Clifford Odets

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Clifford Odets Drama Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3886

In an interview with Arthur Wagner conducted two years before Clifford Odets’s death but not published in Harper’s Magazine until September of 1966, Odets told Wagner, “The question is really not one of knowing how to write so much as knowing how to connect with yourself so that the writing is, so to speak, born affiliated with yourself.” When he was dealing with the pressing social problems of the 1930’s, which were times of great national pain that spilled over into the lives of individuals and into the conduct of families, Odets was connecting with himself. He was writing from deep personal conviction intensified by moral outrage at a society that could do no better for its members than to allow the economic and social dissolution that the Depression brought.

Waiting for Lefty

Economic and social determinism is significantly present in all of Odets’s major plays, and Waiting for Lefty is no exception. Despite its brevity, it makes eloquent statements on a broad range of topics, ranging from family life to anti-Semitism to collective bargaining to the ecological irresponsibility of capitalist producers of poison gas. The overwhelming question posed by the play is whether workers should have control over their own destinies, a question that recurs in Odets’s later plays. Although the last curtain leaves no doubt about the answer Odets proposes, it is clear that the social and economic pressure under which his characters are laboring will not magically disappear.

As often happens with social drama, Waiting for Lefty, which Brooks Atkinson called “fiercely dramatic in the theater,” has become, as Michael Mendelsohn wrote, “as dead as last year’s newspaper.” This earliest of Odets’s plays, an agitprop piece written in great haste to be presented at workers’ meetings, was to catapult its author into public recognition and to offer him the opportunity to become a successful Broadway playwright.

Waiting for Lefty was intended to be a play about “the stormbirds of the working class”; the play is more accurately described as being about “declassed members of the middle class,” as John Howard Lawson contends. The principals in the play are from various walks of life. They have two things in common: They are taxicab drivers, and they earn their living in this way because the Depression has made it impossible for them to follow other pursuits. The drivers and those close to them are examples of men with thwarted ambitions and broken dreams; external economic forces are determining their lives. They meet to consider whether they should strike, and as the strike is discussed, various drivers tell their stories in the several vignettes of which the play is composed. Mendelsohn rightly perceived that the play succeeds dramatically because of its “interplay between personal lives and collective action.” Odets was himself middle-class, his audiences were middle-class, and the play is essentially middle-class, despite Odets’s polemics to the contrary. This accounts for the play’s initial success with its audiences. A middle-class audience could feel empathy with middle-class protagonists who had been brought to the level of the working class by the Depression.

Till the Day I Die

Waiting for Lefty, which plays in less than an hour, was too short to be taken to Broadway as an evening’s entertainment. The play and its writer were in great demand with all sorts of political groups, and the publicity generated by the play made producers eager to bring it to Broadway, where Awake and Sing! had just opened. In order to round out an evening of theater, Odets wrote Till the Day I Die, one of the early anti-Nazi plays to appear on Broadway. The play, which foc uses on the situation of Communists in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, is somewhat trivial, although in it one can recognize the beginning of themes that Odets was to develop later. For example, the protagonist, Ernst Tausig, is brought in for questioning by the storm troopers, who smash his right hand with a rifle butt. This leads eventually to amputation, a particularly difficult outcome for Ernst, who is a violinist. (Similarly, in Golden Boy, Joe Bonaparte is a promising violinist, but he destroys his hands by becoming a prizewinning boxer, led into this activity by economic necessity rather than by choice.) Ernst Tausig commits suicide, finally, and if any ray of hope is offered, it is a questionable one: Ernst’s mistress, Tilly, is pregnant and presumably will produce a child who will carry on. What this child is likely to become in Hitler’s Germany is doubtful. Till the Day I Die was dashed off in five days, and the play is less than convincing. As a curtain opener for Waiting for Lefty, it served its commercial purposes at the expense of artistic integrity; its value is historical rather than artistic.

Awake and Sing!

The backdrop of the Depression pervades Awake and Sing! Those who expected another play with the political fervor and intense anger of Waiting for Lefty found instead that Awake and Sing! was an accurate view of Jewish family life and of the effect of the Depression on three generations of the Berger family, all living under one roof. The play focuses primarily on the two members of the youngest generation, Ralph and Hennie. Both are thwarted because of the economic pressures under which they live. Hennie is trapped in a marriage contrived by her mother, who cannot bear the thought of her daughter mothering an illegitimate child. Her brother, Ralph, the idealist, can proclaim, “We don’t want life printed on dollar bills,” but his whole existence is so economically determined that he has little control over his life. The grandfather, Jacob, also an idealist, complains, “This is a house? Marx said it—abolish such families.” Jacob commits suicide in the end, leaving to Ralph the small legacy that his insurance policy will provide: a slender but unconvincing thread of hope. Bessie Berger, the mother of the household, lives in fear that her family will collapse and her home be taken away: “They threw out a family on Dawson Street today. All the furniture on the sidewalk. A fine old woman with gray hair.” Ever concerned with appearances, Bessie proclaims ingenuously, “I like my house to look respectable,” and acts to keep it that way no matter what deceptions she must engage in to maintain the appearance. Odets is at his best in Awake and Sing! He is close to his blood ties: He knows his characters, and the play exudes authenticity.

