HELLO OUT THERE! Reflections on William Saroyan’s play

HELLO PIC

Scene from Oberon Theatre Ensemble production

HELLO OUT THERE! BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS

For crying out loud, is anybody out there?

There I was in Manhattan thirty-two years ago, cupping my hands to my mouth and shouting over and over:

“Hello out there! Hello out there! Hello out there!”

Each time I hoped I’d get it just right and thereby launch a career catapulting me to fame and fortune on stage or in film. But each time my entreaty fell flat; everyone ignored me except the drama teacher; she said, “Keep trying, David.”

I had enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. By some mysterious process, I was assigned to play the role of the itinerant gambler in William Saroyan’s play, Hello Out There. I didn’t have the slightest idea who Saroyan was or what he represented. I didn’t know he lived in France to evade taxes and that his plays were enjoying a revival.

Apparently my teacher had intuitively summed me up as a desperately lonely young man who had drifted into the city to gamble with destiny. She was correct. I had arrived at Penn Station a few months before from the Midwest with forty dollars in my pocket. I could barely understand a word people were saying there, they were talking so fast and with a funny accent. But I did manage to get directions to the cheap hotel, where I arrived scared to death by the crazy cab ride uptown. I laid out twenty-five dollars for a week’s rent, scrounged a paper out of a trash basket and looked for a job. An angel must have been looking over my shoulder: I found a job way out in the Bronx over the Whitestone Bridge, commuting three hours a day via three subway changes and a bus. The location was so remote that I’m probably the only one who wanted the job; that’s what angels are for, you know, to provide things made just for you.

I had always aspired to be much more than what I was hired for: in this instance, a loss and damage freight claims manager in the traffic department. So I saved and saved, then plunked down my hard-earned cash at the Academy. That seemed at the time to be the obvious way out of my meager circumstances. Besides, about half the people I knew on the Upper West Side were actors. It was only many years later that a Freudian analyst, a sex-fiend who was teaching psychology at NYU, told me actors are the most neurotic people of all, and that’s why they take up acting.

I didn’t like my acting classes. One of the teachers in particular was irksome, a screaming queen called Miss Mean, who constantly nagged me over my role as Walter in the Odd Couple. My role as Senor Rossi in Idiot’s Delight gave me a lifelong interest in Fascism, and I shall never forget the line, “Abbiamo trascorso una bella giornata, Nina,” during a brief discourse that caused the character Harry to say that he got a kick out of hearing Italian.

It would be Waiting for Godot that finally convinced me acting classes were a big waste of time because people should concentrate on being themselves not someone else. Yes, after reconsidering my decision to be an actor, I figured I was entitled to something greater than pretense. I was entitled to the truth about myself, in order to be the living truth.

I didn’t know about “truth in acting” yet, not until I tried my hand again at acting a few years later, at Herbert Berghoff’s studios on Bank Street, where Madame Kathryn Sergava taught me her take on Stanislavsky, and his wife taught respect for acting. I suppose, if you do not know who you are, and think that has something to do with action, you may as well invent someone to be and act like that to get somewhere. That might be an actor who plays many roles at work, and, at home, as a spouse, parent, and so on.

In any case, all my “Hello Out Theres” at the Academy did not seem to be doing me much good: I was getting nowhere fast in the glamorous world of drama.

There was a saying amongst some of the students at the Academy that the fastest way to succeed in acting is to screw your way to the top. Several of my friends were prostitutes at the time, including the one who loved me for nothing. I admired their beauty, but I stayed out of the business myself; not because I thought prostitution was beneath me but because I was straight; the chances of finding an attractive rich woman who was not already being fully served were very slim. Maybe things have changed by now. I hope so.

Anyway, to add to my confusion, some of my pals uptown introduced me to LSD, hence I was hallucinating during rehearsals. Mind you, I was not the only actor tripping on stage. It was the cool thing to do back then: many of us didn’t know any better, so confused was our normal state of mind even without butts and booze and the other drugs. Besides, dropping Sunshine helped with Waiting for Godot.

Well, late one evening at the Academy, after practicing my “Hello Out Theres” for Saroyan’s play, my intuitive teacher had me lie down on the stage and do a deep relaxation and visualization exercise. I thought nothing of it, for freaky stuff was going on everywhere in those days: to be entranced or to hypnotize people was considered to be really far out. After I went down the imaginary steps as instructed, I entered into the so-called alpha-state, where I was at one with myself as the number one person in the universe. Then she had me imagine that I was stretched out on a beach towel, listening to the surf lapping the shore, feeling the sun beat down on me, feeling the gentle breeze on my face, stuff like that.

A few months later, there I was, on South Miami Beach. It didn’t even occur to me that I was there by virtue of the power of suggestions made to me at the Academy, suggestions I had forgotten about because of the suggestion that I forget them. Still, what a fool I was in regard to my own behavior. I was practicing hypnotism myself by then, something I’d learned out of a ninety-five cents brochure. One of my subjects brought his mother to meet me after I hypnotized him and gave him positive suggestions about find a job. He declared in Spanish that I was Jesus and started kissing my hand. What did I know? Nothing really, least of all that I was myself under the influence of posthypnotic suggestions.

