Clifford Odets 1906-1963
Odets was one of the most prominent American playwrights of the 1930s. His first significant play, the one-act "Waiting for Lefty," with its leftist philosophy and powerful, realistic conflicts, was an immediate sensation when it was produced in 1935. Telling the story of a taxi drivers' union that is preparing to take a strike vote, "Waiting for Lefty," like many of Odets' other plays, depicts the search by working-class characters for a place in modern society. His works have sometimes been narrowly defined as mere "agitprop"—agitation-propaganda—plays, but Odets sought to move beyond the confines of political writing to address such issues as love, family, and personal integrity. Today, Odets' plays retain a historical significance for their depictions of American life after the Great Depression.
Odets was born in Philadelphia to Louis J. Odets and Pearl Geisinger Odets, and he grew up in a Jewish section of the Bronx in New York. His middle-class family had a prosperous business in the 1920s and was financially secure during the Depression. Odets quit high school and pursued poetry writing for a time, earning his father's anger and disappointment. When he decided to become a stage actor, his parents gave their qualified approval. He joined an amateur company and from 1925 to 1927 performed in radio plays, vaudeville acts, and summer stock productions. In 1930 he joined the Group Theatre. Founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasburg, the Group Theatre was intended to be a training program in which a unified acting method would forge the actors into a single organism. Furthermore, it was seen as an idealistic collective that would attempt to change society through the onstage presentation of politically activist views. Odets gained little recognition in the organization as an actor, but when the company began staging his plays, it achieved some of its most notable early successes. In 1935 four of Odets' plays were produced: "Waiting for Lefty" and the short play "Till the Day I Die" presented in a double bill, followed by the critically acclaimed Awake and Sing! and the critically attacked Paradise Lost. After the failure of this last play, Odets accepted a position as a scriptwriter for Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Refuting charges that he was "selling out," he contended that he could improve his craft and also help finance the Group Theatre. He returned to the Group Theatre in 1937 for the production of his next play, Golden Boy. This became the greatest commercial success of Odets' career. Following the failure of Odets' 1941 play, Clash by Night, the Group Theatre disbanded, and Odets returned to Hollywood. Although he continued to work in the theater, and had another success with The Country Girl in 1950, his most acclaimed later works were the scripts for such films as None but the Lonely Heart and Humoresque. Odets often spoke disparagingly of his film work, but he remained in Hollywood until his death.
Odets' career as a playwright is often divided by critics into three phases. The first and most important of these encompasses Odets' efforts as a proletarian dramatist. Odets joined the Communist Party in 1934, and "Waiting for Lefty," Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost were all written during his brief association with that group. These plays confirm leftist principles while declaring archaic the values of middle-class America. "Lefty" is so structured that the personal problems of the characters reflect the conflict between the labor union and the taxi company. Awake and Sing! examines the aspirations of a Jewish working-class family that has become disillusioned by an oppressive economic system. In Paradise Lost a middle-class businessman and his family are destroyed by a series of disasters. Each character in this play represents a particular middle-class value, and the catastrophes that befall them symbolize the fall of these values during the 1930s. The second phase of Odets' career includes plays involving personal relationships rather than direct social criticism. Golden Boy portrays the quest for success and the tragedies suffered as a result of faulty decisions and changes in values. The other plays in this group, Rocket to the Moon, Night Music, and Clash by Night, are love stories that focus more on plot and dialogue than on characterization and social commentary. The final phase of Odets' career comprises semi-autobiographical dramas with psychological overtones. Social commentary is nearly nonexistent in these late works. In The Big Knife a movie actor is offered a multimillion-dollar contract but wants to escape the corruption of the film industry and return to the New York stage. The Country Girl is about an alcoholic actor who attempts a comeback on Broadway with the help of his wife, on whom he is totally dependent. Odets' last play, The Flowering Peach, is adaptation of the biblical story of Noah. It is unusual in Odets' work for combining elements of comedy, philosophy, and theology.
By the end of 1935, Odets' impressive first year as a playwright, many critics were praising him as a genius who spoke for the American people. Later critics, however, considered Odets' early works propagandistic, with stereotypical characters and obvious messages. Recently, though, critics have begun to reappraise his plays, especially Awake and Sing! and The Flowering Peach. Odets' work is now appreciated for its moving dialogue and the author's belief in the nobility of humanity. The protagonists of Odets' plays are noted for their ceaseless battles to maintain their individuality despite pressure from the conformist forces of society. Odets has also been seen from a historical perspective as a skilled theatrical craftsman who captured the mood and spirit of a particular moment in the American experience.
