Clifford Odets

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Clifford Odets 1906-1963

Odets was one of the most prominent American playwrights of the 1930s. His first significant play, the one-act "Waiting for Lefty," with its leftist philosophy and powerful, realistic conflicts, was an immediate sensation when it was produced in 1935. Telling the story of a taxi drivers' union that is preparing to take a strike vote, "Waiting for Lefty," like many of Odets' other plays, depicts the search by working-class characters for a place in modern society. His works have sometimes been narrowly defined as mere "agitprop"—agitation-propaganda—plays, but Odets sought to move beyond the confines of political writing to address such issues as love, family, and personal integrity. Today, Odets' plays retain a historical significance for their depictions of American life after the Great Depression.


Odets was born in Philadelphia to Louis J. Odets and Pearl Geisinger Odets, and he grew up in a Jewish section of the Bronx in New York. His middle-class family had a prosperous business in the 1920s and was financially secure during the Depression. Odets quit high school and pursued poetry writing for a time, earning his father's anger and disappointment. When he decided to become a stage actor, his parents gave their qualified approval. He joined an amateur company and from 1925 to 1927 performed in radio plays, vaudeville acts, and summer stock productions. In 1930 he joined the Group Theatre. Founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasburg, the Group Theatre was intended to be a training program in which a unified acting method would forge the actors into a single organism. Furthermore, it was seen as an idealistic collective that would attempt to change society through the onstage presentation of politically activist views. Odets gained little recognition in the organization as an actor, but when the company began staging his plays, it achieved some of its most notable early successes. In 1935 four of Odets' plays were produced: "Waiting for Lefty" and the short play "Till the Day I Die" presented in a double bill, followed by the critically acclaimed Awake and Sing! and the critically attacked Paradise Lost. After the failure of this last play, Odets accepted a position as a scriptwriter for Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Refuting charges that he was "selling out," he contended that he could improve his craft and also help finance the Group Theatre. He returned to the Group Theatre in 1937 for the production of his next play, Golden Boy. This became the greatest commercial success of Odets' career. Following the failure of Odets' 1941 play, Clash by Night, the Group Theatre disbanded, and Odets returned to Hollywood. Although he continued to work in the theater, and had another success with The Country Girl in 1950, his most acclaimed later works were the scripts for such films as None but the Lonely Heart and Humoresque. Odets often spoke disparagingly of his film work, but he remained in Hollywood until his death.


Odets' career as a playwright is often divided by critics into three phases. The first and most important of these encompasses Odets' efforts as a proletarian dramatist. Odets joined the Communist Party in 1934, and "Waiting for Lefty," Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost were all written during his brief association with that group. These plays confirm leftist principles while declaring archaic the values of middle-class America. "Lefty" is so structured that the personal problems of the characters reflect the conflict between the labor union and the taxi company. Awake and Sing! examines the aspirations of a Jewish working-class family that has become disillusioned by an oppressive economic system. In Paradise Lost a middle-class businessman and his family are destroyed by a series of disasters. Each character in this play represents a particular middle-class value, and the catastrophes that befall them symbolize the fall of these values during the 1930s. The second phase of Odets' career includes plays involving personal relationships rather than direct social criticism. Golden Boy portrays the quest for success and the tragedies suffered as a result of faulty decisions and changes in values. The other plays in this group, Rocket to the Moon, Night Music, and Clash by Night, are love stories that focus more on plot and dialogue than on characterization and social commentary. The final phase of Odets' career comprises semi-autobiographical dramas with psychological overtones. Social commentary is nearly nonexistent in these late works. In The Big Knife a movie actor is offered a multimillion-dollar contract but wants to escape the corruption of the film industry and return to the New York stage. The Country Girl is about an alcoholic actor who attempts a comeback on Broadway with the help of his wife, on whom he is totally dependent. Odets' last play, The Flowering Peach, is adaptation of the biblical story of Noah. It is unusual in Odets' work for combining elements of comedy, philosophy, and theology.


By the end of 1935, Odets' impressive first year as a playwright, many critics were praising him as a genius who spoke for the American people. Later critics, however, considered Odets' early works propagandistic, with stereotypical characters and obvious messages. Recently, though, critics have begun to reappraise his plays, especially Awake and Sing! and The Flowering Peach. Odets' work is now appreciated for its moving dialogue and the author's belief in the nobility of humanity. The protagonists of Odets' plays are noted for their ceaseless battles to maintain their individuality despite pressure from the conformist forces of society. Odets has also been seen from a historical perspective as a skilled theatrical craftsman who captured the mood and spirit of a particular moment in the American experience.

Principal Works

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"Waiting for Lefty" 1935

"Till the Day I Die" 1935

Awake and Sing! 1935

Paradise Lost 1935

The Silent Partner 1936

Golden Boy 1937

Rocket to the Moon 1938

Night Music 1940

Clash by Night 1941

The Russian People [adaptor; from a play by Konstantin Simonov] 1942

The Big Knife 1949

The Country Girl 1950

The Flowering Peach 1954

Golden Boy, the Musical [with William Gibson] 1964


The General Died at Dawn 1936

None but the Lonely Heart [adaptor; from a novel by Richard Llewellyn] 1944

Deadline at Dawn [adaptor; from a novel by William Irish] 1945

Humoresque [adaptor with Zachary Gold; from a novel by Fannie Hurst] 1945

The Sweet Smell of Success [adaptor with Ernest Lehman; from a short story by Lehman] 1957

The Story on Page One 1959

Wild in the Country 1960

Author Commentary

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Some Problems of the Modern Dramatist (1935)

SOURCE: The New York Times, 15 December 1935, Section II, p. 1

[In the following article, Odets defends his technique of constructing plays without plots.]

No one will deny that all over the world today life is changing for better or worse for millions of human beings. Such changes have taken place before in history; and in each place where it has happened life has been a hell for the artist trying to express that time.

For as the established social order breaks down, the same process is working out in the artist's forms. Blithely, and with great talent, Mozart is able to spill twoscore or so symphonies on paper. Beethoven, a few years later, in a period of social flux, is able to write only nine, which means that the symphonic form was sufficiently stabilized for Mozart to keep minting out coins from the same mold, while his distinguished pupil had to make a new mold for each of his gold pieces.

Beethoven was caught in a period when society was slowly and surely swinging upward to what is now known as an individualistic society. Today that society is changing to something else. The serious artist—large or small talent—is finding again that the old forms fail him. He must make his own molds. Which brings us to the question of the "well-made three-act play."

Even a cursory examination of various American dramatists' work shows serious craft problems. It is easy to see that for them the slick synthetic plot play is an out-moded form. (The fourth act has long since been delivered to the ash heap.) And even where the three-act form is retained "third act trouble" is general instead of exceptional. Which means, in the final analysis, form not fitted to content. In what size and color pill to wrap the bitter tonic is one of the burning issues of the day.

By the time I came to write my first play, Awake and Sing! I understood clearly that my interest was not in the presentation of an individual's problems, but in those of a whole class. In other words, the task was to find a theatrical form with which to express the mass as hero.

In "Waiting for Lefty" this task was simplified for the reason that the dramatic conflicts and life lines of its people were all simple and direct. In each case the characters knew what enemy they were facing, what they wanted, some way to get it or the promise of it! A football game with two teams in the field. All of which makes plot elements!

In Paradise Lost the task was not so simple, the solution more complex. Here the hero is not the worker with conflicts cleared to the fighting point, the enemy visible, palpable. The hero in Paradise Lost is the entire American middle class of liberal tendency. The enemy is un-seen, nameless, but constant and deadly. A football game with one team on the field.

Here the characters are bewildered. The best laid plans go wrong. The sweetest human impulses are frustrated. No one lives a normal happy life here, and every decent tendency finds its complement in sterility and futility. Finally, these people find themselves "shadow boxing," as the director puts it, to the actors.

To write a slick three-act plot play about this slice of American society would be a lie from the start. For the truth is that at present their lives have no beginning, no middle, no end, no solution—all necessary for plot and story. They exist in time and space, with aspiration, to be sure, but no forward movement.

The pathetic Gus of Paradise Lost says it well when he says, "The way I see it, there's two kinds of men—the real one and the dream. We're just the dream." He is correct. He and his friends live a life of little volition, a sort of underwater life where the light is dim and physical contacts are cushioned and a little fantastic.

Meyerhold once said of Chekhov's characters, "They are not realistic portrayals, but like the reflections of people that one sees in water—wavering, fanciful." And the final truth is that Chekhov's people are not imaginative characters, but spring from the social impasse around him. His art caught and fixed them forever between several curtains—them and a whole era. And he knew that to imprison them in plots would be to do violence to the deepest truths of their lives and social backgrounds.

O'Casey in the bulk of his plays knows the same thing about his people. However, he does not share the social clarity of Chekhov, but seems to suppose—if we may judge from the lack of conclusions and explanations in his works—that brutality and degradation is rained upon people from the sky.

Our confused middle class today—which dares little—is dangerously similar to Chekhov's people. Which is why the people in Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost (particularly the latter) have what is called a "Chekhovian quality." Which is why it is sinful to violate their lives and aspirations with plot lines.

Plots are primer stuff, easily learned. Since the whole truth must be told, the most difficult problem is to avoid gratifying situations and stories. These people of our bourgeois American life must be treated with more dignity and heart than the banality of a clicking plot! They are too large in their reality and implication to be narrowed down to "the desire," the near satisfaction, the obstacle, the desire fulfilled!

Excuse us if we insist upon life brought to the stage instead of the stage brought to life! Excuse us if we do not accept the dictum that any deviation from Ibsen and the Pinero form is a deadly sin. Excuse us for not showing the gun in the first act, because it will later be used in the second. Excuse us for our neglect of a thousand tawdry theatre tricks which make primer plays and quick profits.

But please allow us to continue to respect the men and women all around us and make the theatre serve an earnest examination of their lives and backgrounds. In interesting new theatrical forms. With poetic conceptions. With character understanding. With fresh dialogue. With love.

How a Playwright Triumphs (1961)

SOURCE: Harper's, Vol. 233, No. 1396, September 1966, pp. 64-70, 73-4.

[In the excerpt below, Odets recalls the excitement and difficulties of his involvement with the Group Theatre and recounts the first performance of "Waiting for Lefty." This article was derived from an interview Odets gave in 1961, two years before his death.]

I had always wanted as a kid to be both an actor and a writer. For a while I thought I would be a novelist, but when I became a professional actor, my mind naturally began to take the form of the play as a means of saying something. I wasn't sure I had anything to say, because some of the other things I wrote were quite dismal. But being an actor, I began to think in terms of three acts, divisions of acts, and scenes within the acts, and whatever technique I have has been unconsciously absorbed—almost through my skin—with all the kinds of acting I have done.

Before Awake and Sing! I wrote a whole very bad novel and a few short stories, all of which I later tore up. 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. Anybody can teach the craft of play writing, just as I can teach myself how to make a blueprint and construct a house, on paper. But what cannot be taught, and what I was fortunate in discovering, was simply being myself, with my own problems and my own relationships to life.

Without the Group Theatre I doubt that I would have become a playwright. I might have become some other kind of writer, but the Group Theatre and the so-called "method" forced you to face yourself and really function out of the kind of person you are, not as you thought the person had to function, or as another kind of person, but simply using your own materials. The whole "method" acting technique is based on that. Well, after attempting to write for eight or ten years, I finally started a short story that made me really understand what writing was about in the sense of personal affiliation to the material.

I was holed up in a cheap hotel, in a kind of fit of depression, and I wrote about a young kid violinist who didn't have his violin because the hotel owner had appropriated it for unpaid bills. He looked back and remembered his mother and his hard-working sister, and although I was not that kid and didn't have that kind of mother or sister, I did fill the skin and the outline with my own personal feeling, and for the first time I realized what creative writing was.

A playwright who writes about things that he is not connected with, or to, is not a creative writer. He may be a very skilled writer, and it may be on a very high level of craft, but he's not going to be what I call an artist, a poet. We nowadays use the term creative arts, or a creative person, very loosely. A movie writer thinks of himself as a creative person who writes films or TV shows. Well, in the sense that I'm using the word, he's just a craftsman, like a carpenter. He has so many hammers, so many nails, so much dimension to fill, and he can do it with enormous skill. But the creative writer always starts with a state of being. He doesn't start with something outside of himself. He starts with something inside himself, with a sense of unease, depression, or elation, and only gradually finds some kind of form for what I'm calling that "state of being." He doesn't just pick a form and a subject and a theme and say this will be a hell of a show.

The form, then, is always dictated by the material; there can be nothing ready-made about it. It will use certain dramatic laws because, after all, you have to relate this material to an audience, and a form is the quickest way to get your content to an audience. That's all form is. Form is viability.

I was twenty-six years old when I started Awake and Sing!, my first play. I wrote the first two acts, and six months later, in the spring of 1933, I went home to my folks' house in Philadelphia and finished the last act there. That summer the Group Theatre went to a place called Green Mansions Camp [in the Adirondacks], where we sang for our supper by being the social staff. After he read Awake and Sing! Harold Clurman announced one night at a meeting of the entire company that the Group Theatre idea—that we would develop from our ranks not only our own actors, but our own directors and perhaps our own playwrights—was really working out in practice. "Lo and behold!" he said, "sitting right here in this room is the most talented new young playwright in the United States." And everybody, including me, turned around to see who was in the room and then with a horrible rush of a blush I realized he was talking about me.

But the Group Theatre didn't want to do the play. Although Harold Clurman, who was kind of the ideological head, liked it, he didn't have the strength to push it through to production against the wishes of the other two directors, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford. Lee Strasberg particularly didn't like the play. He kept saying, "It's a mere genre study." Strasberg and I were always on the outs. …

This was now August or September of 1934, and the Group Theatre was determined in the purity of its heart, that it would have to go away and do a new play when it might very well have continued the run of the very successful, and by this time Pulitzer Prize, Men in White. But purity prevailed and we went up to Ellenville, New York, to a big, rambling, broken-down hotel—don't forget, with its office and managerial staff the Group Theatre consisted of maybe thirty-six men and women and their children—and we had to find quite a large place to live in. We arrived practically when autumn was setting in at this old Saratoga-type wooden hotel, with all the bedding piled up, and we lived in an itchy and uncomfortable way there for about five or six weeks while we put into rehearsal a play by Melvin Levy, called Gold Eagle Guy. I had, perhaps un-fairly, only scorn and contempt for the play because I thought Awake and Sing! was far superior as a piece of writing. Indeed, we all felt that Gold Eagle Guy was a stillborn script, and Luther Adler summed it up for us one morning at rehearsal when he said, kind of sotto voce, "Boys, I think we're working on a stiff." That morning we were almost improvising certain scenes, which we would later scale down to the playwright's words. Levy would get alarmed because the actors were not quite saying his words, and not using his punctuation. To this day there are playwrights who don't know their punctuation isn't very important in the recreation of the character they've written, or that, as we used to say in the Group Theatre, their script is only a series of stenographic notes.

In any case, I had been given my own room at this old hotel, which gave me a certain lift. It's surprising how very important a small satisfaction can be in the life of one who is moving away from what I can only call illness to some kind of health or strength. (You must remember the background to all of this was that before I was twenty-five I had tried to commit suicide three times; once I stopped it myself and twice my life was saved by perfect strangers.) Before this I had always been quartered with one or two and sometimes three other actors, but when they gave me my own room, with clean, white-washed walls, I began to feel they had some sense that I had some kind of distinction, and I was very happy.

I had by now started Paradise Lost, about a man, Leo, who was trying to be a good man in the world and meets raw, evil, and confused conditions where his goodness means nothing. Almost all of that play came out of my experiences as a boy in the Bronx. I saw people evicted, I saw block parties, I knew a girl who stayed at the piano all day, a boy who drowned, boys who went bad and got in trouble with the police. As a matter of fact, two of the boys I graduated with ended up in the electric chair and another boy became a labor racketeer. Not too much of that play was invented; it was felt, remembered, celebrated.

One night I had the idea for the scene in the play which I call the Fire Bug Scene. It just impelled itself to be written, and since I had no paper I wrote the whole scene as fast as I could on the white wall. The words just gushed out; my hand couldn't stop writing. Then later, I copied it down on the typewriter, but to this day the scene may still be on the wall of that old hotel. …

Well, now we move up to Boston in the late fall of 1934 to open Gold Eagle Guy, and that's when I wrote "Waiting for Lefty." I now had behind me the practically completed Awake and Sing! and about half of Paradise Lost, but somehow "Waiting for Lefty" just kind of slipped itself in there. Its form and its feeling are different from the other two plays, and I actually wrote it in three nights in the hotel room in Boston after returning home from the theater about midnight. It just seemed to gush out, and it took its form necessarily from what we then called the agit-prop form, which, of course, stands for agitational propaganda.

I really saw the play as a kind of collective venture—something we would do for a Sunday night benefit in New York for the New Theatre Magazine, a Left magazine that was always in need of money. My demands were so modest that I tried to get two other actors in the Group Theatre who I thought had writing talent to assist me. One of them, Art Smith, came up with me one night to my hotel room and we talked around and around this thing, but he seemed rather listless about working with me, so I went ahead by myself.

As a matter of fact, the form of "Waiting for Lefty" is very rooted in American life, because what I semi-consciously had in mind was actually the form of the minstrel show. I had put on two or three minstrel shows in camp and had seen three or four other ones. It's a very American, indigenous form—you know, an interlocutor, end men, people doing their specialities, everyone sitting on the stage, and some of the actors sitting in the audience. There were a number of plays then, usually cheap and shoddy plays, that had actors in the audience. I had played in one called, I think, The Spider, in Camden, New Jersey, when I was in stock. I guess all these things conglomerated in my mind, but what's important for "Waiting for Lefty" is how it matched my conversion from a fellow who stood on the side and watched and then finally, with a rush, agreed—in this drastic social crisis in the early 'thirties—that the only way out seemed to be a kind of socialism, or the Communist party, or something. And the play represents that kind of ardor and that kind of conviction.

About ten days after the tryout in Boston we opened Gold Eagle Guy at the Morosco Theater in New York, and the play got very bad notices. In all New York theaters you automatically lose the theater when the play receipts fall below a certain figure, so we moved over to the Belasco. It happened that three or four or even five of my plays were done at that theater, which people thought was very glamorous, but I always thought it a rather crummy old joint, shabby, with uncomfortable seats. Anyway, to keep the play going the actors and the playwright took cuts in salary, but in a few weeks it closed and we were forced out into the cold winter. We had no new play to put into rehearsal and there was a sadness around the place.

In the meantime I'd gotten some of the actors together and had started to rehearse "Waiting for Lefty." I gave Sandy Meisner, an actor friend of mine, some of the scenes to direct, and I directed the bulk of the play. Strasberg, who was quite resentful of it, told Harold Clurman, "Let 'em fall and break their necks." One of the main things about Strasberg was that he always hated to go out on a limb. He must save his face at all times. Almost Oriental. I suspect that the thing about Strasberg was that whenever the Group Theatre name was used or represented, it was as though his honor was at stake. He didn't like me, he didn't like what I had written, and he felt it would in some way be a reflection on him, on the entire Group Theatre. This man who could be so generous, sometimes could be so niggardly and begrudging. It was with great trepidation that I had proposed putting on this play at all, and when I asked him a few questions about handling a group, an ensemble, he'd answer me very curtly, and I thought to myself, "Oh, the hell with him. I'll just go ahead and do this myself."

And then; the night of the benefit, I had an enormous fight down at the old Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street to get my play put on last. They used to put on eight or nine vaudeville acts there for the Sunday night benefits and they wanted some dance group to close the show, but finally, because I threatened to pull it, they agreed to put "Waiting for Lefty" on last.

