Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1227
The Big Knife is presented in three acts, all the action taking place in the luxurious yet casual “playroom” of Charlie Castle’s Beverly Hills home. The room is filled with comfortable furniture, entertainment accessories, and artwork from notable artists; it also has a small but well-stocked bar, which is used steadily throughout the play by all principal characters.
Act 1 opens on a summer afternoon, with famous star Charlie Castle and his publicist, Buddy Bliss, dodging the probing questions of gossip columnist Patty Benedict. Patty is determined to get Charlie to admit that he and his wife, Marion, are on the verge of divorce. She threatens to reexamine in her column the scandalous incident involving Buddy, who served time in jail for hit-and-run manslaughter, if Charlie will not tell her the truth about the divorce rumors. Charlie calms down Patty with clever, evasive banter while denying any marital problems.
Suddenly Marion, who has been staying at the Castles’ beach house with their young son, appears and promptly insults Patty, who leaves in a fury. Charlie and Marion then discuss the problems that are indeed threatening to end their marriage. They key problem is Marion’s objection to Charlie signing a new fourteen-year contract with the studio run by Marcus Hoff. She believes that Charlie’s integrity is dying in Hollywood, that he has been typecast in tough-guy gangster parts that demean his true acting talents. She wants him to leave Hollywood and return to New York, where he can once again expand his talents onstage. She tells him flatly that if he signs the new contract she will leave him.
Charlie reminds Marion that it was Hoff who gave Charlie his first acting break in motion pictures. Furthermore, it was Hoff who covered for Charlie during the hit-and-run scandal, which actually involved Charlie driving drunk behind the wheel instead of Buddy, who was forced by Hoff to take the blame. Charlie is afraid that if he refuses to sign the contract, Hoff will reveal the truth of the scandal to the public. Despite this threat, Charlie tells Marion that in order to save their marriage, he will try to avoid signing the contract.
After Marion leaves, Charlie’s agent, Nat Danziger, arrives, followed by Hoff and his associate, Smiley Coy. Hoff has come with the contract and wants Charlie to quit stalling and sign. When Charlie refuses, explaining that he is fed up with playing tough-guy characters, Hoff brings up the hit-and-run incident and implies a threat of exposure if Charlie does not sign. Ultimately, Charlie signs. After Hoff, Smiley, and Nat leave, Charlie gets drunk. He is soon joined by Buddy’s promiscuous wife, Connie. The act ends with Charlie stumbling upstairs to bed, with Connie following close behind.
Act 2 begins a week later, with Charlie and Marion hosting a dinner party with Buddy and Connie. Charlie has arranged the party out of guilt feelings for Buddy. When the guests leave, Marion tells Charlie that she will be seeing a lawyer soon to start divorce proceedings. She also tells him that she recently had an abortion, which enrages Charlie not only because of the act but also because he never even suspected that she was pregnant.
The next arrival onstage is Hank Teagle, a writer friend of Charlie who is in love with Marion—indeed, has asked her to marry him after she divorces Charlie. Hank drives Marion back to the beach house. Smiley then makes a surprise visit, fresh from a neighbor’s party, where he has overheard a young starlet, Dixie Evans, making intimations about her involvement with Charlie in the hit-and-run incident. It comes to light that Dixie was in the car with Charlie when the accident occurred. In order to keep her quiet, Hoff’s studio had given her a contract. Smiley now hints to Charlie, however, that because Dixie has not kept her mouth shut about the incident, she might have to be permanently silenced. Charlie is shocked at Smiley’s intimations and agrees to talk with Dixie in order to keep her faithful to her agreement.
Smiley leaves after Charlie invites Dixie over. Dixie is in love with Charlie and does not want to expose him to scandal, but she is also resentful of the tawdry way she has been treated by the studio. Before Charlie can get her to agree to remain silent about the scandal, Marion appears, prompting Dixie to make a hasty exit. Marion has returned to talk about a reconciliation, but she is infuriated to find Charlie with another woman. Charlie explains the situation and then pleads with Marion to stop judging him, to try to support him, flaws and all. He tells her that he needs her support more than ever and that they should love each other without bargaining or issuing ultimatums. He promises her devotion and understanding if she will support him and his decisions. In a flood of emotion, she agrees, ending act 2.
