- Play title: Hello Out There.
- Author: William Saroyan.
- Published: 1941.
- Page count: 13
Hello Out There is a one-act play by William Saroyan. There are two lead characters, a teenage girl named Emily Smith and a young man whose nickname is Photo-Finish. The setting is a small-town jailhouse in Texas where the man has recently been detained for a violent crime and where the girl works as a part-time cook. Emily and Photo-Finish strike up a conversation and there are elements of budding romance as well as sly manipulation. The title of the play comes from Photo-Finish’s repeated holler in the prison house when, at first, he thinks that he has been left completely alone. Saroyan explores the themes of loneliness, injustice, and the fate of the underdog. While short, the play’s dialogue is highly condensed and the event that occurs at the end is dramatic and violent.
Ways to access the text: reading/watching.
The play is available via the Open Library. It is also available on Scribd if you are already a member of the service.
If you would prefer to watch the play, then there is a production of the work available on YouTube under the title “Hello Out There – 1980.” The running time is 42 minutes.
Why read Hello Out There?
A story about outsiders.
In a truly short script, Saroyan manages to convey to an audience the plight of outsiders. The young girl and the suspected criminal are quite different characters, but both feel distinctly ostracized from society. The play is set in Texas just after the Great Depression. The playwright effectively communicates the daily grind that is required of people to survive. In such a society, victims are inevitably created. Emily comes from a poor background and is doubly exploited – by her father and her employer. In contrast, the young man sees through the hollow slogan that hard work leads to success and he opts out of the rat-race and prefers to gamble to make his money, understanding that wealth alone is the emblem of success. However, he is rarely lucky and seldom accepted. Emily and Photo-Finish exist at the edges of a society that does not value them, and it is through their mutual recognition of a kindred spirit that the central relationship of the play is established.
No way out.
The play is a tragedy. At the beginning, the young man finds himself in a prison cell with a serious wound to his head. He does not recall anything that has happened in the previous 24 hours. Almost from the first moment, we sense his fear, initially the fear of being alone and then the fear of what he suspects is coming. Later, he reveals that he has read stories in the newspapers about cases similar to his own, and therefore he senses his fate long before it arrives. Saroyan manages to depict Photo-Finish as compassionate while also letting us see that a man’s desperation may also flower into a certain manipulative charisma. Photo-Finish’s interactions with Emily are complicated by the possibility of a mob looming on the horizon. A man who has no way out of his dilemma may act in strange ways, but such a man’s assessment of the world is also enlightening. Saroyan takes his readers inside a little prison cell in Texas and reveals some cold truths about society.
The angry mob versus the lone man.
One striking aspect of Saroyan’s play is his depiction of a mob pitted against an individual. This is obviously an uneven contest, but it serves to better highlight the other relationship in the play between one individual and another. On one side, Photo-Finish has been accused of raping a married woman and we witness his increasing fear of mob retribution as the play progresses. On the other side, Photo-Finish forms a one-on-one relationship with Emily which proves to be the antithesis of his relation to the vigilantes from the town of Wheeling. The play is effective in communicating the plight of the young man largely because of this conspicuous divide between the trust and belief a suspected criminal receives from a young girl versus the distrust, fear, and hatred that exudes from the mob. One may look at these two aspects of the play in detail to reveal the intricacies of these quite different relationships. A complicating factor is Photo-Finish’s racial background which is never stated in the play yet proves to be vitally important. Though Saroyan’s play is quite short, consisting of just one act, it is a condensed work with an invaluable social commentary.
It is insufficient to look at the mob based solely on the description in the play. Although Photo-Finish expects them at any time, the mob only appear in the closing moments. Their work is brutal and done in a brief period of time. To really understand the actions of the mob, one must look at the psychology of such groups of people and thereby reveal their often-predictable behaviour. Many books have been written on the psychology of crowds including two very influential works, namely Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 work entitled The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, and Elias Canetti’s 1960 book entitled Crowds and Power. It is worth noting that neither of these works specifically address racially motivated violence in the United States, an issue that this essay will explore, but one must keep in mind that Saroyan never clearly indicates that the violence depicted in his play is racially motivated. Therefore, the texts on crowds quoted here do not pigeonhole the interpretation of the play too narrowly. Le Bon was French, and Canetti was Bulgarian, and these writers provide highly informative insights into crowds of all sorts especially destructive ones which will be the focus in this essay.