It was very lucky they did because there would have been no show after that. The audience stopped the show after each scene; they got up, they began to cheer and weep. There have been many great opening nights in the American theater but not where the opening and the performing of the play were a cultural fact. You saw a cultural unit functioning. From stage to theater and back and forth the identity was so complete, there was such an at-oneness with audience and actors, that the actors didn't know whether they were acting and the audience didn't know whether they were sitting and watching it, or had changed position. I was sitting in the audience with my friend, Elia Kazan, sitting next to me (I wouldn't have dared take on one of the good parts myself) and after the Luther Adler scene, the young doctor scene, the audience got up and shouted, "Bravo! Bravo!" I was thinking, "Shh, let the play continue," but I found myself up on my feet shouting, "Bravo, Luther! Bravo, Luther!" In fact, I was part of the audience. I forgot I wrote the play, I forgot I was in the play, and many of the actors forgot. The proscenium arch disappeared. That's the key phrase. Before and since, in the American theater people have tried to do that by theater-in-the-round, theater this way, that way, but here, psychologically and emotionally, the proscenium arch dissolved away. When that happens, not by technical innovation, but emotionally and humanly, then you will have great theater—theater at its most primitive and grandest.

Of course, the nature of the times had a good deal to do with this kind of reaction. I don't think a rousing play today could have this kind of effect because mere are no positive, ascending values to which a play can attach itself.

Overviews And General Studies

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Michael J. Mendelsohn (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Clifford Odets: The Artist's Commitment," in Literature and Society, edited by Bernice Slote, University of Nebraska Press, 1964, pp. 142-52.

[The following was originally presented as a conference paper in 1963. Mendelsohn views Odets' social and personal beliefs in the context of his early plays.]

Early in Clifford Odets' 1949 melodrama, The Big Knife, the central character recalls something significant about his youth:

My uncle's books—for that neighborhood—I'll bet he had a thousand! He had a nose for the rebels—London, Upton Sinclair—all the way back to Ibsen and Hugo. Hugo's the one who helped me nibble my way through billions of polly seeds. Sounds grandiose, but Hugo said to me: "Be a good boy, Charlie. Love people, do good, help the lost and fallen, make the world happy, if you can!" [I]

These words spoken by Charlie Castle have clear autobio-graphical overtones for anyone familiar with Odets' early life. More important, they provide one clue to our understanding of the mixture of proletarianism, humanitarianism, and intellectualism that is Clifford Odets.

But books are of secondary importance in Odets' career compared with the anxieties and ferment of the early depression years. The claim that Odets' work was a product of the 1930's is an oversimplification. Yet there is at least partial truth in the comment frequently made in various forms that Odets is characteristically the playwright of the Thirties. Odets was nurtured in the highly charged emotional atmosphere that has been admirably chronicled in Harold Clurman's history of the Group Theatre, The Fervent Years [1945]. In our era of more staid theatre manners, it is sometimes difficult to find credible the excitement which surrounded the Federal Theatre Project, various workers' theatre groups, the Mercury Theatre's production of The Cradle Will Rock, the Garment Workers' Pins and Needles, or Odets' own "Waiting for Lefty."

One incident in Odets' early career, duly reported by the New York Times [24 July 1935], perhaps best illustrates the reputation already attached to him at the time. With John Howard Lawson and three other writers, Odets called on Luigi Pirandello, who was visiting New York in 1935. Pirandello apparently wanted to talk about literature, but his visitors were more interested in politics. The Italian playwright claimed that "politics and social questions 'are of the moment' but that 'an artistic moment lives forever.' He insisted that Mr. Odets' plays were good plays 'not because they are social, but because they are artistic.'" The Times reporter, apparently somewhat overwhelmed by the whole exchange, added, "the conference broke up with some rancor."

Thus, the turbulent Thirties demanded of any artist involvement with society, and Odets would hardly be accused of being an ivory-tower writer. Social consciousness was a way of life for this angry generation, replacing the Bohemianism of the preceding generation. Odets and the other angry writers were too deeply committed to people and their problems to create art for art's sake. "I have never been able to finish a Henry James novel," said Odets when he spoke with me. He went on:

This may be some defect in me … but I don't think so; I cannot think so. The cult of Henry James with [a] certain kind of stable values. I think it's the stable values that interest people. You know, the fixed world, a closed world, a world that's not changing. We live in a time where you say something in one decade, and a decade later you're old-fashioned.

Such a statement itself tells much about the concepts of the playwright. The world revealed in the plays of Odets is a dynamic, fluid, lived-in world. In this essay I intend to examine that world, with particular attention to "Waiting for Lefty" and Golden Boy, in order to demonstrate Odets' clear and continuing commitment to the lost and fallen in American society.

It is clear from a great number of statements in his plays that Odets believes that each of us has a firm responsibility to work for the general improvement of society. Often this belief is put in very vague terms, as it is in Leo Gordon's vision of the future, at the end of Paradise Lost. In this early play, Odets tries to show an entire sterile society floundering aimlessly in a futile effort to prevent its own erosion; Paradise Lost is Odets' Cherry Orchard. But the drama is a weak one, mainly because of its central character. Odets' brave attempt to raise Leo Gordon to tragic stature in the final speech fails badly. The acquisition of wisdom through suffering brings a fitting end to the reign of Oedipus; it is not sufficiently plausible for Leo Gordon.

In certain other plays, Odets phrases his beliefs in slightly more specific terms, as in the detective's injunction to the young hero and heroine of Night Music to "conquer disease and poverty, dirt and ignorance" (III, ii). But this is as close as Odets comes to spelling out a program. The most specific action taken is the call to strike in "Waiting for Lefty," and even this, of course, is not an end in itself, but only an initial step toward achieving the brave new world. No Odets character is shown joining any kind of Peace Corps; no Faust is present to undertake an irrigation project. The idealistic endings of Odets' plays are not endings at all, but, as the playwright has said, are only beginnings:

Frequently, the simplicity of some of my endings comes from the fact that I did not say at the same time, "This is a beginning; this will give you the right to begin in a clean and simple way." But these things are not ends in themselves. A strike and a better wage is not an end in itself.… It will give you the chance, in a democracy, to find your place, to assume your place and be responsible for your growth and happiness in that place.

Ralph Berger in Awake and Sing starts to learn when his grandfather admonishes him to "look on the world, not on yourself so much" (I). And the beginning comes for Ralph when he follows that advice, gives up his self-centered complaining about skates, and obeys his grandfather's command to "go out and fight so life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills" (I). The beginning comes for Dr. Ben Stark in Rocket to the Moon when he takes a close look at his relationship with his wife. The beginning comes for Leo Gordon when he recognizes a bond uniting his middle class and the unemployed worker.

More often than not, Odets speaks through his plays as a kind of middle-class conscience. The middle class must, as in Paradise Lost, abandon its self-delusion, or, as in Awake and Sing, educate itself to tell the difference between dollar bills and life. Odets' characters are constantly enjoined to use whatever resources they possess—violin or printing press—to work for the Utopian paradise which Jacob describes to Ralph in Awake and Sing: "From 'L'Africana' … a big explorer comes on a new land—'O Paradiso.' From act four this piece. Caruso stands on the ship and looks on a Utopia. You hear? 'Oh paradise! Oh paradise on earth!'" This striving for a better world is an underlying theme of virtually every Odets play. Even in The Big Knife there is an unmistakable feeling that America must be freed of the Marcus Hoffs if the middle-class conscience is to be placated.

The evident correlate of a need to improve society is the premise that society is susceptible of betterment. In this concept is the basis of Odets' optimism, and in this optimism is the basis of Odets' first success, "Waiting for Lefty." This play of labor union strife is so often pointed to as the typical leftist drama of the Thirties that the comment is as trite as it is oversimplified. The drama is militant, propagandistic, and strident, but, unlike so many of the angry plays of the period, it is also frequently human and touching. Part of the importance of "Lefty" certainly lies in the acclaim it received; since subtlety is not one of the play's strong points, the fact that audiences were able to lose themselves in such a direct assault is in itself a good indication of the mood in that turbulent depression year, 1935. Harold Clurman has termed the play "the birth cry of the thirties" and it is quite natural that the drama has assumed for him a large, almost mystic halo. Others less emotionally involved with the play find that in retrospect it is hard to become so excited as this. Great drama is indestructible; "Waiting for Lefty," for all its merits, often seems as dead as last year's newspaper.

There are many fine qualities about "Waiting for Lefty," not the least of them being that the author approached his work with imagination and technique that far surpass what might be expected from a first play. As a result, "Waiting for Lefty" displays an artistry generally absent from previous labor plays of the period. In a series of vignettes, sharply telescoped in time, the drama takes up the story of several characters associated in different ways with the proposed taxi drivers' strike. As Odets envisioned the structure, it was related to that of a minstrel show, with various characters emerging from the darkened stage into the spotlight to tell their stories. Although seemingly ep isodic in structure, "Waiting for Lefty" has a basic unity imposed upon it, first by the theatrical framework of the strike meeting and second by the gradually developed thesis that everyone involved is a part of Lefty.

There is a double framework involved in "Waiting for Lefty," and Odets handles it cleverly, never allowing his audience to forget the significance of his dramatic point. Time and again as the play builds its intensity, he wrenches the audience away from a scene with a violent reminder that there is a strike to be considered, action to be taken. The interplay between personal lives and collective action is masterfully handled: Joe and Edna need food for their children; a strike will provide it. The "young hack" can't afford to marry at all: a strike will enable him to do so. Dr. Benjamin is fired by an anti-Semitic hospital board; the clenched fist offers the solution. Each character is a fragment of Lefty, and the wait that is taking place is a wait for the submerging of the individual in the group.

Every scene adds to the intensity that is necessary for this play's success. The earliest is the least militant, as a wife tries through quiet persuasion to push her lethargic husband toward action. The second ends with direct personal action as the laboratory assistant strikes his employer in the mouth. The following scene moderates the pace some-what with a tender consideration of a love problem under the financial stress of the depression. But immediately after scene three, the tempo quickens and the undertone of violent action becomes overwhelming. An unemployed actor is handed a copy of the Communist Manifesto and told that it contains the real answers. [The scene with the unemployed actor is omitted in the Random House Six Plays of Clifford Odets (1939) but may be found in several texts including Willard H. Durham and John W. Dodds, British and American Plays, 1830-1945, 1947. Odets has stated (Interview) that the reason for the omission was his decision that the problem was not sufficiently universal, that it had special meaning only for actors—Mendelsohn's note.] Dr. Benjamin, an intellectual, learns the necessity of collective action to erase inequities in American society. Dismissing the idea of going to Russia, "the wonderful opportunity to do good work in their socialized medicine," he proclaims that his work is in America and stands, at the end of the final vignette, with clenched fist raised high.

By this time the pace is unrelenting, and all that remains is the achievement of a new leader's birth in Lefty's death. A crucial part of the message of labor solidarity is that many spring up where one dies. And so Lefty is not dead. Instead he arrives in the body and voice of Agate Keller. The wait is not in vain. And the tocsin rings clearly—if somewhat shrilly—in Keller's emotionally charged call to arms, the famous "stormbirds of the workingclass" speech. Keller shouts of dying for the cause, but he also talks of the new world that will emerge, of the fruit trees that will grow from the ashes. Such is the optimistic premise in which "Waiting for Lefty" is solidly rooted.

Although the playwright has disavowed the label "optimist," on the grounds that he has depicted a great deal of sordidness in his plays, everything in the plays is tinged with an idealistic belief that mankind is capable of improving its own position. The paradise on earth seen by Caruso the explorer can be achieved—if man is willing to work for it. Fay, the young heroine of Night Music, best expresses this indomitable spirit:

The last cricket, the very last. … Crickets are my favorite animals in all the world. They're never down in the mouth. All night they make their music. … Night music. … If they can sing, I can sing. I'm more than them. We're more than them. … We can sing through any night! [II, iv]

Closely connected with his idealistic pronouncements on American society are Odets' opinions of the artist's place in that society. In both Golden Boy and The Big Knife the playwright employed a familiar metaphor, gold and the soul, to express an idea obviously close to his heart. On the immediate story level Odets was able to make Golden Boy a salable commodity which provided excitement and entertainment for large numbers of playgoers. At the same time he was able to satisfy his own propensity for dealing with significant themes. For Golden Boy was not a prize fight story to Odets; it was an allegory, or, better, a parable, in which the playwright examines both an individual's relationship to society and his duty to himself. Joe Bonaparte's first sin stems from his betrayal of the individual's debt to the group. "My boy usta coulda be great for all man," says his father. Instead, with no grandfather Jacob to lecture him, Joe squanders his life in the sin of self-centeredness. Of course that sin is also shared by the country as a whole. American society, suggests the playwright, has glorified material possessions (Joe's Deusenberg car) and the champion (who may destroy others in order to reach the top) at the expense of the artistic and the creative. For the success worshippers of America, there is no place for the second best, a theme Arthur Miller was to stress even more emphatically in Death of a Salesman. Those critics who wished to carp at Odets grasped at the thought that it is incredible to imagine a good violinist becoming a good fighter. But for purposes of sharp dramatic contrast to underscore his theme, Odets is perfectly justified in his choice of symbols. The extremes are exactly what he needs. There may be slightly more plausibility in the story of a successful doctor who gives up his society practice and retreats to the New England woods to do theoretical research, or a stockbroker who disappears in the South Pacific to paint murals on the walls of his native hut. But if there is more plausibility, there is also less contemporary social applicability in these situations.

Joe's other sin is in suppressing his own better nature. Within him, Odets' hero has some small gifts that should be developed. When he neglects the development of his artistic gifts in favor of his muscular ones, he is indulging in a self-punishment, a destruction of the human side of his nature. The realization that he has completely destroyed the better side of himself, coupled with the loathing of what he has become, drives the golden boy to suicide. The morality-play aspect of all this is evident: Everyman-Bonaparte forsakes his duty to do good works for God, sells himself to the Devil in return for some large status symbols, repents too late for salvation. There is no turning back for Joe. Odets would like the reader to identify closely with Joe, for the success of Golden Boy on its allegorical level depends on just such an identification. The choice confronting Joe is everyone's choice.

Odets' later plays, those beginning with Night Music (1940), are free of the excesses and overwrought curtain speeches which mark the earlier plays. His early work exposed him to valid charges of excessive emotionalism. But Odets, while retaining his characteristic richness and strength of dialogue, abandoned this kind of writing along with the doctrinaire speeches. What he did not abandon, however, was his social awareness. His recent comment about the social protest plays of the Thirties underlines once more the persistence of his views:

The plays undoubtedly came out of ascending values, out of positive values, out of the search of millions of American citizens for some way out of a horrifying dilemma—a dilemma which, by the way, I don't think is over. And the writer, or the playwright like myself, simply had to be alive and aware and partaking of this extraordinary ferment around him. The playwright then, as he always is, became the articulate voice of the aspiration of millions of people. … When you have a community of values in the theatre (which is, of course, what we don't have), when you have that profound community of values in the theatre, the proscenium arch disappears. The audience is not watching a play, and the actors are not playing to an audience which is seated passively somewhere in that dark pit or that dark hole which is the auditorium. Theatre in its profoundest sense—all literature in its profoundest sense—has come out of writers, has come in periods when the plight or problem expressed by the actors was completely at one with the plight and problems and values or even moralities of the audience. This is why literature the size of Homer and the Greek drama and the Bible, or, in music, of the early Reformation writers, composers like Bach, has such size. It's because the artist … is not someone apart and inimical to his audience, not a man in opposition to the values he is expressing, but one who is completely at one, who shares organically the very values of the audience for whom he is writing.

It would seem, then, that while he submerged certain other traits, Odets was still vitally concerned with human dignity and with the place of the individual in modern society.

In his later plays and film scripts, Odets moved somewhat away from socio-political subject matter and closer toward problems of individual human needs, with no consequent lessening of what I would call his intellectual-proletarian attitude. The more mature Odets emphasized right and wrong in individual relationships rather than economic exploitation or class struggle. And the ironic result is that Odets more often achieved his dramatic goal using less obviously didactic or emotionally tinted materials.

It is evident that Odets still loves People, in that vague, abstract, idealistic way which makes the Thirties writers of the Left admirable and, at the same time, difficult to understand for the more cynical and more individualistic succeeding generation. Undoubtedly Odets' contributions to American dramatic literature are, at least in part, the product of that love and of the sensitivity or social consciousness which compelled him to give up an acting career in the first place. There is little reason to believe that he would have written anything had he not been motivated by the inequities of American society that he observed. As a young playwright Odets once asserted in an article, "I see it every day all over the city, girls and boys were not getting a chance. … No special pleading is necessary in a play which says that people should have fuller and richer lives" [cited by Joseph Mersand, The American Drama, 1930-1940, 1941]. And he continued to say the same thing. His characters are obliged to burst the bonds that restrict them in their middle-class milieu, to avoid being tied down by family and tradition, to seek their own place in the sun. 'This concept was repeated often in Odets' works, but with ever-diminishing stridency. Early in his career Odets believed that he had a mission, and, like so many mission-inspired men, he occasionally allowed the cause to obscure the logic of his work.

To me it is a sign of artistic maturity that Odets gradually learned to stress his themes in a quieter, less didactic manner. In his last produced play, The Flowering Peach, some loss of missionary zeal is apparent in the words of a fatigued Noah: "Evil is a stone wall. I hurt my head a lotta times." Militant activists may see Noah's compromises as a "sellout" of the playwright's own beliefs, but this view is unrealistic. The change—if there is one at all—is only a matter of degree. The successful wedding of theme and structure which characterizes The Flowering Peach can only be considered an artistic advancement over the too insistent pounding of message in "Waiting for Lefty." And running through all of Odets' work is his concern for the dignity of the common man. There was, then, no dimming of Odets' basic optimistic belief in the goodness of people or of his hopes for a better society. If there is one dominant attitude to be found in all of Odets' dramas, it is the one which Charlie Castle says he learned from reading Victor Hugo: "'Love people, do good, help the lost and fallen, make the world happy, if you can!'"

Gerald Rabkin (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Road from Marxist Commitment: Clifford Odets," in Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties, Indiana University Press, 1964, pp. 169-212.

[In the excerpt below, Rabkin examines Odets' incorporation of elements of agitprop into his writings of the 1930s.]

Clifford Odets scrawled his name across the page marked 1935 in American dramatic history. In the course of that year he had five plays produced, four of them on Broadway: "Waiting for Lefty," "Till the Day I Die," Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost. His short monologue, "I Can't Sleep," was produced at a union benefit, and the aforementioned "Lefty" began a theatrical career that was to carry it, not only from one end of the United States to the other, but all over the world. The name of Odets became the number one topic of literary conversation, and the hitherto unknown and struggling young actor became one of the foremost celebrities of the day. The Literary Digest [6 April 1935] described his emergence:

In less than ninety days, toiling with the unrest of his times as a central theme, a young actor in the New York theatre … has become the most exciting spokesman the world of workers yet has produced, and he has become perhaps the most articulate dramatist available in the theatre.

For once the Broadway and Marxist critics were unanimous in their praise. Richard Watts wrote in the Herald Tribune [31 March 1935], "It is pretty clear by now that Mr. Odets' talent for dramatic writing is the most exciting thing to appear in the American drama since the flaming emergence of O'Neill. …" And the Marxist critics, despite specific reservations, found much to cheer about in the fact that the new young dramatist had emerged from their own ranks, for Odets' initial discovery was indeed the result of his radical affiliations. "Lefty" had been written in response to a contest by the left-wing New Theatre League which was looking for one-act plays on a revolutionary theme which might be easily produced. The play was written at fever heat in three days and nights, won the contest, and was produced at one of the New Theatre League's Sunday night benefit performances by members of the Group Theatre (to which Odets belonged). The performance on January 5, 1935, was one of the electrifying moments in American theatre. Harold Clurman [in The Fervent Years, 1945] relates its initial impact:

The first scene of "Lefty" had not played two minutes when a shock of delighted recognition struck the audience like a tidal wave. Deep laughter, hot assent, a kind of joyous fervor seemed to sweep the audience toward the stage. The actors no longer performed; they were being carried along as if by an exultancy of communication such as I had never witnessed in the theatre before. Audience and actors had become one. … When the audience at the end of the play responded to the militant question from the stage: "Well, what's the answer?" with a spontaneous roar of "Strike! Strike!" it was something more than a tribute to the play's effectiveness, more even than a testimony of the audience's hunger for constructive social action. It was the birth cry of the '30s. Our youth had found its voice.

