The Time of Your Life

by William Saroyan

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The Play

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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 his love for her.

After an interlude with the Greek newsboy, who convinces Nick that “people are so wonderful,” longshoreman McCarthy, an agitator, and policeman Krupp, a simple family man, bring outside conflicts into the play. Fellow drinkers at Nick’s, outside on the waterfront they stand on opposite sides of a bitter labor dispute. Krupp will have hit McCarthy by the end of The Time of Your Life. Just after Tom returns (unable to bring himself to buy Kitty’s services), Harry does a comic routine about the outbreak of World War II. Suddenly, Joe wants a map of Europe and a gun. Kit Carson, a stock caricature of the “Western hero,” appears and spins a yarn about strange events back in November, 1918, the month of Armistice Day at the end of World War I.

Act 2 ends with Joe and Tom leaving with the toys for Kitty, in whose room the next act takes place. There, a desolate Kitty spins out her romantic fantasy about a doctor who...

(This entire section contains 974 words.)

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falls in love with her, an admired actress. Joe responds by telling Tom to “be the wonderful young doctor . . . [and] correct the errors of the world,” and he organizes a car trip for them. Act 4 brings the audience back to Nick’s, where the barman’s heartfelt concern for his patrons and his worry about Blick become obvious. For Dudley, desires are fulfilled when he meets his true love, Elsie, who is willing to sleep with him because she fears his death on a future battlefield.

The last act takes place at night, when Joe and Tom return from their trip. Joe now hints at the harmful nature of his money, since he made it by speculating rather than through productive work. Professing to be a student of beauty in unusual places, Joe has set up Kitty in a new place and sends Tom on his last errand; alone again, Joe asks Kit to ready his gun and instruct him in its use. Meanwhile, suddenly, Willie wins his game of skill. Tom returns for a chewing-gum contest with his master; chewing wildly, Joe arranges a job as a truck driver for Tom, who leaves to get the vehicle.

As Harry and Wesley show up for their next performance, Kitty drops by, confessing that she has never been a burlesque dancer; Joe leaves to fetch her some books to cheer her. While Nick is absent, too, Blick enters to torment Kitty and beat up Kit Carson offstage. Returning, he orders Kitty to dance and sing to show that she is not a prostitute. When she complies, full of fright, Joe and Tom arrive; while Blick beats Wesley, Joe sends Tom and Kitty off in the truck to marry at Tom’s first destination. Joe then aims his gun at Blick, but it does not fire; he tries again with the same result. Nick returns and pushes out Blick; offstage, three shots are heard. Nick rushes out, comes back, and tells everyone that Blick has been killed. Joe is ready to leave the bar, perhaps forever, when Kit Carson enters and proclaims that he “shot a man once. . . . In 1939, I think it was. . . . Couldn’t stand the way he talked to ladies.”

Dramatic Devices

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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, Saroyan even toyed with the idea of knocking out some theater walls to accommodate his ideas about the play’s presentation. Yet for all its emphasis on realism, The Time of Your Life has elements of the fantastic and even mythic: It incorporates such icons of American vaudeville theater and popular culture as the trite “hooker with a heart of gold” and the kindly bartender and suggests that these parts are to be played seriously, unlike the self-conscious role of Kit Carson.

Furthermore, Saroyan’s insistence that Kitty’s room be built within the barroom set—which is to remain onstage, darkened but still present—also shows that the apparent realism of The Time of Your Life is somewhat deceptive. Similarly, Saroyan toys with synchronicity when he requires that act 4 bring the audience back to the end of act 2. This jump backward in time is indicated by Joe and Tom’s leaving Nick’s Bar at the beginning of act 4 to go to Kitty’s room, obviously to do what the audience has just seen them doing.

For the 1947 film version of The Time of Your Life, in which Jeanne and James Cagney played Kitty and Joe, censors insisted that Kit Carson could not shoot policeman Blick. Instead, the film shows Kit lassoing Blick, who is then punched by Joe. This version, however, violates the play’s basic premises of Joe’s relatively limited ability to interact with others and his need to rely on Tom as his “hand”; the comic lassoing made the film lighter fare than the theatrical production.

