One of the most striking facts in William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life is that Joe is nearly immobile. Joe is the play’s central character—nearly every other character exchanges at least a line or two with him, and he comments on all that he sees from his chair in Nick’s bar. In fact, Joe’s chair seems almost like a throne, an exalted perch from which he commands Tom to bring him odd items, dispenses small bits of wisdom, and grants favors for his preferred subjects.
If Joe is a king, though, he is an impotent one, in all senses of the word. John A. Mills explains it succinctly in the Midwest Quarterly, where he notes that Joe’s immobility can be seen as ‘‘the external counterpart of an inner, psychic immobilization. Joe is stalled, incapable of movement . . . [and] unable to believe in the efficacy of human action, any human action.’’ Joe is a student of life, not a liver of life, someone who exists almost completely in his head. ‘‘I’m a student. I study all things,’’ he says to Tom. In fact, he violates Saroyan’s imperative in the play’s prologue: ‘‘In the time of your life, live.’’ Joe is an eternal observer, and the actions he takes are limited. To compensate for this, Joe uses Tom and Kit Carson to make connections to a world in which he is unable to participate.
Many critics, including Mills, point to the obvious use of Tom as Joe’s surrogate legs. Tom serves as Joe’s legs in his ridiculous errands for chewing gum, toys, and a gun, and he once even lets Joe lean against him as they leave the bar. Beyond that, though, Joe also has Tom serve as his sexual surrogate in his relationship with the prostitute Kitty Duval. Joe obviously cares for Kitty, defending her against Nick’s sly comments in the play’s first act, saluting her inner beauty and stamina when he buys her champagne, and toasting ‘‘To the spirit, Kitty Duval.’’ Saroyan’s stage direction notes that when Joe first sees Kitty, he ‘‘recognizes her as a good person immediately,’’ and when she sits down, he asks her, ‘‘with great compassion,’’ about her dreams and desires.
Joe understands that he cannot act when it comes to Kitty, so he pushes the lovestruck Tom to capture her heart in his stead. Joe directs Tom in his courting of Kitty, mimicking scenes from Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac by playing Cyrano to Tom’s Christian. This happens in Saroyan’s play numerous times but most remarkably when Kitty is telling a dumbstruck Tom about her fantasy of being an actress and having a handsome doctor fall in love with her. ‘‘Tom, didn’t you ever want to be a doctor?’’ Kitty asks. Tom is momentarily stumped but finds his voice when he looks at Joe who, according to Saroyan’s stage directions, ‘‘holds Tom’s eyes again, encouraging Tom by his serious expression to go on talking.’’ Joe does have his own memories and experiences of love, but they were mere beginnings that were interrupted before their promise could be fulfilled. Once, while in Mexico City, Joe fell in love with a woman named Mary, but he then discovered that she was only a few days away from marriage to another man. He falls in love with a different Mary during the play but finds out that she is married and has two children.
While Joe’s dependence on Tom is critical and allows him to connect with people and the world, it is his relationship with Kit Carson that truly energizes him. It...
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is immediately apparent that Kit is different from the rest of the patrons in Nick’s bar when he walks in and selects Joe’s table as his drinking spot. The two men quickly bond with each other, especially when Kit opens his conversation by asking Joe, ‘‘I don’t suppose you ever fell in love with a midget weighing thirty-nine pounds?’’ While this might appear to be a flippant question for anyone else, it is actually a question that goes straight to the heart of a man like Joe.
First, the question’s remarkable subject matter immediately places Joe, for once, in the subordinate position in the conversation. Joe has controlled every other discussion he had been in, from asking Kitty about her dreams to demanding errands from Tom. Even when speaking with Nick, Joe holds the dominant position; in one scene, he condescendingly informs the bar owner, ‘‘Nick, I think you’re going to be alright in a couple of centuries.’’ Kit’s question also must remind Joe of his limited experiences in the world and his failed efforts at love. When Kit will not complete the story of the thirty-nine-pound love interest, Joe keeps asking for more information. Each time, Kit gently ignores Joe and wanders off into an unrelated but equally crazy story. Kit is in complete control of the discussion, and Joe is as entranced with him as Tom is with Kitty.
Through Kit, Joe is able to see a remarkable world far outside the confines of the bar and his normal life. Despite his preeminent physical position in the bar and his financial advantage among the bar’s patrons, Joe is a man with little actual experience—except the experience of earning money and being miserable about it. According to Saroyan’s description at the play’s start, Joe is ‘‘always bored, always superior. His expensive clothes are casually and youthfully worn and give him an almost boyish appearance.’’ In contrast, Kit is a man who literally wears his life on his face. Saroyan describes Kit as ‘‘an old man,’’ and Joe tells him, ‘‘You look more than sixty now.’’ Kit points out, though, that he is a few years younger than sixty and that Joe must think he is older because ‘‘That’s trouble showing in my face. Trouble and complications.’’ In one of his tales, Kit also remembers ‘‘growing older every second’’ as he faced down a pack of angry dogs.
Kit has seen and done things that boggle the mind and are often beyond belief. Joe, however, accepts Kit and his remarkable stories. When Kit asks Joe if he is one of those who do not believe Kit’s tales, Joe responds sincerely, ‘‘Of course I believe you. Living is an art. It’s not bookkeeping. It takes a lot of rehearsing for a man to get to be himself.’’ In Kit, Joe sees the set of legs he has really needed, so he must believe Kit.
Kit can do so much more for Joe than can the childish Tom. With Tom, Joe can entertain himself by asking for a few toys and chewing gum. He can come close to love by encouraging Tom’s feelings for Kitty. He can even ask for a revolver, and Tom will bring one to him. But he does not truly know or understand what to do with the revolver until he meets Kit and has him explain how to load and shoot the gun.
