The Alien at the Bar:
The Absurdist Imagination of William Saroyan
It’s the story of many a 20th Century American playwright, from Arthur Miller to Tennessee Williams: A young writer pens a couple of Broadway hits, wins the Pulitzer Prize, becomes a household name, and then, as years pass, endures a steady decline in his popular and critical appeal until he is considered but a living relic. Such is the story of William Saroyan, the gifted Armenian-American short story writer turned playwright whose early works like The Time of Your Life (1939) made him one of the leading playwrights of his generation. Yet, by the time of his death in 1981, the same light-hearted and optimistic perspective that had made his plays a hit among Depression era audiences looking for reassurance and hope had, in turn, alienated him from more cynical post-World War II audiences. Critics not only assessed Saroyan’s work as naïve and sentimental, but they also accused him of failing to address the critical issues of his time. Sadly, as with most artists, it has only been since his death that his work has been reappraised, and the existentialist impulse buried underneath his deceptively buoyant dialogue appreciated.
When Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot premiered in 1953, Saroyan had nothing but praise for this strange play in which nothing happens, claiming, “It will make it easier for me and everyone else to write freely in theatre.” The success of the play, which depicts two clownish fops killing time while vainly waiting for an enigmatic character named Godot to arrive, undoubtedly must have made Saroyan feel both vindicated and inspired, for he became a veritable apostle of Beckett, drawing inspiration from the Scottish dramatist for his own 1957 play The Cave Dwellers. In Beckett, Saroyan found a kindred spirit whose static characters and plot-less plays mirrored his own creative impulses—impulses that had been criticized fourteen years before when The Time of You Life premiered.
The Absurd, a term coined by Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, describes the sensation in which man feels like an alien in his own universe; he can no more find meaning in the events taking place around him than he can in his own very existence. Although the absurdist movement in theatre did not take shape in earnest until after nightmarish atrocities like the Holocaust had revealed the precariousness of human life and the seeming meaninglessness of existence, the sensation itself was not new. For Saroyan, the child of refugees who fled their homeland to escape the Armenian Genocide, the feeling of alienation characteristic of the absurd must have been with him since birth, and was probably only exacerbated by the racism his family faced in their adopted homeland of Fresno, California and his brief stay in an orphanage after his father died.
Although some critics have called Saroyan’s work “sugar-coated existentialism”, plays like The Time of Your Life could be better described as a depiction of the optimistic American spirit wrestling with a world in which the foundation of its ethics and morality is rapidly disintegrating under the weight of rampant capitalism, industrialization, and inequality. At the center of this struggle in the play is Joe, a champagne-guzzling drunk who has keenly perceived the absurdity of existence—an existence where his mysterious fortune grows daily off of the suffering of others while he warms a bar stool in a San Francisco saloon—an existence where everyone around him feverishly chases their “pipe dreams”— an existence whose moral foundation is so relative that life itself feels disturbingly meaningless. Yet, unlike European counterparts in literature who react to this realization with nausea, Joe responds to the absurd condition of mankind in a uniquely American way: with benevolence, compassion, and rage. Yet, these are not emotions a man with Joe’s knowledge can fully act upon, which is the distinctly unsentimental dilemma Saroyan ultimately presents through Joe.
If to live is to act, as Saroyan claims in his preamble to the play, how can modern man do either in a world in which the only certainty is…uncertainty?
Dan Tarker – Literary Associate