Places Discussed

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*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 foghorns from the bay. Its furnishings include card tables, a marble game, a juke box, piano, small dance floor, and a long bar. A uniquely American place, the saloon has characteristics of a church—a place in which confessions are made and heard. It is also a stage on which talent is displayed in talk, by tap, and on the keyboard. It is microcosm of pure democracy in which Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy prevails—a place in which no one is the inferior of or superior of anyone else.

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, the rise of European fascism, and the beginning of a new world war, Nick’s Saloon is also a rehabilitation center, a meeting place, in which perceptions of difference can be transcended by a shared recognition of human value. As Saroyan himself noted, Nick’s is committed to the belief that life can be redemptive. Finally, Nick’s is a philosopher’s club; bartender Harry believes that the world is sorrowful and needs laughter, which he will provide. The power of Nick’s Saloon, in the script, on the stage, and in its screen adaptation, is that it possesses the delightful ambiguity of being both ordinary, like any neighborhood tavern, and also extraordinary, a special place in which life can be made whole.

Historical Context

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The Great Depression On October 29, 1929, the New York Stock Exchange crashed when investors sold sixteen million shares in just one trading day. Just a year before that, Herbert Hoover had been elected U.S. president, and the nation was basking in the glow of an unprecedented economic boom. The stock market collapse, however, firmly placed the nation on the road to the Great Depression, and by 1933, the nation’s unemployment rate was at about twenty- five percent. Historians and economists disagree over the cause of the depression: some have maintained that the crisis was a global event, exacerbated by Germany’s inability to pay the reparations that England and France demanded for its role in World War I; others have blamed a decline in consumption by Americans; while others have pointed to overvalued stocks as the culprit.

The stock collapse did not affect the nation’s economy all at once. Gradually, businesses closed, banks failed, and savings and investments disappeared. Fewer families could afford a new car, and spending on new construction in 1933 fell to onesixth of its pre-depression level. Many credit the start of war in Europe in 1939 with stimulating the world and national economies and ending the Great Depression, whereas others claim that the depression’s end came only because President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs helped to strengthen the American people’s confidence in the nation’s economy.

Labor Unrest in the 1930s The Great Depression forced companies to lay off millions of American workers, changing their lives forever. High unemployment and the deterioration of working conditions led to labor unrest, and many workers gained a renewed interest in unionization. Strikes became one of the most powerful weapons that unions had to get their point across to corporations, and in 1934, 1.5 million workers across the United States went on strike. Unions won major victories by using the sit-down strike in many industries; from 1936 to 1939, American workers engaged in 577 actions during which they simply stopped working while at their jobs.

In May 1934, San Francisco longshoremen, like McCarthy in the play, went on strike, refusing to unload cargo after their employers failed to recognize their union, the International Longshoremen’s Association. Two months later, thousands of tons of food, steel, and other goods clogged docks and warehouses. The day after the traditional Fourth of July celebrations, a day long battle between police and workers erupted on the streets of San Francisco; two strikers were killed, and hundreds on both sides were injured. This event, ‘‘Bloody Thursday,’’ caught the attention of many working people in the city, and on July 16, a general strike began. Unionists and workers blockaded streets and closed stores for four days until their leaders called off the strike for the good of the city.

The Start of World War II In 1938, Adolf Hitler, Germany’s chancellor, began his hegemony by annexing Austria, a country with close ties to Germany. Later that year, Hitler and the other leading European nations signed the Munich Pact, which essentially handed over part of Czechoslovakia to Germany. Many Europeans believed that this would be Hitler’s final territorial claim and so viewed the pact with hope.

