Even at the height of William Saroyan’s career as a playwright, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, his critics took issue with the sense of optimism in his Depression-era works. The prominent Marxist critic Philip Rahv mocked Saroyan’s “formula of innocence” as “the formula of ‘Ah, the wonder, the beauty of it all!’” and decried the “fairy-tale aspect” of his plays.
This facile approach misses the complexity of themes and emotions that inhere in Saroyan’s plays, such as loneliness and longing, nostalgia, displacement, poverty, and mortality. At times, however, Saroyan himself seems to supply critics like Rahv with ammunition through such works as “The Hungerers.”
That one-act play was revived by Arena Productions for a single performance on November 6 at the Jan Popper Theatre of UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall as part of the Conference on Armenian Writers.
An early stab at absurdist theater, “The Hungerers,” which dates back to 1939, unfolds on the eve of America’s involvement in World War II. It features as its central character The Writer, who receives unexpected visits from such strangers as The Young Capitalist, The Old Woman, and The Girl – all of them as impoverished and as hungry as he is. Of course, he and The Girl instantly fall in love, seeking to make up in spiritual nourishment what they lack in physical sustenance. Yet, hunger pervades the world of Saroyan’s characters, who succumb to death, one by one – only to reawaken and speak some parting words.
The play attempts to be fabulous – that is, fable-like (though perhaps wonderful as well), but its farcical tone clashes with its themes and rings dissonant. Its status as a minor work becomes obvious when compared with another Saroyan play from 1939, “The Time of Your Life,” which expertly couches the travails of its own hungry characters in whimsy, infused with a vaudevillian spirit.
As directed by Anahid Aramouni Keshishian, the Arena production struggled to strike the balance between farce and tragedy. The uncertainty appeared in the performances as well – strong on effort, though they were – and created a distancing effect between the characters and the audience. That effect was only exaggerated by Saroyan’s meta-theatricality, as exemplified by the presence of The Stage Manager amidst the play’s action. The only “character” to remain standing at the end, The Stage Manager is meant to symbolize art’s enduring power and illustrate how spiritual satiation can triumph over physical craving. That notion may sound lofty, but in reality (Depression-era reality, no less), it is quite simply fabulous – in this case, just fable-like.