Odets, Clifford (Vol. 28)
Clifford Odets 1906–1963
American dramatist, scriptwriter, and director.
Odets was among the most prominent American playwrights of the 1930s. His play Waiting for Lefty, about a taxi drivers' union that is preparing to take a strike vote, became an immediate sensation when first produced in 1935 for its leftist philosophy and its powerful, realistic conflicts. As in many of his plays, Lefty depicts the search by working-class characters for a place in modern society. Although Odets never repeated the critical success of Waiting for Lefty, his best plays have historical significance for their portrayal of American life after the Great Depression.
Odets began his career as an actor and joined the Group Theatre in 1930. Founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the Group Theatre was intended to be both a training ground for actors and an idealistic collective which would attempt to change society through the onstage presentation of alternative values. Odets gained little recognition in the organization as an actor, but his first play, Waiting for Lefty, became a huge success, appearing on Broadway and in many cities across the United States. Awake and Sing!, also produced in 1935, was also very popular, and is seen in retrospect by many critics as a more important play than Waiting for Lefty. Awake and Sing! was the last of Odets's early critical and commercial triumphs. His next full-length play, Paradise Lost (1935), was attacked by many critics who found fault with his stock characters and the optimistic closing speech, for which there seemed to be little justification. After the failure of Paradise Lost, Odets accepted an offer from Paramount Studios as a scriptwriter. Refuting charges that he was "selling out," Odets contended that he could improve his craft and also help finance the Group Theatre. He returned to the Group Theatre in 1937 after seeing only one of his scripts produced. Golden Boy (1937), Odets's next play, became the greatest commercial success of his career. The story of a young man trying to decide between careers as a violinist or a boxer, Golden Boy is generally regarded as Odets's most thoughtful and humanistic drama. Many of his later plays involve love relationships and were faulted for their lack of structural unity and social concern. Following the failure of Odets's play Clash by Night in 1941, the Group Theatre disbanded, and Odets returned to Hollywood. Although he continued to work in the theater, and found commercial success with The Country Girl (1950), his most acclaimed later works were the scripts for such films as None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and Humoresque (1946). Odets often spoke disparagingly of his film work, but he remained in Hollywood until his death.
Odets's career as a playwright is seen by many critics to fall into three distinct phases. The first and most important phase encompasses Odets's efforts as a proletarian dramatist. Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost are all placed in this category. Odets structured Lefty so that the personal problems of the characters reflect the conflict between the union and the taxi company. Awake and Sing! examines the aspirations of a Jewish working-class family who has become disillusioned by an oppressive economic system. In Paradise Lost, a respectable middle-class businessman and his family are destroyed by a series of disasters. Each of the characters in this play represents a particular middle-class value, and the catastrophes that befall them symbolize the fall of these values during the 1930s. Odets had joined the Communist party during 1934 and wrote most of his early plays during this brief association; it is obvious that through his art he was confirming leftist principles while declaring archaic the values of middle-class America.
The second phase of Odets's 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. Rocket to the Moon (1938), Night Music (1940), and Clash by Night (1941) are love stories that focus more on plot and dialogue than on characterization and social commentary. These three plays were among Odets's least effective works. The final phase of Odets's career comprises semi-autobiographical dramas with psychological overtones. In The Big Knife (1949), a movie actor has been 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, perhaps the most psychological of Odets's plays, is the story of an alcoholic actor who attempts a comeback on Broadway with the help of his wife, on whom he is emotionally dependent. Odets's last play, The Flowering Peach (1954), is an adaptation of the biblical Noah legend. The play is uncharacteristic of Odets's work, for it combines elements of comedy, philosophy, and theology. Social commentary is nearly nonexistent in these late plays; the only work with a critical concern is The Big Knife, which attacks the film industry with unrelenting anger. However, critics find these plays superior to Odets's love stories because of their intriguing characters and suspenseful scenarios.
By the end of 1935, Odets's impressive first year as a playwright, many critics were praising him as a genius who spoke for the American people. However, even Odets's best plays are not held in such high regard today. His early works are considered simplistic propaganda, with stereotypical characters and obvious messages. Nevertheless, Odets's work is still appreciated for its moving dialogue and his belief in the nobility of humankind. His protagonists perpetually battle to maintain their individuality despite pressure from the conformist forces of society. Odets can be seen from a historical perspective as a skilled craftsman who, according to Allan Lewis, "rose splendidly as the playwright most able to dramatize an injured nation in need of hope and unity."
(See also CLC, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 26.)
Joseph Wood Krutch
The pace [of "Waiting for Lefty"] is swift, the characterization is for the most part crisp, and the points are made, one after another, with bold simplicity. What Mr. Odets is trying to do could hardly be done more economically or effectively.
