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.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 936

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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 his aunt and uncle, Esther and Israel Rossman, than to his parents. They spoke in the Jewish American cadences that Odets later incorporated into his plays.

In 1923, Clifford dropped out of high school and worked with the Drawing Room Players, Harry Kemp’s Poets’ Theatre, and Mae Desmond’s stock company. In 1929, he joined the Theatre Guild, but he left in 1931, going to the Group Theatre as a founding member.

Although Odets longed to be part of a family, he felt little closeness to his parents or his two sisters, Florence and Genevieve. The Group became his surrogate family. Members of the company lived together and cared about one another.

The success of Odets’s first four plays posed a difficult problem for him. Whereas he had been living, as he once said, on ten cents a day, Hollywood studios now offered him tempting financial incentives to become a script writer. He capitulated in 1936, going West to write the script for The General Died at Dawn (1936). Odets felt guilty for having succumbed to Hollywood’s enticements, thereby tacitly acceding to the bourgeois standards he deplored in his own father. In Hollywood, Odets met Austrian actress Luise Rainer, whom he married in 1937.

Golden Boy, produced in 1937, resulted from the anguish he felt at selling out. He wrote this new play specifically for the Group. It focuses on a Golden Gloves boxer who is forced to abandon his aspirations. Odets faced a personal choice similar to that facing golden boy Joe Bonaparte. This play helped rescue the Group Theatre from almost certain financial collapse, enabling it to stay afloat for a few more years. Odets’s next play, Rocket to the Moon (pr. 1938), about an amorous dentist, disappointed critics as well as audiences.

At the onset of World War II, the U.S. economy recovered and unemployment was virtually eliminated. The social problems that enraged Odets in the 1930’s faded. However, his life was beginning to fall apart. The Group Theatre was on the brink of dissolution. His marriage ended in divorce in 1941. People pondered the question posed by Frank Nugent on viewing Odets’s first film: “Odets, where is thy sting?”

Odets’s next play, Night Music (pr. 1940), did not succeed, and several of his Hollywood film scripts remained unproduced, as did his film script for Night Music. His final play during this period, Clash by Night (pr. 1941), had a disappointing run. Meanwhile, Odets met actress Betty Grayson, whom he married in 1943 and with whom he had two children, Nora and Walt. In 1951, three years before Grayson’s death, she divorced Odets.

In 1952, the House Committee on Un-American Activities summoned Odets because he was suspected of having communist ties. During its inquisition, he gave the committee the names of associates who perhaps had communist affiliations, as many intellectuals in the 1930’s did. Odets never forgave himself for buckling under the pressure of the congressional inquiry.

Between 1949 and 1954, he had three plays produced, of which The Country Girl (pr. 1950) was the most successful. It was turned into a film that brought its star, Grace Kelly, an Academy Award for best actress. In his final decade, Odets wrote less, although when he died of cancer in 1963, he had completed four new scripts for The Richard Boone Show and was under contract to write nine more. The year after his death, a musical version of Golden Boy, a collaboration with William Gibson, was produced on Broadway.

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