The Time of Your Life
Play, 1939
American Writer ( 1908 - 1981 )
Other Names Used: Goryan, Sirak;
Drama for Students. Ed. David A. Galens. Vol. 17. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003. p274-299.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale
Full Text: 
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The Time of Your Life

INTRODUCTION
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
PLOT SUMMARY
CHARACTERS
THEMES
STYLE
HISTORICAL CONTEXT
CRITICAL OVERVIEW
CRITICISM
SOURCES
FURTHER READING

WILLIAM SAROYAN
1939

INTRODUCTION

William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life opened on Broadway on October 25, 1939, to mixed reviews. Many in the general public enjoyed the play, but the critics were less enthusiastic. In contrast to many of the playwrights working during the later years of the Great Depression, Saroyan was not interested in social protest; his play depicts a group of alienated loners in a shabby waterfront bar, looking for love and meaning in their lives. The play won the 1940 New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Despite these awards, many critics felt that the play was unsophisticated, unrealistic, and too romantic, failing to reflect the dark and troubled times in which it was set; some found it confusing. Saroyan was rarely a darling of the critics and maintained a strained relationship with the East Coast theatrical world throughout most of his career. Much of his attitude came from that fact that he distrusted those who were highly educated and felt that the intelligentsia could not appreciate his plays and their simple messages.

The play takes place in 1939, just before the start of World War II. The play is presented in five acts over the course of a day in October 1939. The five acts are set primarily in a seedy San Francisco waterfront bar, through which numerous colorful but distressed characters move in their search for something more out of life than what they have. ThePage 275  |  Top of Article action centers on Joe, a rich young man who does not have to work any longer and can spend most of his time drinking, doing small favors for people, and sending his simpleminded friend, Tom, on crazy errands. People enter the bar and interact with Joe; Nick, the bar's Italian immigrant owner; and one another. The tension in the play appears toward its end when Blick, a spiteful vice cop, returns to the bar to make trouble for Nick and a sad prostitute named Kitty Duval.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

William Saroyan (also known as Sirak Goryan) was born in Fresno, California, on August 31, 1908. He was the fourth child of Armenak and Takoohi Saroyan, who fled their native Armenia to escape ethnic persecution. Armenak, a Presbyterian minister, died only a few years after Saroyan's birth, leaving Takoohi, with her limited English and job skills, to support the family. She sent her children to an Oakland orphanage for four years, until she could provide for them.

While in school, Saroyan worked as a newspaper boy, and after he dropped out of high school, he worked various jobs, including a job as a telegram messenger. In 1926, Saroyan moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in writing. In 1934, he published his short-story collection The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze to rave reviews; by the late thirties, he had a national reputation as a fiction writer. Saroyan was a prolific writer and claimed to have written more than five hundred stories between 1935 and 1940.

Having been interested in drama from the time he was a child attending puppet shows, local theater, and movies, Saroyan decided, after his success in writing short stories, to try his hand at writing plays. In 1939, he directed The Time of Your Life on Broadway to mediocre reviews and limited audiences. The play won the 1940 New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but Saroyan declined the Pulitzer because he believed that the arts should not be judged and supported by business interests. The play lost $25,000 during its initial Broadway run, and only after the


William Saroyan

William Saroyan

Pulitzer announcement did it begin to recoup those losses. While The Time of Your Life has often been criticized for its overly sentimental tone and bathos, it is Saroyan's most well-known work.

In 1942, Saroyan was drafted to serve in World War II and was stationed in New York before being sent to Europe in 1944. While in New York, he married a socialite named Carol Marcus; they divorced in 1949, remarried in 1951, and divorced again in 1952. Their marriage produced two children.

During the 1940s, the literary world lauded Saroyan, often comparing him to Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. By the 1950s, however, his reputation had declined; critics claimed that Saroyan's light, optimistic fiction may have been appropriate for depression-era audiences in need of romantic stories but was not relevant to more sophisticated post-World War II readers. During the 1960s, Saroyan focused on autobiographical writing; these works reflect his aversion to authority and his belief in individual freedom, and they influenced writers such as Jack Kerouac and J. D. Salinger.

On May 18, 1981, Saroyan died of cancer in Fresno, California. He was cremated, with half his ashes interred in Fresno and the other half in Armenia.

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PLOT SUMMARY

Act 1

The play opens in Nick's Pacific Street saloon, a restaurant and bar near the San Francisco waterfront. It is the late afternoon and a group of regular patrons are sitting around the room. Nick, the owner, is behind the bar. Joe and the Arab look at the newspaper headlines and react with typical disgust.

Willie, a young man who enjoys playing the marble game in the bar, enters and gets a beer from Nick. He wants to resist playing the game just this once but finally gives in. Joe begins angrily calling out for Tom, who is not in the bar.

Tom enters the bar in a rush, and he and Joe begin an exchange indicating that, at one time in the past, Joe saved Tom's life by getting him to eat when he was very ill. Because of this, Tom is forever indebted to Joe and runs errands for him— however strange or nonsensical. Joe gives Tom money and asks him to buy a couple of dollars' worth of toys.

Kitty Duval walks in and gets a beer. Tom is enchanted by her, but Joe sends him on his errand. Kitty claims to have been a famous actress in a burlesque show in the past, but Nick does not believe her, knowing that she now works as a prostitute. Joe is easier on her.

Dudley R. Bostwick enters the bar and frantically dials the phone, looking for Elsie Mandelspiegel, his girlfriend. Moments later, Harry comes into the bar looking for a job as a comedian, and Wesley, a young black man, enters the bar looking for any kind of work. Joe shares his champagne with Kitty and begins asking her about her dreams. She responds by revealing that her real name is Katerina Koranovsky, that she is originally from Poland, and that all she really wants is a nice home.

Wesley begins playing the piano. Harry starts to dance, but Nick suggests that he find a job in sales. People in the bar realize that Wesley is a wonderful piano player. Kitty begs Joe to dance with her, but he refuses, saying that he cannot dance. Kitty dances by herself.

Tom returns with the toys, sees Kitty dancing, and begs Joe for some spending money. Tom is obviously in love with Kitty, and Joe encourages him. Tom expresses his love to Kitty, and she asks him if he has two dollars. Tom does not understand that she is a prostitute, but they leave the bar together.

The atmosphere at the bar is comfortable until Blick, a vice cop, walks in. He warns Nick that he knows that "street-walkers are working out of this bar" and threatens to close the place. Nick despises Blick and lets him know it; Blick leaves. Nick hires Wesley to play the piano and Harry to dance. Mary L. walks in.

Act 2

An hour later, everyone is still at Nick's bar. Joe and Mary L., somewhat drunk, are discussing such things as their names and Joe's background— he once fell in love with a woman named Mary in Mexico City, and he enjoys drinking. Joe claims that he drinks because "Out of the twenty-four hours at least twenty-three and a half are … dull, dead, boring, empty, and murderous." Mary seems captivated by him and what he is saying. They flirt with each other, and when Mary leaves the bar, Joe becomes depressed.

McCarthy and Krupp enter the bar. They are friends. They enter, having a conversation about the fact that Krupp, a policeman, might be forced to hit McCarthy, a longshoreman, over the head with a club during a protest on the waterfront.

The phone rings, and it is Elsie calling for Dudley. She agrees to meet him at the bar. McCarthy has been watching Harry dance and is impressed, stating that his dance is a "satisfying demonstration of the present state of the American body and soul." He calls Harry a genius. Harry performs a comedy sketch for McCarthy about current politics, which further impreses McCarthy. McCarthy and Krupp leave the bar.

Tom rushes into the bar, concerned because Kitty is crying in her hotel room and won't stop. Joe tells Tom to go out and buy him a large map of Europe, a revolver, and cartridges. He also gives Tom the toys he bought earlier and tells him to give one to Kitty to make her stop crying. Tom leaves.

A man who looks like "he might have been Kit Carson at one time" walks into the bar. He claims his name is Murphy, and he begins drinking beers and telling outlandish stories about his travels and adventures.

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Tom returns with the revolver and the map and reports that giving Kitty the toys simply made her cry harder. Tom and Joe leave the bar to see Kitty, with Tom helping Joe walk.

Act 3

Kitty is crying in her room at the New York Hotel. Tom and Joe knock and enter, Joe carrying a large toy carousel. Tom tells Kitty that Joe "got up from his chair at Nick's just to get you a toy and come here." Tom and Kitty look at each other, and it is apparent that they truly love each other. Voices in the hallway outside Kitty's room indicate that a young sailor is looking for her, but another woman tries to attract him to her bedroom. He insists on Kitty and enters her room, where he finds Joe and Tom. He is apologetic, but Tom threatens him and he leaves. Joe says he will return with a car to take them to Half Moon Bay, where the three of them will have a nice meal.

Act 4

A little later at Nick's, the phone rings. Nick announces that the phone call was a warning that Blick will probably show up again tonight.

Elsie enters the bar and finds Dudley, who is almost in a trance at seeing her. They discuss their relationship. She does not believe that love can exist in such a harsh world as this one, but Dudley argues that their love is possible. Eventually, she agrees; they leave the bar together. Krupp walks in and talks with Nick about how crazy the world is.

Act 5

It is late in the evening. Willie is still playing his marble game, while Kit Carson watches him, Nick is behind the bar, Joe is studying his map of Europe, and Tom is dreaming of Kitty. When Tom asks Joe where he gets his money, Joe delivers a monologue about how corrupting and hurtful earning money can be. He indicates that he has earned money in the past but does not work because "There isn't anything I can do that won't make me feel embarrassed."

Joe gives Tom another errand: he wants Tom to give the revolver to anyone on the street. He also asks Tom to get him chewing gum, jellybeans, magazines, and the longest panatela cigar he can find. As well, he asks Tom to give a dollar to any old man he sees and to the Salvation Army band outside the bar so they will sing a requested hymn.

Joe shows his revolver to Kit Carson, who teaches Joe how to load and unload the gun. Meanwhile, Willie finally wins at the marble game; the game rewards him with a patriotic song and waving flags. He leaves.

Tom returns with all the things Joe requested. He asks Joe why he paid for Kitty to move into a nice room at the St. Francis Hotel. Joe answers that Kitty is actually a good woman and that she and Tom deserve to be together. Tom is still concerned about earning enough money to marry Kitty, so Joe suggests that he become a truck driver. Joe calls up a trucking company and gets a job for Tom. Tom leaves to start his job.

Harry and Wesley return and report that there has been fighting at the waterfront between the police and strikers. Nick is worried about what is going on and asks Harry to tend bar while he walks over to the pier. Kitty arrives wearing new clothes, looking very beautiful. She talks with Joe about Tom and says that she has told Tom she will marry him. Joe gets up on his own and leaves to find a book for Kitty, remembering that she once expressed an interest in poetry.

Blick walks in looking for Nick and tells Wesley and Harry to stop playing the piano and dancing. When he sees Kitty, he assumes that he has caught a prostitute and begins treating her like a criminal. Kit Carson tries to stand up to Blick, to protect Kitty, but Blick takes him outside and beats him.

Blick forces Kitty up on the stage and demands that she remove her clothes, as if she were a stripper. Joe walks in with the books and, amazed at the scene, grabs Kitty from the stage. Wesley stands up to Blick, but Blick begins beating him up. Tom walks in and is angry at what he sees. Joe does not want Tom to fight Blick, so he shoves some money into Tom's hands and tells him to take Kitty out to his truck; they leave for San Diego to get married.

Joe pulls out the revolver, points it at Blick, and pulls the trigger, but it does not fire. Nick sees this just as he re-enters his bar and grabs the gun from Joe. Nick shoves Blick out the door, telling Blick that he will murder him with his own hands if he ever comes into his bar again.

Nick runs out but comes back almost immediately with the news that Blick has been shot dead by an unknown assailant. He picks up the gun that Joe tried to use and says, "Joe, you wanted to kill that guy! I'm going to buy you a bottle of champagne." Joe gets up and begins to leave the bar. Kit CarsonPage 278  |  Top of Article enters, and he and Joe look at each other "knowingly." Kit Carson starts one of his stories that begins with how he shot a man named "Blick or Glick or something like that." Everyone at the bar except Joe gathers around Kit Carson. Joe hands his gun to Kit and looks at him "with great admiration." Joe leaves, and everyone waves while the marble game plays patriotic songs and waves its flags.

CHARACTERS

Arab

Throughout the play, the Arab sits at the bar in Nick's saloon responding to the newspaper headlines with the comment, "No foundation. All the way down the line." At one point, he says a few more words about how he has left "the old country" and come to America to work hard and not beg. After listening to one of the Arab's brief monologues, Joe pronounces him, "in his own way, a prophet."

Blick

Blick is a thoroughly unpleasant man, a "strong man without strength—strong only among the weak." He works as a policeman with the city's vice squad and struts into Nick's bar as if he owns the place, threatening to shut it down if he catches any prostitutes there. When Blick comes back to Nick's bar in the evening and sees Kitty, he taunts her, provoking many of the bar's regulars to stand up to him. Blick responds by beating up Wesley, thus starting a chain of events that ends in his being shot and killed.

Dudley R. Bostwick

Dudley R. Bostwick is a small man, about twenty-four years old, neatly dressed in cheap clothes when he enters the bar. He is well educated but "without the least real understanding" and is frustrated with life because he has not been successful in his one quest: to find a woman. Elsie Mandelspiegel is the great love of his life, and he spends a lot of time and energy on the bar's phone trying to find her and speak with her. Eventually, he does find her and convinces her that their love is possible.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson claims his name is Murphy, but everyone calls him by the name of the famous nineteenth-century frontiersman because that is who he looks like. He spends most of the play drinking in Nick's saloon and telling stories of his life that sound too fantastic to be true. Only Joe says that he believes his stories.

Kit helps Joe load and unload his revolver. Though Joe's gun is apparently not involved in Blick's death, there is a special bond between Joe and Kit after Blick is shot in the street outside Nick's bar. Kit is outside when Blick is killed; when he re-enters the bar, Joe asks him, "Somebody just shot a man. How are you feeling?" Kit responds by beginning to tell one of his stories; however, this story tells how he "shot a man once. In San Francisco…. Fellow named Blick or Glick or some thing like that…. Went up to my room and got my old pearl-handled revolver." The assumption is that he did kill Blick and that, therefore, maybe all of his remarkable stories are true.

Kitty Duval

Kitty Duval is one of the prostitutes who hangs out at Nick's bar. She originally came from Poland to the United States with her family, and her name was Katerina Koranovsky. Her hard and troubled childhood ultimately led her to become a prostitute after her hopes of becoming an actress were gone.

When she first enters the bar, she is loud and brassy, but Joe is able to get at her core, finding out her real name and that she was never really a famous actress to whom "European royalty" sent flowers. Tom's love also seems to soften her and, even though she believes that she has been through too much to be with someone as sweet and innocent as Tom, she accepts his overtures and marriage proposal.

Harry

Harry arrives at the bar looking to be hired for his comedy or dancing routine. Nick gives him a tryout but is not terribly impressed with his abilities as a comedian. Harry's routines are primarily about the impending war in Europe and are not terribly funny. He is convinced that the world desperately needs to laugh and that he is the best man for the job. "Nobody's got a sense of humor anymore," he complains, but he believes that he has "all kinds of funny ideas in my head to make the world happy again." Nick eventually relents and hires Harry to dance while Wesley plays the piano.

Joe

Joe is the character around which much of the action takes place. He has a "boyish appearance"Page 279  |  Top of Article and dresses well, and he is "always thinking, always eager, always bored." Joe has a somewhat mysterious past, although it is clear that he is wealthy and does not ever have to work again. Joe does not feel good about having earned this money, though. When Tom asks him where he got his money, Joe answers, "If anybody's got any money— to hoard or to throw away—you can be sure he stole it from other people…. I'm no exception." He spends most of his time in the play sitting at a table in Nick's bar, drinking champagne that Nick stocks just for him. Through his conversation with Mary L., more is learned about his character, including that his last name begins with the letter T., that he fell in love once with a woman named Mary in Mexico City, and that his family background is Irish.

Joe and Tom have a relationship that is built on the fact that Joe once saved Tom's life. For that, Tom must be at Joe's beck and call, running in and out of the bar on errands for odd items such as toys, jellybeans, a map, and a revolver. In fact, throughout much of the play, there is a real question as to whether Joe can walk by himself. Tom seems to be Joe's way of getting around except on a few occasions. Joe is someone who mainly observes life, as opposed to living it.

Krupp

Krupp is a policeman who comes into Nick's bar occasionally, primarily to share a beer with his friend from high school, McCarthy. He is married with two sons and pained by the fact that, as a policeman, he may be asked to break up a union strike and physically hurt McCarthy. He admits to Nick late in the play that he does not really like being a policeman and thought about quitting almost as soon as he started the job, years ago. Krupp has a soft heart but is worried about the future of man.

Mary L.

Mary L. is a beautiful married woman with two children who comes into the bar about halfway through the play. She gets drunk and talks with Joe, and the two seem to be quite charmed by each other. Mary leaves the bar on a bittersweet note, with Joe obviously smitten by her.

Elsie Mandelspiegel

Elsie Mandelspiegel is Dudley's girlfriend. She works at a hospital as a nurse and has a serious outlook on the world. Elsie feels that she and Dudley cannot be married because the world is too harsh for love to survive, so she has been avoiding his desperate phone calls, during which he proclaims his love for her. Toward the end of the play, Elsie succumbs to Dudley's pleadings, and the two of them walk out of Nick's bar, in love and promising each other that they will make an attempt at being together.

McCarthy

McCarthy is a longshoreman working at the docks near Nick's bar. Occasionally, he stops in for a beer with his friend from high school, Krupp. McCarthy is something of an intellectual, and Krupp cannot understand why he became a laborer instead of a white-collar worker. Joe and McCarthy talk with each other about the world, but Krupp is amazed and confused while listening to them.

Murphy

See Kit Carson

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MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • In 1948, United Artists made a film based on The Time of Your Life starring Jimmy Cagney (available on VHS format tape). A television adaptation of the play was produced for the show Playhouse 90 in October 1958. In addition, a DVD version of the play is available. The disc is a recording of a 1976 performance of the play that was presented on a New York stage without an audience; it was part of the Broadway Archive Series and was directed by Kirk Browning and featured Patti LuPone.

Newsboy

The Newsboy comes into Nick's Pacific Street saloon a number of times during the play's action to sell newspapers. Typically, Joe buys all of the papers the Newsboy has, looks at the headlines, and tosses the papers aside. The Newsboy brings the news of the outside world into the bar, but everyone in the bar rejects that information.

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Nick

Nick is the "big red-headed" owner of a saloon on Pacific Street in which most of the play's action takes place. He is first-generation Italian American and a man of very deep but hidden feelings. He admits to crying over a sad story he heard on the radio and privately expresses great love for his daughter after gruffly chastising her for showing up at the bar. Twice in the play, he understands that someone is hungry or broke, even when they have not told him, and sends them into the kitchen to have a free meal. He feels a fierce pride about his bar and defends it from Blick.

Tom

Tom is Joe's friend and assistant. Their relationship is based on a time when Joe saved Tom's life. He is a large but childish man, about thirty years old, and wears a cheap suit.

Tom is one of the more innocent of the play's characters; for example, he is confused by Kitty's question about whether he has two dollars, thinking that she simply wants to know how much money he is carrying and not that she is giving him a price for sex. He and Kitty fall deeply in love despite the differences in their backgrounds, but Tom needs Joe's encouragement to ask her to marry him.

Wesley

Wesley is a young black man who shows up at Nick's in need of a job. He says he will do anything, "run errands, clean up, wash dishes," but surprises everyone when he happens to play the piano and the result is remarkably good music. Nick decides to hire him to play the piano in the evenings at his bar. Wesley is full of pride but not the false kind. When Nick tells him he has to be a union member to get a job, Wesley is confused and answers that he just needs a job and does not expect any favors or handouts.

Willie

Willie is a young man, less than twenty years old, who keeps feeding nickels into the marble game for most of the play. He takes it as a personal challenge when Nick tells him that no one can beat the game, facing the machine as if it is his nemesis. When Willie does finally win and the game explodes with patriotic songs and waving flags, he automatically salutes and cries out, "Oh, boy, what a beautiful country."

THEMES

Success

Saroyan's descriptions and the actions of the characters are very telling and indicate that the author is interested in what makes someone a good or happy person beyond what is generally considered financial and social success in America. Joe, for example, has made such a large amount of money that he can afford to sit at Nick's without a job, drinking champagne. Yet, Joe indicates that he still searches for things that will make him happy. He cannot work because he cannot find anything that will not "embarrass" him, so his success is in what he is able to give to those around him. He helps Tom and Kitty begin a new life together and listens to and believes the wild stories Kit Carson tells, but he is deeply unhappy with himself and his life.

Other characters are searching for something to fulfill them, as well. However crass or difficult their lives may look on the outside, Saroyan insists on giving them inner beauty and knowledge about what is right and good. Krupp understands that, as humans and Americans, "We've got everything, but we always feel lousy and dissatisfied just the same." He bemoans that there is "nobody going quietly for a little walk to the ocean," because everyone is "trying to get a lot of money in a hurry." Krupp is human, however: he certainly feels the yearning for material and social success, but he is also aware enough to know that it is false and leads nowhere. Kitty Duval, as a cheap prostitute, is a failure by most standards. Saroyan, nonetheless, describes her as "somebody," a person who, despite hardships, has "that kind of delicate and rugged beauty which no circumstances of evil or ugly reality can destroy." Joe even toasts her with champagne, saying, "To the spirit, Kitty Duval."

The Body-Mind Dichotomy

Saroyan offers a number of characters who exemplify the dichotomy that often exists between the human mind and the human body—and the tension between those who act and those who think about acting. Joe is someone who uses his body very little and is nearly all intellect and talk. He rarely moves from his chair in Nick's bar, getting Tom to run all of his errands. When Kitty begs him to dance, he refuses, saying that he cannot dance. He thenPage 281  |  Top of Article exhorts Tom to dance with Kitty and tells him, "Don't talk. Just dance," underlining the dichotomy between mind and body. When the beautiful Mary L. asks Joe to dance, he is even more explicit about his inabilities, telling her that he can "hardly walk" and that this is a constant condition, not one simply caused by too much champagne. He cannot work, either, having failed to find work that "won't make me feel embarrassed. Because I can't do simple, good things…. I'm too smart." Saroyan writes Joe's character almost as if his mind has gotten in the way of his having a normally functioning body.

McCarthy is another character in whom the dichotomy between the mind and the body is seen. However, McCarthy has been able to surmount the barrier between action and thought that stymies Joe. McCarthy is a longshoreman, but he is a laborer who sounds like a professor. "I'm a longshoreman. And an idealist. I'm a man with too much brawn to be an intellectual, exclusively," he says.

Love Conquers All

Saroyan's work, including this play, was often criticized for being too sentimental and romantic. The play features two somewhat idealized relationships that reflect the concept that love can conquer all: Tom and Kitty's, and Dudley and Elsie's.

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TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Many of the issues and themes that arise in Saroyan's play still have relevance in the early twenty-first century, such as searching for personal fulfillment, understanding what constitutes success, and defending against evil. Imagine that you are going to stage the play and set it in America today. Which features of the play will you change, and which ones will you keep the same? Explain your reasoning.
  • The 1930s saw labor unions gathering political strength and popularity. McCarthy and Krupp are friends in the play, but they are on opposite sides of a labor dispute: McCarthy may join a strike to keep a ship from being unloaded, and Krupp may have to protect workers who cross the picket lines to unload the ship. Choose an actual labor dispute of the 1930s, and create a chart outlining the arguments each side used to promote its agenda.
  • Blick, the vice cop, threatens Nick when he thinks there are prostitutes working at Nick's bar. Investigate the history of prostitution in America. Has prostitution always been illegal? Are there places in the United States where prostitution is legal or is treated as a less serious crime than it is in other jurisdictions? Some people say that prostitution is a victimless crime. Write a brief essay explaining your position on this issue, using the information you have found about prostitution in America.
  • A number of characters leave the play and do not return. For example, Joe leaves at the end of the play, but it is unclear where he is going; Tom and Kitty leave for a life together, as do Elsie and Dudley. Choose one of these characters or couples and write a one-act play or short story about where they go after they leave Nick's bar and what happens to them.

Tom and Kitty's relationship is challenged by a number of factors. Tom appears to be dull-witted and inexperienced in the ways of the world. He does not have a job and has no idea how to get one until Joe helps him. Joe, in fact, saved Tom's life when he made Tom "eat all that chicken soup three years ago" when he was sick and hungry. Tom seems barely able to function on his own in the world, yet he meets and falls deeply in love with Kitty, a world-weary prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold. They come into this relationship with very different backgrounds and life experiences, yet they somehow get together. Joe acts as facilitator for their love by helping Tom get a job driving a truck and moving Kitty from the hotel where she works asPage 282  |  Top of Article a prostitute to the luxurious St. Francis Hotel. When Blick sullies the atmosphere in Nick's, Joe shoves cash into Tom's hand and pushes the two lovers out the door, telling them to "Get married in San Diego." Their story has a happy, almost fairytale ending.

Elsie and Dudley literally cannot connect with each other during the play's first half. Dudley calls her repeatedly, but each time either she refuses to speak to him or he is mistakenly connected with another woman who is not Elsie. Finally, Elsie relents and agrees to meet Dudley at Nick's. There the couple talk about their love. Elsie believes that the world is too horrible and harsh to support two people who want to be together and in love. "I know you love me, and I love you, but don't you see that love is impossible in this world?" she asks Dudley. He is insistent, and when she asks whether they can find a place to be in love, Saroyan gives the stage direction that his affirmative answer is given "with blind faith." Elsie, as worried as she is about the looming war, accepts his answer, and the two lovers leave Nick's holding hands.

STYLE

Stage Direction

Saroyan is very explicit with the stage direction in this play. This may be because he was disappointed in the production and direction of his first play, My Heart's in the Highlands. Nearly every character has an extensive description of his or her clothes, weaknesses and strengths of character, movements, and place in society. For example, when describing Willie, the marble game player, Saroyan goes so far as to say that the young man is "the last of the American pioneers, with nothing more to fight but the machine, with no other rewards than lights going on and off." In this case, he raises Willie above being a mere young man in front of a game; Willie evokes the history of a nation and a people.

Saroyan even begins the play with a paragraph stating the play's underlying philosophy, just in case the reader is unclear about his intentions:

In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed.

Plot

The play's limited plot has been noted by numerous critics and reviewers. In a sense, the play offers a slice of what a day might be like at Nick's bar rather than a story with a beginning and an end. The primary tension centers around Blick, his behavior toward Kitty and others in the bar, and his resulting murder. Without Blick's nasty presence, the play is simply a series of conversations in which the bar's patrons talk about their lives and dreams.

There are minor plot lines, though, such as the growing love between Kitty and Tom, whether Dudley will get Elsie to marry him, and Willie's success at playing the marble game. More than twenty characters come and go; in reality, Saroyan has created a play that stresses characters over plot. Blick's death is less an event in and of itself and more a catalyst that binds the bar's patrons together in a literal circle around Kit Carson at the play's end.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The Great Depression

On October 29, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashed when investors sold sixteen million shares in just one trading day. Just a year before that, Herbert Hoover had been elected U.S. president, and the nation was basking in the glow of an unprecedented economic boom. The stock market collapse, however, firmly placed the nation on the road to the Great Depression, and by 1933, the nation's unemployment rate was at about twenty-five percent. Historians and economists disagree over the cause of the depression: some have maintained that the crisis was a global event, exacerbated by Germany's inability to pay the reparations that England and France demanded for its role in World War I; others have blamed a decline in consumption by Americans; while others have pointed to overvalued stocks as the culprit.

The stock collapse did not affect the nation's economy all at once. Gradually, businesses closed, banks failed, and savings and investments disappeared. Fewer families could afford a new car, and spending on new construction in 1933 fell to one-sixth of its pre-depression level. Many credit the start of war in Europe in 1939 with stimulating the world and national economies and ending the Great Depression, whereas others claim that the depression's end came only because President Franklin D.Page 283  |  Top of Article Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped to strengthen the American people's confidence in the nation's economy.

Labor Unrest in the 1930s

The Great Depression forced companies to lay off millions of American workers, changing their lives forever. High unemployment and the deterioration of working conditions led to labor unrest, and many workers gained a renewed interest in unionization. Strikes became one of the most powerful weapons that unions had to get their point across to corporations, and in 1934, 1.5 million workers across the United States went on strike. Unions won major victories by using the sit-down strike in many industries; from 1936 to 1939, American workers engaged in 577 actions during which they simply stopped working while at their jobs.

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COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1930s: The U.S. government responds to the unemployment of forty thousand theater workers by creating the Federal Theater Project. The project brings live theater to small towns all across America. Many in Congress believe that those who are benefiting from the project are politically radical or communist, and it is finally shut down in 1939.
    Today: The United States government funds thousands of artists' and writers' projects through the National Endowment for the Arts. National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System also receive federal money for portions of their operating budgets. Many in Congress regularly challenge the appropriateness of government-funded art and federal support of noncommercial broadcasting services.
  • 1930s: During the 1930s, children's toys are built primarily from wood and metal. The toys in the play are typical for the 1930s: Joe brings Kitty a toy carousel that plays a song, and the toys Tom finds for Joe include a music box, whistles, and a large figure that dances and moves when the interior mechanism is wound with a key.
    Today: Toys for children, often made from plastic, are much more sophisticated and complex, often incorporating technology such as computer chips. Educational toys are also popular, helping children use computers, improve their reading and math skills, and learn about astronomy, for example.
  • 1930s: Though the United States has expressed a desire to remain neutral in the face of impending war in Europe, President Roosevelt requests about $1.3 billion for national defense in 1939 and issues an executive order for the purchase of more than five hundred military aircraft. This begins a boom in the American defense industry that bolsters the entire U.S. economy throughout World War II.
    Today: The terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, spur a huge increase in government spending on national security and homeland defense. In early 2002, President Bush asks for a 12 percent increase in military spending, the largest increase in two decades, and an almost 100 percent increase in spending to protect U.S. residents at home.

In May 1934, San Francisco longshoremen, like McCarthy in the play, went on strike, refusing to unload cargo after their employers failed to recognize their union, the International Longshoremen's Association. Two months later, thousands of tons of food, steel, and other goods clogged docks and warehouses. The day after the traditional Fourth of July celebrations, a day long battle between police and workers erupted on the streets of San Francisco; two strikers were killed, and hundreds on both sides were injured. This event, "Bloody Thursday," caught the attention of many working peoplePage 284  |  Top of Article in the city, and on July 16, a general strike began. Unionists and workers blockaded streets and closed stores for four days until their leaders called off the strike for the good of the city.

The Start of World War II

In 1938, Adolf Hitler, Germany's chancellor, began his hegemony by annexing Austria, a country with close ties to Germany. Later that year, Hitler and the other leading European nations signed the Munich Pact, which essentially handed over part of Czechoslovakia to Germany. Many Europeans believed that this would be Hitler's final territorial claim and so viewed the pact with hope.

This was not the case, as less than a year later Germany took possession of the rest of Czechoslovakia. Great Britain and France had to admit that their policy of appeasement had failed, and they began to prepare for war. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union—historical adversaries—announced that they had signed a nonaggression pact. This agreement eliminated the possibility of Germany having to fight a war on two fronts. In September 1939, one month before Saroyan's play takes place, Germany invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

The predominant mood in the United States during the late 1930s and early 1940s was isolationist, as many citizens still remembered the violence and suffering of World War I. The United States would not enter the war until December of 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Those seeing Saroyan's The Time of Your Life when it first opened on Broadway in 1939 had varying responses. John Mason Brown's review, originally published in the New York Post, acknowledges the play's lack of a strong plot but lauds its "enormous vigor" as well as its beauty and compassion. Brooks Atkinson's New York Times review also notes the play's structural weaknesses, but he considers the play "original, breezy, and deeply felt." The play's lack of structure is both a strength and a weakness, according to Grenville Vernon, writing in Commonweal. The play's loose plot prevents it from being as powerful as it could have been, he argues, but this form also allows Saroyan "liberties which are fascinating and often delightful."

Some critics were not so kind, though. Charles Anghoff, for example, writing for the North American Review, condemns the play and states that "it presents even more serious doubts than [Saroyan's] first, My Heart's in the Highlands." The story is "thin," the writing is "undistinguished," the characters "spring out of ancient vaudeville programs," and the script "oozes cheapness," according to Anghoff. Brendan Gill, writing in the New Yorker in 1969, seconded the opinion of an earlier critic who had condemned the play upon its opening. "That opinion was sound," declares Gill. The play, he asserts, is "a ramshackle affair, mildly amusing when it is content to be a vaudeville…. It has no center and its surface is fatally smeared over with a sticky sweetness." Clive Barnes, on the other hand, condemned the play when he first saw it in 1969 but wrote in a 1972 article in the New York Times that his judgment was "far too hasty and flip." He grants that the play has its limits but lauds it as "a lovely play … touching when seen in retrospect … [and] a play easily got wrong."

