Clifford Odets

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Clifford Odets American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2430

Critics are beginning to reconsider the full body of Clifford Odets’s writing. Because he was initially viewed as a proletarian playwright, many critics expected him to write proletarian plays forever. When this expectation was not met, they were disappointed. The overt anger, vigor, and vitality of the early plays was lacking in the later ones, largely because a changing society had robbed Odets of the topic he was most effective in writing about, the exploitation of working-class people by capitalists.

Odets might have redirected his anger to other topics in the 1940’s and 1950’s—the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (by which he was personally affected), the Joseph McCarthy witch hunts, U.S. involvement in the Korean War, government waste, women’s rights, racial discrimination, and anti-Semitism. A number of contemporary playwrights have taken on such topics.

Had Odets followed such a course, his anger might not have been viewed as genuine. Odets had moved into a new socioeconomic sphere, but doing so did not preclude his writing important and meaningful plays. Critics argue that Odets did not do his most effective writing in Rocket to the Moon, Night Music, or Clash by Night. He wrote these plays during a period of considerable personal upheaval, but even in them, he shows considerable concern for working people.

A seven-year gap followed the production of Clash by Night. During this time, Odets continued to write for Hollywood film companies, but many of his scripts were shelved. His disenchantment with the film industry grew and finally found expression in 1949 with the production of The Big Knife (pr. 1949), a pointed indictment of some of the practices of film corporations.

Just as taxicab drivers had been exploited in Waiting for Lefty and a promising boxer-violinist had been exploited by commercial forces in Golden Boy, Charlie Castle is being exploited by a Hollywood studio pressuring him to sign a fourteen-year, four-million-dollar film contract. Charlie resists selling himself to the studios, but he then becomes responsible for a fatal hit-and-run automobile accident. The studio has finagled a deal for Buddy Bliss, Charlie’s publicist, to accept responsibility for tragedy. The bill for their corrupt involvement falls due: Charlie must sign with the studio or be outed and brought to justice.

Audiences and critics found it difficult to sympathize with someone whose problem was that he was being blackmailed into signing a contract that would bring him four million dollars. Charlie is not like the taxicab drivers in Lefty. He is, however, not unlike Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, and in indirect ways he bears a striking resemblance to the Clifford Odets who left the Group Theatre and, in his own eyes, sold out to Hollywood. Even though The Big Knife was not successful on stage in 1949, the play is well structured and filled with bristling dialogue. It appeared therapeutic for Odets to vent his feelings in such a play.

His next play, The Country Girl, despite a limited stage run in 1950, was successful as a film. The play marks a departure for Odets because it essentially has just two people in the cast, although there are minor characters in it as well. This action focuses on Frank Elgin, a down-and-out actor—an alcoholic who is being given one more chance to salvage himself and his career. His wife, Georgie, having assumed a maternal role in Frank’s life, vows to help him overcome his alcoholism and regain his status as an actor.

The play afforded actors two extremely challenging roles, one for Frank, who must come across as a weak character and deceptive, mendacious, and unsure of himself. In opposition to him is the long-suffering wife-mother whose marriage is about to collapse because of Frank’s problem but who makes one final, monumental effort to redeem him. Odets succeeded in building such incredible tensions between his two major characters that the action throughout remains taut almost to the breaking point. In that respect, the play is masterful.

In the last of Odets’s plays, The Flowering Peach, produced and published in 1954, the author returns to the kinds of roots that made Awake and Sing! the hit it was in 1935. The Flowering Peach is Odets’s version of the parable of Noah and the Ark. Noah and his family bear a resemblance to the three generations living in Bessie Berger’s respectable household. The kind of gentle wit one finds in Awake and Sing! is repeated by a Noah whose son Japheth is a confirmed skeptic and whose son Ham is a materialist with an eye to making business even as the world teeters on the brink of destruction. The Yiddish American vernacular in this last Odets play marks a welcome return to the authentic dialogue that characterizes plays such as Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost.