Not long thereafter, I landed in Hawaii because of a French mime actor I had met one day South Beach, where he was wearing nothing but a black sock over his privates while sunning himself on a white sheet. I wrapped with him about his mentor, Marcel Marceau, until two old men started yelling at him to put on a bathing suit. He suggested that Florida is a just a sand bar compared to Hawaii. He said he had just been to Hawaii and that it is was thousand times better than Florida, even though Hawaii has a kill-a-haole day every week, and strongly suggested I would love Hawaii.

Four weeks later, during an heated argument right after the climax of a mad passionate affair I was having with a Jewish American princess I’d met on South Beach – we were in lust – I quit my Miami job and followed her back to Manhattan.

The princess was a professional photographer and the star of several porno-movies. She lived and developed her film in a huge flat above a whorehouse in Midtown. What a fantastic dish she was! Men would come up to me drooling to tell me how lucky I was.

“Photography is my island in paradise!” she said, the subtext being that our hot time was over, finis, kaput, for she had had me and was done with me, and now she had to get back to her fancy developing method – it produced a novel grainy effect.

“OK, then, I’m going to my own little paradise island, a real one.” One hour later I was on a flight to Hawaii. Soon after landing, there I was on Waikiki Beach, feeling the sun beat down on my face, and the gentle breeze, and so on.

I’ve returned to the island of Manhattan several times since then and back to Hawaii again, with a few side-detours on the side. I miss New York and would return if someone had an affordable sublet: fat chance, but, who knows, I still might have an angel, or an agent who loves my art. I seem to be a back-and-forth person, from New York to Hawaii and vice versa, with side trips to Alaska and South Beach. Wherever I’m sleeping, my recurring nightmare is this: I’m missing the plane back to whence I came (Note to myself: if I change my name, Ping Pong should be my first choice). Funny thing though, lately I’ve been dreaming of Miami Beach.

One little detour I took on my usual Hawaii-Manhattan run was a few months in San Francisco. I checked into flea bag hotel with one little bag of clothes and a huge trunk of books. As I was sitting in the lobby during the first evening, I was suddenly convinced I had arrived in a much better paradise than Hawaii. At least a dozen half-naked girls came downstairs all at once and traipsed through the lobby. Little did I know that the bar next door was a strip joint. I met a few of these lovely ladies later; they were working their way through college.

I found one of Saroyan’s books in my trunk, a biography. I discovered he had lived in the Bay area too. He had left home at fifteen, so I had two years on him, as I had left home at thirteen. Fortunately I was six-feet tall, smart, and a good story teller (liar) when it came to employment credentials. But what really impressed me was the revelation of what I deemed to be the secret of his success: Saroyan wrote and submitted a story every day, until an editor sat up and took notice. I thought I’d do that myself someday, and become a famous writer of truths, if I could find any.

Today things are different. Everybody is a writer now. Editors paid me no mind, so now I post an article every day on the Internet. I might as well micturate in the ocean for all the effect that has had. My fellow writers call me a “literary slut.” Still, there’s always the chance of that special angel being around! So I am writing this piece today.

Anyway, San Francisco was my second encounter with Saroyan. I soon forgot about him and my “Hello Out Theres” even though I was still a desperately lonely young man despite my few short, frantic affairs. One romantic detour was a marriage which failed because she didn’t want me anymore; in my infinite ignorance and deluded stupor, I couldn’t imagine why not, so I kept running back and forth between cities believing surely someone would love me for whomever I might be. Surely somebody would recognize the true me, the innocent me, and let me know who he was by loving him unconditionally. Hence I remarried into my self-perpetuated disaster. Yes, there were the good moments, now buried in the ruins of a second divorce. My best girlfriends had warned me to be a lover and never marry because I was a fool ruled by suggestion, my moods going up and down on whatever roller coaster I was riding.

Much has apparently transpired since then although nothing has really happened. I’m back in Hawaii again. Now I realize I was loved when I was a baby, but not since then, not really. Not even Jesus loves me – I will never believe in Big Daddy, not after what I’ve seen. Strangely enough, however, there is something in me that loves people, the child in people, the child that is me. I’m one of those humanists, I suppose, declared evil because I think original sin is so much hogwash, and do not believe that warts will grow on the hands of people who enjoy themselves when others do not.

Babies are born good. Then what happened? Good grief!The problem is not prenatal, it’s postnatal. It has a lot to do with those damned suggestions people are always making, especially the ones made while thumping the holy books. That is, ‘You’re evil, you’re evil, you’re evil,” ad infinitum, and mostly in reference to “it”. One of my first memories of “it” as a child was a woman (not my mother) shrieking at me in the bathroom: “Don’t touch it! Don’t you dare touch it!” And so forth. I had, instead, a toy machine gun to play with, to shoot “krauts” and “gooks” with, represented by the other boys. Gee, I was a lonely little boy, and I could not imagine why. Somebody certainly misplaced the taboos, didn’t they? So we’re still fighting over the womb.

