Saroyan stamps issued in USA and USSR
|Birth name||William Saroyan|
|Other names||Sirak Goryan|
|Birth date||31 August 1908|
|Lived in||Fresno, San Francisco, Oakland|
|Resting place||Fresno, Komitas Pantheon|
|Resting GPS||40° 9' 36", 44° 30' 7"|
|Major works||My Name is Aram, The Human Comedy|
|Children||Aram Saroyan, Lucy Saroyan|
William Saroyan (Վիլյամ Սարոյան August 31, 1908 - May 18, 1981) was an American author who wrote many plays and short stories about growing up impoverished as the son of Armenian immigrants. These stories were popular during the Great Depression. William Saroyan's heart is buried with other Armenian artists and intellectuals at the Pantheon park in Yerevan, Armenia.
- My Heart's in the Highlands (1938)
- The Time Of Your Life (1939) - winner of the New York Drama Critics' Award and the Pulitzer Prize
- Hello Frankie!
- Jim Dandy
- Beautiful People
- Cave Dwellers
- The Human Comedy (1943) - won him the Academy Award for Best Original Story Writing
- "Come On-a My House", a hit for Rosemary Clooney, written with his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian, the impressario of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Shifting Moods Mark “Time”
By Aram Kouyoumdjian
A harsh reality of theater is that monumental works of drama–say, those with epic-sized casts or taxing technical demands–are rarely produced. The limiting factor is economic: theaters either lack the resources to undertake such productions or simply cannot afford them.
Few plays illustrate this harsh reality as well as William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life.” The foremost Armenian-American playwright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork boasts a script rich with lyricism. But it requires nearly two dozen actors, which renders it practically untouchable.
To my knowledge, the play has not been professionally staged since an exquisite 2002 production by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. (Rather than mounting its own production, the Seattle Repertory Company simply imported the Steppenwolf show in 2004, as did the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco).
So the mere fact that the Open Fist Theatre Company is presenting “The Time of Your Life” in Hollywood (through July 1) is welcome news. That this esteemed troupe acquits itself with an impressive production doubles the delight.
Set in San Francisco at the outset of World War II, “The Time of Your Life” traces the bustle at Nick’s Pacific Street Saloon. It revolves, in part, around Joe, a wealthy dreamer and a regular at the bar, where he endlessly sips champagne and soaks up the atmosphere of the diverse characters who drift in and out of the joint. Saroyan crafts a gorgeous mosaic of humanity flowing through the saloon, which makes “The Time of Your Life” more of a lovely mood piece–funny, heartbreaking, and redemptive–rather than a strictly plot-driven narrative.
The denizens of Nick’s watering hole include longshoremen, prostitutes, corrupt cops, a starving piano player, a pinball addict, a philosophizing immigrant, and that indelible teller of tall tales, Kit Carson. Even as these eccentrics struggle with life’s hardships, they cling, in true Saroyan style, to innocence and hope in their search for a better, decent life; for work; or for someone to love.
The play’s nominal love story involves Joe’s underling, Tom, and Kitty Duvall, the prostitute he seeks to save from the streets. Its best love scene, however, comes as a brief, poetic, altogether surreal encounter between Joe and Mary, a married woman who strolls into the bar. In their few minutes together (we never see Mary again), Joe declares his love for her. Although unable to welcome his love, Mary admits to being happy with the thought that Joe will pine for her after she’s gone from his life. The scene’s simple beauty lies in its depiction of a world where people cross paths as in a dream, where love is instantly felt and confessed, where longings forever linger in memory.
For the Steppenwolf production in Chicago, director Tina Landau had heightened the dream-like quality of Saroyan’s play through a fluid, stylized manner of movement, at times in rhythm with impeccable musical choices that punctuated the production and underscored its transcendent closing tableau.
The Open Fist production–probably funded with only a fraction of the Steppenwolf budget–cannot match the visual flair of Landau’s panoramic staging, which had elevated background action to high art. Nevertheless, as directed by Stefan Novinski, the production is an accomplished one, sensitive to the shifting moods of Saroyan’s script. Although he allows the pace to slacken at times, Novinski deftly handles the challenges of the play’s sprawling storylines. He elicits fine performances from a talented cast, including Michael Franco, who ably captures the duality of Joe’s buoyancy and bitterness, and Bruce A. Dickinson, who nails the deadpan hilarity of Kit Carson. The period set designed by Donna Marquet creates an authentic milieu for the action.
While the opportunity to experience an infrequently revived Saroyan play may be reason enough to see “The Time of Your Life,” it’s the charmed combination of strong acting and intelligent direction that makes this Open Fist production a rare treat indeed.
All Rights Reserved: Critics’ Forum, 2006
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His performance piece, “Protest,” was recently staged at the Finborough Theatre in London.
|This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics' Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora..|
William Saroyan's stories celebrated optimism in the middle of trials and difficulties of the Depression. Several of Saroyan's works were drawn from his own experiences, although his approach to autobiographical facts can be called poetic.
