Clifford Odets Biography

Clifford Odets Biography

Clifford Odets’s 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.


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...

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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.

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