This was not the case, as less than a year later Germany took possession of the rest of Czechoslovakia. Great Britain and France had to admit that their policy of appeasement had failed, and they began to prepare for war. In August 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union—historical adversaries—announced that they had signed a nonaggression pact. This agreement eliminated the possibility of Germany having to fight a war on two fronts. In September 1939, one month before Saroyan’s play takes place, Germany invaded Poland, and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun.

The predominant mood in the United States during the late 1930s and early 1940s was isolationist, as many citizens still remembered the violence and suffering of World War I. The United States would not enter the war until December of 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Literary Style

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Stage Direction Saroyan is very explicit with the stage direction in this play. This may be because he was disappointed in the production and direction of his first play, My Heart’s in the Highlands. Nearly every character has an extensive description of his or her clothes, weaknesses and strengths of character, movements, and place in society. For example, when describing Willie, the marble game player, Saroyan goes so far as to say that the young man is ‘‘the last of the American pioneers, with nothing more to fight but the machine, with no other rewards than lights going on and off.’’ In this case, he raises Willie above being a mere young man in front of a game; Willie evokes the history of a nation and a people.

Saroyan even begins the play with a paragraph stating the play’s underlying philosophy, just in case the reader is unclear about his intentions:

In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place and let it be free and unashamed.

Plot The play’s limited plot has been noted by numerous critics and reviewers. In a sense, the play offers a slice of what a day might be like at Nick’s bar rather than a story with a beginning and an end. The primary tension centers around Blick, his behavior toward Kitty and others in the bar, and his resulting murder. Without Blick’s nasty presence, the play is simply a series of conversations in which the bar’s patrons talk about their lives and dreams.

There are minor plot lines, though, such as the growing love between Kitty and Tom, whether Dudley will get Elsie to marry him, and Willie’s success at playing the marble game. More than twenty characters come and go; in reality, Saroyan has created a play that stresses characters over plot. Blick’s death is less an event in and of itself and more a catalyst that binds the bar’s patrons together in a literal circle around Kit Carson at the play’s end.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: The U.S. government responds to the unemployment of forty thousand theater workers by creating the Federal Theater Project. The project brings live theater to small towns all across America. Many in Congress believe that those who are benefiting from the project are politically radical or communist, and it is finally shut down in 1939.

Today: The United States government funds thousands of artists’ and writers’ projects through the National Endowment for the Arts. National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System also receive federal money for portions of their operating budgets. Many in Congress regularly challenge the appropriateness of government- funded art and federal support of noncommercial broadcasting services.

1930s: During the 1930s, children’s toys are built primarily from wood and metal. The toys in the play are typical for the 1930s: Joe brings Kitty a toy carousel that plays a song, and the toys Tom finds for Joe include a music box, whistles, and a large figure that dances and moves when the interior mechanism is wound with a key.

Today: Toys for children, often made from plastic, are much more sophisticated and complex, often incorporating technology such as computer chips. Educational toys are also popular, helping children use computers, improve their reading and math skills, and learn about astronomy, for example.

1930s: Though the United States has expressed a desire to remain neutral in the face of impending war in Europe, President Roosevelt requests about $1.3 billion for national defense in 1939 and issues an executive order for the purchase of more than five hundred military aircraft. This begins a boom in the American defense industry that bolsters the entire U.S. economy throughout World War II.

Today: The terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, spur a huge increase in government spending on national security and homeland defense. In early 2002, President Bush asks for a 12 percent increase in military spending, the largest increase in two decades, and an almost 100 percent increase in spending to protect U.S. residents at home.

Media Adaptations

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In 1948, United Artists made a film based on The Time of Your Life starring Jimmy Cagney (available on VHS format tape). A television adaptation of the play was produced for the show Playhouse 90 in October 1958. In addition, a DVD version of the play is available. The disc is a recording of a 1976 performance of the play that was presented on a New York stage without an audience; it was part of the Broadway Archive Series and was directed by Kirk Browning and featured Patti LuPone.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Anghoff, Charles, Review of The Time of Your Life, in North American Review, Vol. 248, No. 2, Winter 1939–1940, pp. 403–4.

