Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana is the third play I've read this month, following Thomas Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Incidentally, every one of these has been for a book club. In other words, none of them are something I read on my own, particularly since I usually don't read plays other than Shakespeare and a few Greek tragedies. The Night of the Iguana is the first selection of a "non-structured group read" consisting of the old 2666/Kristin Lavransdatter/Woolf in Winter circle, plus several new faces. We don't have a particular pattern this time, although somehow everything seems to sync with my literary tastes. How, I don't know because I've never been able to describe what exactly it is that I like. I can describe what I don't like but that's so negative.
The Night of the Iguana was first performed at the Royale Theatre in New York on December 28, 1961. The setting is a rundown hotel on the tropical coast of Mexico during the early years of World War II. That global calamity, however, is far far away, only occasionally intruding in the comical form of some blustering, loudmouthed German guests. The drama here is deeply personal and intimate. Larry Shannon, a defrocked Anglican priest with a taste for teenage girls, is currently employed as a tour guide. He has brought a busload of women from a female Baptist college in Texas to the establishment of one Maxine, a lusty, larger-than-life proprietor who is not mourning the recent death of her husband Fred. Shannon and Maxine have apparently known each other for years, and she recognizes the pending signs of another one of Shannon's periodic breakdowns. Dropping into the middle of all this is Hannah, a refined middle-aged New England spinster, and her grandfather Nonno, a minor Romantic poet. They travel together around the world doing sketches and reciting verse.
The impression is one of emotional, physical, and social isolation. The hotel is an island blanketed in stifling tropical steam and choked on all sides with rainforest. Only vague references are made to a nearby small town. Maxine gets away with sexually brazen behavior that will likely condemn her in the United States in this era, and Shannon is presently safe from arrest for his relationship with 17-year-old Charlotte Goodall. Any reminder of world-shaking events outside is limited to Herr Fahrenkopf's exclamations about one of the Fuhrer's speeches on the radio, which the American characters immediately dismiss as a mere annoyance. The stage direction at several points calls for the characters to be in "cells," meant to represent the rooms of the hotel but having other obvious connotations as well.
Although the setting remains fixed, Shannon and Hannah are both portrayed as perpetual travelers far from home - or rather, from their places of origin, since neither has an actual home to ever return to. Maxine's hotel is rather akin to a purgatorial stopover for people weary of the journey of life. A torpid, tumbled-down place where you have to remain for awhile until you've dealt with whatever issue you have that's taken you to the end of your rope, like the iguana struggling to escape. (A side note: Dante's Inferno presents sin as immobility, a lack of growth and movement closer to God. In complete contrast to the Mexican heat, the Ninth Circle of Hell is a frozen wasteland where the condemned are completely encased in ice. So the next time someone tells you, "When Hell freezes over. . .") There's a lot that comes out in the final act, which makes for a strong climax despite its complete lack of action beyond talking, laying on a hammock, and drinking tea. Heavy-handed, yes, but also enlightening at times and surprising in the revelations revealed about Hannah.
My initial reaction to The Night of the Iguana was similar to how I felt at first about The Cherry Orchard. Focusing entirely on human interaction seemed dull to me until both plays began to pick up about halfway through. I also loved the setting in this one and how well Tennessee Williams was able to create a vivid atmosphere of decay, stagnation, and powerful sexual tension. And a lot of the dialogue was enjoyable to read and must be wonderful to see performed. Shannon has the best lines:
[On the German family] "What in blazes is this? A little animated cartoon by Hieronymus Bosch?"There is nevertheless a troubling amount of casual racism in Williams's depictions of Maxine's employees Pedro and Pancho, as you can see in the film adaptation below: the "lazy Mexican" stereotype mixed in with the "Latin lover" trope. Pancho and Pedro are basically props to flesh out Maxine's character and we never see any other Mexicans. There is something off-putting about a drama set in a foreign, non-white country starring only white Americans. But hardly unexpected, given the time in which the play was written. Beyond that, though, The Night of the Iguana is a truly intriguing character-driven story and I would very like to see the movie next.
[On Hannah's poppyseed tea] "Caesar's ghost! - it could be chased by the witches' brew from Macbeth."