Odets had succeeded where other revolutionary dramatists before him had failed. He had written a militant "agit-prop" drama which succeeded in appealing to unaffiliated liberals as well as to convinced Marxists, and he had done so by humanizing a form of drama whose avowed purpose, as we have observed, was to present political doctrine directly to the audience by means of broadly theatrical playlets. The following titles indicate the thematic simplicity of the agitprop: Work or Wages, Unemployment, The Miners are Striking, Vote Communist. To achieve overtly didactic ends, a variety of dramaturgical devices were employed, many of them stemming from the theatrical experimentation of the twenties: choral recitation, episodic structure, satiric caricature, theatrical stylization. …

It is apparent that "Waiting for Lefty" is essentially in the agit-prop tradition. Its purpose is overtly didactic in its affirmation of communist doctrine; it is episodic in structure, cartoon-like in its character delineation, directly presentational in technique, and replete with slogans and political comment. Yet while its conclusion is strikingly similar to that of [Art Smith and Elia Kazan's] Dimitroff in its merging of actor and audience, in its militant cry to action, we may observe that Odets' plea to strike is essentially a device. The answer and response of actor and audience is not designed to achieve an immediate goal as in the case of Kazan and Smith's play, but is rather a symbolic call to arms, a demonstration of unity and achieved class consciousness. "Lefty's" success lay in the fact that it appealed to the unconverted as well as to the committed; it swept all of a liberal persuasion into militant participation, at least in the theatre, by virtue of the precision with which Odets enunciated the Depression malaise. Odets' achievement lay in his ability to humanize the agit-prop without forgoing its theatricality and didacticism. He succeeded not only in presenting the conversion to militancy of a series of taxi-cab workers, but in forcing the audience to see in the plight of these characters a reflection of their own social predicament. Several Marxist critics, among them John Howard Lawson, objected to the designation of "Lefty" as a proletarian play because "the militant strike committee [is] made up largely of declassed members of the middle class. One cannot reasonably call these people 'stormbirds of the working class.'" But "Lefty's" strength as a conversion drama lay precisely in the fact that Odets' appeal was directed essentially to the class to which he belonged. Of the principal characters only two, Joe and Sid, are proletarians; the others represent various members of the declassed bourgeoisie: a lab assistant who refuses to become an informer, an actor who can't find work on the Broadway market, an interne who is fired because of the anti-Semitism of his superiors. All are forced into activism by social circumstances. "Don't call me red," shouts Joe. "You know what we are? The black and blue boys! We been kicked around so long we're black and blue from head to toes!" But Joe had not always been as adamant as he is now. He had been goaded to militancy by his wife's threat to leave him unless he organized and fought for his rights: "Get those hack boys together! … Stand up like men and fight for the crying kids and wives. Goddamnit! I'm tired of slavery and sleepless nights."

Joe's social awakening is but one in the series of conversions that constitute "Waiting for Lefty." Each episode presents the road to commitment of each of the several characters against the backdrop of various capitalist evils: labor spying, informing, anti-Semitism, economic aggression, etc. One by one the dramas of conversion are enacted: the interne finds that Jewish and Gentile capitalists are cut from the same cloth; the lab assistant recognizes that the logic of capitalism demands war; the workers, Sid and Joe, realize that the cards are stacked against the proletariat; and the young actor, turned down by a producer who cares more for his pet dog than for human beings, is taken in hand by a radical stenographer who undertakes his ideo-logical enlightenment:

One dollar buys ten loaves of bread, Mister. Or one dollar buys nine loaves of bread and one copy of the Communist Manifesto. Learn while you eat. … Read while you run. … From Genesis to Revelation … the meek shall not inherit the earth! The MILITANT! Come out in the light, Comrade!

All roads lead to Agate's final peroration, his cry for alliance with the proletariat: "It's war! Working class, unite and fight! Tear down the slaughter house of our old lives!" The basic metaphor of the play is, of course, the futility of waiting for something that will never come, the hope that somehow conditions may be alleviated by other than direct action. Fatt, the personification of the capitalist system, had counseled the workers to put their faith in "the man in the White House" in his attempt to dissuade them from striking; but half-way measures are doomed to failure. Salvation must be earned; Lefty never comes be-cause he has been murdered—the ritual martyrdom of proletarian literature—and the act of waiting must be replaced by militancy.

Hello America! Hello! We're Stormbirds of the Working Class. Workers of the world … our bones and blood! And when we die they'll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces. We'll die for what is right! Put fruit trees where our ashes are!

The impact of "Waiting for Lefty" is irrevocably dependent upon its contemporaneity. In the thirties the play was a formidable weapon. Within weeks after its initial production it became the public property of the left, and groups were organized all over the country to perform it. Odets later doubted if he had earned a thousand dollars out of the play: "People just did it. … It has been done all over the world … and I have not received five cents of royalties. … It was at one time a kind of light machine gun that you wheeled in to use whenever there was any kind of strike trouble." A storm of censorship accompanied its production in many different cities. In Boston, the actors were arrested for language that was "extremely blasphemous"; in Philadelphia, the theatre in which the play was to be produced was suddenly called "unsafe," and the performance was canceled. Will Geer produced the play in Hollywood despite threats and was severely beaten by hoodlums; and in general, the stridency of conservative criticism revealed that Odets' "machine gun" was not far off target.

The instantaneous success of "Lefty" at the New Theatre League Sunday performances caused the Group Theatre to present the play as one of its scheduled productions. In moving to Broadway, however, a new companion piece was needed to fill out the bill, since Dimitroff would hardly have succeeded uptown, and Odets wrote a play based upon contemporary life in Nazi Germany called "Till the Day I Die." Based upon a letter in the New Masses, the plot concerns Ernst Taussig, a German communist captured by the Nazis in a raid and subjected by them to torture in an effort to force him to inform upon his associates. Although he is never completely broken, Taussig is made to appear a traitor to his comrades. Blacklisted by his former friends, fearful of compromising the revolutionary cause, Ernst commits suicide.

Lawson objected that "the sustained conflict, the conscious will of man pitted against terrible odds is omitted. We see [Taussig] … only before and after. The crucial stage, in which his will is tested and broken, occurs between scenes five and seven." The significant fact is that the audience is never really sure whether or not Taussig was broken by the Nazis or whether or not he retained his integrity to the end. At the beginning of the play he is a convinced revolutionary fervently viewing the classless future. Has he indeed changed when he is released from his initial Nazi captivity? It does not seem so. To Tilly's query as to whether or not he was afraid Ernst answered, "A man who knows that the world contains millions of brothers and sisters can't be afraid. … In the cell there—I know I stayed alive because I knew my comrades were with me in the same pain and chaos."

All the evidence of the play supports Ernst's contention that he kept the revolutionary faith, that he had been forced to accompany storm troopers on their round-ups of radicals, that he was forcibly brought into court at political trials, that, in short, it was planned to make him appear to be an informer. Nowhere is it implied that Taussig was actually broken. The important fact is that the issue of his innocence or guilt is not the crucial dramatic question which the play posits. It is rather involved with the problem of political loyalty; the play affirms the revolutionary contention that the individual is less important than the cause to which he is dedicated. In the best scene in the play—best because it smacks of the authentic logic of political debate—the local cell excommunicates Taussig because his comrades cannot afford to take the chance that he may be guilty; he cannot be trusted, whether he is innocent or not. Love and fraternal affection must bow before the iron exigencies of the revolutionary situation, since in a warring world "it is brother against brother." Just as the labor spy in "Waiting for Lefty" is exposed by his brother, Ernst Taussig is disavowed by his brother Carl:

Many a comrade has found with deep realization that he has no home, no brother—even no mothers or fathers! What must we do here? … We must expose this one brother wherever he is met. Whosoever looks in his face is to point the finger. Children will jeer at him in the darkest streets of his life! Yes, the brother, the erstwhile comade cast out! There is no brother, no family, no deeper mother than the working class.

Ernst recognizes that there is but one action left him, and he asks his brother to administer the coup de grâce. He knows that he must be cast away, that the individual is unimportant in the greater struggle, that his realization will come through the work of his comrades: "the day is coming, and I'll be in the final result." Unlike the traditional martyrs of Marxist literature, whose deaths serve as the catalysts for the awakening of others, Ernst believes that he is the phoenix that will arise from the ashes of his necessary death. Thus the play ends, not with the conversion of the previously uncommitted, but with the affirmation by the committed that their existence is contained in the collective of which they are a part.

When he was writing "Waiting for Lefty" and "Till the Day I Die," Odets expressed himself in typically Marxist tones, maintaining that the function of art was primarily propagandistic. "It may be said that anything which one writes on 'the side' of the large majority of people is propaganda. But today the truth followed to its logical conclusion is inevitably revolutionary." It is not surprising, then, that the author of such a statement should be, in fact, a member of the Communist party, having been recruited by the small core of communists within the Group Theatre. Years later, in the familiar purgative drama of the fifties, Odets related to the House Un-American Activities Committee the circumstances of his enrollment:

In a time of great social unrest many people found themselves reaching out for new ideas, new ways of solving depressions or making a better living, fighting for one's rights. … These were … horrendous days … there was a great deal of talk about amelioration of conditions, about how should one live. … One read literature; there were a lot of … pamphlets … I read them along with a lot of other people, and finally joined the Communist party in the belief, in the honest and real belief, that this was some way out of the dilemma in which we found ourselves.

Odets testified that he remained in the party "from toward the end of 1934 to the middle of '35, covering maybe anywhere from six to eight months." It is not our purpose here to scrutinize the motivations which resulted in Odets' disavowal. We are concerned primarily with the dramatist, not the individual; we may observe, however, that Odets' act of disaffiliation in 1935 is in no way clearly obvious from either his public statements or his dramatic work. As the counsel for the Un-American Activities Committee embarrassingly pointed out, Odets continued to affiliate with leftwing groups throughout the Depression and war years. Perhaps the answer lies in the intellectual climate of the mid-thirties, the era of the Popular Front. Unless one was, as an intellectual, directly involved with the vagaries and variations of social doctrine (e.g., Edmund Wilson, Sidney Hook), it was quite possible to drift away from overt commitment without the painful process of making a clean break.

Thus Odets' Marxist commitment was very different from that of John Howard Lawson. The latter came to his political beliefs, as we have seen, after a long period of conflict and indecision; once he made his commitment, Lawson became a political man, his role as artist receding behind the ideological facade. Odets, however, did not arrive at his radicalism after a long period of intellectual debate. He was, in a sense, born to it; radicalism was in the air his generation breathed. Since his commitment was never primarily intellectual, he never formally rejected it in the manner of the intellectuals who, having made themselves political men, one day awake with horror to a sense of betrayal and find it necessary to destroy their radical roots.

We cannot, therefore, discover any crucial moment of commitment or disaffiliation in the life and work of Clifford Odets. For whatever reasons he left the party, there can be no denying the pervasive influence of Marxism upon the great bulk of his work. Surely Odets' temperament, particularly after his sudden access to fame and his defection to Hollywood, was unsuited to political obligation. He was too concerned with his own problems ever to assent fully to the role of party member. But since his commitment to Marxism was essentially more emotional than intellectual, he retained, throughout the Depression, an umbilical connection with the radical movement. It is interesting that despite Odets' statement to the Un-American Activities Committee that he left the Party in 1935 because "it came to the point of where I thought … I can't respect these people on a so-called cultural basis" Odets was still talking in terms of the social "usefulness" of art in the preface to his Six Plays (1939). He stated his esthetic aim as follows: "Much of my concern during the past years has been with fashioning a play immediately and dynamically useful and yet as psychologically profound as my present years and experience will permit." This is the artist's great problem "since we are living in a time when new art works should shoot bullets. … "

Odets' aggressive Marxism of the mid-decade is reflected in a short monologue, "I Can't Sleep," written for performance at a benefit for the Marine Workers Industrial Union in 1935. It, too, is a party play in that it overtly considers the greatest of revolutionary sins, heresy. It is reminiscent of the Grand Inquisitor sequence in [Fyodor Dostoevsky's] The Brothers Karamazov, in which the silence of Christ forces the Inquisitor into self-revelation. Odets' hero—played originally by Morris Carnovsky—rejects a beggar's appeal for charity, and finds himself imprisoned in a cell of guilt constructed by the disavowed radicalism of his youth. He initially answers the beggar's unpitying stare with belligerence—"Listen, don't be so smart. When a man offers you money, take it!"—but soon he turns from aggressive self-justification to personal revelation. He tells of his inability to communicate with his wife, of the gulf of misunderstanding which separates him from his children, of all the bitter frustrations which afflict him, symbolized by the ever-present fact of his insomnia. Consumed by loneliness, he yearns to cry "Brother" to his fellow man but is constrained by the fear of appearing a fool.

And slowly the last layer of artifice is pulled away and the true cause of the man's depression is revealed: "I spoke last week to a red in the shop. Why should I mix in with politics? With all my other troubles I need yet a broken head? I can't make up my mind—what should I do? … Join up, join up. But for what? For trouble?" This question reaches the heart of the man's dilemma, and in a torrent of words he reveals the source of his guilt, the renunciation of his working-class roots, his acceptance, against his better nature, of the capitalist ethic. …

The source of much of Odets' strength as a "proletarian" playwright lay precisely in the fact that he did not force himself to write about the proletariat. Unlike other middle-class writers of Marxist persuasion, he had the esthetic sense to write about areas of his direct experience. In his early days in the Group he started several plays, one in particular on the subject of his much-beloved Beethoven. A diary entry of the time reveals his dissatisfaction with these early attempts: "Now I see again in myself flight, always flight. Here I am writing the Beethoven play, which when it is finished may not be about Beethoven. Why not write something about the Greenberg family, something I know better, something that is closer to me?"

The resultant play, initially entitled I Got the Blues, was started in a cold-water flat on West 57th Street, New York City, and finished at Warrensburg, New York, during the rehearsals of Men in White. It was finally produced by the Group, after the success of the subsequently written "Lefty," under the title of Awake and Sing! In it the Greenberg family emerged as the Berger family of the Bronx, and Odets revealed himself not only as a young writer of intense revolutionary fervor, but as a skillful recorder of the pungent detail of Jewish lower middle-class life.

The basic image of Awake and Sing! is resurrection, the emergence of life from death. For the life of the Berger family in Depression-age America is spiritual death, dehumanized by a thousand irritants, frustrated by the exigencies of economic breakdown. Yet precisely because the sources of the Bergers' difficulties are primarily social, Awake and Sing! is an essentially optimistic play; dangers are without, not within, and they may be combatted. The fundamental activity of the Bergers—"a struggle for life amidst petty conditions"—is a noble one; nor is it meaningless. Significantly Odets changed the title of the play from I Got the Blues—a statement of the Depression malaise—to Awake and Sing!—and the imperative commanded by the exclamation point is no accident. "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust," he is crying, the American blues can be eliminated. But the play is not a direct call to militancy; its strength rests in the depiction of the social dislocation of the middle class and the skill with which this dislocation is personalized in the several characters. …

Awake and Sing! is not merely a catalogue of frustration. In the portrayal of old Jacob, the radical of the family, Odets provides the play with its explicit social commen tary without violating the demands of character. Throughout the early action Jacob serves as a kind of chorus, drawing the Marxist moral from the statements and activities of the other characters. When his somber social analyses are laughed at by his family, particularly by his business-man son, Morty, he responds: "Laugh, laugh … tomorrow not." It is in the hope of achieving this tomorrow in the person of Ralph, the young son of the Berger household, that Jacob commits the sacrifice of leaping to his death so that Ralph might have his insurance money as a means to escape the strangle hold of the family and society. When Ralph learns of the old man's sacrifice he vows that it will not have been in vain. Jacob's legacy is not money, which Ralph in fact rejects, but social awareness. To his mother's justification of life in America, he retorts, "It don't make sense. If life made you this way, then it's wrong." Bessie answers, "So go out and change the world if you don't like it," and Ralph affirms, "I will! And why? 'Cause life's different in my head. Gimme the earth in two hands. I'm strong." Jacob's books, his ideas, are Ralph's real inheritance, and he has become infused with the old man's revolutionary fervor:

Get teams together all over. Spit on your hands and get to work. And with enough teams together maybe we'll get steam in the warehouse so our fingers don't freeze off. Maybe we'll fix it so life won't be printed on dollar bills.

And the play ends on the note of resurrection. "The night he died," states Ralph about Jacob, "I saw it like a thunder-bolt! I saw he was dead and I was born! I swear to God, I'm one week old! I want the whole city to hear it—fresh blood, arms. We got'em. We're glad we're living."

Thus, despite the effectiveness of realistic detail, it is apparent that Awake and Sing! still retains strong agit-prop roots. But instead of appealing directly for revolutionary action, it attempts to demonstrate the thesis of revolutionary awareness in the relationship between Jacob and Ralph against the family background of middle-class decay. Its success is dependent upon this conjunction of thesis and detail. Odets never was a genre painter; his strokes are broad, his dialogue heightened. What he succeeded in delineating were the specific images of social dislocation. The importance of the Marxist premise from a dramatic point of view does not lie in its specific truth or falsity; it serves radier as a dramatic metaphor which orders the disparate elements of the play, which relates the images of frustration and dislocation to a guiding thematic concept. The spine of the play is the conviction that the world of the Bergers must be changed if human potentiality is to be realized. For Odets at that time this faith was affirmed by Marxism; far from marring the play, the Marxist metaphor gathers the various dramatic strands and relates them to the basic theme of social resurrection.

Odets, then, was never primarily a realist. Awake and Sing! and his next play, Paradise Lost, are essentially allegories of middle-class decay. It was the inability to recognize this fact which was primarily responsible for the critical furor which attended the production of the latter play. The Broadway critics, who had greeted Awake and Sing! in uniformly commendatory tones ("a triumph for the Group and … Mr. Odets," "Something of an event, not to say a miracle," "a stirring play") now turned their guns upon Odets' new play, most finding it marred by "frowzy characterization, random form and … inchoate material." Nor did Odets receive any consolation from the radical press. For the most part, Marxist critics rejected the play on the grounds of unsound social analysis. Stanley Burnshaw, for example, questioned the validity of Odets' portrait of the American middle class. He maintained that the American bourgeoisie "is not a homogenous group withering into oblivion. … Overwhelming numbers of middle-class people … are part and parcel of the advancing social group. … Can their life be truthfully conveyed by such symbols as sexual impotence, heart disease … barrenness and arson, larcency, racketeering, cuckoldry, feeblemindedness and sex neuroses?"

The Marxist attacks were predicted on a literal interpretation of the dissolution of the Gordon family as a result of economic pressures. Under such an interpretation it is obvious that physical disease cannot fairly be credited to capitalism. But as Clurman, the play's director, noted, neither in direction, acting nor set design was Paradise Lost naturalistic: "The 'reading' I have given the script gives the play a definite line or what certain reviewers would call a propagandistic slant." And, despite the fact that the play displeased the left, the "line" was clearly Marxist: "The middle-class carries out the orders of the ruling class with the illusion of complete freedom."

At the beginning of Act III of Paradise Lost, Clara Gordon relates to her dying son, Julie, the parable of the golden idol:

Well, Moses stayed in the mountain forty days and forty nights. They got frightened at the bottom. … What did those fools do? They put all the gold pieces together, all the jewelry, and melted them, and made a baby cow of gold. … Moses ran down the hill so fast. … He took the cow and broke it into a thousand pieces. Some people agreed, but the ones who didn't? Finished. God blotted them out of the book. Here today, gone tomorrow!

Paradise Lost is itself Odets' parable of the decadence of contemporary capitalism, and his idolators are as surely condemned as those who worshipped the golden calf. The characters in the play are all condemned—some by disease, some by economics—but they are all presented as denizens of a world made unreal by false hope and futile illusion. The image is starker than that of Awake and Sing! because the seeds of redemption, although present in the play, are not allowed to flower. Ralph, Moe, Hennie escape to attempt to create a better world; despite his realization that he must do the same, Leo's final affirmation has come too late. He, too, is condemned. Thus, redemption must come from without, in the creation of a world unmarred by the abortiveness and sickness which dominate the world of Paradise Lost.

