The Play

In Awake and Sing! three generations of the working-class Berger family are jammed into an East Bronx apartment not unlike that in which Clifford Odets grew up. The family revolves around Bessie, the forceful mother. The Bergers are respectable—Bessie sees to that, whatever the cost of respectability.

Odets reminds his audience early in the play that, to Bessie, respectability and proper outward appearances mean more than anything else. As her father Jacob, a retired barber and a Marxist, cuts the hair of his well-to-do son Morty, who is visiting, Bessie tells the old man not to get hair on the floor because she likes her house to look respectable.

Bessie’s son Ralph, a shipping clerk, earns a pittance and turns most of it over to Bessie to help with household expenses. He is in love with Blanche, an innocent girl whose parents have died. She has been reared by two aunts and an uncle, none of whom has much zeal for assuming responsibility for her. Bessie makes it clear to Ralph that he cannot think of marrying Blanche, because the family needs his income.

A family crisis occurs when Hennie becomes pregnant, apparently as a result of making love with a sailor beneath the boardwalk at a seaside resort. Bessie, ever conscious of public opinion and zealous to preserve the appearance of respectability, finds an immediate solution to Hennie’s problem: She foists her off on Sam Feinschreiber, a naïve immigrant, who will believe that the baby is his. Hennie is reluctantly married to Sam, and the child arrives.

When Ralph discovers that Bessie has forced Hennie to be married, he is outraged. He rants at his mother, without effect, because Bessie’s value system is so...

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Dramatic Devices

Ralph Berger represents the ideological center in Awake and Sing! He is an idealistic dreamer, potentially a doer rather than a passive member of society, but like his grandfather, he lacks the self-assurance and commitment required to act. Ralph fumbles every opportunity that comes his way and undergoes no convincing change during the play. The device Odets uses to emphasize Ralph’s inaction is the leitmotif of the mail plane that regularly flies over the Berger apartment on its way to Boston. Ralph reveals that hearing this airplane takes him back to the distant sounds of trains or the horns of ocean-bound ships going down the river, sounds he heard in his youth as he lay in bed at night. Ralph craves escape more than a resolution of his or society’s problems. The recurrent sound of the mail plane emphasizes his desire, which prompts him to encourage Hennie to run off, quite irresponsibly and unrealistically, with Moe. Ralph is the same kind of passive idealist his grandfather was. He will not change the world, his vigorous soliloquy notwithstanding.

Another device Odets controls successfully in Awake and Sing! is the symbolic use of food and eating. Bessie must worry about immediate survival in an uncertain world while her men concern themselves with broader social problems. She must somehow put food on the table. She denies herself, saying that she can get by on a fried egg and a piece of bread, and so becomes a willing martyr who puts the welfare of her family first.

Early in the play, Moe complains that there is no fruit in the house, only an apple. Odets tellingly ties this remark to Myron’s complaint at the end of the play that there has been no fruit in the house lately except for a lone apple, indicating the Bergers’ hopeless straits. On a basic level, these allusions reinforce the play’s overt references to poverty, such as Ralph’s never being able to have a new suit or have his teeth fixed.


Sources for Further Study

Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940. New York: Atheneum, 1981.

Cantor, Harold. Clifford Odets: Playwright-Poet. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2000.

Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre and the Thirties. 1961. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983.

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

Demastes, William W. Clifford Odets: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Mendelsohn, Michael J. Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist. DeLand, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1969.

Murray, Edward. Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After. New York: F. Ungar, 1968.

Odets, Clifford. The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets. New York: Grove Press, 1988.

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

Weales, Gerald. Odets: The Playwright. New York: Methuen, 1985.