The Time of Your Life
Play written by William Saroyan
As near as I can recall, this is the first play that I ever read. I remember the struggle with its format, which is probably why it seems like the first. For middle school, I attended the tiny Kennedy School in downtown Youngstown. We were housed in a, well, big house. The fifth through eighth graders were in two rooms downstairs- maybe ten or twelve of us. For a few months, I sat beside the bookcases that lined one wall. During down times (or maybe also boring classes), I pulled something from the shelves and started reading. The section of books on archaeology and anthropology was within easy reach, so I devoured those. Next came poetry and theater.
Re-reading The Time of Your Life, I am shocked by how much it formed my basic philosophy of life. Kindness and friendship matter above all else. Both sides in disputes, no matter how apparently virulent, ought to be able to sit down for a drink afterwards. It’s more than fine to go see how other people live, but you do it with respect and an openness to the unexpected. No matter how someone looks or what their past might entail, they deserve to be treated with respect. Sometimes, people are just mysterious and you’re not going to understand their motivations. Appreciate what people bring to the table- they’re not trying any less than you or anyone else.
This begs the question of how much the art influenced my early thinking. The more reasonable argument might be that it gave structure to protean thoughts in need of clearer definition. I was no different from anyone else that age- caught on a bad day, I might think some awfully unkind thoughts. But the things I saw and read kept moving me toward my better self. Saroyan offers no solutions to “big” questions. He doesn’t solve the national debt or find a way to defeat the Nazis. His stage is small and interpersonal, but that is where we all start.
The public libraryhad to go deep into the sub-basement to drag out the copy I used for this blog. It includes the play as well as a set of essays Saroyan wrote later. He writes about crafting the play in a short time while locked up in his hotel room. After all, he promised it to an interested producer before having actually beginning to write it. (Now, there’s a whole ‘nother blog about artistic chutzpah.)
The essays illustrate an artist raising his head out of his bunker and looking at the world. For him, that world remains the struggle of the artist to maintain his integrity. But this demonstrates the difficulty we all face.
I’ve been naive before and I will be again, but I find most people around me have been invested with those qualities I describe above. In small, personal interactions, we want to be that person who can be kind. We want to be able to sit at a table with strangers of any stripe and chat about whatever- basically be people of good will. We have been imprinted with the messages of decent behavior.
But we stop there. We are bad at carrying that behavior forward to those who are out of sight. Art fails us. We struggle to find a language for universal peace and happiness. Our actors and paintings and songs allow us to embody handshakes and picking up the tab for coffee. Our art doesn’t help when confronted with corporate malfeasance and foreign dictators, let alone molecular biology and ecological engineering. Those require progressive acquisition of knowledge.
William Saroyan was a start, a good start.
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 151 more to go.
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