Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405
On one level, The Time of Your Life is about a young man’s paternalistic efforts to make other people happy and to live life to the fullest without the pain of dull routine. Looking at the play from an oblique angle, however, one can see also how the portrayal of Depression-era American urban society—all the “barflies” at Nick’s—wields a tremendous popular appeal.
In the character of Joe, The Time of Your Life questions the ability of contemporary life to offer possibilities for a meaningful existence. Since Joe has to some extent realized the quintessential American dream of wealth, his present desperate continuation of the “pursuit of happiness” suggests that making money cannot be equated with living a fulfilled life. Audiences may not easily swallow the stage direction’s naive assessment that Joe is “superior” to all of the other characters. Too much has happened since 1939 to validate the idea that the handouts of the young patriarch in the saloon will bring happiness to others.
If Joe is an ambiguous character, he nevertheless represents only a slightly jaded version of the American success story, even though his speech about the harm of “unearned” money was considered radical enough to be cut in many contemporary performances. In The Time of Your Life, the criticism of the United States and American values is generally rather subtle throughout. Willie, the Assyrian game-master, is to be taken seriously when he translates his success at beating the machine into his making a fortune. A faint shadow of a doubt is cast over the ending, however, when the machine malfunctions by constantly indicating a win and thus threatening the meaning of Willie’s triumph—until he carefully gets it back into working order.
Despite some touches of melodrama, however, as a play about love and a place for human warmth amid the harsh, industrial world of San Francisco’s waterfront, The Time of Your Life succeeds, mostly because of the character of Nick. It is he who expresses sympathy for the small people who are constantly abused by a system which envies them their little comforts and tries to coerce them all into the big machineries of industry and war, while at the same time allowing amoral living “uptown.” More so than the young patriarch Joe, saloon-keeper Nick is the true unquestioning provider for young whores, aspiring artists, and all those threatened by old poverty and new war.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960
Saroyan’s descriptions and the actions of the characters are very telling and indicate that the author is interested in what makes someone a good or happy person beyond what is generally considered financial and social success in America. Joe, for example, has made such a large amount of money that he can afford to sit at Nick’s without a job, drinking champagne. Yet, Joe indicates that he still searches for things that will make him happy. He cannot work because he cannot find anything that will not ‘‘embarrass’’ him, so his success is in what he is able to give to those around him. He helps Tom and Kitty begin a new life together and listens to and believes the wild stories Kit Carson tells, but he is deeply unhappy with himself and his life.
Other characters are searching for something to fulfill them, as well. However crass or difficult their lives may look on the outside, Saroyan insists on giving them inner beauty and knowledge about what is right and good. Krupp understands that, as humans and Americans, ‘‘We’ve got everything, but we always feel lousy and dissatisfied just the same.’’ He bemoans that there is ‘‘nobody going quietly for a little walk to the ocean,’’ because everyone is ‘‘trying to get a lot of money in a hurry.’’ Krupp is human, however: he certainly feels the yearning for material and social success, but he is also aware enough to know that it is false and leads nowhere. Kitty Duval, as a cheap prostitute, is a failure by most standards. Saroyan, nonetheless, describes her as ‘‘somebody,’’ a person who, despite hardships, has ‘‘that kind of delicate and rugged beauty which no circumstances of evil or ugly reality can destroy.’’ Joe even toasts her with champagne, saying, ‘‘To the spirit, Kitty Duval.’’
The Body-Mind Dichotomy
Saroyan offers a number of characters who exemplify the dichotomy that often exists between the human mind and the human body—and the tension between those who act and those who think about acting. Joe is someone who uses his body very little and is nearly all intellect and talk. He rarely moves from his chair in Nick’s bar, getting Tom to run all of his errands. When Kitty begs him to dance, he refuses, saying that he cannot dance. He then exhorts Tom to dance with Kitty and tells him, ‘‘Don’t talk. Just dance,’’ underlining the dichotomy between mind and body. When the beautiful Mary L. asks Joe to dance, he is even more explicit about his inabilities, telling her that he can ‘‘hardly walk’’ and that this is a constant condition, not one simply caused by too much champagne. He cannot work, either, having failed to find work that ‘‘won’t make me feel embarrassed. Because I can’t do simple, good things. . . . I’m too smart.’’ Saroyan writes Joe’s character almost as if his mind has gotten in the way of his having a normally functioning body.
McCarthy is another character in whom the dichotomy between the mind and the body is seen. However, McCarthy has been able to surmount the barrier between action and thought that stymies Joe. McCarthy is a longshoreman, but he is a laborer who sounds like a professor. ‘‘I’m a longshoreman. And an idealist. I’m a man with too much brawn to be an intellectual, exclusively,’’ he says.
Love Conquers All
Saroyan’s work, including this play, was often criticized for being too sentimental and romantic. The play features two somewhat idealized relationships that reflect the concept that love can conquer all: Tom and Kitty’s, and Dudley and Elsie’s.
Tom and Kitty’s relationship is challenged by a number of factors. Tom appears to be dull-witted and inexperienced in the ways of the world. He does not have a job and has no idea how to get one until Joe helps him. Joe, in fact, saved Tom’s life when he made Tom ‘‘eat all that chicken soup three years ago’’ when he was sick and hungry. Tom seems barely able to function on his own in the world, yet he meets and falls deeply in love with Kitty, a world-weary prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold. They come into this relationship with very different backgrounds and life experiences, yet they somehow get together. Joe acts as facilitator for their love by helping Tom get a job driving a truck and moving Kitty from the hotel where she works as a prostitute to the luxurious St. Francis Hotel. When Blick sullies the atmosphere in Nick’s, Joe shoves cash into Tom’s hand and pushes the two lovers out the door, telling them to ‘‘Get married in San Diego.’’ Their story has a happy, almost fairytale ending.
Elsie and Dudley literally cannot connect with each other during the play’s first half. Dudley calls her repeatedly, but each time either she refuses to speak to him or he is mistakenly connected with another woman who is not Elsie. Finally, Elsie relents and agrees to meet Dudley at Nick’s. There the couple talk about their love. Elsie believes that the world is too horrible and harsh to support two people who want to be together and in love. ‘‘I know you love me, and I love you, but don’t you see that love is impossible in this world?’’ she asks Dudley. He is insistent, and when she asks whether they can find a place to be in love, Saroyan gives the stage direction that his affirmative answer is given ‘‘with blind faith.’’ Elsie, as worried as she is about the looming war, accepts his answer, and the two lovers leave Nick’s holding hands.