The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Flowering Peach is a modern retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. The play begins just before dawn as a rooster crows and Noah, dazed and half-asleep, enters his living room, becomes agitated, and, sobbing, falls on his knees. When his wife, Esther, enters, Noah tries to pretend that nothing is wrong, but he finally tells her that God has revealed to him in a dream that He will destroy the world, saving only Noah and his family and animals and birds of all species. Incredulous, Esther accuses Noah of being drunk. Japheth, their youngest son, awakened by the noise, enters and Noah tells Japheth to fetch Ham and Shem, Noah’s two older sons. Japheth replies that Shem and his wife are harvesting the olive crop and will not want to come. Noah instructs Japheth to say that a building proposition has come up, and he needs Shem to give an estimate.

As Japheth leaves to get his brothers, Noah explains to Esther that they are to build an ark according to God’s specifications. Esther reminds him that he has never seen a boat—to which he replies that he has seen one “twiced.” (Throughout, the characters’ speech is slangy, ungrammatical, and down-to-earth.) She insists that Noah must be sick. When he begins to speak aloud to God, she gives up and leaves to bake the Sabbath bread. Noah, musing, wonders if God actually spoke to him. Complaining that he is too old for such a task and that he will be ridiculed, he prays, “Oh God . . . pass me by. Please.” As God’s presence is expressed by a musical shimmer, Noah asks God not to give him such a task, pleading that total destruction of the world “is something terrible.” The Presence of God fades away into silence, and antiphonal roosters crow as the stage lights dim out.

Scene 2 introduces the rest of the principal characters except for Ham’s wife, Rachel, and Goldie, a girl who will be proposed as a wife for Japheth. In his early twenties, Japheth is a “proud, private and thinking young man,” slow and shy, with whom Noah unconsciously identifies, believing that “they are two outcasts in the more competent and fluent world.” Ham, the middle son, is a restless man in whom “malice and jealousy are frequently masked . . . as humor and good fellowship,” but he knows how to charm his older brother, Shem, for whom he works. Shem is sometimes “shrewd to the point of foolishness,” and his wife, Leah, “is a fit and sometimes prodding mate” for him. Esther is the practical Jewish mother, bossing her daughter-in-law, chiding her sons for disrespect toward their father, chiding Noah with loving banter, breaking up arguments, and maintaining her sanity by keeping occupied with daily chores. Assembled in Noah’s house, they discuss Noah’s dream, expressing disbelief, and asking Noah how he will gather all the animals.

Only Japheth believes Noah because such cruel imagining is not in Noah’s nature, but Japheth wants to die in the flood “to protest such an avenging, destructive God!” In the midst of the bickering, a mouselike creature, the mythical gitka, appears, runs into Noah’s hands, and sings in a wordless, falsetto voice while everyone stands amazed. Japheth returns from outside, telling everyone to look out the windows, where animals and birds of all kinds are gathering. Ham and Shem repent in fear, Noah intones Sabbath prayers, and Japheth stands in awe and horror outside the family circle.

The next three scenes occur on a high hillside where the men are building the ark and Esther and her daughters-in-law are...

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The Flowering Peach Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Bringing a classic work to the contemporary stage is an enterprise fraught with peril, whether the project in question is a modern production of a classic drama (a Greek tragedy, a Shakespearean play) or, as in the case of The Flowering Peach, a fresh adaptation of a nondramatic source. It is the authority of the classic—its claim to enduring significance—that makes it an appealing vehicle in the first place, yet authority can be stifling: The classic work may appear to be distant, stuffy, or simply irrelevant to the concerns of a contemporary audience.

Well aware of this tension, Odets in The Flowering Peach employs the device of deliberate anachronism. The male characters appear in modern dress, yet the female characters, Odets indicates, are to wear traditional Oriental costumes. More important, as noted above, the characters’ speech is highly colloquial. By violating the stereotype of elevated biblical language, Odets clearly sought to underline the timelessness of the Flood story. (One danger of this approach is evident to the reader who comes to Odets’s play several decades after it was written: Slang dates very quickly, and the once-contemporary becomes embarrassingly quaint.)

Odets also employs a variety of physical devices, including “shimmering” music, thunder, and lightning to represent God’s presence onstage; other supernatural effects such as the mouselike gitka, which sings before the Flood and when Esther dies; the movement of a blood-red sun from west to east just before the Flood, symbolizing impending destruction; Esther’s hat decorated with flowers, fruits, and berries to symbolize youth; and Noah’s transformation (an Odets invention) from an old man to a younger man, symbolizing rejuvenation of spirit, energy, and purpose.

Finally, the perpetuation and continuation of life are shown through several symbols: the preservation of the animals, the pregnancy of the three wives at the end of the play, Esther’s one-leaf plant that needs sun to grow, the flowering peach tree from which the play takes its title, and the rainbow symbolizing God’s promise of hope for world survival—Odets’s principal concern in this play.

The Flowering Peach Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Cantor, Harold C. Clifford Odets. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2000.

Clurman, Harold. “American Playwrights: Clifford Odets, The Flowering Peach.” In Lies Like Truth: Theatre Reviews and Essays. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

Cooperman, Robert. Clifford Odets: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1935-1989. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Demastes, William W. Clifford Odets. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Goldstein, Malcolm. “Clifford Odets and the Found Generation.” In American Drama and Its Critics, edited by Alan S. Downer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Hayes, Richard. “The Flowering Peach.” Commonweal 61 (February 11, 1955): 502-503.

Shuman, R. Baird. Clifford Odets. New York: Twayne, 1962.