Jun 18, 2016

The Man on the Flying Trapeze: William Saroyan

During my first year in college, the drama club performed The Time of Your Life (1939), William Saroyan's Pulitzer-prize winning play about the lost and wounded denizens of a seedy San Francisco bar.  Every one of them expressed some type of heterosexual interest, with one exception: Willie, a teenage pinball player.  During the 1970s, all teenagers in mass media were portrayed as churning cauldrons of heterosexual horniness, but Willie never once looked at or mentioned a girl.


I didn't usually care for the heterosexism of Modern American Literature, but I tentatively sought out the other works of William Saroyan (1908-1981), and found melancholy stories about working-class Armenian immigrants in California, mostly with crushed dreams or memories of past glory.

And endless homoromantic subtexts.

My Name is Aram (1940). Aram grows from age 9 to young adulthood without ever falling for a girl, though he is drawn to many men and boys, including his best friend Panko and his beautiful cousin Dikran.

There is even a veiled reference to gay people. In one story, his Uncle Melik, about to travel by train from Fresno to New York, receives advice from his own uncle:  "An amiable young man will offer you a cigarette.   It will be doped." On the train, Melik waits for the cigarette offer, but it never comes, so he takes the initiative and offers a young man a cigarette.  They become friends.

The Human Comedy (1943).  Teenage Homer has a job delivering telegrams during the War, mostly about soldiers who have died; but he doesn't have to deliver the telegram about his older brother Marcus, because Tobey arrives, who knew Marcus "better than anyone in the world," to tell the family.

Meanwhile, though Homer gazes at a "beautiful girl," he finds solace in the eyes of men.

In the 1943 movie version, the actors who portrayed Marcus and Tobey, Van Johnson (left) and John Craven, were both gay.




"The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" (1935): he doesn't really fly on a trapeze.  He is dying, with no women among his dying thoughts.  Instead : he remembered the young Italian in a Brooklyn hospital, a small sick clerk named Mollica, who had said desperately, I would like to see California once before I die."

On and on, a world where coming of age does not mean "sex with an older woman," where death does not mean "letting go of the faces of women," where life is big and dangerous and sad and lived among men.

Saroyan, by the way, had some ties to the post-War gay community.  He frequented the Black Cat Bar in San Francisco, became friends with gay director Vicente Minelli (they collaborated on a musical together), and in 1955, a radio biography starred gay actor Sal Mineo.