Critical Context

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Awake and Sing! is based upon I’ve Got the Blues, which Odets wrote around 1933 and which was never performed professionally, although the Group Theatre, of which Odets was a member, gave it a reading. The earlier play is filled with Yiddish-English dialect, which has been tempered somewhat but not eliminated from this play. Schlosser was not a character in the earlier play, in which Hennie and Moe are separated at the end when Moe is arrested for his underhanded dealings. Guided by the Group Theatre’s notion of avoiding starring roles, Odets wrote Awake and Sing! with only two minor characters, Sam and Schlosser. The other parts are essentially equivalent to one another in length and dramatic importance.

When Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, an agitprop tour de force that he wrote in three days and that won the George Pierce Baker Drama Cup of Yale University and the New Theatre-New Masses Theatre Contest, was performed Off-Broadway in early January, 1935, his future was assured. This one-act play aroused audiences to fever pitch, and everyone wanted to see it. Odets had been promised a Broadway performance for Awake and Sing!, but the Group was slow to fulfill its promise. With the success of Waiting for Lefty, however, Awake and Sing! was rushed to Broadway, where it was well received. For a time, it was on a double bill with Waiting for Lefty; then Odets wrote Till the Day I Die (pr., pb. 1935), a short play about communism in Nazi Germany, that could be billed with Waiting for Lefty as a full evening’s theater program.

By the fall of 1935, Odets, formerly a virtually unknown actor in the Group company, was the toast of Broadway. His fourth major drama, Paradise Lost, opened on December 9, 1935, at the Longacre Theater under Harold Clurman’s direction. During the Depression era, when one might have expected theatergoers to seek escapist entertainment, Odets was remarkably successful as a playwright who spotlighted the social problems that everyone was facing. Paradise Lost has much the same tone as Awake and Sing!, although the family in Paradise Lost is of a higher social class and is faced with the loss of everything.

Contemporary reviewers compared Awake and Sing! with Bella and Samuel Spewack’s Spring Song (pr. 1934) and, because of the Yiddish dialect the play invoked, with Montague Glass and Charles Klein’s Potash and Perlmutter (pr. 1913). Such comparisons, however, are superficial. Because he confronted current social problems, Odets is probably more accurately compared to Sidney Kingsley or to Paul Green, who wrote Johnny Johnson: The Biography of a Common Man (pr. 1936).

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