The Acting Company and The Time of Your Life

For more than five decades, Julliard’s Drama division has been recognized as one of the premiere acting schools in the world. Founded in 1968, it was originally led by the legendary director, producer and actor John Houseman. Famed for his collaborations with the likes of Orson Welles, Houseman was known for his demanding attitude and clear vision. He also had an incredible eye for talent. His work in the 1930s and 40s left a major impact on the world of theatre, and his work also touched on that of William Saroyan; he presented the first production of Hello Out There in 1941.

The first cohort of actors graduated from the program, called Group 1, included some fine actors who had been honed through Houseman’s demanding methods. The rigors of Julliard’s drama program were felt by the actors.

 “They really worked us, 12, 13 hours a day, class, rehearsals, shows. Only 14 graduated. Some dropped out, some were eliminated, there were a few nervous breakdowns and a couple of attempted suicides,” noted Patti LuPone in an interview in 1975.

logo lightHouseman realized that after graduation, many of the fine actors he had helped to guide through the program would need assistance in acclimating to the professional theatre world. Along with Margot Harley, Houseman founded The Group 1 Acting Company, later called the City Center Acting Company, and later simply The Acting Company. Initially consisting of the first group of Julliard graduating actors, the company began touring almost immediately. Houseman recognized that touring is where many actors hone their skills, and that as a long-time draw, companies full of young actors rarely pull in regular crowds in New York alone. These were little-known actors in search of their fame, after all, and not the kind who sell many tickets.

 In 1976, The Acting Company produced The Time of Your Life.

Houseman and Saroyan corresponded over the years, but Houseman appears to have not produced another piece of Saroyan’s in the intervening years. The choice of The Time of Your Life must have been an easy one; it had been a popular piece with actors since it was first performed in 1939.  The combination of melancholic optimism and the intricacy of the dialogue make it a showy piece, even if some of the comedy is very much of its time. The combination of moods and tones allow for exploration not only of character, but of concept. Saroyan often pointed out that The Time of Your Life wasn’t about one thing, but about the intersection of nearly everything, and for an actor, that gives them a range to play with.

The Acting Company began touring the show in 1975, taking it to both professional and university theatres around the country along with the musical The Robber Bridegroom. The plays were directed by Jack O’Brien, and received very good notices from many local critics, though some pointed out that cast may have been far fresher than the material, and others that the actors all seemed too inexperienced for the roles they inhabited. These were fairly young actors whose technique was informed by the most modern methods, and at this point, the play was more than 35 years old. Touring around the country, the troop gained an impressive amount of experience, and in 1976, WNET, New York’s biggest public broadcasting channel, produced The Time of Your Life as an episode of Theater in America. This is currently available on DVD and is an amazing record not only of the play, but of the members of the Acting Company in general.

Joe, a well-heeled benefactor of many of those whose paths cross his at Nick’s Pacific Avenue Saloon, is played with a strong sense of joy and pathos by Nicolas Surovy. He took the role and gave a performance that moves fluidly between tones and moods. That’s a difficult matter for some actors, because it can come off as uneven, but Surovy uses that flow as a storytelling technique. Surovy would go on to a long career in film and television.

image w1280Kitty Duvall is a role that many actresses have tackled with varying approaches. Julie Haydon played her shining against the darkness of her situation. In the Playhouse 90 version of the play, Betsy Palmer played her with more anger and overall with more caustic distrust. Here, Patti LuPone plays Kitty with an incredible amount of weight on her shoulders. She infuses a sense of dread at times, and at other points, she seems as if she’s dissociated from her surroundings. It’s a beautiful performance, heart-breaking at times, and just one of many she’s had over a fifty year career. She won Tony awards for her work in Evita, Gypsy, and Company, and has appeared in dozens of films and television programs.