Joe’s immobility—and, indeed, his impotence— is never more clear than when he attempts to kill Blick with his new revolver. Everything seems pointed toward Joe’s success: he has received a lesson on how to handle the gun, and he feels the fury necessary to kill another man, saying, ‘‘I’ve always wanted to kill somebody, but I never knew who it should be.’’ However, nothing happens when he pulls the trigger. This is where Kit steps in to act for Joe. Moments later, after Joe’s gun fails to fire, Kit re-enters the bar, and the two men ‘‘look at one another knowingly.’’ Blick is now dead, and Kit is telling a story of how he ‘‘shot a man once. In San Francisco. . . . Fellow named Blick or Glick or something like that.’’ Even though Joe does not pull the trigger and the gun that kills Blick is not his own, it is as if he has participated in the act, thanks to Kit.
Joe, despite his kindness to Kitty and to others, violates many of the lessons for living the good life that Saroyan outlines in the play’s prologue. Because Joe cannot act, he cannot live—which goes against one of Saroyan’s most urgent messages. Saroyan also writes in the prologue, ‘‘if the time comes to kill, kill and have no regret’’—another rule that Joe is not able to uphold. Instead, Joe leaves the bar to Kit, and admiring patrons surround Kit, who is ready to take the preeminent position Joe once had. The patrons have chosen action over mere observation, the right choice in Saroyan’s universe.
Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on The Time of Your Life, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
In the conclusion of his 1976 article entitled, ‘‘Joe as Christ-Type in Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life,’’ Kenneth W. Rhoads suggested that ‘‘other interpretations of Joe may be validly advanced (although so far they seem not to have been).’’ Seven years of critical silence having followed the issuance of Rhoads’s invitation, the time would seem to be ripe for an alternate reading of the character and the play, the more so since Saroyan’s recent death is likely to have stirred up fresh interest in his work.
I should like to propose that Joe be viewed as an ‘‘homme absurde,’’ as defined by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, and that the play over which he presides be seen as an embodiment of the absurd sense of life, expressing in its structure and all its parts man’s confrontation with nothingness, with ‘‘the unreasonable silence of the world.’’
To speak of a work by Saroyan in these terms is, in large measure, to fly in the face of received opinion. Saroyan’s depiction of the human condition is usually thought of as sunny and positive, bordering on the sentimental. The two obituaries of record, in the New York Times and the London Times, both voiced the orthodox view. The former spoke of ‘‘his message of the disinherited rising above adversity with humor and courage’’ and the latter referred to ‘‘Saroyan’s indestructible brand of rhapsodic optimism.’’
There is something in that, of course. Saroyan typically shows his characters coping with earthly existence with a light-heartedness which approaches the meretricious. There is an element of sweetness in his work which has no counterpart in the drama and fiction of Camus or Sartre, to say nothing of Dostoevsky or Beckett. But there is no fundamental incompatibility between an absurd view of the human enterprise and the adoption of an optimistic stance in the face of ultimate absurdity, pessimistic as most absurdist literature undoubtedly is. Brian Masters quotes Camus as having once said to an audience of Dominican Friars: ‘‘If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man.’’ One thinks in this connection of Grand, in The Plague, a ‘‘little’’ man who carries on in the face of meaninglessness with a sanguine indomitability which differs from the posture of Saroyan’s characters less in kind than in degree. But these are analogies which must be validated by close examination of Saroyan’s text.
Before undertaking such an examination, however, it will be useful to establish Saroyan’s spiritual kinship with the evangelists of the absurd, by reference to materials other than The Time of Your Life. Such a kinship is revealed again and again in Saroyan’s first three volumes of personal reminiscence, The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, and Not Dying. Since all three were written ten to twenty years after The Time of Your Life (1939), the observations on life which they contain must be used with some care. But even if one looks only at those statements in which Saroyan records his earliest responses to existence, the absurd sense of life stands clearly revealed. A representative sampling will suffice to make the point.
From The Bicycle Rider:
From a very early time in my life I sensed quite accurately the end of life. That is, that it must end, that it could end any time, that the end did not come to pass by reasonable or meaningful plan, purpose or pattern.
. . . After swimming I remember sitting with my friends on the hot earth of the pasture bordering the ditch, in the wonderful light and heat of the August sun, and being miserable about my own impermanence, insignificance, meaninglessness, and feebleness.
From Here Comes There Goes:
I took to writing at an early age to escape from meaninglessness, uselessness, unimportance, insignificance, poverty, enslavement, ill health, despair, madness, and all manner of other unattractive, natural, and inevitable things.
The cat would be gone for a good three or four days, and then it would come back looking like a wreck and sprawl out and start to heal, the writer of Ecclesiastes himself. All vanity. All sorrow and ignorance. For God’s sake, where’s the meaning of it, and the dish of milk?
From Not Dying:
I’m not sure, but then the thing that I am about, the thing I have for the greater part of my life been about, is to consider and reconsider, and then to consider and reconsider again, in the expectation of either finding out or of knowing it is impossible for me to find out. I don’t know. I mean, of course, that I don’t know anything, with absolute certainty, with finality, with (if you like) final finality.
I have always had a sneaking suspicion that work is a kind of excuse for failure, general failure—to know, to understand, to cherish, to love, to believe, and so on. It is a kind of evasion, a kind of escape from the knowledge that one is entirely without grace, that one is altogether ill and mad.
Such asseverations reveal a mind fully conversant with absurdity, and hence, a mind fully capable of creating a dramatic character imbued with a similar sensibility. That Joe is such a character can be seen in nearly everything he says and does in the course of the action.
One of the most conspicuous features of Joe’s character is his immobility. Except for the move to Kitty’s hotel room (about which more later) he scarcely stirs. Others come and go—indeed, the play is more than commonly replete with exits and entrances—but not Joe. He remains a still center amid the flux of quotidian activity, relying on the faithful Tom to do such fetching and carrying as he requires. At one point he hints that he is physically incapable of locomotion. ‘‘I don’t dance,’’ he tells Mary, and then goes on to say, ‘‘I can hardly walk.’’ When she asks, ‘‘You mean you’re tight?,’’ he says ‘‘No. I mean all the time.’’
Saroyan comments revealingly on this exchange in Here Comes There Goes:
Dance? I could hardly walk. Joe, in this same play I’m talking about, said it for me, precisely in those words. This didn’t mean something was the matter with his feet and legs, though. It meant something else.