Cold analysis, to be sure, clearly reveals the fact that such simplicity must be paid for at a certain price. The villains are mere caricatures and even the very human heroes occasionally freeze into stained-glass attitudes, as, for example, a certain lady secretary in one of the flashbacks does when she suddenly stops in her tracks to pay a glowing tribute to "The Communist Manifesto" and to urge its perusal upon all and sundry. No one, however, expects subtleties from a soap-box, and the interesting fact is that Mr. Odets has invented a form which turns out to be a very effective dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory. (pp. 427-28)
[Mr. Odets] has made a clean sweep of the conventional form along with the conventional intentions. He boldly accepts as his scene the very platform he intends to use, and from it permits his characters to deliver speeches which are far more convincing there than they would be if elaborately worked into a conventional dramatic story. Like many of his fellows he has evidently decided that art is a weapon, but unlike many who proclaim the doctrine, he has the full courage of his conviction. To others he leaves the somewhat nervous determination to...
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As an active figure, conducive to sweat, clapping and partisanship, Mr. Odets may be in a short time an impressive dramatist. Already, without appearing to be middle-class and stupid, he gives the impression of convictions. And he does not give the impression of grabbing any movement or cause for its stage exploitation and jabber. I still say, I repeat, that, though to a much less degree in "Till the Day I Die" and "Waiting for Lefty" than in "Awake and Sing," he needs to establish the plane, indicate the measure, of his various motivations. Taking any of his situations, there is still room for a more important interpretation. The line of living, after the jungle has been superseded and left, is not so simple as in many of the speeches it may seem to be. To take a good example, we find one of Mr. Odets' characters speaking of an aged Jewish father, a man who has read Spinoza all his life—and look what they have done to him! It would be a more profound art in Mr. Odets—I am one who believes he will come to it (and this review is written for him)—if he showed us this character, too, this Spinoza-read old man. In sum it would better convince us of the motif intended if he created this spiritual aspect against which the material tides of circumstance beat so disastrously. In sum, we should have a greater and more significant range in character creation if we saw two men between whom there is not only the force of capitalism but also of Spinoza....
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In ["Awake and Sing"] Mr. Odets showed a keen sense of dramatic values and for a young playwright an unusual mastery of theatrical technique; but far more important than these, the ability to visualize and project living men and women by means of significant action, and vivid, realistic, pungent dialogue. The characters of "Awake and Sing" were entirely Jewish, and Mr. Odets was evidently working in a milieu and in a spirit which he thoroughly understood. That Mr. Odets is a radical, even perhaps a Communist, might have been gathered from the play, not so much by what was definitely spoken, but what was implicit. Neither his sense of character nor his telling of the story were hobbled by the intrusion of the author speaking in his own person. And this was good art. In the two one-act plays which the Group Theatre has now presented ["Till the Day I Die" and "Waiting for Lefty"], Mr. Odets is unfortunately no longer the artist, but frankly the propagandist, and the result is far less satisfying. Moreover in these plays the characters are primarily non-Jewish, and Mr. Odets gives to them no such sense of verity either in action or dialogue as he displayed in "Awake and Sing". Indignation and intensity may be admirable things in the drama, but only when they are held in check; if they are left to run wild they destroy verity of character and of theme, leaving the figures of the play mere puppets, devoid of their own life, and existing only in the heated...
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Joseph Wood Krutch
Clifford Odets was given every encouragement to let himself go. Unfortunately he chose to be as little critical of his work as his admirers had been, and the result is simply that his latest play seems like nothing so much as an improbable burlesque of "Awake and Sing." Apparently the idea was that if a play about a somewhat neurotic family in the Bronx was good, then a play about a madhouse similarly located would be very much better. And if this theory is accepted, then "Paradise Lost" … must certainly mark the uttermost reach of the author's genius.
Never in the course of more than a decade of persistent theatergoing have I seen quite so much of madness and woe, or quite such a rich variety of sins, felonies, and other torts, legal and moral, crowded into one evening….
If one knew nothing of the author one might assume that the play was an unsuccessful attempt at the pure macabre, but in a statement issued to the press Mr. Odets warned all concerned that he was about to present them with a picture of the state of the middle class today, and we are left with the necessity of assuming that he asks us to believe his picture in some sense typical. Surely, if it were, even the solid foundations of the Bronx would not be standing this morning….
My own faith in the reality of Mr. Odets's talents is sufficiently firm to make me quite sure that only the force of some strong delusion could make him...
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Edith J. R. Isaacs
Paradise Lost is not a great play, as the Group thinks it is. But it is without doubt an important play because in material and method it marks the fresh, swift advance of a young dramatist who not only thinks and feels deeply but whose writing talents are essentially and in an unusual degree theatre talents: the power to state a situation in terms of its most dramatic elements, to observe and define character, to write active dialogue, to conquer attention.
Paradise Lost, so far as one can interpret Mr. Odets through the play and through what he has said about it in print, aims to be the story of the disintegration of the middle-class liberals in America under the capitalist system, and their hope of redemption through a new social system. This is almost exactly the theme of Awake and Sing, except that in the earlier play Mr. Odets chose a family in the Bronx as his protagonist, and tried to prove his thesis from his type. In Paradise Lost he has broadened his canvas 'to find a theatrical form with which to express the mass as hero'. (pp. 94-5)
It is good, in these cowardly days when old men are afraid to think freely, to see a young man boldly hitting out for a new paradise, convinced not only that he knows what is wrong and why, but that he can, quite surely, put us all on the real right road out of a world's unrighteousness that tortures him. 'Take it from me,' he seems to say; and...
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After having been led, by the explicitly formulated objections of some dissenters, to expect that I would dislike Odets' "Paradise Lost," I finally went to see it, and liked it enormously…. And though I had in the past complained against propagandists who compromised their cause by the depiction of people not worth saving, and had been led to believe that Odets transgressed on this score, I found on the contrary that the characters, for all their ills, possessed the ingredients of humanity necessary for making us sympathetic to their disasters. To me there was nothing arbitrary about the prophetic rebirth in Leo's final speech. And as I had witnessed, not pedestrian realism, but the idealizations of an expert stylist, I carried away something of the exhilaration that good art gives us when, by the ingratiations of style, it enables us to contemplate even abhorrent things with calmness.
The opportunity to examine the play in print has even heightened my admiration, by revealing the subtlety, complexity and depths of the internal adjustments. For all his conscious symbolism, the author has not merely pieced together a modern allegory. His work seems to embody ritualistic processes that he himself was not specifically concerned with….
At the close of Act I, as the characters listen to Pearl playing the piano upstairs, Gus says: "And when the last day comes—by ice or fire—she'll be up there playin' away." I...
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Joseph Wood Krutch
[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 there is still in his work something which suggests imperfect mastery of a form he will probably have to invent for himself if he is ever to become completely articulate. There are moments when "Golden Boy" seems near to greatness; there are others when it trembles on the edge of merely strident melodrama.
Ostensibly the play deals with the career of a young Italian boy who abandons the fiddle for the prize ring because "you can't pay people back with music," and because he wants the money which will make him forget an embittered youth. Actually the theme is the same as the theme of "Awake and Sing," and the power which Odets exhibits is again the power to suggest the lonely agony of souls imprisoned in their own private hells of frustrated desire and inarticulate hate. No one that I know can more powerfully suggest the essential loneliness of men and women, their inability to explain the varied forms assumed by the symbols of their desire, and the powerlessness of any one of them to help the other. His dialogue is often brilliantly suggestive, especially when he puts it into the mouths of ignorant or uncultivated people; even the vulgarest of his villains rises to the dignity of the tortured; and...
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It seems to me the first thing about Mr. Odets' new play ["Golden Boy"] that we should mention is a certain quality in the dialogue. He has a sense of character drawing that exhibits the courage of outline. An unusual number of the characters in "Golden Boy" are set beside one another with the right bold theatre instinct, a perception of the fact, unknown to most playwrights nowadays, that character in fiction and character on the stage are two very different matters—see the fuzzy nonsense in most British plays that come to Broadway. He has an intuition of emotional impacts that make real theatre instead of mere description. The story in "Golden Boy" wanders for a few moments at the start but goes straight on after that. The number of motifs in personality, reactions, inheritance, hurts, secrecies, hopes, happiness, fate, bodily conditions, and so forth may seem crowded in at times, to lack a steady, or mature, distribution and proportion; but the direction is a good one nevertheless, it makes for abundance, it interweaves elements that promise a living fabric. His conception of the scenes, where to emphasize, where bring down the curtain, has grown neater and sharper. And the insistence, more or less adolescent, that once threw things in our faces is warmed now into both better persuasion and better taste.
The point I wanted to stress as where his theatre gift most appears is in the dialogue's avoidance of the explicit. The...
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Edith J. R. Isaacs
[Even] in Golden Boy, which is far and away better theatre fare than any other Odets play, he is still the most personal of all playwrights, still speaking for himself and listening to himself as he speaks. He is still recording rather than creating, still not quite dramatically mature, with all of his faults as plain to see in his playwriting as white figures on a blackboard. But he has vigor, a mental and spiritual pressure of ideas against his material which does not let his story down, and he is acquiring a sure sense of form. He has, moreover, that gift of rhythmic speech which is the mark of the more-than-one-play author, a gift which most little boys on any street corner possess, and which grown men seem somehow unhappily to lose before they put their pens to the pages of a play.
