The Place of Places - 40 West 58th Street, New York, 1948

Covers006 Welcome back to the Place of Places, a chapter by chapter analysis of William Saroyan’s 1972 memoir, Places Where I’ve Done Time. Today we look at the marital home in 40 West 58th Street, New York, 1948.

Here we face another bitter chapter about Carol Marcus. You know it’s going to be a negative when he starts calling her “the little woman,” which he does throughout this book. His marriage to Carol was passionate for both of them, filled with love and lust and also anger and resentment.

By 1948, their marriage had begun to fall apart. In 1946, Saroyan had moved the family to the house on Taraval Street in San Francisco. Carol felt far away from her friends, isolated from what she had always known. She tells Saroyan, “San Francisco is for the birds.” In 1948, remember, Carol was still only 24 years old, having lived with her parents and been surrounded by people her whole life until her marriage to Saroyan. San Francisco was foreign to her and she also wasn’t used to running a household.

In this vignette we find her requesting a move back to New York and involving her mother in the preparations, to Bill’s dismay. Newspapers and biographer John Leggett actually have the Saroyans moving to apartment 3A, 41 West 58th street, near the Plaza Hotel. It was built in 1941, so must have been very new and luxurious, at $395 per month in 1950, though this chapter has it at $500. Incidentally, whether the newspaper’s figure or Saroyan’s figure was correct, a unit in that building today rents for twice as much, adjusted for inflation, at $10,000 per month. $395 per month is the equivalent of $4700 today. So, it’s no wonder that when Saroyan left the country following their first divorce, Carol and the children were evicted for being unable to continue paying rent.

40 West 58th Street, the name of this chapter, was the location of the Plaza Funeral Home. The five-story building housed the funeral home from about 1930 to 1968. It was demolished in the fall of 1968 to make room for a luxury 50-story residential building. This would be a very specific and esoteric joke for Saroyan to make, mixing up 41 West 58th with 40 West 58th. Though, it may have been a natural joke he made in 1948, looking out at the funeral home and imagining what he called the suicide of having to live with a miserable Carol.

cgphoto014He writes, “If the little woman, who kept crying before she became the little bride, swearing devotion and all of the other wifely things, is unhappy where she is and must be diverted every fifteen minutes, or must be moved into a new place in which to be unhappy, and to make phone calls all day and all night –her mother said her bones were strong, she didn’t say anything about her real charms, her hilarious untidiness if she didn’t have somebody do everything for her, or her continuous sickness if she wasn’t on the phone or giving a party or buying clothes for herself.” He goes on to explain that she exhausted him and he turned to drink and their relationship became little more than a sexual transaction at some point. The reference to her crying before she became the little bride may sound familiar to readers who remember chapter 44, The Hampshire House, where Saroyan turned her away while they were courting, and she wept until he took her back.

Here he explains that he had to work to support his family, but the implication is that previously writing hadn’t carried that weight for him. It supported him when he was poor and alone, but now it had to support four people, one of whom he considered irresponsible with money. He writes, “The lucky husband went to work and tried to write something, but the stuff just wasn’t any good, he was too shot, too confused, too tired, too dried out, too juiceless, too alone – in spite of his bed pal, in spite of his two kids, in spite of crazy women who were hired to look after them.”

The chapter is wry and sarcastic but also a little frantic. His sentences are long, filled with breathless commas that keep thoughts going with a sense of unease. Whereas this type of rhythm in his writing had once served him well in the 1930s, describing the fast pace of city life, it was now used to express his growing madness and the loss of hope for a happy family life. What he had wanted – a wife and children – had actually interrupted his essence as an isolated writer who was primarily an observer. Suddenly his life was once again out of control, as it had been when he was a small child.

He and Carol were both miserable. Carol had filed for divorce while they were still living in San Francisco, charging extreme cruelty and seeking $1000 per month for herself and $250 for each of the children. They reconciled at the time, and considered moving to Fresno, which didn’t pan out. Divorce occurred in 1949 in Reno.