 Tom, Joe’s lackey, is a fascinating character who can be played several ways with equal support from the text. Many play him as a put-upon schlub who is under Joe’s thumb because he saved his life. Dick York chose that route in the Playhouse 90 version and is sometimes cited as being the original intent of the role. Here, Norman Snow, Jr. gives him a sense of duty and hopefulness that certainly represents Saroyan’s most enduring theme. His interactions with Tom are impressive, with both of them feeling as if they’re fulfilling some unspoken contract. Well, mostly unspoken. Snow’s performance was well-regarded, and he would go on to have many roles on television and film, notably 1984’s The Last Starfighter. He passed away in 2022.

One of the most important roles in setting the tone of the play is Nick, the owner of the saloon. He is both affable and gruff, and represents Saroyan’s fondness for those whose contributions are often over-looked. The role has attracted some excellent performances from actors like William Bendix, Jack Klugman, and Dennis Farina. Benjamin Hendrickson gives as strong a performance as you’ll ever see, and one that helps establish the timing of the play. He plays a pivotal role, and one which helps make the comedy feel more solid. Hendrickson continued acting until his death in 2006, notably on the soap opera As the World Turns.

McCarthy, the longshoreman who is also a philosopher and exceptionally well-read, may be the kind of character Saroyan is best remembered for. He presents heady concepts in a clear and passionate way, and those around him recognize his intelligence and admire him for it. They also wonder how he ended up as a longshoreman and not a professor. This kind of role can be tricky, and Saroyan is clearly making a point about the separation of profession and intelligence. In many ways, the role of McCarthy is similar to that of Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting. McCarthy was played by Kevin Kline. Kline became one of Hollywood’s most respected actors in the 1980s, including winning an Academy Award. He’s also kept working on stage, winning three Tony Awards. His television work includes an eleven year stint on the animated series Bob’s Burgers

51TGK1SXPGL. AC UF8941000 QL80 If there is a heavy in The Time of Your Life, it is the heel, Blick. He’s the head of the San Francisco vice squad and is particularly down on the sex workers who inhabit that part of town. He frequents Nick’s saloon, which Nick is not happy about. The end of the play is brought about by his cruel treatment of Kitty, forcing her to perform a striptease on the small stage. In the 1976 production, this scene is exceptionally heavy, almost oppressively so for a television segment. No previously recorded version of the work had the sort of intensity that The Acting Company put into the scene. Actor J. W. Harper infuses the role with malevolence. His performance is menacing, and the contrast between Blick and Tom and their treatment of Kitty is a key element to establishing the role of institutions and individuals in how we view not only sex workers, but anyone from a non-privileged class. 

Perhaps the most interesting performance, and one of Saroyan’s overall most memorable characters, is Kit Carson, played here by David Schramm. The role of the old codger who fills every available space with his rambling stories of questionable veracity, is a classic, and Schramm approached it by bringing both comical joy and a certain sense of longing for a more impressive past. Schramm’s career included a long tenure on the television program Wings, as well as continuing to act on stage until his death in 2020.

The smaller roles in the play had many impressive actors as well. Richard Ooms played The Arab, whose mantra-like statement, ‘No foundation all the way down the line,’ is the most memorable line from the play. Ooms’ career has been mostly in film, though with occasional forays into theatre.  Glynis Bell, who played Lorene, has largely remained in theatre. On the other hand, Brooks Baldwin, who played the role of the dancer and comedian Harry (first performed by Gene Kelly) has acted from time to time, but is far better known as a dialect coach for film and theatre.

00f53 The Time Of Your Life Playbill 10 75One other notable performance is that of the author himself. William Saroyan read the prologue. The prologue is read as voice-over - the only image we get of Saroyan himself is from a brief shot of a 1940s headshot hung on a bar post. The photo, of Saroyan in the fedora that was his trademark in the days before he grew his legendary mustache, is one of the most famous of all images of Saroyan.

While not all reviews of the program were positive, most noted the quality of the acting and direction. While there have been several staged revivals of The Time of Your Life, particularly in the years following Saroyan’s death in 1981, there have been no television productions since the Theatre in America version. In fact, other than two recordings of university productions on YouTube, there appear to be no more recent filmed versions of the play at all.