In the play, Photo-Finish’s predominant attitude to the mob is one of fear. When Emily reminds him that he is in prison on a charge of rape, he responds that “they’re a lot of fools” meaning the mob and then he admits that he is “scared to death.” Later, when Emily shares the information that the local authorities fear that a mob may come for Photo-Finish, he responds in a manner that shows his astute understanding of the psychology of crowds, saying, “nothing scares a man more than ignorance. You can argue with people who ain’t fools, but you can’t argue with fools – they just go to work and do what they’re set on doing.” The crucial points in his observation are that the mob is characterized by its lack of intelligence, its deafness to reason, and its unalterable goal. Before exploring these points, it is necessary to first settle on a definition of a psychological crowd versus a harmless, haphazard grouping of people. Le Bon writes that a “psychological crowd” (21) comes into being when “the sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics” (21). This description matches that of the organized crowd in Saroyan’s play who have a specific aim. Regarding the intelligence of such a crowd, Le Bon states that “in crowds it is stupidity and not mother-wit that is accumulated” (28). Indeed, Photo-Finish says on multiple occasions that he is aware that his words will be ineffectual when faced with the mob. A crowd’s inability to reason is explained by Le Bon by how a man changes once submerged within a crowd – “isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct” (31). The most chilling aspect of Photo-Finish’s assessment of a mob is regarding its goal, he says, “they just go to work.” One needs to understand why crowds get so riled up and the resulting singlemindedness that facilitates their sometimes-gruesome actions. Le Bon writes that “the violence of the feelings of crowds is also increased, especially in heterogeneous crowds, by the absence of all sense of responsibility” (50). Canetti describes the sense of momentum that a crowd achieves, explaining that “the crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal” (29). As such, the fears of Photo-Finish are legitimate because he is the sole cause of the mob’s feelings of outrage, and he is their ultimate goal.
Canetti categorizes specific types of crowds based on their characteristics and the following, called the baiting crowd, matches the mob who pursues Photo-Finish.
“The baiting crowd forms with reference to a quickly attainable goal. The goal is known and clearly marked, and is also near. This crowd is out for killing and it knows whom it wants to kill. It heads for this goal with unique determination and cannot be cheated of it” (Canetti 49).
Photo-Finish has been moved from Wheeling for his own safety and is now in Matador some seventeen miles away. Not only is Photo-Finish still within the mob’s reach but the woman’s husband has already drawn the accused man’s blood by striking him over the head with a blunt instrument. The initial spark that ignited the outrage of the Wheeling townspeople is the accusation that Photo-Finish raped a married woman. Yet, if this accusation is true then the jailed suspect will surely face justice in due course. To understand why this does not happen, one may refer to Le Bon’s statement that “the simplicity and exaggeration of the sentiments of crowds have for result that a throng knows neither doubt nor uncertainty … a suspicion transforms itself as soon as announced into incontrovertible evidence” (50). Additionally, Canetti explains how a crowd views its enemy, he writes, “one of the most striking traits of the inner life of a crowd is the feeling of being persecuted, a peculiar angry sensitiveness and irritability directed against those it has once and forever nominated as enemies” (22). Photo-Finish is deprived of his rights because an angry mob, specifically a baiting crowd, has already judged and sentenced him. The mindset of the crowd also requires that he first be branded as an enemy of the community. Photo-Finish’s solemn word that he is innocent has no value because he, a stranger, has been accused by a local woman. The mob has already come to a conclusion and the man’s death is their goal.
