Waiting for Lefty was inspired by a 1934 taxi strike in New York City, an event that would still have been fresh in the minds of its original, 1935 audience. But while it was sparked by a single historic incident, the play's ambitions extend much further—in fact, they reach far beyond the traditionally accepted terms of entertainment and dramatic art. Odets and his colleagues in the Group Theatre were dedicated political activists and saw their work in the theatre as the means to a much greater purpose: promoting a mass movement for a socialist revolution in America. A popular sensation in its day, the play and its politics have since fallen out of fashion—to the point that today's students may well wonder what all the fuss was about. For this reason, any attempt to appreciate Odets' achievement must be rooted in an understanding of Waiting for Lefty's cultural and historical context.
The 1930s in America are remembered as "hard times" of poverty and despair, dominated by the continuing crisis of the Great Depression. Banks and businesses had failed, millions of people were without work—and, for several years following the stock market crash of 1929, the efforts of business and government leaders to manage the situation had done little to stem the tide of human suffering.
The "temporary'' crisis of 1929 began to appear permanent, and many Americans saw this as evidence that the country's economic and political system was...
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Odets specifies that Waiting for Lefty is enacted on "a bare stage." Whether the setting is a union hall, an office, or an apartment, there are no furnishings to help establish the scene. The full stage— extending into the audience—represents the strike meeting. For the "flashback" scenes that tell the stories of various individuals, simple lighting effects are used to create small, intimate playing spaces onstage. Such stark, relatively undefined staging is not uncommon, and "minimalist" dramatists often choose it for various aesthetic reasons. In the case of Waiting for Lefty, however, it is clear that Odets' intentions were not merely artistic. As an overfly propagandists work of "proletarian theatre" ("proletariat" meaning the lowest class in a society), his play was meant not only for the formal, professional theatre (with its largely upper- and middle-class audience) but for any group of workers, anywhere, who wished to stage it. The simplified stagecraft thus reflects practical considerations, for it enables the work to be produced in any large meeting-hall, cheaply and with a minimum of technical sophistication.
The lack of formal scenery also tends to blur the distinction between the space of the stage and that of the audience; in effect, the entire theatre becomes the "union hall," and audience members are made to feel part of the action. The rows of seated workers facing the speaker's platform extend into...
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Compare and Contrast
1935: The United Automobile Workers (UAW) holds its first convention in Detroit, Michigan. After a long, bitter, and often violent struggle between union organizers and corporate management, climaxed by a celebrated "sit-down" strike at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, one of the nation's biggest and most important industries is unionized.
Today: Once vilified as a subversive threat, the UAW remains one of the country's largest trade unions. After World War II, the powerful American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) federation (of which the UAW was a member) removed communists and their "sympathizers" from its governing board, as the trade union movement was caught up in the rising tide of anticommunist fervor. During the post-war economic boom, while auto sales rose steadily, the UAW adopted more cooperative strategies toward management, and negotiated contracts that secured a high standard of living for a generation of autoworkers, until declining sales in the 1970s weakened the industry as a whole.
1935: An Iowa statistician named George Gallup founds the American Institute of Public Opinion and develops a procedure to measure reader reaction to newspaper stories. The "Gallup Poll" initiates a new industry the sampling and packaging of public opinion.
Today: Polling is a pervasive part of American life, as the computer revolution has facilitated "instant"...
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Topics for Further Study
Compare Odets's working-class characters to the ways blue-collar workers are presented in three to four contemporary works of your own selection (sources can include movies, television, or books, as well as plays.) In your analysis, try to determine whether the differences you find are a function of: historical changes in the popular image of "the working class''; differences in the authors' intentions or beliefs; or differences of style and genre.
Research the 1934 New York taxi strike (the incident on which Waiting for Lefty is based). How closely does Odets follow the historical facts? What were the consequences of the real-life strike? Considering his purposes in the play, try to determine the reasons for any changes Odets made in adapting these "current events" for his fictional production.
Research the Communist Manifesto and outline its main arguments. Then, study the dialogue in Waiting for Lefty to find specific instances in which the characters advance that document's principles or echo its slogans. Write an essay that reports and analyzes your findings.
The counterculture of the 1960s revived the notion of using drama as a means for political change in "street theatre'' performances by groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the staging of propaganda plays. Research this development, in newspapers and periodicals of that time. How does the radical theatre of the 1930s compare to its 1960s counterpart?...
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What Do I Read Next?
Odets' s other works provide for interesting comparisons with Waiting for Lefty and reveal the full range of his talents and concerns. Two works from his time with the Group Theatre, Awake and Sing! (1935) and Paradise Lost (1935), each make political points by relating the story of an American family but they do so in very different ways. Awake and Sing! is a realistic account of the struggles of a working-class Jewish family, akin to the domestic vignettes in Waiting for Lefty. Paradise Lost concerns a declining middle-class family and relies heavily on symbolism, with each family member representing a particular middle-class value.
The Big Knife, written by Odets in 1949, deals with the personal and professional conflicts of a movie actor named Charlie Castles, who ultimately commits suicide. It can be seen as a reflection of the difficulties Odets encountered while working for Hollywood and might even be said to foreshadow the turmoil he would experience during the McCarthy era.
Odets's contemporaries in Depression-era political drama provoke insightful comparison. John Howard Lawson's Marching Song details the conflict between a union and a gang of vicious strike-breakers; Black Pit, by Albert Maltz, concerns the struggles of a group of West Virginia coal miners. While their themes and goals closely resemble those of Waiting for Lefty, each play has its own, unique...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Waiting for Lefty in the New York Times, March 27, 1935.
Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years- The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties, Knopf, 1945, reprinted, Harcourt, 1975.
Brenman-Gibson, Margaret Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940, Atheneum, 1982.
This is an extensive, thoroughly researched account of Odets's early career, and contains a detailed treatment of his years with the Group Theatre.
Goldstein, Malcolm. The Political Stage American Drama and Theatre of the Great Depression, Oxford, 1974.
Goldstein presents a full history of Depression-era political drama, covering not only the Group Theatre but many similar organizations, including the Theatre Guild, Theatre Union, and the "Living Newspaper" productions of the Federal Theatre Project.
Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1968.
Goodman offers a thorough history of the Congressional committee that was at the center of the Cold War anticommunist crusade, including the appearances of Odets and several of his 1930s contemporaries.
Mendelsohn, Michael J. Clifford Odets: Humanitarian Dramatist, Everett/Edwards, 1969.
Mendelsohn provides a concise biography of the...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets—American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940. New York: Atheneum, 1981.
Cantor, Harold. Clifford Odets: Playwright-Poet. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2000.
Herr, Christopher J. Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
Mendelsohn, Michael J. Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1969.
Miller, Gabriel, ed. Critical Essays on Clifford Odets. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.
Murray, Edward. Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After. New York: Ungar, 1968.
Odets, Clifford. The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Shuman, R. Baird. “Clifford Odets and the Jewish Context.” In From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Weales, Gerard. Clifford Odets: Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1971.
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