The Vaudeville of William Saroyan: “The Time of Your Life”

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Gene Kelly, center stage in the original Broadway production

Today is the birthday of William Saroyan (1908-1981), the literary equivalent of William Henry Johnson, Barnum’s “What is it?” Many have read Saroyan’s fiction. The work of his I am most familiar with however is his 1939 Pulitzer-Prize winning play The Time of Your Life. It is the damnedest animal. It’s both heartening and bewildering that it won the Pulitzer Prize. It is poetic and philosophical and endlessly fascinating, and yet it has no plot to speak of, it’s just this kind of dream experience that you drift into and then out of….like a patch of fog in the middle of San Francisco harbor. This dude Joe just sits around this bar “observing” a parade of dreamers and eccentrics who come in and out…much like a vaudeville show. Among them are a harmonica player, a piano player, a wild west cowboy, and a dancer who wishes he were a comedian instead (and tells the worst jokes in the world).

The original Broadway direction was produced and directed by Eddie Dowling, who also played Joe. The hoofer was played by Gene Kelly. Ten years later it was made into a movie by James Cagney (his brother was titular producer; Cagney played Joe). The cast included several vaudeville related types: Broderick Crawford, James Barton, and Paul Draper among them. (One weird thing is the character of Kitty, with whom Joe appears to have some romantic tension, is played by Cagney’s daughter Jeanne. Ick?)

At any rate, the beauty part is you can watch the whole thing for yourself right now if you so choose:

To learn more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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