Such a vision is unquestionably grim, and Paradise Lost is a grim play, relieved but briefly by the humor that characterized much of Awake and Sing! The several characters, despite particularization, are more overtly allegorical; all represent to a greater or lesser degree the smothering of the individual by capitalist society. …

The image which pervades Paradise Lost is the "sweet smell of decay." The world of the Gordons is a microcosm of the "profound dislocation" of the middle class in capitalist society. Leo Gordon, a man of fundamentally noble instincts, comes finally to recognize that he is the representative of a dying class. Throughout the play he is appalled by the misery which he sees around him and is determined not to build his happiness on the exploitation of others. But his fortune and his family are crushed by personal tragedy and his refusal to recoup the loss of his business by approving an arranged insurance fire. "So in the end," he laments, "nothing is real. Nothing is left but our memory of life." But, despite his condemnation, he is allowed one glimpse of the new future that will replace the false paradise:

No! There is more to life than this! … There is a future. Now we know, we dare to understand. … I tell you the whole world is for men to possess. Heart-break and terror are not the heritage of mankind! No fruit tree wears a lock and key. … The world is in its morning … and no man fights alone!

Despite dramaturgic preparation, there can be no denying that this peroration is inconsistent with the basic metaphor of Paradise Lost. Perhaps Odets feared that if he did not explicitly state what was generally implied in the play, it might have been open to the criticism of "negativism." And yet, even without the obviousness of Leo's final awareness, it is apparent that the very frustration which dominates the play implies a social protest. As John Gassner has pointed out, "Airing one's discontents is a patent form of rebellion, dramatization of frustration is already a form of acting out, exposing a situation is criticism and often a challenge to action."

The unreality which critics of the play objected to is a reflection of the dream world constructed by the middle class in its futile attempt to escape the economic realities of capitalism. The Marxist metaphor lies at the heart of Paradise Lost; it is basic to its very conception. The very title implies that there is a paradise to be regained. The play also represents the end of Odets' period of overt political commitment, the last expression of the bitter years of anonymity which preceded his emergence. Downcast by the bad critical reaction to the play, which long remained his favorite, he wrote a short biographical piece in which he lamented the vagaries of sudden success:

The young writer comes out of obscurity with a play or two. Suppose he won't accept the generous movie offers. Why, that means he's holding out for more. Suppose he accepts—he's an ingrate, rat, renegade. …

If he's written two plays about the same kind of people everyone knows that's all he can write about. … If the reviewers praise him Tuesday, it's only because they're gentle, quixotic fellows. But watch them tear him apart on Wednesday! … The young writer is now ready for a world cruise!

And as Clurman pointed out, "for a New York playwright this means almost inevitably Hollywood."

The problem of artistic integrity is necessarily difficult to define; it invariably mires the critic in the quicksands of the intentional fallacy. But biographical concerns are not necessarily extrinsic to an evaluation of literature. In the case of Odets, for example, it is crucial to an understanding of much of his later work—in particular Golden Boy and The Big Knife—to recognize the ambivalent attitudes which he displayed toward the symbol of American success, Hollywood. Indeed, we are faced here with a not unfamiliar problem: if the roots of an artist lie in the fact of his knowledge of an environment which is economically deprived, how is he to prevent the withering of these roots by the fact of his newfound success? Is the artist, by virtue of his status as celebrity, now cut off by this very status from the sources of his previous vitality? These questions have relevance not only to Odets but to many others of his generation. Hollywood's siren song dashed the talents of many young radical writers on the rocks of hack screen writing.

In the case of Odets, Hollywood meant not only separation from the roots of New York radicalism, but separation as well from his theatre, the Group. Odets' debt to the Group was manifest: it produced all of the plays that he wrote in the thirties. Odets is one of the few playwrights of our time to have a theatre which enabled him to speak in a consistent voice. In the direction of Clurman and the acting talent of the Adlers, Carnovsky, Bromberg, Garfield, Cobb, et al., he was fortunate in having a well-trained ensemble which offered the perfect medium for the expression of his dramatic vision.

Perhaps for several reasons—the failure of Paradise Lost, the lure of the fantastic salary ($2,500 a week), the desire to explore that most powerful of mass media—Odets, to the dismay of the Group, went to Hollywood in 1936 to "look around"; as he himself stated to Clurman, he had a need "to sin." Thus began a tortured love affair between Odets and the film capital which lasted until his death there in 1963. Ironically enough, his last work of any significance was his screenplay for the cynical The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Alternately praising and reviling Hollywood, Odets was never able either fully to accept or reject its values. He viewed the cinema alternately as a medium particularly suited to the dramatist because of its directness, fluidity, and universality, and as a medium which, because of its subjugation to commercial exigencies, vitiates and destroys artistic integrity.

On the one hand, Odets offered the justification that Hollywood, by virtue of its fantastic salaries, might serve as the new patron which would free the writer for his more creative work; while, on the other, he continually recognized that isolation from the source of his material was the artist's real danger. Ironically, less than a year before he went to Hollywood for the first time, Odets wrote: "Shortly I'm getting to the coal fields and the textile centers. Let New York see the rest of the country. Hollywood too. Play material enough to keep six dozen writers going… " [New York World Telegram, 19 March 1935].

Odets' major, and only, dramatic effort for the year 1936 consisted of the film, The General Died at Dawn; it was eagerly awaited by radical circles in the hope that the fairhaired boy of leftist drama had succeeded in striking a few blows for the revolutionary cause. Sidney Kaufman reported upon the film's progress in the New Masses: "This melodramatic yarn rings like a coin from the nickelodeon mint," he admitted, "but, godalmighty, what a different face it wears." This different face was, for Kaufman, reflected in several speeches of implied social consciousness. An examination of the script, however, reveals them as hardly inflammatory. Judy (played by Madeleine Car-roll) has decoyed O'Hara (Gary Cooper) into a train compartment.

Judy: Why do they make these attempts on your life?

O'Hara: Politics. A certain honorable tootsie roll named Yang thinks he has a right to control the lives o: tens of thousands of poor Chinese.

Judy: How?

O'Hara: Military dictatorship! Taxes! You put, he takes! You protest, he shoots! A head-breaker, a heart-breaker, a strike-breaker! Altogether a four-star rat!

The General Died at Dawn found few champions in either the radical or nonradical camps, and the artist in Odets soon recognized that the media of the film and the stage were not equally hospitable to seriousness, that the powers that controlled the film industry were not interested in fully utilizing the talent in their employ. The stage, and the Group, beckoned, and Odets returned to New York with Golden Boy. But while he was anxious to be free of the encumbrances of the film colony, Odets was excited by the possibility of applying film technique and subject matter to the medium of the stage. The cinema was indeed "the authentic folk theatre of America," but producers were not interested in presenting their material significantly; on the contrary, "their chief problem is the one of keeping the level of human experience in their pictures as low as possible." But the film has opened up the possibility of a true portrayal of American life by virtue of the range and color of its subject matter and technique. Inasmuch as Hollywood will not permit the serious use of this authentic material, it remains the task of the playwright to do so within the freer confines of the stage: "It is about time that the talented American playwright began to take the gallery of American types, the assortment of fine vital themes away from the movies."

This is precisely what Odets attempted to achieve in Golden Boy. "Where is there a more interesting theme in this country than a little Italian boy who wants to be rich? Provided, of course, you place him in his true social back-ground and … present the genuine pain, meaning and dignity of life within your characters." In short, Odets took as his self-appointed task the infusion of a typical Hollywood theme with a sense of reality, "to tell the truth where the film told a lie. … " The difficulty with such an approach is that the triteness of the traditional subject matter may negate the seriousness of theme. Golden Boy treads the uncertain line between cliché and seriousness. But, on the whole, one must, in the case of this play, acknowledge Odets' success in achieving his avowed purpose. Although the story of Joe Bonaparte's rise and fall is indeed sheer Hollywood—it is the stuff of a hundred fight films—Odets has succeeded in covering the bones of melodrama with sterner stuff. He has done so by reverting to his role of allegorist.

Golden Boy is not primarily concerned with the decay of a class, it is concerned with the decadence of an ideal, success. The very nature of Odets' personal situation in Hollywood offered him his theme; for Joe Bonaparte in gaining the world loses his soul, and he loses it because he relinquishes his artistic integrity for immediate success in the world of the quick buck. It is not my intention to draw any invidious biographical parallels, but it is apparent that Joe's dilemma to a great extent parallels Odets'. The worlds of the prize ring and the motion-picture studios betray uncomfortable similarities. Both exploit talent for specifically commercial ends; both deal in forms of mass entertainment. But in the case of Joe Bonaparte the choice is not ambiguous; the pugilistic talent which he must employ to achieve success is clearly demarcated from his ability to play the violin. The Hollywood screenwriter could bask in the illusion that he was pursuing the dramatic craft.

Whether or not the world of the prize ring is intended to represent the world of Hollywood, it is apparent that the values of both are those which Odets had previously attacked in his early plays. The theme of Golden Boy is made meaningful in terms of a specific condemnation of the values of a society in which false values are able to pervert man's better instincts.

Joe Bonaparte's decision to fight, to show the world, is given credence by a society in which "five hundred fiddlers stand on Broadway and 48th Street, on the corner, every day, rain or shine, hot or cold." In such a world the artistic gesture appears futile, and if success must be gained at the expense of art, then art must be sacrificed. But Joe's success, based upon false values, is doomed to prove insubstantial. Slowly he is turned into that which runs against his better nature, a killer; ultimately no longer faced with an alternative, he must fight because that is the only thing he can do. Joe has become a killer in spirit: "When a bullet sings through the air it has no past—only a future—like me! Nobody, nothing stands in my way!" It is not long before he becomes a killer in fact, the fit companion for the homosexual racketeer, Fuseli; in the course of a fight he knocks out his opponent and finds that the blow has killed him. Remorse has come too late; Joe recognizes that in the act of violence he has killed as well the man he might have become. Too late he realizes that it is not the kings and dictators who conquer the world, but "the boy who might have said, 'I have myself; I am what I want to be!'"

Joe's death in an auto crash is not gratuitous; it is the fitting conclusion to a life which he chose to lead according to the laws of the jungle. The final verdict is delivered by Joe's union-organizer brother, Frank: "What waste!" The creative energy which might have produced beautiful music has been destroyed in a false crusade. Joe's killer instinct had been bred in a world in which such talent is highly prized. If Joe was destroyed by his false image of success he was not entirely culpable; this image was created by a society in which man's basest instincts are glorified.

Such are the implications of Odets' parable. It is apparent that beneath the surface melodrama lies the familiar Marxist metaphor, albeit somewhat diluted by personal considerations. Odets' involvement in the problem of success, however, reveals more than merely personal concerns; it reflects his awareness of its mythic role in our society. It is significant that Joe was presented with an alternative. Although he rejected it because of the pressure of false values, the alternative nonetheless exists: to refuse to acquiesce in these values, to build a society in which art has a place. This conclusion is not directly affirmed, but it is strongly implied, particularly in the person of Frank, who serves as a foil to Joe's destructive energy. It is noteworthy that Odets should turn Hollywood subject matter and technique (the short, cinematic scenes, the use of fade-outs) against itself, in order to combat the mythic Hollywood success story (and Hollywood, in retaliation, reversed Odets' logic by putting a "happy ending" upon the screen version of Golden Boy). The moral of Odets' allegory might not be overtly revolutionary, but it is nonetheless rooted in severe social criticism.

Odets was not, however, through with Hollywood. Over the course of the next decade he was alternately to make his peace with the film colony and then reject it anew. (A 1944 interview [New York Times, 27 August] was entitled "Going Their Way Now? Clifford Odets Has Given Up Tilting at the Hollywood Windmill, or So He Says.") In 1948, for example, he returned to Broadway after a seven-year absence, and castigated the movie colony in the harshest terms possible. He deeply resented the accusations of "sell out" which had plagued him ever since he initially left for Hollywood, and offered several explanations for his long defection: he wanted to recoup the "small fortune" he had invested in the Group in its dying years, to forget "the distress of several misplaced personal allegiances"; he was looking for a period of "creative repose: money, rest, and simple clarity." But Hollywood, he averred, offered few consolations beyond the monetary; since his talents were still ignored, he came to detest the lethargy into which he had fallen; he consoled himself with the plays he was going to write, "took my filthy salary every week and rolled an inner eye around an inner landscape." Apparently Odets never quite escaped the sense of guilt born of accepting Hollywood gold, and was performing an act of purgation in returning to the New York theatre, "where personal affiliation with one's writing (the first premise of truth) does not constitute lese majesty."

Odets' specific act of contrition was represented by his play The Big Knife (1949), in which he attempted to expose the mendacity of Hollywood and the corrosive effect of its guiding ethic. "The big knife," he stated, "is that force in modern life which is against people and their aspirations, which seeks to cut people off in their best flower," but, we must ask, in what precisely does this force reside? For the difficulty with the play is that we are never exactly sure what the playwright is railing against. In Golden Boy, Odets used some of the conventions of melodrama in order to construct an allegory which depicted the pernicious effect of a destructive ethic; in The Big Knife he attempts much the same thing, but fails to demonstrate the play's thesis through dramatic action. Joe Bonaparte is destroyed because society has made him a killer; why does Charlie Castle destroy himself? Hank, the New York writer who symbolizes the man of integrity, presents Charlie's eulogy: "He killed himself … because that was the only way he could live." Charlie's suicide was "a final act of faith." Faith, however, in what? Castle's predicament, as revealed in the play, seems magnified beyond all dramatic credibility precisely because it is forcibly wedded to melodramatic circumstance instead of arising inexorably from a genuine moral dilemma. The real issue involved is simple: should the artist, luxuriating in material splendor at the expense of his artistic integrity, chuck it all to return to a meaningful existence? Stated in these terms, the issue seems hardly one to induce suicide. But Odets obviously felt that the problem was not dramatically sufficient, and therefore felt constrained to project this dilemma in terms of a plot which deals with intrigue and suggested murder. The difficulty with this scheme from a dramatic viewpoint is that the real issue—the acceptance or rejection of Hollywood values—is in no way related to the machinery of the plot. If Charlie Castle is blackmailed into signing his contract, what happens to the element of choice which is crucial to the larger, more serious, dramatic issue?

Thus the prevalent tone of The Big Knife is hysteria. Odets attacks many evils of the Hollywood scene—the malicious gossip-monger, the amoral aide-de-camp, the hypocritical, vicious producer—but he fails to achieve what he succeeded in accomplishing in Golden Boy, to relate these specific evils, and the drama's basic structure, to a guiding metaphor which clarifies the main lines of the intended allegory. The boxing world becomes, in Golden Boy, a microcosm of the larger society of which it is a part; Hollywood, in The Big Knife, fails not only as a microcosm, but as a realistic portrayal of the film capital. God knows there are sufficient grounds for criticism without implying that producers and agents are would-be murderers.

The crucial fact is that Golden Boy presents a social alternative; The Big Knife does not. "Does the man in your book get out of here?" cries Charlie to Hank. "Where does he go? What, pray tell, does he do? (bitterly) Become a union organizer?" This alternative, objectified in the person of Frank in Golden Boy, has become unthinkable. Charlie's anguish springs from the recognition that he is a part of the world which he wants to reject. The problem with the play resides in this very ambivalence. Odets—in the character of Castle—alternately vilifies and accepts Hollywood captivity. Charlie wants to reject the malicious world of which he is a part, but feels unable to substitute another. Although he recognizes that "everyone needs a cause to touch greatness," he has lost his capacity to believe in causes. He has, as hank points out, sold out, and is consequently tormented by guilt: "Look at me! Could you ever know that all my life I yearned for a world and people to call out the best in me?" In short, although Odets has a theme, he is unwilling to face its direct implications. For the real question, left unanswered in The Big Knife, is in what or in whom does the responsibility lie for the destruction of Charlie Castle? In society? In his own weakness? Perhaps Odets was too personally involved in Charlie's dilemma to objectify it truthfully. As Clurman noted, the play "is neither the true story of Odets nor the clear account of a freely conceived Charlie Castle. Its subjectivity is muddled by its pretense of objectivity; its objectivity is compromised by the author's inability to distinguish between his creature and himself."

The importance of Odets' political commitment from a dramatic point of view resided in its affording him an intellectual substructure upon which to construct his several dramas. Since Odets' virtues were never primarily intellectual, his social orientation enabled him to relate his characters and themes to a coherent world-view. Either explicit or implicit in all his dramas of the thirties lies the metaphor born of his Marxist commitment. At first overtly stated, it later becomes the philosophical undercurrent which relates his several portraits of frustration to a gesture of protest. The Marxist eschatology provided the dramatist with a structural referent, for implicit in the dialectical struggle is an essential drama, the vanquishing of the old class by the new. It is this dialectic which informs Odets' Depression dramas; either explicitly in "Waiting for Lefty" or implicitly in Rocket to the Moon, they all offer the hope of the future against the frustration of the present. The structural failure of The Big Knife lies in Odets' inability, after the loss of political commitment, to substitute a suitable unifying dramatic metaphor. With the absence of the substructure of social protest, the drama flounders in a sea of hysteria. I am not implying the necessity of a social metaphor in drama, but merely pointing out the crucial role it played in Odets' career as dramatist. Odets has lost his status as major dramatist because, unlike Tennessee Williams, for example, he failed to suggest in his later dramas that he was presenting us with a vision of reality which transcended his several plays.

The consequences of the loss of metaphor may be observed in a comparison of two domestic dramas written in the thirties and the fifties respectively. Rocket to the Moon (1938) is not an overtly political play. In fact, the Marxist critics complained that "Odets has stopped listening to the people he knows so well." It is concerned with the frustrations of a middle-class dentist and his futile love affair with his young secretary. But despite Odets' essentially personal concerns, despite his emphasis upon psychological rather than social factors, there can be no denying that beneath the play resides the basic social metaphor.

The very positing of the metaphor of the rocket to the moon—the illusion of escape—has meaning because it is an illusion, because there is an alternative. Cleo, the young secretary, rejects both Stark and Prince, the denizens of a dying world, to seek fulfillment elsewhere:

Don't you think there's a world of joyful men and women? Must all men live afraid to laugh and sing? Can't we sing at work and love our work? It's getting too late to play at life; I want to live it.

Thus Rocket to the Moon, despite its psychological emphasis, is still structured by the redemption motif which characterizes Odets' earlier plays. And the redemption resides both in an affirmation and a rejection, since the one predicates the other. The play succeeds, therefore, in relating the confusion and frustration of its major characters to the larger world of which they are a part; Stark, Prince, Belle, and Cleo speak in the authentic voice of the Depression generation, reaching, grasping for a way out. But personal problems are grounded in a larger social context; Ben Stark cannot really love because his bourgeois world is rooted in futility and illusion. Odets draws the social moral—the moral Clurman chose as the "spine" of his production of the play:

Who's got time and place for "love and the grace to use it?" [asks Stark] Is it something apart, love? … An entertainment? Christ, no! It's a synthesis of good and bad, economics, work, play, all contacts. … Love is no solution of life! … The opposite. You have to bring a whole balanced normal life to love if you want it to go!

It is revealing to compare Rocket to the Moon with Odets' later domestic drama, The Country Girl (1951). Although in the latter play Odets again treats the themes of frustration and redemption, he does so this time within a self-contained personal world removed from social causation. Odets formally acknowledged his restriction of emphasis in an interview in the New York Times [5 November 1950]. In omitting "social significance," he admitted that he may have taken "a step backward" as a playwright. However, by insulating his characters from the raging complexities of the world beyond their own private heartbreak, he believed that he was able to write more proficiently than ever before. He deliberately undertook to limit himself to but one aspect of life, the search for personal values. He acknowledged the self-imposed limitation, but mused, "It may be that limitation is the beginning of wisdom."

The Country Girl is endowed with virtues hitherto unassociated with Odets; it is neat, well-ordered, and theatrically sound—a pièce bien faite. "I wanted to take simple elements and make something sharp and theatrical about them. I stated a fact, the story of these two people, rather than speculated about the fact." But in restricting his scope, Odets robbed the play of his salient virtue, the necessary connection between the characters on the stage and the world of which they are a part. Frank Elgin's redemption is portrayed but it is never related to any specific cause. The key questions, left unanswered, are why did he go to pieces and why was he saved? The esthetic difficulties in The Big Knife resulted from Odets' inability to realize Charlie Castle's real anguish in effective dramatic terms; the esthetic difficulty with The Country Girl is that one is never fully convinced of Elgin's anguish. Since he remains the skeleton of a character rather than its flesh and bones, his redemption by his faithful wife seems, in the context of the play, almost gratuitous. He might well have gone on another bender and failed to achieve his theatrical triumph. At the end of the play Georgie, the country girl of the title, herself admits that "neither of us has really changed," but none the less discerns some "new element of hope," although she is not sure what. Neither are we as audience or reader convinced of this new possibility of hope because we are never presented with any dramatic alternative except that of the conventional backstage drama: will Frank Elgin succeed in making a comeback or not?