Saroyan’s First Published Story- How to Write

William Saroyan would never be accused of being over-cautious. His early writing, while showing signs of the genius he would display years later, was full of a bravado that would normally be displayed by a much more seasoned writer.

sanfranciscan1928sanf Page 1Saroyan’s first known published piece, How to Write, appeared in The San Franciscan in February, 1928. While Saroyan had been writing for years already, despite being only 19 years old, the first piece published opened with a line that almost feels like a challenge to the popular writers of the day –

“First off, you must have a bad idea – something trite, like a man falling in love with a chorus girl.”

That story has been told many times, and even by 1928 was old hat. You can see variations on that same concept all the way up through recent days, with the film, and its Broadway adaption, Moulin Rouge, being an excellent example.

Even at the beginning of his career, Saroyan is making challenges to the established literary world, though with the limited reach (and apparently budget; Saroyan claims he was never paid) of The San Franciscan, it’s doubtful many of those he was referencing were even slightly aware of the roasting he provided.

The piece itself is humorous and shows much of the wit that Saroyan would become known for, and if it had been published in the 1980s or 90s, it would have been referred to as Post-Modernist. It reflects on the nature of what he considers a hackneyed story and how a writer formulates it. He is telling the story to the reader in a form that violates the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ advice that has been bandied about by editors and writing professors for decades.

Editors and writing professors like Henry S. Canby.

Saroyan gives the piece a sub-title – “With Apology to Henry S. Canby, Department of English, Yale.”

Pasted 20240227 084558 clipped rev 1Saroyan clearly picked up a copy of Canby’s Better Writing, vol. 10, published in 1926. Canby’s writing advice would be used for decades afterwards, and Canby himself would be an important part of Saroyan’s publishing history. Canby edited The Saturday Review of Literature until 1936, and published reviews of Saroyan’s work, including an early praising review of The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze. The editor of the magazine even includes a paragraph from Canby's book to enlighten the reader as to what Saroyan is nodding at. Most writers would have known, and it's quite possible that's who Saroyan was writing for. 

The story that Saroyan describes, in essence telling it himself, does feel a bit simple, trite, but at the same time, he’s telling it with a wry wink and a smile. He knows exactly what he’s doing with the story. He’s telling a trite story and making us think he’s commenting on exactly what a trite story it is. He transcends that through writing that is humorous and self-reflexive, and audiences of the time likely would not have been as familiar with this technique as audiences of the last 50 years have become.

Like much of Saroyan’s writing, there is a certain celebration of characters that might have been seen as less-desirable in the community. The chorus girl can be seen as fairly sexually liberated, which would not have been a complete shock to readers in the 1920s, but certainly would have stood out. Saroyan often employed characters who were gamblers, grifters, sex workers, or simply those without fixed occupation, and here he is using the chorus girl, who he names Maisie, in much the same way he uses characters like Kitty DuVall in The Time of Your Life. In one of the funnier pieces of writing from the piece, Saroyan says, “Maisie's moral nature may be revealed by stating that she had been loved twice; once by the Army; once by the Navy.”

The male lead who falls in love with her is called John Brown, a name that will not elicit much attention on its own. Compared to Maisie, who Saroyan gives us a strong view of, we get so little about John Brown. This is something that has often been spoken of in many works, how fascinating women are given complex and colorful backstories, while male characters in those some stories are often left unadorned. The story Breakfast at Tiffany’s is at time accused of this problem.

Of course, Saroyan’s best moments are when he specifically pokes the bear, in this case the concepts that there is a formula for good writing.

“So far so good. You have disposed of this much with neatness and dispatch. What to do with Maisie and John? That will be the meat of your story. Now, as anybody knows, who has ever read about writing short stories, all that has to be done is to get these characters to do and say things. Their actions and conversation must tell the story. What they do and say must explain itself to the reader and its part in the tale and its plot sans trimmings, embellishments and explanations by the writer.”

But that is all this ‘story’ is. It is a series of explanations, embellishments on an idea, and one that is funny and eye-opening. Saroyan’s first appearance in a magazine makes for fun reading, and even decades after his death, it’s still saying many of the things that Saroyan professed. It is about the fact that there may be rules, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to follow them.

