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Who is William Saroyan?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 17, 2024
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William Saroyan is an American playwright and novelist of Armenian descent. He is known primarily for his work during the pre-war era leading up to World War II, and the period during the war. In later years, William Saroyan waned in popularity, as his unique style fell out of favor with critics and audiences. Born in 1908, William Saroyan died in 1981 at the age of 72 in the town of his birth, Fresno, California.

William Saroyan was born to parents of Armenian lineage, who emigrated from Turkey to the United States at the turn of the century. His early life was spent in Fresno, California, and many of his stories take place in Fresno, as well as in the Bay Area. His early career was made with short stories, notably “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” in the mid-1930s.

William Saroyan served in the United States Army during World War II, although some of his writings appeared to have something of a pacifist bent. At one point he was almost court martialed for the content of a novel of his, The Adventures of Wesley Jackson, was accused of being a promotional piece for the ideals of pacifism.

Some of the most enduring works of William Saroyan are his plays. His most famous, written in 1939, is The Time of Your Life, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. He refused to accept the prize, however, claiming that art should never be judged by the world of business, and that rewards should be found in the reception a piece garnered from viewers. At the same time, William Saroyan did accept an honor for the play from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, who awarded it Best Play in 1939. Some of his more popular later plays include Hello Out There! in 1941, Talking to You in 1942, and Assassinations in 1974.

The plays of William Saroyan are notable in their frequent dismissal of the normal mode of conflict driving the story forward. His plays are often more slices of life, with hearty humor and sentimentality sprinkled throughout. It is this sentimentality that ultimately led to a decreased interest in the plays of William Saroyan after World War II, when such things were seen as unfortunately idealistic and na&iumlat;ve.

The Time of Your Life, William Saroyan’s most famous play, is set entirely in a bar in San Francisco, called Nick’s. The bar is a setting for a number of interesting characters, each with their own goals and nuances that intersect at various times throughout the play. The central protagonist of the play is the character Joe, who is somewhat wealthy and uses that wealth and his free time to help out the various other characters in the bar.

Although there is conflict in the play, like many plays by William Saroyan the conflict is not the focus of the story. Rather, events that unfold are more lenses through which to better understand the characters involved. The play was ultimately made into a film in 1948, and was later remade for television in 1958.

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