Insofar as there is a theme, it involves the fact of human responsibility, the necessity of looking forward not back. Georgie attempts to make Frank look life in the eye, to emerge from behind the myriad of evasions with which he has buttressed his life. But this theme is itself evaded because the roots of Frank's irresponsibility—symbolized in his alcoholism—are never explained. Responsibility implies a correlative: responsibility to what, and evasion of what? Frank's theatrical triumph does not arise out of the fact of his coming to terms with himself; it is merely presented. The last scene of the play might well have demonstrated his inability to cope with the responsibilities of opening on Broadway without marring the essential logic of the play.

In Rocket to the Moon the outside world continually intrudes, but in The Country Girl the social metaphor has been eschewed, exposing the bare bones of theatrical contrivance. It is as if Odets were saying to Broadway: "You want me to meet you on your terms? Very well, I'll show you that I'm able to do so." But in accepting Broadway's terms—an acceptance rewarded by commercial success—he surrendered the very real virtue which distinguished his earlier work, the adamant refusal to be confined by the structure of the conventional Broadway play, the fervent desire to change the theatre, and ultimately the world outside it.

Odets, in losing his political commitment, enacted the drama of his generation. It is not inappropriate that disenchantment with Marxist principles should have specific esthetic results, for Marxism had indeed attempted to create a specific esthetic. We have observed that although Odets never adhered rigidly to the strict logic of the doctrine of proletarian literature, none the less his Depression dramas are rooted in the metaphor of the Marxist dialectic. Thus the theme of redemption or resurrection is wedded to the concept of the necessary vanquishing of the old class by the new. Odets' problem as a dramatist, although never explicitly viewed as such, was to find a substitute metaphor to order the various elements of his artistic experience. Once the Marxist metaphor had lost its validity, once the substructure of the Marxist dialectic no longer sufficed, Odets was deprived of the structural framework upon which he had consciously or unconsciously built.

The consequences of the absence of this framework may be observed in an examination of Odets' last play with the Group, Night Music (1940). Although certain persistent Odetsian themes appear in the play, in particular the redemption of the young by the old, they are no longer related to a guiding, thematic concept; instead Odets attempts to substitute an esthetic metaphor, musical structure, for thematic structure, and the resultant play is characterized by a general diffuseness and uncertainty which robs its social implications of any vitality. In attempting to portray contemporary homelessness and uncertainty, Odets committed the esthetic mistake of being himself uncertain and erratic.

Odets possessed an aural rather than a visual imagination; his plays have always been characterized by the specific quality of their dialogue, the authentic sound of colloquial, urban speech. In commenting on New York City, he once noted that "I don't see it visually—though it's beautiful enough—so much as I hear it and feel it." And in the story of Steve Takis' erratic weekend on the town, Odets attempts, in Night Music, to record the sounds and music of twentieth-century New York and, by extension, America. But the myriad variations of the play serve to muddy rather than to clarify the theme. Hearing the sound of crickets, Fay, the young heroine, remarks, "Night Music … if they can sing, I can sing. … We can sing through any night!" This faith in the ability of the human being to transcend his difficulties is, at best, most generally stated. True, the play raises some specific social issues. Steve's predicament, for example, is given an economic base, since his aggression is motivated by the fact of his deprivation. The "big international question" for him is still "when do we eat?" But a sense of man's inability to confront reality and change the world vitiates the social implications of Night Music. If there is one essential theme it is that of homelessness, the individual's inability to find someone or something to belong to. Although Steve Takis is indeed a proletarian, despite occasional outbursts of indignation, he displays no real sense of class. He is a boy without credentials, the "All-American bum," striking back at friend and foe alike with a defensive hospitality, which is merely a mask for his sense of homelessness. The theme of Night Music is, thus, not the determination of the economically deprived to gain their deserved rights, but rather a despairing acknowledgment of the futility of gestures of protest. Not merely Steve and Fay, but all the characters in the play, regardless of class, are characterized by this similar sense of dislocation. Where previously dislocation had served Odets as a class image, it now informs all strata of society.

Odets seems to acquiesce in the mood of futility which pervades the play. His attempt to dispel it, in the person of the Guardian Angel, the detective Rosenberger, is so generalized in its optimism as to be fundamentally unconvincing. For Odets' answer seems to be nothing so much as to affirm a blind faith in man's possibilities. Rosen-berger's role in the play serves merely to demonstrate the gratuitousness of his solutions; whenever the young couple finds itself in difficult straits, he appears to set the situation right, and to present them with his optimistic gospel: "Where there is life there is hope, in my humble opinion. Only the living can cry out against life."

It is precisely this sense of false solution—of conquering life by merely living it—which provides the play with the Saroyanesque note that many of the critics noted ("Now that Odets writes like Saroyan," wrote Atkinson, "doomsday is near"). Rosenberger's relationship to Steve is not unlike that of Jacob to Ralph, but whereas the latter's redemption was predicated on the acceptance of a specific road out of the frustrations of the present, Steve's redemption is based upon his acceptance of the vaguest kind of social philosophy: "In the time of your life, live." Although Saroyan's particular talent was able to inform this false optimism with a kind of wistfulness and nostalgia which made it work theatrically, Odets' talent did not lend itself to such manipulation. Ultimately, despite his attempt at wistfulness, his world is a real one, and demands real solutions. Night Music is one of those works which catches a specific moment in history; the spirit of the thirties had disappeared, employment was up, and the European war hovered ominously on the horizon. The major social issue was soon to become the simple act of survival. In such a world, in which catastrophe appeared imminent, it is not strange that the playwright should turn to themes of uncertainty, despair, and a desperate optimism. But Odets' dramatic dilemma was to find a means of structuring these various themes. He failed, despite the musical metaphor, because the implications of the various elements in the play continually led him in different directions. Thus the play is alternately wistful, nostalgic, bitter, farcical, optimistic, and despairing. The theme of redemption seems gratuitous because it does not seem warranted; if there is any moral in Steve's redemption, it lies in the cliché, love conquers all. Yet the seriousness of much of the play makes us unwilling to accept the conventional romantic ending. Rosenberger advises Steve to "make a Party-To-Marry-My-Girl." Even as a comic statement, it is significant that Odets' specific political solution to Steve's problems should be marriage.

In Clash By Night (1941) the vision of uncertainty and homelessness which found whimsical reflection in Night Music had turned stark and grim. The war clouds which had appeared on the horizon in the earlier play now seemed poised to drench the American landscape, and, in fact, less than one month after the play was produced in November, 1941, the Depression era found its violent interment in the cataclysm of world war.

The mood of the play may be gathered from Odets' diary notes pertaining to its genesis:

July 27: The climate of the … play will be exactly that of the weather here. Muggy, foreboding, the never bursting open sky Why? I feel it must be that way. It is weather in which anything can happen. All courses of conduct are possible, men and women may suddenly weep, reverse their entire lives under this leaden sky; relaxed amiabilities, hatreds, exquisite tenderness … sudden murderous wrath, all may happen. … Out of a long chain of seeming dull trivia is born a shattering explosion that is the line of the new play.

August 8: The theme is taking shape in my mind, intensely personal but generally significant feeling behind it. The theme … has to do with the need of a new morality, with a return to voluntarily imposed morals, to voluntarily assumed forms in a world … where there are no forms but plenty of appetite and irresponsibility.

October 21: Part of the theme of this play is about how men irresponsibly wait for the voice and strong arm of Authority to bring them to life. … Nothing stands for Authority and we wait for its voice!… The children are looking for the father to arrange their lives for them!

Clash By Night represents Odets' final testament to the themes which informed his earlier dramas. The vision which had celebrated human possibility has turned sour, and the image of redemption is overshadowed by that of death. Like Odets' early characters, the people whose struggles are recorded in Clash By Night are frustrated by circumstance. Mae, like Hennie, is trapped in a loveless marriage; Earl's bluster, like that of Moe and Steve, masks a basic insecurity; the good-hearted Jerry wants nothing so much as to feel that he is needed. The dream of love, the desire to escape a life which is devoid of joy—"a life lived on the installment plan"—these pathetic gropings set the stage for the enactment of the love triangle which constitutes the plot of the play. But whereas Hennie, Moe, and Ralph were able to escape, Jerry, Mae, and Earl are condemned. There is no escape afforded them; Jerry, goaded by the fascistic Kress, is overwhelmed by jealousy and kills Earl rather than lose his wife.

Odets attempts to use the redemption theme by posing, in opposition to the tragedy of his major characters, the healthy relationship of a young couple, Joe and Peggy.

Unlike Earl or Jerry, Joe "knows his address," he is not torn away from the roots of life. He states what, we may assume, Odets intended as the moral of the play:

We're all afraid! Earl, Jerry, Mae, millions like them, clinging to a goofy dream—expecting life to be a picnic. Who taught them that? Radio, Songs, the Movies … paradise is just around the corner. … But… we know the facts, the anti-picnic facts. We know that Paradise begins in responsibility. … Yes, it's a time to learn, a time to begin—it's time to love and face the future!

We must ask in what manner this theme is realized in Clash By Night. Despite this statement, and Mae's final advice to the young couple—"You're young and strong, you got a future"—it is apparent that Odets is merely going through the motions. He had become so acclimated to the structural support of the Marxist-redemption metaphor that he used it in this play as a dramatic device even though it is never validated. The drama of Earl, Jerry, and Mae is in no way logically connected to the drama of Joe and Peggy. Indeed, the latter might well have been eliminated without impairing the play one iota. Nowhere in the play is it implied that the dilemma of the principal characters is motivated by the false ideals which they have learned from society. Nowhere is the corrosive influence of radio, songs, and the movies manifest. Mae, Jerry and Earl are trapped by circumstances, by the inexorable fact that in a love triangle someone's fingers must be burned. Is the desire to escape from the frustration of the present necessarily a false ideal? Nowhere does Odets imply this. The metaphor of social redemption which served as a dramatic aid as long as Odets accepted the implications of Marxism, serves, in the case of Clash By Night, to falsify the play; for all elements of the play enforce the conviction that there is no escape. The world is seen, in Arnold's image as "a darkling plain … where ignorant armies clash by night." All the characters in the play confirm this pessimistic view, even the untormented Peggy, who states, "It's a nervous world, a shocking world. I don't understand it, I just don't understand it."

The ritual of violence which Odets enacted in Clash By Night was soon enacted in the world at large, and the world war which inaugurated the forties fittingly ended both the decade and the Great Depression itself. We have already traced much of Odets' subsequent career. Like many of his generation he was unable to replace the faith which had made him one of the most representative dramatists of the Depression era; and what is more significant for his art, he was unable to find a new dramatic metaphor to replace the one born of his political commitment. The failure of The Big Knife brought forth the compromise of The Country Girl, in which the rebel in Odets deferred to the Broadway craftsman. And yet his dissatisfaction with the compromise is attested by his last play, The Flowering Peach (1954), in which we find the playwright groping towards a new metaphor he never succeeded in finding.

Once again, Odets is concerned with an allegory of redemption; but redemption in this case is not born of a specific act of faith, but rather the attempt to replace the loss of faith. For in The Flowering Peach Odets attempts to define the dilemma both of his generation and of his own art. It represents that moment in an artist's career when reassessment seems to be demanded, when the artist must stop and take stock of his personal and esthetic resources. "I'm not a kid anymore," Odet acknowledged to a Times interviewer [26 December] 1954, "I'm 47. And at this age I began to ask myself, what happened? Do you want to begin all over again? Who are you and where are you?"

The significance of the play lies in the fact that Odets finally attempted to come to terms with the esthetic consequences of the loss of his political commitment. It was an acknowledgment long overdue, for, as we have observed, the attempt to exploit the structural advantages of the Marxist metaphor after rejecting its meaning vitiated Odets' post-Depression plays. The essence of The Flowering Peach is the acceptance of the loss of political faith. If there is one key line in the play it is perhaps Rachel's cry to the idealistic Japheth: "There is idealism now in just survival." Odets affirmed this conviction in the Times:

When you start out you have to champion something. Every artist begins as if he were the first one painting, every composer as if there were no Beethoven. But if you still feel that way after ten or fifteen years, you're nuts. … I couldn't have written The Flowering Peach twenty years ago. As you grow older, you mature. The danger is that in broadening, as you mature, you dilute your art. A growing writer always walks that tight rope.

Odets' utilization of the Noah myth is not subject to a one-to-one allegorical interpretation. There can be no doubt, however, that the play represents an intensely personal statement. Odets is basically concerned with man's reaction to cosmic injustice, his attempt to construct a means whereby he can accept this injustice. It is this concept of acceptance which dominates The Flowering Peach. Despite everything, Noah accepts the will of God, the fact of human destruction. The rebel, Japheth, prefers to remain off the ark rather than accept the divine edict, but Noah knocks him unconscious and carries him aboard; thus man, Odets, implies, must accept the inequities of life; the gesture of protest must not be carried to extremes. And yet the rebellious gesture is not futile. It is Japheth's insistence that the ship have a rudder, his skill in fixing leaks, which saves the ship from foundering. Man must not merely accept, he must act. He cannot assume that God will necessarily prevent catastrophe; he must have faith in himself, for he can never be sure what God wants. Noah, however, does know what God wants. He wants to prevent the extinction of life, to provide the basis for the construction of a new world. The necessity of this preservation—and the acceptance of the capriciousness of divine law—transcends the meaning of Japheth's gesture of protest. Ultimately, he too must accept the way of the world. The rebel may attempt to guide his destiny, but he cannot change it. Significantly, the world which is renewed at the end of the play, it is implied, will not be very different from the world which was destroyed. Shem, who symbolizes man's acquisitive nature, has not been changed by the catastrophe. At the beginning of the play he was loath to accept Noah's demand to aid in the construction of the Ark because it meant the sacrifice of his worldly possessions; during the voyage he had planned for the future by saving the manure of the animals in anticipation of the time when fuel would be needed and he could sell dried manure briquettes. But Noah, who had previously berated Shem's avariciousness, finally, and significantly, comes to live with it. Previously Noah had attacked Shem's desire to live again by the principle of exploitation, but after his initial anger at his son's attempt to "begin a new world … with manure," at the risk of endangering the safety of the ark, Noah finally comes to accept his wife's logic: "Shem made a useful thing from nothing. … Why kill the man with brains? No, make him use it for the family!" Ultimately it is not the rebel, Japheth, that Noah goes to live with in the new world; it is Shem. "Why? It's more comfortable."

Thus, the rebel in Odets came to accept the futility of the radical gesture; there is sufficient idealism in the fact of survival. "You say to the eagle, fly!" cries Noah to God at the moment of his designation, "Even to a little bitty of an eagle like me, fly, fly, higher and higher! You have shrinked away his wings and he couldn't do it! Why did You pick me?" But every man is chosen, and every man must face the contradiction between his aspirations and his achievements. The fire of youth is gone, the desire to change the world is gone; but the world endures. And what has Noah learned from his journey through catastrophe? "To walk in humility, I learned. And listen, even to myself … and to speak softly, with the voices of consolation."

Thus redemption is ultimately born of acceptance, not protest; Agate Keller had cried in "Waiting For Lefty" that "when we die they'll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces … put fruit trees where our ashes are!" But Noah accepts a small branch of the flowering peach as a "precious gift… from the new earth." Regeneration indeed, but this time without the ashes of man's effort.

C. W. E. Bigsby (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Group Theatre and Clifford Odets," in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama, Volume 1: 1900-1940, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 159-88.

[In the excerpt below, Bigsby surveys Odets' work with the Group Theatre, paying particular attention to Awake and Sing!]

Odets's Berger family [of Awake and Sing!] is trapped, in a mental no less than a physical world. The limits are partly those imposed by an urban setting which itself has been shaped by a history of speculation and exploitation, and partly by a mental geography which they regard as implacable as a physical terrain. Most of the family accept as unyielding what is mutable, constructing their own prisons out of economic fiats to which they give metaphysical authority. The primary space which they surrender is the crucial territory within which the self defines its own possibilities. Dreams are mistaken for visions and vice versa. The harsh realities of economic life are allowed to deform the moral imagination. The falsehoods of public mythology become the falsehoods of private life. The social lie, which proposes the inevitability of success and which accounts for failure by locating it in the weakness of the individual or the incorrigible wilfulness of a particular group, becomes the private lie, which demeans by forcing the individual to respect externalities, to allow a dangerous gap to open up between appearance and reality. The Berger family are on the verge of the middle class and as such are especially vulnerable. To deny the reality of the American dream is ostensibly to condemn themselves to permanent deprivation. The constant image is one of flight, escape. They look to escape the reality of their situation through marriage, through luck, through a desperate commitment to political or social myths, through a sardonic humour, through self-deceit, or even, most desperately, through suicide, albeit a suicide which, like that which was to send Willy Loman to his death in Death of a Salesman, is designed to liberate the next generation.

All the material is there for a social play which indicts a brutal and brutalising system. Certainly it is possible to make money. Bessie Berger's brother does so by dint of caring nothing for anyone, remaining blandly unaware of others' suffering and evidencing the crudest intolerance. Otherwise, it is really only the gambler and the cynic who can survive, and they do so by taking society on its own terms. But Odets is less interested in offering an indictment of capitalism than he is with asserting the need for a morally improved world, for the individual to wake up to a failure which is as much private as public. Odets was now a Communist Party member, but the mood of Awake and Sing is much closer to Roosevelt than to Marx. The awakening with which the play climaxes is very much that moral regeneration for which Roosevelt had called and which he was to continue to call for in his Second Inaugural, where he was to assert that:

Old Truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned … We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world. This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life … Shall we pause now and turn our back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way? For 'each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth'.

Awake and Sing recounts the personal growth to a kind of maturity of Ralph Berger and, ostensibly, of his sister Hennie. Condemned to play their required roles in the social drama which their mother has formulated from shreds of American pietism and capitalist propaganda, wedded to the lower middle-class insecurities of immigrant life, they are caught between her pretensions and the constraining power of their far from genteel poverty. Having failed to win her own place in the sun, she relies on her children to justify her and is implacable in the zeal with which she seeks to mould them. By the end of the play they have apparently learnt the need to break free, though the suicide of their grandfather offers an exemplary warning of the futility of a commitment and a vision not rooted in practical action.

Clifford Odets is an urban writer. The pressure which his characters feel is that of the city. The collapse of personal space, the closing off of social possibilities, the erosion of familial cohesion, the betrayal of moral values, the loss of transcendent vision, are the product of a world which is seen as essentially urban. The Bergers live in a tenement building. Their dog is exercised on the roof; their son sleeps in the living room; the different generations are crowded together, making the ironies of lost lives inescapable. Lost opportunities, denied hopes, frustrated plans, are ruthlessly exposed. Nothing can be concealed. The loss of space is the loss, too, of privacy, the exposure of failure and weakness. The transformation of this circumstance by simple ideological shift is not credible nor presented as such by Odets. Jacob's communism is a fantasy, rooted neither in knowledge nor action, while Ralph's personal liberation is drained of ideological content. Indeed that lack of ideological content emphasises the indi vidual nature of that transformation, and its slender foun dation. The ambiguity of this conversion is an indication of some of the play's more disabling contradictions. Odets delineates with care the pressures which destroy personal relations, individual conscience and communal values; he is less capable of identifying the source of regeneration which survives in language but not in action. Hennie's pursuit of personal fulfilment at the expense of her child, whom she abandons at the end of the play, is ostensibly endorsed by Ralph, suggesting a concern for self at the heart of his own bid for freedom which stains it with an egotism at odds with his language, and with the logic of the play which suggests a movement towards a self-realisation linked to national recovery.