From the context in which this observation occurs it is clear what, for Saroyan, that ‘‘something else’’ is. He has been declaring his admiration for Bojangles and others he has seen who can dance and in the process the term is elevated to the metaphoric plane where it takes on the meaning of ‘‘to live, to know how to live, to be engaged, to have found a role, a purpose for living.’’ Joe’s physical immobilization may thus be seen as the external counterpart of an inner, psychic immobilization. Joe is stalled, incapable of movement, because, having glimpsed the absurd, he is unable to believe in the efficacy of human action, any human action.
This state of mind is manifested in many other ways, both explicitly and implicitly. As he can hardly walk, he can also hardly talk, can hardly summon up the will to verbally engage external reality. His typical utterances are terse, laconic, flat and monosyllabic. It is significant that he delivers himself of more than a single, simple declarative sentence almost exclusively on those occasions when he is goaded into explaining his inertia; paradoxically, he talks only to account for his failure to talk (or walk, or act). One such speech occurs when Tom finally musters the courage to ask where Joe gets his money. Joe looks at Tom ‘‘sorrowfully, a little irritated’’ and ‘‘speaks clearly, slowly andsolemnly’’:
Now don’t be a fool, Tom. Listen carefully. If anybody’s got any money—to hoard or to throw away— you can be sure he stole it from other people. Not from rich people who can spare it, but from poor people who can’t. From their lives and from their dreams. I’m no exception. I earned the money I throw away. I stole it like everybody else does. I hurt people to get it. Loafing around this way, I still earn money. The money itself earns more. I still hurt people. . . .
This much of the speech, if read in isolation from what follows immediately and in isolation from other materials in the play, might seem to make Joe a social rebel, a man who has withdrawn in protest from the capitalist system, who refuses to be party any longer to the social Darwinism which makes every man a predator of his fellow creatures. Indeed, there is no reason to deny Joe a social conscience. Undoubtedly it was a causative factor in his withdrawal from the world. But it was only a factor, and a relatively minor one. Joe’s quarrel is with existence, with the human condition, sub specie aeternitatis, and not merely with the institutions of twentieth-century industrial society. This is revealed, in a negative way, in Joe’s reluctance to condemn Blick, the play’s chief representative of militant fascism, a bully who is ‘‘out to change the world from something bad to something worse.’’ ‘‘It’s not him,’’ Joe tells Nick. ‘‘It’s everything.’’ And a few lines later: ‘‘He may not be so bad, deep down underneath.’’
Joe has little or no faith in social revolution as a cure for human malaise. When McCarthy, speaking for suffering humanity, tries to get Joe to side with him against Krupp, another fascist-type (‘‘All I do is carry out orders, carry out orders’’), Joe remains steadfastly neutral: ‘‘Everything’s right. . . . I’m with everybody. One at a time.’’
Even when confronted with ocular proof of Blick’s bullying ways, Joe is unable to take decisive action against him. He goes through the motions, points the gun and pulls the trigger, but nothing happens. He blames ‘‘dumb Tom’’ for having bought ‘‘a six-shooter that won’t even shoot once,’’ but, in fact, he had himself removed the cartridges not ten minutes earlier. Whether the attempted assassination of Blick is pure charade or Joe has actually forgotten about the cartridges (his mind dulled by drink?) is impossible to say. But if Saroyan manages the incident rather clumsily, his reason for including it seems nevertheless clear: he stays the hand of his protagonist because he recognizes that decisive action would run counter to the radically uncommitted nature of the character he has been at pains to depict in all that has gone before. Joe does not act because he lacks the necessary conviction, however much he may hide that fact from his own consciousness by conveniently ‘‘forgetting’’ that the weapon is unloaded, or however much he may hide it from others by blaming Tom.
That Joe cannot act, in the social sphere or any other sphere, he explains in the conclusion to his lengthy answer to Tom about the source of his income.
. . . I don’t do anything. I don’t want to do anything any more. There isn’t anything I can do that won’t make me feel embarrassed. Because I can’t do simple, good things. I haven’t the patience. And I’m too smart. Money is the guiltiest thing in the world. It stinks. Now, don’t ever bother me about it again.
Surely such remarks can be interpreted in a way that establishes a family resemblance between Joe and the alienated, disaffected, anti-heroes who people the world of modernist fiction and drama. In Camus’s terms, Joe has come to regard all tasks as Sisyphean, as so much meaningless activity, activity which is ‘‘embarrassing’’ because it does not have, cannot have, intrinsic value or ultimate effi- cacy. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, Joe is cursed with ‘‘lucidity,’’ that ‘‘full-fledged disease’’ which obviates action; he is ‘‘too smart.’’ Like the Underground Man he envies those ‘‘spontaneous people and the men of action’’ who lack lucidity but he knows he can never again be one of them. He cannot ‘‘do simple things,’’ cannot, like a Russian peasant, be a contented hewer of wood and drawer of water. Consciousness will not allow it. ‘‘Before encountering the absurd,’’ Camus writes, ‘‘the everyday man lives with aims, a concern for the future or for justification. . . . He weighs his chances, he counts on ‘someday,’ his retirement or the labor of his sons.’’ Joe has been an ‘‘everyday man’’ but can never be again. When Mary asks why he drinks, he replies:
Because I don’t like to be gypped. Because I don’t like to be dead most of the time and just a little alive every once in a long while. (Pause) If I don’t drink, I become fascinated by unimportant things—like everybody else. I get busy. Do things. All kinds of little stupid things, for all kinds of little stupid reasons. Proud, selfish, ordinary things. I’ve done them. Now I don’t do anything. I live all the time. Then I go to sleep.
Not yet grasping his point, Mary asks: ‘‘What are your plans?’’ and he answers: ‘‘Plans? I haven’t got any. I just get up.’’ And then the light dawns. ‘‘Beginning to understand everything,’’ she replies: ‘‘Oh, yes. Yes, of course.’’ Following this, Joe returns to the question of why he drinks, struggling, as usual, with inarticulateness, but eventually ‘‘working it out.’’
