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.