Odets's is a world in which language is warped by circumstance. The language of familiarity cloaks a fundamental estrangement. The pressure of the city erodes the word, insinuates a space between language and meaning. Jacob's romantic radicalism is born out of a desire to bring word and referent into some kind of dialectical relationship, to close the space opened up by time and the loss of an environment in which such a relationship would be possible. The pathos of Jacob is clear. He dies without closing that space and, worse than that, he dies with a kind of betrayal. In plunging to the sidewalk from the rooftop he offers his life to buy his grandson a future by leaving him $3000. It is a gesture which denies the life that he has constructed in his mind. It is a bribe offered to the world he thinks he holds in contempt. It is a gift which will taint the young man; which, if accepted, will pull him down into the material world, which will locate him with the forces he affects to despise. Like Willy Loman, in Death of a Salesman, he offers a dubious inheritance. The proof of Ralph's maturity lies, like Biff's, in his realisation that it is an inheritance which has to be refused. But where Willy Loman prides himself, no matter how self-deceivingly, on his success, desperately trying to relate to the public myths of America, Jacob consoles himself for his failure by condemning that society. In doing so, he inevitably defuses Odets's own indictment of the system. In both cases the weakness lies as much in the individual, wilfully self-blinding, vacillating, visionary without cogent perception, as it does in society. It is a weakness which blunts the social critique.

By the same token Ralph's decision to hand the money over to his mother and stay in the tenement leaves him in a social world unreconstructed except by his new version of a world which he now believes, without any evidence, to be susceptible to his transforming imagination. But that imagination is too insubstantially rooted to carry conviction. The density of the city, the accumulated evidence of loss, betrayal and surrender, is too great for his new perception to sustain the weight which Odets would place on it. What is presented as a triumph, as perception transmuted into action, is invaded by an irony generated less by his own weaknesses, though these are plain, than by the subversive power of a social world whose force lies more in its demeaning materialism than in the capitalist injustice. The play's action implies a determinism scarcely neutralised by a quixotic gesture, a commitment to transformation pushed not simply into the future and hence untested in action, but into a spiritual world which is perhaps indistinguishable from the fantasy which had animated his grandfather.

In the context of Awake and Sing, in which disillusionment, the blunting of aspirations and the slow depletion of energy are demonstrable facts of personal and public life, there is a terrible symmetry in Ralph's decision. The naive enthusiasm which he feels in the closing moments of the play is indistinguishable from that with which Moe Axelrod had gone off to war, Bessie had married her now dispirited husband and Jacob had responded to the images of human solidarity which had filled him with sufficient energy to purchase, but not read, a library of radical texts. There is a logic established which cannot be neutralised by simple rhetoric. He exchanges one dream for another; the vaguely-felt social commitment which now engages him. As he puts down the telephone, following the ending of a brief, but apparently passionately-felt affair, he announces, 'No girl means anything to me until … Till I can take care of her. Till we don't look out on an air shaft. Till we can take the world in two hands and polish off the dirt.' The extent of the rationalisation seems clear, though it threatens the integrity of his new commitment. Indeed his failure to sustain that personal relationship in the face of opposition, the collapse of will which leads him to sacrifice her to her vindictive relatives, is of a kind with his sister's willing sacrifice of her child, abandoned so that she can seek happiness unencumbered. It cannot be viewed unambiguously and it must be presumed to have implications for his new faith, which is expressed with precisely that enthusiasm which he had previously reserved for his private world.

And the risk clearly exists that for Ralph the future will become a kind of crystalline myth, as the past does for his father. Teddy Roosevelt and Valentino define the parameters of his fantasy world, as Marx and Lenin do those of Jacob. The present is evacuated. It contains the threat of uncontrolled emotion; it demands a human response. It is Jacob who is described by Odets as being 'a sentimental idealist with no power to turn ideal into action' but it is not clear why this should not also prove an adequate description of Ralph.

For Odets, the change in the lives of Ralph and Hennie, at least, though minor in origin and in immediate effect, was to be a public act. To newspaper interviewers he asserted that 'The play represents an adjustment in the lives of the characters, not an adjustment of environment … just a minor family turmoil, an awakening to life of the characters, a change in attitude … But today the truth followed to its logical conclusions is inevitably revolutionary. No special pleading is necessary in a play which says that people should have full and richer lives' [Gerald Weales, Clifford Odets, 1971]. When Jacob is particularly depressed or harassed he plays a recording of Caruso singing 'O Paradiso' and explains that 'a big explorer comes on a new land—"O Paradiso"… You hear? Oh paradise! Oh paradise on earth!' This, presumably, is the America, now destroyed by greed, which must be redeemed.

The family, central to American mythology, becomes, if not the source of corruption, then its most obvious evidence. Jacob's comment, 'Marx said it—abolish such families', is a genuine reference to the Communist manifesto, which does indeed assert that the bourgeoisie have made the family relationship into a financial relationship. This is exemplified here not merely by Bessie's willing sacrifice of moral value to financial security but also by the legacy left by Jacob. It is a temptation which has to be resisted. And yet the family is not to be abandoned, or, as in Hennie's case, not to be abandoned without moving into a dubious moral world. It is to be transformed by changing the nature of the society in which it is located. But this merely serves to underline the inadequacy of Ralph to the task which he wishes to take on. 'Get teams together all over. Spit on your hands and get to work,' he insists, 'And with enough teams together maybe we'll get steam in the warehouse so our fingers don't freeze off. Maybe we'll fix it so life won't be printed on dollar bills.' But the agency for this transformation, the process whereby he will move from perception to action, is unclear.

The play's final speech signals his private rebirth in his own mind, but the link between that and a public act of reconstruction is dubious while the tone of the speech is scarcely different from that in which he had earlier announced his love-affair. At the beginning of the play he had explained that 'I'm telling you I could sing … We just walked along like that, see, without a word, see. I never was so happy in all my life … She looked at me … right in the eyes … " I love you," she says, "Ralph." I took her home … I wanted to cry. That's how I felt.' At the end of the play it is an abstract cause rather than a girl, but the tone and indeed the language are the same: 'My days won't be for nothing … I'm twenty-two and kickin' ! I'll get along. Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No. "Awake and sing," he said … The night he died, I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born! I swear to God, I'm one week old! I want the whole city to hear it—fresh blood, arms. We got 'em. We're glad we're living.' For Odets, his was an affirmative voice, just as below what he acknowledged to be the 'dirty lie' implicit in Hennie and Moe's escape to Cuba he could bring himself to assert that 'I do believe that, as the daughter in the family does, she can make a break with the groundling lies of her life, and try to find happiness by walking off with a man not her husband' [Weales]. The flouting of convention is offered as itself adequate evidence of rebellion, but it is difficult to sustain this interpretation given Hennie's weakness and her casual abandonment of her child, and given Moe's strategy of neutralising the crude immorality of society with his own homeopathic corruption. Marx did not propose adultery as a solution to capitalism, nor the exchange of one failed capitalist paradise for another. But the confusion does not only operate in Odets's mind; it is endemic in the play. A drama of praxis requires both the possibility of change and characters capable of imagining and sustaining that change. Neither Hennie nor Moe has this imagination. They gamble on the future, on a radical change in Moe's personality for which there is no evidence; on the existence and desirability of a static world of romantic delight which will make no demands on their sensibilities or their con-sciences. Odets is caught between a social play of public revolt and a private drama of personal rebellion. The two are never successfully welded together except at the level of language.

There is perhaps an explanation of sorts in the fact that Awake and Sing had originally been deeply pessimistic. Indeed Clurman had called it 'almost masochistically pessimistic'. In an early version Moe is arrested before his proposition to Hennie; Bessie is a cruder figure, drained of what sympathy attaches itself to her in the final version. The changes may explain something of the obvious tensions in a play whose realism of dialogue and character was not matched by a coherent dramatic or social vision.

Awake And Sing!

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3783


Stark Young (review date 13 March 1935)

SOURCE: "Awake and Whistle at Least," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXII, No. 1058, 13 March 1935, p. 134.

[In the following, Young offers a mixed review of Awake and Sing!, judging it a "workaday drama."]

There are a number of pertinent things to be said of the Group Theatre's last production. It is, in the first place, a piece written by a member of the Group itself; and that is a notable point. The direction was under Mr. Harold Clurman, one of the heads of the Group, and it was good directing in general, intelligent, full of a stage sense, and thoroughly foreseen. I thought it needed only greater variations in pitch. The company in general shows growth; technically, the whole performance of the play is more even and distributed among the individual players than has often been the case in the past. The play itself deserves genuine attention critically.

Awake and Sing shows great promise, especially in the field of melodrama. It begins, moves along and develops with real skill. The attention it exacts is definite and constant. The only boredom I felt was with the recurring ugliness, sometimes so prolonged that I was led to wonder why I should bother with such people as these characters seemed to be.

This effect of stridency and ugliness, however, diminished after the first act. The growing intensity of the play replaced that yapping quality which, if spread throughout the household of characters, passes endurance. It is practically impossible to feel either the tragedy or the comedy of such rowing, jawing, prideless and uninspired human beings. This sort of judgment of that type of Jewish life seems to me necessary and right; how otherwise are we to measure and evaluate the nobler and more beautiful forms of Jewish life that are to be found? Any general front rigidly preserved, merely means that the lower Jewish forms of life gain, the higher lose.

Awake and Sing tells the story of a family, the Bergers, in the Bronx, whose daughter has slipped into perilous ways, and is beginning a baby. There is, also, a son, well written, whose mind is revolutionary but somewhat frightened: the maternal control these many years has been too strong. He has a girl, Blanche, an orphan without money, whom the mother fights. The Berger daughter is married off to a suitor who is all confusion, a wretched little sample of bourgeois goodness—which, plainly, is to be despised in this family that has always kicked about its chances. There is the old grandfather, full of Marx—however diluted with Caruso records (it is not easy to believe that Caruso's notions of Marxian principles would have accorded with this old man's). And there is a sort of bootlegger or free person of discolor, Moe Axelrod, who has been the first in the daughter's life, who comes to board, and who in the end carries the girl off, away from her husband, away from her baby. The grandfather assists in the son's future by making out his $3,000 insurance policy to him and then jumping off the roof; though, as a matter of fact, the son, well warned of his family's plans to cheat him, resolves to let them all have the paltry sum. Deserted by his girl, thrilled with the old grandfather's spirit, inheriting his handful of books, the young man determines to fight for the revolution, for good heat in the factory, the right to et cetera, et cetera. Meanwhile we hear uttered the sentence about all the bourgeois: "house filled with hate!" Such houses crowd the length and breadth of the country; the revolution will change all that by giving such families as the Bergers a right to lie in the sun, to bring their children up as—it is not clear what. As to the hate-filled houses, I know so many that are not so that I remain a poor judge of the idea promulgated. I know a great many families where hate does not rule, some of them very close to me. I am reminded, also, that hate as a dramatic motif has small purpose unless it be conceived and portrayed either in most intense or tragic terms, not all mere commonness or envy.

As a workaday drama Awake and Sing seems to me far above the average. The author of it has talent, a sense of character drawing and a clear sense of emotional contrasts. The scene of the grandfather cutting the rich son's hair is genuine drama and is moving. What the play lacks is a deep basis in the dramatist's own conception. What life, beneath the incidental, has he in mind? What, for instance, does he think of their constant patter about getting on, in money, in advantages, when all the time there lie within his Jews' grasp their own marvelous inheritance? Are we to weep because this family that might have possessed one of the great racial traditions of the world, its poetry and prayer, are sour because they cannot have Packards? Where, for Mr. Odets, is the race's dream and shadow of divinity? From the dramatist's point of view we have a right to ask a more fundamental conception on his own part. On what, in his opinion, does this life that he portrays rest? The actual conveyance technically of the bases on which a play rests is a part of the dramatist's technical problem.

One comment remains on the playwright's achievement in Awake and Sing, which is that it lacks tonality. The use of English at its best may be denied these aliens or these dwellers in the Bronx, whose agitations can so stridently take the charm out of life. But there is in Mr. Odets' play far too much of a certain vulgar animation of phrase, of forcing of the comparison and epithet, gutterism, as it were, that seeks after vivacity. Why not more either of the English language or of plain speech stumbling? For example, at the end, when the girl and her lover are going away, upsetting meanwhile a whole social system, why should not someone speak simply, in key, leaving vivacious vulgarity to those whose character it dramatically expresses?

Theatre liveliness is one thing, but we do not sell out for it. If we do, we merely show that we passed through an important human scene like a spoon through soup, without perceiving the savor. You cannot have everything; if you wish to jazz, do please jazz; if you wish to stand by the wailing wall, then wail. But you must not be afraid that your matter will fail in liveliness for the vulgar, unless, that is, you think the enlivening element is its vulgarity. Watching the last scene of Awake and Sing, I was unable to tell whether or not he thought of value the reactions to life of people who asked of life so little that is valuable or profound; or whether, with his young man's final curtain, the dramatist is thinking of revolution as one more stage cliché or as a pathetic canvas of possibility on which passionate or starved youth can begin to draw the pattern of the life it desires for itself.

Grenville Vernon (review date 15 March 1935)

SOURCE: A review of Awake and Sing!, in The Commonweal, Vol. XXI, No. 20, 15 March 1935, p. 570.

[Vernon provides a glowing assessment of Awake and Sing!, declaring it "one of the truest, most vital productions of the year. "]

The Group Theatre got off none too happily in its first production of the season, Gold Eagle Guy, but in Awake and Sing it has hit its stride. In Clifford Odets's play of a Jewish family in the Bronx, not only do the Group actors find themselves peculiarly at home, but Mr. Odets's play proves to be one of the truest, most vital productions of the year, a play which deserves a place in the front rank of American drama. The story of Awake and Sing is simple enough. It is the tale of the love of Hennie Berger for Moe Axelrod. Hennie after an unfortunate love affair has married a rather moronic young Jew, Sam Feinschreiber, or rather has been married to him by her mother, Bessie Berger, who knows she is to have a child and wants to save the reputation of the family. This is done against the protest of the girl's grandfather, Jacob. In the end Hennie goes off with the man she really loves, Moe Axelrod. The play cannot be defended on moral grounds, but it is none the less a story which bears only too clearly the marks of truth in a civilization in which moral standards are fast disintegrating. But it isn't the story itself that makes the play important; it is the dramatist's masterly evocation of Jewish character and his splendid sense of dialogue. In his depiction of the matriarch, Bessie, with her insistence on the age-old ideas of the Jewish race, its courage, its belief in the family as a unit, Mr. Odets has proved himself a master. Yet he is none the less sure in his etching of the older liberal Jew, Jacob, with his ideas of personal dignity and love for humanity; of the erring daughter, Hennie, torn between her family's tradition and her love, which until the end seems almost hate, of Moe; and of Moe Axelrod himself, brutal yet honest, a masterly portrait of the young Jew who has lost belief in everything except himself. Splendidly done, too, are the figures of Uncle Morty, the cynical Jew of business; of Myron Berger, Bessie's futile husband; and of Sam, the half moron hus-band. They are not pretty pictures, any of them, except old Jacob, but they have the ring of truth and life. Awake and Sing is a study of the old against the new, and though the dramatist's sympathy is evidently with the latter, he never preaches, and the triumph of the new cannot hide the fact that the faith which upheld the old has found nothing substantial to take its place.

The acting was flawless. Perhaps first honors go to Luther Adler for his splendid portrayal of Moe; to Morris Carnovsky for his idealistic but futile Jacob; to Stella Adler for her indomitable matriarch. Yet almost equally fine are Phoebe Brand's Bessie, J. E. Bromberg's Uncle Morty, and Sanford Meisner's Sam Feinschreiber. No one but Jewish actors could have given these characters as they are given, actors who know not only the flavor and ideas of the characters themselves, but who are able to speak their lines veritably. Awake and Sing is a true folk-drama, but it is more than that. It is a document truly appalling in its truth. It shows the old ideals of Jewry crumbling under the pressure of an alien civilization and a racial emancipation. That Jewry will be willing to remain long so utterly hopeless and disillusioned would be too painful to believe. The spirit which animates the idealistic Jacob, twisted though it is, will some day emerge and assert its rights.


Richard H. Goldstone (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Making of Americans: Clifford Odets's Implicit Theme," in Proceedings of the IVth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, edited by François Jost, Mouton & Co., 1966, pp. 654-60.

[In the excerpt below from a conference paper presented in 1964, Goldstone asserts that Awake and Sing! is Odets' most profound play and explores the significance of money to the characters.]

Awake and Sing is a turning away from naturalism, the mode which Zola, Gorki, Elmer Rice and Eugene O'Neill had exploited in their dramatic writings about the poor. Odets chose realism over naturalism, sensing that the time had come when an American dramatist could write realistically about the emerging lower middle class—in this instance, immigrant Eastern European Jews. Realistic drama had previously focused upon the middle and upper middle classes, social groups with whom the theater-going public could identify; only [Sean] O'Casey had successfully used the lower middle class as the subject for realistic drama and Odets sensed that what O'Casey had done for the tenement dwellers of Dublin, an American playwright could do for the Jewish denizens of the Bronx. …

Odets had two objectives. More explicitly than O'Casey he wished to make the theater the expression of his social conscience, of his awareness of the need for social reform. At the same time, Odets wished to lay bare the truth, as he saw it, about the lives of his own people, to reveal and interpret their confusions, their fears, their aspirations and their failures.

We encounter, then, in Awake and Sing a family of Jews, East European in origin. Of the nine persons of the play, five were born in Europe and the others are children of immigrants. No one in the play is very far from the memory of the squalor of their origins—the squalor both of the European ghettoes and lower East Side slums. Jacob, the grandfather, says to his grandson, Ralph: "Go out and fight so life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills." But life for these people was printed on dollar bills, on dimes, nickels and pennies. Their life was the struggle to survive. In ghettoes and slums the energies of people were devoted to getting and clutching the coins and bills on which life depended.

This is a play about money, or more particularly, about money and Jews. As such, it is a harsh, ugly, and—in certain respects—an unfair play. Yet it makes something clear about Jews and money which even today after pogroms and genocide, the world does not now, nor did not in 1935, really understand. Odets, in coming to terms with Jews and money (or to be more accurate, some Jews and money), composed a remarkable play, but one susceptible to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Money clearly dominates the play—the accumulating, the hoarding, the utter absorption with it. Money is the play's central image, its all encompassing symbol.

In any complex society, money is important and the less there is of it the more important it becomes. For the poor Europeans, money meant clothing, food, staples, horses or draft animals. In short, money provided the necessaries of life, which were hard to come by. For the European Jew, the Eastern European Jew, in particular, money had an additional function. It not only provided the necessaries, it was the means of buying life itself; for Jews, the accumulation of money was the only possible guaranty of life and breath.

The nineteenth and early twentieth century Jew of Russia, Poland, Galicia, Hungary and the Balkans was not generally permitted to own land, follow a profession or attend secular schools. Traditionally and by necessity the Jew was a money-lender, a barterer of cheap merchandise, a repairer of pots and pans, a clothing mender, or a fiddler. Because the professions, farming and government service were closed to him, the Jew's only avenues of escape from a life of hopeless drudgery were the amassing of small capital or expatriation.

Life in the ghettoes had, besides crippling poverty, worse hazards. Money was a necessity to protect one's life and family against the depredations of the police, petty officials, mounted soldiers and a bigoted peasantry, any of whom could, capriciously and with impunity, pillage and murder Jews. Immunity from such attacks might be bought; the only defense was money.

Expatriation also required the accumulation of more than travel expenses. Beyond railroad and ship passage, money was needed to bribe border officials and sentries, in lieu of passports not available to most of the Jewish population.

In America, the memory of what money was haunts the Berger family of Awake and Sing. Money was Bessie Berger's passion, for Bessie was the real head of the family, the one on whose shoulders lay ultimate responsibilities. Bessie's obsession with money explains her intransigent denial of Blanche, the penniless orphan; it explains no roller skates for the child, Ralph, and Bessie's willingness to defraud the grown Ralph of his inheritance. But Bessie was no miser; money to her was something to be spent, provided it was spent to secure life. No roller skates for little Ralph, but twenty-five dollars for a specialist when the child was ill. (Twenty-five dollars was a month's rent.) Bessie believed that money bought life; that you were dead without it.