Twenty-four hours. Out of the twenty-four hours at least twenty-three and a half are—my God, I don’t know why—dull, dead, boring, empty and murderous. Minutes on the clock, not time of living. It doesn’t make any difference who you are or what you do, twenty-three and a half hours of the twenty-four are spent waiting.
That goes on for days and days, and weeks and months and years, and years, and the first thing you know all the years are dead. All the minutes are dead. There’s nothing to wait for any more. Nothing except minutes on the clock. No time of life. Nothing but minutes, and idiocy. (Pause) Does that answer your question?
This is a view of the human condition which bears a striking resemblance to one put forward by another ‘‘immobilized’’ protagonist, Hamm of Endgame: ‘‘Moment by moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of (he hesitates) . . . that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life.’’
Joe’s sporadic outbursts of self-analysis provide perhaps the most explicit evidence of his immersion in absurdity, but his state of mind manifests itself in other ways as well. In the play’s opening sequence, after Joe has purchased a stack of newspapers, glanced at them and thrown them away in disgust, the Arab picks one up, reads the headline, and ‘‘as if rejecting everything else a man might say about the world,’’ intones for the first time a line which is to run through the play like a lyric refrain: ‘‘No foundation. All the way down the line.’’ The incident establishes a spiritual nexus between the two characters; the Arab says what Joe thinks; they share a belief in the emptiness of all human endeavor; it has no foundation, no intrinsic value. Repeated and embellished throughout the play, the Arab’s judgment upon the world carries the same thematic force as the cryptic pronouncement with which Estragon opens Waiting for Godot: ‘‘Nothing to be done.’’
The second time we hear from the Arab he develops his theme, his sole theme, at greater length:
No foundation. All the way down the line. What. What-not. Nothing. I go walk and look at sky.
Krupp immediately turns to Joe for an explanation: ‘‘What? What-not? What’s that mean?’’ It is significant that Krupp fails to comprehend because Krupp is a man who cannot live without absolutes, without direction. He has surrendered his freedom, put on a uniform, and follows orders, bashing heads at the command of his masters, secure in the conviction that they know what is to be done, even if he does not. It is also significant that Joe does understand and is ready with an explication, further revealing that he and the Arab are like-minded men, differing only in the beverages they choose as aids to lucidity:
What? What-not? That means this side, that side. Inhale, exhale. What: birth. What-not: death. The inevitable, the astounding, the magnificent seed of growth and decay in all things. Beginning, and end. That man, in his own way, is a prophet. He is one who, with the help of beer, is able to reach that state of deep understanding in which what and what-not, the reasonable and the unreasonable, are one.
Once again, Saroyan shows himself to be Beckettian avant la lettre; ‘‘inhale, exhale’’ reminds us of the later playwright’s thirty-second dramatization of the human condition called Breath, and the evocation of ‘‘Beginning, and end’’ expresses the same sense of life as Hamm’s ‘‘The end is in the beginning and yet you go on.’’
The Arab thus functions as a kind of choral character, articulating in a quasi-lyric mode that sense of estrangement, of being rudderless in ‘‘a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights’’, which colors everything that Joe says and does. The Arab’s presence in the play expands its reference, amplifies its resonance, by suggesting that Joe is not to be written off as a special case, an aberration, but is to be viewed as broadly representative. At the end of Act Four, when the Arab plays a solo on the harmonica, Wesley reminds us that the music expresses the age-old pain of earthly existence: ‘‘That’s deep, deep crying. That’s crying a long time ago. That’s crying a thousand years ago. Some place five thousand miles away.’’ Much the same might be said of the Arab’s verbal laments. Coming just after his declaration that he no longer works (‘‘For what? Nothing’’), the Arab’s harmonica threnody reinforces his similarity to Joe. Both have been stopped dead by their perception of the absurd. They have fetched up in ‘‘those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines.’’ For such men, Camus continues, ‘‘The real effort is to stay there . . . and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions.’’ With the aid of champagne and beer, respectively, Joe and the Arab keep the absurd vividly present to consciousness, so as not to be seduced into ‘‘bad faith,’’ into the delusion that ‘‘little stupid things’’ are important, into performing tasks which are ‘‘for nothing,’’ as though they were ‘‘for something.’’
But stasis is not the only possible posture before the absurd. Camus points out that ‘‘on the one hand the absurd teaches that all experiences are unimportant, and on the other it urges toward the greatest quantity of experiences.’’ This ‘‘quantitative ethic,’’ this joyous acceptance and energetic use of freedom is exhibited in the play by Kit Carson (‘‘real’’ name Murphy), a man who seems to know what Joe and the Arab know but who has gone on from there. Carson seems to know that in the absence of absolutes ‘‘everything is permitted,’’ and so he has led a rootless, improvised, richly varied existence, reveling in a multiplicity of sensations in the brief time allotted before all sensation ceases. Of the four human types whom Camus describes as embodying most fully and clearly the quantitative ethic which absurdity leads to—Don Juan, the creative artist, the actor, and the conqueror— Carson most closely resembles the actor. He has herded cattle on a bicycle, passed himself off as a mining engineer, masqueraded as a woman and changed his name as casually as other men change their shirts. He calls himself Murphy now but Saroyan says ‘‘he looks as if he might have been Kit Carson at one time’’ (106), and that is the name the author assigns him throughout. The actor, Camus explains, ‘‘abundantly illustrates every month or every day that so suggestive truth that there is no frontier between what a man wants to be and what he is. Always concerned with better representing, he demonstrates to what a degree appearing creates being.’’ And so it is with Carson as Joe, characteristically, perceives. ‘‘Now, son, don’t tell me you don’t believe me, either?’’ Carson asks, after recounting some of his adventures. ‘‘Of course I believe you,’’ Joe answers. ‘‘Living is an art. It’s not bookkeeping. It takes a lot of rehearsing for a man to get to be himself.’’
Joe does not live as Carson lives but he immediately recognizes and approves of the ethic of experience which the latter has embraced. They are brothers in absurdity, fellow outsiders. ‘‘You’re the first man I’ve ever met who believes me,’’ says Carson.
