Sunday, February 03, 2008

Reviews Well Past the Deadline: Have You Ever Been In Love With A 39 Pound Midget?

When one has nothing recent to talk about, there's always the past...

Last summer, I had an opportunity to catch Soulpepper's production of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life.

Set in a honky tonk bar on the eve of American involvement in the Second World War, the play meditates on that wonderfully sophisticated popular culture that emerged between the two world wars.

The main character Joe, appears wealthy, and drinks champagne all day, but he doesn't really do much, except guide others along in their lives. A Socratic figure, he espouses a philosophy of not having a philosophy, beyond being kind to others, but in that kindness he attempts to help others recover things they've lost. He is the midwife to the dreams of the many characters who populate the play.

There is an elegaic quality to the work, not merely because of the coming war, but because, the popular culture it depicts and celebrates is, for the most part, snuffed out by the war.

You could see all these strains of American self-consciousness in it – the exuberance, the sad reality of the capitalist dream. However, what made it great was what popular culture was in the play, a attitude towards culture which I do not believe exists in America anymore, or Canada for that matter. But I'm not going to get into that because it will just get me in trouble!

For example, one of the background characters is a poor man who happens to play the piano really well, and he does so for nearly the entire play. There's also a comedian who is not at all funny, but who happens to be able to dance very well.

You see in these characters the inheritance of the whole Vaudeville tradition, as well as a sign of the importance of jazz in American culture at the time. You see it here, just before the war, as it's about to die as the major popular art form in America, where sophistication was still valued over sentimentality, or if nothing else, they could co-exist. After the war, with the rise of rock and roll, this kind of co-existence pretty much disappeared, as popular music came to define itself increasingly against "serious" classical music or jazz.

Saroyan's play unselfconciously captures a slice of history that seems very foreign to us these days in those interwar years of cultural ecumenism and political extremism. That alone made the play well worth seeing.

Sadly, when I went to see this gem, there were tons of seats still available, which was too bad, as I I suspect one of the reasons for the lacklustre attendance was that there were no well known Canadian TV personalities performing. Ah well.

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