The Time of Your Life

William Saroyan
Finborough Theatre
(2008)

William Saroyan

The Finborough’s celebration of William Saroyan’s centennial continues. He was born in 1908 and died in 1981. He wrote an enormous amount of plays, short stories, verses and memoirs. He wrote too much.

“I took to writing at an early age,” he said, “to escape from meaningless, uselessness, unimportance, insignificance, poverty, enslavement, ill health, despair, madness and all manner of other unattractive, natural and inevitable things.”

The Finborough season has included three of his plays: the awful Sam, The Highest Jumper of Them All (1960), the much better The Beautiful People (1941) and the legendary The Time of Your Life (1939).

Saroyan’s creed was: “Seek goodness everywhere and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed.”

He preached doing “simple good things and living a life that can’t hurt anybody.”

Inevitably, he was accused of being sentimental, naïve, innocent and childlike.

Saroyan was never a commercial writer and he had only one commercial success.

It is generally agreed that The Time of Your Life is his masterpiece. It won both the New York Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize – to win both was unusual - and ran for 185 performances.

The play was initially staged by the famous The Group Theatre, founded in 1931 to create a theatre collective and company of players to perform new American plays with a social significance.

The Time of Your Life is set in a San Francisco waterfront honky tonk. Its clientele are bums, drunks and tarts. The cast also included an Eastern philosopher, a longshoreman, and an Indian trapper, a cop who hates his job, a sailor boy and a marble game maniac, to name just a few. America had only just come out of the Depression and they are all lonely, homeless and jobless. They come to the honky tonk to drink, loaf around, play the pinball machine and juke box and pick up a tart. They all have their dreams. A prostitute wants a home; a starving pianist wants a job, a newspaper boy wants to be a great lyric tenor. (Why isn’t the pianist played by a black actor?)

The owner of the saloon (nicely underplayed by Brett Findlay) gives people jobs and tries to protect them. He wants the corrupt cops to leave his clientele alone and to let them get on with their lives. He’s the good guy. The villain is the vice squad chief (Gwilym Lloyd, good casting, perfect in face, voice and build) who humiliates the prostitute by forcing her to do the striptease routine she says she did in burlesque when he knows perfectly well she was never in burlesque.

The leading character is a philosophical, alcoholic millionaire (Alistair Cumming) with a social conscience. He feels guilty about all the money he has made and gives it away so that people can live their dreams. His errand-boy (played by Matthew Rowland Roberts who looks absolutely right) falls in love with a sad prostitute (Maeve Malley-Ryan) and he gives them money to get married and start a new and happy life. Who is Saroyan kidding?

The oddest character is the guy who thinks he is a born hoofer and a born comedian; but he can’t dance and he fails to make people laugh. Oman Ibrahim‘s clever performance immediately suggests that the man has no talent whatsoever and yet, at the same time, in a bizarre sort of way, that he does have an extraordinary talent. The role was created on Broadway in 1939 by Gene Kelly.

The last major revival of the play in England was by Howard Davies for the RSC at The Other Place in 1983 and at The Pit in 1984. It was a great production with a fine cast and notable for its atmospheric music and lighting.

The Time of Your Life - a precursor to Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946) - is a wonderful showcase for actors and ensemble playing. There are 27 characters in all; 27 characters are far too many for the Finborough’s tiny stage. The present production by Max Lewendel has its moments, but, inevitably, it doesn’t do justice to the play. The second half especially has its longueurs and these are not improved by the actors shouting.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch