in Space, Time, and the Imagination
William Saroyan, The Time of Your Life and American Optimism in Sombre Comedy
From Chapter 16, "The Comedy of Ultimate Assertion," Comedy in Space, Time and the Imagination, pp. 252-259.
[In its chapter entitled “The Comedy of Ultimately Assertion,” Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination worked to show that sombre comedic technique and message did not necessarily have to support a pessimistic dynamis or power that the work attempts to have over its audience. Ed.]
Thus we see that an emotive corollary definition of sombre comedy, like an emotive corollary definition of comedy, cannot limit the overall response to a single emotion, such as depression. . . .
[This theoretical conclusion is] aptly borne out in a study of two American playwrights from the Depression and Second World War era, William Saroyan and Thornton Wilder. Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life and Wilder’s The skin of Our Teeth concern us here. While neither play currently ranks among the most intellectually prestigious works of the modern period, each has enjoyed success originally and in repertory. Both have been translated into many languages and have won considerable critical acclaim. If these plays are not appreciated today as much as they were originally, it must be kept in mind that both were written during a particularly tense period of American history and perhaps spoke most directly to the needs of the times. Saroyan’s play appeared in 1939, Wilder’s in 1942. America was coming out of its longest and most profound economic depression and entering a period of unprecedented U.S. international involvement, inaugurated by the world’s most devastating war. It was a time either for jeremiads or for unperturbable faith. Both Saroyan and Wilder chose faith, as did America generally. Both plays became patriotic expressions. As such, they were admired in their own time but have been less admired in times that seem less bleak. . . .
Saroyan seems to have been the first modern playwright to learn to elicit positive responses to comedy that emphasizes the continuing cost of survival. In The Time of Your Life, Saroyan introduces a set of low-life characters in a setting seemingly borrowed from The Iceman Cometh. Saroyan’s characters include Nick, a friendly bartender; Kitty Duval and several other prostitutes; down-and-outers like the Arab, Wesley, and Harry It would seem to be an American theme, dating at least as far back as Bret Harte, that basic, kind humanity is best described and admired in despised and rejected outcasts.
But Saroyan varies the pattern somewhat by including several members of working-class America among his sympathetic figures, as well as one aristocrat, one unlikely man-in-waiting, and one frontier braggart. All of these meet on a level of social equality at Nick’s bar and restaurant in dockside San Francisco.
The plot line of Time of Your Life is much simpler than the play. Into Nick’s bar walks a hooker named Kitty Duval, whose innocence belies her profession. Joe, the aristocrat, notices her, and so does his man-in-waiting, Tom. Acting as matchmaker, Joe sends Tom off with Kitty, but Tom comes back in an hour to say that Kitty, remembering her childhood and contrasting it with her sordid present, will not stop crying. Joe moves Kitty from her old room to an elegant hotel some blocks away. Because he is rich and has connections, Joe is able to get Tom a job as a truck driver and to convince him to elope with Kitty. Kitty returns to Nick’s dressed in new clothes and ready to start her new life. While neither Joe nor Tom is present, an ugly vice-squad lieutenant, Blick, enters and starts harassing Kitty. When other members of the bar crowd protest, Blick hauls “Kit Carson,” the old mountaineer braggart, out into the street and beats him up. Blick then demands that Kitty demonstrate the burlesque routine she claims to have done professionally. Joe enters in the middle of this sadistic scene and tries to kill Blick with a gun he has gotten to satisfy his curiosity about firearms. The gun fails to fire, but Blick is driven off by the remonstrances of Joe, Nick, and others in the bar. Joe hurries Kitty and Tom off to be married in San Diego. Out in the street, two shots are heard. Kit Carson, who has bragged of doing everything from roping cattle on a bicycle to having an affair with a midget, enters and starts bragging: “I shot a man once. In San Francisco. Shot him two times. In 1939, I think it was. In October. Fellow named Blick or Glick or something like that. Couldn’t stand the way he talked to ladies.”[i]
This bald plot recreates a basically American comedic pattern, the melodramatic comedy of the fair damsel saved from a fate worse than death by masculine heroism. The familiar pattern, however, is twisted in at least three ways. First, the fair damsel is a whore, a woman with a past that she can never forget. Second, the infamous villain is a member of the police force rather than a despicable ogre acting entirely on his own hook. Third, instead of a single knight in shining armor, Kitty is saved only by enlisting three male heroes, one a decadent upper-class drunk, another a childish flunky, and the third a ridiculously extravagant braggart.
