William Saroyan Drama Analysis
William Saroyan’s career as a playwright covered more than forty years, but his best and most acclaimed work in the theater was concentrated in the period between 1939 and 1942. His dramatic reputation rests on these plays, most notably his much-acclaimed The Time of Your Life.
A preliminary dramatic effort, Subway Circus, evocative of the commedia dell’arte tradition, is actually a series of sketches on the independent fantasies of ten riders of a subway car. Even this early work, however, demonstrates Saroyan’s interest in the theater’s potential to depict the inner, imaginary world of his characters and to create an atmosphere of carnival excitement and gaiety.
My Heart’s in the Highlands
With My Heart’s in the Highlands, which he later referred to as his first play, Saroyan displayed his ability to transform overtly autobiographical experience into drama and to work within a much more conventional (although hardly rigorous) structure. Set in Fresno in 1914 at the beginning of World War I and produced in 1939 at the beginning of World War II, My Heart’s in the Highlands strikes a note of foreboding and anxiety, but more important is its resilient optimism. The plot revolves around the reception of an eccentric, itinerant Scots immigrant, Jasper MacGregor, who plays “My Heart’s in the Highlands” on his bugle, in the home of a generous and equally eccentric California family. The play’s movement is steeped in optimism: The homeless find homes; strangers recognize their common humanity; individuals are brought together, both in the pleasure of enjoying MacGregor’s bugling and in the sorrow of mourning his death. In this play, Saroyan introduced what was to become a recurring structural feature of his plays, the performance of song, dance, dramatic reading, or musical composition. MacGregor has a number of qualities that reappear in Saroyan’s later characters: Like Kit Carson in The Time of Your Life, he is a teller of tall tales, and like the king in The Cave Dwellers, he has played King Lear. In addition, like the majority of Saroyan’s characters, he is a searcher, displaced, uprooted, and homeless.
The Time of Your Life
Saroyan’s most celebrated play, The Time of Your Life, for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, opened on Broadway only six months after My Heart’s in the Highlands. Saroyan said that he wrote the play in only six days while staying at the Great Northern Hotel in New York City. The Time of Your Life effectively captures the variety and vitality of American life that is the essence of Saroyan’s vision. Here, he assembles a virtual cross-section of the American people: The rich and the poor, the young and the old, the powerful and the powerless all meet at Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon, Restaurant, and Entertainment Palace in San Francisco. It is, as Saroyan proclaims in his stage directions, “an American place,” alive with humor, energy, and imagination. The plot of the play is diffused among its twenty-six characters whose stories provide a panoramic view of American society. Much of the action is orchestrated by Nick, the saloon’s owner, and Joe, a benevolent, eccentric, philosophical man who describes himself as a student of life. When Tom, a young man in love with a prostitute named Kitty, questions Joe’s motive for helping strangers, Joe tells him that “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.” Joe is, in fact, the pivotal character in the play because he consciously tries to make every moment of his life the time of his life and seeks to ensure that others share in his enjoyment. Having worked hard to earn enough money to be comfortable, Joe now lives to be happy and to make others happy. Early in the play, he dispatches Tom to buy him some toys, simply because he knows they will bring him and others pleasure. His main accomplishment in the play is the reform of Kitty Duval, the prostitute whom Tom loves, and the uniting of Tom and Kitty. When Kitty first appears in the bar, she is abrasive, cold, and hard, but under Joe’s questioning, her true nature and past are revealed. After hearing her story and seeing her response to Tom’s love, Joe concludes that Kitty is “one of the few...
(The entire section is 1845 words.)