Some analysis of the play has been done by literary critics. Kenneth Rhoads, for example, asserts in the book Essays in Literature that Joe's character in the play "may be seen as a valid Christ-figure … who takes on stature as heroic protagonist." This contributes to the play's "intense romanticism and unashamed sentimentality," he writes. Winifred L. Dusenbury, writing in her book The Theme of Loneliness in Modern American Drama, notes that each of the play's numerous characters "expresses one facet of the character of mankind" and "is trying in his own way to discover how to live in a way that life may seem filled with delight." He believes that these characters, isolated as they are at the play's beginning and joined together by the play's end, are the method Saroyan used to show his audience a way to live "so that life may hold no ugliness." John A. Mills notes in the Midwest Quarterly that the play has an existential bent and that it can be seen as "an embodiment of the absurd sense of life, expressing in its structure and all its parts man's confrontation with nothingness."

Thelma Shinn agrees with Mills that Saroyan has presented not simply a romantic view of life but one that is existentialist. She argues in Modern Drama that because Saroyan wrote contrasting elements within each character and within each scene, critics have had a difficult time grasping his intent.

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John Cater, as Krupp, and Daniel Massey, as Joe, in the theatrical production of The Time of Your Life, performed at Stratford-upon-Avon in England

John Cater, as Krupp, and Daniel Massey, as Joe, in the theatrical production of The Time of Your Life, performed at Stratford-upon-Avon in England

Most have misinterpreted the play as "mere Romanticism," she contends. However, each character in the play is "trying to find for himself some meaning in this absurd universe," and that meaning, if there is any, "appears to be within himself." This feature makes the play resolutely existential in theme, according to Shinn. "The ingredients are romantic … but Saroyan's treatment of the material reveals more perception than is usually attributed to him," she notes.

Frederic I. Carpenter in the Pacific Spectator responds to Saroyan's work with two impressions: that the preface he wrote for The Time of Your Life is one of his best pieces of writing and that, "judged by literary and artistic standards, the formal critics are often right in condemning him." The fact, though, that the public loved Saroyan and the critics often reviled him prompts Carpenter to suggest that the playwright does have something important to say: "he has progressively realized a consistent American philosophy," Carpenter writes.

Mary McCarthy, writing in the Partisan Review soon after the play's New York opening, places Saroyan above two of his contemporaries, playwright Clifford Odets and novelist John Steinbeck. She praises Saroyan's ability to "look at the world with the eyes of a sensitive newsboy, and to see it eternally brand-new and touched with wonder." While he may be "puerile and arrogant and sentimental … he is never cheap," she states.

CRITICISM

Susan Sanderson

Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, Sanderson examines Joe's use of Kit Carson and Tom in Saroyan's play.

One of the most striking facts in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life is that Joe is nearly immobile. Joe is the play's central character—nearly every other character exchanges at least a line or two with him, and he comments on all that he sees from his chair in Nick's bar. In fact, Joe's chair seems almost like a throne, an exalted perch from which he commands Tom to bring him odd items, dispenses small bits of wisdom, and grants favors for his preferred subjects.

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If Joe is a king, though, he is an impotent one, in all senses of the word. John A. Mills explains it succinctly in the Midwest Quarterly, where he notes that Joe's immobility can be seen as "the external counterpart of an inner, psychic immobilization. Joe is stalled, incapable of movement … [and] unable to believe in the efficacy of human action, any human action." Joe is a student of life, not a liver of life, someone who exists almost completely in his head. "I'm a student. I study all things," he says to Tom. In fact, he violates Saroyan's imperative in the play's prologue: "In the time of your life, live." Joe is an eternal observer, and the actions he takes are limited. To compensate for this, Joe uses Tom and Kit Carson to make connections to a world in which he is unable to participate.

Many critics, including Mills, point to the obvious use of Tom as Joe's surrogate legs. Tom serves as Joe's legs in his ridiculous errands for chewing gum, toys, and a gun, and he once even lets Joe lean against him as they leave the bar. Beyond that, though, Joe also has Tom serve as his sexual surrogate in his relationship with the prostitute Kitty Duval. Joe obviously cares for Kitty, defending her against Nick's sly comments in the play's first act, saluting her inner beauty and stamina when he buys her champagne, and toasting "To the spirit, Kitty Duval." Saroyan's stage direction notes that when Joe first sees Kitty, he "recognizes her as a good person immediately," and when she sits down, he asks her, "with great compassion," about her dreams and desires.

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WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Peter Balakian's book Black Dog of Fate (1997) is his story of growing up in a comfortable New Jersey suburb in the midst of a family that had survived the 1915 Turkish genocide against the Armenians—a family with experiences similar to those of Saroyan's family. Balakian relates how he was able to get past his family's reluctance to discuss their experiences while living in Armenia and learn about his background and family history.
  • Clifford Odets and Saroyan both wrote plays during the late 1930s and early 1940s, but Odets was a much more overtly political writer than Saroyan. A collection of Odets's plays, Waiting for Lefty and Other Plays (1993), offers an overview of the work by the radical leftist playwright. The title play, about a New York City cabdrivers' strike, was first produced in 1935.
  • Last Rites: The Death of William Saroyan (1982) is the journal Aram Saroyan kept during the last five weeks of his father's life. Father and son had become estranged and the book chronicles their reconciliation.
  • Saroyan's collection of short stories The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and Other Stories (1934) was the publication that launched his career and placed him in the national literary spotlight. In these stories, Saroyan writes of characters who are Armenians, Jews, Chinese, Poles, Africans, and Irish.
  • The William Saroyan Reader (1958) covers the first half of the author's career and includes selections from the early 1930s through the early 1940s. The original edition contains an introduction by Saroyan entitled "Why I Write."

Joe understands that he cannot act when it comes to Kitty, so he pushes the lovestruck Tom to capture her heart in his stead. Joe directs Tom in his courting of Kitty, mimicking scenes from Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac by playing Cyrano to Tom's Christian. This happens in Saroyan's play numerous times but most remarkably when Kitty is telling a dumbstruck Tom about her fantasy of being an actress and having a handsome doctor fall in love with her. "Tom, didn't you ever want to be a doctor?" Kitty asks. Tom is momentarily stumped but finds his voice when hePage 287  |  Top of Article looks at Joe who, according to Saroyan's stage directions, "holds Tom's eyes again, encouraging Tom by his serious expression to go on talking." Joe does have his own memories and experiences of love, but they were mere beginnings that were interrupted before their promise could be fulfilled. Once, while in Mexico City, Joe fell in love with a woman named Mary, but he then discovered that she was only a few days away from marriage to another man. He falls in love with a different Mary during the play but finds out that she is married and has two children.

While Joe's dependence on Tom is critical and allows him to connect with people and the world, it is his relationship with Kit Carson that truly energizes him. It is immediately apparent that Kit is different from the rest of the patrons in Nick's bar when he walks in and selects Joe's table as his drinking spot. The two men quickly bond with each other, especially when Kit opens his conversation by asking Joe, "I don't suppose you ever fell in love with a midget weighing thirty-nine pounds?" While this might appear to be a flippant question for anyone else, it is actually a question that goes straight to the heart of a man like Joe.

First, the question's remarkable subject matter immediately places Joe, for once, in the subordinate position in the conversation. Joe has controlled every other discussion he had been in, from asking Kitty about her dreams to demanding errands from Tom. Even when speaking with Nick, Joe holds the dominant position; in one scene, he condescendingly informs the bar owner, "Nick, I think you're going to be alright in a couple of centuries." Kit's question also must remind Joe of his limited experiences in the world and his failed efforts at love. When Kit will not complete the story of the thirty-nine-pound love interest, Joe keeps asking for more information. Each time, Kit gently ignores Joe and wanders off into an unrelated but equally crazy story. Kit is in complete control of the discussion, and Joe is as entranced with him as Tom is with Kitty.

Through Kit, Joe is able to see a remarkable world far outside the confines of the bar and his normal life. Despite his preeminent physical position in the bar and his financial advantage among the bar's patrons, Joe is a man with little actual experience—except the experience of earning money and being miserable about it. According to Saroyan's description at the play's start, Joe is "always bored, always superior. His expensive clothes are casually and youthfully worn and give him an almost boyish appearance." In contrast, Kit is a man who literally wears his life on his face. Saroyan describes Kit as "an old man," and Joe tells him, "You look more than sixty now." Kit points out, though, that he is a few years younger than sixty and that Joe must think he is older because "That's trouble showing in my face. Trouble and complications." In one of his tales, Kit also remembers "growing older every second" as he faced down a pack of angry dogs.

Kit has seen and done things that boggle the mind and are often beyond belief. Joe, however, accepts Kit and his remarkable stories. When Kit asks Joe if he is one of those who do not believe Kit's tales, Joe responds sincerely, "Of course I believe you. Living is an art. It's not bookkeeping. It takes a lot of rehearsing for a man to get to be himself." In Kit, Joe sees the set of legs he has really needed, so he must believe Kit.

Kit can do so much more for Joe than can the childish Tom. With Tom, Joe can entertain himself by asking for a few toys and chewing gum. He can come close to love by encouraging Tom's feelings for Kitty. He can even ask for a revolver, and Tom will bring one to him. But he does not truly know or understand what to do with the revolver until he meets Kit and has him explain how to load and shoot the gun.

Joe's immobility—and, indeed, his impotence— is never more clear than when he attempts to kill Blick with his new revolver. Everything seems pointed toward Joe's success: he has received a lesson on how to handle the gun, and he feels the fury necessary to kill another man, saying, "I've always wanted to kill somebody, but I never knewPage 288  |  Top of Article who it should be." However, nothing happens when he pulls the trigger. This is where Kit steps in to act for Joe. Moments later, after Joe's gun fails to fire, Kit re-enters the bar, and the two men "look at one another knowingly." Blick is now dead, and Kit is telling a story of how he "shot a man once. In San Francisco…. Fellow named Blick or Glick or something like that." Even though Joe does not pull the trigger and the gun that kills Blick is not his own, it is as if he has participated in the act, thanks to Kit.

Joe, despite his kindness to Kitty and to others, violates many of the lessons for living the good life that Saroyan outlines in the play's prologue. Because Joe cannot act, he cannot live—which goes against one of Saroyan's most urgent messages. Saroyan also writes in the prologue, "if the time comes to kill, kill and have no regret"—another rule that Joe is not able to uphold. Instead, Joe leaves the bar to Kit, and admiring patrons surround Kit, who is ready to take the preeminent position Joe once had. The patrons have chosen action over mere observation, the right choice in Saroyan's universe.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on The Time of Your Life, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

John A. Mills

In the following essay, Mills explores the influence of modern existential literature on The Time of Your Life and its absurd sense.

