The Time of Your Life, Saroyan’s most critically acclaimed play, was received with warm praise for its great originality. As in his early fiction, Saroyan seemed determined to break with tradition, developing the comedy in his own, inimitable fashion and playing havoc with standard theatrical conventions. Set in Nick’s, a San Francisco waterfront honky-tonk, the play focuses on Joe, his friend Tom, and an engaging prostitute named Kitty Duval. There are a host of other destitute but benign characters who drift in and out. Nick’s offers a haven of hope for all who enter, unless, like Blick, an abrasive detective, they are persecutors of the downtrodden.
Nick’s is also a sort of microcosm of Saroyan’s ideal of America. It is clearly a melting pot, for among its denizens are a melancholy Arab, a starving young black man, an Irish cop, the gruff Italian proprietor, a prostitute of Polish ancestry, a Greek newsboy, and a crusty old mule skinner who seems to embody an offbeat variety of every trait ascribed to the legendary frontiersman.
More important, Nick’s is a place of great tolerance and freedom, bordering more on fantasy than reality. It is a place where the dreams of the characters begin to come true, where the starving find sustenance, the deprived get a break, and the lonely and disheartened find love and hope.
Other than Nick, only Joe has any money. Throughout the play, as if he possesses a magic pocket, Joe pulls out whatever cash is needed to fulfill his momentary whim. Surely one of Saroyan’s most enigmatic characters, Joe is merely evasive and mysterious about his money’s origin. He has no job and seems simply to reside at Nick’s, seldom even rising from his chair. At most, he hints that the money is somehow tainted because his possession of it has entailed grief for others. About him, too, there is the aura of the Hollywood gangster. He is taciturn, shrewd, steady, and impassive, in obvious contrast to his errand runner, Tom, who is eager, effusive, and earnest in a tongue-tied sort of way. Yet, except in his penchant for bossing Tom around, there is no meanness in Joe. As he himself claims, he is simply trying to see if it is possible to live in such a way as to bring no harm to anyone. At worst, he is somehow trying to expiate past sins.
Detached from the welter of activity in Nick’s, Joe sits and steadily drinks, almost mechanically, until, without apparent forethought, he sends Tom off on what seems another trivial errand—to fetch him magazines, gum, and toys, things to keep him amused. It is, however, other humans that really interest and amuse Joe, especially Kitty Duval, the whore, in whom Joe sees an innocence and beauty despite her profession.
In Nick’s, Saroyan’s happy place, the characters who find refuge provide a human carnival in their various chaotic activities. If Joe is impassive and at times remote, most of the others are irrepressible and ardent. The monologues of Kit Carson, en-capsuling his eccentric life, gush forth breathlessly. Harry, the self-styled comedian, breaks into his sadly unfunny comic stories with little prodding, then whirls away in a dance routine when another character drops a coin in the jukebox. Willie, the pinball addict, drops nickel after nickel in the machine, beating away on it until he finally wins.
Nick, the animated owner of the bistro, is loud and brassy, though hiding, through his gruffness, a golden heart. Wesley, once discovering the piano, plays the blues incessantly, providing a counterpoint to the more joyous, upbeat mood generated by the others. Only the sullen, gloomy, nearly silent Arab sits at the bar unaffected by anything.
Like the idealized green worlds of Shakespearean comedy, Saroyan’s honky-tonk is a place where the wonderful becomes the possible. It is a place of realized dreams, a place where instant love is possible, where a...
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