The Hot l Baltimore

Hot l BaltimoreWhen I was a kid I loved plays. There were a lot of reasons for this. One of them is that I have a very good ability to imagine the play in my head. I don’t need or even particularly want a lot of detail: I’ve got that covered. Plays are by their nature kind of the Elmore Leonard style of writing; and given how popular his novels are, I think a lot of people feel the same way. The biggest reason that I read plays when I was young is related to this. I did (and still do) suffer from both forms of dyslexia. As a result of this, when I was young I was a painfully slow reader. But I could read a play in one night. And so I did: very many of them.

One of those plays I read was Lanford Wilson’s Hot l Baltimore. I remembered it as being a funny play. When I was a kid, I was so impressed with people who could write humor; it seemed almost magical. So I think I remember comedy more than the other things. Well, I just read it again and I would certainly not call it a comedy, even though it is an amusing read and would be quite funny performed. If I had to describe it in one word, it would be “poignant.”

It tells the story of a bunch of people living on the margins in the rundown old Hotel Baltimore. That’s where the title comes from: the “e” in the hotel sign has burned out. About midway through the first act, we learn that the hotel is going to be demolished and everyone is being evicted. But that doesn’t particularly matter, although there is much talk about it. The eviction is just part the fragility that is all their lives. It reminds me of Melissa Harris-Perry’s counter to the meme that the rich should be rewarded for their risk taking:

What is riskier than living poor in America? Seriously! What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner… I am sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No. There is a huge safety net that whenever you fail will catch you and catch you and catch you! Being poor is what is risky!

But like all people on the margins, the characters in Hot l Baltimore keep pushing forward because they have no choice. The play culminates with April, an aging prostitute, forcing stunted Jamie, whose sister has abandoned him, to dance. It ends with them dancing as April shouts to the night manager about the radio, “Turn it up!”

What I probably didn’t understand when I was a kid was that these people’s lives were already over and they knew it; they were just keeping up appearances. There are multiple assertions from the characters, “I have plans!” The climax of the play, leading up to the end of the second act, is then “Girl”[1] informs Jackie that the land Jackie’s bought in Utah cannot be used to farm because it is a salt desert. Jackie claims she is lying, but Jackie knows the truth; Jackie probably always knew the truth.

If you aren’t going somewhere, then you’re just treading water. Soon, you’ll get tired and drown. Until then, “Turn it up!”

[1] She is the only character without a name. She is perhaps the only one who hasn’t given up. Instead, she is forever disappointed in the world. She is especially upset that the trains don’t run on time. She is a frightening reminder that disappointment is just a phase we go through on the way to hopelessness.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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