The Creation of Character

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The 1970s were a decade of protests: protests over the war in Vietnam, protests for women’s rights, and protests about racial inequities. It was a decade to rethink our nation’s history. It is only right that Lanford Wilson’s play Hot L Baltimore focuses on the importance of preserving America’s cities, while embracing each character’s personal history, since he presents the notion that history is worth remembering and savoring.

It is primarily the individual characters that bring Wilson’s play to life. He manages to imbue each one with a unique spirit that makes it especially difficult for audiences to select a favorite. Each character—whether a prostitute, the forgotten elderly, or the soon-to-be-unemployed hotel staff— brings a humanity to his or her role. It is primarily the setting and the characters that deliver this play’s message.

In an interview with Gene A. Barnett, Wilson perceives his strength as writing dialogue for his plays. After first mentioning that he became a playwright because he always wrote dialogue better than he wrote narrative, Wilson asserts that dialogue ‘‘was always something that I had under control and had always been attracted to—juxtaposed sounds and rhythms of characters—and so it was really natural.’’ It is the natural sound of the character’s dialogue that captures his audiences— and the critics—attention.

Reviews of Hot L Baltimore invariably cite the play’s greatest strengths as the realism of the characters and the flow of dialogue. In his review for Women’s Wear Daily, Martin Gottfried asserted that Wilson’s

writing is simply superb, a triumph of inspiration and craftsmanship. He has created 17 [actually 15] individual characters with specific speech patterns and personalities, and has orchestrated them. Each weaves his strand through the play, maintaining his individuality yet part of the whole . . . With such language, with such real and yet mythic characters, with such a clear conflict between life’s rulers (the hotel personnel) and its victims . . . with such poetic ambiguity (a cry for convictions by people whose convictions are doomed), Wilson builds a magnificently detailed concerto for humanity.

Gottfried is not alone in commending Wilson for the richness of his characters or for his appeal to his audience’s humanity. Richard Watts’ review for The New York Post also focused on Wilson’s ability to create interesting characters. In fact, he credited the play’s success to the characters, finding the plot not worth mentioning.

Watts maintained that ‘‘the important thing is that they [the people in the hotel] are entertaining and friendly people, though a little crazy, and their thoughts, woes, confidences and self-revelations make an engaging and sympathetic play.’’ It is the character’s stories that pull the audience in and holds its attention.

Each of the hotel’s residents is an outcast, living on the fringes of society in a hotel that is on the fringe of existence. In her review of Wilson’s life and works, Ann Crawford Dreher asserted that ‘‘all the people at the Baltimore are either hurting each other or helping each other.’’ This ‘‘delineates a pattern of the human ability to go on feeling and striving in the midst of a crumbling world.’’

Although each of these people is a societal outcast, each has something to contribute toward the common goal of survival; thus they make their own place in a society that would consider them eccentric or foolish. In his article on Wilson’s plays, Henry I. Schvey contended that many of Wilson’s works ‘‘have large casts and are essentially peopled by characters who have no definite place in society.’’

Of Hot L Baltimore , Schvey maintained that Wilson’s focus is not solely...

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on the characters as outcasts; instead he is attracted to ‘‘the world as it is (dramatically conveyed by the shabby decaying hotel), and a community of people who need to believe in something—whatever the odds.’’

These people refuse to give up. Their strength and humanity appeals to the audience. Whether or not they are losers, they convey the notion that they are survivors, and American audiences want to cheer for winners.

Schvey asserted that nearly all of the characters are searching for something— but that something is, according to Schvey, ‘‘either worthless or fraudulent.’’ Perhaps that is their attraction to audiences, who can identify with the character’s fears, while remaining thankful that they, too, have managed to avoid those particular traps.

However, Schvey claimed that in spite of the play’s ‘‘almost unanimously favourable reviews and wide public appeal . . . its simple message wears thin, and its characterization is ultimately superficial.’’ The play’s ‘‘upbeat message of hope is not sufficient’’ and Wilson’s play could not bear comparison to other works that also focus on similar ideas, such as Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which has a complexity that Wilson’s play lacks.

Martin J. Jacobi would disagree that the characterization in Wilson’s play is inadequate. In his article on Wilson’s comic vision, Jacobi argued that Wilson’s plays

move from bleakly naturalistic portraits of ineffectual outcasts who have little connection to their group, through pessimistic portrayals of outsiders who might have saved themselves from destruction but do not, to realistically optimistic views of individuals who challenge societal prejudices but still find acceptable places within it. They develop from pathos and incipient tragedy to true, and not sentimental, comedy.

This is far different from an assessment of the characters as superficial. Jacobi viewed Wilson’s ability to ‘‘identify important traditions and cultural values’’ as a major contribution in his characters’ development. Although they are society’s outcasts, each has something to give to the other members of the group.

For example, the play’s conclusion demonstrates that while April wants to help Jamie survive his sister abandoning him, he is capable of being on his own. Jamie may be flawed and different, but he is capable of surviving.

This idea is picked up by Jacobi, who noted that ‘‘Wilson professes to his audience that people can be individuals, sometimes eccentrically so, and still be good members of their group.’’ This is a reassuring message for the audience, and it clearly belongs in a decade that valued individualism and rebellion as did the 1970s.

Often times, writers write to explore ideas, to help them develop a better understanding of an issue. In an interview published by Jackson R. Bryer, Wilson contended that ‘‘writing is the process of understanding what you’re feeling.’’

Writing also offers Wilson a chance to experiment with creating different ideas and different characters. In providing his characters with eccentricities, Wilson makes them more appealing. It is worth noting that the 1970s were a time of selfexpression, of outlandish clothing, of experimentation with drugs, and of sexual adventures.

Wilson told Gene Barnett that he wanted to create characters who were more vibrant, exciting, and unusual. He wanted to move out of ‘‘that suburban rut that I’d gotten into.’’

The characters in Hot L Baltimore are especially unusual and vibrant. Millie’s belief in the spirit world and her family history of eccentricity make her one of Wilson’s most interesting characters. And the Girl’s inability to pick a name echoes a common theme, often unexpressed beyond childhood, that each individual should be able to select his or her own name.

Each of the other two prostitutes is an individual, moving beyond conventional description into the extraordinary. April’s candid descriptions of her customer’s proclivities provide some of the funniest lines in the play. And Suzy’s humanity inspires the audience’s sympathy.

There is no reason for the audience to invest itself in one of Wilson’s characters. None of them is what audiences would consider the star of the show. And yet, the audience is mysteriously drawn in and forced to care, even when it does not wish to do so.

In part, this is because there is a sort of timelessness about Wilson’s play. The setting is 1970s Baltimore, but it could be any decade and any city. There have always been the poor, the downtrodden, the illicit members of any society. And they have always been the object of urban renewal.

Douglas Watt noted in his review of Hot L Baltimore for the Daily News that this ‘‘slice-of-life might have taken place 30 years ago but for the trivial facts that the clothes are different, the country music has a rock beat and April sends out for pizza instead of hamburgers or danish.’’

Yet in truth, these characters are representative of what city government often hopes to eliminate when they decide to tear down a seedy hotel, a tenement building, or whatever else they consider an example of urban blight. These are the people who cannot afford something better.

Except for Suzy, whose quest for a better living arrangement may ultimately hurt her, Wilson never suggests a solution for his characters. They do not have to search for a place to live—not yet. And the audience does not have to face the fact that in a month these people will be homeless.

In many ways, Wilson’s play is as topical in 2000 as it was more than twenty-five years ago. The homeless clog big city streets, and the working poor are often only a paycheck away from sharing the same fate.

The inhabitants of Wilson’s hotel share the audience’s insecurities, but they also share their dreams and hopes for a better life. The hotel may be torn down, but life will provide for the people, and the audience is forced to cheer for their survival.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico.

Loss and Nostalgia

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Langford Wilson’s play The Hot L Baltimore, set in the lobby of a soon-to-be demolished hotel, currentH ly a flophouse, focuses on the interactions between a motley set of hotel tenants in exploring deeper themes of loss, death, and nostalgia. The setting of the play is itself steeped in nostalgia. Opening descriptions of the hotel, as well as the nearby railroad station, paint a picture of faded elegance.

Once there was a railroad and the neighborhood of the railroad terminals bloomed (boomed) with gracious hotels. The Hotel Baltimore, built in the late nineteenth century, remodeled during the Art Deco last stand of the railroads, is a five-story establishment intended to be an elegant and restful haven.

A description of the once-grand interior renders its imminent destruction sharply poignant: ‘‘Its history has mirrored the rails’ decline. The marble stairs and floors, the carved wood paneling have aged as neglected ivory ages, into a dull gold. The Hotel Baltimore is scheduled for demolition.’’ Wilson’s description of the theater setting in which the play should be produced echoes this theme of decayed elegance: ‘‘The theater, evanescent itself, and for all we do perhaps itself disappearing here, seems the ideal place for the representation of the impermanence of our architecture.’’ Later in the play, the Girl expresses nostalgia, not just for the Hotel Baltimore, as it once was, but for the city itself, as it once was: ‘‘Baltimore used to be one of the most beautiful cities in America.’’

Wilson sets the time period of the play as ‘‘a recent Memorial Day,’’ and provides the directions that the music from the radio should ‘‘incorporate music popular during production.’’ The playwright sets his story in a ‘‘recent’’ time, with contemporary music, in order to emphasize the immediacy of the moment, thereby rendering the sense of nostalgia for the past all the more powerful to the audience. Furthermore, characters in the play are continually asking, being informed of, and discussing the time of day. This preoccupation with the theme of time creates an atmosphere in which all of the characters are painfully aware of the passage of time. They learn that they have only one month left before they are evicted and the hotel is demolished. This literal anxiety about the passage of time echoes with the play’s theme of nostalgia for a past which can never be recovered.

The Girl, the young prostitute who has not yet decided on a name for herself, seems of all the characters to have the strongest sense of nostalgia about both the decline of the railroads and the imminent demolition of the old hotel. The Girl is obsessed with the train schedule, continually listening for the sound of the trains passing which can be heard inside the hotel lobby. She is obsessed with the fact that the trains are always behind schedule, and imagines that they once ran on time. This concern with time expresses both a nostalgia for the railroad system she imagines to have once been grand and precise, and a sense of anxiety over the passage of time, of time passed, of time lost which can never be recovered. Her interest in the past is expressed directly when she tells Paul that, in high school, ‘‘I was pretty good in history.’’ The Girl’s fascination with a lost past is expressed in her musings about the hotel’s history: ‘‘We probably walk right under and right past the places where all kinds of things happened. A tepee or a log cabin might have stood right where I’m standing.’’ This interest in the past takes on a strong aura of nostalgia when she concludes that, ‘‘Wonderful things must have happened on this spot.’’

The setting of Memorial Day provides a frame for the play’s theme of death, loss and mourning. The title of the play, in fact, is derived from the loss of the ‘‘e’’ from the original ‘‘Hotel Baltimore’’ sign, so that it reads ‘‘Hotl Baltimore.’’ The loss of the ‘‘e’’ establishes the theme of loss incurred due to the ravages of time. The character of Paul, who first appears in Act Two, most directly addresses the theme of loss of loved ones appropriate to Memorial Day. Paul, a young man, appears in the hotel lobby in search of his grandfather, not knowing if he is alive or dead. Mrs. Oxenham, one of the tenants, comments that ‘‘We’re not a missing persons bureau.’’ In questioning the hotel tenants and employees, Paul himself brings up the possibility that his grandfather may be dead, inquiring, ‘‘Would you remember if he fell dead in the lobby?’’

The theme of loss is also brought up in several more or less minor elements of the play and offhand comments by various characters. Mrs. Bellotti, whose son lives in the building, mentions that her husband, who is a diabetic, has ‘‘lost’’ his leg, as it had to be amputated. After the Girl borrows Jackie’s magazine, Jackie makes a point of getting it back from her, stating, ‘‘I don’t want to lose that.’’ Jackie later says, out of the blue, ‘‘Did you know the first two hours after you pick them, green beans lose twenty percent of their vitamin C?’’ The loss of objects and the loss of loved ones seem to pile up as the play goes on. When Mr. Morse accuses Jackie of stealing from him, he makes a direct association between the loss of his wife, who is dead, with the loss of her jewelry, claiming that Jackie, ‘‘Took my wife’s things. That’s all I have in this world.’’ When questioned, he explains, ‘‘My things! My wedding cuff links and my necklace that belonged to my wife! And my mother!’’ The elision between the loss of objects associated with a loved one and the death of a loved one is suggested by Jackie’s defensive response that, ‘‘Yeah, well, I didn’t take his fucking mother.’’

Amidst the overwhelming sense of loss which envelopes these characters, they each struggle with what they do and don’t have. As mentioned above, Mr. Morse exclaims that his wife’s ‘‘things,’’ her jewelry, are ‘‘all I have in this world.’’ Jackie, accused of the theft, retorts that, ‘‘I have dreams!’’ But the Girl later points out to her that, ‘‘You have nothing,’’ referring to the worthless land Jackie has been suckered into purchasing. The Girl, who herself has nothing—not even a name—is especially sympathetic to others who ‘‘have nothing.’’ She tells Bill that she can’t bear to think of people wanting things and not having them.

Death, loss and nostalgia are combined in the discussion of ghosts and spirits among the hotel residents. The Girl explains that Millie, a retired waitress, ‘‘sees things, knows things, she sees ghosts and auras and things.’’ Millie later expresses a nostalgia for old buildings, akin to the play’s expression of nostalgia for the old hotel, in describing her childhood home, ‘‘a huge old Victorian house outside Baton Rouge; an amazing old house, really.’’ Millie goes on to describe, again nostalgically, the ghosts which resided there:

Millie: When you ask about spirits—oh, well, you couldn’t keep track of them all. Banging doors, throwing silverware, breaking windows. They were all over the house. There was a black maid—slave girl, I suppose, and a revolutionary soldier and his girl, and a Yankee carpetbagger, and a saucy little imp of a girl who sashayed about very mischievously. She’d been pushed out of a window and was furious about it. Storming through the upstairs, slamming windows shut all over the house. It was quite an active place.

Millie later explains that ‘‘Spirits are very peaceful, of course. They don’t act up unless there’s tension in a household.’’ The Girl, in keeping with her strong sense of nostalgia for the historical past, is the most fascinated and excited by the idea of ghosts. She exclaims excitedly that ‘‘I want them to come up with absolute scientific proof that there are spirits and ghosts and reincarnation. I want everyone to see them and talk to them. Something like that! Some miracle. Something huge! I want some major miracle in my lifetime!’’ Since a ghost represents a person who has died, yet still exists, the Girl’s enthusiasm for, in effect, the return of the dead to some form of life, some ‘‘miracle,’’ is an expression of a desire to negate the ravages of time and the inevitability of death, as symbolized by the demolition of the hotel, which have thrown all of these characters into crisis. Likewise, the mention of ‘‘reincarnation’’ expresses a desire for those who have died to come back in another life, and therefore never really be lost to the world. In the closing scene, the Girl again expresses the desire, or belief, that life can never really be lost, when she tells Paul, who has given up on finding his grandfather, that ‘‘Nobody vanishes.’’