"Waiting for Lefty" 1935
"Till the Day I Die" 1935
Awake and Sing! 1935
Paradise Lost 1935
The Silent Partner 1936
Golden Boy 1937
Rocket to the Moon 1938
Night Music 1940
Clash by Night 1941
The Russian People [adaptor; from a play by Konstantin Simonov] 1942
The Big Knife 1949
The Country Girl 1950
The Flowering Peach 1954
Golden Boy, the Musical [with William Gibson] 1964
The General Died at Dawn 1936
None but the Lonely Heart [adaptor; from a novel by Richard Llewellyn] 1944
Deadline at Dawn [adaptor; from a novel by William Irish] 1945
Humoresque [adaptor with Zachary Gold; from a novel by Fannie Hurst] 1945
The Sweet Smell of Success [adaptor with Ernest Lehman; from a short story by Lehman] 1957
The Story on Page One 1959
Wild in the Country 1960
Some Problems of the Modern Dramatist (1935)
SOURCE: The New York Times, 15 December 1935, Section II, p. 1
[In the following article, Odets defends his technique of constructing plays without plots.]
No one will deny that all over the world today life is changing for better or worse for millions of human beings. Such changes have taken place before in history; and in each place where it has happened life has been a hell for the artist trying to express that time.
For as the established social order breaks down, the same process is working out in the artist's forms. Blithely, and with great talent, Mozart is able to spill twoscore or so symphonies on paper. Beethoven, a few years later, in a period of social flux, is able to write only nine, which means that the symphonic form was sufficiently stabilized for Mozart to keep minting out coins from the same mold, while his distinguished pupil had to make a new mold for each of his gold pieces.
Beethoven was caught in a period when society was slowly and surely swinging upward to what is now known as an individualistic society. Today that society is changing to something else. The serious artist—large or small talent—is finding again that the old forms fail him. He must make his own molds. Which brings us to the question of the "well-made three-act play."
Even a cursory examination of various American dramatists' work shows serious craft problems. It is easy to see that for them the slick synthetic plot play is an out-moded form. (The fourth act has long since been delivered to the ash heap.) And even where the three-act form is retained "third act trouble" is general instead of exceptional. Which means, in the final analysis, form not fitted to content. In what size and color pill to wrap the bitter tonic is one of the burning issues of the day.
By the time I came to write my first play, Awake and Sing! I understood clearly that my interest was not in the presentation of an individual's problems, but in those of a whole class. In other words, the task was to find a theatrical form with which to express the mass as hero.
In "Waiting for Lefty" this task was simplified for the reason that the dramatic conflicts and life lines of its people were all simple and direct. In each case the characters knew what enemy they were facing, what they wanted, some way to get it or the promise of it! A football game with two teams in the field. All of which makes plot elements!
In Paradise Lost the task was not so simple, the solution more complex. Here the hero is not the worker with conflicts cleared to the fighting point, the enemy visible, palpable. The hero in Paradise Lost is the entire American middle class of liberal tendency. The enemy is un-seen, nameless, but constant and deadly. A football game with one team on the field.
Here the characters are bewildered. The best laid plans go wrong. The sweetest human impulses are frustrated. No one lives a normal happy life here, and every decent tendency finds its complement in sterility and futility. Finally, these people find themselves "shadow boxing," as the director puts it, to the actors.
To write a slick three-act plot play about this slice of American society would be a lie from the start. For the truth is that at present their lives have no beginning, no middle, no end, no solution—all necessary for plot and story. They exist in time and space, with aspiration, to be sure, but no forward movement.
The pathetic Gus of Paradise Lost says it well when he says, "The way I see it, there's two kinds of men—the real one and the dream. We're just the dream." He is correct. He and his friends live a life of little volition, a sort of underwater life where the light is dim and physical contacts are cushioned and a little fantastic.
Meyerhold once said of Chekhov's characters, "They are not realistic portrayals, but like the reflections of people that one sees in water—wavering, fanciful." And the final truth is that Chekhov's people are not imaginative characters, but spring from the social impasse around him. His art caught and fixed them forever between several curtains—them and a whole era. And he knew that to imprison them in plots would be to do violence to the deepest truths of their lives and social backgrounds.
O'Casey in the bulk of his plays knows the same thing about his people. However, he does not share the social clarity of Chekhov, but seems to suppose—if we may judge from the lack of conclusions and explanations in his works—that brutality and degradation is rained upon people from the sky.
Our confused middle class today—which dares little—is dangerously similar to Chekhov's people. Which is why the people in Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost (particularly the latter) have what is called a "Chekhovian quality." Which is why it is sinful to violate their lives and aspirations with plot lines.
Plots are primer stuff, easily learned. Since the whole truth must be told, the most difficult problem is to avoid gratifying situations and stories. These people of our bourgeois American life must be treated with more dignity and heart than the banality of a clicking plot! They are too large in their reality and implication to be narrowed down to "the desire," the near satisfaction, the obstacle, the desire fulfilled!
Excuse us if we insist upon life brought to the stage instead of the stage brought to life! Excuse us if we do not accept the dictum that any deviation from Ibsen and the Pinero form is a deadly sin. Excuse us for not showing the gun in the first act, because it will later be used in the second. Excuse us for our neglect of a thousand tawdry theatre tricks which make primer plays and quick profits.