That they are both alike and not alike is seen in their responses to the cruelty of Blick. Both deplore it but only Carson is able to turn his moral repugnance into effective action, striking down the oppressor moments after Joe’s abortive attempt to do so. Though Carson has, by his own account, repeatedly run away from violence on occasions when only his personal safety was at stake, he feels constrained to stand and fight against the threat to the general good, to universal human nature, which Blick, the totalitarian ideologue, so chillingly embodies. In this, Carson resembles Cherea of Camus’s Caligula. Though he agrees with Caligula, ‘‘to a point,’’ that ‘‘all [actions] are on an equal footing,’’ Cherea executes the tyrant, because, as he tells him, ‘‘you’re pernicious, and you’ve got to go.’’
Joe, the Arab, and Kit Carson are perhaps the play’s most vividly rendered exemplars of the absurd sensibility but others among the dramtis personae also bear witness in a variety of modes and degrees. Prominent among these secondary characters is Harry the Hoofer. Saroyan introduces him as a man who is ‘‘out of place everywhere, embarrassed and encumbered by the contemporary costume, sick at heart, but determined to fit in somewhere’’. In short, he is another character whose life has ‘‘no foundation’’; he lacks a ground of being but manfully shoulders the task of improvising one, the existential task of ‘‘making himself’’. His primary medium is the dance and he thus embodies a variation on the dance metaphor which we have found Joe using. Harry’s restless, ceaseless soft-shoe patterns and variations are the obverse of Joe’s immobility; Harry constructs designs to fill the void left by nature, replacing one configuration with another in full awareness of the ultimate emptiness of all of them. ‘‘I felt that man must make,’’ Saroyan has written, ‘‘that he must make ceaselessly, again and again. . . .’’
Harry also ‘‘makes’’ in another medium; he is a stand-up comic and his monologues speak always of flux and incoherence, of life’s refusal to make sense:
Now, I’m standing on the corner of Third and Market. I’m looking around. I’m figuring it out. There it is. Right in front of me. The whole city. The whole world. People going by. They’re going somewhere. I don’t know where, but they’re going. I ain’t going anywhere. Where the hell can you go? I’m figuring it out. All right, I’m a citizen. A fat guy bumps his stomach into the face of an old lady. They were in a hurry. Fat and old. They bumped. Boom. I don’t know. It may mean war. War. Germany. England. Russia. I don’t know for sure. (Loudly, dramatically, he salutes, about faces, presents arms, aims, and fires) WAAAAAR.
This, like Harry’s other routines, is an absurd work of art in miniature. ‘‘The absurd work of art,’’ Camus explains, ‘‘illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. If the world were clear, art would not exist’’. Small wonder that most of the regulars at Nick’s waterfront honkytonk fail to comprehend Harry’s bizarre accounts of day-to-day existence. They represent a ‘‘new kind of comedy,’’ a comedy at which it is difficult if not impossible to laugh—black comedy, in short. ‘‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,’’ says Nell in Endgame. ‘‘Yes, it’s like the funny story we have heard too often, we still find it funny, but we don’t laugh anymore.’’
Strong intimations of absurdity appear also in the little episode involving Elsie and Dudley. After a peremptory exchange of greetings with her suitor, Elsie, a nurse, launches a bitter critique of the terms upon which human beings hold their tenure of life: ‘‘So many people are sick. Last night a little boy died. I love you, but—.’’ Dudley protests, but she is adamant:
Love is for birds. They have wings to fly away on when it’s time for flying. For tigers in the jungle because they don’t know their end. We know our end. Every night I watch over poor, dying men. I hear them breathing, crying, talking in their sleep. Crying for air and water and love, for mother and field and sunlight. We can never know love or greatness. We should know both.
The scene is analogous to that crucial confrontation in The Plague between Dr. Rieux and Father Paneloux, following the death in agony of the son of M. Othon. ‘‘That child, anyhow, was innocent, and you know it as well as I do,’’ says Rieux. ‘‘And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’’ Like Ivan Karamazov before him, Rieux refuses to countenance a fabric of human destiny which requires the torture of the innocent. In that ‘‘immoral’’ scheme of things lies one of the great headwaters of the absurd. Elsie’s revolt against this irrational evil no doubt strikes us as rather facile, unearned, compared to the hard-won and meticulously articulated perceptions of Rieux and Ivan, but it springs from an identical source.
Another familiar topos of absurdist literature occurs, if only in a radically truncated form, in the behavior of The Lady, a socialite who has come to Nick’s with her husband on a ‘‘slumming’’ expedition. When Joe passes cigars around, the Lady blithely takes one, bites the tip off, and accepts a light from Carson, to the distress of her straightlaced spouse: ‘‘The mother of five grown men, and she’s still looking for romance. No. I forbid it.’’ In thus flouting the arbitrary social code which proscribes cigar-smoking for a wife-and-mother, she opens herself up to experience, making a brave, if pathetic, little bid for that freedom which is a consequence of the acceptance of absurdity. Characteristically, Joe defends her against her seriousminded, law-giving husband: ‘‘What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you leave her alone? What are you always pushing your women around for?’’
That we are to see the Lady’s inchoate rebellion in existential terms is suggested not only by Joe’s energetic support of it but also by the context in which it occurs. Joe distributes the cigars immediately after removing from his mouth the enormous wad of gum he has put there in his chewing contest with Tom and Carson. In the mock earnestness with which Joe engages in this competition, he parodies those struggles for achievement which characterize the serious world, the world of ‘‘aims,’’ which he has repudiated. The incident has something of the flavor and point, though not the force, of the celebrated passage in Beckett’s Molloy, where the eponymous hero is made to wrestle for five pages with the logistics involved in transferring sixteen pebbles, one by one, from his pockets to his mouth and back again. The gum-chewing match creates a climate of challenge to orthodox opinion about ‘‘allowable’’ adult behavior into which the ‘‘unseemly’’ conduct of the Lady fits very naturally. The point is underscored by the fact that Joe wraps his gum in a Liberty magazine, one of three publications (the others are Time and Life) which Joe had Tom purchase along with the gum and cigars. Time and Life echo, of course, the key terms of the play’s title (as does Precious Time, one of the horses Joe bets on) and frequent use of such terms serves to remind us of the play’s primary thematic thrust: the time of life is short and ends in death and time is therefore precious and must be savoured in the lucid acknowledgment of total liberty.