This gift of speech Odets has not yet quite under control. To give it full value he must either set it free or discipline it more severely, or both. Many of the most authentic and spirited passages of his dialogue still sound like phrases carefully culled from a notebook carefully documented by a playwright with a fine ear. It is some of the lush, sentimental scenes in Golden Boy, overwritten but with a clear, crisp undertone, that show how well Odets will write when he once creates freely and allows his characters to speak out of their own mouths. (p. 12)
Golden Boy tells Joe Bonaparte's story concretely and...
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Joseph Wood Krutch
The tendency still persists to make of Clifford Odets and his plays a political issue. That, I think, is a pity from any point of view now that the facts are becoming increasingly clear. Whatever his opinions may have been or; for that matter, may still be, those opinions are shared by many, while Mr. Odets reveals a gift for characterization and a gift for incisive dialogue unapproached by any of his Marxian fellows and hardly equaled by any other American playwright.
"Rocket to the Moon" … carries him at least one step farther along the road he is traveling, and to my mind at least makes the best of the other new plays now current on Broadway seem pallid indeed. Certain crudities, though they are less conspicuous than those in any of his previous works, do remain. Moreover, the fable of "Rocket to the Moon," like that of both "Awake and Sing" and "Golden Boy," seems more powerful in conception than in development; so that as the story approaches its end the manipulation of events tends to become more nearly mechanical. Perhaps the play as a whole never rises above the level of its first act. But the personages are endowed with a life almost painfully intense, and the incisive thrusts of the dialogue follow one another relentlessly from the beginning to the end.
Reduced to an outline, the story may seem almost commonplace…. But no such outline can suggest either the solid reality of the characters or the insight...
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Stripped to the bone, Rocket to the Moon is a triangle play; the story of a kindly, thin-blooded, tired dentist … who has accepted life at prevailing odds, surrendered to routine, "gone to sleep." His bitter nagging wife and his sinister, mocking father-in-law … appreciate his goodness, yet cannot help taunting him. From a romantic young girl … in his office who is fighting to live, do, go somewhere, and who loves him, he gets sympathy. Suddenly he finds himself in love with her. But when the showdown comes, he stays with his wife: not only because of conscience or past ties, but because he is too weary to wrench himself out of the old life and cope with the high-powered demands of the new.
Odets does not encase this eternal situation in the snug, tight frame of the well-made Broadway "domestic drama." Heaving, racked, volcanic, the play belches the hot subterranean lava of its characters' anger, helplessness, pain. It draws back their skin to leave every nerve exposed. In its best scenes Rocket to the Moon is blisteringly real, its dialogue forks and spits like lightning from a scornful sky.
Like Awake and Sing!, like Paradise Lost, like confusion itself, the new play does not move in a straight line. In his social-minded plays Odets has drawn people who are confused because a materialistic society pulls them one way, their instincts another. But in Rocket to the Moon...
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In all that has been written about the plays of Clifford Odets it is odd that little attention has been paid to the fact that first and foremost these plays are Jewish, and that Mr. Odets himself is a direct descendant of those playwrights such as Gordon and Lubin who once made the Yiddish theatre in America so extraordinarily vital. What has been impressive in Mr. Odets's plays has not been their ideas, which are usually pretty confused, or their structure, which has been pretty melodramatic, but the fact that the characterizations and the dialogue have a bite and an originality of turn which set them apart from the somewhat pallid characters and dialogue of most modern plays. It is true that Mr. Odets's people often shout at the top of their lungs, that their emotion is unrestrained, and at times they utter appalling banalities with an air of owlish wisdom. But all in all their vitality, both emotional and intellectual, is a welcome relief equally from chatterers or sophisticated nothings and from people who are all hard-boiled surface, with no intelligence underneath. Mr. Odets's people are at once primitive and intelligent, and it is this antinomy which imparts to them their color and variety. Neither of these qualities are hurt by the fact that their emotion is not strong enough to conquer their intelligence nor their intelligence deep or keen enough to kill their emotion. It is this struggle of emotion with intelligence which is the basis of much...
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Mr. Odets' "Night Music" has been generally taken, in so far as I have read comments on it, as a sort of Manhattan "Boy Meets Girl," that Hollywood story, with its appealing jibe…. If Mr. Odets' play was taken this way, as a Manhattan idyll with et cetera trimmings, it is largely his own fault rather than the reviewers' stupidity, as some would have us believe.
