80 Years of Razzle-Dazzle
William Saroyan’s years as a playwright are best described as uneven. His output was near-constant, with dozens of plays being written, published and performed between 1935 and his death in 1981. Sadly, there were many more written than published, and many more published than performed. While the exact number of plays that Saroyan wrote is a bit murky (somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 150), less than half of them were ever produced professionally, and quite a few not at all. This was partly because of Saroyan’s own issues with desiring control over the production of his work, as well as changes in the tastes of American theater-goers. In the early 1940s, there were several Saroyan plays staged a year, some well-received, and others lambasted.
At the time, publishing shorter theatrical pieces could be challenging. Shorter works might appear in a magazine, such as the UK’s Theatre Arts, or a sufficiently long one-act might be published by a company such as Samuel French. Saroyan’s works, which sometimes only ran one or two pages, would have been difficult to place in print on their own. He had strong success with Three Plays, the collected scripts for The Time of Your Life, My Heart’s in the Highlands, and Love’s Old Sweet Song, which were all full-length, multi-act plays. With so many shorter pieces, Saroyan determined that a compilation of these plays would make for a good book.
And thus, Razzle-Dazzle.
As a book, Razzle-Dazzle is somewhat dizzying, and it starts right from the cover. Artist Arthur Szyk was one of the world’s most famous illustrators and had come to the US to avoid the Nazis in 1940 during the run-up to World War II. He created a manic frontispiece, also used as the cover. The image rings the title, featuring all manner of characters, several of which would be considered offensive today. The maddening crowd seems to give the reader the idea of what they’re about to go wading into.
There are sixteen plays, each with a brief introduction, and a general introduction to the entire work. It’s the perfect kind of entryway because the work itself is scattered, vibrant, and taken as a whole, chaotic. But each part, when taken on its own, is tremendously well-rendered.
With the exception of Subway Circus, all of the included plays and introductions had been written between 1939 and 1941. An impressive output considering he also published multi-act plays like My Heart’s In the Highlands, The Time of Your Life, and Love’s Old Sweet Song, as well as at least 100 stories of various lengths. The compact timeframe allows us to see exactly where Saroyan was as a playwright at the time, and the stunning variety of the work in Razzle-Dazzle speaks to the fact that Saroyan was searching, as he often claimed, for a “New American Theater,” and what that constituted in his eyes. It is not merely staged drama, but a cross-media concept that fuses prose, music, movement, and traditional theatrics.
The first play in the collection, Elmer and Lily, may actually be one of his straighter American dramas as far as theatrical presentation, though it is announced in the text as “Notes for A Musical Review.” His introduction to the play discusses the creation of the work and his meeting and discussions with film director Vincente Minelli about creating an all African-American musical, similar to the “Blackbirds of 1928” musical that Saroy7an had admired so much. He also explicitly stated that the piece was an experiment in expansion of a long beloved American theater form.
“Elmer and Lily” is composed of six short sketches. These sketches were written with the intention of trying to expand the form, content, and style of the musical review.
The musical review’s place in American Theater dates back to the earliest Colonial period, but took its most widely-appreciated form in the early 20th century. The Ziegfeld Follies stage reviews, which combined music along with skits and other presentations, inspired more music-centric reviews, such as George White’s Scandals and the Music Box Review. The form was fairly stiff, with no real throughline to tell a solid story. Elmer & Lily dwells in an absurdist realm, still telling something of a story, but also digging into the idea of a dreamlike structure that flows without consideration of traditional dramatic chronology. The effect is somewhat jarring, and the play feels episodic, as a musical review would, but still has a strange sense of dramatic unity.
Perhaps the complexity of the material, combined with the waning of the traditional musical review, led to the play being largely ignored by producers. It would not be produced until 1943, and has not had a professional production in the United States. Saroyan seemed to understand this, saying “It doesn’t make a difference to me that the play has never been produced. That is the rule in these projects, not the exception.”
His understanding that these plays are experiments and may not reach the stage perhaps belies a new concept – the script as end product. Saroyan’s play may not find production success, but that doesn’t mean that the scripts are not a dramatic artifact, as well as a literary one. He is working in a unified idea of what drama is.