In the conclusion of his 1976 article entitled, "Joe as Christ-Type in Saroyan's The Time of Your Life," Kenneth W. Rhoads suggested that "other interpretations of Joe may be validly advanced (although so far they seem not to have been)." Seven years of critical silence having followed the issuance of Rhoads's invitation, the time would seem to be ripe for an alternate reading of the character and the play, the more so since Saroyan's recent death is likely to have stirred up fresh interest in his work.

I should like to propose that Joe be viewed as an "homme absurde," as defined by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, and that the play over which he presides be seen as an embodiment of the absurd sense of life, expressing in its structure and all its parts man's confrontation with nothingness, with "the unreasonable silence of the world."

To speak of a work by Saroyan in these terms is, in large measure, to fly in the face of received opinion. Saroyan's depiction of the human condition is usually thought of as sunny and positive, bordering on the sentimental. The two obituaries of record, in the New York Times and the London Times, both voiced the orthodox view. The former spoke of "his message of the disinherited rising above adversity with humor and courage" and the latter referred to "Saroyan's indestructible brand of rhapsodic optimism."

There is something in that, of course. Saroyan typically shows his characters coping with earthly existence with a light-heartedness which approaches the meretricious. There is an element of sweetness in his work which has no counterpart in the drama and fiction of Camus or Sartre, to say nothing of Dostoevsky or Beckett. But there is no fundamental incompatibility between an absurd view of the human enterprise and the adoption of an optimistic stance in the face of ultimate absurdity, pessimistic as most absurdist literature undoubtedly is. Brian Masters quotes Camus as having once said to an audience of Dominican Friars: "If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man." One thinks in this connection of Grand, in The Plague, a "little" man who carries on in the face of meaninglessness with a sanguine indomitability which differs from the posture of Saroyan's characters less in kind than in degree. But these are analogies which must be validated by close examination of Saroyan's text.

Before undertaking such an examination, however, it will be useful to establish Saroyan's spiritual kinship with the evangelists of the absurd, by reference to materials other than The Time of Your Life. Such a kinship is revealed again and again in Saroyan's first three volumes of personal reminiscence, The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, and Not Dying. Since all three were written ten to twenty years after The Time of Your Life (1939), the observations on life which they contain must be used with some care. But even if one looks only at those statements in which Saroyan records his earliest responses to existence, the absurd sense of life stands clearly revealed. A representative sampling will suffice to make the point.

From The Bicycle Rider:

From a very early time in my life I sensed quite accurately the end of life. That is, that it must end, thatPage 289  |  Top of Article it could end any time, that the end did not come to pass by reasonable or meaningful plan, purpose or pattern.

… After swimming I remember sitting with my friends on the hot earth of the pasture bordering the ditch, in the wonderful light and heat of the August sun, and being miserable about my own impermanence, insignificance, meaninglessness, and feebleness.

From Here Comes There Goes:

I took to writing at an early age to escape from meaninglessness, uselessness, unimportance, insignificance, poverty, enslavement, ill health, despair, madness, and all manner of other unattractive, natural, and inevitable things.

The cat would be gone for a good three or four days, and then it would come back looking like a wreck and sprawl out and start to heal, the writer of Ecclesiastes himself. All vanity. All sorrow and ignorance. For God's sake, where's the meaning of it, and the dish of milk?

From Not Dying:

I'm not sure, but then the thing that I am about, the thing I have for the greater part of my life been about, is to consider and reconsider, and then to consider and reconsider again, in the expectation of either finding out or of knowing it is impossible for me to find out. I don't know. I mean, of course, that I don't know anything, with absolute certainty, with finality, with (if you like) final finality.

I have always had a sneaking suspicion that work is a kind of excuse for failure, general failure—to know, to understand, to cherish, to love, to believe, and so on. It is a kind of evasion, a kind of escape from the knowledge that one is entirely without grace, that one is altogether ill and mad.

Such asseverations reveal a mind fully conversant with absurdity, and hence, a mind fully capable of creating a dramatic character imbued with a similar sensibility. That Joe is such a character can be seen in nearly everything he says and does in the course of the action.

One of the most conspicuous features of Joe's character is his immobility. Except for the move to Kitty's hotel room (about which more later) he scarcely stirs. Others come and go—indeed, the play is more than commonly replete with exits and entrances—but not Joe. He remains a still center amid the flux of quotidian activity, relying on the faithful Tom to do such fetching and carrying as he requires. At one point he hints that he is physically incapable of locomotion. "I don't dance," he tells Mary, and then goes on to say, "I can hardly walk." When she asks, "You mean you're tight?," he says "No. I mean all the time."

Saroyan comments revealingly on this exchange in Here Comes There Goes:

Dance? I could hardly walk. Joe, in this same play I'm talking about, said it for me, precisely in those words. This didn't mean something was the matter with his feet and legs, though. It meant something else.

From the context in which this observation occurs it is clear what, for Saroyan, that "something else" is. He has been declaring his admiration for Bojangles and others he has seen who can dance and in the process the term is elevated to the metaphoric plane where it takes on the meaning of "to live, to know how to live, to be engaged, to have found a role, a purpose for living." Joe's physical immobilization may thus be seen as the external counterpart of an inner, psychic immobilization. Joe is stalled, incapable of movement, because, having glimpsed the absurd, he is unable to believe in the efficacy of human action, any human action.

This state of mind is manifested in many other ways, both explicitly and implicitly. As he can hardly walk, he can also hardly talk, can hardly summon up the will to verbally engage external reality. His typical utterances are terse, laconic, flat and monosyllabic. It is significant that he delivers himself of more than a single, simple declarative sentence almost exclusively on those occasions when he is goaded into explaining his inertia; paradoxically, he talks only to account for his failure to talk (or walk, or act). One such speech occurs whenPage 290  |  Top of Article Tom finally musters the courage to ask where Joe gets his money. Joe looks at Tom "sorrowfully, a little irritated" and "speaks clearly, slowly and solemnly":

Now don't be a fool, Tom. Listen carefully. If anybody's got any money—to hoard or to throw away— you can be sure he stole it from other people. Not from rich people who can spare it, but from poor people who can't. From their lives and from their dreams. I'm no exception. I earned the money I throw away. I stole it like everybody else does. I hurt people to get it. Loafing around this way, I still earn money. The money itself earns more. I still hurt people….

This much of the speech, if read in isolation from what follows immediately and in isolation from other materials in the play, might seem to make Joe a social rebel, a man who has withdrawn in protest from the capitalist system, who refuses to be party any longer to the social Darwinism which makes every man a predator of his fellow creatures. Indeed, there is no reason to deny Joe a social conscience. Undoubtedly it was a causative factor in his withdrawal from the world. But it was only a factor, and a relatively minor one. Joe's quarrel is with existence, with the human condition, sub specie aeternitatis, and not merely with the institutions of twentieth-century industrial society. This is revealed, in a negative way, in Joe's reluctance to condemn Blick, the play's chief representative of militant fascism, a bully who is "out to change the world from something bad to something worse." "It's not him," Joe tells Nick. "It's everything." And a few lines later: "He may not be so bad, deep down underneath."

Joe has little or no faith in social revolution as a cure for human malaise. When McCarthy, speaking for suffering humanity, tries to get Joe to side with him against Krupp, another fascist-type ("All I do is carry out orders, carry out orders"), Joe remains steadfastly neutral: "Everything's right…. I'm with everybody. One at a time."

Even when confronted with ocular proof of Blick's bullying ways, Joe is unable to take decisive action against him. He goes through the motions, points the gun and pulls the trigger, but nothing happens. He blames "dumb Tom" for having bought "a six-shooter that won't even shoot once," but, in fact, he had himself removed the cartridges not ten minutes earlier. Whether the attempted assassination of Blick is pure charade or Joe has actually forgotten about the cartridges (his mind dulled by drink?) is impossible to say. But if Saroyan manages the incident rather clumsily, his reason for including it seems nevertheless clear: he stays the hand of his protagonist because he recognizes that decisive action would run counter to the radically uncommitted nature of the character he has been at pains to depict in all that has gone before. Joe does not act because he lacks the necessary conviction, however much he may hide that fact from his own consciousness by conveniently "forgetting" that the weapon is unloaded, or however much he may hide it from others by blaming Tom.

That Joe cannot act, in the social sphere or any other sphere, he explains in the conclusion to his lengthy answer to Tom about the source of his income.

… I don't do anything. I don't want to do anything any more. There isn't anything I can do that won't make me feel embarrassed. Because I can't do simple, good things. I haven't the patience. And I'm too smart. Money is the guiltiest thing in the world. It stinks. Now, don't ever bother me about it again.

Surely such remarks can be interpreted in a way that establishes a family resemblance between Joe and the alienated, disaffected, anti-heroes who people the world of modernist fiction and drama. In Camus's terms, Joe has come to regard all tasks as Sisyphean, as so much meaningless activity, activity which is "embarrassing" because it does not have, cannot have, intrinsic value or ultimate efficacy. Like Dostoevsky's Underground Man, Joe is cursed with "lucidity," that "full-fledged disease" which obviates action; he is "too smart." Like the Underground Man he envies those "spontaneous people and the men of action" who lack lucidity but he knows he can never again be one of them. He cannot "do simple things," cannot, like a Russian peasant, be a contented hewer of wood and drawer of water. Consciousness will not allow it. "Before encountering the absurd," Camus writes, "the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification…. He weighs his chances, he counts on 'someday,' his retirement or the labor of his sons." Joe has been an "everyday man" but can never be again. When Mary asks why he drinks, he replies:

Because I don't like to be gypped. Because I don't like to be dead most of the time and just a little alive every once in a long while. (Pause) If I don't drink, I become fascinated by unimportant things—like everybody else. I get busy. Do things. All kinds of little stupid things, for all kinds of little stupid reasons. Proud, selfish, ordinary things. I've done them. Now I don't do anything. I live all the time. Then I go to sleep.

Not yet grasping his point, Mary asks: "What are your plans?" and he answers: "Plans? I haven'tPage 291  |  Top of Article got any. I just get up." And then the light dawns. "Beginning to understand everything," she replies: "Oh, yes. Yes, of course." Following this, Joe returns to the question of why he drinks, struggling, as usual, with inarticulateness, but eventually "working it out."

Twenty-four hours. Out of the twenty-four hours at least twenty-three and a half are—my God, I don't know why—dull, dead, boring, empty and murderous. Minutes on the clock, not time of living. It doesn't make any difference who you are or what you do, twenty-three and a half hours of the twenty-four are spent waiting.

That goes on for days and days, and weeks and months and years, and years, and the first thing you know all the years are dead. All the minutes are dead. There's nothing to wait for any more. Nothing except minutes on the clock. No time of life. Nothing but minutes, and idiocy. (Pause) Does that answer your question?

This is a view of the human condition which bears a striking resemblance to one put forward by another "immobilized" protagonist, Hamm of Endgame: "Moment by moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of (he hesitates) … that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life."

