Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All, or The London Comedy

William Saroyan
Finborough Theatre
(2008)

William Saroyan

American playwright William Saroyan (1908-1981), a member of the legendary Theatre Guild and one of the leading avant garde writers of his day, has written a hell of a lot of plays and the majority of them have been failures. He is hardly known over here and has long been out of fashion in America.

Neil McPherson, artistic director of the Finborough Theatre, is celebrating the centenary of Saroyan’s birth by reviving three of his works: Sam, the Highest Jumper of Them All (1960), The Beautiful People (1941) and The Time of Your Life (1939).

American critic Woolcott Gibbs described Saroyan as “the most completely undisciplined talent in American letters.”

American critic Brook Atkinson said, "When Saroyan permits himself to discuss ideas he can write some of the worst nonsense that ever clattered out of a typewriter.”

Saroyan thought that one way to pay off his income tax would be to travel through Europe writing comedies in every capital. He came to London. In the West End there were three productions by Joan Littlewood: The Hostage, Make Me an Offer and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be.

He saw Brendan Behan’s The Hostage and liked it so much that he wrote to Littlewood, artistic director of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, asking if she would like a play by him. She and her manager, Gerald Raffles, invited him to come and improvise one with their Theatre Workshop company.

Saroyan’s production had the unmistakable Littlewood, shambolic, rambling, anything-goes stamp, with the actors talking and singing directly to the audience.

Sam, a nice bank clerk, whom everybody likes, is falsely accused of robbing the bank. That’s Act 1. Act 2 opens with the line: “This is where things get worse.” And they do. Sam, having been bashed on the head, is now mad; but only North by North West. He just wants to jump higher than anybody has ever done.

The characters include a rival bank clerk, the bank manager, a stripper, a blind beggar, a Teddy boy, a Russian, a gypsy, an Irish priest, Princess Margaret, a racing tipster, two grandparents, a man with a clock and an ambassador for the audience.

The play, as you might expect, is an allegory with a political agenda. There’s talk of the Atom bomb and the born, the dying and the dead. The style is strictly expressionistic.

The critics in 1960 had a field day: “a ragbag of shallow nonsense,” said the Evening Standard. “Appears to be written by a nine-year-old,” said The Daily Mail. “Pretty exasperating,” said the Evening News. “Obscure,” said The Daily Telegraph. “Wholly unnecessary experiment,” said The Tatler. “An evening of rare monotony,” said The Times.

Saroyan, never a man to take things lying down, wrote an incoherent letter to the critics, which ended with this comment: “I say Sam is a good play. I’m sorry you say it isn’t. One of us is obviously mistaken. Knowing the paltry little I know, I almost believe it is me.” The critics did not reply.

Sam, the role created by Murray Melvin, is engagingly played by Antony Jardine, but nothing can alter the fact that the script is a mess, which should have been left in the trash can. There are better Saroyan plays to exhume.

I am looking forward to seeing The Beautiful People and The Time of Your Life. The latter won both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. It had a highly successful revival by the RSC in 1983.

"Sam, The Highest Jumper of Them All" plays on 14, 15, 21 and 22 September only.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch