Sunday, March 28, 2010

Brokedown Palace

How about Africa, Asia, Australia? The whole world, Latta, God's world, has been the range of my travels. I haven't stuck to the schedules of the brochures and I've always allowed the ones that were willing to see, to see! - the underworlds of all places, and if they had hearts to be touched, feelings to feel with, I gave them a priceless chance to feel and be touched. And none will ever forget it, none of them, ever, never!

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?"

[On Hannah's poppyseed tea] "Caesar's ghost! - it could be chased by the witches' brew from Macbeth."
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.

Other readers:


Emily said...

I loved this:

...a vivid atmosphere of decay, stagnation, and powerful sexual tension.

which describes a lot of what I have always loved about this play/film. And I'm so glad you brought up the Germans. Huston cut them from the film, but I think they add so much to the bizarre/sinister atmosphere. The grown woman riding her inflatable horse & yelling "Horsey!"? So gross and intriguing.

I was bothered by the depictions of the Mexican men more this time, as well, so glad you mention that. You should DEFINITELY see the film, not only because it has superb performances from all three main actors, but because it changes some interesting things about the race issues. Some of the changes exacerbate the problems & some, I think, help to interrogate them. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Frances said...

Damn. I pulled the same line Emily did.

"...a vivid atmosphere of decay, stagnation, and powerful sexual tension."

And the Germans. Read someplace long ago that the Germans and the tour bus full of harpies represent the sinister elements of some group dynamics and exist in contrast to the loneliness of the main characters. Nazi and Christians operating from the secure base of the ideologue, and those without specific attachments seen as somehow morally suspect. I can kind of see that. But the German bits were also darkly funny.

Getting to that film...

Teresa said...

Great points about the setting. I hadn't thought of the Germans being part and parcel of that isolation, but, yes, the other characters' lack of concern shows not just the physical isolation of the place, but the main characters' emotional isolation from the rest of the world. And I agree with Frances that they were darkly funny, like something out of absurdist theatre.

Vintage Reading said...

Your review has made me want to read this. I've seen the film and Ava Gardner was glorious in it.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Excellent point about purgatory. By the way, I was reading about the filming, and read that Ava Gardner really was cavorting with the two young guys on the set!

Eileen said...

Emily: Thanks! That's definitely gotten me more interested in the film. So sad that they cut the Germans out!

Frances: I'm glad my writing is such a hit! You and Emily are both excellent writers yourselves. I'm often in awe of the two of you. But that's a really cool interpretation of the Germans and the Baptist harpies. Definitely adds another layer to the play.

Theresa: Absurdist theater! I love it!

VR: Oh please do read it. I'm interested in what you would have to say on it.

Jill: LOL! Maybe she's a method actress!

claire said...

Haha! I also picked out the exact same line Emily and Frances did: "vivid atmosphere of decay, stagnation, and powerful sexual tension!"

Love that. You captured the play so well. I also really loved the setting, the exotic qualities balanced with the whiteness.

Those quotes by Shannon made me laugh out loud, too. And the Germans. Hilarious!

I also need to see the film, I can't get a hold of it still. Also, really am glad that you're still reading along and being a part of this nonstructured reading. You add so much!

Richard said...

Loved your line about Maxine's hotel as a "purgatorial stopover," E.L. Fay! As far as the idea of an all-white focus to a story set in a foreign land, I hear what you're saying--however, having visited Mexico several times, I can assure you that many U.S. tourists and expats have just that sort of mindset (i.e. they seem to prefer the "familiar" expat enclave to the local one where you get to know Mexicans more as people and less as servants). I also wasn't as bothered by the racist stereotypes here for the simple reason that very few of the characters were pleasant anyway. Not sure if that excuses anything, though! P.S. Will you be joining us for the Perec?

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