It is Mr. Odets' fault for two reasons. First, there is the kind of wandering, seemingly casual, tangential quality in "Night Music" by which it meanders along, or seems superficially at least to do so, until at the last the Good Friend detective has—without beard or reindeer or stockings—brought the young man and the young woman to a cheerful mood, courage, sweetness, yes, and bright advance on the American future that they will share and help create. I hope I can manage to be clear at this point—to do so is difficult without the attendance at the performance assured and remembered or the full text spread out for one to read. A friendly comment tells us that the "play stems from the basic sentiment that people nowadays are affected by a sense of insecurity; they are haunted by the fear of impermanence in all their relationships; they are fundamentally homeless, and whether or not they know it, they are in search of a home, of something real, secure, dependable in a slippery, shadowy, noisy and nervous world."
This search for a home and a security...
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Hollywood has been generally blamed for Clifford Odets's failure to live up to the promise of "Awake and Sing" and "Waiting for Lefty." But the faults of "Clash by Night" aren't the faults of Hollywood; indeed, Mr. Odets might to advantage have borrowed more liberally from the movies' adroitness for plot mechanics and episodic elaboration, particularly in his static second act. No: "Clash by Night" suffers principally from a lack of direction arising from the want of any adequate frame of reference.
Odets's frame of reference in 1935 was the class struggle. What has lasted over into 1942 is principally a humanitarian intuition of the individual's private separation, which is valid background for pathos but not for tragedy. Here is a triangle of the bored wife, the insentient husband and the handsome lodger: surely no novelty in the theater and demanding the justification of a fresh approach. Or at least a special quality of perception and analysis. It is disappointing to report that Odets has given it neither. Nor has he given the familiar situation stature by relating it to any moral or social standard. Infidelity is meaningless outside the moral arena; tragedy requires a villain, whether it be a person or a society. Odets no longer indiscriminately blames Society, and doesn't recognize the Devil. He succeeds in interesting us in his characters' temperaments, but never in their tragedy.
Before he lets us down,...
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[The theme of Clash by Night] is eternal, its plot the classic formula of the drame passionel. Yet so vibrant, so steeped in life and passion are Mr. Odets' characters that the world he creates with them exists as solidly, more solidly indeed, than most of the aspects of the world in which we live. Mr. Odets' story is negligible. He is concerned with a quite ordinary couple living on a Staten Island water-front…. Of these everyday ingredients Odets has fashioned a poignant picture of man's loneliness, of his yearnings and frustrations, of mischievous evil, of sorrow, ungainliness, love and death. (pp. 150-51)
The first half of the play offers by far the richest material for actors and audience alike. It is warm with life and with the irrelevant and mysterious action of human beings living on this 'darkling plain'. The scene on the porch of the Wilenski's house on a hot summer night where time and the stars are suddenly close at hand; the scene in the frowzy dance hall; certain haunting moments of search and revelation throughout the play show Odets at his best. If the last half is occasionally labored and repetitious, if, taken as a whole, the play has not the completeness of, let us say, Awake and Sing or Golden Boy, it yet proves that Odets has by no means lost his power or his poetry and that he is as creative as ever when it comes to giving form and substance to character and thought. (p. 152)...
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Odets's work from the beginning contained "a protest that is also prophecy." There was in it a fervor that derived from the hope and expectation of change and the desire for it. But there was rarely any expression of political consciousness in it, no deep commitment to a coherent philosophy of life, no pleading for a panacea. "A tendril of revolt" runs through all of Odets's work, but that is not the same thing as a consistent revolutionary conviction. Odets's work is not even proletarian in the sense that Gorky's work is. Rather is it profoundly of the lower middle class with all its vacillation, dual allegiance, fears, groping, self-distrust, dejection, spurts of energy, hosannas, vows of conversion, and prayers for release. The "enlightenment" of the thirties, its effort to come to a clearer understanding of and control over the anarchy of our society, brought Odets a new mental perspective, but it is his emotional experience, not his thought, that gives his plays their special expressiveness and significance. His thought, the product chiefly of his four years with the Group and the new channels they led to, furnished Odets with the more conscious bits of his vocabulary, with an occasional epithet or slogan that were never fully integrated in his work. The feel of middle-class (and perhaps universal) disquiet in Odets's plays is sharp and specific; the ideas are general and hortatory. The Left movement provided Odets with a platform and a...
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Logic might insist that there are three kinds of plays—good, bad, indifferent—but Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" is none of these. It represents the state of Odets' soul in 1949; it is exasperating and exciting.
As a mechanism for conveying a definite theme, idea or emotion, "The Big Knife" is misbegotten….
The ostensible point of [the play] is that a good person in our society becomes the prisoner of forces that will manipulate him as a commodity. Unless he is a saint or a revolutionary he can live only by dying. Apart from any judgment as to the validity of this thesis, the play fails to demonstrate it.
