Williams, Tennessee Entries

The Night of the Iguana


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...


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!


Other posts:


(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.

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography