The Play

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The Hot l Baltimore opens in a hotel lobby with a front desk, a lounge, and a stairway. This set is the Hotel Baltimore of the title, a dilapidated establishment scheduled for demolition. All the play’s action takes place here, as the various employees, residents, and visitors interact with one another and with various other groups that drift in and out of the lobby.

As the play opens, Paul Granger, waiting for Mr. Katz to appear, is asleep in a chair, and Bill is making several wake-up calls while the Girl talks with him. She has tried several names but finds none of them comfortable. As the morning advances, various people appear, beginning with Millie, who complains that she cannot sleep late and later talks about the ghosts that haunted the restaurant where she worked. Then Mrs. Bellotti enters and asks for Mr. Katz; he has evicted her son from the hotel, and she wants Katz to take him back. At that moment, the Girl discovers eviction notices for the hotel’s residents. April enters to complain that the hotel has no hot water, followed shortly by Mr. Morse, whose window will not shut. Jackie, followed by Jamie, whom she constantly orders about, comes in to ask for a favor but then volunteers to shut Morse’s window for him. She borrows his key and goes upstairs as Morse and Jamie begin to play checkers.

When Katz finally arrives, Jackie returns from upstairs and asks him to cosign her loan so she can get insurance for her new car. He refuses. As Suzy enters with a john, Mrs. Bellotti pleads with Katz to let her son, Horse, stay at the hotel. Again, Katz refuses; he claims that Horse is insane and a thief. Mrs. Bellotti goes upstairs to clean out her son’s room. Quietly, Jackie asks Millie when the pawnshop opens; other characters hear the question, a fact that later proves significant. Katz announces that all the hotel’s residents must leave in a month, for the hotel is scheduled to be demolished. This proclamation precipitates an argument. Joining the melee is Suzy, wearing nothing but a towel, who has chased her john into the lobby. This commotion awakens Paul, who begins shouting that the hotel is nothing but a flophouse. When Jamie returns from upstairs and sees the now-naked Suzy, he drops the box he is carrying, revealing goods stolen from the hotel and neighborhood shops. All laugh at him.

Act 2 opens later the same day with Paul questioning Katz and Mrs. Oxenham about his grandfather, who was a guest at the hotel but has since disappeared. They are most unhelpful. Morse and Jamie are playing checkers, but their game soon erupts into a fight. The Girl reconciles the two by getting Jamie to pretend that Morse blackened Jamie’s eye. Jackie enters and begins browbeating her brother again. Meanwhile, the Girl begins a conversation with Paul; she reveals that she has been all over the country, and he reveals that he spent time in a work farm. Having discovered that Paul’s grandfather was a railroad engineer, the Girl, who loves railroads so much that she has memorized all the train schedules, offers to help him search through the hotel’s records to find a clue to his grandfather’s whereabouts. Jackie begins going through a stack of health-food magazines and then shows the Girl a deed to land in Utah that she bought through a radio advertisement. She and Jamie plan to move there and live outside in sleeping bags, growing their own food. Complaining that the country has deteriorated, she wishes to...

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escape to a simpler existence.

Suddenly, almost unable to speak, Morse enters from upstairs to complain that his room was burglarized. Katz discovers the stolen items in Jackie’s purse and orders her and Jamie to leave the hotel by evening. The Girl, who has been to Utah, tells Jackie that the plan to return to rustic simplicity is a failure, because the land is worthless and will grow nothing. Although she does not want to believe the Girl, Jackie knows the truth and runs out crying. The act ends when Millie tells Paul that, although she never met him, she knows that his grandfather is alive.

Act 3 opens at midnight, as Bill calls the Girl and invites her to come down and talk. Just then April enters and begins telling bawdy stories about her johns. The Girl enters and begins looking through boxes of records, trying to locate a clue that will help Paul find his grandfather. Jamie enters and asks if Jackie, who has gone to get gasoline for the car, has returned yet for him. It becomes apparent that she has left him. Suzy enters with her luggage and then returns upstairs to get a surprise. The Girl finds a dated receipt for Paul’s grandfather and tells him about it, but he no longer cares. Suzy returns with her surprise—two bottles of champagne, which she shares with everyone in the lobby. She reveals that she is moving into an apartment with a pimp, whom April derisively calls “Billy Goldhole.” Suzy reacts angrily and, since the cabdriver has just arrived, leaves. She returns a few moments later, however, to say that she knows they love her and she thinks of them all as a family. After Suzy goes, Paul and the Girl argue over what she sees as his failure to follow up on her discovery. Since he can now locate his grandfather in a particular place on a particular day, his search can have more focus. Saying that it is none of her business, he leaves. The Girl says that he lacks conviction and passion. Gradually, the residents drift off to bed, except for April and Jamie, who dance to radio music.