Yet another image of absurdity appears in Willie’s running battle with the saloon’s ‘‘marblegame,’’ or pin-ball machine. Saroyan points up the symbolic significance of Willie’s heroic struggle in a lengthy stage direction:
[Willie] stands straight and pious before the contest. Himself vs. the machine. Willie vs. Destiny. His skill and daring vs. the cunning and trickery of the novelty industry of America, and the whole challenging world. He is the last of the American Pioneers, with nothing more to fight but the machine, with no other reward than lights going on and off, and six nickels for one. Before him is the last champion, the machine. He is the last challenger, the young man with nothing to do in the world . . . .
Willie eventually ‘‘defeats’’ the machine, mastering Destiny, he believes, through skill and force of will: ‘‘I just don’t like the idea of anything getting the best of me. A machine or anything else. Myself, I’m the kind of a guy who makes up his mind to do something, and then goes to work and does it. There’s no other way a man can be a success at anything’’. But his triumph is hollow and shortlived. The next time he attacks his adversary, the machine records a victory by sheer chance, and goes on doing so, unpredictably, arbitrarily. Like the cosmos which it represents, the ‘‘machine is out of order.’’ ‘‘Something’s wrong,’’ Willie ruefully reports.
The absurd sense of life is expressed not only in the statements and activities of the characters but in the very structure of the work. The play is conspicuously non-linear, palpably static, mirroring in its randomness and clutter that chaos which, in the absurdist view, characterizes life itself. The play lacks plot because life lacks plot. In life, as Camus says, ‘‘there is no scenario, but a successive and incoherent illustration.’’ It is true, of course, that all of Saroyan’s work, fiction as well as drama, is slack and disjointed, but the fact remains that on this occasion (whatever may be the case elsewhere) the looseness is thematically functional, operating in close congruence with the elements of thought and character which carry the essential import of the work. The harmony of feeling and form is much of the reason why The Time of Your Life is one of Saroyan’s most aesthetically satisfying accomplishments. He once confessed that he wished to write ‘‘the way snow falls’’. The metaphor is strikingly apt. In The Three Sisters, another work comprised of the ‘‘aimless’’ accumulation of incident, Tusenback, told that life as he has described it does not ‘‘make sense,’’ replies: ‘‘It’s snowing out there. Does that make sense?’’
But the play is not absolutely free of consequential action. In the relationship between Tom and Kitty Duval there is a boy-meets-girl plot, of sorts, presided over by Joe and by him propelled forward to a dramatically predictable denouement. Joe’s involvement in this romance between a lovable stumblebum and a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold represents his chief departure from non-alignment and, correspondingly, Saroyan’s chief concession to conventional storytelling. As such, the whole episode seems out of key with the desultoriness which is otherwise pervasive; it represents an aesthetic lapse which is ‘‘given away,’’ as it were, by the theatrically awkward shift of locale to Kitty’s apartment in Act Three; the abrupt and short-lived excursion to a different physical world transports us to a different dramatic world, temporarily dissipating the emotional and spiritual ambience emanating from the honky-tonk. It is as though Hamm and Clov have ventured out of the shelter.
Though the Tom-Kitty plot borders on sentimental cliché, Joe functions in it in a way that is not fundamentally alien to his nature as homme absurde. Though he succeeds in his match-making partly by providing material assistance to the lovers—a job for Tom, a new wardrobe and domicile for Kitty— his more important contribution is spiritual. Rhoads focuses on this point in developing his case for Joe as Christ-type. Tom becomes Lazarus, brought back from death by Joe prior to the action, and Kitty becomes the woman taken in adultery, treated with compassion by Joe and told to go and sin no more. These parallels are admittedly quite arresting, more so than some of the other scriptural analogues which Rhoads presents. Joe is indeed a kind of saviour. But if we are to think of him in such terms we would do well to associate him with the Christ of Dostoevsky’s ‘‘Grand Inquisitor’’ vignette, rather than with the Messiah described by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. For, like Dostoevsky’s Christ, Joe has no gospel to preach, no glad tidings to bring, except the gospel of existential freedom. He repeatedly refuses to be dogmatic. When Tom declares, with something like worshipful awe: ‘‘You’re a different kind of a guy,’’ Joe rebukes him: ‘‘Don’t be silly. I don’t understand things. I’m trying to understand them.’’ Earlier, he has told Nick: ‘‘I study things,’’ and when Tom asks him to explain why he has called his three hours in the automobile with him and Kitty ‘‘the most delightful, the most somber, and the most beautiful’’ he has ever known, Joe repeats the selfdescription with quiet emphasis:
I’m a student. I study all things. All. All. And when my study reveals something of beauty in a place or in a person where by all rights only ugliness or death should be revealed, then I know how full of goodness this life is. And that’s a very good thing to know. That’s a truth I shall always seek to verify.
Hence, the only ‘‘word’’ he has to offer the lovers is that their lives are in their hands, that they are free to make, or remake themselves as they choose. There is no ‘‘way’’ except the way of choice. ‘‘You’ve got to figure out something to do that you won’t mind doing very much,’’ he tells Tom. When Tom fails to come up with anything, Joe offers a gentle nudge, couching his suggestion in the same language he has used earlier in speaking of his own work experience: ‘‘Tom, would you be embarrassed driving a truck?’’ Tom eagerly accepts the position offered and in so doing adopts a philosophic stance not unlike Joe’s own, the stance of the outsider, keenly aware of life’s absurdity:
Joe, that’s just the kind of work I should do. Just sit there and travel, and look, and smile, and bust out laughing . . . .
Joe’s ministry to the ‘‘fallen’’ Kitty also stresses the paramount importance of freely-accepted, selfcreated values:
I put her in that hotel, so she can have a chance to gather herself together again. She can’t do that in the New York Hotel. You saw what happens there. There’s nobody anywhere for her to talk to, except you. They all make her talk like a whore. After a while, she’ll believe them . . . .
