(Excerpts from The Time Of Your Life © 1939 by William Saroyan. Excerpts used with permission of the Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University.)
This is not an attempt to critique a stageplay or its writer, but to consider the significance of one minor character in the play, The Time Of Your Life, by William Saroyan. That character is the ARAB and following are excerpts from the play in which the ARAB appears. Page numbers refer to the anthology from which it was taken: Best Plays of the Modern American Theatre, SECOND SERIES, 1939-1946, edited by John Gassner, 1947.
Act 2, page 58
KRUPP Why then do you read?
McCARTHY(laughing) It’s relaxing. It’s soothing. (pause) The lousiest people born into the world are writers. Language is all right. It’s the people who use language that are lousey. (The ARAB has moved a little closer, and is listening carefully.) (To the ARAB.) What do you think, Brother?
ARAB (after making many faces, thinking very deeply) No foundation. All the way down the line. What. What-not. Nothing. I go walk and look at sky. (He goes.)
JOE (slowly, thinking, remembering) What? What-not? That means this side, that side. Inhale. Exhale. What: birth, What-not: death. The inevitable, the astounding, the magnificent seed of growth and decay in all things. Beginning, and end. That man, in his own way, is a prophet. He is one who, with the help of beer, is able to reach that state of deep understanding in which what and what-not, the reasonable and unreasonable are one.
* * *
TOM (going) Ah, Joe. If McCarthy wins we’ll be rich.
JOE Get going, will you? (Tom runs out and nearly knocks over the ARAB coming back in. Nick fills him a beer without a word.)
ARAB No foundation, anywhere. Whole world. No foundation. All the way down the line.
[His remark, as usual, is ignored by those present, who continue with their own exchanges.]
* * *
Act 4, pages 70-71
KRUPP Every once in a while I catch myself being mean, hating people just because they’re down and out, broke and hungry, sick or drunk. And then when I’m with the stuffed shirts at headquarters, all of a sudden I’m nice to them, trying to make an impression. On who? People I don’t like. And I feel disgusted. (with finality) I’m going to quit. That’s all. Quit. Out. I’m going to give them back the uniform and the gadgets that go with it. I don’t want any part of it. This is a good world. What do they want to make all the trouble for all the time?
ARAB (quietly, gently, with great understanding) No foundation. All the way down the line.
ARAB No foundation. No foundation.
KRUPP I’ll say there’s no foundation.
ARAB All the way down the line.
KRUPP (to Nick) Is that all he ever says?
NICK That’s all he’s been saying this week.
KRUPP What is he, anyway?
NICK He’s an Arab, or something like that.
KRUPP No, I mean what’s he do for a living?
NICK (to ARAB) What do you do for a living, brother?
ARAB Work. Work all my life. All my life work. From small boy to old man, work. In old country, work. In new country, work. In New York, Pittsburg, Detroit, Chicago, Imperial Valley, San Francisco, work. No beg. Work. For what? Nothing. Three boys in old country. Twenty years, not see. Lost. Dead. Who knows? What. What-not. No Foundation. All the way down the line.
KRUPP What’d he say last week?
NICK Didn’t say anything. Played the harmonica.
ARAB Old country song. I play. (He brings a harmonica from his back pocket.)
KRUPP Seems like a nice guy.
NICK Nicest guy in the world.
KRUPP (bitterly) But crazy. Just like all the rest of us. Stark raving mad.
* * *
Act 5, page 79
(Nick is on his way out. The ARAB enters.)
NICK Hi-ya, Mahmed.
ARAB No Foundation.
NICK All the way down the line. (He goes.)
(Wesley is at the piano, playing quietly. The ARAB takes out his harmonica, and begins to play. Wesley fits his playing to the ARAB’s.)
* * *
(The newsboy goes to the ARAB.)
NEWSBOY Paper, mister?
ARAB (irritated) No foundation.
ARAB (very angry) No Foundation. (The newsboy starts out, turns, looks at the ARAB, shakes head.)
NEWSBOY No foundation? How do you figure?
[The ARAB gives him no response.]
William Saroyan was an American playwrite who was the son of Armenian immigrants. Armenia is sandwiched between Turkey on the west, Azerbaijan on the East, Iran to the South and Georgia to the North. Although Armenia is in close proximity to a high concentration of Arabs and Muslims, their primary ethnicity is caucasian and the dominant religion is Christianity. In fact Armenia was the world’s first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion.
Interestingly, Willam Saroyan’s father was a Christian preacher. But when William was only 3 years old, his father died. For the next 5 years, William and his brother and sister were placed in an orphanage in Oakland, California, while their mother scrambled to find work to support them.
The fact that he was buried in Armenia indicates Saroyan’s ancestral roots were important to him. As an American author he wrote from an American perspective, while never totally forgetting where his family came from. Imbedded in that perspective was the drama of the human psyche, struggling to keep its footing.