Dramatic Devices

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The Hot l Baltimore achieves dramatic success not through its story but through the ways the characters interact with one another onstage and through the situations that grow out of their relationships and experiences. All the play’s characters are very well defined and respond to situations accordingly, their voices mingling with the responses of the other characters, even if all the personalities represented are opposed. For example, when at the end of act 1 a scantily clad Suzy chases a fleeing john into the hotel’s lobby early in the morning, April responds with bawdy good humor; her laughter feeds Suzy’s anger. Katz, on the other hand, responds as a hotel manager would: He orders the luckless prostitute to return to her room until she is properly attired. Similarly, the domineering Jackie orders Suzy to leave the lobby, no doubt increasing the latter’s desire to stay right where she is. Morse, conversely, is unconcerned by something that has nothing to do with him; he continues to exercise and sing to himself. The noise awakens the visitor Paul, who, unaccustomed to such antics, begins screaming. All are brought to silence by the sight of the young Jamie, coming down the stairs and gaping at the nude Suzy. This one incident, occupying fewer than two pages of text, demonstrates how the drama is staged based on the interaction of competing character types. The play’s abundant humor thus arises from character and situation, not from the story itself or the lines the characters speak.

The dramatic device that provides the best indication of this interplay is the overlapping of voices, often speaking at cross-purposes, that occurs throughout the play. This technique is evident from the play’s outset, when Bill, trying to speak into the telephone and make his wake-up calls, is also talking to the Girl. The device comes into fuller use later, when, for example, Jackie tries to borrow money from April while Morse is complaining to Bill, and anyone else who will listen, that his room’s window will not shut and that he is getting a cold. The device is dramatic and visual, calling for careful staging and for the performers to pick up on their cues immediately. Staged, the play must move very quickly, with scenes flowing into one another as characters enter and exit the stage.

The sounds in the hotel are also important, such as the music from the cheap radio to which Bill, but not Mrs. Oxenham, listens. This music provides a link between the acts; April and Jamie dance to it at the play’s conclusion. Also, the sound of the occasional train whistle prompts the Girl’s demonstration of her knowledge of railroads and railroad schedules. The railroad itself represents another American institution in decay, like the city of Baltimore, and like the Hotel Baltimore.

Historical Context

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In the early 1970s satellite transmissions meant that Americans could watch history unfold as it happened. Because more Americans were watching, television branched out and offered live coverage of important news events.

In the early part of the decade, the Vietnam War as well as the protests over the war across the country were televised into American homes. In a very real sense, it was the images of American men dying on camera that helped fuel much of the opposition to the war.

Television viewers also watched the shooting of four student protesters at Kent State University and the deaths of two more a week later at Jackson State University, events that led to protests at more than 1,200 other colleges and universities—most of which were also covered by television cameras.

Certainly, television changed the way America fought wars. By early 1973 the last of American ground troops were finally pulled from Vietnam in 1975. The televised roof-top evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon was a haunting final image for American viewers.

Other dramatic events made for good television too. The moon landing in 1969 drew millions of viewers all over the world. A year later, the troubled mission of Apollo 13 reminded Americans that there was nothing routine about space flight— viewers were glued to their sets, praying the astronauts would make it home safely.

In 1972, the murder of several Israeli athletes shocked viewers of the Olympic games. Throughout the 1970s, air hijackings and hostage situations escalated, often as a protest against American foreign policy.

When Arab countries, protesting American support of Israel, imposed an oil boycott that resulted in gasoline shortages and higher prices, it was television that brought the images of long lines into American homes. Helping Americans deal with the inconveniences of the embargo was another role for television, which brought the president’s warnings about conserving energy.

It was television that broadcast the Watergate hearings—as well as the live image of President Nixon waving goodbye as he left the White House after his resignation from office.

Literary Style

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Act Acts are the major divisions in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama are signified by the appearance of the chorus; they are usually divided into five acts. These five acts denote the structure of dramatic action: exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe.

The five-act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen combined some of the acts. Hot L Baltimore is a three-act play. However, there is little plot in the play; hence the structure of dramatic action is not applicable.

Character The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones; they may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress.

Characterization is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.

Wilson does not create complex characters in his play. Most of what the audience knows is provided in brief vignettes. Characters tend to be stereotypical, such as the good-hearted prostitute or the street-tough youth.

