At a cheap hotel in Mexico, defrocked priest Lawrence Shannon clashes with bawdy hotel owner Maxine Faulk, and meets a saintly seeming drifter and artist, Hannah Jelkes, travelling with her elderly grandfather. Fever, stormy weather and lust wrack this Southern Gothic play by Tennessee Williams.
The Setting and Players
Lawrence Shannon is introduced sweating and manic, ordering his old friend Maxine to cover up, and refusing alcohol. In one paragraph, he’s established as feverish, mentally ill, misogynistic and in recovery. He’s working as a second rate tour guide who is having difficulty with his tour party of Southern Baptist ladies. They’re – understandably – angry with him for seducing a 16 year old girl on the tour.
Maxine is a new widow, with sensual appetites and in enormous debt. Despite his insults, and his previous mental breakdown at her hotel, she hosts Shannon for old times sake. He then persuades her to take in Hannah Jelkes and her Nonno, a pair of artistic hustlers travelling around the world, touting paintings and poetry. Dancing around the hotel as grotesque comic relief are Maxine’s cabana boys, and an enthusiastic Nazi couple who appear to be the only paying guests at the joint.
Sympathy for the Devil
“Nothing human disgusts me unless it’s unkind, violent!”
One of Tennessee Williams’ gifts is making you sympathise with moral monsters. Take A Streetcar Named Desire; the sexual and emotional violence inflicted on Blanche is often examined; less highlighted is that she was a teacher who seduced one of her pupils. We (rightly) criticise and often imprison people like her.
Likewise, Night of the Iguana has you sympathise with the gorgeous, tortured Lawrence Shannon.
But this is a priest who regularly uses his position of authority to molest minors! And even worse, afterward he blames and reviles his victims. He admits one girl badly self harmed after he ‘seduced’ her. While Hannah is far less morally abhorrent, Maxine astutely points out that she uses her grandfather to panhandle.
In the End
“Honey, you’re not operating on the realistic level anymore than I am.”
Williams always excels at subverting expectations. The obvious conclusion of the play would be for the all too human priest to be redeemed by his love, perhaps even courtly love, for the virginal artist. She would gain a protector and benefactor; her angelic, feminine nature would redeem him.
In reality of course, he is a misogynistic predator who preys on young girls and despises them if they succumb, and the seemingly saintly Hannah is actually an opiate addicted grifter.
Freeing the trapped iguana that gives the play it’s name could be seen as a desire for freedom and a fresh start. Or, given that he mixes a rum coco straight afterward, it can also be seen as facing reality, and a commitment to degenerate.
There’s no redemption, no purity, to be had for either of them. Hannah will go on; Shannon will degenerate, moulder away slowly, drinking himself away in the humid heat of a cheap Mexican hotel with Maxine.