Odets's point is that Bessie is wrong. Morty, her rich brother, is the proof. Here is a man who has money—all he needs—but his life is sterile and his soul is dead. If only the Jew in America could liberate himself from the idea that money, rather than spiritual freedom, is the key to life. Most of the characters in the play never learn this; Jake knew but he was too old and broken to act upon it. (He hadn't even cut the pages of the books he had bought to liberate his mind.) Ralph is the only one who makes the full transition from the ghetto to a free land. Myron, Jake, Bessie, Sam are victims caught between two worlds: the crippling, stifling memory of a Europe which in a few years was to become a crematorium for Jews, and America where a Jew could breathe, and walk erect so long as he used his heart and mind and body with courage and purpose and decency. The play's theme is expressed in the title: Awake and sing (ye that dwell in the dust).

But Odets qualifies this idea of American freedom. Hennie's elopement with Moe represents her impulse to escape the constrictions of her environment, just as her brother Ralph needs to escape his. But Hennie is not admirable and her actions serve as a counterpoint to the main theme of the play.

After Hennie's seduction and abandonment by Moe Axelrod (before the play begins), she becomes promiscuous and reckless. When she can no longer conceal her pregnancy, she reluctantly agrees to her mother's scheme to deceive Sam Feinschreiber. But her reluctance is not at all like her grandfather Jacob's moral repugnance to taking advantage of a simple and ingenuous greenhorn; on the contrary, Hennie is appalled at having to marry an immigrant, "a poor foreigner", she calls him, who "can't even speak an English word."

What we see here operating in Hennie, Odets observes, is the impulse of the first generation American to turn his back on his roots and in doing so begin to develop the characteristic American xenophobia which was particularly virulent in the decades preceding the Second World War. Hennie marries and mistreats the luckless Sam; finally she abandons him and her child whom she foists upon her parents without a second thought because, presumably, Moe—as he himself reminds her over and over again—is more exciting in bed than Sam.

Hennie might be described as the kind of Jew, who having liberated herself from the strict regimen of Mosaic law, plunges into a world of moral anarchy because—like Moe—she has found nothing to replace the stern faith of her ancestors. Whatever Marxist ideas infiltrate the play, in Hennie's instance they are irrelevant. One cannot see how Hennie's moral disintegration and her final act of defiance have any economic basis; she is a girl with a strong sexual libido and no moral values or intellectual resources to hold it in check.

The situation of Hennie and Moe—two Jews who have liberated themselves from their past, from their religion and culture, from American concepts of respectability—is stated but not developed in the play. Yet we have a clear sense that the kind of specious freedom that this couple has won for themselves is taking them down an ugly blind alley with no exit. For what future is there for two bitter and spiritually crippled individuals whose basic tie extends no further than the double bed of adultery and self-absorption?

The Hennie-Moe-Sam Feinschreiber triangle set off against the central drama involving Bessie-Jacob-Ralph has a clear thematic function suggesting as it does that self-realization is no more to be obtained through moral anarchy and self-indulgence than it is through the accumulation of money and its spurious security. Ralph's drive toward freedom from his family's values is to be made possible by Jacob's suicide, a suicide undertaken so that Ralph will be the beneficiary of the old man's insurance. But Ralph's rebirth begins at the moment that he rejects the legacy.

Ralph cannot put behind his oppressive ghetto origins and take his place as an American unless he divests himself of the symbol of those origins—the hoard of gold and silver. At the moment that Ralph rejects the symbolic hoard and spiritually disassociates himself from the household which has remained a symbolic ghetto, he becomes an American and a free man.

In the middle thirties when the play was first produced, audiences assumed that Ralph was going to join the Communist movement. The text, however, does not justify such an assumption; Ralph's only explicit objective is to help organize the workers in his warehouse so as to improve working conditions.

No matter. Ralph has made a basic transition. He has crossed the line which separates those concerned only with family and self from those who seek or accept responsibility for those outside family and self. It is at the moment of crossing that line that Ralph is, as he says, "reborn." Ralph's rebirth coincides with Hennie's decision to abandon her responsibilities. Her decision—the choice of a loveless elopement—contrasts ironically with Ralph's. Hennie, already defeated by life, has met her final defeat: the loss of her role as wife and mother.

Whatever Marxist impulses the play may have once transmitted to its audiences are no longer felt in the reading of the text. Essentially what Odets portrayed—objectively, but with compassion—is a family group whose likeness could be found wherever large clusters of immigrant Jews betook themselves. What makes the play both arresting and important is that from unpromising basic materials—the Bergers are, after all, a commonplace group—Odets has created characters who join the line of older American families: the Laphams, the Babbitts, the Compsons, the Gants, and the Joads. In illuminating the lives of those in the process of becoming Americans, Odets somehow en ables us to know what it is to be an American. Most of those who left the Old World behind were people whose dissatisfactions were sufficiently intense that they were willing to uproot themselves from what was safe, or at least familiar; Americans, as Thornton Wilder once observed, are a people without roots whose strength lies in the circumstance that they don't really want them.

"Waiting For Lefty

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The Literary Digest (review date 6 April 1935)

SOURCE: "An Exciting Dramatist Rises in the Theater," in The Literary Digest, 6 April 1935, p. 18.

[In the following, the anonymous critic gives the dual bill of "Till the Day I Die" and "Waiting for Lefty" a favorable reception.]

In less than ninety days, toiling with the unrest of his times as a central theme, a young actor in the New York theater, a young actor who was competent, but never performance-material to make the heavens sing in praise of him, has become the most exciting spokesman the world of workers yet has produced, and, as something more than mere lagnappe to that feat, he has become perhaps the most articulate dramatist available in the theater.

Clifford Odets, almost a boy, lean, nervous, aflame with indignation at what he sees around him, is the author of three plays which have made his name a new force in drama, and his work a new power for the restoration of drama.

A few weeks ago the theater was slipping naturally and quietly into the sleep of spring. When everything else in nature awakens, it is the custom of the drama to close its eyes for the long snooze.

This season was no different, until, one night, not long ago, the Group Theater presented Awake and Sing! Superficially, this was a play about middle-class Jewish family-life in the Bronx. Beneath it, however, beat a new rhythm, a new voice was being heard, and it spoke eloquently, persuasively, and with passion, against the confusion of these times.

There have been dozens of plays with the same theme, some comedies, some tragedies, most of them clumsy and self-conscious. This one was none of these, and, next morning, Mr. Odets was hailed by every critic in New York.

He had written a short play about the 1934 taxicab-drivers' strike in New York. A bitter arraignment of the forces which herded the deluded drivers and exploited them, the Group gave it special Sunday night performances in a downtown theater.

In a few weeks the public clamor for the work of Odets had risen to that point where this producing organization had to bring it up into Broadway for regular showing. To it was added another short Odets play: "Till the Day I Die," an anti-Nazi preachment based on the information smuggled out of Germany in a letter.

This play and "Waiting for Lefty," the taxicab-strikers' play, have been made into a single evening's program. It is an evening of, candidly, propaganda. His Nazi play is the first one to take note of the plight of Communists in Germany.

Until now, three previous Nazi plays have concerned themselves only with the persecution of the Jews. Odets ignores this point completely, and centers his violent protest on the Hitler-Brownshirt activities against Communists. He details the subterfuges to which they are driven, he recites the tortures, he makes a ringing, courageous appeal for consolidation of the united front in Germany.

He works with the simples of the problem, deriving his power from showing the actual impact of the situation on humans as recognizable as a next-door neighbor. There is a place for propaganda in the theater; indeed, it is its natural pulpit. Odets appears to have recognized that, and rationalized it.

"Waiting for Lefty" is Mr. Odets at the sum of his best. His play roves the entire theater. It is played simultaneously on stage, in the orchestra section, and from the gallery. The audience is, in effect, a meeting of desperate taxicab-drivers.

Audiences at the three Odets plays have been mixed, mixed, that is, from a political point of view. Liberals, Communists, middle-class men and women with good jobs, and men in the ranks which still represent capitalism, mingle together, and watch these plays. The roar and surge of the propaganda in them inflames the Communistic patrons, but not once has it, also, failed to impress and give pause to those who, at heart, and in their minds, are opposed to what the plays represent.

And in that lies the strange, exciting magic which Clifford Odets has brought to the theater in this short, short time. The humanity of his plays is irresistible to all.

Joseph Wood Krutch (review date 10 April 1935)

SOURCE: "Mr. Odets Speaks His Mind," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 140, No. 3640, 10 April 1935, pp. 427-28.

[In the following review of "Till the Day I Die" and "Waiting for Lefty, "Krutch states that with these plays "Mr. Odets has invented a form which turns out to be a very effective dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory."]

A new production by the Group Theater supplies the answer to a question I asked in this column three weeks ago. Mr. Clifford Odets, the talented author of Awake and Sing, has come out for the revolution and thrown in his artistic lot with those who use the theater for direct propaganda. The earlier play, it seems, was written some three years ago before his convictions had crystallized, and it owes to that fact a certain contemplative and brooding quality. The new ones—there are two on a double bill at the Longacre—waste no time on what the author now doubtless regards as side issues, and they hammer away with an unrelenting insistency upon a single theme: Workers of the World Unite!

"Waiting for Lefty," a brief sketch suggested by the recent strike of taxi drivers, is incomparably the better of the two, and whatever else one may say of it, there is no denying its effectiveness as a tour de force. It begins in media res on the platform at a strikers' meeting, and "plants" interrupting from the audience create the illusion that the meeting is actually taking place at the very moment of representation. Brief flashbacks reveal crucial moments in the lives of the drivers, but the scene really remains in the hall itself, and the piece ends when the strike is voted. The pace is swift, the characterization is for the most part crisp, and the points are made, one after another, with bold simplicity. What Mr. Odets is trying to do could hardly be done more economically or more effectively.

Cold analysis, to be sure, clearly reveals the fact that such simplicity must be paid for at a certain price. The villains are mere caricatures and even the very human heroes occasionally freeze into stained-glass attitudes, as, for example, a certain lady secretary in one of the flashbacks does when she suddenly stops in her tracks to pay a glowing tribute to "The Communist Manifesto" and to urge its perusal upon all and sundry. No one, however, expects subtleties from a soap-box, and the interesting fact is that Mr. Odets has invented a form which turns out to be a very effective dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory.

Innumerable other "proletarian" dramatists have tried to do the same thing with far less success. Some of them have got bogged in futuristic symbolism which could not conceivably do more than bewilder "the worker"; others have stuck close to the usual form of the drama without realizing that this form was developed for other uses and that their attempt to employ it for directly hortatory purposes can only end in what appears to be more than exceedingly crude dramaturgy. Mr. Odets, on the other hand, has made a clean sweep of the conventional form along with the conventional intentions. He boldly accepts as his scene the very platform he intends to use, and from it permits his characters to deliver speeches which are far more convincing there than they would be if elaborately worked into a conventional dramatic story. Like many of his fellows he has evidently decided that art is a weapon, but unlike many who proclaim the doctrine, he has the full courage of his conviction. To others he leaves the somewhat nervous determination to prove that direct exhortation can somehow be made compatible with "art" and that "revolutionary" plays can be two things at once. The result of his downrightness is to succeed where most of the others have failed. He does not ask to be judged by any standards except those which one would apply to the agitator, but by those standards his success is very nearly complete.

"Waiting for Lefty" is played upon what is practically a bare stage. It could be acted in any union hall by amateur actors, and the fact accords well with the intention of a play which would be wholly in place as part of the campaign laid out by any strike committee. Indeed, it is some-what out of place anywhere else for the simple reason that its appeal to action is too direct not to seem almost absurd when addressed to an audience most of whose members are not, after all, actually faced with the problem which is put up to them in so completely concrete a form. The play might, on the other hand, actually turn the tide at a strikers' meeting, and that is more than can be said of most plays whose avowed intention is to promote the class war.

As for the other piece, "Till the Day I Die," there is much less to be said in its favor. The hero is a young German whose loyalty to the Communist Party survives the tortures applied by fiendish storm troopers, but a note on the program suggests the reason why the play lacks the air of reality. It was "suggested by a letter from Germany printed in the New Masses," and obviously the author had too little to go on. However much "Waiting for Lefty" may owe to a Marxian formula, both the characters and the situation come within the range of the author's experience and there is a basis of concrete reality. "Till the Day I Die" is founded upon nothing except the printed word, and the characters are mere men of wax. In so far as we believe it at all, we do so only because we have been told that such things do happen. There is little in the play itself to carry conviction, and neither its hero nor its villains seem very much more real than those of the simplest and most old-fashioned melodramas. The acting in the two pieces is as different as they are themselves. Mr. Odets's Germans strike attitudes and declaim. His strikers are so real—perhaps so actual would be better—that when the play is over one expects to find their cabs outside.

Grenville Vernon (review date 12 April 1935)

SOURCE: "Two Communist Plays," in The Commonweal, Vol. XXI, No. 24, 12 April 1935, p. 682.

[Vernon finds "Waiting for Lefty" energetically performed but expresses reservations about its political message.]

In Awake and Sing, the play of Jewish life in the Bronx, the Group Theatre recently revealed to the New York public a new dramatist of real ability—Clifford Odets. In that play Mr. Odets showed a keen sense of dramatic values and for a young playwright an unusual mastery of theatrical technique; but far more important than these, the ability to visualize and project living men and women by means of significant action, and vivid, realistic, pungent dialogue. The characters of Awake and Sing were entirely Jewish, and Mr. Odets was evidently working in a milieu and in a spirit which he thoroughly understood. That Mr. Odets is a radical, even perhaps a Communist, might have been gathered from the play, not so much by what was definitely spoken, but what was implicit. Neither his sense of character nor his telling of the story were hobbled by the intrusion of the author speaking in his own person. And this was good art. In the two one-act plays which the Group Theatre has now presented, Mr. Odets is unfortunately no longer the artist, but frankly the propagandist, and the result is far less satisfying. Moreover in these plays the characters are primarily non-Jewish, and Mr. Odets gives to them no such sense of verity either in action or dialogue as he displayed in Awake and Sing. Indignation and intensity may be admirable things in the drama, but only when they are held in check; if they are left to run wild they destroy verity of character and of theme, leaving the figures of the play mere puppets, devoid of their own life, and existing only in the heated fancy of the author. This was what happened in "Till the Day I Die" and to a large extent in "Waiting for Lefty." "Till the Day I Die" is laid in Germany under the rule of the Nazis. The story is of a young Communist who is forced by the Nazis to become an informer, or rather he pretends to become an informer to save his life and reason. He does not really betray his comrades, but his comrades, including his own brother and the girl he loves, think he has betrayed them, and in the end he shoots himself as the only way to prove that he has remained faithful to his ideal. In the course of the play are introduced a number of stock characters; the Nazis all either hysterical, degenerate, brutal or stupid; the Communists, idealistic heroes. The result is that without exception the characters are as unreal in action and speech as the figures of old-time bourgeois melodrama. Moreover, the author is forever present, striking dramatic attitudes, spouting communistic sentiments in communistic jargon. Not for a moment is there the sense of reality, and what effects are obtained are obtained through the most obvious melodramatic means. In short, Mr. Odets neither feels nor understands the people he is trying to depict. That the actors are most of them excellent helps little. Such artists as Alexander Kirkland, Margaret Barker, Bob Lewis, Lewis Leverett and Roman Bohnen are thrown away.

"Waiting for Lefty" is a much better play. Here at least Mr. Odets is dealing with a scene and with characters he has seen and known, at least superficially. When he condescends to have them speak in their own persons, they speak the language of the New York streets, the language of taxi-drivers, labor leaders, agents provocateurs. The main action, and by far the most interesting and vital portion of the play, takes place in the scenes representing a meeting of taxi-drivers, with the officers of the union trying to prevent a strike, and the radicals insisting on one. Speeches are made from the stage, and actors are interspersed in the audience to heckle the speakers. These scenes are exciting, and despite the overdose of communistic propaganda are on the whole true to life. But the scenes between, depicting the evils of capitalistic civilization, of what happens in the homes of the workers, in the hospitals, in theatrical offices, are stereotyped bits of communistic hokum, and not particularly good hokum. Mr. Odets hasn't taken the trouble to saturate himself with the spirit which might have informed his figures; he has simply taken age-old puppets and situations, given them a revolutionary twist, and let them go at that. That this isn't enough for a serious dramatist goes without saying; it isn't enough even for effective propaganda. As in its companion piece, the acting in "Waiting for Lefty" is better than the play. Especially good are Russell Collins, Lewis Leverett, Bob Lewis, Roman Bohnen, George Heller and Mr. Odets himself.

Yet the production of these plays by radical writers and the interest they have aroused ought to be pondered by the established dramatists, as well as by the playwrights of the future. Such plays as Mr. Odets's and Mr. Maltz's Black Pit have, it is true, little to do with the great mass of the American people. They are distinctly foreign in emphasis and appeal primarily to a small coterie. They are not American or for the average American. But one thing they have—earnestness. Perhaps hate and envy rather than love are their basic passions, but at least they are not trivial. They are coarse in language and crude in action, but they are alive. Too many of our established playwrights have lately been turning out mere confections, plays which are amusing but little more. It is time the playwrights who believe Communism to be destructive of all our civilization has built up through the centuries show some of the earnestness displayed by these communistic writers. In Emmet Lavery we have one such new dramatist. It is only through such dramatists that the theatre will reach the heights, for Communism is essentially materialistic, and materialism is barren of the things of the imagination. The spirit alone can fructify.

Golden Boy

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Joseph Wood Krutch (review date 13 November 1937)

SOURCE: A Review of Golden Boy, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 145, No. 20, 13 November 1937, p. 540.

[In the following review, Krutch states: "There are moments when Golden Boy seems near to greatness; there are others when it trembles on the edge of merely strident melodrama. "]

In Golden Boy Clifford Odets has written what is certainly his best play since Awake and Sing. To say this is to say that the piece exhibits unmistakable power and genuine originality, even though it is not, unfortunately, to deny that there is still in his work something which suggests imperfect mastery of a form he will probably have to invent for himself if he is ever to become completely articulate. There are moments when Golden Boy seems near to greatness; there are others when it trembles on the edge of merely strident melodrama.

Ostensibly the play deals with the career of a young Ital ian boy who abandons the fiddle for the prize ring because "you can't pay people back with music," and because he wants the money which will make him forget an embittered youth. Actually the theme is the same as the theme of Awake and Sing, and the power which Odets exhibits is again the power to suggest the lonely agony of souls imprisioned in their own private hells of frustrated desire and inarticulate hate. No one that I know can more powerfully suggest the essential loneliness of men and women, their inability to explain the varied forms assumed by the symbols of their desire, and the powerlessness of any one of them to help the other. His dialogue is often brilliantly suggestive, especially when he puts it into the mouths of ignorant or uncultivated people; even the vulgarest of his villains rises to the dignity of the tortured; and he involves the spectator in the agonies of his characters until the palms sweat and one goes out of the theater tense with an emotion which the author has been unwilling or unable to resolve.

I suppose that the interpretation which Mr. Odets puts upon his own play is obvious enough. It is, I assume, that suffering like this "is inevitable under capitalism," and that the fiddler turned prize fighter is the type of those in whom rebellion assumes a merely symbolic instead of an effective form. But this time, at least, Mr. Odets keeps his political theories in the background where they belong and writes a play which does not depend for its appeal upon a concern with his economic opinions. The agonies of his characters are real and affecting whatever one may think of the reasons for their existence.

Stark Young (review date 17 November 1937)

SOURCE: A review of Golden Boy, in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXXIII, No. 1198, 17 November 1937, pp. 44-5.

[In this assessment of Golden Boy, Young praises Odets' handling of dialogue, adding: "In this respect Mr. Odets is the most promising writer our theatre can show. "]

It seems to me the first thing about Mr. Odets' new play that we should mention is a certain quality in the dialogue. He has a sense of character drawing that exhibits the courage of outline. An unusual number of the characters in Golden Boy are set beside one another with the right bold theatre instinct, a perception of the fact, unknown to most playwrights nowadays, that character in fiction and character on the stage are two very different matters—see the fuzzy nonsense in most British plays that come to Broadway. He has an intuition of emotional impacts that make real theatre instead of mere description. The story in Golden Boy wanders for a few moments at the start but goes straight on after that. The number of motifs in personality, reactions, inheritance, hurts, secrecies, hopes, happiness, fate, bodily conditions, and so forth may seem crowded in at times, to lack a steady, or mature, distribution and proportion; but the direction is a good one nevertheless, it makes for abundance, it interweaves elements that promise a living fabric. His conception of the scenes, where to emphasize, where bring down the curtain, has grown neater and sharper. And the insistence, more or less adolescent, that once threw things in our faces is warmed now into both better persuasion and better taste.

