The Time of Your Life

by William Saroyan
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

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. 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.

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