Joe's sporadic outbursts of self-analysis provide perhaps the most explicit evidence of his immersion in absurdity, but his state of mind manifests itself in other ways as well. In the play's opening sequence, after Joe has purchased a stack of newspapers, glanced at them and thrown them away in disgust, the Arab picks one up, reads the headline, and "as if rejecting everything else a man might say about the world," intones for the first time a line which is to run through the play like a lyric refrain: "No foundation. All the way down the line." The incident establishes a spiritual nexus between the two characters; the Arab says what Joe thinks; they share a belief in the emptiness of all human endeavor; it has no foundation, no intrinsic value. Repeated and embellished throughout the play, the Arab's judgment upon the world carries the same thematic force as the cryptic pronouncement with which Estragon opens Waiting for Godot: "Nothing to be done."

The second time we hear from the Arab he develops his theme, his sole theme, at greater length:

No foundation. All the way down the line. What. What-not. Nothing. I go walk and look at sky.

Krupp immediately turns to Joe for an explanation: "What? What-not? What's that mean?" It is significant that Krupp fails to comprehend because Krupp is a man who cannot live without absolutes, without direction. He has surrendered his freedom, put on a uniform, and follows orders, bashing heads at the command of his masters, secure in the conviction that they know what is to be done, even if he does not. It is also significant that Joe does understand and is ready with an explication, further revealing that he and the Arab are like-minded men, differing only in the beverages they choose as aids to lucidity:

What? What-not? That means this side, that side. Inhale, exhale. What: birth. What-not: death. The inevitable, the astounding, the magnificent seed of growth and decay in all things. Beginning, and end. That man, in his own way, is a prophet. He is one who, with the help of beer, is able to reach that state of deep understanding in which what and what-not, the reasonable and the unreasonable, are one.

Once again, Saroyan shows himself to be Beckettian avant la lettre; "inhale, exhale" reminds us of the later playwright's thirty-second dramatization of the human condition called Breath, and the evocation of "Beginning, and end" expresses the same sense of life as Hamm's "The end is in the beginning and yet you go on."

The Arab thus functions as a kind of choral character, articulating in a quasi-lyric mode that sense of estrangement, of being rudderless in "a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights", which colors everything that Joe says and does. The Arab's presence in the play expands its reference, amplifies its resonance, by suggesting that Joe is not to be written off as a special case, an aberration, but is to be viewed as broadly representative. At the end of Act Four, when the Arab plays a solo on the harmonica, Wesley reminds us that the music expresses the age-old pain of earthly existence: "That's deep, deep crying. That's crying a long time ago. That's crying a thousand years ago. Some place five thousand miles away." Much the same might be said of the Arab's verbal laments. Coming just after his declaration that he no longer works ("For what? Nothing"), the Arab's harmonica threnody reinforces his similarity to Joe. Both have been stopped dead by their perception of the absurd. They have fetched up in "those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines." For such men, Camus continues, "The real effort is to stay there … and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions." With the aid of champagne and beer, respectively, Joe and the Arab keep the absurd vividly present to consciousness, so as not to be seduced into "bad faith," into the delusion thatPage 292  |  Top of Article "little stupid things" are important, into performing tasks which are "for nothing," as though they were "for something."

But stasis is not the only possible posture before the absurd. Camus points out that "on the one hand the absurd teaches that all experiences are unimportant, and on the other it urges toward the greatest quantity of experiences." This "quantitative ethic," this joyous acceptance and energetic use of freedom is exhibited in the play by Kit Carson ("real" name Murphy), a man who seems to know what Joe and the Arab know but who has gone on from there. Carson seems to know that in the absence of absolutes "everything is permitted," and so he has led a rootless, improvised, richly varied existence, reveling in a multiplicity of sensations in the brief time allotted before all sensation ceases. Of the four human types whom Camus describes as embodying most fully and clearly the quantitative ethic which absurdity leads to—Don Juan, the creative artist, the actor, and the conqueror— Carson most closely resembles the actor. He has herded cattle on a bicycle, passed himself off as a mining engineer, masqueraded as a woman and changed his name as casually as other men change their shirts. He calls himself Murphy now but Saroyan says "he looks as if he might have been Kit Carson at one time" (106), and that is the name the author assigns him throughout. The actor, Camus explains, "abundantly illustrates every month or every day that so suggestive truth that there is no frontier between what a man wants to be and what he is. Always concerned with better representing, he demonstrates to what a degree appearing creates being." And so it is with Carson as Joe, characteristically, perceives. "Now, son, don't tell me you don't believe me, either?" Carson asks, after recounting some of his adventures. "Of course I believe you," Joe answers. "Living is an art. It's not bookkeeping. It takes a lot of rehearsing for a man to get to be himself."

Joe does not live as Carson lives but he immediately recognizes and approves of the ethic of experience which the latter has embraced. They are brothers in absurdity, fellow outsiders. "You're the first man I've ever met who believes me," says Carson.

That they are both alike and not alike is seen in their responses to the cruelty of Blick. Both deplore it but only Carson is able to turn his moral repugnance into effective action, striking down the oppressor moments after Joe's abortive attempt to do so. Though Carson has, by his own account, repeatedly run away from violence on occasions when only his personal safety was at stake, he feels constrained to stand and fight against the threat to the general good, to universal human nature, which Blick, the totalitarian ideologue, so chillingly embodies. In this, Carson resembles Cherea of Camus's Caligula. Though he agrees with Caligula, "to a point," that "all [actions] are on an equal footing," Cherea executes the tyrant, because, as he tells him, "you're pernicious, and you've got to go."

Joe, the Arab, and Kit Carson are perhaps the play's most vividly rendered exemplars of the absurd sensibility but others among the dramtis personae also bear witness in a variety of modes and degrees. Prominent among these secondary characters is Harry the Hoofer. Saroyan introduces him as a man who is "out of place everywhere, embarrassed and encumbered by the contemporary costume, sick at heart, but determined to fit in somewhere". In short, he is another character whose life has "no foundation"; he lacks a ground of being but manfully shoulders the task of improvising one, the existential task of "making himself". His primary medium is the dance and he thus embodies a variation on the dance metaphor which we have found Joe using. Harry's restless, ceaseless soft-shoe patterns and variations are the obverse of Joe's immobility; Harry constructs designs to fill the void left by nature, replacing one configuration with another in full awareness of the ultimate emptiness of all of them. "I felt that man must make," Saroyan has written, "that he must make ceaselessly, again and again…."

Harry also "makes" in another medium; he is a stand-up comic and his monologues speak always of flux and incoherence, of life's refusal to make sense:

Now, I'm standing on the corner of Third and Market. I'm looking around. I'm figuring it out. There it is. Right in front of me. The whole city. The whole world. People going by. They're going somewhere. I don't know where, but they're going. I ain't going anywhere. Where the hell can you go? I'm figuring it out. All right, I'm a citizen. A fat guy bumps his stomach into the face of an old lady. They were in a hurry. Fat and old. They bumped. Boom. I don't know. It may mean war. War. Germany. England. Russia. I don't know for sure. (Loudly, dramatically, he salutes, about faces, presents arms, aims, and fires) WAAAAAR.

This, like Harry's other routines, is an absurd work of art in miniature. "The absurd work of art," Camus explains, "illustrates thought's renouncingPage 293  |  Top of Article of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. If the world were clear, art would not exist". Small wonder that most of the regulars at Nick's waterfront honkytonk fail to comprehend Harry's bizarre accounts of day-to-day existence. They represent a "new kind of comedy," a comedy at which it is difficult if not impossible to laugh—black comedy, in short. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness," says Nell in Endgame. "Yes, it's like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don't laugh anymore."

Strong intimations of absurdity appear also in the little episode involving Elsie and Dudley. After a peremptory exchange of greetings with her suitor, Elsie, a nurse, launches a bitter critique of the terms upon which human beings hold their tenure of life: "So many people are sick. Last night a little boy died. I love you, but—." Dudley protests, but she is adamant:

Love is for birds. They have wings to fly away on when it's time for flying. For tigers in the jungle because they don't know their end. We know our end. Every night I watch over poor, dying men. I hear them breathing, crying, talking in their sleep. Crying for air and water and love, for mother and field and sunlight. We can never know love or greatness. We should know both.

The scene is analogous to that crucial confrontation in The Plague between Dr. Rieux and Father Paneloux, following the death in agony of the son of M. Othon. "That child, anyhow, was innocent, and you know it as well as I do," says Rieux. "And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture." Like Ivan Karamazov before him, Rieux refuses to countenance a fabric of human destiny which requires the torture of the innocent. In that "immoral" scheme of things lies one of the great headwaters of the absurd. Elsie's revolt against this irrational evil no doubt strikes us as rather facile, unearned, compared to the hard-won and meticulously articulated perceptions of Rieux and Ivan, but it springs from an identical source.

Another familiar topos of absurdist literature occurs, if only in a radically truncated form, in the behavior of The Lady, a socialite who has come to Nick's with her husband on a "slumming" expedition. When Joe passes cigars around, the Lady blithely takes one, bites the tip off, and accepts a light from Carson, to the distress of her straightlaced spouse: "The mother of five grown men, and she's still looking for romance. No. I forbid it." In thus flouting the arbitrary social code which proscribes cigar-smoking for a wife-and-mother, she opens herself up to experience, making a brave, if pathetic, little bid for that freedom which is a consequence of the acceptance of absurdity. Characteristically, Joe defends her against her serious-minded, law-giving husband: "What's the matter with you? Why don't you leave her alone? What are you always pushing your women around for?"

That we are to see the Lady's inchoate rebellion in existential terms is suggested not only by Joe's energetic support of it but also by the context in which it occurs. Joe distributes the cigars immediately after removing from his mouth the enormous wad of gum he has put there in his chewing contest with Tom and Carson. In the mock earnestness with which Joe engages in this competition, he parodies those struggles for achievement which characterize the serious world, the world of "aims," which he has repudiated. The incident has something of the flavor and point, though not the force, of the celebrated passage in Beckett's Molloy, where the eponymous hero is made to wrestle for five pages with the logistics involved in transferring sixteen pebbles, one by one, from his pockets to his mouth and back again. The gum-chewing match creates a climate of challenge to orthodox opinion about "allowable" adult behavior into which the "unseemly" conduct of the Lady fits very naturally. The point is underscored by the fact that Joe wraps his gum in a Liberty magazine, one of three publications (the others are Time and Life) which Joe had Tom purchase along with the gum and cigars. Time and Life echo, of course, the key terms of the play's title (as does Precious Time, one of the horses Joe bets on) and frequent use of such terms serves to remind us of the play's primary thematic thrust: the time of life is short and ends in death and time is therefore precious and must be savoured in the lucid acknowledgment of total liberty.

Yet another image of absurdity appears in Willie's running battle with the saloon's "marble-game," or pin-ball machine. Saroyan points up the symbolic significance of Willie's heroic struggle in a lengthy stage direction:

[Willie] stands straight and pious before the contest. Himself vs. the machine. Willie vs. Destiny. His skill and daring vs. the cunning and trickery of the novelty industry of America, and the whole challenging world. He is the last of the American Pioneers, with nothing more to fight but the machine, with no other reward than lights going on and off, and six nickels for one. Before him is the last champion, the machine. He isPage 294  |  Top of Article the last challenger, the young man with nothing to do in the world ….

Willie eventually "defeats" the machine, mastering Destiny, he believes, through skill and force of will: "I just don't like the idea of anything getting the best of me. A machine or anything else. Myself, I'm the kind of a guy who makes up his mind to do something, and then goes to work and does it. There's no other way a man can be a success at anything". But his triumph is hollow and short-lived. The next time he attacks his adversary, the machine records a victory by sheer chance, and goes on doing so, unpredictably, arbitrarily. Like the cosmos which it represents, the "machine is out of order." "Something's wrong," Willie ruefully reports.

The absurd sense of life is expressed not only in the statements and activities of the characters but in the very structure of the work. The play is conspicuously non-linear, palpably static, mirroring in its randomness and clutter that chaos which, in the absurdist view, characterizes life itself. The play lacks plot because life lacks plot. In life, as Camus says, "there is no scenario, but a successive and incoherent illustration." It is true, of course, that all of Saroyan's work, fiction as well as drama, is slack and disjointed, but the fact remains that on this occasion (whatever may be the case elsewhere) the looseness is thematically functional, operating in close congruence with the elements of thought and character which carry the essential import of the work. The harmony of feeling and form is much of the reason why The Time of Your Life is one of Saroyan's most aesthetically satisfying accomplishments. He once confessed that he wished to write "the way snow falls". The metaphor is strikingly apt. In The Three Sisters, another work comprised of the "aimless" accumulation of incident, Tusenback, told that life as he has described it does not "make sense," replies: "It's snowing out there. Does that make sense?"

But the play is not absolutely free of consequential action. In the relationship between Tom and Kitty Duval there is a boy-meets-girl plot, of sorts, presided over by Joe and by him propelled forward to a dramatically predictable denouement. Joe's involvement in this romance between a lovable stumblebum and a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold represents his chief departure from non-alignment and, correspondingly, Saroyan's chief concession to conventional storytelling. As such, the whole episode seems out of key with the desultoriness which is otherwise pervasive; it represents an aesthetic lapse which is "given away," as it were, by the theatrically awkward shift of locale to Kitty's apartment in Act Three; the abrupt and short-lived excursion to a different physical world transports us to a different dramatic world, temporarily dissipating the emotional and spiritual ambience emanating from the honky-tonk. It is as though Hamm and Clov have ventured out of the shelter.

Though the Tom-Kitty plot borders on sentimental cliché, Joe functions in it in a way that is not fundamentally alien to his nature as homme absurde. Though he succeeds in his match-making partly by providing material assistance to the lovers—a job for Tom, a new wardrobe and domicile for Kitty— his more important contribution is spiritual. Rhoads focuses on this point in developing his case for Joe as Christ-type. Tom becomes Lazarus, brought back from death by Joe prior to the action, and Kitty becomes the woman taken in adultery, treated with compassion by Joe and told to go and sin no more. These parallels are admittedly quite arresting, more so than some of the other scriptural analogues which Rhoads presents. Joe is indeed a kind of saviour. But if we are to think of him in such terms we would do well to associate him with the Christ of Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor" vignette, rather than with the Messiah described by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For, like Dostoevsky's Christ, Joe has no gospel to preach, no glad tidings to bring, except the gospel of existential freedom. He repeatedly refuses to be dogmatic. When Tom declares, with something like worshipful awe: "You're a different kind of a guy," Joe rebukes him: "Don't be silly. I don't understand things. I'm trying to understand them." Earlier, he has told Nick: "I study things," and when Tom asks him to explain why he has called his three hours in the automobile with him and Kitty "the most delightful, the most somber, and the most beautiful" he has ever known, Joe repeats the self-description with quiet emphasis:

I'm a student. I study all things. All. All. And when my study reveals something of beauty in a place or in a person where by all rights only ugliness or death should be revealed, then I know how full of goodness this life is. And that's a very good thing to know. That's a truth I shall always seek to verify.

Hence, the only "word" he has to offer the lovers is that their lives are in their hands, that they are free to make, or remake themselves as they choose. There is no "way" except the way of choice. "You've got to figure out something to do that you won't mind doing very much," he tells Tom. When Tom fails to come up with anything,Page 295  |  Top of Article Joe offers a gentle nudge, couching his suggestion in the same language he has used earlier in speaking of his own work experience: "Tom, would you be embarrassed driving a truck?" Tom eagerly accepts the position offered and in so doing adopts a philosophic stance not unlike Joe's own, the stance of the outsider, keenly aware of life's absurdity:

Joe, that's just the kind of work I should do. Just sit there and travel, and look, and smile, and bust out laughing ….

Joe's ministry to the "fallen" Kitty also stresses the paramount importance of freely-accepted, self-created values:

I put her in that hotel, so she can have a chance to gather herself together again. She can't do that in the New York Hotel. You saw what happens there. There's nobody anywhere for her to talk to, except you. They all make her talk like a whore. After a while, she'll believe them ….

Understandably, Kitty reacts with fear and trembling to the freedom Joe offers her. Her first, very human, impulse is to assign irresistible power to the social and psychological forces which have cast her in the role of prostitute: "Too many things have happened to me …. I can't stand being alone. I'm no good. I tried very hard …. Everything smells different. I don't know how to feel, or what to think …. It's what I've wanted all my life, but it's too late… ." Joe remains nondirective; the choice must be hers: "I don't know what to tell you, Kitty…. I can't tell you what to do … ".

But Blick precipitates a climax in Kitty's struggle for self-possession and self-determination. By forcing her to perform a strip-tease, he seeks to demonstrate, to her and to the world, that she is a slut, essentially and irrevocably. Only then does Joe take a hand. He stops the shameful proceedings and by sending her off across the country with Tom puts her feet, if only tenuously, on the first rung of the ladder of self-realization.

A few moments later, having failed to kill Blick and having learned that someone else has succeeded at that task, Joe says goodbye to the saloon, probably for good:

Nick: Will I see you tomorrow?

Joe: I don't know. I don't think so.

Where is he going? "I don't know," he says. "Nowhere." Rhoads finds "the aura of vagueness and mystery" which hangs over this departure appropriate to a Christ-figure, whose "ending, whether it be in death or mere disappearance" should be as obscure as his origins. His "ministry" here is finished, Rhoads concludes; "other Toms and Kittys in other places need him, and a new mission calls."

But Joe's mission has been a mission of self-discovery as much as anything else and it seems as reasonable to conclude that he now changes his base of operations in order to continue his "study"—of himself and the world and his place in it. He has, after all, some new material to work on; he has for the first time tried to act on an old desire: "I always wanted to kill somebody, but I never knew who it should be," he had announced as he took up the unloaded pistol. His action has brought with it both self-exposure and self-confrontation and we can imagine him wanting to withdraw in order to think further on these things. That something of the sort is on his mind is strongly suggested by the event which triggers his leave-taking. "Joe, you wanted to kill that guy'," Nick says with surprise and admiration, and offers to buy him a bottle of champagne. Joe immediately goes for his hat and coat. "What's the matter?" Nick asks. "Nothing. Nothing."

Joe might be compared here to Scipio in Caligula. Invited by Cherea to join in the assassination of Caligula, Scipio cannot make that choice, though he understands and partly approves of Cherea's motives. Instead, he leaves, determined to "try to discover the meaning of it all."

At virtually every turn then, the dramatic materials which make up The Time of Your Life evoke comparisons with that spiritual topography familiar to us in the masterworks of modern existential literature. Saroyan's ability to translate his vision of the absurd into a wholly apposite and powerfully expressive symbolic form no doubt falls below that of his more illustrious forerunners and contemporaries. It is all too easy to read the play as an amiable, if somewhat eccentric slice-of-life, a mere chronicle of the quaint goings-on at a typically American waterfront saloon. On the surface, of course, the play is that, and it is as such that it has won an honored place among the classics of American realism. But its surface charm ought not to blind us to the weightier metaphysical import which lies just beneath.

Source: John A. Mills, "'What. What-not.': Absurdity in Saroyan's The Time of Your Life," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Winter 1985, pp. 139–59.

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Daniel Massey and Zoe Wanamaker in a scene from a theatrical production of The Time of Your Life, directed by Howard Davies

Daniel Massey and Zoe Wanamaker in a scene from a theatrical production of The Time of Your Life, directed by Howard Davies

John Gassner

In the following essay, Gassner provides an analysis of the production of The Time of Your Life asserting that "its uniqueness resides in its form rather than its content or meaning."

No play demonstrates the potential vitality of our stage at the end of the 1930's more convincingly than William Saroyan's fugue, The Time of Your Life. In most countries his first effort, My Heart's in the Highlands, would have been hooted off the stage as the work of a charlatan. Here it was recognized by most critics as a thing of beauty, even if its charm was found to defy analysis. It was not the masterpiece some commentators thought it was; its thinking was decidedly muddled and its assault on the penumbral regions of the mind grew somewhat wearying. Nevertheless, few of us failed to respond to the advent of a fine talent, and within a few months his new play, The Time of Your Life, had been jointly acquired by Eddie Dowling, for whom the central character had been written, and by the veteran Theatre Guild. Disaster seemed imminent at its Boston showing, and so discouraging seemed its prospects that it might have normally been discarded as hopeless. Instead, however, the author, Mr. Dowling, Miss Theresa Helburn, and Mr. Lawrence Langner refused to accept defeat, and their New York production is at present one of the outstanding plays of the season.

Theoretically, the play should have been a disastrous failure, and purists must exclaim that it is not a play at all. So must writers, young and old, who have gone to the trouble of learning the rudiments of dramatic technique only to find that their efforts are unrewarded or are less rewarded than the seemingly scrambled lucubrations of a short-story writer who does not hesitate to proclaim himself a genius. What they fail to see is that there may be direction in indirection, and that the theatre which lives by nuances of acting has always been grateful for nuances in the drama except in the most embattled episodes of its history. Moreover, there is a lasting power in obliquity, in leaving implications to the audience, in asking it to participate in an experience instead of driving the spectator to an acceptance of a philosophy of action that he will very probably forget the moment he leaves the theatre unless he is preconvinced. It is generally safer to steep him in the substance of the life of his times and to let him try to make sense and purpose out of it. For the record, it is necessary only to go back to Shakespeare, whose disapproval of bothPage 297  |  Top of Article feudalism and Renaissance Machiavellism was so implicit that it could be more explicit than any preachment—and far more persuasive. Even Euripides practiced this art, as did Ibsen at his best, not to speak of Chekhov and other moderns. Odets, in our own day, has employed the same means in Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moon, and in portions of both Awake and Sing and Paradise Lost; so has Paul Green in Johnny Johnson, and even in The House of Connelly and Hymn to the Rising Sun.