The point I wanted to stress as where his theatre gift most appears is in the dialogue's avoidance of the explicit. The explicit, always to be found in poor writers trying for the serious, is the surest sign of lack of talent. To write in terms of what is not said, of combinations elusive and in detail, perhaps, insignificant, of a hidden stream of sequences, and a resulting air of spontaneity and true pressure—that is quite another matter. In this respect Mr. Odets is the most promising writer our theatre can show. The effect very often, and always the promise, of such a manner of dialogue is glowing, impressive and worthy of the response and applause that the audience gives it.

The performance of the play—under Mr. Harold Clurman's direction—is here and there tense at present but can soon be eased; it is on the whole varied, truly theatric and admirable. The Group Theatre seems to have contrived a genuine renewal. Mr. Carnovsky as the old Italian father, Mr. Adler as the golden boy, Mr. Kazan as the killer boss, etc., give capital performances, better than can be shown in a few words here. Miss Frances Farmer, following other starry leads eastward from Hollywood, played well. She needs only more fluency in order to vary the rhythm of her performance; and she might wisely ask of the author or the director some change from a perpetual coming in at the door, entrance after entrance. Much of the other playing was good.

Brooks Atkinson (review date 21 November 1937)

SOURCE: "Golden Boy: Clifford Odets Rewards the Group Theatre with One of His Best Plays," in The New York Times, 21 November 1937, Section II, p. 1.

[Atkinson compares the construction of the themes and dialogue in Golden Boy to a symphony.]

After doing a long stretch in Hollywood, Clifford Odets has returned to the theatre with one of his best plays. In Golden Boy he has dissected the success story of a prize fighter. For the most part it is a pithy and thoroughly absorbing drama that restores to the theatre a pungent theatrical talent. It is not so devastatingly simple in form as "Waiting for Lefty," which was the inspiration of a lifetime, nor so complete an expression of life as Awake and Sing! but it stands head and shoulders above the self-conscious Paradise Lost. When Mr. Odets first came into the theatre with an actor's talent for dramatic writing there was much throwing about of brains in all the neighborhood drama columns. Although his talent is not yet mature, his instinct for storytelling on the stage is sound enough in Golden Boy to confirm the early enthusiasm for his writings and to raise again the hope that he will see the job of playwrighting through to a workmanlike conclusion.

First of all, he is a concrete writer, as an actor is likely to be. He does not discuss the idea in Golden Boy so much as he shows it—symbolizing the prize fighter's choice of career in the violin he might have played with artistic glory if he had not broken his hands in the ring. The violin he loves: the broken hands he sadistically gloats over—those are the conflicting concrete facts that give a practical structure to the craftsmanship of Golden Boy. In the second place, Mr. Odets has the virtuoso's instinct for form. He is a lover of symphonic music. Perhaps he has learned from the composition of symphonies how to keep more than one theme running through his work, how to play one off against the other for emphasis and contrast and how to draw them all together for smashing conclusion. Apart from the main theme of the prize fighter who is pursuing his career in cold malevolence, Golden Boy develops the subordinate themes of the manager and his pathetic love affair, the compassionate father who knows good from bad and cannot be stampeded into cynicism, the giggling sister and her exuberant husband, the melancholy neighborhood intellectual, the laconical brother who finds spiritual peace in the warfare of trade unionism. Although "contrapuntal" is a big word, it roughly describes the style Mr. Odets is mastering to give his dramas some fullness of body and to relate his story to the life of his times.

His dialogue is the best and the worst of his talent. It is the best instrument in his expression because it is vigorous, crisp and salty and because it gets at the truth of characters by indirection. For his chief character, Joe Bonaparte, is a queer tangle of hostile impulses. He wants to succeed sensationally; he wants to be in the newspapers; he wants the cheers and the awe of the multitudes, and he wants to make a fortune fast. Under his rancorous callousness, however, he is too sensitive to believe in the validity of any of these things, and he is constantly under the necessity of hiding his scruples and perhaps destroying them by heedless action. Although he looks hard on the surface, he is tender under the skin—lonely, unhappy, thwarted, confused. His fierce success in the prize ring is a manifestation of the authentic inferiority complex; it puts a bold front on a timid disposition. Sometimes Mr. Odets says so plainly, but he has conjured most of the truth out of his prize fighter's character by elliptical phrases that ricochet off the mind in startling directions. This has come to be known as the Chekhovian style, for Chekhov, a doctor by training, first brought into the drama the art of packing truth between the lines. Although Mr. Odets's use of it in Paradise Lost sounded and was imitative, he has made it very much his own in Golden Boy and plucked the heart out of his chief character's mystery.

But Mr. Odets's taste is unsettled. In fact, his dialogue is by turns so genuine and so counterfeit that he can almost be said to have no taste at all. Especially in the first act of Golden Boy, when he is still feeling around for the best way to get started, he writes with a braggart's want of discrimination—joining cheap cleverness and Broadway flippancies to genuine improvisations. In his eagerness to avoid a dull statement of a situation Mr. Odets sounds like a medley of popular songs; he echoes all the brassy bits of argot he has ever heard. Perhaps he is suffering a little from his prize fighter's neurosis. Perhaps he is not so sure of himself in the prize fighter's ring as he would have us believe. At any rate, it is significant that when he gets his play well started toward a logical conclusion he writes with a rugged sureness of accent. The bite of phrase and the truth of character are superbly blended. The big scene in the last act, when the prize fighter discovers that he has accidentally killed his opponent, is written with the austere economy of a playwright who knows that a superfluous word distorts a crucial episode. Although the last scene of drunken carousal is not written with that much accuracy of ear and imagination it is nevertheless a stunning piece of theatre. Mr. Odets's instinct for dialogue is frequently treacherous, but his instinct for the design of a scene seldom fails him.

This is his first play on a theme that is not rooted in the class struggle. He has been congratulated for abandoning his politico-economic point of view toward life. Whether that is a strength or a weakness in a playwright's career depends entirely upon his personal convictions as he acquires more experience in the world. A writer needs the subjects that give his talent the freest scope. In Golden Boy Mr. Odets has trenchantly illustrated the perniciousness of choices that are false to a man's private character. Among other things, he has illustrated the false choices that our economic system frequently imposes upon original people. But the main thing is that at the present time it has released Mr. Odets's talent and proved that, despite certain flaws in his sense of taste, he can write with gusto and versatility.


Harold Clurman (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: An introduction to Golden Boy, in Six Plays of Clifford Odets, The Modern Library, 1939, pp. 429-33.

[In the essay below, Clurman explores the allegorical nature of Golden Boy.]

Golden Boy has already been praised as a good show, commonsense entertainment, and effective melodrama. It has also been blamed for betraying Hollywood influence in its use of terse, typical situations, story motifs which resemble that of either popular fiction or movies, and possibly too in its use of an environment (the prize-fight world) that somehow seems unworthy of the serious purpose professed by its author. There has been, in addition, almost universal admiration for many separate scenes and long passages of brilliant dialogue.

What has not been discussed very fully, however, is the total significance of these divers elements, the meaning that their configuration within one framework might have. And it is this meaning, both in relation to the American scene and to Clifford Odets' work and progress within it, that might be most valuable to examine.

An early draft of Golden Boy bore the designation "a modern allegory." An allegory, I take it, is an extremely simple but boldly outlined tale in which a series of images is used to suggest a meaning of a more general, and usually a moral, nature. The good allegory will hold one's interest by the sheer directness or vividness of its story, the suggested meaning of which may occur to us only in retrospect, or which may be so organically imbedded in the structure of the story that in absorbing the story details we are almost automatically and spontaneously aware of their meaning. The allegory, in other words, deals in symbols that are so pointed and unmistakable that they transform themselves easily into the truth that their author hopes to express.

Whether or not Clifford Odets has chosen the happiest symbols in Golden Boy, it is a fact that his intention was to convey such a truth, and to convey it in terms that would not only avoid preachment, but entertain us by the mere raciness of its presentation.

The story of this play is not so much the story of a prize-fighter as the picture of a great fight—a fight in which we are all involved, whatever our profession or craft. What the golden boy of this allegory is fighting for is a place in the world as an individual; what he wants is to free his ego from the scorn that attaches to "nobodies" in a society in which every activity is viewed in the light of a competition. He wants success not simply for the soft life—automobiles, etc.—which he talks about, but because the acclaim that goes with it promises him acceptance by the world, peace with it, safety from becoming the victim that it makes of the poor, the alien, the unnoticed minorities. To achieve this success, he must exploit an accidental attribute of his make-up, a mere skill, and abandon the development of his real self.

It so happens that Odets thought of embodying this fight for achievement in terms of the fight business. For it is obvious on reflection that though the use of the prize-fight world is central to the play's plot, in the playwright's larger intention it may be considered almost incidental. … Further than that, to dramatize the conflict between what a man might be and what he becomes, the author has conceived a youth who is essentially an artist in a modest, unspectacular way. The hero is a violinist; and the fiddle in this allegory is employed as the symbolic antithesis of the fighting game.

The play tells the story then of an artist, or even more generally of a sensitive human being, growing up in a world where personal achievement is measured in terms of that kind of sensational success that our newspapers, our mania for publicity slogans, indeed our whole large-scale production psychology make into almost the only kind of success we can recognize. To tell this story two worlds are mirrored in the swiftest, barest terms: the artists' world with its humble pleasures, its small but basic contentments, and the business world with its fundamental uncertainty, hysteria, indifference to and impatience with human problems as such, its inevitable ruthlessness, its ultimate killer tendencies.

The home scenes with their funny lines, their petty "philosophical" disputes between the two old cronies, their healthy naïveté and even their vulgarity are not haphazardly designed to show off the author's faculty for salty speech or clever characterization. They are part of a pattern to illustrate both the sweet human earthiness that the hero leaves for the hard world where success is made, and the slight shabbiness which makes the hero look upon his background as an almost shameful world—futile, unglamorous, lamentably unaware of the advantages it is missing.

What happens to the boy when he makes the compromise with his true nature? Odets' allegory proceeds to show that the boy becomes a commodity, something that can be bought and sold, maneuvered, that he who begins by trying to beat the competitive world by playing its game becomes himself a thing possessed. Odets' hero is literally taken over by a whole ring of exploiters: agents, managers, merchants and middlemen of every description, including the criminal racketeer. And it is most characteristic of the situation that while the hero tries to use these people for his own ends he despises them, while they who are to a large extent dependent on him resent the intrusion of any of his personal problems into their business considerations.

Beyond this, the activity involved in performing his new task—fighting his way to "fame and fortune"—finally incapacitates him from ever doing his true work or going back to his old and real self. In realistic terms, he breaks his hands in a fight so that he no longer can hope to play the violin which once meant so much to him. And when he has become a fighter a certain coarseness develops in him, a certain despair. He is denatured to the point of becoming a killer, figuratively and, thanks to a ring accident, literally. In the interim, he has fallen in love, hoping, by a romantic attachment to a woman equally lost in the hurly-burly of the success world, to solve his inner dilemma. But he is a defeated man. He has nothing to live by now. Both worlds are closed to him, and he must die.

It is necessary to repeat the bare features of the story to show the particular scheme, at once ideological and narrative, that gives the play its basic form. If we analyze it even further we shall find that the choice and placement of almost every character fit into this scheme. Take, for example, the momentary presence of the older brother Frank, the C.I.O. organizer. What is his significance here? His wounded head, his quiet retort "I fight," his sureness, are all minute indications that there is nothing abhorrent to the author in the thought of physical struggle as such, but that for people like his hero to have a world in which they might ultimately feel at home in being what they are and to have honor in such a world as well, it is necessary for the Franks to exist and fight. Our hero fights as a lone ego; Frank fights, as he says, together with and for millions of others. Frank is a free man; our hero is destroyed.

If there is any Hollywood influence in this play beyond the mere quick action and stock figures employed, it must be in the fact that in an important sense Hollywood and what it represents have provided the play with its inner theme, its true subject matter. So many artists today stand in relation to Hollywood as our hero in relation to his double career. From this point of view Golden Boy might be regarded as Clifford Odets' most subjective play.

Yet with this deeply and subtly subjective material, Odets has attempted to write his most objective play—a play that would stand on its own feet, so to speak, as a good show, a fast-moving story, a popular money-making piece. He has tried, in short, to bridge the gap between his own inner problems and the need he feels, like his hero and all of us in the audience, to make "fame and fortune." In his own work, he has tried to reconcile the fiddle and the fist; he has tried to yield himself a positive result out of a contradiction that kills his hero. He has done this by making the whole thing into a morality which would instruct and read us all a lesson (himself and his audience) even while it amused.

The strength and weakness of the play lie in this fusion of elements, admirable in intention, more varied in effect than in any of his former plays, but still imperfect as a whole. The strength of the present play is shown by its definite audience impact in the theatre; its imperfection comes from a certain lack of concreteness in details of plot and character—an objective flaw due to his mere nodding acquaintance with most of the play's locale, and from an insistence on certain character touches that mislead rather than clarify, such as the reference to the hero's eyes—a subjective flaw due to a reliance on a personal interpretation where a social one is required.

It must be pointed out in conclusion that the technical problem for a playwright—the problem of making himself completely articulate as well as sound—increases with the depth and richness of his material. The content of Clifford Odets' talent is greater than that of any young playwright in America today, and the line of his development must necessarily be arduous and complex. In certain instances, pat advice is more flattering to the critic than helpful to the writer. With Clifford Odets, we should simply be grateful for each of the endeavors that mark his progress. Golden Boy is a step ahead in the career of one of the few American playwrights who can be discussed as an artist.

Further Reading

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Demastes, William W. Clifford Odets: A Research and Production Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991, 209 p.

Offers exhaustive lists of works by and about Odets as well as thorough descriptions of each play, including characters, plot summary, and critical overview for each.


Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets: American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940. New York: Atheneum, 1981, 749 p.

Focuses on Odets' psychological characteristics, pro viding insight into the person behind the plays.

Mendelsohn, Michael J. Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1969, 138 p.

Standard biographical material supplemented by personal interviews and correspondence with Odets.

Shuman, R. Baird. Clifford Odets. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962, 160 p.

Argues that Odets' later plays are as important as his earlier work and explores allegorical significance in all his writings.

Weales, Gerald. Odets the Playwright. New York: Methuen, 1985, 205 p.

Studies all of Odets' writings, from stage plays to screen plays, and includes newspaper interviews, reviews, and memoirs.


Odets, Clifford. "Genesis of a Play." The New York Times (1 February 1942): IX, 3.

Offers extracts from his journal regarding the composition of Clash by Night in order to "demonstrate how certain remote thoughts and feelings collect themselves around a theatrical spine and become a play."

——. 'Two Approaches to the Writing of a Play." The New York Times (22 April 1951): II, 1-2.

Discusses the difference between creating a play to express "a personal state of being" and merely "fabricating" one.

——. The Time is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets. New York: Grove Press, 1988, 369 p.

An in-depth look at one year in the playwright's life, in which he surveys the creative process, his mind-set, and his career to date.


Atkinson, Brooks. "Clifford Odets Revealed as the Most Promising New American Dramatist." The New York Times (10 March 1935): VIII, 1.

Considers Odets "a new dramatist of exciting potentialities" and praises "Waiting for Lefty" and Awake and Sing!

Cantor, Harold. Clifford Odets: Playwright-Poet. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1978, 235 p.

Attempts to correct the "mistaken and simplistic view" that Odets is a playwright whose works no longer have relevance or validity.

Miller, Gabriel. Clifford Odets. New York: Continuum, 1989, 253 p.

Seeks to "present Odets as a playwright who experimented with dramatic form while giving significant thematic and social concerns that evolved over the course of his career."

Murray, Edward. Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1968, 229 p.

Maintains that "Clifford Odets is the only American dramatist, with the possible exception of Edward Albee, worthy to be considered in the same class with Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams."

Pells, Richard H. "The Radical Stage and the Hollywood Film in the 1930s." In his Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years, pp. 252-91. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

Considers how Odets' plays were intimately related to the political and social conditions of the 1930s.

Styan, J. L. "Realism in America: Early Variations." In his Modern Drama in Theory and Practice, Volume 1: Realism and Naturalism, pp. 122-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Examines Odets' use of realism in staging his agitprop plays.

Vernon, Grenville. "Clifford Odets." The Commonweal XXIX, No. 8 (16 December 1938): 215.

Contends that, regardless of their stated ethnic background, Odets' characters are "always Jewish in mode of thought, in emotion, and in expression."

Warshow, Robert. "Poet of the Jewish Middle Class." Commentary 1, No. 7 (May 1946): 17-22.

Explores aspects of Jewish culture and experience in Odets' works.

Weales, Gerald. "Clifford's Children: It's a Wise Playwright Who Knows His Own Father." Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 2 (1987): 3-18.

Analyzes the settings, language, and ideology of Odets' plays.

Willett, Ralph. "Clifford Odets and Popular Culture." The South Atlantic Quarterly LXIX, No. 1 (Winter 1970): 68-78.

Argues that Odets' stage plays are as immersed in popular culture as his film scripts.


Atkinson, Brooks. Review of "Waiting for Lefty" and "Till the Day I Die." The New York Times (27 March 1935): 24.

Laudatory assessment that declares "Mr. Odets continues to be our most promising new dramatist."

Isaacs, Edith J. R. "Going Left with Fortune." Theatre Arts Monthly XIX, No. 5 (May 1935).

States "Waiting for Lefty" has "no clear outline or point of view except a general one of sympathy with the poor and the oppressed." Isaacs also contends that 'Till the Day I Die" "takes too much for granted in its minor roles and situations; acts too quickly … ; and is too brutal."

MacLeish, Archibald. "Theatre Against War and Fascism." New Theatre 11, No. 8 (August 1935): 3.

Favorable review of a performance of "Waiting for Lefty." MacLeish observes that "Clifford Odets and the Group and a crowded sweltering audience created among them something moving and actual and alive."

Young, Stark. "Lefty and Nazi." The New Republic LXXXII, No. 1062 (10 April 1935): 247.

Positive evaluation of "Waiting for Lefty" and "Till the Day I Die" that focuses on the controversial nature of their content.


Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Awake and Sing! The New York Times (20 February 1935): 23.

Admiring assessment that nevertheless notes that Odets "does not quite finish what he has started in this elaborately constructed piece. Although he is very much awake, he does not sing with the ease and clarity of a man who has mastered his score."

Dozier, Richard J. "The Making of Awake and Sing! The Markham Review 6 (Summer 1977): 61-5.

Compares the play in its original form and the shape it finally took with its controversial "affirmative" ending.

Isaacs, Edith J. R. Review of Awake and Sing!" Theatre Arts Monthly XIX, No. 4 (April 1935): 254-56.

Argues that while the play "is full of promise," it is "thin and weak in important spots and not always clear in the action."


Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Golden Boy. The New York Times (5 November 1937): 18.

Asserts that Golden Boy "confirms the original convictions that Mr. Odets is an instinctive writer for the stage. He can compose dialogue with a fugue-like tossing around of themes; he can create vigorous characters; he can exploit scenes and enclose his narrative within the fullness of [a] wholly written play."

Choudhuri, A. D. "Golden Boy: Public Face of Illusion." In The Face of Illusion in American Drama, pp. 59-73. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979.

Examines Odets' play from the perspective of the "manipulation of the concept of illusion and its conflict with reality."

Review of Golden Boy. Time XXX, No. 20 (15 November 1937): 25-6.

Admires the "swift mounting of scenes [and] the extravagance of dramatic energy" in Golden Boy.

Additional coverage of Odets' life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 28; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 26; Major Twentieth-Century Writers.

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Clifford Odets Drama Analysis


Odets, Clifford (Vol. 2)