In Saroyan’s depiction, Photo-Finish is an enemy of the community by default of being an outsider. It is his identity as a stranger that allows the mob to disbelieve him and deny him justice. However, one may reasonably assert that his race is the unstated yet complicating factor. Le Bon explores several factors “which are found to underlie all the beliefs and opinions of crowds” (84) and race is the primary factor in his estimation. As Saroyan does not specify Photo-Finish’s race, one may deduce it by alternative means. One may begin by quoting Canetti’s definition of a pack where he states that, “relatively few people belong to it, but these few know one another well” (94). He goes on to explain about a pack, that, “since it consists entirely of people who know each other well, it can always form again, even if scattered by adverse circumstances” (94). The mob from Wheeling is just a few carloads of people, who are clearly known to one another, and may obviously have congregated on other similar occasions. As will be discussed later in more detail, Photo-Finish is familiar with the expected actions of the mob/pack who are looking for vengeance. There is clear evidence that such mobs gather on a regular basis because Photo-Finish has read about them in the newspapers. The mobs’ aims are invariably to take revenge on those they have designated as enemies. It does not take much research to reveal that the most frequent victims of mob violence in Texas in the 1930’s and 40’s were black men. As such, the logical conclusion is that Photo-Finish falls prey to the mob’s ingrained prejudices not just because he is an outsider but also because he is most likely a man of colour.
The play’s title, “hello – out there!” is also Photo-Finish’s cry to the world which opens the drama. Through the writings of Le Bon and Canetti, we are aware of precisely why a crowd is not amenable to logic or cries for mercy. As Le Bon states, a man who has been caught up in a mob “is no longer himself, but has become an automaton” (31) and therefore one cannot expect sympathy from such a figure. Saroyan writes in the play’s introduction that Photo-Finish “calls out dramatically, kidding the world.” This sets the appropriate tone for a play where the protagonist has no real hope of justice, no hope of a sympathetic response from the mob who pursues him. Yet, the teenage girl named Emily is the single exception because she shows care and affection, even love to Photo-Finish. This means that neither his identity as a stranger nor the possibility that he is a black man cause Emily to prejudge him. However, their bond may be viewed cynically by a reader. For example, Photo-Finish does not expect a sympathetic reaction from the world and therefore is he in fact kidding Emily, manipulating her, when he speaks in somewhat dramatic style of their future together? Saroyan uses Photo-Finish’s refrain to emphasize one salient point, namely that the world’s response to one’s holler is determined almost entirely by one’s identity. We may view Emily as a naïve dupe or instead as an individual of superior character, devoid of the prejudices that are rampant in her own community. When Emily asks Photo-Finish if he is lonesome, his response is “lonesome as a cayote. Hear me hollering? Hello out there!” Emily finds a connection with him precisely because he is a lonely outsider, saying, “I’m kind of lonesome, too.” This contrasts with Photo-Finish’s meeting with the married woman, a woman he thought may have invited him into her house because “she was lonely.” However, when their tryst goes awry, he says, “the next thing I knew she’d run out of the house and was hollering.” The married woman’s holler for help is what leads eventually to mob violence.
There is an odd parallel between Photo-Finish’s connection with Emily and with the married woman. Admittedly, each woman represents something quite different. Emily represents a compassionate world whereas the married woman ultimately becomes just a face in the vengeful mob. Yet the chief similarities are that Photo-Finish’s encounter with each woman happens totally by chance, is tinted with sexual desire and/or romance, and has huge repercussions for him. Emily and the married woman are from neighbouring towns, but they truly represent opposing worlds. Emily is a menial worker, undervalued and sometimes ridiculed, an outsider in her own place. The woman, George’s wife, has the backing of her whole community, she is an insider. Each woman is shown to hold the fate of Photo-Finish in her hands. It is Emily who promises to get her father’s gun for Photo-Finish which is his best hope of escaping. After all, an armed prisoner may gain his freedom through the element of surprise as no one will expect him to have a gun. The woman who accused Photo-Finish of rape is the one whose words set in motion the mindless mob. However, she has no actual control of the mob. Canetti provides a very poetic description of the appearance of an active crowd – “a single creature dancing, a creature with fifty heads and a hundred legs and arms, all performing in exactly the same way and with the same purpose” (32). In a way, the married woman stands for the potential of an uncaring, cruel society which may indeed transform into a monstrous being. The married woman is just one person yet also the key to unleashing the hatred of a biased society.