Most of these examples have been chosen with malice prepense, since they have been recognized as "social plays," and since there is much to be said for those who maintain that all significant plays of our day must have social implications. (Actually, there never was a time when most meritorious serious plays and many comedies were not socially oriented. The proponents of social drama are therefore frequently thinking merely of degrees of social meaning rather than of the mere presence of this attribute.) The truth about The Time of Your Life is that its uniqueness resides in its form rather than in its content or meaning, and even the form departs from convention only by a greater degree of obliquity and by a more persistent employment of nuances than we have found customary. If the play is to be measured by the yardstick of social criticism, it is not likely to be as exasperatingly negligible as some young critics are inclined to believe. If it is to be measured by the yardstick of conventional dramaturgy, it is also not to be dismissed as a hopeless object of curves and angles. Only those who believe that social drama must be hortatory, or that a good play must adhere to the rules of Freytag, will not know how to measure it. It may also be argued with some validity that we need not measure a work of art at all; it is necessary only to feel its magic. That too is criticism or a form of judgment, and the trouble with this absolutely valid approach is only that one cannot argue about it.

The Time of Your Life is a genre picture with a wealth of chiaroscuro, the latter being intellectual or critical as well as sensory. Packed into a "honkytonk," a saloon that supplies entertainment as well as hard liquor, are a number of people. They are, superficially considered, hopelessly miscellaneous. But they have one thing in common—their burden of aspiration or of frustration or of both. The young marble-game addict, the melancholy comedian, the Negro who collapses of hunger and plays divinely when he is revived, the overzealous comedian, the ludicrously love-sick swain who telephones a nurse in vain until she finally appears and gives him more than he dared to expect, the prostitute who veils her past in dreams, the sensation-seeking wealthy woman married to a comically strait-laced husband, the policeman who detests his job—who are these and others but waifs of the world, impressing upon us the fact that we are all waifs of one kind or another!

Nor is this all. Those who want more cohesion in the drama will find it, if they have unimpaired eyes, in the presence of Joe, a shiftless young man with money at his disposal. Everything, every event or presence in the play, impinges upon him, so that he becomes the sensitive film and focus of the episodes, and many of the events are directly or indirectly inspired by him. He is many things in one, this man who acquired money and sickened of it, who is alone and inscrutably so, as so often happens if not to the same extent. Out of his loneliness and sensitivity he has developed a pity for all mankind and a feeling of brotherhood; and having money and time at his disposal, he has made himself a paraclete or comforter of his fellow creatures, giving understanding where it is needed and material help where it is imperative. He is not a wise legislator or a sound philanthropist, and a course of socially integrated action is foreign to him, for he is mysteriously wrapped up in himself and in his loneliness. One cannot attribute supernatural or social leadership to this figure. But as a very human person, he is the catalytic agent of a large portion of the play. He has a mystic prototype in the Paraclete of Evreinov's The Chief Thing, and a realistic one in the interfering Luka of Gorky's Night's Lodging. There is, in short, a subtle integration in the play.

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Those who want more social pertinence than has been indicated thus far will also find it. To the implicit reference of frustration in our life must be added the hardly irrelevant idea of human brotherhood; all mankind is to be pitied, a doctrine that needs some reaffirmation at this time. "All," is, however, too large a prescription, and for practical purposes a dangerous one. All mankind is pitiful, indeed; even the sadistic vigilante who bullies the prostitute and maltreats the Negro who comes to her defense is a pitiful specimen. Still, Saroyan realizes, at least fugaciously, that there is a degree of evil that can be overcome only by the application of force. Joe wants to give his gun to "a good man who can use it," and the fantastic relic of the frontier, Kit Carson, who claims the honor of having killed the vigilante is received with approval by Joe; it is to him that he bequeaths the pistol. As a course of social action, this assassination is of course deplorable, when approached literally; apprehended symbolically or suggestively, it is only too pertinent today when men of good will are called upon to cope with international bullies. And if we must labor the point, it is also possible to call attention to the fact that the casually introduced characters suggest the actual social scene. Surely the hungry work-hunting Negro represents something more than an isolated case; does he not remind us of a certain pressing problem that all the New Dealers have been unable to solve in eight long years, as well as of the richness of talent or spirit that goes begging in the streets! The seedy comedian who fails to amuse because he has nothing to laugh about represents a shrewd appraisal of reality by the playwright; and there is much satiric comment inherent in the moronically hopeful lad at the slot machine whose Jobian patience is finally rewarded with a collection of nickels and a display of three American flags. Beyond the confines of the saloon, moreover, there are no brass bands but picket lines, and the proletarian dock workers are ready to lock horns with the proletarian police.

Compassion and perception, and laughter and pity, are fused in Saroyan's play into one of the richest experiences provided by the American theatre in many years. Nothing is basically vague, although everything is fugitive, in this play. If it does not come to a single point (and there is no reason why any play must, provided it is richly alive), all its separate points are vividly realized. Only a certain sentimentality attenuates them, particularly in a bedroom scene. The prime condition of dramatic structure is not actually the principle that everything in a play must be tied up in a knot (vide King Lear, Henry IV, Peer Gynt, etc.) but that there should be no inconsistencies in the development of character and plot. A writer who keeps us in one groove and then suddenly jolts us out of it is far more culpable than a Saroyan.

An analysis of the production is impossible within the limits of this article, which has stressed the playwriting problem because it is uppermost in the discussions of the play. There has been some debate on the question of style, and it has been maintained with some show of reason that the original direction by Robert Lewis, who treated the play as fantasy, was more appropriate to the spirit of Saroyan's work. The fact is, however, that the author did not think so, and that the production supplied by Messrs. Saroyan, Dowling, Langner, and Miss Helburn is both affecting and amusing. This does not of course settle the larger problem of form, and I trust I shall have the opportunity to return to it. One may, however, ponder the question whether this play is a fantasy; I do not think it is— one does not consider Brueghel's crowded canvases or Igor Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps fantastic. The assumption that anything not completely integrated constitutes fantasy is an illusion of reason-inebriated members of the intelligentsia; to them we recommend the platitude that a good deal of private and social life is unintegrated and illogical.

Source: John Gassner, "Saroyan's The Time of Your Life," in Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled from 30 Years of Dramatic Criticism, edited by Glenn Loney, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968, pp. 407–10.

SOURCES

Anghoff, Charles, Review of The Time of Your Life, in North American Review, Vol. 248, No. 2, Winter 1939–1940, pp. 403–4.

Atkinson, Brooks, Review of The Time of Your Life, in Broadway Scrapbook, Theatre Arts, Inc., 1947, pp. 129–32, originally published in New York Times, November 5, 1939.

Barnes, Clive, "Saroyan Play Revived by Plumstead Troupe," in New York Times, February 25, 1972, p. 26.

Brown, John Mason, "America's Yield," in Broadway in Review, W. W. Norton & Company, 1940, pp. 132–97, originally published in the New York Post, October 26, 1939.

Carpenter, Frederic I., "The Time of William Saroyan's Life," in the Pacific Spectator, Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1947, pp. 88–96.

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Dusenbury, Winifred L., The Theme of Loneliness in Modern American Drama, University of Florida Press, 1960, pp. 155–78, 197–212.

Gill, Brendan, Review of The Time of Your Life, in the New Yorker, November 15, 1969.

McCarthy, Mary, "Saroyan, an Innocent on Broadway," in Sights and Spectacles: 1937–1956, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956, pp. 46–52, originally published in slightly different form in the Partisan Review, March–April 1940.

Mills, John A., "'What. What Not': Absurdity in Saroyan's The Time of Your Life," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, Winter 1985, pp. 139–59.

Rhoads, Kenneth, "Joe as Christ-type in Saroyan's The Time of Your Life," in Essays in Literature, Western Illinois University, Fall 1976, pp. 227–43.

Shinn, Thelma J., "William Saroyan: Romantic Existentialist," in Modern Drama, Vol. 15, No. 2, September 1972, pp. 185–94.

Vernon, Grenville, Review of The Time of Your Life, in Commonweal, Vol. 31, November 10, 1939, p. 78.

FURTHER READING

Bedrosian, Margaret, Magical Pine Ring: Culture and the Imagination in Armenian-American Literature, Wayne State University Press, 1991.

Bedrosian examines the continuing influence of Armenian history on Armenian-American writing. In addition to Saroyan, Bedrosian includes nine other Armenian-American writers, including Emmanuel Varandyan, Diana der Hovanessian, and Richard Hagopian.

Keyishian, Harry, ed., Critical Essays on William Saroyan, Macmillan Library References, 1995.

This volume includes reviews of Saroyan's major plays, stories, novels, and autobiographical writings as well as numerous critical analyses of his work.

Lee, Lawrence, and Barry Gifford, Saroyan: A Biography, Harper Collins, 1984.

Lee and Gifford tell the story of Saroyan's life using firsthand accounts from the wife he twice divorced, his son and daughter, and friends such as Artie Shaw, Celeste Holm, and Lillian Gish.

Terkel, Studs, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, New Press, 2000.

Originally published in 1970, Studs Terkel chronicles the effects that the Great Depression had on dozens of ordinary people (and a few famous ones), using their own words.

Whitmore, Jon, William Saroyan, Greenwood Publishing, 1995.

This book profiles Saroyan, focusing on his life in the theater. Included are critical overviews of Saroyan's work, plot summaries, and production information for his plays, a bibliography, and other writings about his work in the theater.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"The Time of Your Life." Drama for Students, edited by David A. Galens, vol. 17, Gale, 2003, pp. 274-299. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX3420100024%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3Dd56cc977. Accessed 23 Mar. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420100024

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  • Absurdity
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 288-295
  • Beauty
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 277
      • 17: 280-281
      • 17: 284
  • Courage
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 288
      • 17: 290
      • 17: 293
  • Dance
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 276-277
      • 17: 280-281
      • 17: 283
      • 17: 289
      • 17: 292
  • Death
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 288
      • 17: 290-291
      • 17: 293-295
  • Drama
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 274
      • 17: 283
      • 17: 296-298
  • Emotions
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 294
  • Europe
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 276-277
      • 17: 282-284
  • Existentialism
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 292-295
  • Fate and Chance
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 288-289
      • 17: 291-295
  • Great Depression
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 274
      • 17: 282-283
  • History
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 282
  • Hope
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 288-289
  • Human Condition
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 288
      • 17: 290-291
  • Humor
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 297-298
  • Imagery and Symbolism
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 292-295
  • Literary Criticism
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 284
  • Love Conquers All
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 281
  • Love and Passion
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 274
      • 17: 276-277
      • 17: 281-282
      • 17: 286-287
      • 17: 289
      • 17: 292-294
  • Money and Economics
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 276-277
      • 17: 280
      • 17: 282-283
  • Music
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 276-278
      • 17: 283
  • Nature
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 290
      • 17: 292
      • 17: 294
  • North America
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 276
      • 17: 283-284
  • Personification
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 288-289
      • 17: 292
  • Philosophical Ideas
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 295
  • Plot
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 282
      • 17: 284
      • 17: 294
  • Politicians
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 282-284
  • Politics
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 276
      • 17: 282-283
  • Prostitution
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 275-277
      • 17: 280-282
  • Science and Technology
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 293-294
  • Structure
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 288-289
      • 17: 294
  • Success
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 280
  • The Body-Mind Dichotomy
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 280
  • War, the Military, and Soldier Life
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 282-284
  • World War II
    • The Time of Your Life:
      • 17: 274
      • 17: 283-284