The first scene of act 3 begins a few days later, with Marion displaying newfound purpose and strength, commandingly running the business of the household. When she leaves to go shopping, Charlie confronts first Nat and later Hank about his reconciliation with Marion. Nat is overjoyed, but Hank is doubtful that Charlie and Marion will be happy together. Hank tells Charlie to abandon his idealistic leanings, for he is selling out to the studio system; he should either sell out completely or leave. Charlie is angry at first but then realizes the truth of Hank’s words. Hank leaves to return to New York, where he plans to write a book about a character similar to Charlie—“a fable about moral values and success.”
Smiley Coy bursts in with news that Hoff just met with Dixie to remind her to keep silent about the scandal. When she arrived in Hoff’s office drunk and then insulted him, he attacked and beat her. Smiley wants Charlie to retrieve Dixie from a nearby bar, escort her home, and have her drink from a liquor bottle laced with poison. Seeing a way to gain control over Hoff, Charlie demands that Smiley arrange a meeting between Hoff and himself.
The final scene begins hours later, with Hoff, Smiley, Nat, Charlie, and Marion together talking, at first calmly, then heatedly, then violently. Hoff and Charlie come close to blows, and the confrontation ends with Hoff swearing to Charlie that he will never star in another motion picture.
Hoff, Smiley, and Nat exit, leaving Marion and Charlie to ponder their future together. Charlie has resigned himself to the fact that his acting career is over, that Dixie will tell all about the scandal, and that he will probably go to jail. He has, however, accepted the situation. He tells Marion to call Hank and invite him over before he leaves for New York. Promising her a better future, Charlie exits upstairs to take a bath.
Suddenly, Smiley returns with news that a drunk Dixie was struck and killed by a police car outside a local bar. While the full implications of this news are being pondered, water begins leaking from the upstairs bath. When Marion and Smiley investigate, they find that Charlie has committed suicide with a razor. The play ends with Hank arriving and taking control of the situation as Marion cries out for help.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494
Throughout the play, Charlie remains in one room, the “playroom” of his house, dramatically removed from the lights and excitement typically associated with Hollywood glamour and fame. He is definitely a man of power since everyone, from gossipmongers to studio executives, comes to see him. However, they come and go freely, while Charlie remains trapped in his playroom. Charlie leaves center stage only twice: to commit adultery and to kill himself.
The room itself is decorated with fine paintings chosen by Marion, representing true, expressive inner integrity. However, the room’s real centerpiece is the bar. Everyone who enters the room approaches this altar of corruption—everyone except Hank, the recovering alcoholic who first succumbed to and then triumphed over the forces of moral degradation. Charlie is indeed the master of this one-room universe, where the powerful and the pitiful come to pay homage and to make sure the center of their universe is still functioning properly, still supporting them by being false to his true self.
Marion dramatically refutes Charlie’s corrupt universe. She keeps their child secluded from this center of degradation, and in order to keep any other innocents from becoming corrupted by Charlie, she has an abortion. She is determined to remain opposed to Charlie’s false self.
Hoff is a parody of what Charlie could become. Though he is totally insincere and others are sickened by his artificial emotionalism, his histrionics are tolerated by all. Smiley, his associate, is an even more extreme example of moral corruption. When Charlie displays outrage over Smiley’s casual suggestions that Dixie be murdered to keep the scandal covered up, Smiley answers, “Speak easy. Keep flexible. . . . She’ll go unremembered by the end of the week.”
To dramatize Charlie’s internal battle as he tries to come to terms with his true nature, he is shown saying one thing and doing the opposite. When he tells Hoff that he hates everything Hoff stands for, Charlie is simultaneously signing the contract that will bind him to the studio head for another fourteen years. When Connie makes her late-night appearance, Charlie violently condemns her sexual advances but then, moments later, commits adultery. It takes the cold cunning of Smiley to snap Charlie out of his moral schizophrenia and propel him to act out his true nature. However, he still feels trapped in his playroom. In order to escape, he must exit upstairs, where he last succumbed to corruption, and wash his sins away.
After Charlie’s suicide, Smiley attempts to keep his false image alive by insisting that everyone tell the press that he died of a heart attack, surrounded by his supportive friends. Hank takes control, however, and demands that the truth be told. “Your work is finished here,” he tells Smiley. “I’ll tell the story. He . . . killed himself . . . because that was the only way he could live. You don’t recognize a final . . . a final act of faith . . . when you see one. . . .”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 85
Sources for Further Study
Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940. New York: Atheneum, 1981.
Cantor, Harold C. Clifford Odets. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2000.
Demastes, William W. Clifford Odets: A Research and Production Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.
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.
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