The conclusion of Saroyan’s play is quite violent and shows the ultimate result of Photo-Finish’s unequal battle with a mob. Canetti explains the importance of the victim’s body to the victor. In the context of the play, this means the value of Photo-Finish’s body to George, the woman’s husband.
“His [the victim’s] physical presence as a corpse is indispensable for the feeling of triumph. Now the victor can do whatever he wants with him, and he cannot retaliate, but must lie there, never to stand upright again” (Canetti 227).
The trophy is the corpse of the enemy and George and his pals claim the body of Photo-Finish at the close of the play. The ending is foreshadowed because Photo-Finish has already described what happens in such cases. Proof that the mob’s actions are mindless is shown by the fact that George’s wife only identifies Photo-Finish as the rapist, saying “yeah, that’s him” after he has already been shot multiple times. This trophy corpse is claimed to uphold the honour of George’s wife even if he suspects that she is indeed unfaithful and her original accusation false. Emily tries to stop them as she knows that the mob will defile the body. Emily’s action is in primary opposition to the mob, and she proves Photo-Finish’s statement that, “people are the same everywhere. They’re different only when they love somebody.” Emily has already declared her love for Photo-Finish, saying, “nobody anywhere loves anybody as much as I love you.” Photo-Finish’s interactions with both women expose different elements of society – the cruelty of the mob mindset versus a connection with one caring individual.
It is important to concede that Photo-Finish manipulates Emily to a certain degree. However, Saroyan does not depict the suspected criminal as a one-dimensional character. One should interpret Photo-Finish’s actions as partially motivated by his dilemma. Canetti gives a clear insight into the position of a victim in relation to the mob, he writes:
“One important reason for the rapid growth of the baiting crowd is that there is no risk involved. There is no risk because the crowd have immense superiority on their side. The victim can do nothing to them. He is either bound or in flight, and cannot hit back; in his defencelessness he is victim only” (49).
Photo-Finish is in just such a position, trapped in a prison house whose jailer has gone home leaving the captive man vulnerable. Emily is the key to freedom and so Photo-Finish must use all his eloquence to win over this girl who alone stands between him and a dreadful fate. He flatters her looks even though she is described as “a plain girl in plain clothes,” he says he will marry her even though it is on the same day that he has met her, he praises her character in an attempt to make her feel special, and finally he promises her a future with him in San Francisco. Emily is naïve, too naïve to fully comprehend the slick lines of the drifter who habitually gambles to earn each buck and gain each advantage in life. Yet, Saroyan also challenges a reader’s preconceptions of such a character, forcing one to rethink, to move away from a prejudiced mob mentality to that of a sympathetic adjudicator. After all, Emily and Photo-Finish are both lonesome souls, outsiders, and grafters of different kinds. Their bond is not artificial, and Photo-Finish constantly surprises with actions that belie the cold trickster we may presume him to be. He gives Emily eighty dollars with no prospect of getting it back and more importantly he advises her that if he is gone when she returns to the jailhouse – “don’t be a fool,” which means do not try to use the gun against the mob. His advice is that she just leave town and go to San Francisco. Yes, he preys on an innocent girl in an attempt to escape his otherwise certain death, but he also treats her humanely, recognizes her sorry plight and tries to direct her to a better future. Emily earns just fifty cents for each day’s work which her malingerer father then confiscates leading Photo-Finish to brand the townspeople as “little punk people. Hurting the only good thing that ever came their way.” Saroyan give his readers a balanced portrayal of Photo-Finish, a man who lives by his wits yet has not abandoned his core humanity.