One finds definite influences from the Group Theatre in many of Odets’s plays. Because the Group discouraged the star system that such organizations as the Theater Guild promoted, its directors—Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman—favored ensemble plays in which six or eight characters play roughly equivalent parts. Odets certainly had this preference in mind when he wrote Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost, and he returns to it in his final production, The Flowering Peach.

Waiting for Lefty

First produced: 1935 (first published, 1935)

Type of work: Play

In discrete vignettes, six taxicab drivers tell their stories and consider how to protect their interests.

In Waiting for Lefty, Odets captures fully the folk idiom of the six people on whom his play focuses. Each is a taxicab driver. Each has a story to tell. The six characters come from several walks of life but have one thing in common: They are forced by economic necessity to become cab drivers. Each exemplifies the antagonism that exists between the values of the business community and the human values of the play’s protagonists.

In the six vignettes, connected only by the job that the actors have in common, Odets explores such matters as collective bargaining, anti-Semitism, environmental irresponsibility, family cohesiveness, and the exploitation of the masses. The big question the play poses concerns the extent to which workers should control their own destinies. A union organizer, who does not appear on stage, is scheduled to meet with them to discuss means by which workers can deal with big business. Lefty never arrives because he has been murdered on his way to the meeting. When his death is revealed, the audience, already at fever pitch, is drawn into the action of the play with the cry to “Strike, Strike, Strike.”

Waiting for Lefty was premiered on January 14, 1935, and was staged innovatively, played on a blacked-out stage with the characters projected as shadows created by directional lighting. From the standpoint of play production, Waiting for Lefty was just what amateur groups were looking for. It had the simplest of sets, and its very structure lent it a versatility and flexibility that made it appealing to producers and directors. News of this play quickly spread across the country and throughout Europe, where Waiting for Lefty was performed extensively.

The dialogue in this play is rapid-fire. One critic referred to its short, jabbing scenes and commented on how well Odets captured the speech rhythms of the characters who told their stories in their highly charged vignettes. Nevertheless, the play, which was so right for its time, lacks the timely appeal of some of Odets’s other plays. Michael Mendelsohn in Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist (1969) muses that Waiting for Lefty has become dated, as dead as yesterday’s newspaper, which is probably an apt assessment.

Awake and Sing!

First produced: 1935 (first published, 1935)

Type of work: Play

Three generations of a Jewish American family in the Bronx cope with the economic upheaval of the Great Depression.

Three generations of the Berger family live under one roof. The mother, Bessie, is the glue that has held the family together during difficult times. She is fearful that she, like an old woman on nearby Dawson Street, will be evicted from her home, her belongings put out on the street around her.

Odets has a well-balanced cast in Awake and Sing!. Bessie, whose father, Jakob, a left-leaning idealist, lives in her house, has a subdued husband, Myron, and two children, Ralph and Hennie. She has also taken in a boarder to enhance her slim budget. Appearances mean everything to Bessie, who wants little more from life than respectability. Her decent existence is severely threatened. She has already coped with one assault on her family’s respectability, her daughter Hennie’s pregnancy out of wedlock, but she forces Hennie into a loveless marriage to the boarder to whom she rents a room.

The son, Ralph, is appalled by the shotgun union his mother has engineered. An unemployed idealist, Ralph sides philosophically with his grandfather. Jakob rails against families, saying, “This is a house? Marx said it—abolish such families.” Ralph complains that life should not be printed on dollar bills. The vernacular Odets achieves in this play is precisely the vernacular of the kinds of people around whom he grew up and whose speech patterns imprinted themselves indelibly on his mind.

In this play, Odets claimed that he was writing not about individuals so much as about a whole social class being sundered by economic problems beyond their control. One solution he offers is particularly chilling and ironic. Jakob, the idealist, disenchanted with the society in which he lives, goes to the roof of the building in which the Bergers reside and throws himself into the street below. Before he does this, however, he makes Ralph the beneficiary on his five-thousand-dollar life insurance policy, expecting this will give Ralph new hope. In creating this ending, Odets shows the confusion of value systems under which some of his characters were living. Jakob, who would abolish families, gives Ralph the wherewithal to marry and create a family. Ralph, who does not want life printed on dollar bills, ironically is saved by five thousand such bills that will assure his future, at least for a while.

