannon with his teenage girls; Maxine with her cabana boys—that adults usually keep from children. I think the thing I most failed to identify as a teenager is how worn down all three main characters are, and how that desperate exhaustion imbues their small acts of basic human kindness toward one another with a significance bordering on the heroic. I understood ennui (what teenager doesn't?), but I didn't understand the way that living under emotionally taxing conditions stops being glamorous pretty shortly and starts wearing away at a person's reserves. Luckily, I still can't empathize with the choice between starvation and the kindness of strangers, but I do understand being engaged in a seemingly endless emotional struggle, and how exhausting and panic-inducing that can be.
I also had a much different perspective on the Charlotte/Shannon relationship than I do now. Watching the story unfold as a 15-year-old girl, Shannon's behavior doesn't read as predatory the way it can to an older viewer; my friends, after all, were all for dating "older men." But what I now think is interesting about Williams's portrayal of Shannon is that the Reverend's sexual exploits are not his real crime here—in the playwright's eyes, I think, it's Shannon's cold treatment of these young girls after sleeping with them that exposes the real ugliness in his character. I think, as Williams sees it, Shannon squanders the chance to connect with another human, and that's his sin.
HANNAH: [...:] The episode in the cold, inhuman hotel room, Mr. Shannon, for which you despise the lady almost as much as you despise yourself. Afterward you are so polite to the lady that I'm sure it must chill her to the bone, the scrupulous little attentions that you pay her in return for your little enjoyment of her. The gentleman-of-Virginia act that you put on for her, your noblesse oblige treatment of her...Oh no, Mr. Shannon, don't kid yourself that you ever travel with someone. You have always traveled alone except for your spook, as you call it.
It's interesting that in the 1964 film, Huston chose to remove any discussion of this coldness on Shannon's part, which strikes me as so important in the original play. Perhaps the director felt that a habit of seducing underage women was enough of a barrier for Shannon, as a basically sympathetic character, to overcome.
Another interesting change to Shannon's character in the Huston film is that his theology is completely transformed. In both versions, he objects to the "petulant old man" worshiped by his Virginia congregation. But Huston's Shannon is a sort of nascent hippie environmentalist: as he chases his parishioners out of his church, he speaks of "the God of loving kindness"; and in the scene where he is describing his "researches" to Hannah, he defines "man's inhumanity to God" in terms of polluted rivers and exploited natural resources. These are tropes that a theater audience would immediately understand and relate to. The theology of the original Shannon, on the other hand, is much more complex, and I've always found it difficult to understand. Here, for example, is how he defines his God to Hannah:
SHANNON: It's going to storm tonight—a terrific electrical storm. Then you will see the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon's conception of God Almighty paying a visit to the world he created. I want to go back to the Church and preach the gospel of God as Lightning and Thunder...and also stray dogs vivisected and...and...and...[He points out suddenly toward the sea.:] That's him! There he is now! [He is pointing out at a blaze, a majestic apocalypse of gold light, shafting the sky as the sun drops into the Pacific.:] His oblivious majesty—and here I am on this...dilapidated verandah of a cheap hotel, out of season, in a country caught and destroyed in its flesh and corrupted in its spirit by its gold-hungry conquistadors that bore the flag of the Inquisition along with the Cross of Christ.
Much weirder, no? I can understand why Huston decided to alter Shannon into the more easily-understandable "loving kindness" variety of Christian. But what is he actually saying here? The "stray dogs vivisected" line suggests the idea that God is everywhere, even in the ugly parts of life, and it's wrong of the complacent Virginian congregants not to recognize that. But really, Shannon's recognition of God is no more universal than theirs. If they are only willing to see the divine in anodyne respectability, he only seems willing to recognize it at the most extreme margins of human experience—not in a calm blue sky, but in a dramatic, stormy sunset; not in a pampered house pet, but in a vivisected stray dog. On the other hand, he sees God as "oblivious," unconcerned with the travails of humans. I have always had a hard time wrapping my head around this seeming contradiction: if we're dealing with an unconcerned, "clock-maker" type God, why would he be more manifest in some aspects of life than others? Perhaps Shannon feels that humans are most able to connect with God when they are, themselves, in extremity, and it takes Hannah's calm plea for compassion, for a recognition that all humans have their struggles and their shadows, to balance out his glamorization of the extreme:
HANNAH: I have a strong feeling you will go back to the Church with this evidence you've been collecting, but when you do and it's a black Sunday morning, look out over the congregation, over the smug, complacent faces for a few old, very old faces, looking up at you, as you begin your sermon, with eyes like a piercing cry for something to still look up to, something to still believe in. And then I think you'll not shout what you say you shouted that black Sunday in Pleasant Valley, Virginia. I think you will throw away the violent, furious sermon, you'll toss it into the chancel, and talk about...no, maybe talk about...nothing...just...
HANNAH: Lead them beside still waters because you know how badly they need the still waters, Mr. Shannon.