Comedy There are two types of drama: tragedy and comedy. Hot L Baltimore is a comedy. The purpose of comedy is to amuse. It has many forms, such as farce and burlesque, and may also include satire and parody. For instance, Wilson is using comedy to point out the problems that occur when cities are too eager to destroy debilitated buildings just because they are old. He sees historical wealth and social value in their preservation and renewal.

Setting The time and place of the play is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Hot L Baltimore is the lobby of a seedy hotel. All of the action occurs between 7 a.m. and midnight on Memorial Day.

Compare and Contrast

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1973: Senate hearings begin in Washington into the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate building. The hearings would eventually lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Today: The nation is still recovering from the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. During the impeachment trial and its aftermath, televised coverage—network, cable, and the Internet—was continuous and comprehensive.

1973: The Arab oil embargo pushes the price of gasoline to new highs as severe shortages result in mile-long lines at the gas pumps. Consumers are encouraged to conserve energy, and alternate energy sources become more prominent.

Today: Oil is plentiful and inexpensive. As a result, gas-guzzling SUVs become a popular vehicle.

1973: The median sales price of an existing single-family home in the United States reaches $28,900.

Today: While the prices of new homes have stabilized in recent years, the median price of a new home now exceeds $130,000 in most areas. In part this results from an increased demand for larger homes.

Media Adaptations

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Hot L Baltimore has never been made into a film, but the play was adapted to television in 1975 by ABC.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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SOURCES Barnett, Gene. ‘‘Recreating the Magic: An Interview with Lanford Wilson,’’ in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1984, pp. 57-74.

Bryer, Jackson R. ‘‘Lanford Wilson,’’ in The Playwright’s Art: Conversations With Contemporary American Dramatists, Rutgers University Press, 1995, pp. 277-96.

diGaetani, John L. A Search for a Postmodern Theatre: Interviews With Contemporary Playwrights, Greenwood Press, 1991, pp. 285-293.

Dreher, Ann Crawford. ‘‘Lanford Wilson,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNichols, 1981, pp. 350-68.

Gottfried, Martin. A review, in Women’s Wear Daily, March 23, 1973.

Jacobi, Martin J. ‘‘The Comic Vision of Lanford Wilson,’’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 21, no. 2, 1988, pp. 119-34.

Kroll, Jack. A review in Newsweek, February 26, 1973.

Probst, Leonard. A television review on NBC, March 22, 1973.

Savran, David. ‘‘Lanford Wilson,’’ in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, Theatre Communications Group, 1988, pp. 306-20.

Schvey, Henry I. ‘‘Images of the Past in the Plays of Lanford Wilson,’’ in Essays on Contemporary American Drama, edited by Hedwig Bock and Albert Wertheim, Hueber, 1981, pp. 225-40.

Watt, Douglas. A review, in the Daily News, March 23, 1973.

Watts, Richard. A review, in the New York Post, March 23, 1973.

Williams, Philip Middleton. A Comfortable House: Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason and the Circle Repertory Theatre, McFarland & Company, 1993.

FURTHER READING Bryer, Jackson, ed. Lanford Wilson: A Casebook, Garland, 1990, 271 p. This collection of critical essays examines several of Lanford’s plays.

Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson, Boise State University, 1987, 52 p. Short biography of Wilson.

Dean, Anne M. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994, 139 p. Study of Wilson’s work that seeks to prove the validity of his work as poetry and it place in the American literary canon.

Kahn, David and Donna Breed. Scriptwork: A Director’s Approach to New Play Development, Southern Illinois University Press, 1995, 193 p. A detailed sourcebook for producing plays. The forward is by Wilson and it contains an interview with him.

Williams, Philip Middleton. A Comfortable House: Lanford Wilson, Marshall W. Mason and the Circle Repertory Theatre, McFarland & Company, 1993, 211 p. Examines the collaboration between Wilson and director Marshall W. Mason.


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Sources for Further Study

Barnett, Gene A. Lanford Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Busby, Mark. Lanford Wilson. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1987.

Dasgupta, Gautam. “Lanford Wilson.” In American Playwrights: A Critical Survey, edited by Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta. New York: Drama Book Specialists, 1981.

Dean, Anne. Discovery and Invention: The Urban Plays of Lanford Wilson. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995.

DiGaetani, John. “Lanford Wilson.” In A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Jacobi, Marten J. “The Comic Vision of Lanford Wilson.” Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall, 1988, 119-134.

Sainer, Arthur. “Lanford Wilson.” In Contemporary Dramatists, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick. 4th ed. Chicago: St. James, 1988.

Savran, David. “Lanford Wilson.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1988.




Critical Essays