Each twist moves the play from comedy toward sombre comedy. The heroine, seen in light comedy as the ultimate prize, is shown to be a valuable prize because of her inherent value as a human being. But she is a prize with an unforgettable past as a priced tag. There is no particular reward for opposing villainy. There is instead the continual price of hiding the victory over the villain or facing the consequences meted out by an imperfect and largely uninterested society. The heroism in the play contrasts sharply with the mundane foibles of the heroes’ lives. Their heroism itself continually reminds us of the inadequacies upon which that heroism is predicated.
Just as the comedic pattern is twisted, so is the virtual future toward which the pattern moves. Instead of closing with the happy-ever-after ending of straight light comedy, The Time of your Life ends with Kitty and Tom on the run; Kit Carson wanted for murder; Joe still drunk, still without purpose, now without the companionship of Tom. The best people in the world are flawed. The worst are perhaps temporarily overcome, but they remain a continual challenge and threat.
If the main plot is simple, though darkly twisted, behind it lie numerous diversionary elements, less subplots that miniature character portraits. There is, for example, Dudley Bostwick, whom Saroyan describes as:
A young man of about twenty-four or twenty-five, ordinary and yet extraordinary. He is smallish, as the sayings is, neatly dressed in bargain clothes, overworked and irritated by the routine and dullness and monotony of his life, apparently nobody and nothing, but in reality a great personality. The swindled young man. Educated, but without the least real understanding. A brave dumb, salmon-spirit struggling for life in weary, stupefied flesh, dueling ferociously with a banal mind which has been only irritated by what it has been taught.[ii]
If Dudley is a “great personality,” it is because he has an innate confidence in himself, even though he doesn’t have a chance in the world. In addition, he has a single-minded love for Elsie Mandelspiegel, a nurse in a local hospital. She refuses to be interested in Dudley because she has seen life’s suffering.
Then there is Harry, another young man infinitely self-confident, convinced that he is what the world needs now, a man who can shake the world out of its sorrow and bring it laughter. Several times, Harry goes into unfunny stand-up comic routines. The humor in these skits is evident only to Harry and resides in the idea that Harry himself represents the whole world—as he says, “Everyone’s behind the eight-ball!”[iii]
Although Harry fails as a comic, he can dance. It is only by the grace of God (and the kindly patience of Nick) that this truly great talent is revealed and given proper recognition.
In contrast to both Dudley and Harry, whose great virtue is self-confidence, Wesley is a humble, down-and-out black adolescent scrubbing floors. Like Harry, Wesley doesn’t know his own great talent. He can pick up tunes and improvise harmonies and rhythms on the piano with great feeling. Again, through seeming accident and Nick’s kindly grace, Wesley’s talent is revealed and allowed expression.
Remaining are the Arab, whose sole function seems to be to sit at the bar and say “No foundation. All the way down”; Krupp, a cop whose job is to police the longshoremen’s strike, but whose heart is given to peace and family; McCarthy, the philosophic longshoreman, who is always calling Krupp (one of his oldest and best friends) an industry fink; and Willie, a pinball fanatic who plays a machine set conspicuously at the front of the stage. He finally conquers it at the final curtain and forces it to wave an American flag and to play the national anthem.
These minor characters of an unrestrained imagination actually have a great part in determining the comedic import of The Time of Your Life. Among other things, the contrast between Dudley’s and Harry’s self-confidence and Wesley’s lack of confidence shows that survival does not depend on confidence. The same point is made between the characterizations of Joe, who is very self-possessed, and Tom, who is without purpose, much less confidence, until Kitty enters his life. Wesley and Harry are both ignorant of their own talents. That these talents are brought to light shows that survival is impoverished if it is not accompanied by the gentle insight of someone like Nick. Dudley’s sympathetic portrayal shows that survival is not based on education or understanding but on a loving will to be involved with the rest of the human race. Above all, these minor characters survive sympathetically because they are willing to live and let live. They are basically nonjudgmental in their conduct, appreciating each other’s gifts more than their own. In this sense, they represent Saroyan’s world view as an intensely New Testamental one, the heroes separated from the villains by their adherence to the values of the Sermon on the Mount.