The victim here is a good person because his wife says so, and because he speaks Odets' dialogue. The process of Charlie's deterioration is not dramatized. We never see him in a normal state. He has almost no history or background. When we meet him he is already a bad husband, a coward, a near drunkard and generally wrong at the top of his voice. (p. 28)
The theme cannot function within the story as Odets has seen fit to tell it. The story is largely off-stage, so that the theme becomes mostly rhetoric. Since this rhetoric is applied beyond the point of positive action, much of it is as impotent as the philosophic insults that Charlie hurls against his oppressors. But it is for these insults rather than for the story that Odets has written his play. Due to its faulty...
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Joseph Wood Krutch
["The Big Knife"] is an exposure of the movie capital which must take its place beside the exposures of the advertising business written by bright young advertising men and the exposures of the publishing business written by bright young publishers….
Most of us think of Hollywood as a place where mediocrity is overpaid—in money and in fame; but to Mr. Odets it is, instead, a place where genius is prevented from expressing itself. His hero is a fabulously successful young leading man of the films whose better self we are expected to take on faith while he, languishing under a fourteen-year contract assuring him several million dollars, laments that he cannot get away from it all into some world where he can indulge his natural integrity. (p. 340)
At one point in the action he remarks, very sagely indeed, that "there is nothing so habit-forming as money"; and if Mr. Odets had not been so anxious to shift all the guilt from his hero to "the industry," he might have written a very interesting play on just that theme. Its moral would be that you cannot eat your cake if you insist on having it too. And that is the moral which, despite all the playwright's efforts to distract attention from it, keeps shouting itself out from almost every scene.
If Mr. Odets were not a man of considerable talent, the subject would hardly be worth discussing. But he is a man of considerable talent with a real gift for...
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It is no small tribute to Clifford Odets that his return to Broadway after eight years of Hollywood peonage should have roused singular expectations. Although these were not exactly fulfilled in "The Big Knife," it was a relief to learn that his talent had not been eviscerated in Southern California, that he retains his capacity for passion, and that he is still a formidable scene-wright. If one could drive a team of horses through some of the gaps in his argument, if his writing was charged with subjective perversities and non sequiturs, we had reason to be concerned only over the more obvious presence of faults we had tended to overlook in his earlier work. They pertain to his habits of thought and implicate his virtues as well as his vices. They also provide an indispensable basis for any effort to discover why this gifted playwright has not fulfilled the hopes many of us entertained for him, and why his writing is so uneven. (pp. 25-6)
To assume that the author of "The Big Knife" is simply careless or bereft of sense, since he made his own premises, is scarcely tenable. On the contrary, he deliberately chose Hollywood as a symbol for everything deteriorative and unscrupulous in our society; he returned to the "Golden Boy" theme of how a materialistic, success-worshipping world corrupts the soul. He overlooked the weak character of his hero in his zeal to transfer guilt to society; he made equations without considering whether the...
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Clifford Odets has taken a very small and very familiar situation ["The Country Girl"] and, by the simple process of being patient with it, found it to contain more dramatic interest than anyone could have supposed. His story is that of the actor who has drunk himself downhill and of the wife of the director who pulls him back into shape for a performance. The trouble with clichés is that people treat them as clichés; they slap them onto a stage in their baldest outlines, without taking the trouble to think them through again. Odets has thought this one through, down to the last detail, and it comes out with the reality it must have had the first time someone used it. He has been particularly successful with his actor: the man's moral weakness, superimposed aggressiveness, and natural talent are blended in a dimensional character which is not at all attractive, but is commanding because it is true. (pp. 196-97)
The play is well balanced: passages of quiet, careful motivation are followed by inevitable and satisfying flareups; nothing is tacked on; everything moves with easy confidence. (p. 197)
Walter Kerr, in a review of "The Country Girl," in Commonweal (copyright © 1950 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 8, December 1, 1950, pp. 196-97.
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"The Country Girl" is lightweight Odets. That the least meaty of his plays should prove to be almost the most popular is significant of the press, not of the author.
No more gifted playwright has appeared in the past fifteen years. I doubt whether any American playwright at all has a greater talent for living dramatic speech, for characterization, for intensity of feeling. Above all, Odets is a true theatre poet: he is never literal, and his power with words does not represent verbal proficiency but a blood tie with the sources from which sound literature and dramatic action spring.
Apart from a certain romantic afflatus, which is at times an easily discernible defect but more often a virtue, the strength of Odets' work lies in his main theme and the particular quality of its statement. The question Odets constantly asks is: What helps a man live? Since we are citizens of the twentieth century, we may translate this as: What today injures man's spirit? What enhances or diminishes the creatively human in him? (pp. 29-30)
Odets' art has an immediacy and an intimacy equaled by no other dramatist of our generation. His plays strike home; they touch us where we live. Though they often shout, they are powerful because, in fact, they speak quietly to our hearts. They are moving because beneath their occasional bluster they sigh and weep with our own unadvertised and non-literary anguish. Their...