The young man has been nicknamed Photo-Finish because as he says, “my races are always photo-finish races.” He goes on to explain that “my horse never wins. It’s my bad luck, all the time.” A character’s name is an important choice for a playwright so one may scrutinize this distinctive nickname further. It is apparent that this eternally optimistic gambler takes a chance with Emily as there is nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain. There is also a clear analogy between the gambler betting on a horse race and the closing episode of the play where two parties, Emily and the angry mob, rush to reach him determining whether he wins or loses. True to his nickname, there is just a moment between the arrival of the blood-thirsty mob who will surely kill him and the girl who could potentially save him. Yet, he is clearly the loser, once again. Therefore, the name Photo-Finish also holds a possible hidden meaning about eternal losers. When the young man explains his nickname to Emily, he details how photo-finish races as “so close the only way they can tell which horse wins is to look at a photograph after the race is over.” In an article entitled “Photo-Finishes” in American Scientific from 1941, it is stated that “many racetracks, including Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, use the Photo-Chart Camera equipment invented and developed by Lorenzo Del Riccio.” Incidentally, this is the same year as Saroyan released Hello Out There. The modern technology simply made deciding the correct winner much easier because “in an average time of 48 seconds, an enlargement of the photo-finish negative is produced and delivered to the judges.” This technology was first introduced at Del Mar Racetrack in California in 1937. The interesting point here is that a negative photo was used to call the race. A negative photo is one where bright areas of the original image appear dark and the dark areas appear light. As the name of the main character is Photo-Finish and he is a racetrack gambler, then the technology of negative i.e., black and white images is covertly referenced too. Therefore, is Saroyan making a coded reference to Photo-Finish’s colour, his race? Does the plot of the play show how a white man loses the race, yet because it is a photo-finish we are looking at a negative photo and it is really depicting a black man? Is the playwright saying that black men always lose in the game of race relations? Since Saroyan neglects to state Photo-Finish’s race then we may presume that he is white with no evidence to prove otherwise, and therefore possibly view the character differently to how we would view a black man in the role. Yet it is a pertinent question to ask if Photo-Finish is the eternal loser because he is black and also because only a naïve young girl in a prejudiced town will even consider him worthy of sympathy?
The question of Photo-Finish’s race gives a certain nuance to the depiction of the two major forces at the play’s core, the individual and the mob. Emily proves that by making a connection with someone, you value them for who they are rather than lazily rely on a preconceived idea. The play communicates the message that without sympathetic interpersonal contact, one may all too easily be ruled by the mob mindset, by racial prejudices, by fear of anyone who is different. Although the psychological crowd as defined by Le Bon is a specific entity to which Photo-Finish falls foul, the idea of the masses and conventional thinking is also peripherally explored by Saroyan because Emily is also a victim of her community despite being a total innocent. It is Emily who calls out at the end of the play, “hello – out there!” and one can only wonder what her future holds.
Saroyan adds to the tragic atmosphere of the play by allowing Photo-Finish to foresee his own destiny. The crucial information about how the story will end is contained in newspapers. It is also from the reference to newspapers in the play that one gains the strongest evidence that Photo-Finish is indeed a man of colour. When Photo-Finish is confronted by the husband (George) of the woman that he is accused of raping, then Photo-Finish says the following:
“I know what you’re going to do. I’ve read the papers and I know. They have fun. A mob of ’em fall on one man and beat him, don’t they? They tear off his clothes and kick him, don’t they? And women and little children stand around watching, don’t they? Well, before you go on this picnic, I’m going to tell you a few things.”
