American playwright and poet Tennessee Williams visited Mexico on more than one occasion, but didn’t come to the Ribera until 1945, when he summered here as the guest of American poet Witter Bynner. By then more than twenty years had passed since Bynner had first met and befriended D. H. Lawrence during the English writer’s 1923 Chapala stay.
During his Mexico sojourn, Williams continued work on the draft of a play to which he gave several successive working titles, the last of which was A Streetcar Named Desire. The work won him the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948.
Mexico, though, clearly left a big impression on Williams. In that same year, he adapted one of his short stories into the play Night of the Iguana, but more than a decade would pass until it was first performed in 1959. It opened on Broadway to acclaim late in 1961, and was released as a motion picture in 1964 starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and directed by John Huston. (Today Huston’s statue sits on Vallarta’s Isla Cuale, Liz and Dick’s former house is now a boutique hotel, and a local movie theater named after Tayler which once showed G-rated films shows only porn flicks!)
Williams considered the best setting in which to write as “a remote place among strangers, with good swimming.” The Ribera de Chapala may no longer be remote, its burgeoning writers’ community makes strangers increasingly few and far between, and the lake’s reputation as a swimming hole has been usurped by ubiquitous swimming pools, but anyone who doubts that this intimate corner of Mexico still has the power to inspire writers need only look for reassurance to its fourth generation of English language writers!
Anyone who lives along the Riberas de Chapala will instantly recognize it as the inspiration for D. H. Lawrence’s book The Plumed Serpent – Quetzalcoatl – which is set in Mexico during the decade following the Mexican Revolution. Critics have given it mixed reviews, in part because it is a not-too-veiled expression of Lawrence’s racism, fascist sympathies, and sexism. Even so, the passages which describe life along the Ribera – at a time when passenger rail still linked Mexico City to Guadalajara and the fastest way from Chapala to Jocotopec was still by boat – afford an intoxicating, firsthand glimpse into a life now beyond the memories of even Lakeside’s oldest inhabitants.
The book might never have been written had Lawrence not exiled himself from Britain in 1919 and embarked on an extended world tour which finally brought him to Mexico in 1923. His disenchantment with his homeland was the unintended result of his 1914 marriage to an Englishwoman who was closely related to Germany’s von Richtofen family. As a consequence, their passports were revoked for the Great War’s duration and the locals among whom they lived in Cornwall falsely suspected her to be a German spy. It didn’t help that Lawrence was a pacifist who had been ruled physically unfit for military duty, although he managed to escape the fate of other pacifists including Bertrand Russell who were imprisoned for their beliefs.
Even though Lawrence had never been to Mexico before, The Plumed Serpent illustrates Lawrence’s amazing ability to quickly immerse himself in its culture and folklore. He began the book in 1923 and published it in 1925.
Today, guests at Chapala QQ Inn can spend the night in the same suite where Lawrence penned his ode to a now bygone Mexico….