Saroyan paints a picture of Carol and her mother, Rosheen, betraying him by arranging to move to New York behind his back. Aram Saroyan’s biography of Bill argues that Saroyan was in so much gambling debt that he may have also wanted to move the family to New York to escape the temptation and the growing debt in San Francisco.

Carol ca 1940sIn Aram’s assessment of his parents’ marriage in his biography, William Saroyan, Bill preferred Carol dependent, and when she showed any signs of independence or self-worth, he railed against her, favoring a servile partner. Aram’s examples of this dependence include the Hampshire House meltdown and her imperative pregnancy before marriage to prove she could mother his children. On the other hand, various social occasions in which Carol demonstrated her charm and individuality to others annoyed Saroyan. This chapter might be another such example where Carol made a decision that she felt was right for herself and the kids, and that assertion and proactive movement enraged him, possibly even causing him to fail at his writing, which may have been the most offensive part to him.

Artie Shaw, when interviewed, claimed that Saroyan “Wasn’t in love with her. Not love as I understand love…Bill wanted to own Carol. Carol was a thing, a status thing to him. Blonde, beautiful little girl…She represented a big step up in the world. A little immigrant, second-generation Armenian boy marries this society girl” (William Saroyan: The Man and the Writer Remembered, ed. by Leo Hamalian).

New York was a place of mixed blessings for Saroyan. It was where he could produce his beloved plays, but it was also a place where Carol was the stronger of the two socially. It was the place his father had lived, but it was also a place where he didn’t have any family or many close friends he could trust. In New York he could make great art, but it was commodified in ways he found disgusting.

After a short time of reconciliation at West 58th Street, Carol revealed her Jewish heritage and Saroyan raged, leaving the family for a bender in Europe, where he would gamble, drink, and eventually write the novella, The Assyrian. When he finally returned to find Carol in a serious relationship with another man, he begged for reconciliation and they remarried for a brief time. Much has been said about their relationship, both in Saroyan’s memoirs and in his various biographies. But the complexity of his family’s dynamics is hard for anyone looking in to understand completely. It’s chapters like these that today may look different than how he intended, after these biographies were released, and especially after Aram’s Last Rites was released, which told an intimate story about how the four of them related to each other. From the perspective of this chapter, Carol is conniving and a traitor. But after many decades of analysis from insiders and outsiders, it seems to be much more complicated. This chapter leaves a sour taste for the reader, whether or not they have hindsight. Once again, he is laying his grudge out in the open, proving that this book is full of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Although it’s uncomfortable to read, it does invite the reader in and once again creates a well-designed sense of intimacy.

80 Years of Razzle-Dazzle

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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.

B091With 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 Goof001The 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.

Twitter016Radio 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.

MyHello Out There001The 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.

B187The 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. 

Peace, It's A Wonderful Thing

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In this time of conflict, Forever Saroyan encourages our followers to support Near East Foundation at https://www.neareast.org as they support education, peacebuilding, job and income creation, and community empowerment for people in some of the Middle East and North Africa’s most impoverished areas.

Send your donation acknowledgement of $35 dollars or more, along with your mailing address, to  and we'll gift a copy of The Armenian & The Armenian poster, shown above, featuring William Saroyan's most oft-cited quotation. The poster is 18.5 x 26 inches and is suitable for framing. 

 


The Armenian and The Armenian

by William Saroyan

I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered.

Go ahead, destroy this race.  Let us say that it is again 1915.  There is war in the world.  Destroy Armenia.  See if you can do it.  Send them from their homes into the desert.  Let them have neither bread nor water.  Burn their houses and their churches.  See if they will not live again.  See if they will not laugh again.  See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue.  Go ahead, see if you can do anything about it.  See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world, you sons of bitches, a couple of Armenians talking in the world, go ahead and try to destroy them.

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