Photo-Finish’s grim quote suggests that such mobs act in unison to a sort of prewritten script. This raises two key questions in the play. To begin, what sorts of offences normally result in vigilante mob behaviour, and secondly, can we give a solid classification to the sorts of victims involved? To find adequate responses to such queries, one may look at similar attacks to the one on Photo-Finish as reported in actual newspapers in the era of the play. To find appropriate comparisons, one must first summarize Photo-Finish’s situation. He is in jail accused of raping a married woman. He was arrested in Wheeling but then moved to Matador, Texas. Emily recounts that “they [the authorities] brought you [Photo-Finish] here from Wheeling” and that Photo-Finish has “got a whole gang of people all worked up.” Due to the public uproar caused by the reported rape, Emily adds that the authorities are considering moving Photo-Finish again because, “they’re afraid these people from Wheeling will come over in the middle of the night and break in.” The mob do eventually arrive and when finally confronted by the woman’s husband, Photo-Finish summarizes the mob’s view, saying, “a stranger has come to town and violated your women.” Although Photo-Finish knows his words will fall on deaf ears, he claims that the woman seduced him. George, the husband, replies by calling the accused rapist “a dirty liar” and “a dog.”
In order to elaborate on the kind of information Photo-Finish would have read in newspapers in the 1930’s and 1940’s, one may refer to newspaper articles on three widely publicized murders by hanging in Texas. These murders were the work of mobs. It is relevant to look at hangings because Photo-Finish expects such a death, saying to George who pulls a pistol, “what’s the fun hanging a man who’s already dead?” The incidents quoted here come from articles about murders in three locations in Texas, namely Kirbyville in 1934, Columbus in 1935, and Texarkana in 1942. The first two articles were carried in the New York Times and the last article is from The New York Age. Such hangings were not so infrequent, but the articles have been limited to Texas as that is the setting of Saroyan’s play.
The most striking similarity between the newspaper articles is that they all refer to black men. This informs one’s reading of Saroyan’s play as he does not mention race, but one may deduce that black men were certainly the most likely victims of such mob justice. Secondly, the crimes recounted in the newspaper articles are all linked to either sexual relations or rape. Furthermore, in each case there is an account of how the mob gained custody of the accused man. Finally, there are details on how the men were murdered. The information is as follows:
- Kirbyville, Texas, June 21st, 1934 (New York Times article June 22nd).
- Identity: “Son Griggs, a Negro, 30 years old.”
- Crime: “Charged with associating with a white woman.”
- Prisoner moved for safety: “Two deputies … rush[ed] Griggs to Orange for safekeeping.”
- Mob arrest: “Forcibly taken from officers by a crowd of 150 men and women.”
- Death: “Hanged, shot seventeen times, then dragged behind an automobile for several hours.”
- Columbus, Texas, November 13th, 1935 (New York Times article November 14th).
- Identity: “Benny Mitchell, aged 16, and Ernest Collins, 15” – black teenagers.
- Crime: Murder preceded by sexual attack denoted by title of “ravishing murderers.”
- Prisoner moved for safety: N/A
- Mob arrest: “Taken from the custody of the sheriff by a mob.”
- Death: “The two Negroes, still chained together, were hanged on a tree on the outskirts of Columbus.”
- Texarkana, Texas, July 18th, 1942 (The New York Age article).
- Identity: “Willie Vinson, 25 year old Negro.”
- Crime: “Accused of an attempted attack on a white woman.” Details – “she was dragged from her trailer-camp bed early Sunday by a Negro.”
- Prisoner moved for safety: N/A
- Mob arrest: “Raiding a hospital, a mob of white men took Willie Vinson.”
- Death: “Lynched him [Vinson] early Monday by hanging him on a cotton gin winch on the outskirts of the city after dragging him behind an automobile.”
The newspaper articles give details of gruesome murders committed in Texas before and after Saroyan’s play which dates from 1941. Given the importance of the newspaper articles in the play, one may extract two salient pieces of information, firstly, that Photo-Finish is most likely African American because his fate matches that of other black men accused of having sexual relations with or attacking white women at that time. Secondly, mob justice was common enough and widely enough reported that someone could indeed come to a foregone conclusion about the fate of black men in such situations. As Saroyan does not specify whether Photo-Finish is white or black, and since many productions of the play have a Caucasian man play his part, the evidence provided by newspapers complicates an interpretation of the play. It is possible that by not defining the character as being of one race or another, the playwright hopes that the audience focus on Photo-Finish without racial prejudice. If one thinks of Photo-Finish as an African American or indeed as from a Hispanic background, then his chances of survival diminish in the context of the racial politics and prejudices of the era. It is certainly possible that Saroyan imagined Photo-Finish as a Caucasian male yet then the newspaper articles have a converse effect where a white man’s unjust fate is more exaggerated by a comparison with black men who were actively discriminated against in the era. Photo-Finish defeatedly says to George, the husband, “I’m going to tell you a few things. Not that that’s going to send you home with your pals.” As such, Photo-Finish understands the uselessness of arguing his case, and it is with the advantage of seeing him as a man of colour that an audience will better understand this imminent defeat.
