Landau adds life to Saroyan’s ‘Time of Your Life’

Alameda Times-Star, CA
March 26 2004

Landau adds life to Saroyan’s ‘Time of Your Life’

WILLIAM Saroyan was just 30 when he wrote his most famous play, “The
Time of Your Life.” Up to that point in his career, he was known for
several short stories, including “Daring Young Man on the Flying
Trapeze,” and for being a brash, confident writer who turned out to
be the best-known Armenian-American to come from Fresno.

“The Time of Your Life,” a sprawling ensemble piece set in a bar
along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, opened on Broadway in 1939 and

promptly made Saroyan a notable man of American letters. The New York
Times called his play a “prose poem in ragtime,” and major awards
soon followed. When he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Saroyan
refused the honor. “Commerce should not patronize art,” he said.

In the preface to the play, Saroyan wrote what has become the epitome
of Saryonesque style: “In the time of your life live — so that in
that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or
for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it
is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and
unashamed … In the time of your life, live — so that in that
wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the
world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”

That paragraph touched director Tina Landau and made her want to
direct “The Time of Your Life” for Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf
Theatre Company two years ago.

“That paragraph has truly changed my life,” Landau says. “In
rehearsals we created a tradition of reading the paragraph and
talking about it each week. We choose one of the imperatives and
really analyze it, and it was amazing because over time, we all found
ourselves in very little ways on a daily basis trying to seek
goodness everywhere.

“It’s sort of an impossible oath to see the best in everything, to
see the glass half full. And there were, at varying points, varying
levels of skepticism and despair in the measuring up against it. But
over time, we have all been deeply touched by those words.”

Years before, when she had read Saroyan’s play, Landau had dismissed
it as unwieldy and sentimental, stuck in its era and more than a
little nostalgic.

But after the events of Sept. 11, Landau returned to the play and
embraced it passionately.

“What I had seen as a weakness, a kind of rambling, non-narrative
form, suddenly became a strength to me when I read it the second
time,” Landau says. “It was free form and associative, like a giant
jazz improvisation with voices and instruments. Saroyan described
another of his works as a ‘circus, a melodrama, a lecture, a
philosophy of life, anything you like, whatever you want.’

“With that in my head, ‘Time of Your Life’ became a wonderful collage
of moments that worked in and of themselves. I grew to admire his
sense of abandon in terms of not dealing directly with a well-made

When Landau’s “Time” opened in Chicago in 2002, the play won raves
not unlike those that greeted the original production more than 60
years earlier.

That production was re-mounted earlier this year as a co-production
between Steppenwolf, Seattle Repertory Theatre and San Francisco’s
American Conservatory Theater. Following the Seattle run, the
large-scale play with a cast of 24 re-opens Sunday at the Geary

Landau, one of this country’s maverick directors with a flair for
pushing theater — especially musical theater — in new directions,
was mostly unfamiliar with Saroyan’s work when she began working on
“The Time of Your Life.”

Like many of us, she had read his novel “The Human Comedy” in high
school, but after devouring his enormous body of work — novels,
short stories, plays, essays — she discovered an intriguing artist.

“Saroyan was an incredibly complex and contradictory person,” she
says. “I have to be careful what I say about him because there are
descendants and foundations devoted to him everywhere, but in his
work, he was able to express a generous spirit and world view that
maybe he was not as capable of expressing in real life.

“He was extreme and robust and led more from his heart than from his
head. He was impassioned and opinionated. In his work, he practiced
what he preached in terms of live! His work is alive and direct and
not ornate. It goes right to the pulse.”

To research the play, Landau spent five days in San Francisco to see
if she could find all the places mentioned in the play, which means,
essentially, she went bar hopping.

“I had a great time,” she says. “I hung around the waterfront and saw
where Izzy Gomez’s bar, the one that Saroyan turns into Nick’s
Pacific Street Saloon, used to be. My impression was that whatever it
was Saroyan loved about San Francisco — he said every block is a
short story, every hill a novel — is still there.”

The concept behind the new production is, in essence, to create the
feel of a sprawling Thomas Hart Benton mural. The set has no walls,
and there is indeed a mural at the back of the stage that will be
completed little by little each day of the play’s month-long run.

The 24 actors, who play 50 roles, hang out on the set for about 30
minutes before the show, and don’t leave during intermission. There’s
also ample period music throughout the performance.

“The whole idea of this play was to create something truly alive,”
Landau says. “Saroyan said, ‘In the time of your life, live,’ so I
wanted something to actually happen in the theater between the play,
the actors and the audience. If I can’t do that, I’d rather not do

Landau and her crew have attempted to structure the play so that it
can embrace spontaneity and what she calls “true aliveness.”

“I feel like we’ve done that somewhat,” Landau says. “I feel a bit
like I’ve been channeling Saroyan.”

“The Time of Your Life” continues through April 25 at the Geary
Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$73. Call
(415) 439-2228 or visit