Understandably, Kitty reacts with fear and trembling to the freedom Joe offers her. Her first, very human, impulse is to assign irresistible power to the social and psychological forces which have cast her in the role of prostitute: ‘‘Too many things have happened to me . . . . I can’t stand being alone. I’m no good. I tried very hard . . . . Everything smells different. I don’t know how to feel, or what to think . . . . It’s what I’ve wanted all my life, but it’s too late. . . .’’ Joe remains nondirective; the choice must be hers: ‘‘I don’t know what to tell you, Kitty. . . . I can’t tell you what to do . . . ’’.
But Blick precipitates a climax in Kitty’s struggle for self-possession and self-determination. By forcing her to perform a strip-tease, he seeks to demonstrate, to her and to the world, that she is a slut, essentially and irrevocably. Only then does Joe take a hand. He stops the shameful proceedings and by sending her off across the country with Tom puts her feet, if only tenuously, on the first rung of the ladder of self-realization.
A few moments later, having failed to kill Blick and having learned that someone else has succeeded at that task, Joe says goodbye to the saloon, probably for good:
Nick: Will I see you tomorrow?
Joe: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
Where is he going? ‘‘I don’t know,’’ he says. ‘‘Nowhere.’’ Rhoads finds ‘‘the aura of vagueness and mystery’’ which hangs over this departure appropriate to a Christ-figure, whose ‘‘ending, whether it be in death or mere disappearance’’ should be as obscure as his origins. His ‘‘ministry’’ here is finished, Rhoads concludes; ‘‘other Toms and Kittys in other places need him, and a new mission calls.’’
But Joe’s mission has been a mission of selfdiscovery as much as anything else and it seems as reasonable to conclude that he now changes his base of operations in order to continue his ‘‘study’’—of himself and the world and his place in it. He has, after all, some new material to work on; he has for the first time tried to act on an old desire: ‘‘I always wanted to kill somebody, but I never knew who it should be,’’ he had announced as he took up the unloaded pistol. His action has brought with it both self-exposure and self-confrontation and we can imagine him wanting to withdraw in order to think further on these things. That something of the sort is on his mind is strongly suggested by the event which triggers his leave-taking. ‘‘Joe, you wanted to kill that guy’,’’ Nick says with surprise and admiration, and offers to buy him a bottle of champagne. Joe immediately goes for his hat and coat. ‘‘What’s the matter?’’ Nick asks. ‘‘Nothing. Nothing.’’
Joe might be compared here to Scipio in Caligula. Invited by Cherea to join in the assassination of Caligula, Scipio cannot make that choice, though he understands and partly approves of Cherea’s motives. Instead, he leaves, determined to ‘‘try to discover the meaning of it all.’’
At virtually every turn then, the dramatic materials which make up The Time of Your Life evoke comparisons with that spiritual topography familiar to us in the masterworks of modern existential literature. Saroyan’s ability to translate his vision of the absurd into a wholly apposite and powerfully expressive symbolic form no doubt falls below that of his more illustrious forerunners and contemporaries. It is all too easy to read the play as an amiable, if somewhat eccentric slice-of-life, a mere chronicle of the quaint goings-on at a typically American waterfront saloon. On the surface, of course, the play is that, and it is as such that it has won an honored place among the classics of American realism. But its surface charm ought not to blind us to the weightier metaphysical import which lies just beneath.
Source: John A. Mills, ‘‘‘What. What-not.’: Absurdity in Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life,’’ in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Winter 1985, pp. 139–59.
No play demonstrates the potential vitality of our stage at the end of the 1930’s more convincingly than William Saroyan’s fugue, The Time of Your Life. In most countries his first effort, My Heart’s in the Highlands, would have been hooted off the stage as the work of a charlatan. Here it was recognized by most critics as a thing of beauty, even if its charm was found to defy analysis. It was not the masterpiece some commentators thought it was; its thinking was decidedly muddled and its assault on the penumbral regions of the mind grew somewhat wearying. Nevertheless, few of us failed to respond to the advent of a fine talent, and within a few months his new play, The Time of Your Life, had been jointly acquired by Eddie Dowling, for whom the central character had been written, and by the veteran Theatre Guild. Disaster seemed imminent at its Boston showing, and so discouraging seemed its prospects that it might have normally been discarded as hopeless. Instead, however, the author, Mr. Dowling, Miss Theresa Helburn, and Mr. Lawrence Langner refused to accept defeat, and their New York production is at present one of the outstanding plays of the season.
Theoretically, the play should have been a disastrous failure, and purists must exclaim that it is not a play at all. So must writers, young and old, who have gone to the trouble of learning the rudiments of dramatic technique only to find that their efforts are unrewarded or are less rewarded than the seemingly scrambled lucubrations of a short-story writer who does not hesitate to proclaim himself a genius. What they fail to see is that there may be direction in indirection, and that the theatre which lives by nuances of acting has always been grateful for nuances in the drama except in the most embattled episodes of its history. Moreover, there is a lasting power in obliquity, in leaving implications to the audience, in asking it to participate in an experience instead of driving the spectator to an acceptance of a philosophy of action that he will very probably forget the moment he leaves the theatre unless he is preconvinced. It is generally safer to steep him in the substance of the life of his times and to let him try to make sense and purpose out of it. For the record, it is necessary only to go back to Shakespeare, whose disapproval of both feudalism and Renaissance Machiavellism was so implicit that it could be more explicit than any preachment—and far more persuasive. Even Euripides practiced this art, as did Ibsen at his best, not to speak of Chekhov and other moderns. Odets, in our own day, has employed the same means in Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moon, and in portions of both Awake and Sing and Paradise Lost; so has Paul Green in Johnny Johnson, and even in The House of Connelly and Hymn to the Rising Sun.