Like the major characters, all the minor characters are given a complex portrayal that displays them as twisted by the deformities of a fallen world. Just as the success won when Tom and Kitty elope and when Kit Carson kills Blick is a highly equivocal success, so are the successes of the supporting characters. Dudley wins Elsie, but she consents only to a tawdry sexual union rather than to the total union of personalities that Dudley desires. Wesley and Harry both wind up with jobs doing what they can do best, but Harry still wants to be a comic rather than a dancer, and Wesley gets beaten up by Blick for helping Kitty. The Arab may be right that there is no foundation to human society; he may be a just commentator on the state of the world. But he is not changing things, except with his soulful harmonica music. Krupp and McCarthy may both be aware that the world is crazy; yet, being human, they are incapable of building a life unaffected by human contradictions.
In fact, there have been few plays in history with as dark a view of the human condition as The Time of Your Life. Throughout the play, lines of sadness and disillusionment abound. Thus, Joe speaking of a mechanical toy: “Delightful, Tragic, but delightful.”[iv] Krupp speaking of economic corruption: “We’re crazy, that’s why. We’re no good any more.”[v] McCarthy on the state of American civilization: “It’s awful, but it’s honest and ambitious. . . .”[vi] And, as spokesman for all, the Arab:
Work. Work all my life. All my life, work. From small boy to old man, work. In old country, work. In new country, work. In New York, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago. Imperial Valley. San Francisco. Work. No beg. Work. For what? Nothing. Three boys in old country. Twenty years, not see. Lost. Dead. Who knows? What? What-not. No foundation. All the way down the line.[vii]
Yet if the world Saroyan describes is a world of work, a world of corruption, a world of misdirected effort, a world of pathos, a world of inadequacy, Saroyan himself could hardly be trying less to write pessimistically. If the world is perpetually dark, it is also perpetually beautiful. If it is a world where things are not progressing, it is still a world where individual gifts may be recognized, if only in a sleazy diner. If evil is melodramatically real, this world allows even man’s deformity to be changed into a strangely somber ecstasy. As Saroyan himself wrote interpretively in his play notes:
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. Place in matter and in the flesh the least of the values, for these are the things that hold death and must pass away. Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption. Encourage virtue in whatever heart it may have been driven into secrecy and sorrow by the shame and terror of the world.[viii]
Just as Saroyan’s characters are judged essentially on the basis of their adherence to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, his vision borrows much that is essentially biblical. In this dark and benighted world, Saroyan still calls for the same kind of faith and fundamental optimism that motivated the Apostle Paul in the fourth chapter of his letter to the Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice! Let your forbearing spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things. [Phil. 4:4-8]
The world is dark in Saroyan. No one is idealized; everyone is deformed. Yet Saroyan uses the darkness of his pattern to lead to a greater realization. Against the backdrop of the dark, the valuable in life is clearly seen. Among these deformed products of humanity, it can still be said that this is a great and beautiful country. There is still room for true love and brotherly affection. And the moral certainty still exists which restrains if it does not thoroughly annihilate the unmitigated evil of the world.
Many have oversimplified Saroyan by calling him a Pollyanna, but they have failed to understand his complex vision. It is possible, just as it is for Beckett, for an audience to go away unwilling to accept the patterned emotional response that Saroyan proposes. But he has done his best to demonstrate a positive faith in human survival despite the real deficiencies of the world and of human beings. Those who deny Saroyan’s importance in extending the range of modern dark comedic experimentation do so arbitrarily and at the risk of blinding themselves to the nature of sombre comedic form and response.
[i] The Time of Your Life, reprinted in Haskell M. Block and Robert G. Shedd., eds., Masters of Modern Drama, (New York: Random House, 1962), p. 698.
[ii] Ibid., p. 674.
[iii] Ibid., p. 683.
[iv] Ibid., p. 679.
[v] Ibid., p. 690.
[vi] Ibid., p. 683.
[vii] Ibid., p. 690.
[viii] Ibid., p. 698.