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Mr. Clifford Odets' ["The Flowering Peach"] is a work of secular piety, imperfect and somewhat arid, but nonetheless, luminously touched with the imagination of reverence. To his recasting of the Biblical tale of Noah, Mr. Odets brings a discreet humanism which shapes the experience beautifully, constantly points but never presses its contemporary reference. He was not, I think, wise to include among his dramatic baggage on the Ark so many rancorous family disputes: they do not illumine, rather they rasp and fatigue. They are, moreover, the remains of a moral intention exhausted in the more "activist" plays of Mr. Odets' youth, and as such have a somewhat gratuitous, calculated air. The same uncertainty of tone mars Mr. Odets' drawing of the important roles of Rachel and Japheth: these characters seem like intrusions from an alien world—their anguished self-regard is too conscious, too articulate, and dwarfed by the massive, obliterating humanity of Noah and Esther. Yet beyond these flaws, how vivifying it is to hear the Jewish idiom transmuted by tact and wit into art; how wonderful, above all, to find in this time of noisy commitments and harassing coercion a serious statement about human life which never says must or should, never imposes, sets up programs, announces, prescribes—only draws from the neglected well of our common pieties the small, permanent manifestations of tenderness and affection, of pleasure and reverence and a...
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[In The Flowering Peach it] was Odets's apparent decision to make of the Biblical story a modern Jewish folk play…. The pattern of Noah's family is that of many lower-middle-class Jewish families in New York. The old folks, who speak with a Yiddish accent, hold close the tradition of the family; they demand of the sons and their wives, who are Americanized (i.e., modernized) in speech and thought, a loyalty that cannot easily be given. (p. 74)
[It is] to such an environment that Odets tries to wed the Noah legend. He fails for two reasons. First, his setting sounds surprisingly phony, even to an outsider; second, there is a good chance that Noah could not fit into such a setting even if it were presented with authenticity. All of the familiar devices for the stage recognition of Jewish family life are in the play: there is the mixture of practical wisdom and semi-philosophic foolishness, which in this case should be inspiration, in Noah and his wife; there are the loud, pointless arguments; there is the emphasis on getting ahead; there are the recurrent references to food. The desultory chatter that weaves in and out of these identification marks is written and read in the inverted singsong that characterizes and caricatures English-Yiddish speech, but Odets vulgarizes the whole process…. As often as not Odets sounds as though he is writing an extended dialect joke, a friendly one of course. There are occasional funny lines,...
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Golden Boy again demonstrates the lesson of the Odets' Paradise Lost: that this author appears to be psychically glued to the material of his first play. He cannot advance beyond Awake and Sing: he can only revive it with different costumes, scenery, and (sometimes) accents. That the refurbishing of the material implies its adulteration seems not to concern Mr. Odets, who perhaps imagines that he is exploring genuinely new horizons; but to those who have admired Awake and Sing, each new play seems a more shocking caricature of the first. (p. 9)
The narrowness of his invention, the monotony of his subject matter have anaesthetized [Mr. Odets] to a point where he must wade in blood and tears in order to feel that he is writing a play…. (p. 10)
Thus the simple Bronx apartment dwellers of Awake and Sing appear in Golden Boy dressed up as gangsters, prizefighters, and tarts. Mr. Odets has taken a collection of types out of any underworld film, and on them he has grafted the half-ludicrous, half-touching cultural aspirations, the malapropisms, the pride in material possessions, the inarticulate longing for a sunny life, that make up the Odets formula of frustration. The Chekhovian baggage of middle-class futility with which Mr. Odets equips these low-life stereotypes is, of course, fearfully inappropriate to the milieu of lust, murder, crime and perversion in which they must...
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Odets's new film, in terms of its script, lives up to its advance defense; it is not a prostituted work. But the author has stoutly defended the wrong portal, or not enough portals. The picture may be uncompromised but it is also undistinguished, pointless, and dull….
We look for positive achievements, and of these The Story on Page One has virtually none. It is an utterly routine courtroom drama, devoid of rewarding characters and development even of superficial plot twist and, what is most disheartening, with hardly a trace of the arresting pungency that has been a hallmark of Odets dialogue. The picture plods along until it is finished, at which moment we ask ourselves why Odets bothered to write and direct it. The only intrinsic lure for him could have been the contrast between the mothers of the two protagonists—the heroine's hard-working mother … and the hero's silkily domineering rich mother…. If so, it was a small and trite return on a large investment.
The theme of all this is meant to be regret and stubborn hope. American films certainly can use what Odets, at his best, can give them. The theater misses desperately the slash and thrust of his usually faulty but always exciting plays. "I'm 53 years old," he says, "a professional writer, and there's never been any loss or shrinkage of integrity." But there has, alas, been some shrinkage in intensity and relevance. What we badly need at this time...
