The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Time of Your Life opens on an afternoon at Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant, and Entertainment Palace. Nick is behind the bar and Joe is sitting at his table close to the center, stage left, when Willie enters and starts playing a pinball machine, stage right; he will continue to play silently until he beats the apparatus in act 5. A newsboy arrives and sells all of his papers to Joe, who carelessly throws them away and starts whistling for his man, Tom.

Three years before, Joe’s money saved Tom from sickness and starvation; now, Tom runs absurd errands for Joe. This time, he is ordered to “buy . . . a couple of dollars’ worth of toys and bring them here.” As Tom drops Joe’s nickel in the bar’s phonograph, Kitty Duval appears and Joe coaxes her to his table. While she sips his champagne and tells him of her shattered dreams of becoming a burlesque star, Nick’s place fills with people. Among them are the lovesick Dudley, who tries to call his bride from the bar’s telephone and gets mixed up with her roommate; Harry, a comedian who awaits discovery while performing at Nick’s; and Wesley, a young black pianist who faints of hunger before Nick’s food restores him so that he can play at night.

When Kitty asks Joe for a dance, he tells her that he “can’t” but offers her Tom, who has returned with Joe’s toys, and gives him five dollars to spend on her. Tom exits with Kitty, professing his love for her. Now, everybody is happy, or at least free from pain, at Nick’s. This changes as Blick from the Vice Squad enters; as Nick says, “he’s no good. . . . He hurts little people.” Blick threatens Nick for his laissez-faire attitude toward prostitutes and promises to return at night.

Act 2 opens with Joe trying to guess the name of “M.L.” from the initials on her handbag. He gets as far as “Mary L.,” and her questions allow Joe to present his philosophy—that is, to stay drunk in order to “live all the time” and avoid the “twenty-three and a half . . . dull, dead, boring, empty, and murderous” hours of the day. Joe is also on a quest “to find out if it’s possible to live what I think is a civilized life. I mean a life that can’t hurt any other life.” Their time together ends when the married Mary, after being stood up by Joe for a dance, gets up and leaves after Joe has confessed...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

When The Time of Your Life first opened, director Bobby Lewis used a highly stylized, “prettified” set with fanciful lighting instead of following William Saroyan’s stage directions, which call for a set modeled on a real-life downtown watering hole in San Francisco personally known to the playwright. The set collapsed on top of the actors during the first performance, and the production was nearly abandoned as a disaster.

In this emergency, Saroyan fired Lewis and relied on lead actor Eddie Dowling, who played Joe, and himself to revive The Time of Your Life. In his drive for perfect verisimilitude, Saroyan bought a real bar and used its parts as the setting; suddenly, the play worked so well that it earned both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play in 1939. Even after closing on Broadway, The Time of Your Life continued to be performed in high realist fashion at the insistence of Saroyan, and stock and amateur productions have generally followed suit in later years.

Saroyan’s insistence on re-creating his personal vision in The Time of Your Life, however—an ambition which can be traced in the minute detail of the stage directions—has led to some almost absurd complications. For the first production, the theater company used the services of an inventor to design Willie’s fantastic “marble-game” so that it would perform as specified. In New York,...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*San Francisco

*San Francisco. Port city in Northern California in which the play is set. Saroyan delighted in setting his tales in his native California. While he often preferred rural locations, he also used urban settings, and although he wrote this play in New York City, his heart was in San Francisco, where he lived and secured a place for his mother to live. It was a city he knew well—and for him it provided daily illustrations of the miracle of life. By 1939, when this play was first produced, San Francisco had approached its peak population and the surrounding Bay Area region contained about a third of California’s inhabitants. As a transportation hub, the city drew together people from all over the Americas and the world, who arrived by ship under the Golden Gate Bridge, or by rail over the Union Pacific lines. Nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 1906, the city was constantly reinventing itself. As one character in the play puts it, San Francisco has “no foundation, all the way down.” That kind of life on the edge, both physically and socially, appealed to Saroyan and inspired the cast he created to populate a typical Bay Area bar.

Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon

Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon. San Francisco waterfront bar in which the entire play is set. The saloon is the kind of honky-tonk that Saroyan loved—a place in which drinkers can talk, play music, and dance, while hearing the blare of...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Great Depression
On October 29, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashed when investors sold sixteen million shares in just...

(The entire section is 671 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Stage Direction
Saroyan is very explicit with the stage direction in this play. This may be because he was disappointed in the...

(The entire section is 375 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1930s: The U.S. government responds to the unemployment of forty thousand theater workers by creating the Federal Theater Project. The...

(The entire section is 334 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Many of the issues and themes that arise in Saroyan’s play still have relevance in the early twenty-first century, such as searching for...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

In 1948, United Artists made a film based on The Time of Your Life starring Jimmy Cagney (available on VHS format tape). A television...

(The entire section is 85 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Peter Balakian’s book Black Dog of Fate (1997) is his story of growing up in a comfortable New Jersey suburb in the midst of a...

(The entire section is 256 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Anghoff, Charles, Review of The Time of Your Life, in North American Review, Vol. 248, No. 2, Winter...

(The entire section is 438 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Calonne, David Stephen. William Saroyan: My Real Work Is Being. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983. A thorough account of Saroyan’s life and work. Chapter 5 interprets The Time of Your Life as a play that views life as chaotic and miraculous and relates the play to vaudeville and to the theater of the absurd.

Floan, Howard R. William Saroyan. Boston: Twayne, 1966. Discusses the four main periods and genres of Saroyan’s writing: short fiction, drama, the novel, and autobiography. Chapter 4 interprets the play as a microcosm of America’s romanticized past and its harsh economic reality.


(The entire section is 267 words.)