William Saroyan in a few weeks of 1939 wrote The Time of Your Life. If it was the time of Americans’ lives, it was a time lived since 1929 in the Great Depression. It was also the time of Munich, appeasement, Nazi aggression in Czechoslovakia and soon in Poland, casting the world into a global war.
Recently, San Francisco celebrated Saroyan’s life in a major community festival. What seems to make Saroyan so different is that he writes dark comedy. The world is exceedingly dark. Kitty Duval is a prostitute, Kit Carson (who defends her from Blick, the brutalizing vice-squad chief) is a has-been living in stories that are manifestly fantastic, self-accolading yarns, Joe is an eccentric millionaire alienated from polite society, from his wealth, and ultimately from himself. But as Joe says of himself, “I’m a student. I study all things. All. All. And when my study reveals something of beauty in a place or in a person where by all rights only ugliness or death should be revealed, then I know how full of goodness this life is. And that’s a good thing to know.”
None of this will vanish in the future, despite a vibrantly positive message of survival in the play overall. Dark comedy, comedy in which success and survival are qualified by definite on-going significant costs throughout a virtual future, is normally thought of as a European phenomenon of a generation disillusioned by the Second World War. Saroyan’s achievement signals a parallel American tradition in dark comedy.
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