But please allow us to continue to respect the men and women all around us and make the theatre serve an earnest examination of their lives and backgrounds. In interesting new theatrical forms. With poetic conceptions. With character understanding. With fresh dialogue. With love.
How a Playwright Triumphs (1961)
SOURCE: Harper's, Vol. 233, No. 1396, September 1966, pp. 64-70, 73-4.
[In the excerpt below, Odets recalls the excitement and difficulties of his involvement with the Group Theatre and recounts the first performance of "Waiting for Lefty." This article was derived from an interview Odets gave in 1961, two years before his death.]
I had always wanted as a kid to be both an actor and a writer. For a while I thought I would be a novelist, but when I became a professional actor, my mind naturally began to take the form of the play as a means of saying something. I wasn't sure I had anything to say, because some of the other things I wrote were quite dismal. But being an actor, I began to think in terms of three acts, divisions of acts, and scenes within the acts, and whatever technique I have has been unconsciously absorbed—almost through my skin—with all the kinds of acting I have done.
Before Awake and Sing! I wrote a whole very bad novel and a few short stories, all of which I later tore up. The question is really not one of knowing how to write so much as knowing how to connect with yourself so that the writing is, so to speak, born affiliated with yourself. Anybody can teach the craft of play writing, just as I can teach myself how to make a blueprint and construct a house, on paper. But what cannot be taught, and what I was fortunate in discovering, was simply being myself, with my own problems and my own relationships to life.
Without the Group Theatre I doubt that I would have become a playwright. I might have become some other kind of writer, but the Group Theatre and the so-called "method" forced you to face yourself and really function out of the kind of person you are, not as you thought the person had to function, or as another kind of person, but simply using your own materials. The whole "method" acting technique is based on that. Well, after attempting to write for eight or ten years, I finally started a short story that made me really understand what writing was about in the sense of personal affiliation to the material.
I was holed up in a cheap hotel, in a kind of fit of depression, and I wrote about a young kid violinist who didn't have his violin because the hotel owner had appropriated it for unpaid bills. He looked back and remembered his mother and his hard-working sister, and although I was not that kid and didn't have that kind of mother or sister, I did fill the skin and the outline with my own personal feeling, and for the first time I realized what creative writing was.
A playwright who writes about things that he is not connected with, or to, is not a creative writer. He may be a very skilled writer, and it may be on a very high level of craft, but he's not going to be what I call an artist, a poet. We...
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Overviews And General Studies
Michael J. Mendelsohn (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "Clifford Odets: The Artist's Commitment," in Literature and Society, edited by Bernice Slote, University of Nebraska Press, 1964, pp. 142-52.
[The following was originally presented as a conference paper in 1963. Mendelsohn views Odets' social and personal beliefs in the context of his early plays.]
Early in Clifford Odets' 1949 melodrama, The Big Knife, the central character recalls something significant about his youth:
My uncle's books—for that neighborhood—I'll bet he had a thousand! He had a nose for the rebels—London, Upton...
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Awake And Sing!
Stark Young (review date 13 March 1935)
SOURCE: "Awake and Whistle at Least," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXII, No. 1058, 13 March 1935, p. 134.
[In the following, Young offers a mixed review of Awake and Sing!, judging it a "workaday drama."]
There are a number of pertinent things to be said of the Group Theatre's last production. It is, in the first place, a piece written by a member of the Group itself; and that is a notable point. The direction was under Mr. Harold Clurman, one of the heads of the Group, and it was good directing in general, intelligent, full of a stage sense, and...
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"Waiting For Lefty
"WAITING FOR LEFTY
The Literary Digest (review date 6 April 1935)
SOURCE: "An Exciting Dramatist Rises in the Theater," in The Literary Digest, 6 April 1935, p. 18.
[In the following, the anonymous critic gives the dual bill of "Till the Day I Die" and "Waiting for Lefty" a favorable reception.]
In less than ninety days, toiling with the unrest of his times as a central theme, a young actor in the New York theater, a young actor who was competent, but never performance-material to make the heavens sing in praise of him, has become the most exciting spokesman the world of...
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Joseph Wood Krutch (review date 13 November 1937)
SOURCE: A Review of Golden Boy, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 145, No. 20, 13 November 1937, p. 540.
[In the following review, Krutch states: "There are moments when Golden Boy seems near to greatness; there are others when it trembles on the edge of merely strident melodrama. "]
In Golden Boy Clifford Odets has written what is certainly his best play since Awake and Sing. To say this is to say that the piece exhibits unmistakable power and genuine originality, even though it is not, unfortunately, to deny that...
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Demastes, William W. Clifford Odets: A Research and Production Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, 209 p.
Offers exhaustive lists of works by and about Odets as well as thorough descriptions of each play, including characters, plot summary, and critical overview for each.
Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets: American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940. New York: Atheneum, 1981, 749 p.
Focuses on Odets' psychological characteristics, pro viding insight into the person behind the plays.
Mendelsohn, Michael J. Clifford Odets: Humane...
(The entire section is 1094 words.)