Saroyan was a heavy drinker. The loss of his father at a very young age had stripped his life of the kind of foundation his father would have prepared for him. And I think that he struggled with that loss of foundation his whole life.
The Time Of Your Life, opened on Broadway, and was the first play to earn both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. It is set almost exclusively in a run-down dive in San Francisco, which Saroyan based on an establishment that he himself frequented.
The several characters in this play are predictably types one would expect to find in a honky tonk bar, although as their stories unfold you discover that despite their apparent foolishness, they share a universal need for meaning and significance. The resolution of the play for me is that through the struggles and unique predicaments of their lives, they are shown to be deserving of sympathy and even forgiveness.
An unassuming character in this play that jumped out at me was the ARAB. He is listed in the dramatis personae as “An Eastern philosopher and harmonica player,” and further described on page 41 as “…a lean old man with a rather ferocious old-country mustache, with the ends twisted up. Between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand is the Mohammedan tattoo indicating that he has been to Mecca. He is sipping beer. It’s about eleven-thirty in the morning.”
This brief description actually speaks volumes. A Muslim who takes his religion seriously doesn’t drink alcohol at all. Drinking at this hour of the day is a sure sign of a drinking problem. Obviously, the ARAB was the backslidden sort – identifying with Islamic culture, but not its religious strictures. While making a hadj to Mecca is an obligation for all Muslims, tattoos are considered an offense by many main-stream religious Muslims, so again, we see this character is somewhat conflicted.
It is clear that the ARAB is not a religious man, but a man of the world who came out of a religious background. This seems to represent the conscience of the author, who himself was a man of the world, despite being born into a religious family.
The fact that this character is called the ARAB, not the ARMENIAN, exemplifies how Americans tend to view people from the Middle East, the Mediteranean, Eastern Europe and even India. Put an “old-country” moustache on a white Armenian and voila! You have an ARAB. In the present era we have seen this kind of ignorance directed toward Sikhs, who are often mistaken for Muslims or Arabs, simply because they wear turbins – despite the distinctive appearance of a Sikh turbin.
When I worked for the Postal Service, a carrier who had originally come from India was nicknamed “Ghandi” by some of our fellow workers. I often wondered if that offended him, since he was a Sikh and Ghandi was a Hindu. In any case, I imagine that Saroyen’s “ARAB” was a calculated mischaracterization intended to reveal a common American attitude toward people from “the old country”.
No doubt Saroyen had encountered that kind of thing in his own life, and using the character of the ARAB, he wove it into the fabric of his play. What struck me about his character was that without elaboration, his single message was that there is no foundation. He responded to the people and situations around him and made his universal commentary on the human condition: that in the whole world there is no foundation.
This could be taken as a repudiation of the Christian foundation that Saroyan had lost, or some might interpret this to be a type of Nihilism that regrets the lack of intrinsic meaning to life. I doubt that because of the positive moral statements that begin the setting for the play, which includes, “Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding-place, and let it be free and unashamed,” and “Discover in all things that which shines and is beyond corruption.”
It is my opinion that the ARAB represents Saroyan’s personal sense of loss in the lack of foundation for his own life, and that the inhabitants of the fictional world he created reflect that same lack. These are just my own impressions and suppositions. I have not made of study of William Saroyan. But there is something in his writing that reminds me of my own father, who was born around the same time and was also a heavy drinker. So, if in my own ignorance I have made some egregious misrepresentation, I appologize – particularly to those who love the work of this author.
While, much of the dialogue is written with comedic intent, comedy only works when it is based in truth. And I find a lot of truth represented by what is said by the ARAB, even taking into consideration that being loaded on alcohol can make things sound more profound than they really are.
All in all, the ARAB is more than just an odd character or even a sympatheic character. I feel he is pivotal to the play’s meaning. I hesitate to use the term, “message” because rather that trying to sell an idea, I feel Saroyan was offering his ideas as one might extend his hand for another to accept.
The ARAB’s mantra-like refrain, “No foundation. All the way down the line” represents a sweeping moral dilemma deeply important to him, while those around him are hardly aware of it, never mind able to understand what he’s talking about. The major exception to this is JOE, who seems to understand things better than just about everyone, and yet his understanding doesn’t really impact how he lives his own life. Even JOE doesn’t have a foundation.
He spends his days drinking in a bar, looking for meaning with the yearning of a poet, only to laugh at human foibles and frailty – with the help of some champaign. But when tomorrow comes, it will be a repeat of all his yesterdays. And that will be his life. This is the result of having no foundation to your life.
An old philosopher would say this because in his life he had observed how people try to use any number of things as foundations upon which to build their lives, only to see those ersatz foundations crumble when problems arose and attacked them. But recognizing the fact that there is no foundation isn’t the same as telling people about the true foundation to life. Even an old philosopher might not know what that true foundation is.
In Isaiah 28:16 we read, “therefore thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation”.
1 Samuel 2:2 says, “There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.”
Matthew 7:24-27 records the words of Jesus, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”
The true foundation is Jesus Christ.