The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 494 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.