The Great American Goof is an even-greater example of Saroyan moving beyond the expected to create something new. It is a ballet-play. The idea of a ballet-play was not entirely new, though in the past it had been the realm of the acting theater instead of the ballet theater. In The Great American Goof, it is the ballet dancer that becomes the actor. Saroyan wrote it for Eugene Loring, principal dancer for the new First American Ballet Theater. The music was composed by Harry Brant, and the story it told was a quintessential late 30s/early 40s allegory of the America of the moment. It has the distinct feeling of a non-political variation on Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock by virtue of its surrealistic approach to the America of the time. While the subject matter would have been right at home in traditional theaters of the early 1940s, it was the dancing and integration of mime and acrobatics that took it to another level.
Since The Great American Goof was written specifically to be performed, it was one of those that had been produced prior to the publication of Razzle-Dazzle. The reviews were mixed, but many of those who reviewed for dance publications saw a great deal of enthusiasm about what The Great American Goof could lead to, even if there were clearly flaws in the original production. Theater critics, especially George Jean Nathan, typically Saroyan’s top-supporter, hated the presentation, and thought it a waste of time and talent. A difficult show to mount, it has only been performed a few times, notably by Fresno Ballet in the Saroyan theater. The Great American Goof was the first piece premiered by the First American Ballet Theatre, today known as American Ballet Theater, one of the most well-known of all ballet companies in the world.
This was also not the only ballet-play in Razzle-Dazzle. The Poetic Situation in America, a surreal allegory of the story of Cain and Abel, is not as well-known, but also strives to make dialogue a part of dance theater. There’s also The Bad Men in the West, which almost seems to be a brief interlude into an idea, but never fully forms as either a piece of theater or a ballet.
Radio plays are a significant part of the book. The most significant of these is The People with the Light Coming Out of Them. This was written for the all-star series, The Free Company. The play blends interactions between Saroyan and host Burgess Meredith with a walking tour of Everytown, U.S.A. and a painter, Jim Smith. It’s a gentle story, a hopeful and optimistic story of American values. Stars like John Garfield brought the script to life. In the media landscape of 1942, it was an incredibly progressive radio drama, featuring characters of various races and classes. It’s perhaps the most traditionally Saroyanesque piece in Razzle-Dazzle.
A Special Announcement, which Saroyan referred to as a “Radio Poem,” plays with the known aspect of radio announcements, especially the breaking news programs, but it also gives a somewhat disjointed, almost impressionistic portrayal of life as a series of ever-changing radio chatter. The piece was written for radio station WHN and first presented on August 6th, 1940, as a part of Tonight’s Best Story. The program was received with strong admiration, even from reviewers who usually derided Saroyan’s output. This anti-war piece, released on the shoulders of World War II, is one of Saroyan’s tenderest works, and is still occasionally played on stage, though often in a reader’s theater style.
The final radio play, titled Radio Play, is one of the most interesting cases of work being done in a form to which it is suitably unsuited. Saroyan talks about his distaste for most radio in the introduction.
“Radio always was phoney,” he said, “but I will admit that I buy the things they advertise provided I like them anyway.”
Radio Play was presented as a part of the Columbia Workshop Festival on Thursday, August 10th, 1939. The story, as much of it as there is, is about what it means to be a radio play. It’s about comedy, and about hope, and ultimately about Saroyan’s writing. It’s a fairly experimental piece, not only a commentary on media presentation at a time when the radio format was only about a decade old, but also about the false democratization of media. It was clearly influenced by the traditional theatre review program, but also very much influenced by the “let’s put on a show to save the farm!” type of comedies that were becoming more and more popular in the world of film due to the advent of “talkies.” There are skits, singing, and general Saroyanesque speeches. This is another example of Saroyan completely understanding the ways that mass media effected the general landscape, and the ways in which it would evolve. It is also the funniest of all the plays in Razzle-Dazzle.
There’s Something I Got To Tell You is one of the least produced of the plays in Razzle-Dazzle, but it tackles a topic that is near and dear to Saroyan: Christmas. He had written a Christmas radio play in 1941, and two days after it appeared on the Columbia Broadcasting Service, he had written and submitted another! It is a sweet story featuring Santa Claus and children. Again, it was rarely performed, and we have been unable to find a good recording of it, but it certainly brings a Saroyan sensation to Christmas much like his oft-repurposed Christmas.
