The Night of the Iguana

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John Huston's 1964 adaptation of Tennessee Wiliams's Night of the Iguana is one of my dad's favorite films of all time, so I grew up knowing the characters: Reverend Larry Shannon, battling his demons after being locked out of his Episcopal church for having sex with a young Sunday-school teacher; Maxine Faulk (my hands-down favorite at the time1), the crass, sexually omnivorous widow at whose hotel Shannon arrives, with twenty angry female Baptists in tow; the otherworldly spinster Hannah Jelkes and her 97-year-old grandfather, the oldest practicing poet in the world.

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...

SHANNON: What?

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. Thanks to Frances for suggesting it, and to all my other non-structured buddies for reading along!

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Other posts:

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(I'm counting Night of the Iguana as my first book toward the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name due to the sexual orientation of its author.)





1Seriously, one of my major challenges understanding the Shannon character was his lack of interest in Gardner's Maxine: she's just SO sexy! Who would go for bratty Sue Lyon next to her? Not me, that's for sure.

19 Comments

  • Wonderful review Emily! Much more cogent than mine! (which is here: http://bit.ly/9zevP5 ) The only comment I might make is that I didn't think the depiction of the cabana boys was any more stereotypical than, say, the depiction of the young Lolita character [and in fact I think the career of poor Sue Lyon was ever after Lolita doomed to replaying that role].

  • good timing. today is the gentleman's birthday.

  • Jill: Thanks for the nice words, and interesting point about the Charlotte character. I suppose Maxine is fairly stereotypical too (a "Wife of Bath" sort of character), but I think she's developed to a point where she transcends that. Charlotte less so, you're right. And yes - I've heard Sue Lyon got really bitter about the whole Lolita thing. Poor woman.

    Selena: Totally unplanned! At least by me - possibly Frances knew what she was doing all along. :-)

  • Agree that Williams uses Hannah as a vehicle for talking directly to the audience but I also think that her emotionally distanced recitations are a little about self-deception. Can see the faults of others clearly but not her own. Can't see the weirdness of those two romantic interludes she has had.

    I did know that his birthday was today. Serendipitous.

    Typepad just ate my post (AGAIN!) but hopefully I can get it restored soon. Growing frustrations with their services. Grrr! Hope to get back in the conversation after I solve my technical difficulties.

  • I can't answer your carnal footnote question because I haven't seen any film versions of Iguana yet, Emily, but I had a hard time imagining why any woman (young or old) would throw themselves at Shannon considering what a drunken burnout he was. Of course, I could say that about people I've known in real life as well! Fine post as usual, although I have to say that I found Maxine too mean-spirited in her jealousy to appreciate her character the way I think you did. C├ęst la vie.

  • Frances: Interesting! I always think of Williams as being unduly worshipful of Hannah, but your point is a good one - maybe her emotional distance & seeming balance isn't altogether commendable. And I'm so sorry TypePad ate your post! I look forward to reading it on Sunday, when I return to the internet. :-)

    Richard: Haha, well, I think drunken burnouts are sometimes unduly appealing to young nymphet types. I do kind of wonder what Maxine sees in him, but maybe it's the connection to Fred? Maxine in the play is much more mean-spirited than Maxine in the movie; Huston made her much kinder to Hannah, for example. He also took out a lot of Shannon's mean remarks about her weight & age. At this point I can't really untangle my initial responses (to the movie) from my later reactions to the play, but luckily I can still appreciate Ava Gardner as Maxine, so that's something. :-)

  • Well, then, I guess we have a name! The Non-Structured Reading Group, haha. (I borrowed your term in my post.)

    Anyway, I was bummed that I couldn't get hold of a copy of the film. But will try to still see it whenever. Very eager to see for myself the comparisons you made here between the movie and the play.

    The characters' exhaustion and being worn down really struck me, too. From the very beginning, as Shannon was coming up to Costa Verde I felt a hopelessness that I thought was just a figment of my imagination, being that Maxine was at the time still funny and not so green, but then later the feeling was confirmed, especially when Shannon wanted to swim to China.

    Old but still true, Shannon and Maxine grasping onto the physical (e.g. sex), but really in the end what they needed were inner connections. Evidenced by when Maxine said she and Fred only spoke in grunts anymore.

    Anyway, how cool that we wrote our posts on his birthday. How cool is Frances for that?

    I also, by the way, might find Shannon attractive if I met him in real life, ha ha, but only if he treated me the way he did Hannah.

  • Really great discussion! I'm still mulling over Hannah; I just can't pin down in my mind if we're meant to see her as a wise heavenly beacon or deluded and naive or some of both.

    She says a lot of things that sound wise and insightful, but the more I dig into her words, the less convinced I am. She doesn't see the men she encountered as predatory, and I don't think she's right that Shannon would preach a message of love if he got back in the pulpit. It's like she wants to believe the best of people, but those people aren't what she sees.

    And interesting points about the contrast between Shannon's theology in the movie and the play theology. I haven't seen the movie in years, but I thought a lot of his depiction of God as the petulant old man was really a reflection of his own guilt as his lack of self-control. He feels petulant and angry about his own behavior, so he makes God condemnatory and angry. And he feels those feelings most strongly in the extremes, so that's where he places God. A God of loving-kindness doesn't quite seem to fit psychologically. Interesting change--perhaps it was considered more palatable to movie audiences?

