Clifford Odets Biography

Clifford Odets Biography

Clifford Odets’ name will always be associated by theatergoers with the word “strike.” In the climactic finale of his taxi-union drama Waiting for Lefty, the workers unite in chanting, “Strike!” Odets made his name as a playwright for the Group Theatre, an influential collective of theater artists whose work defined drama for the next generation. Odets’s politicized, left-leaning writing epitomized the discontent of the masses during the height of the Great Depression. His work was particularly reflective of the ethnic diversity (and correlating oppression) of lower-income residents of urban environments. Odets’s characters stand out in the theatrical canon for their highly political and philosophical reflections of daily struggles.

Facts and Trivia

  • Before becoming a playwright for the Group Theatre, Odets tried briefly and unsuccessfully to be an actor.
  • Many of Odets’s plays and screenplays were later adapted into stage musicals, including Golden Boy and the Tony Award-winning but short-lived Sweet Smell of Success.
  • Following the demise of the Group Theatre, Odets went to Hollywood and became a successful screenwriter.
  • Awake and Sing!, Odets’s 1935 play, was revived on Broadway more than seventy years later featuring an all-star cast that included Mark Ruffalo and Lauren Ambrose.
  • Like fellow Group Theatre Alumna Elia Kazan, Odets named names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, resulting in the blacklisting of many of his former colleagues.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226283-Odets.jpg Clifford Odets Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Clifford Odets’s banner year was 1935, when he catapulted from the obscurity of acting with the Group Theatre to being the toast of Broadway. Odets became a founding member of the newly formed Group Theatre in 1931 after brief acting stints elsewhere.

His rise to fame began in 1935 with Waiting for Lefty, an agitprop play he wrote in three days late in 1934, rushing to enable its entrance in a New Masses contest. It was presented the following January at a New Masses benefit. Waiting for Lefty consisted of six vignettes around a central theme: a strike by taxicab drivers.

The play transfixed audiences. At the end, with the revelation that Lefty, the union organizer, has been killed, the audience is asked what the cab drivers should do. There is a collective cry of “Strike, Strike, Strike.” Few plays have caught the public imagination as quickly as Waiting for Lefty. Within two months, it played all over the Western world, and it won Yale University’s George Pierce Baker Drama Cup.

Meanwhile, the Group Theatre, seeking to capitalize on Odets’s celebrity, quickly staged Awake and Sing! (pr. 1935) , an adaptation of his 910 Eden Street, which had never been produced. Meanwhile Odets dashed off a short play, Till the Day I Die (pr. 1935), to create a double bill with Waiting for Lefty, whose running time of less than one hour made it too short to be staged singly. By March, Odets had three plays on Broadway and a commitment for a Broadway production of his Paradise Lost for the 1935-1936 theater season.

Clifford Odets was born to twenty-year-old Lithuanian immigrant Louis J. Odets and his nineteen-year-old wife, Pearl Geisinger Odets. Louis Odets, a feeder in a print shop, hotly pursued the American dream of affluence. He moved his family from Philadelphia to the Bronx and bought his own print shop there.

Louis was upper middle class by the time Clifford was a teenager. The son, however, deplored both the bourgeois values his father embraced and his father’s contempt for anything artistic, especially his son’s interests in writing and theater. He smashed Clifford’s typewriter to keep him from writing so much. Odets was closer to...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

Clifford Odets Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Clifford Odets essentially became a rebel without a cause. His considerable talents as a playwright were not lost, as his last three plays attest, but the anger that he played out with such conviction in his plays of the 1930’s had cooled by the end of the decade. When the economic crisis against which he had railed had played out, Odets could find little left to replace it. Despite that, he remains one of the most inventive American dramatists of the twentieth century.

Clifford Odets Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Clifford Odets was born in Philadelphia to a twenty-year-old Lithuanian immigrant, Louis J. Odets, and his nineteen-year-old wife, Pearl Geisinger Odets, who had come to the United States from Romania, often called “Austria” by the Geisingers. Odets was the first of three children, and he was closer in many ways to his Aunt Esther and her husband than he was to his sickly, chronically depressed mother and somewhat combative father. “Tante Esther,” as he called her, had been just enough older than her sister Pearl when they arrived in the United States that she remembered Yiddish and was able to speak it. Her husband, Israel Rossman, read Yiddish newspapers, and in the Rossman household, the young Odets was exposed to cadences of language that were absent from his parents’ home and that he was to use effectively in dialogue throughout his career. Indeed, Odets was more successful than any playwright of his time in capturing the speech cadences and intonations of Jewish Americans.

Odets’s father rose quickly to middle-class status. By the early 1920’s, Louis Odets was owner of a print shop in the Bronx. As the fortunes of the family improved, however, Odets began to feel spiritually alienated from the bourgeois values of his parents. He was moving gradually into what would be his vocation by affiliating himself with such theatrical groups as the Drawing-Room Players, Harry Kemp’s Poets’ Theatre, the Mae Desmond Stock Company, and, for a short time in 1929, the Theatre Guild. It was not until 1931, however, that he found his spiritual home in the newly formed Group Theatre. His writing was to be shaped by the philosophy of the Group Theatre, in which, as Harold Clurman wrote in The Fervent Years, “there were to be no stars . . . not for the negative purpose of avoiding distinction, but because all distinction . . . was to be embodied in the production as a whole.” Odets’s plays, reflecting this...

(The entire section is 792 words.)

Clifford Odets Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Clifford Odets (oh-DEHTS) touched an exposed nerve in theatergoing Americans with his agitprop drama Waiting for Lefty, which he wrote in three days in January, 1935, as an entry in a New Theatre-New Masses drama contest. In a United States gripped by the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Odets cast the spotlight on the Depression’s resultant labor strife, depicting the unrest of taxicab drivers gathered in a union hall waiting for their organizer, Lefty. Odets presents brief, poignant vignettes of people from all walks of life who, in order to survive, have had to become cabdrivers. In the end, it is revealed that Lefty will not arrive: He has been shot in the head outside the union hall. When Agate, one of those waiting for Lefty, receives the news, he rises and asks the cabbies what to do. Aroused theater audiences join the cabbies in the strident chant, “Strike, Strike, Strike!”

So affecting was Waiting for Lefty that Odets, son of a moderately successful businessman, Louis Odets, was catapulted to fame. From 1931, the young playwright had pursued a career as an actor with the Group Theater, where he had honed his playwriting skills. Before 1935 ended, Odets had three plays besides Waiting for Lefty on Broadway. Odets immediately wrote a short play, Till the Day I Die, which focuses on Communists in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, to play on a twin bill with Lefty; it was too short for a full evening’s entertainment.

By mid-February, Odets’s Awake and Sing!, a story of the effects the Depression has on a middle-class Jewish family, opened. In autumn, the Group Theater presented Paradise Lost, Odets’s...

(The entire section is 697 words.)

Clifford Odets Biography

(Drama for Students)

Odets was born on July 18, 1906, in Philadelphia. Odets’s father, Louis, was a printer who owned his own printing plant by the time Odets...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Clifford Odets Biography

(Drama for Students)

Playwright Clifford Odets was born on July 18, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Louis and Pearl Odets, who were Jewish immigrants of...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Clifford Odets Biography

(Drama for Students)

Clifford Odets is best-known for his early, Depression-era dramas, particularly Waiting for Lefty, an overt work of propaganda that...

(The entire section is 702 words.)