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24 Frames per Second, Biblio File

Let Tennessee Williams Help You

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Needless to say (but apparently I’m saying it anyway!), one can be moved, changed, and inspired by words. Or disgusted, angered, and bored — but that’s a different blog post — or is it?

There is a character in the Tennessee Williams's play The Night of the Iguana (played by Deborah Kerr in the movie and pictured below) who gets to say some of Williams’s most illuminating words: Hannah Jelkes, a 40ish self-described “spinster” has been impecuniously traveling the world with her 90 year old grandfather, paying their way with her sketches of tourists and the recitation of his poetry. They find themselves at a rundown Mexican hilltop hotel where they meet other travelers at a crossroads. Hannah bonds particularly with a tormented “defrocked” minister, Lawrence Shannon. As Shannon rages his disappointments, anger, and fear, Hannah listens and tries to help. 

At one turbulent juncture, Shannon — who has had a series of sexual liaisons that helped him get defrocked out of the clergy — turns his anger towards Hannah. He looks at her and sees a sexless and prim personage, and lashes out, goading her to tell him if she has ever in her life had what he euphemistically calls a “love experience.”  

“Yes,” she replies. And without a flinch of embarassment, she continues to say “Two.”  She then tells the stories that could range in interpretation from mild to wild. Shannon continues his outburst asking Hannah if she didn’t find the man in one of her experiences “disgusting.” To which Hannah Jelkes replies:

“Nothing human disgusts me, Mr. Shannon, unless it is unkind or violent.”  

Think about how profoundly this sentiment can eliminate bigotry and hate! It forces you to look at the human being before you and to really ask, “This person has just said or done something to me, or it feels like it has been done to me — but are they really, truly being unkind? Or is it my reaction to their situation that is inciting feelings in me?”  This credo asks you to contemplate what kindness is and provides you with the opportunity to experience — positively — the wide range of humanity outside of your own head.

Shannon finds it difficult to comprehend this statement, however; and continues his tirade, summing up that his problem stems from drinking too much and to being, as he says, a “bad drunk.” Hannah thinks for a moment and rejoinders that his problem isn’t drink — his problem is:

“...the oldest one in the world: the need to believe in something or in someone — almost anyone — almost anything.”

Is this faith? Is it a belief in one’s religion or family or the mission of The New York Public Library? That’s your decision to make. But Hannah makes it urgently clear that we must believe — or we are lost. For the record, Hannah tells Shannon that her reason to live is a striving for communication — “broken barriers between people.”  

Finally, at the end, something like love or respect, has formed in Shannon regarding Hannah. Hannah’s grandfather has just died and she is preparing to continue her travels alone. Shannon tentatively proposes they travel together. Hannah recognizes their mismatched natures would not be fortuitous in the long run — she knows herself and knows that Shannon would not be satisfied with her for long. She must go on alone. This is a startling instance of serious self-knowledge and courage. Earlier, Hannah had said "the important thing is that one is not alone" — she knows she has shared with Shannon, has communicated with him, and broken down barriers with him, but she also knows that their personalities would make togetherness untenable. So Hannah faces her worst fear and must travel out into the world alone. Shannon falteringly perseveres, “But think how it will feel traveling alone after so many years...” Hannah winces for a split second, but recovers. She breaks into a small smile and says:

“I will know how I feel when I feel it.”

Imagine how much grief this statement can spare us! How many times have we worked ourselves into a lather anticipating how we will feel, when all we can really do is own the moment we are actually living in and let the future come as it will? Indeed, inhabiting this statement of belief not only forswears Hannah undue torment, she is actually fortified by relieving herself of the hubris of pretending she knows what the future holds. Don’t we wish we could all be this brave?

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thank you!

Beautifully written, Frank! Thank you for sharing with the world. I hope bibliotherapy (or in this case, cinematherapy!) becomes a regular topic for the NYPL blogs... exploring art in this way is so engaging! A recommendation, a personal journey, and some life lessons all rolled into one post. Love it!

Thanks Jenny! And your

Thanks Jenny! And your biblio/cinema-therapy idea is so good - already talking about it with other bloggers!

Night of the Iguana

Like all of Tennessee Williams plays and films, Night of the Iguana, starring Deborah Kerr and Richard Burton is sheer poetry. It portrays a spinster and Richard Burton as the defrocked priest. Hannah may be lacking in some human experience, but she is sweet, kind, loving and insightful. She realizes how mismatched she is with the sometimes arrogant, sometimes callous Shannon. This is a poignant film, and definitely one to see!

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