Paradise Lost

Speaking of Awake and Sing!, Odets said that his “interest was not in the presentation of an individual’s problems, but in those of a whole class.” One must bear this statement in mind when approaching Paradise Lost, in which the trials visited on the Gordon family are so numerous and so close together in time that they put one in mind of the most melodramatic of soap operas. In this play, which, like Awake and Sing!, is Chekhovian in its characterization and structure, Odets deals with an upper-middle-class family caught in the grip of the Depression.

As the threat of economic annihilation closes in on the Gordons, Leo, the father, loses his business, largely through the deception of an unscrupulous partner. One of his sons, Julie, is dying of encephalitis. The other son, Ben, a former Olympic runner, is felled by a policeman’s bullets in a chase following a robbery he committed in order to get money for his wife and family. Leo’s daughter, Pearl, frustrated in her musical and personal ambitions, becomes a virtual recluse. Ultimately, the family is evicted when Leo’s business plunges into bankruptcy.

Odets considered Paradise Lost his most profound play. Most of the critics did not agree, with even such perceptive commentators as Joseph Wood Krutch suggesting that the play was a mere burlesque of Awake and Sing! Few could see through the melodrama and sentimentality of Paradise Lost to what Odets was struggling to communicate. Harold Clurman, writing in his introduction to the published version of the play, contended quite correctly that it is about middle-class people who have the “bewildering perception that everything [they intimately believe] is being denied by the actual conditions of contemporary society.” Metaphorically, the play, like Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!, is about an entire class of people who are being wiped out by the Depression. The Bergers represent the lower range of this class; the Gordons, the upper range. The middle class, upper or lower, is being dragged down by economic conditions over which they have no control. As in most of his plays, Odets wrote in Paradise Lost about blocked aspirations. The theme of nonfulfillment controls the play, whose only shred of hope comes in Leo’s final lengthy oration, which, in the face of such encompassing despair, is somewhat out of place and unconvincing.

The play, nevertheless, has strong vignettes, the best of which are found in the portrayal of Sam Katz, Leo’s dishonest business partner. Sam, sexually impotent, blames his long-suffering wife for their childlessness. Sam’s impotence can be taken to represent a general lack of the strength and will that might enable him to live as he desires. His wife-mother, Bertha, endures his taunts and his humiliation, comforting him at the end and calling him “a good boy.” In Sam and Bertha, Odets was beginning to develop the characters who emerged more fully developed as Ben and Belle in Rocket to the Moon and who reappeared in a somewhat different form in The Country Girl. His concern with a weak man in a childless marriage to a woman whose maternal feelings are directed at her spouse pervades these three plays.

Golden Boy

In Golden Boy, Joe Bonaparte’s artistic nature and his desire to be a concert violinist are at odds with the economic realities of his life. Bonaparte goes into boxing to make money, and in so doing, he ruins his sensitive hands and destroys any possibility that he might ultimately achieve his artistic goal. On a metaphoric level, Odets is suggesting quite cynically a philosophy that Moe Axelrod espoused in Awake and Sing!: “One thing to get another.” Life kills the dreamer, the artist, in the same way that Odets’s father had done everything in his power to make his son practical, to kill the dreamer in him.

Harold Clurman called Golden Boy Odets’s most subjective play. Odets held the play in some contempt, claiming to have written the play to be a hit in order to keep the Group Theatre together. Golden Boy, however, shows commendable control and artistic maturation. If one can overcome the early incongruity of a boxer who is also a sensitive violinist, the rest of the play is plausible and well made. Joe Bonaparte, the “golden boy” of the play’s title, falls victim to what Gerald Weales called “the disintegration brought on by success.” Joe makes the difficult decision to abandon his musical career in order to pursue a career in championship boxing. Ironically, he wins the championship fight but, in so doing, kills his opponent and forecloses all hope of returning to his music.