Most of these examples have been chosen with malice prepense, since they have been recognized as ‘‘social plays,’’ and since there is much to be said for those who maintain that all significant plays of our day must have social implications. (Actually, there never was a time when most meritorious serious plays and many comedies were not socially oriented. The proponents of social drama are therefore frequently thinking merely of degrees of social meaning rather than of the mere presence of this attribute.) The truth about The Time of Your Life is that its uniqueness resides in its form rather than in its content or meaning, and even the form departs from convention only by a greater degree of obliquity and by a more persistent employment of nuances than we have found customary. If the play is to be measured by the yardstick of social criticism, it is not likely to be as exasperatingly negligible as some young critics are inclined to believe. If it is to be measured by the yardstick of conventional dramaturgy, it is also not to be dismissed as a hopeless object of curves and angles. Only those who believe that social drama must be hortatory, or that a good play must adhere to the rules of Freytag, will not know how to measure it. It may also be argued with some validity that we need not measure a work of art at all; it is necessary only to feel its magic. That too is criticism or a form of judgment, and the trouble with this absolutely valid approach is only that one cannot argue about it.
The Time of Your Life is a genre picture with a wealth of chiaroscuro, the latter being intellectual or critical as well as sensory. Packed into a ‘‘honkytonk,’’ a saloon that supplies entertainment as well as hard liquor, are a number of people. They are, superficially considered, hopelessly miscellaneous. But they have one thing in common—their burden of aspiration or of frustration or of both. The young marble-game addict, the melancholy comedian, the Negro who collapses of hunger and plays divinely when he is revived, the overzealous comedian, the ludicrously love-sick swain who telephones a nurse in vain until she finally appears and gives him more than he dared to expect, the prostitute who veils her past in dreams, the sensation-seeking wealthy woman married to a comically strait-laced husband, the policeman who detests his job—who are these and others but waifs of the world, impressing upon us the fact that we are all waifs of one kind or another!
Nor is this all. Those who want more cohesion in the drama will find it, if they have unimpaired eyes, in the presence of Joe, a shiftless young man with money at his disposal. Everything, every event or presence in the play, impinges upon him, so that he becomes the sensitive film and focus of the episodes, and many of the events are directly or indirectly inspired by him. He is many things in one, this man who acquired money and sickened of it, who is alone and inscrutably so, as so often happens if not to the same extent. Out of his loneliness and sensitivity he has developed a pity for all mankind and a feeling of brotherhood; and having money and time at his disposal, he has made himself a paraclete or comforter of his fellow creatures, giving understanding where it is needed and material help where it is imperative. He is not a wise legislator or a sound philanthropist, and a course of socially integrated action is foreign to him, for he is mysteriously wrapped up in himself and in his loneliness. One cannot attribute supernatural or social leadership to this figure. But as a very human person, he is the catalytic agent of a large portion of the play. He has a mystic prototype in the Paraclete of Evreinov’s The Chief Thing, and a realistic one in the interfering Luka of Gorky’s Night’s Lodging. There is, in short, a subtle integration in the play.
Those who want more social pertinence than has been indicated thus far will also find it. To the implicit reference of frustration in our life must be added the hardly irrelevant idea of human brotherhood; all mankind is to be pitied, a doctrine that needs some reaffirmation at this time. ‘‘All,’’ is, however, too large a prescription, and for practical purposes a dangerous one. All mankind is pitiful, indeed; even the sadistic vigilante who bullies the prostitute and maltreats the Negro who comes to her defense is a pitiful specimen. Still, Saroyan realizes, at least fugaciously, that there is a degree of evil that can be overcome only by the application of force. Joe wants to give his gun to ‘‘a good man who can use it,’’ and the fantastic relic of the frontier, Kit Carson, who claims the honor of having killed the vigilante is received with approval by Joe; it is to him that he bequeaths the pistol. As a course of social action, this assassination is of course deplorable, when approached literally; apprehended symbolically or suggestively, it is only too pertinent today when men of good will are called upon to cope with international bullies. And if we must labor the point, it is also possible to call attention to the fact that the casually introduced characters suggest the actual social scene. Surely the hungry workhunting Negro represents something more than an isolated case; does he not remind us of a certain pressing problem that all the New Dealers have been unable to solve in eight long years, as well as of the richness of talent or spirit that goes begging in the streets! The seedy comedian who fails to amuse because he has nothing to laugh about represents a shrewd appraisal of reality by the playwright; and there is much satiric comment inherent in the moronically hopeful lad at the slot machine whose Jobian patience is finally rewarded with a collection of nickels and a display of three American flags. Beyond the confines of the saloon, moreover, there are no brass bands but picket lines, and the proletarian dock workers are ready to lock horns with the proletarian police.
Compassion and perception, and laughter and pity, are fused in Saroyan’s play into one of the richest experiences provided by the American theatre in many years. Nothing is basically vague, although everything is fugitive, in this play. If it does not come to a single point (and there is no reason why any play must, provided it is richly alive), all its separate points are vividly realized. Only a certain sentimentality attenuates them, particularly in a bedroom scene. The prime condition of dramatic structure is not actually the principle that everything in a play must be tied up in a knot (vide King Lear, Henry IV, Peer Gynt, etc.) but that there should be no inconsistencies in the development of character and plot. A writer who keeps us in one groove and then suddenly jolts us out of it is far more culpable than a Saroyan.
An analysis of the production is impossible within the limits of this article, which has stressed the playwriting problem because it is uppermost in the discussions of the play. There has been some debate on the question of style, and it has been maintained with some show of reason that the original direction by Robert Lewis, who treated the play as fantasy, was more appropriate to the spirit of Saroyan’s work. The fact is, however, that the author did not think so, and that the production supplied by Messrs. Saroyan, Dowling, Langner, and Miss Helburn is both affecting and amusing. This does not of course settle the larger problem of form, and I trust I shall have the opportunity to return to it. One may, however, ponder the question whether this play is a fantasy; I do not think it is— one does not consider Brueghel’s crowded canvases or Igor Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps fantastic. The assumption that anything not completely integrated constitutes fantasy is an illusion of reasoninebriated members of the intelligentsia; to them we recommend the platitude that a good deal of private and social life is unintegrated and illogical.
Source: John Gassner, ‘‘Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life,’’ in Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled from 30 Years of Dramatic Criticism, edited by Glenn Loney, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1968, pp. 407–10.