Which brings me back to Saroyan’s Hello Out There. By some coincidence, God, synchronicity, or whatever, or, more probably, by the natural law of cause and effect, Saroyan and his play is returning to me along with the repressed memories of some of the consequential sins I committed. Yet, I swear, I am innocent! I didn’t mean to commit sins, to make the same mistakes over and over! But who will forgive me, who is even competent to do so? Nobody knows me well enough to love my real innocence as I do. But there is a still a chance, I suppose, for everyone is innocent at the core, and knows it very well. Maybe they will see me too in that core of original goodness.

Once it recurred to me, I desperately tried to find Hello Out There at the libraries in Hawaii, to no avail. It’s not one of the most famous of Saroyan’s plays. The most famous is The Time of Your Life, the one he refused the $1,500 Pulitzer Prize for because he said art shouldn’t cater to commerce. He wrote that successful play in six days; it also won the Drama Critic’s Circle Award. The Time of Your Life is set in a San Francisco saloon filled with colorful characters; the play stresses a positive philosophy summed up as, “In the time of your life, live.” James Cagney starred in the 1948 film version.

Indeed, Saroyan presented a positive outlook on life in most of his plays. They are about simple people who are rejected by society but who are still able to find happiness in life’s mysteries and beauties. His optimistic brand was successful during the Depression, and then fell out of favor after World War II with the rise of cynicism. His popularity radically declined after 1945; he never regained the success he had once had.

Saroyan departed from his usual optimism in Hello Out There. It has none of his usual humor and fanciful twists. The setting, a jail in Armadillo, Texas, is realistic and grim. The love interest is touching, but it portrays loneliness, fear, and suffering instead of passion. It is a story of man’s betrayal of man, of his cruelty, of his desperate and futile isolation from his fellows.

In a 1955 article in The Nation, Saroyan disowned Hello Out There, declaring the play “worthless, if not in fact a mistake.”

“As a dramatist, I simply do not believe I have the right to identify human beings as the enemy of human beings. Is there any enemy at all? Is time an enemy? Nature? Change? Loss? Failure? Pain? Death? Not in my thinking. All things, including pain and death, are friends for no other reason than that they exist, and the friendship of them must be discovered, measured, understood, and cherished.”

I have obviously have fond memories of Hello Out There. I recovered some of the reviews of its 1942 performance at the Belasco Theater in New York. Although I could not find a copy of the play in Hawaii, my own experience with the plot is now refreshed by the reviews:

A roving misfit, a gambler, comes into town, where he has an affair with a prominent citizen’s wife. Caught in the act, he is falsely charged with rape and thrown in jail. He taps a spoon on his cell floor (Saroyan once worked for a telegraph company). Frightened, lonely, injured by a blow to the head from the woman’s husband, he cups his hands to his mouth from time to time calling, “Hello out there!” The jail’s cook appears: the jailer’s lonely daughter. They talk, and, of course, fall in love. She exits to find a gun to help her lover escape, but when she returns she finds him shot dead by the husband, who had entered the jail with a lynch mob while she was gone. The husband is also desperately lonely: he is isolated from the mob by his need to save face rather than admit his wife was unfaithful.

There you have it. A man’s life is snuffed out, a girl’s heart is broken, and a husband’s conscience is damned to a living hell because a womb is private property. There was no rape; murder must still be resorted to in order to protect a man’s dignity in his property. Yet, surrounded by cruel circumstances, a new love came to light, even though it’s the dismal light of jail. During their intimate conversation before his death, the falsely accused gambler said to his respondent love:

“All I need is somebody good like you with me…. You got to have somebody staying with you all the time through… all the different kinds of weather a man’s got to go through before he dies… somebody who even knows you’re wrong but likes you the same….”

That very need was the motive of my life up to a certain point, and its disappointment the source of my self-inflicted misery. Now I love to be alone at great length. People just do not realize how happy a man can be when he is as good as dead. No wonder good monks smile.

Now then, by coincidence, just the other day I found a copy of A Connoisseur’s Anthology of the Writings of William Saroyan. It cost me all of a dollar plus four cents tax; the best things in literature may not be free, but they’re cheap. When I picked up the book, I thought, “Is Saroyan my angel, is this guy following me around after all these years? I still know next to nothing about him.” Then my eyes fell on these lines in Rock Wagram:

“Loneliness is every man’s portion, and failure. The man who seeks to escape from loneliness is a lunatic. The man who does not know all is failure is a fool. The man who does not laugh at these things is a bore. But the lunatic is a good man, and so is the fool, and so is the bore, as each of them knows. Every man is innocent, and in the end a lonely lunatic, a lonely fool, or a lonely bore.”

William Saroyan perceived the essential goodness of men and women cast out into a bad world. My seemingly casual encounters with his work have had its influence on my life, yet the influence was not profound until this very moment, a moment well repeated by reading this essay when I stray from the Way. What is profound is already there, always.

Now I understand why he repudiated his grim and dark play. Nevertheless, as this writing day closes, I cup my hands to my mouth and shout in my most meaningful voice:

“HELLO OUT THERE!”

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