 

HOW TO WRITE

by William Saroyan

As first appeared in The San Franciscan, March 1928

 

FIRST you must have a bad idea – something trite, such as a man falling in love with a chorus girl. Next, of course, these two people must be given names. The matter of names is simple, almost anything will do. So the man may be disposed of as John Brown and suitable comment made upon him such as "He was one of those men who believed that even if you couldn't fool some of the people some of the time, you could certainly fool yourself all of the time."

Next the girl, although her mere identification as a chorus girl is something of a name in itself. But then she does have to have a name and in a sudden burst of inspiration you christen her Maisie, adding that it is none of the reader's business what her last name happens to be. Maisie's moral nature may be revealed by stating that she had been loved twice; once by the Army; once by the Navy. (This, of course, will make the reader laugh, or at least, smile, as it will indicate that the chorus girl isn't much when it comes to several of the more important commandments.)

If you like and you find you have the space, you can jot down a few lines about Maisie's girl and boy friends. Tell where she was born, but not why. Have her pass a few remarks so that her English will remain in history as one of the various kinds of American being spoken by the flaming youth of her time. And you might add, should you care to, that as far as love is concerned Maisie has ideas of her own without ever having read Madame Glynn

* * * * * *

NOW you are well started. Your foundations are in. Here is a man, John Brown or Hopkins by name, who is among other things a bookkeeper and an ignoramus; and here, on the other hand, or more correctly in the first row, second from the left end is Maisie, who among other things is a chorus girl. Now every male reader above the age of eleven has at some time or other fallen in love with a chorus girl, or with a whole front row of chorus girls. To read about some poor, deluded victim who is in exactly the same dilemma as he was once at one time, pleases him immensely. From the vantage point of his superior sophistication, he will anticipate in high glee the spectacle of John Brown making a damned ass of himself.

So far so good. You have disposed of this much with neatness and dispatch. What to do with Maisie and John? That will be the meat of your story. Now as anybody: knows, who has ever read about writing short stories, all that has to be done is to get these characters to do and say things. Their actions and conversation must tell the story. What they do and say must explain itself to the reader and its part in the tale and its plot sans trimmings, embellishments and explanations by the writer. Ah yes, but it seems to you that in most stories the writer himself says considerable that his characters have nothing to do with. Is there any reason why you can't do the same? Apparently there isn't and you proceed to do just that, writing a little of something about very thing.

Several paragraphs may be accounted for in this fashion. Splendid! You are getting on fine; you warm up. You haven't as yet brought in any action, but at the same time your plot shows symptoms of beginning to unfold itself. Now there ought to be some psychology in the story at this point. Nice sounding word, psychology, an erudite acquisition to one’s vocabulary about the second year in high school, and it is a word and idea that goes over big with readers who likewise achieved the second year in high school, or who go in for that sort of thing.

So you have a feeling that the best part of your tale, or at least one of its best parts, is when you mention that John Brown, the bookkeeper, has to see the show twice to fully convince himself that it is Maisie he is in love with, rather than the redheaded, adorable young thing next to her. Aha, that's psychology for your reader—pure, simple, unadulterated. There will be readers who will stop reading when they come to that and look around to see if anybody is watching them. At this point, you have to have something to bring them back. Some remark, conveying the idea that this fellow Brown is a poor sort, or—shall we say of questionable intentions? That never fails to hold wandering readers. They will go on in spite of themselves and spectators to see what happens to Brown.

AFTER the second show John has to do something to attract the little chorus girl's attention, so what does he do but sneak up on her as she leaves the stage entrance and ask her out to lunch or something of that kind. This is really about the best way to have the would be suitor attract the attention of his admired lady of the chorus. Thus this method is recommended in preference to any other. It is safe.

The chorus girl, Maisie, of course, is or isn't overcome with joy; or she immediately does or doesn't fall madly in love, according to what you intend to take place or what effect you intend the story to have. It is bound to have some kind of an effect one way or the other, whether you intend it to or not.