Paradise Lost

First produced: 1935 (first published, 1936)

Type of work: Play

A middle-class family, the Gordons, becomes increasingly pressured by the Great Depression and by the dishonesty of the father’s business partner.

Odets thought better of Paradise Lost than most Broadway critics did. The play, although disappointing in many respects, is significant for its almost flawless development of the character of Sam Katz, the dishonest business partner of Leo Gordon, the head of the Gordon household. Odets considered Paradise Lost the most profound of his four dramatic productions to that time. Joseph Wood Krutch, a leading critic of the 1930’s, on the other hand, called the play a mere burlesque on Awake and Sing!, although that criticism was probably more harsh than the play deserved.

Odets, in this play, attempted to deal with the same problems of the Great Depression that had afflicted the Bergers in Awake and Sing!, but he chose to examine these problems from the perspective of a family of higher social standing than the Bergers. His differentiation is between the lower and upper middle class.

Whereas the Bergers could not afford to pay to have their son’s teeth fixed, the Gordons had grown used to a relatively comfortable existence and had managed to acquire a few luxuries, such as an expensive piano, in the years before the economic chaos of the early 1930’s. As in Awake and Sing!, Odets’s major focus in Paradise Lost encompasses a class of people. He writes about their aspirations, thwarted by forces outside their control. They essentially seem like pawns in a great malevolent chess game.

The most compelling characters in Paradise Lost are Sam Katz and his wife, Bertha, who are prototypes for Frank Elgin and Georgie in The Country Girl. Sam has been Leo Gordon’s partner for several years, but unbeknownst to Leo, Sam is basically dishonest and has embezzled from the company. Sam’s problem is impotence, which he cannot admit to. He blames Bertha for their not having children. Like Georgie, Bertha is long-suffering and sympathetic. She nurtures Sam, calling him a good boy and allowing him to live with his delusions. Like Georgie, she is the wife-mother that a man as insecure as Sam needs.

The list of problems facing the Gordon family is so daunting that it plunges Paradise Lost in the category of melodrama. Not only does Leo lose his business and uncover the duplicity of his trusted partner, but his son is dying of encephalitis. His other son, Ben, once an Olympic runner, turns to crime and is felled by a policeman’s bullets. The daughter Pearl, who seemingly can succeed at nothing, becomes a recluse, after which Leo is forced into bankruptcy and the family is evicted from their home.

Golden Boy

First produced: 1937 (first published, 1937)

Type of work: Play

Joe Bonaparte, a promising violinist, is also a boxer who, by following this avocation, injures his hands and destroys his musical possibilities.

The first of Odets’s plays since Waiting for Lefty not to employ the Yiddish American vernacular at which Odets was so adept, Golden Boy is also the first play he wrote after going to California to write film scripts. In this play, Joe Bonaparte, a poor youth from humble circumstances, is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to continue in boxing, which will bring him substantial material rewards but will compromise his wish to have a career as a violinist. At the time he wrote this play, Odets was facing a personal crisis not unlike Joe’s, but he sought to assuage his pain at leaving the Group Theatre by writing a play for them that might relieve some of the financial pressures that threatened to force the Group to disband.

In Awake and Sing!, Moe Axelrod, the cynic, speaks of “One thing to get another.” Making choices is what life is all about. Joe Bonaparte opts for the comfort and security that boxing will afford him. He enjoys the outward manifestations of his success, particularly his supercharged Duesenberg roadster, but, as Gerard Weales has observed, he suffers from “the disintegration brought on by success.” The very sensitivity that a good musician needs is antithetical to the qualities that good fighters need. It is too late for Joe to turn back. His hands are damaged beyond repair, and now he faces failure as a boxer. His end comes when he crashes his Duesenberg and dies from the impact.

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Clifford Odets Drama Analysis