While the Girl’s expression of hope for the perpetual reparation of lost life, lost buildings, and lost time seems to be negated by all of the losses which emerge throughout the play, it is she who expresses the play’s message regarding the themes of loss and nostalgia. Frustrated by Paul Granger’s decision to give up on looking for his lost grandfather, the Girl blurts out, ‘‘That’s why nothing gets done; why everything falls down. Nobody’s got the conviction to act on their passions.’’ This assertion rings poignantly true in the case of Bill, who is unable to ‘‘act on his passion’’ for the Girl. In the final moments of the play, as she is on her way upstairs to take a bath, the stage directions state that, ‘‘Bill looks off after her, aching.’’ April, observing this, attempts to motivate Bill into action; she ‘‘Snaps her fingers lightly at him. One. Two. Three. Four,’’ saying, ‘‘Hey. Hey.’’ But April’s attempt to get Bill to snap out of his torpor, and express his longing for the Girl, ultimately fails, and April concludes that ‘‘Bill, baby, you know what your trouble is? You’ve got Paul Grangeritis. You’ve not got the conviction of your passions.’’ The urgency of the need to ‘‘act on the conviction of your passions’’ expresses the play’s message of how to approach life in spite of the inevitability of death, loss and decay, a piece of advice frequently summed up by the well-known Latin phrase (not used in the play itself): Carpe Diem! Seize the day!

Source: Liz Brent, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Comedy or Tragedy?

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At the conclusion of Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore, the inhabitants face eviction, and for many of them, homelessness. Some of them face even more uncertain futures. Suzy, beaten in the first act by a customer, leaves the hotel to live with a new pimp. Pimps have abused her in the past, and there is every reason to suspect that this alliance will end in the same way. All three prostitutes face similar futures and the possibility of violence. Another resident, James, who is incapable of caring for himself, has been abandoned by his sister. James’ sister, Jackie, has bought into a land swindle and is headed into a future that does not really exist, something she probably suspects. But her prospects are so bleak that she has no choice but to pursue this empty future. Other characters will leave the hotel with disappointed prospects and diminished dreams. Hot L Baltimore is comedy, and there are plenty of laughs, but the characters, their lives, and the bleakness of their futures all point to a play that is more tragic than comic in its presentation.

Traditionally, comedy was defined as drama with a happy ending, as in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Later, in the evolution of comedic form, Shakespearean comedies concluded with a wedding, or even three, as in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The weddings in Act V provided a resolution to the story, granting a happy ending that tied up all the story lines and offered a blissful future for the characters. While part of the enjoyment of comedy comes from the near misses, the mistaken identities, and the incongruity of language, much enjoyment is also derived from the slapstick nature of physical comedy. Plays depend on performance to be completely understood. The audience needs to hear and see how the lines are delivered, since this delivery may convey as much meaning as the author’s words. It is the body’s movements, the expressions on the actor’s face, and the intonations of voice that turn the play into comedy. But beyond the words is the subject matter, and the subject of Wilson’s play is the plight of homelessness, the loneliness of the individual, the need for compassion, and a desire to hold onto a happier past. Comedy is designed to make the audience smile, to make us laugh, and to help create an escape from the real world. Hot L Baltimore manages the first two goals easily, but there is no escape from the reality of the world outside the theatre. The problems that plague large cities— homelessness, crime, prostitution, and hopelessness— are all present in the theatre and on the streets outside. Wilson’s play brings the streets and their sometimes bleak future into the theatre. As a result, it is difficult to label Hot L Baltimore as comedy.

Wilson originally intended to write comedies, and he has said that even if his plays ‘‘didn’t hold out much hope for the world and its people, at least they were a pleasant experience while you [the audience] were going through it.’’ But, as his work has progressed, Wilson’s approach to theatre has changed. In an interview with John DiGaetani, Wilson notes that he doesn’t want to think of his plays as comedies anymore, and while he still wants to entertain, he also wants to explore what he calls ‘‘darker themes.’’ This exploration of darker themes is certainly evident in Hot L Baltimore, which i s really on the edge of tragedy throughout the plot.

Wilson is certainly reflecting changes in society, which will be mirrored in performance and theatre. Just as the 1960s and 1970s signaled a period of social unrest and a desire for social reform, theatre of this period could be used as a weapon to create social reform. Playwrights, like Wilson, used their plays to promote new goals and to illuminate the problems of the world. Wilson acknowledges that he recognizes that a play ‘‘impinges on the people.’’ But the effect on the audience cannot always be determined until the play is performed; as DiGaetani observes, ‘‘you can see what works in the theatre.’’ Because a play always needs revising, Wilson states that in his experience, ‘‘a play never seems to be really completed.’’ Although Wilson is speaking strictly of rewrites, sometimes a play with no resolution can appear unfinished, without having been completed. This is the case for Wilson’s play, since at the conclusion of Hot L Baltimore the audience is left wondering what will become of these characters. There is a feeling that Wilson has brought to life individuals who will have a life after the play concludes: their stories do not end, and the play is simply a brief episode in their lives.