His advice to a young writer was: "Try to learn to breathe deeply; really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell." Saroyan worked tirelessly to perfect a prose style, that was full of zest of for life and was seemingly impressionistic. The style became known as Saroyanesque.
Saroyan was born in Fresno, California, the son of a Armenian immigrants. His father moved to New Jersey in 1905 - he was a small vineyard owner, who had been educated as a Presbyterian minister. In the new country he was forced to take farm-labouring work. He died in 1911 from peritonitis, after drinking a forbidden glass of water given by his wife, Takoohi. Saroyan was put in an orphanage in Alameda with his brothers. Six years later the family reunited in Fresno, where Takoohi had obtained work in a cannery. Fresno is a major center of Armenian population in the United States.
In 1921 Saroyan attended technical school to learn to type. At the age of fifteen, Saroyan left the school. His mother had showed him some of his father's writings, and he decided to become a writer. Saroyan continued his education by reading and writing on his own, and supporting himself by odd jobs. At the San Francisco Telegraph Company he worked as an office manager. A few of his early short articles were published in The Overland Monthly. His first stories appeared in the 1930s. Among these was "The Broken Wheel", written under the name Sirak Goryan and published in the Armenian journal Hairenik in 1933.
Many of Saroyan's stories were based on his childhood, experiences among the Armenian-American fruit growers of the San Joaquin Valley, or dealt with the rootlessness of the immigrant. The short story collection My Name is Aram (1940), an international bestseller, was about a young boy, Aram Garoghlanian, and the colorful characters of his immigrant family. It has been translated into many languages.
As a writer Saroyan made his breakthrough in Story magazine with "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" (1934). The protagonist is a young, starving writer who tries to survive in a Depression-ridden society.
- "Through the air on the flying trapeze, his mind hummed. Amusing it was, astoundingly funny. A trapeze to God, or to nothing, a flying trapeze to some sort of eternity; he prayed objectively for strength to make the flight with grace."
Saroyan's character has some connections to Knut Hamsun's penniless writer in his novel Hunger (1890), but without the anger and nihilism of Hamsun's narrator. The story was republished in Saroyan's bestselling collection, and with its royalties Saroyan financed his trip to Europe and Armenia, where he learned to love the taste of Russian cigarettes. He also developed a theory that "you may tend to get cancer from the thing that makes you want to smoke so much, not from the smoking itself." (from Not Dying, 1963)
As a playwright Saroyan's work was drawn from deeply personal sources. He disregarded the conventional idea of conflict as essential to drama. My Heart's in the Highlands (1939), his first play, was a comedy about a young boy and his Armenian family. It was produced at the Guild Theatre in New York.
Among Saroyan's best known plays is The Time of Your Life (1939), set in a waterfront saloon in San Francisco. It won a Pulitzer Prize. Saroyan refused the honor, on the grounds that commerce should not judge the arts, but accepted the New York Drama Critics Circle award. In 1948 the play was adapted into a film starring James Cagney.
The Human Comedy (1943) is set in Ithaca in California's San Joaquin Valley, where the young Homer, a telegraph messenger, becomes a witness of sorrows and joys of small town people during World War II.
- "Mrs. Sandoval," Homer said swiftly, "your son is dead. Maybe it's a mistake. Maybe it wasn't your son. Maybe it was somebody else. The telegram says it was Juan Domingo. But maybe the telegram is wrong." (Quotation from The Human Comedy)
The story was bought by MGM and made Saroyan's shaky financial situation more secure. Louis B. Mayer had purchased the story for $60,000 and gave Saroyan $1,500 a week for his work as producer-director. After seeing Saroyan's short film, Mayer gave the direction to Clarence Brown. The sentimental final sequence of the Oscar-winning film, starring Mickey Rooney and Frank Morgan, was called "the most embarrassing moment in the whole history of movies" by David Shipman in The Story of Cinema, vol. 2, 1984)
Before the war Saroyan had worked on the screenplay of Golden Boy (1939), based on Clifford Odet's play, but he never gained much success in Hollywood.
Saroyan also published essays and memoirs, in which he depicted the people he had met on travels in the Soviet Union and Europe, such as the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, and Charlie Chaplin. During World War 2 Saroyan joined the US army. He was stationed in Astoria, Queens, but he spent much of his time at the Lombardy Hotel in Manhattan, far from the Army personnel. In 1942 he was posted to London in as a part of a film unit and narrowly avoided a court martial, when his novel, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson (1946) turned out to be pacifist.
In 1943 Saroyan married the seventeen-years-old Carol Marcus; they had two children, Aram and Lucy. When Carol revealed that she was Jewish and illegitimate, Saroyan divorced her. They remarried again and divorced. Lucy became an actress. Aram became a poet, who published a book about his father. Carol Marcus was married to the actor Walter Matthau.
