When I wrote last month about my love of theatre and the fact that I’ve gotten out of the habit of reading plays, relying instead on seeing them, Frances encouraged me to join in on a shared read of The Night of the Iguana. I wasn’t sure I wanted to join in because now that I’m no longer in a book club, I’ve been relishing the reduction of reading commitments. But Tennessee Williams is one of my favorite playwrights, and I hadn’t read or seen this on stage. (I did see the John Huston film several years ago, but my memory of it is vague.) So, in the end, I couldn’t resist.
The Night of the Iguana is set on the veranda of a run-down Mexican hotel in 1940. Reverend Shannon, former Episcopal priest and now tour guide, has brought a busload of schoolteachers from a Baptist Female College to the hotel, where he has connections with the owner, the recently widowed Maxine Faulks. Shannon is in hot water this tour group for taking out 16-year-old Charlotte Goodall; Charlotte’s guardian is ready to turn him in to the tour company.
As Shannon is trying to convince the ladies to stay, mostly by keeping the bus keys and refusing to take them elsewhere, a 30-something spinster named Hannah Jelkes arrives looking for lodging for her and her grandfather. It turns out that Hannah is in as desperate a state as Shannon. She and her grandfather have been traveling the world together earning money with her watercolors and sketches and his poetry recitations. But multiple minor strokes have left Hannah’s grandfather with memory problems, and they are out of money.
So on this night, these people are stuck together, all of them caught at the end of their ropes, like the iguana the Mexican hotel workers catch and tie up during the play. All of them are trapped with passions and desires and choose to act on them in different ways. Maxine is openly sexual and clear in what—and who—she wants. But she knows the score, as she tells Shannon:
I know the difference between loving someone and just sleeping with someone—even I know about that … We’ve both reached a point where we’ve got to settle for something that works for us in our lives—even if it isn’t on the higher kind of level.
Maxine has decided that she if can’t have love, she’ll take what she can get, and she’s fine with that. She accepts it.
Shannon also takes what he can get, but he’s not fine with it. He’s being chased by what he calls a shadow, and sometimes has bouts of madness. He was forced out of his church for seducing a minor and for preaching heresy, but it’s never quite clear if he regrets doing it or just regrets getting caught. I suspect the latter. Shannon is filled with anger, but he directs his anger toward those he is wronging. He hits the young women he seduces and blames them for his crimes, and then he lashes out at God, calling him an “angry, petulant old man.”
Hannah, on the other hand, is depicted as almost devoid of passion. She’s sort of ethereal and set apart; there’s one moment in which the stage directions indicate that she should be lit in such a way that she glows. She tells Shannon that she has cultivated a sort of detachment because that was her way of coping with the passions of youth:
I was young once, Mr. Shannon, but I was one of those people who can be young without ever really having their youth, and not to have your youth when you are young is naturally very disturbing. But I was lucky. My work, this occupational therapy that I gave myself—painting and doing quick character sketches—made me look out of myself, not in, and gradually, at the far end of the tunnel that I was struggling out of I began to see this faint, very faint gray light—the light of the world outside me—and I kept climbing toward it. I had to.
Hannah has come to respect people who struggle, but for her, it’s not the violence of the struggle but the enduring through it that is important. Shannon’s violent railing is, to Hannah, a sort of cheap suffering—”a comparatively comfortable, almost voluptuous kind of crucifixion.”
It’s interesting that although Hannah seems to have found the healthiest approach to life, she also comes across as the least real of the three main characters. And that makes me wonder how realistic her outlook really is. In choosing endurance and detachment, is she in fact denying her own desires? Has she put them so far from her mind that she doesn’t know what they are? Or has she truly come to a place where fleeting moments of connecting with another soul are sufficient? And are these connections that she prizes really connections?
At one point, Hannah describes two isolated moments of love that are to me, and I suspect most readers, decidedly creepy. I can’t decide whether Williams sees them as creepy and Hannah’s reaction as a sign of her dysfunctionality or whether we’re meant to see Hannah’s overly generous reaction to what today would be considered predatory behavior as one of compassion. Her heart seems so pure when she talks of these moments, but the purity could easily be a more troubling naïvete. I can’t help but wonder what might happen to her after her grandfather dies, and she loses the one stable foundation that she has.
Williams is a master at creating complex characters with ambiguous motivations. It’s one of the things I’ve loved about all his plays that I’ve read. I can never quite bring myself to like his characters, but I do find them fascinating. The Night of the Iguana was no exception on that score. I’m glad I took the time to join in on the shared read.