If you are a good Baptist, or even if you are a down-right bad one, you will have Maisie identify herself as a lady—emphasis on the lady, and with suitable remarks she will send John Brown hack to his little mother, who lives in a small cottage (the cottage must always be small) somewhere or other. Don't try to describe the cottage small, or tell a long story about John's mother, because the story happens to be about her son, such as he is.

On the other hand, if you are not a good or bad Baptist, you will go right ahead allowing your imagination free reign. This is a free country for people who have imaginations, provided their imaginations don't run out of all the bounds properly prescribed for this quality of the mind, so I warn you to be careful. You are liable not to say the right thing at the right time, and alas your story is shattered.

But by and large, about this time you will find that events have progressed beautifully; that spectacular sins are being committed right and left, and you are saying this clever thing and that in almost every paragraph.

* * * * * *

WHEN you find you have enough pieces of paper covered with typewriting, you quickly bring their story to a close by saying whatever happens to come into your mind at the moment. You can send the tale to any magazine you like and if you enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope with your script the editor of the publication so honored will mail it back to you promptly.

The writing of stories, as you can readily see is simple, remarkably simple. One thing is indispensable—that is a typewriter and by way of second thought, the ability to operate it. Wherefore, what better suggestion —why not dash right out and buy a typewriter? Why not?

 

Read a PDF of the original story from The San Franciscan magazine

The Public Domain Welcomes William Saroyan

publicity 014Copyright law is a complicated matter. An entire domain of the legal profession has sprouted up to try and not only determine who owns what intellectual property, but whether or not a work has infringed on an existing work. It can be a maddening process, and one that has led to many difficult situations.

But it has also given us the Public Domain.

Public Domain is a state of existence for works that meet certain criteria. When a work enters the Public Domain, it is free for use by any and all in any way they wish. Re-publication and derivative works are available to all who wish to pursue using Public Domain materials. 

How do you know something is in the Public Domain?

 In some countries, that criteria is based on the creator’s lifespan. The EU and UK recognize an author’s work as under copyright until 70 years after the author’s death. Many other countries recognize the publication date of the work as being the determining factor. The date of that publication is also important as requirements have changed, and some of them leave behind a murky residue that can make the determination difficult, even for lawyers. In the United States, as a rule of thumb, after 95 years a work enters the Public Domain on January 1st of the following year, thus works published in 1928 entered the Public Domain on January 1st, 2024.

scans502And William Saroyan published his first five works in 1928.

Saroyan has some good company entering the Public Domain in 2024. The most significant might be Steamboat Willy, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. Other films include The Circus by Charlie Chaplin, The Fall of the House of Usher, an avant-garde classic, and Wings, the first film to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture. Books include significant written works from Agatha Christy, Dorothy Sayers, W.E.B. DuBois, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolfe, and H.G. Wells. George Gershwin's An American in Paris, and  Cole Porter's show Paris are among the most important musical entries.

We covered Saroyan’s earliest published works previously on the blog. These works demonstrate where Saroyan was looking, and what he was trying in an attempt to make his mark on the literary world. It’s no shock that three of his earliest works were in magazines that were not mainstream at the time. The San Franciscan and Boulevardier were both small publications with regional audiences. His most significant sales were to Overland and Outwest Magazine.

We're currently trying to find original copies of Boulevardier and The San Franciscan. If anyone has copies or knows where they might be, please contact us as we want to make sure that the best possible versions are preserved for generations to come. 

Throughout 2024, we’ll be covering the five stories Saroyan released in 1928, starting with How to Write. We’ll be creating commentary and readings of the pieces, and exposing the connections to Saroyan’s later writings, the literary world in general, and how time, and what we consider appropriate literary values, have evolved over the last 95 years.

 

“How to Write” ­– The San Franciscan

“About a Man who Wanted to be in Love.” – Boulevardier

“Preface to a Book Not Yet Written.” – Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine

The Big Midget and a Lady,” – Boulevardier

“Portrait of a Bum” – Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Chris Garcia - Archivist, Forever Saroyan, LLC

January 2nd, 2024, San Jose, California

 

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