Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
Cowboy, a sensible, practical, calm, and honest heroin dealer. In the second act of the play, he arrives in Leach’s New York apartment, where the other characters have been waiting for him impatiently. He gives them heroin injections in Leach’s bathroom while the unsuspecting Sister Salvation looks around the apartment. Cowboy is weary of the dangers of dealing heroin. When Leach takes an overdose, Cowboy saves his life, but he refuses to be considered the play’s hero.
Leach, a clearly discontented heroin addict and the occupant of the apartment in which the play takes place. Trying to dominate the other characters, he gets into an argument with Ernie, who refuses to abide by Leach’s rules and who accidentally breaks the boil on Leach’s neck. He pays for heroin to be given to the play’s author and to the two photographers hired to film the play within the play, so that these three people can lose their conventionality. Feeling cheated by Cowboy when he does not get high on the heroin, he overdoses on stage but probably will survive.
Solly, an educated, conciliatory heroin addict. He is the mouthpiece for the play’s philosophy and comments on the antisocial attitude of the twentieth century, on the fascination with warfare in the twentieth century, and on waiting, the heroin addicts’ main occupation, which often leads to suicide. He and Leach involve the play’s author and its producer as well as the two photographers in the action. Solly is a good storyteller and argues that addiction to heroin is no worse than more conventional addictions to money or clothes.
Ernie, a dissatisfied heroin addict and musician. He is not trusted by any of the other characters because of rumors that he may have killed another addict. Although he announces that he has been hired to play his trumpet, he will not be able to take the job because he had to trade in his instrument at a pawnshop. All he has left is the useless mouthpiece, which he blows time and again while insulting other characters and the audience. When Leach overdoses, Ernie leaves out of fear.
Sam, an uneducated, good-natured, and lethargic heroin addict. Sam dozes on stage during much of the performance and complains that Leach does not let him sleep. He tells long stories and takes Solly as his mentor, asking him many questions, such as why heroin is illegal.
Sister Salvation, an unsuspecting, lonely Salvation Army sister, whom Cowboy takes to Leach’s apartment to evade the police. She seems not to notice that Cowboy is giving the other characters heroin, suspecting only that the men have been drinking alcohol in the bathroom. When Solly asks her to leave as long as they are getting along well, she is reluctant to go because she fears loneliness and her approaching death.
Jim Dunn, the seemingly superior producer of the play within the play, for which he hired the other characters and musicians. Dressed in a suit, he introduces the players and the play’s theme of narcotics, announces the intermission, and expresses his discontentment with the performance. He is unable to keep out of the play within the play and interacts with the players. He tries to control the performances and to execute his sensationalist views of what drama should do.
Jaybird, the author of the play within the play whose staging he, Jim Dunn, two photographers, and the audience watch. He lived with heroin addicts for several months so that he could write an outline for an experimental play on narcotics. This experience and the performance of his play transform him from a “square” into a more open-minded person who also tries heroin. He cannot be an experimental playwright wholeheartedly, however, because he wants to remain in control of his play. He also considers heroism the basis of Western drama, although the play as a whole denies the possibility of heroism.