Saroyan's financial situation did not improve after the war, when interest in his novels declined and he was criticized for sentimentalism. Saroyan praised freedom; brotherly love and universal benevolence were for him basic values, but with his idealism Saroyan was considered out of date. However, he still wrote prolifically. "How could you you write so much good stuff and still write such bad stuff?" asked one of his readers.
In 1952 Saroyan published the first of several book-length memoirs, The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills.
In the title novella of The Assyrian and other stories (1950) and in The Laughing Matter (1953) Saroyan mixed allegorical elements within a realistic novel. The plays Sam Ego's House (1949) and The Slaughter of the Innocents (1958) examined moral questions, but they did not gain the success of his prewar works. When Saroyan made jokes about Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway responded: "We've seen them come and go. Good ones too. Better ones than you, Mr. Saroyan."
Many of Saroyan's later plays, such as The Paris Comedy (1960), The London Comedy(1960), and Settled Out of Court (1969), premiered in Europe. Manuscripts of a number of his unperformed plays are now at Stanford University with his other papers.
Saroyan worked rapidly, hardly editing his text. Much of his earnings he spent in drinking and gambling. From 1958 the author lived mainly in Paris, where he had an apartment.
- "I am an estranged man, said the liar: estranged from myself, from my family, my fellow man, my country, my world, my time, and my culture. I am not estranged from God, although I am a disbeliever in everything about God excepting God indefinable, inside all and careless of all." (from Here Comes There Goes You Know Who, 1961)
In the late 1960s and the 1970s Saroyan managed to write himself out of debt and create substantial income. Saroyan died from cancer on May 18, 1981, in Fresno. "Everybody has got to die," he had said, "but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case." Half of his ashes were buried in California, and the rest in Armenia.
- "The writer is a spiritual anarchist, as in the depth of his soul every man is. He is discontented with everything and everybody. The writer is everybody's best friend and only true enemy - the good and great enemy. He neither walks with the multitude nor cheers with them. The writer who is a writer is a rebel who never stops." – From The William Saroyan Reader, 1958
"It is simply in the nature of Armenians to study, to learn, to question, to speculate, to discover, to invent, to revise, to restore, to preserve, to make, and to give."-From "First Visit to Armenia"1935
His writing: William Saroyan Books
For further reading:
- William Saroyan by H.R. Floan (1966)
- William Saroyan by A. Saroyan (1983)
- William Saroyan by E.H. Foster (1984)
- Saroyan by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee (1984)
- Willie & Varaz: Memories of My Friend William Saroyan by Varaz Samuelian (1985)
- William Saroyan, edited by Leo Harmalian (1987)
- William Saroyan: A Study in the Shorter Fiction by E.H. Foster (1991)
- Critical Esays in William Saroyan, edited by H. Keyishan (1995)
- William Saroyan by Jon Whimore (1995)
- Saroyan: A Biography by Lawrence Lee, Barry Gifford (1998, paperback)
- The World of William Saroyan by N. Balakian (1998)
- A Daring Young Man: A Biography of William Saroyan by John Leggett (2002)
Books by Saroyan
Hye Sharzhoom writes about the preservation of the "Tribute to Saroyan" monument created in Fresno by local artist and friend of Saroyan, Varaz Samuelian. The statue, which features a stack of curiously arranged 4-foot-tall books by Saroyan beneath a large bronze sculpture of his head, previously sat on a dirt lot at R Street and Mariposa Avenue in downtown Fresno. The lot was once home to the Varaz Modern Art Museum.
The William Saroyan Monument is being constructed by Mr. Tavit Yerevantsi, a renowned sculptor who has agreed to donate his time and talent. Mr. Yerevantsi’s numerous works include the Komitas Statue in Paris.
When unveiled in Yerevan, the William Saroyan Monument will have an inscription that will read: “A gift from the Armenian people.” All those who contribute funds to the project will be invited to the opening ceremony.
$85,000 has already raised, and presently the amount of $40,000 is needed to cover the remainder of the cost and bring the monument to fruition. Should you want to contribute, contact the website administrator for the bank-account number of the Pan-Armenian Geographic Association, the official organizer of the William Saroyan Monument initiative.
There is a tiny alley across from City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco named William Saroyan Place. William Saroyan's old home is also in San Francisco.
The Saroyan Stairs in Beachwood Canyon are just up the hill from where Saroyan lived for a while in the famous Villa Carlotta building in Franklin Village, Hollywood.
There is a plaque on the building in Paris that Saroyan used to have a flat in, and which he named a book after the address Letters from 74 rue Taitbout.
Stephen Fry describes William Saroyan as "one of the most underrated writers of the [20th] century." Fry suggests that "he takes his place naturally alongside Hemingway, Steinbeck and Faulkner."
- William Saroyan Day - August 31 was officially declared William Saroyan day in Fresno in 2018.
- William Saroyan House-Museum in Fresno.