Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

In the preface to The Time of Your Life , William Saroyan describes the play’s characters as “people you are likely to see any day in almost any part of America, certainly at least in certain kinds of American places.” Saroyan announces the theme of the play in his introduction:...

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In the preface to The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan describes the play’s characters as “people you are likely to see any day in almost any part of America, certainly at least in certain kinds of American places.” Saroyan announces the theme of the play in his introduction: “In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.” Critics acknowledge the play as Saroyan’s appeal to the virtues of compassion and kindness as the antidote to the cruelty of the world and the problems of life.

When it first appeared, The Time of Your Life was such an innovative play that critics labeled it experimental, recognizing that it did not conform to the conventions of modern drama, specifically, the theater of ideas, as popularized by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Saroyan avoids didactic polemics in the play, which was written shortly before the entry of the United States into World War II. Rather, The Time of Your Life evokes an atmosphere of respect for the forgotten and the unfortunate. This aspect of Saroyan’s play left him vulnerable to charges of vagueness and of failure to think things through. Critics in the intervening years have nevertheless appreciated the well-constructed three-act play.

Some critics have objected to the work’s naïve sentiment and simplistic optimism about brotherhood and the goodwill found in common humanity. They have pointed out the unlikelihood of the actual existence of a saloon that is a home for so many different kinds of people: Nick the Italian, Wesley the black man, Arab the Eastern Philosopher, the Assyrian Harry, and others. Other critics have praised Saroyan’s play for avoiding the dramatic conventions of American theater of the time it was written. Critics have noted as refreshing Saroyan’s ability to write a gentle, optimistic play at a time when Adolf Hitler was in ascendancy and World War II was beginning. In the play, Saroyan uses comedy to deflate the heavy-handed tactics of the determined police detective Blick. Some critics have observed that Saroyan’s depiction of the camaraderie and kinship that can develop among outsiders and people of different racial backgrounds is more than an example of wishful thinking—rather, it shows wisdom.

Saroyan wrote of his indebtedness to George Bernard Shaw, and many parallels have been drawn between The Time of Your Life and Shaw’s dramas. Saroyan stated that “Shaw . . . is the tonic of the Christian peoples of the world. He is health, wisdom, and comedy, and that’s what I am too.” The characters in Saroyan’s play who epitomize health, wisdom, and comedy are Dudley Bostwick, who overcomes the obstacles of his formal learning to realize that what he wants is a woman; the Greek American newsboy, who sings “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to the delight of the Italian American Nick; and Krupp the policeman, whose wry commentary on human nature reveals his comic, sardonic understanding. In addition, Wesley’s love of piano playing, Arab’s harmonica playing, and Willie’s enjoyment of the pinball machine all convey the simple exuberance of being alive, a feeling that the tragic outlook suppresses.

The Time of Your Life received the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Saroyan, however, refused the Pulitzer because he thought that moneyed interests should not influence art or corrupt the integrity of the writer’s work.

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