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...
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