Joe grows increasingly alienated from his society as he realizes that he has sold out. His trainer cautions him, “Your heart ain’t in fighting . . . your hate is.” Joe changes in the course of the play from a youth who is sensitive about being cross-eyed to a necessarily hardened figure: Sensitivity, an asset for a musician, is a liability for a boxer. Ultimately, Joe becomes a piece of property (this theme recurs forcefully in The Big Knife). Joe gets his Duesenberg, a clear and visible symbol of economic success, but he dies when the car crashes, a conclusion with a dramatic impact not unlike that left on audiences who learn at the end of Waiting for Lefty that Lefty has been found shot to death in an alley. Whereas the news of Lefty’s death forces the taxicab drivers to rise to action, the news of Joe Bonaparte’s death leaves audiences with a dull, pervasive ache for the human condition.

Golden Boy was Odets’s first drama to underplay the Yiddish-English dialect of his earlier work. In this departure, one sees a playwright trying to broaden his range, trying to reduce his dependence on his Jewish heritage. Rocket to the Moon, Night Music, and Clash by Night represented a new direction for Odets. The years in which these plays were written were those during which Odets was married to and divorced from Luise Rainer, and the plays themselves are much concerned with questions of love and marriage. Night Music is concerned with young love and the effects of economic uncertainty on it, while the other two are concerned with romantic triangles. Odets is tentative in these plays. His personal concerns have shifted from those of an artist struggling to establish himself and to survive during the Depression to those of someone who is concerned primarily with the tensions that two people experience in a love relationship and in marriage.

Rocket to the Moon

Rocket to the Moon is an unfocused drama about the tedious dalliance of a middle-aged dentist with Cleo, his receptionist. Unfortunately, Odets allowed himself to be sidetracked in this play, concentrating more on Ben Stark, the dentist, than on Cleo, the receptionist, who could have been drawn with sufficient psychological complexity to bring some intensity into the drama. The sensitivity with which Odets portrayed Sam and Bertha Katz in Paradise Lost was not repeated in Rocket to the Moon, although Ben and Belle indisputably resemble Sam and Bertha. This play is at best tawdry and represents an artistic setback for its author. Odets was at this time able neither to distance himself sufficiently from his own problems to practice his profession at its highest level, nor to use his own suffering and confusion to enrich his art. Some of Odets’s remarkable ability to sketch characters is, nevertheless, evident in Rocket to the Moon. Belle’s father, Mr. Prince, is drawn with great skill, and in him one sees a bit of what Odets was beginning to fancy himself to be—someone who had gained material security but who was essentially unloved. When Mr. Prince suggests that Cleo might marry him, she rejects the offer, saying, “Next week I’ll buy myself a dog.”

Night Music

The theme of Night Music is homelessness. Steve Takis, the protagonist, is known as “Suitcase Steve” because he always carries a suitcase with him and constantly moves from place to place. He has been sent East on an incredible errand to pick up two apes for a Hollywood film studio and to accompany them back to the West Coast. One of the apes snatches a gold locket from Fay Tucker, the police become involved, and Steve is arrested and then released, his apes being held as security. He approaches Fay with indignation for the trouble she has caused him, and, predictably, the two fall in love. The play’s most sympathetic character, Detective A. L. Rosenberg, helps the couple, but Rosenberg, the symbol of good in a hostile world, is dying of cancer. The play’s didacticism overcomes its warmth and its occasional gentle tenderness. The symbols are heavy-handed, and the interesting themes of personal isolation, homelessness, and loneliness, which had been themes of some prominence in all of Odets’s earlier plays, here seem completely trivial.

Clash by Night

Clash by Night was written as Odets’s marriage fell apart and as the Group Theatre was reaching the point of disbanding. Between the time the play opened out of town and the time it opened on Broadway, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and national attention was on more serious matters than the sordid love triangle around which this play revolves. Clash by Night is about Mae Wilenski and her lackluster husband, Jerry. Mae is bored with her life, and before the end of act 1, she is involved in a love affair with Earl Pfeiffer, a boarder in the Wilenski household. The action plays out quite slowly, each act being interlarded with echoes of Odets’s social fervor; in a subplot, for example, Joe and Peggy have been engaged for two years and are unable to marry because Joe works only three days a week, a situation rather unconvincing to audiences in a society gearing up for war and recruiting every available able-bodied citizen to work in defense jobs. Ultimately, Jerry is led by jealousy to murder Earl, an interesting outcome in this love triangle involving two men and a woman as opposed to the two women-one man triangle in Rocket to the Moon. Whereas Belle takes Ben back, perhaps to nurture him but more likely to torture him for the rest of his days, Jerry must strike out in a manly way and seek vengeance through killing his rival.

The Big Knife

A seven-year gap separated Clash by Night from Odets’s next Broadway production, The Big Knife. The play focuses on Hollywood’s exploitation of Charlie Castle, an actor who has just been offered a fourteen-year movie contract worth four million dollars. Charlie, however, does not wish to sign. Like Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, he is in danger of becoming merely a piece of property, and Charlie recoils from allowing the studio to own him. The complication is that Charlie was involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident for which he and the studio have permitted his publicity man, Buddy Bliss, to take the rap. The studio now attempts to force Charlie to sign the contract under threat of revealing the real facts of the accident. In a sense, Odets was back to arguing the worker-management conflict with which he first dealt in Waiting for Lefty; the argument against management is somewhat less convincing, however, when management is paying the worker as handsomely as it is here, even though the principle may be similar.

