Study Guide

Clifford Odets

Clifford Odets Essay - Odets, Clifford (Vol. 2)

Odets, Clifford (Vol. 2)

Odets, Clifford 1906–1963

Odets, an American proletarian playwright who came to prominence in the 1930's, is best known for Waiting for Lefty.

[Clifford] Odets has never lost his talent for writing a good play. His ability to capture the cadences of contemporary speech and to reproduce them with poetic as well as social impact has made him worthy of a position of honor in American drama. But beyond this, Odets has consistently shown a profound respect for and understanding of human dignity. He may write of social forces from a somewhat negative point of view, but even his unsympathetic characters are written of from a more or less positive point of view. (p. 8)

Odets' basic concern has been more with causes than with effects or with remedies. He views his obligation as a writer as being more social than artistic…. During a decade when the proletariat was attempting to find an answer to the problems which the Depression inflicted upon it, Odets was aflame with indignation at the plight of men who had lost their self-respect and self-confidence. He transformed this indignation into a sound dramatic presentation in Waiting for Lefty, and later in such plays as Awake and Sing!, Golden Boy, and Paradise Lost. And while the angle of his vision was somewhat altered in such later productions as The Country Girl and The Big Knife, his concern was still with men who had lost self-respect and self-confidence and he was still desirous that lives should not be "… nullified by circumstances, false values." (p. 41)

Waiting for Lefty is undoubtedly the most angry play which Clifford Odets has ever had produced. In this play he uses the interesting technique of spotlighting individuals in the mass and of permitting the basic conflict to evolve through their separate stories; hence, in effect, each scene is a small play unto itself with its own development and climax, and each of these small plays contributes to the total play and to its climax…. In Waiting for Lefty, Odets is a righteously indignant man, speaking in his most stentorian tones, writing an angry social document, the product of youth and vigor. The play is one-sided in its outlook and is often questionable in terms of its logic; but in 1935 it spoke with a force which few playwrights have ever been able to attain and which Odets, as he became more artistically aware, was never to attain again. (pp. 44-55)

Throughout the plays, Odets writes with a reverence for human beings and with a deep concern for their problems. He is not condemnatory even of the unsympathetic characters in his plays, so much as he is of the social institutions which have forced men to compromise with their ideals in order to survive. (p. 89)

Odets has constantly asserted in his plays the idea that society cannot function adequately unless all men have the opportunity to gain financial independence in a way which does not force them to make a compromise with their ideals. (p. 146)

It is perhaps too early to indicate Odets' position in the history of American drama. It seems evident that he is not of the stature of Eugene O'Neill; however, he may well be called the most significant of the specifically proletarian playwrights of the 1930's. His poetic use of language, his accurate capturing and reproduction of the vernacular, as well as his keen understanding of human motivation, have led the way to such modern playwrights as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote. It would not seem extravagant to state that the name Clifford Odets is firmly fixed and importantly placed in the drama of twentieth-century America. (p. 148)

R. Baird Shuman, in his Clifford Odets, Twayne, 1962.

Waiting for Lefty owes debts to agitprops and expressionism and, as Odets himself pointed out, black-face minstrel shows, but the majority of its characters are recognizably human in their fears and longings, while none is as blatantly allegorical as Julie in Paradise Lost, who symbolizes a dying capitalist society. But all the characters of the plays under discussion have at least a surface realism. Also, Odets' dramas are formally conservative; like the best-known plays of O'Casey, his earliest plays still show the influence of the pre-expressionistic melodrama of the nineteenth century. When Myron in Awake and Sing! is told of the pregnancy of his unmarried daughter Hennie, he announces: "It's like a play on the stage"—but it is not a play Odets' audience would consider eccentric or unrealistic….

The union-meeting framework of Waiting for Lefty does enclose vignettes of private life and professional distress, but the role assigned to popular culture is minimal here. The discrepancy between illusion and reality, the shared mythic experience of a family, is not Odets' concern on this occasion as it is in Awake and Sing! Instead he points to the blocking of decent human relations and ambitions as sufficient reason for industrial action by the workers….

The achievement of the early plays remains. Gilbert Seldes has complained that the popular arts in America reflect the practices and mythology of capitalism, not the ethics and aspirations of democracy. Odets' feat in those early dramas was to articulate the "ethics and aspirations" of the lower middle classes ironically through the materialism-and-happiness "mythology of capitalism."

Ralph Willett, "Clifford Odets and Popular Culture," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1970 by the Duke University Press), Winter, 1970, pp. 68-78.

No one conveys better than Odets the poignancy of a man who finds that the center of power in his own home is his wife, whose biological authority as a mother cannot be abrogated. One is aware in Awake and Sing of the wolf outside the door, the Great Depression, but one is moved by all the gnawed bones of hope, fear and desire that lie piled up within.

"Life at the Boiling Point," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1970 by Time Inc.), June 8, 1970, p. 76.

Clifford Odets was one of those writers—Wolfe is perhaps the classic example, Lawrence in his moister and more inflamed passages another: the long list contains the wreckage of our youth—who stormed the vulnerable young with a far greater impact than far better writers, including great ones; and whom later, when the fevers had receded, one couldn't go back to on a dare. More than the others. Odets was a writer (for me and my friends the writer) of a special time and place and mood (the Thirties, the City, and what we may now but couldn't then call Radical Apocalyptic), when he seemed at the very least the American Chekhov, the exemplum and vindication of socialist aesthetics, voice and tribune of The People (a much-battered term then as now), that voice through him risen to sheerest eloquence, never more so than when it seemed most tortured by—indeed most lyrically proclaimed—its inability to articulate its deepest sentiments and dreams; the voice, in fact, which seemed to us the literary embodiment of the Future itself….

Breaking out of the Bronx, which is a continent away from Manhattan, was a motive-force in our lives, as it is in his plays; and for me he was the writer who, when the walls of the tenement seemed to enclose the knowable world, sang of a world elsewhere though he couldn't imagine or by his acts live it; who composed a hopped-up language for our discontents, and then spent the rest of his life writing about promises betrayed and redemption still hoped for.

Saul Maloff, "Stormbird of the Working Class," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 3, 1971, pp. 226-29.

What a hairy, solemn, trudging, and trumpeting workhorse of a play Clifford Odets' "The Country Girl" is! It tries so hard, and even when it stumbles it stumbles straight forward, like a beast on a treadmill, without choice. Difficult to believe that a play so old-fashioned in form, attitude, and language could have been written as late as 1950; it is in nearly every respect a specimen of Edwardian craftsmanship, coarsened and loosened and crammed full of notions of good theatre that would have been the discarded finger exercises of a Clyde Fitch. The fact is that Odets has always been an absurdly overpraised playwright, and it is odd, looking back over his career, to recall the wringing of hands that took place when he seemed to abandon a lofty purpose on Broadway for the fleshpots of Hollywood; the dream factory was his proper milieu, and if he did not prosper there as an artist it is because there was little of the artist in him capable of prospering anywhere. His gift was to write on a level of pathos a scant notch or two above "The Jazz Singer"…. That ["The Country Girl"] got excellent reviews in 1950—to say nothing of 1972!—is in part because Odets' hand-me-down vulgarities of thought and expression have been regularly and most peculiarly forgiven on the ground that his heart was in the right place and his fustian so playable.

Brendan Gill, "Familiar Troubles," in The New Yorker, March 25, 1972, p. 106.

Clifford Odets, variously called the golden boy, the white hope, and the most promising writer of American drama between O'Neill and Williams, wrote plays which surged with the idiom, the idealism, and at times the indignation of the Jew in America. As the status of the Jew in America changed, as World War II brought about in the United States a new national unity, and as the melting pot phenomenon increasingly extended to the Jew as it had earlier to the masses of German, Italian, English, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants who had flooded the American east coast during the last half of the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century, Clifford Odets' plays came to be less notably Jewish in their depiction of the human condition….

The theme of loneliness, closely akin to the theme of homelessness, is prevalent in most of Odets' writing. Both of these themes were wholly appropriate to drama written during the great economic depression of the 1930's. However, in Odets' work these themes are also an integral part of the author's close cultural ties and direct blood ties to a people who were essentially homeless and unsettled. Odets was writing in the thirties about people who were bereft and homeless or who were faced directly with the immediate possibility of finding themselves in such a position….

Odets was essentially an impressionistic sort of writer; he was not scientifically precise in composing, but he had an intuitive sureness and a keenness of observation which resulted in his producing convincing plays in which the dialogue was usually natural and credible….

For him sentimentality could be a plus literary value, whereas for the New Critics and their followers, it has been anathema. It is the balance between sentimentality and the clear and sure objectification of subjective experiences that gave Odets' plays from Waiting for Lefty to The Flowering Peach much of their popular appeal. In plays like Clash by Night and Rocket to the Moon, this balance is not well achieved, and the plays are somewhat defective as a result.

Odets' espousal of causes, his brief membership in the Communist party, his long and fruitful membership in the Group Theatre, and his pervasive dramatic interest in collective social units—notably the family—rather than in individuals, are largely explicable in terms of his Jewish heritage…. As he moved toward his late productions, he was groping for new causes. America's entry into World War II effectively brought to a close the economic depression which had given Odets his first and most natural subject. His broad philosophical concerns and broad philosophical themes—loneliness, homelessness, nonfulfillment—appear consistently in most of his work. However, at the end of the war, Odets did not easily find topics which he could write convincingly about. The Big Knife (1948) and The Country Girl (1950) were relatively successful artistically, but lacked Odets' early verve….

[It] was not until The Flowering Peach that Odets seemed to find again the proper vehicle for what he wanted to say. This play, which very nearly won the author a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, was a mellow and hopeful play, representing the Jewish philosophy that "beyond hope and despair lies the desperate idea of hope." In drawing upon his cultural heritage of Jewish literature, Odets on this one occasion was able to broaden his philosophical and artistic sights, while at the same time carefully and calculatingly controlling his materials in such a way that he wrote a warm and witty play imbued with the firm hope of continuance.

R. Baird Shuman, "Clifford Odets: A Playwright and His Jewish Background," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1972 by the Duke University Press), Spring, 1972, pp. 225-33.

When Odets wrote The Country Girl … he wanted and needed a commercial success. He wrote the play with less spiritual energy than he had spent on the previous ones. But he was too creative a person to set aside the man he was, the subjective self. Aiming at an effective story with opportunities for histrionic virtuosity, he wrote a play as much about his inner self as the personally prophetic and successful Golden Boy or the rather muddled Big Knife….

The play's action is transparent; its "psychology" simple. What is essentially conveyed is that the deepest desire of such an artist as Elgin ("Odets") is the support of an immovably devoted, ever understanding and forbearing woman and the unshakable confidence of a fellow artist, to guide him in the pursuit of his profession. Such a person was what Odets in private called a "loyal witness."

There has always been something to me embarrassing in the sentimentality of the specifically theatrical facets of the play, its picture of stage life and "politics." But that is hardly important. The audience responds to the human interest of the story, which is real enough, and the play works to the degree that it is well acted.

Harold Clurman, in Nation, April 3, 1972, pp. 445-46.