Oddly, although I strongly relate to Hannah's philosophy of endurance and human compassion irrespective of God's existence, I find her the least compelling of the three in terms of her actual character, especially on the page. She seems at times just a pretext through which Williams can speak directly to the audience; whereas Shannon and Maxine both talk like real people, Hannah often sounds written to me. Deborah Kerr's performance does a lot to dispel that impression, but Richard Burton and Ava Gardner are still more human-seeming to watch.
There are things in both versions of Night of the Iguana that walk a thin line between bothering and intriguing me: are the depictions of "butch" Judy Fellowes, for example, anti-lesbian misogyny, or an examination of how remaining closeted can cause a person to become cruel and vindictive? (Interestingly, tough-guy Huston actually added material that would favor the second hypothesis. It definitely surprises me that John Huston would be easier on closeted lesbians than Tennessee Williams!) The depictions of Maxine's cabana boys reflect a ridiculous level of casual racism, but it's unusual, especially for 1961, to see a mostly-sympathetic female extract unapologetic sexual enjoyment from men in the way male characters often make sexual use of women. Williams doesn't exactly congratulate Maxine (nor am I arguing that he should), but her employment of Pedro and Pancho is viewed as another desperate attempt at human contact in an alienated world—and Williams, like Hannah Jelkes, respects any attempt at survival that isn't cruel or childish.
In any case, I'm glad to have revisited this old family favorite. I suspect my appreciation of it will continue to grow with time.
The lead character, Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, has been accompanying a Baptist women’s group who have contracted for a cheap tour of Mexico run by Blake Tours, the current employer of Reverend Shannon. He is giving tours out of desperation because he was locked out of his church after a mental breakdown.
As the play begins, Ms. Fellows, the leader of the Baptist group, is incensed at Shannon for allegedly seducing young Charlotte Goodall, and threatens to call Blake Tours and get him fired. Thus, rather than deliver the ladies to the expected hotel on their way to Puerto Vallarta, Shannon takes them to Costa Verde Hotel (which he mistakenly believes is phoneless) in Mismaloya on the coast. Here he hopes his friends Maxine and Fred Faulk will rescue him. He discovers that Fred had died the previous month however, the hotel now has phone service, and Maxine is in need of rescuing herself. In fact, all of the characters in some way or another are at the end of their rope, like the iguana trapped out in the back of the hotel.
The cause of Shannon's anguish are many: a crisis of faith (reconciling theology with what he sees in the world around him); a crisis of identity (reconciling his own hypocrisy with who he wants to be); desperately wanting to believe in something (but finding the God of the Bible "infantile"); rage against his parents and against God (apparently he's still unhappy over an injunction against masturbation, inter alia); and a deep loneliness that cannot be satisfied by numerous ephemeral sexual encounters. The other characters also reveal inner turmoil: Maxine is bored and frustrated with her job and her love life; Ms. Fellows is a repressed lesbian; Ms. Jelkes has withdrawn from life rather than try to deal with it; and Charlotte is rebelling against her father by throwing herself at any man she can. Whether the characters can escape from the demons driving them to the end of the mental ropes that bind them is the question explored by the play.
Shannon is purportedly an amalgam of the playwright’s maternal grandfather (an Episcopal priest), his father (a hard-drinking traveling salesman), and himself, someone considered sexually deviant with frequent bouts of alcoholism, depression and “crack-ups,” who feared he would go insane. Maxine, the hotel proprietress, is thought to represent Williams’ mother, and indeed, Maxine acts rather motherly toward Shannon, at least if you accept that some mothers also have a Freudian attraction to their sons. Hannah Jelkes, the strange spinster who comes to stay at the same hotel, is supposedly modeled after Williams’ sister Rose, who, diagnosed with schizophrenia, was given a prefrontal lobotomy in 1937. But the Hannah/Rose in this play manages to overcome “the blue devil” of madness, and learns to “endure.”
There are some interesting differences between the movie and the play. While generally hewing pretty close to one another, the movie omits some of the more scandalous religious and sexual statements made by Shannon. Also Shannon is quite cruel to Maxine in the play, and most of those cutting remarks are left out of the movie. I imagine this was in order to ensure Shannon would be a more sympathetic character, or perhaps, because Maxine was, after all, Ava Gardner.
Evaluation: It was rather difficult for me to warm up to these characters or even care very much about any of them. They were all just TOO CRAZY. I did not find the play inordinately dated, although if it were really set in modern times, I believe most of the characters would be taking antidepressants or even lithium, and there wouldn’t have been much of a play.
Rating: How does one rate a “classic” that one wasn’t particularly taken by? I think in this case I’ll eschew the number system, and go for the universally understood “meh.”
“I still say that I’m not a bird, Mr. Shannon, I’m a human being and when a member of that fantastic species builds a nest in the heart of another, the question of permanence isn’t the first or even the last thing that’s considered.”