The play sheds some light on the false standards of Hollywood society, presenting interesting scenes that spotlight such realities of Hollywood life as the control that gossip columnists have over actors’ lives. Charlie Castle calls free speech “the highest-priced luxury in this country today,” and he attacks the superficiality of Hollywood relationships by saying, “I’ll bet you don’t know why we all wear these beautiful, expensive ties in Hollywood. . . . It’s a military tactic—we hope you won’t notice our faces.” Odets thus gave vent to the resentment that had been growing in him during the decade since he first went to Hollywood as a screenwriter. The Big Knife is tightly structured, and its dramatic intensity is at times superb, but its basic premise is difficult to accept, and Charlie Castle’s suicide at the end is more melodramatic than artistically valid.

The Country Girl

The Country Girl followed The Big Knife in 1950, and in it Odets revived some of the controlling ideas of his earlier plays. The protagonist, Frank Elgin, is an aging actor who has fallen on hard times, largely because of his alcoholism, brought about by the accidental death of his young son, for which he blames himself. Frank’s wife, Georgie, is a wife-mother recalling Bertha Katz and Belle Stark. Bernie Dodd, a director, has given Frank one last chance for a comeback. He insists that if Frank begins drinking again, he will dismiss him immediately. Bernie, who first detests Georgie, later is strongly attracted to her, creating a love triangle. This love triangle differs from Odets’s previous ones, however, in that Georgie and Bernie are ironically united in their efforts to rehabilitate Frank. The psychological complexity of the play makes it conceptually stronger than Rocket to the Moon or Clash by Night.

In numerous rewrites, the role of Georgie was drastically changed from that of a nagging wife to that of a firm but understanding and supportive marriage partner. The love relationship that grows between Georgie and Bernie is the timeworn love-hate relationship. Frank remains largely oblivious to it until near the end of the last act. In the end, despite lapses along the way, Frank succeeds in acting his part well and in paving the way for the comeback toward which he has been struggling. The role of Frank provides a challenging vehicle for an actor to play a weak, insecure character, a pathological liar who successfully undergoes a difficult rehabilitation. Still, Frank’s triumph at the end, accompanied by Georgie’s decision to stay with him, leaves doubts in the minds of the audience. Throughout the play, Georgie’s relationship to Frank has been based on her providing strength for a weak husband. If Frank has overcome his weakness, one must seriously question whether the relationship will give Georgie what she needs. If he has not overcome his weakness, then they are back exactly where they began. Odets himself viewed The Country Girl as a theater piece and disparaged the play’s artistry, although he was pleased with certain technical aspects of it, especially the much-revised ending.

The Flowering Peach

In his last play, The Flowering Peach, Odets returned to his blood sources. The family in the play, reminiscent of the Bergers in Awake and Sing!, speaks in the Yiddish-English dialect of Odets’s earlier characters. The Flowering Peach is a version of the Noah story and largely concerns Noah, to whom God appears in a dream, predicting the Flood; Noah’s attempts to build the Ark; and his conflicts with his son, Japheth, who, even when he comes to believe the truth of his father’s dream, refuses to enter the Ark as a protest against a cruel God who would destroy the earth. Japheth finds himself on the Ark only because his father knocks him out and has him carried aboard. Once there, the father-son conflict, the conflict between faith and reason, again erupts. Japheth is convinced that the Ark should have a rudder; his father is equally convinced that God will direct the Ark as He intends.

The Flowering Peach is a warm and satisfying play. In it, Odets again explores the family as a unit, and he does so with sensitivity and with a sentimentality that, in this play, is not unbecoming. The dialogue is easy and natural, and tensions are reduced by the inclusion of amusing wisecracks. The Flowering Peach was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, the first time that such recognition had come to an Odets play, but the Pulitzer Prize’s advisory board overruled the jurors and gave the prize for the 1954-1955 season to Tennessee Williams for his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Flowering Peach, a play of great affirmation, has yet to receive the recognition that many believe it deserves.

Odets wrote to Eugene Gross, “Nothing moves me so much as human aspirations blocked, nothing enrages me like waste. I am for use as opposed to abuse.” All of his plays, with the possible exception of The Flowering Peach, have a deep and controlling concern with the question of blocked aspirations, and this persistent concern with a universal human problem gives Odets’s work a lasting value, despite the dated topical themes of many of his plays.

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