Three generations of the Berger family live under one roof. The mother, Bessie, is the glue that has held the family together during difficult times. She is fearful that she, like an old woman on nearby Dawson Street, will be evicted from her home, her belongings put out on the street around her.
Odets has a well-balanced cast in Awake and Sing!. Bessie, whose father, Jakob, a left-leaning idealist, lives in her house, has a subdued husband, Myron, and two children, Ralph and Hennie. She has also taken in a boarder to enhance her slim budget. Appearances mean everything to Bessie, who wants little more from life than respectability. Her decent existence is severely threatened. She has already coped with one assault on her family’s respectability, her daughter Hennie’s pregnancy out of wedlock, but she forces Hennie into a loveless marriage to the boarder to whom she rents a room.
The son, Ralph, is appalled by the shotgun union his mother has engineered. An unemployed idealist, Ralph sides philosophically with his grandfather. Jakob rails against families, saying, “This is a house? Marx said it—abolish such families.” Ralph complains that life should not be printed on dollar bills. The vernacular Odets achieves in this play is precisely the vernacular of the kinds of people around whom he grew up and whose speech patterns imprinted themselves indelibly on his mind.
In this play, Odets claimed that he was writing not about individuals so much as about a whole social class being sundered by economic problems beyond their control. One solution he offers is particularly chilling and ironic. Jakob, the idealist, disenchanted with the society in which he lives, goes to the roof of the building in which the Bergers reside and throws himself into the street below. Before he does this, however, he makes Ralph the beneficiary on his five-thousand-dollar life insurance policy, expecting this will give Ralph new hope. In creating this ending, Odets shows the confusion of value systems under which some of his characters were living. Jakob, who would abolish families, gives Ralph the wherewithal to marry and create a family. Ralph, who does not want life printed on dollar bills, ironically is saved by five thousand such bills that will assure his future, at least for a while.