Critics are beginning to reconsider the full body of Clifford Odets’s writing. Because he was initially viewed as a proletarian playwright, many critics expected him to write proletarian plays forever. When this expectation was not met, they were disappointed. The overt anger, vigor, and vitality of the early plays was lacking in the later ones, largely because a changing society had robbed Odets of the topic he was most effective in writing about, the exploitation of working-class people by capitalists.
Odets might have redirected his anger to other topics in the 1940’s and 1950’s—the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (by which he was personally affected), the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts, U.S. involvement in the Korean War, government waste, women’s rights, racial discrimination, and anti-Semitism. A number of contemporary playwrights have taken on such topics.
Had Odets followed such a course, his anger might not have been viewed as genuine. Odets had moved into a new socioeconomic sphere, but doing so did not preclude his writing important and meaningful plays. Critics argue that Odets did not do his most effective writing in Rocket to the Moon, Night Music, or Clash by Night. He wrote these plays during a period of considerable personal upheaval, but even in them, he shows considerable concern for working people.
A seven-year gap followed the production of Clash by Night. During this time, Odets continued to write for Hollywood film companies, but many of his scripts were shelved. His disenchantment with the film industry grew and finally found expression in 1949 with the production of The Big Knife (pr. 1949), a pointed indictment of some of the practices of film corporations.
Just as taxicab drivers had been exploited in Waiting for Lefty and a promising boxer-violinist had been exploited by commercial forces in Golden Boy, Charlie Castle is being exploited by a Hollywood studio pressuring him to sign a fourteen-year, four-million-dollar film contract. Charlie resists selling himself to the studios, but he then becomes responsible for a fatal hit-and-run automobile accident. The studio has finagled a deal for Buddy Bliss, Charlie’s publicist, to accept responsibility for tragedy. The bill for their corrupt involvement falls due: Charlie must sign with the studio or be outed and brought to justice.
Audiences and critics found it difficult to sympathize with someone whose problem was that he was being blackmailed into signing a contract that would bring him four million dollars. Charlie is not like the taxicab drivers in Lefty. He is, however, not unlike Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, and in indirect ways he bears a striking resemblance to the Clifford Odets who left the Group Theatre and, in his own eyes, sold out to Hollywood. Even though The Big Knife was not successful on stage in 1949, the play is well structured and filled with bristling dialogue. It appeared therapeutic for Odets to vent his feelings in such a play.
His next play, The Country Girl, despite a limited stage run in 1950, was successful as a film. The play marks a departure for Odets because it essentially has just two people in the cast, although there are minor characters in it as well. This action focuses on Frank Elgin, a down-and-out actor—an alcoholic who is being given one more chance to salvage himself and his career. His wife, Georgie, having assumed a maternal role in Frank’s life, vows to help him overcome his alcoholism and regain his status as an actor.
The play afforded actors two extremely challenging roles, one for Frank, who must come across as a weak character and deceptive, mendacious, and unsure of himself. In opposition to him is the long-suffering wife-mother whose marriage is about to collapse because of Frank’s problem but who makes one final, monumental effort to redeem him. Odets succeeded in building such incredible tensions between his two major characters that the action throughout remains taut almost to the breaking point. In that respect, the play is masterful.
In the last of Odets’s plays, The Flowering Peach, produced and published in 1954, the author returns to the kinds of roots that made Awake and Sing! the hit it was in 1935. The Flowering Peach is Odets’s version of the parable of Noah and the Ark. Noah and his family bear a resemblance to the three generations living in Bessie Berger’s respectable household. The kind of gentle wit one finds in Awake and Sing! is repeated by a Noah whose son Japheth is a confirmed skeptic and whose son Ham is a materialist with an eye to making business even as the world teeters on the brink of destruction. The Yiddish American vernacular in this last Odets play marks a welcome return to the authentic dialogue that characterizes plays such as Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost.
One finds definite influences from the Group Theatre in many of Odets’s plays. Because the Group discouraged the star system that such organizations as the Theater Guild promoted, its directors—Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman—favored ensemble plays in which six or eight characters play roughly equivalent parts. Odets certainly had this preference in mind when he wrote Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost, and he returns to it in his final production, The Flowering Peach.
Waiting for Lefty
First produced: 1935 (first published, 1935)
Type of work: Play
In discrete vignettes, six taxicab drivers tell their stories and consider how to protect their interests.
In Waiting for Lefty, Odets captures fully the folk idiom of the six people on whom his play focuses. Each is a taxicab driver....
(The entire section is 2430 words.)