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Michael J. Mendelsohn
Odets' motion picture career can be roughly divided into three periods: 1936–38, 1943–47, and 1955–61. His name finally appeared on only seven produced films, but he estimated the output of those years variously from fifteen or twenty scripts to "dozens." The Hollywood practice of script-doctoring explains the disparity. He told an interviewer in 1944 that though he had written many scripts, he had taken credit only for The General Died at Dawn. "'The others were rewritten … after I left town, by four or five hacks to each script,' he says, 'and rather than share credit for what they churned out between gin-rummy games, I decided to pass up fame and keep my self-respect.'" (p. 31)
[Few of Odets' films are] of more than routine interest, except The Story on Page One, which he originated and directed. It is unquestionably the purest finished product of any task Odets attempted in Hollywood. The entire work, from its conception as a story idea to its actual filming, may safely be credited to him.
It is unfortunate, then, that the net result of his tremendous effort as author-director is not more satisfying. The Story on Page One is a rather ordinary courtroom melodrama in which, true to tradition, the defense is clever, vigorous, occasionally taken by surprise by a prosecution maneuver, but never in doubt as to ultimate victory. The prosecution team is clearly the villain of the piece....
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The structure of Odets' plays has been misinterpreted. To some extent the playwright himself is responsible for this critical confusion. "I was influenced a little by Chekhov," Odets told Mendelsohn in 1963. "Not by Ibsen, because you see my forms are not Ibsen's. But my chief influence as a playwright was the Group Theater acting company…." Invariably, critics and scholars of the drama refer to Odets' plays as Chekhovian in structure. The truth of the matter, however, is that the basic structure of an Odets play is Ibsenite; that is, one can perceive in it a single rising line of action which can be analyzed in terms of a point of attack, a turning point, and a resolution composed of a crisis, climax and conclusion. Chekhov's plays do not have this single action structure…. It was Odets' achievement to integrate a basic Ibsenite action with certain structural techniques of a Chekhov play, and thus assure his work a rising line of tension while simultaneously enriching the piece by counterpoint and the indirect expression of emotion and feeling. In short, Odets avoided, on the one hand, reducing the Ibsenite structure to a bald, straight-forward thesis play, and, on the other, fashioning a static genre study in the alleged Russian manner. It is necessary to add, however, that Odets' recourse to Chekhovian devices is much more apparent in Awake and Sing! than in his other plays. Finally, Odets has sometimes been dubbed a "scenewright" by...
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The most acclaimed writer of the thirties was Clifford Odets. He rose out of the Depression to give voice to a world in crisis. He put the Bronx Jewish middle class on stage and gave them courage, dignity, and stature. (p. 109)
Paradoxically, Odets was the playwright least able to maintain persuasive drama in the sixties. His exodus to Hollywood, together with many members of the Group Theatre, removed him from his natural nourishment. When he returned to Broadway ten years later with The Big Knife, he no longer was a man of social anger. Success had deprived him of identification with the downtrodden. Of the next plays, The Country Girl (1950) was an outright attempt at a superficial success, and The Flowering Peach (1954), a drama that never focused precisely on what it had to say.
The human dislocation caused by the Depression supplied Odets with his strength as an artist. He rallied a nation to action and hope…. The result is theatre in its oldest form, an Epic theatre technique involving the audience and propelling them into open participation. Waiting for Lefty has a hard-hitting, bare, cumulative power, very much like a tribal war dance.
The members of a thug-dominated, taxi-drivers' union belong, for the most part, to the middle class that has fallen socially—the American dream in reverse. No longer do they have hopes of rising beyond their station. To Odets,...
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Mr. Bonaparte was wrong and so was Marion Castle. No man is so simply made that he has a single nature which a wrong turn can violate. The violation, too, is in his nature. Both fist and fiddle were natural to Joe; both Hollywood and the escape from it were necessary to Charlie. The observer in Odets knew this; the idealist, the idealogue did not want to know. Alter the circumstances, rearrange the environment, brick off the false choices, said the latter, and the natural man will flower; home, love, happiness will become possible. This assumption had personal and artistic consequences for Odets.
He was a restless man. In his work and in his life, we can see the vacillation between a home which turns out to be a trap and a promised land that fails to keep its promises. That comic figure, the radical playwright in the fashionable Hollywood restaurant, is an oblique image for the artist who never found consolation in his art. The idealist in Odets could point Ralph toward the future, but the observer in him, who could see the self-pity and the weakness in the character, also knew that the making of Awake and Sing! did not bring peace. Odets did what was "ina [his] nature to do" and it was not enough. He ran, in disappointment, to Hollywood and ran back, in guilt, to the stage. "A job is a home to a homeless man," says Bernie in The Country Girl, but he is looking around for a real home or its equivalent in Georgie. Odets...
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