  • I'm back. Finally got a post up. Unfortunately had to re-write quickly so I hope it all make sense. But this is a great conversation going on here.

    Richard: I can see it being difficult to understand Shannon's attractiveness from just reading the play but then there is Richard Burton in the movie ... The fatally flawed have an appeal all their own. Sensible people acknowledge the appeal but don't succumb to it, I suppose.

    Claire: I am also grooving to The Non-Structured Book Group moniker. Might use it in my sidebar for the Perec reminder. :) And feel that exhaustion that you bring up. When there is no joy in life.

    Teresa: Have the same conflicting viewpoints of Hannah. And Williams' conflicted depictions of Christianity in his plays is much as you suggest I think. The desire for a god as a loving father figure to save him from himself.

  • By the way, I wanted to point out that in Marlon Brando's letter to Tennessee Williams that was just released, Marlon says to "Tenn": "You probably don't think of yourself as brave because nobody who really has courage does, but I know you are and I get food from that." I'm wondering if "Tenn" has Hannah say she admires Shannon's [alleged] courageousness because of that idea put into his head by Brando? (link is http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/03/success-is-real-and-subtle-whore.html ).

  • Claire: I'm betting you will love the film, so do keep trying to get it one of these days. :-) I love that you felt the exhaustion & hopelessness from the very beginning - I think the play opens very strong, with so much action (especially as there's so much talking later on), & the tension between the Shannon & Maxine characters really is there from the beginning, as is Shannon's desperation. And I felt much more pathos in Maxine's loss of Fred this time through. She doesn't really show it, and I think she's at a loss about how to feel, how to grieve for him since they'd grown apart, but I think she is grieving nonetheless.

    Teresa: Interesting that Shannon would perceive his parishioners as believing in a God that is really a projection of his own guilt. That way he could feel off the hook about being angry & contemptuous of them, without the conflicted emotions that go with being angry & contemptuous toward God (especially if you're a minister!). And yes, I think you're right about the motivations behind the change - I suspect Huston just thought movie audiences wouldn't understand his original theology.

  • Frances: "The fatally flawed have an appeal all their own" - so true. Especially for young ladies in Charlotte Goodall's "unstable condition," as Shannon puts it. :-) I love this Hannah-related conversation that's sprung up, as she's always been the hardest character for me to understand. Thanks for the recommendation, friend!

    Jill: Whoa, Brando! What an interesting connection. On another note, do you notice how many MEN write about the alleged universal female "desire to be subjugated"? Funny how few women I've seen write on that subject. ;-)

  • Hmmm. I'm not sure Miss Fellows was really a lesbian. I got the impression that was just something Shannon said to anger her.

    I'm intrigued by the adjectives used to describe Hannah that I keep seeing. To you she's "otherworldly," to Frances she's "eerie," and to Theresa she's "ethereal and set apart." I'm banging my head because I feel like I missed that part even though it adds a lot to the play. Even though she seems to be the most stable of the characters, she really isn't because she's too detached.

    Love your take on Shannon's theology. I wonder if part of his problem is that he can't reconcile these two contradictory ideas he has about God. Funny that the film made him into a proto-hippie. Dumbing down for a greater mass audience or reacting to the social changes that were more obvious by the mid-60s?

  • EL Fay: I think that Shannon, at least, does actually THINK Judy Fellowes is a lesbian; I think that's part of his contempt for her. He describes her as butch to Maxine when he's not in her hearing, so I don't think it's just him trying to get under her skin. It also explains a lot about her character & why she's so personally offended by Shannon going to bed with Charlotte - she's jealous, in addition to her more disinterested reactions. But I could also be influenced by the movie, which adds material making her lesbianism MUCH more explicit.

    Interesting notion that Shannon's theological crisis could have to do with reconciling the irreconcilable. If so, it seems like part of his problem is that he doesn't even seem to realize the two things ARE contradictory, which is what's always confused me...good food for thought!

  • FYI, I found an article in the New York Times that said Williams said the plays he thought were his best were: "Red Devil," "A Streetcar Named Desire," "The Glass Menagerie," and "Camino Real." (Link is here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/12/31/specials/williams-art.html )

  • I like your Nonstructured Reading Group :) I've neither seen the movie nor read the play but you have me intrigued!

  • Shannon's bizarre theology is definitely one of the things I found most intriguing in the play, and Huston's adjustment of that was also really interesting. The ending of the movie in particular struck me - was Shannon being ironic in his statement about God playing God, or was that some kind of revelation?

    I like EL Fay's use of the word 'detached' in regard to Hannah. She's such an interesting character - I'm dying to learn more about her "blue devil" and that whole story. She seemed the most lost to me - as though the only thing holding her together was her Nonno. Once he's gone, is she really free, as the movie suggests? Or is she on the brink of disaster? The ending of the play is amazing, and was really the only point where I really felt completely drawn in...

  • Jill: Interesting! I've read/seen neither Camino Real nor Red Devil...maybe I'll have to check them out. Thanks for the link!

    Stefanie: I'd be curious about your thoughts. There was a pretty wide variation just among the small group reading along this time, which is always interesting.

  • Sarah: I had a visceral reaction against that "God playing God" line - it struck me as even more over-the-top than the original Williams. :-) Yeah, I continue to struggle with Shannon's theology, but I do find it interesting. And Hannah - same deal. She's hard to fathom, but definitely interesting.

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