Atkinson, Brooks, Review of The Time of Your Life, in Broadway Scrapbook, Theatre Arts, Inc., 1947, pp. 129–32, originally published in New York Times, November 5, 1939.

Barnes, Clive, ‘‘Saroyan Play Revived by Plumstead Troupe,’’ in New York Times, February 25, 1972, p. 26.

Brown, John Mason, ‘‘America’s Yield,’’ in Broadway in Review, W. W. Norton & Company, 1940, pp. 132–97, originally published in the New York Post, October 26, 1939.

Carpenter, Frederic I., ‘‘The Time of William Saroyan’s Life,’’ in the Pacific Spectator, Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1947, pp. 88–96.

Dusenbury, Winifred L., The Theme of Loneliness in Modern American Drama, University of Florida Press, 1960, pp. 155–78, 197–212.

Gill, Brendan, Review of The Time of Your Life, in the New Yorker, November 15, 1969.

McCarthy, Mary, ‘‘Saroyan, an Innocent on Broadway,’’ in Sights and Spectacles: 1937–1956, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956, pp. 46–52, originally published in slightly different form in the Partisan Review, March–April 1940.

Mills, John A., ‘‘‘What. What Not’: Absurdity in Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life,’’ in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 2, Winter 1985, pp. 139–59.

Rhoads, Kenneth, ‘‘Joe as Christ-type in Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life,’’ in Essays in Literature, Western Illinois University, Fall 1976, pp. 227–43.

Shinn, Thelma J., ‘‘William Saroyan: Romantic Existentialist,’’ in Modern Drama, Vol. 15, No. 2, September 1972, pp. 185–94.

Vernon, Grenville, Review of The Time of Your Life, in Commonweal, Vol. 31, November 10, 1939, p. 78.

Further Reading Bedrosian, Margaret, Magical Pine Ring: Culture and the Imagination in Armenian-American Literature, Wayne State University Press, 1991. Bedrosian examines the continuing influence of Armenian history on Armenian-American writing. In addition to Saroyan, Bedrosian includes nine other Armenian- American writers, including Emmanuel Varandyan, Diana der Hovanessian, and Richard Hagopian.

Keyishian, Harry, ed., Critical Essays on William Saroyan, Macmillan Library References, 1995. This volume includes reviews of Saroyan’s major plays, stories, novels, and autobiographical writings as well as numerous critical analyses of his work.

Lee, Lawrence, and Barry Gifford, Saroyan: A Biography, Harper Collins, 1984. Lee and Gifford tell the story of Saroyan’s life using firsthand accounts from the wife he twice divorced, his son and daughter, and friends such as Artie Shaw, Celeste Holm, and Lillian Gish.

Terkel, Studs, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, New Press, 2000. Originally published in 1970, Studs Terkel chronicles the effects that the Great Depression had on dozens of ordinary people (and a few famous ones), using their own words.

Whitmore, Jon, William Saroyan, Greenwood Publishing, 1995. This book profiles Saroyan, focusing on his life in the theater. Included are critical overviews of Saroyan’s work, plot summaries, and production information for his plays, a bibliography, and other writings about his work in the theater.


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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.

Foster, Edward Halsey. William Saroyan: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne 1991. A valuable work that combines literary criticism of Saroyan’s short fiction, autobiographical writings, and an interview with Saroyan. Includes the estimations of several critics of his place in American literature.

Hamalian, Leo, ed. William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered. London: Associated University Presses, 1987. A collection of essays and memoirs by critics, friends, and admirers of Saroyan. An excellent miscellany that examines topics from Saroyan’s experience in an orphanage to the literary influences that shaped his art.

Lee, Lawrence, and Barry Gifford. Saroyan: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. A biography of Saroyan based on many interviews with his friends, acquaintances, and family members. Provides the background and details of the film version of The Time of Your Life.

Leggett, John. A Daring Young Man. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Leggett relies heavily on Saroyan’s journals to produce a sustained glimpse of the author that is neither admiring nor forgiving.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide