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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