Wilson has said that Hot L Baltimore derived from his brief experience as a night clerk at a hotel. Were the people Wilson met this lonely and this sad? Were they also abandoned and in need of one another? It is possible, but Wilson had other sources for his writing, as well. The inhabitants of the Hotel Baltimore are as dark as the society that Charles Dickens depicted in his nineteenth century novels. Wilson’s director, Marshall Mason, has said that Wilson devoured Dickens during rehearsals for his play. In an interview with Philip Middleton Williams, Mason remembers Wilson reading ‘‘Dickens after Dickens,’’ with characters immersed in greed and poverty, and moral stories that inspired the playwright. Dickens’ novels are dark, often with an element of hope, but mostly depicting the exploitation of individuals. They are not comedies, and if Wilson used Dickens to inspire his work, as Mason alleges, than certainly Wilson’s play will center more on the dark aspects of the world, rather than the happier ones. It is true, as Mason suggests, that ‘‘while Wilson created a cast of social misfits, he broadened their appeal with the comedic approach and nearly farcical staging.’’ The characters are appealing. The audience wants to like them and wants them to succeed. In truth, there are comedic moments and physical humor to lighten the issues underlying the play, but the problems of prostitution, loneliness, and abandonment help to stifle the laughter. The audience likes the characters too much to permit complete surrender into laughter.

It is the characters who capture the audience’s imagination and who evoke both laughter and tears. The wise-cracking April creates much of the laughter, but her laughter is also an attempt to ignore the reality of her life. She is the stereotypical whore with a heart of gold who populated so many Hollywood westerns of the twentieth century, now magically transported to 1970s Baltimore. Her familiarity makes it easy for the audience to identify her and to identify with her, and she makes it easy to laugh. The audience does not have to think about her occupation and the danger that prostitutes face on the street. The slow-witted James is an entirely different matter. At the play’s conclusion, April will take him into her arms and begin to dance with him. She is meant to appear as his rescuer, and so, the audience can leave reassured that he will be safe— and perhaps they will all be safe, all of the characters who are soon to be thrown into the streets. But Wilson’s world on stage deals with easy solutions. In the real world April will not protect James. The James of the world all too often end up as the homeless, lying on the streets. There is no resolution, no comedy at the play’s conclusion. These characters drift in and out of the action, as the homeless drift in and out of our lives. The loss of one more derelict hotel will not move the city to rescue its poor, but Wilson does illuminate the seriousness of the problem, and in doing so, he moves Hot L Baltimore further from comedy and closer to social commentary.

Upon its debut, Hot L Baltimore was the first big hit for both Wilson and for the Circle Repertory Company. Critics and audiences loved the play, and it set an Off-Broadway record of 1,166 performances after first playing Off-Off-Broadway for a month. Hot L Baltimore won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the Best American Play of 1972-73. It also won an Obie Award for best Off- Broadway play, an Outer Critics Award, and the John Gassner playwriting award, and was included in the Burns Mantle/Guernsey Ten Best American Plays volume for that season. Hot L Baltimore has continued to be very popular, with numerous productions staged every year. This play appears to speak to people, and perhaps it says something about our country and our past. But instead of advertising a Lanford Wilson comedy, perhaps this play might better be advertised as an urban drama, a play that explores modern city life. There is comedy certainly, and the audience will laugh and be enterH tained, but the inhabitants of the Hotel Baltimore will also evoke a thoughtful response to a problem that haunts many large cities. In the quest to tear down the past, what will take its place and where will those inhabitants of the past find their future?

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico, where she is a Lecturer in the English Department and an Adjunct Professor in the University Honors Program.

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Critical Overview