In many respects, the newspaper articles enlighten the overarching discussion of the mob. Firstly, newspapers, especially provincial newspapers would have reflected the sympathies of local people. Even though Gustave le Bon was writing in 1895, he commented on the relatively diminished power of influential writers versus the power of newspapers to reflect the public mood, writing that, “today the writers have lost all influence, and the newspapers only reflect opinion” (160). It is relevant here to supply the headline from the above cited New York Times article from 1935 – “Texas Prosecutor Condones Lynching; Calls Hanging of Two Negroes at Columbus ‘Expression of People’s Will’.” The article goes on to quote a judge who also declined to criticize the mob. The journalist then includes the information that “the Negroes, because of their ages, would have been sent to a reformatory until they were 21 years of age if they had been convicted in court.” The article is clearly biased because the judge’s racist remarks are corroborated by the journalist’s added summary of the possible light sentence for the suspected perpetrators, had they lived. As Le Bon noted, the opinion of the public seems to be uncritically reflected back to them. One may further interpret such journalistic reporting with the help of Elias Canetti who wrote in 1960 that “disgust at collective killing is of very recent date and should not be over-estimated. Today everyone takes part in public executions through the newspapers” (52). Indeed, the lurid details of the newspaper articles already quoted seem to presuppose a public appetite for the same. Canetti goes on to equate the “baiting crowd” (52) or hunting pack, with the modern reading public, writing that “the baiting crowd is preserved in the newspaper reading public, in a milder form it is true, but, because of its distance from events, a more irresponsible one” (52). One can therefore fully appreciate why Photo-Finish upon reading accounts of local hangings in Texas, expects no less a horrendous conclusion to his own confrontation with the locals. Also, such newspaper accounts of the atrocious deeds of vigilante mobs seem to have satisfied a cruel blood-thirst in the public audience of the day.
By placing a reference to newspapers in the play, Saroyan creates a link to real-life newspaper articles which exposes the systematic injustices in America. The fictional events of the play link to news media realism. One may securely date the events of the play as circa 1940 because Photo-Finish recounts meeting the married woman at a lunch counter and says, “somebody had put a nickel in the phonograph and a fellow was singing New San Antonio Rose,” and the song was released that year. At this time, racial segregation enforced under Jim Crow laws in America was still the norm. The play is a scathing social commentary because just like in the newspaper articles quoted above, the jail keeper opens Photo-Finish’s cell with his key so that the mob can finish their cruel attack. In fact, the newspapers seem to script future events just as much as they report past happenings in the context of Saroyan’s play.
Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. Translated by Carol Stewart. Continuum, 1978.
Falge, Francis M. “Photo-Finishes.” Scientific American, vol. 164, no. 1, 1941, pp. 32-45.
“HANG, SHOOT, DRAG NEGRO; Texas Mob Lynches Prisoner Arrested with White Woman.” New York Times, 22 June 1934.
Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Amazing Classics, 2017.
Saroyan, William. Hello Out There. Samuel French, 1949.
“Texas Prosecutor Condones Lynching; Calls Hanging of Two Negroes at Columbus ‘Expression of People’s Will.’” New York Times, 14 November 1935.
“Texas Whites Lynch Negro; Drag Wounded Man From Hospital and Lynch Him On Cotton Gin.” The New York Age, 18 July 1942.