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...
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At Nick’s restaurant and saloon, a motley crew of individuals from all walks of life gathers to pass the time, converse, philosophize, seek employment, and fall in love. These colorful, odd characters all have their histories and idiosyncrasies. Joe, for example, sends Tom on errands to purchase toys—not for a child but for Kitty Duval, a woman who cannot stop crying. Tom grumbles that Joe is always making him do things that end up embarrassing Tom. When Kitty, a streetwalker who formerly performed in burlesque theaters, enters the saloon, Joe buys her a bottle of champagne as if she were royalty—a gesture that makes Nick exclaim that Joe is crazy.
Other strange characters who enter the saloon are Dudley and Harry. Dudley constantly telephones Elsie Mandelspiegel from the restaurant and begs her to marry him; Harry is determined to relieve the world’s sorrow by becoming a famous comedian. Another newcomer who arrives on the scene is Wesley, a gifted black musician with a flair for the piano. Nick, the owner of the saloon, is dumbfounded at the eccentric people who frequent his establishment. Joe makes Nick stock expensive champagne although the place is a dive. Kitty expects the others to treat her like an elegant lady.
Comedians and musicians beg to make their debuts at Nick’s obscure old honky-tonk. The customers and visitors feel a sense of belonging and experience a sense of home. At Nick’s saloon, they feel secure and protected from the hostile outside world. There they encounter the acceptance, friendship, generosity, and goodwill that they do not get from the world at large, a world that appears to them mad and absurd.
A threat to Nick’s restaurant, and thus to the modicum of happiness it brings to its customers, comes from Blick, a police detective who suspects the saloon to be a den of prostitution. Nick warns Blick that his moral earnestness for reform is doomed, saying that Blick is “out to change the world from something bad to something worse.” In defending his saloon, home and haven to a motley crew of humanity, Nick notes that although the restaurant is in the worst part of town, no one has been murdered, robbed, or cheated on his premises in five years. He refers to his honky-tonk as a humble, honest place, saying that his patrons “bring whatever they’ve got with them and they say what...
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