Perhaps the best-known of the experimental pieces was Saroyan’s “Italian Opera in English” – Opera, Opera. It’s stylized as a play on the basic premise of Italian opera, but at the same time thumbs its nose at the tradition.
Originally conceived as a full chamber opera while working with Paul Bowles, the resulting work was adapted into an actual opera by Martin Kalmanoff in 1956. Another play in the collection, the strong one-act Hello Out There, was adapted by Jack Beeson. While not a traditional opera, it uses an operatic series of tropes to lightly poke fun at traditional operatic storytelling. It is a piece that rewards knowledge of the world of opera. Saroyan, an opera fan, created this work that itself would be produced a few times, but would become much more successful when Beeson’s actual operatic form was created.
The one-act plays may not be as experimental in form, but they continue Saroyan’s process of feeling out the edges of theatrical expression. While Saroyan was still somewhat new to the theater in 1942, he had already pushed to the edges of what was seen as the popular performance forms of the time. The most well-known of the one-acts in the book is Hello Out There. First performed in Santa Barbara in 1942, it’s a fairly simple character study of two people who are trapped, caged, yet who explore what little freedom of movement they have. This is a theme Saroyan explored to various degrees throughout his work of the 1940s, and can be seen in My Name is Aram, as well as in his short stories. Dedicated to George Bernard Shaw, a living legend of the theatre even in 1942, it has a voice that could be used to define what a Saroyan character should sound like. It is at once as full of hope and beauty as it is of loss and desperation. This tightrope that Saroyan walks has made it a popular play for adaptation into many forms, including film and opera.
Coming Through the Rye gets no introduction in the original version, but the UK version has a tiny note as preface – “I can never stop liking the song Coming Through the Rye. Hum or whistle it softly as you read, or before you begin to read.”
Usually spelled “Coming Thro’ the Rye,” it is a song based on a Robert Burns poem. The influence of the poem is less pronounced than that of the tune, but phrases such as “Gin a body meet a body
Comin' thro' the rye” present it through a metaphysical lens. The resulting story falls in a surrealist, or perhaps even fantasy realm, something we never associate with Saroyan’s fiction, but appears with more frequency in his drama. The play has been produced at times, and was one of the better-received of the plays included in Razzle-Dazzle. “Coming Through The Rye’ is a striking fantasy,” said the Metropolitan Pasadena Star-News in a 1942 review of the book.
The other plays included are a more mixed bag of absurdist tableaus (The Hungerers, Talking to You, The Ping-Pong Players) and experiments with textual elements within a traditional theatrical presentation (Subway Circus). There is a sensation of the dream pervading the works in general. This could be a reaction to the success of surrealist writers and authors (some of whom Saroyan admired greatly, such as Flann O’Brien) who frequently attempted to infuse dream-states into their work. Saroyan manages to accomplish this with varying levels of success, perhaps most effectively in The Hungerers.
The plays are remarkable, though perhaps it is the introductions that deserve special attention. They range from single paragraphs that might touch briefly on one aspect of the play about to be presented, to multi-page digressions within digressions that explore his state of being in creating the play, or even in writing the introduction itself. This is hardly new, as he had done introductions to his collections and to individual plays as long as he’d been writing. Here he has taken it to another level, presenting something less like a story introduction than a prelude to an event. He wants the reader to actively enter the world of the play, and at times that takes the form of pulling them into another area of discussion that allows them to see the connecting strings that might otherwise be invisible. These introductions more firmly establish the time, place, and sociopolitical aspects of the works than the works themselves, in much the same way that Harlan Ellison’s introductions to the stories in the Dangerous Visions collections did. Here, it is Saroyan working with a form that he would explore more deeply in the 1950s, the personal essay and memoir.
Razzle-Dazzle stands alone in Saroyan’s theatrical output. A piece that is not only a broad survey of his most productive period, it includes works that are both well-known and almost unseen, but they are fully enriched by their inclusion within a single volume. While not every play operates on the same level aesthetically, they are all given a place within a work that is, unknowingly at the time, probing what Saroyan would become known as. Here, we see both the roots of what could have been for the daring young man, as well as the seed of what he ended up as. These two conflicting ideas make Razzle-Dazzle a much more successful work eighty years later, when we can see what the whole story of Saroyan’s creative life amounted to.
~ Chris Garcia, Archivist, Forever Saroyan. April 16th, 2022, San Jose, CA.