Clifford Odets 1906–1963
American dramatist, scriptwriter, and director.
Odets was among the most prominent American playwrights of the 1930s. His play Waiting for Lefty, about a taxi drivers' union that is preparing to take a strike vote, became an immediate sensation when first produced in 1935 for its leftist philosophy and its powerful, realistic conflicts. As in many of his plays, Lefty depicts the search by working-class characters for a place in modern society. Although Odets never repeated the critical success of Waiting for Lefty, his best plays have historical significance for their portrayal of American life after the Great Depression.
Odets began his career as an actor and joined the Group Theatre in 1930. Founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the Group Theatre was intended to be both a training ground for actors and an idealistic collective which would attempt to change society through the onstage presentation of alternative values. Odets gained little recognition in the organization as an actor, but his first play, Waiting for Lefty, became a huge success, appearing on Broadway and in many cities across the United States. Awake and Sing!, also produced in 1935, was also very popular, and is seen in retrospect by many critics as a more important play than Waiting for Lefty. Awake and Sing! was the last of Odets's early critical and commercial triumphs. His next full-length play, Paradise Lost (1935), was attacked by many critics who found fault with his stock characters and the optimistic closing speech, for which there seemed to be little justification. After the failure of Paradise Lost, Odets accepted an offer from Paramount Studios as a scriptwriter. Refuting charges that he was "selling out," Odets contended that he could improve his craft and also help finance the Group Theatre. He returned to the Group Theatre in 1937 after seeing only one of his scripts produced. Golden Boy (1937), Odets's next play, became the greatest commercial success of his career. The story of a young man trying to decide between careers as a violinist or a boxer, Golden Boy is generally regarded as Odets's most thoughtful and humanistic drama. Many of his later plays involve love relationships and were faulted for their lack of structural unity and social concern. Following the failure of Odets's play Clash by Night in 1941, the Group Theatre disbanded, and Odets returned to Hollywood. Although he continued to work in the theater, and found commercial success with The Country Girl (1950), his most acclaimed later works were the scripts for such films as None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and Humoresque (1946). Odets often spoke disparagingly of his film work, but he remained in Hollywood until his death.
Odets's career as a playwright is seen by many critics to fall into three distinct phases. The first and most important phase encompasses Odets's efforts as a proletarian dramatist. Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost are all placed in this category. Odets structured Lefty so that the personal problems of the characters reflect the conflict between the union and the taxi company. Awake and Sing! examines the aspirations of a Jewish working-class family who has become disillusioned by an oppressive economic system. In Paradise Lost, a respectable middle-class businessman and his family are destroyed by a series of disasters. Each of the characters in this play represents a particular middle-class value, and the catastrophes that befall them symbolize the fall of these values during the 1930s. Odets had joined the Communist party during 1934 and wrote most of his early plays during this brief association; it is obvious that through his art he was confirming leftist principles while declaring archaic the values of middle-class America.
The second phase of Odets's 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. Rocket to the Moon (1938), Night Music (1940), and Clash by Night (1941) are love stories that focus more on plot and dialogue than on characterization and social commentary. These three plays were among Odets's least effective works. The final phase of Odets's career comprises semi-autobiographical dramas with psychological overtones. In The Big Knife (1949), a movie actor has been 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, perhaps the most psychological of Odets's plays, is the story of an alcoholic actor who attempts a comeback on Broadway with the help of his wife, on whom he is emotionally dependent. Odets's last play, The Flowering Peach (1954), is an adaptation of the biblical Noah legend. The play is uncharacteristic of Odets's work, for it combines elements of comedy, philosophy, and theology. Social commentary is nearly nonexistent in these late plays; the only work with a critical concern is The Big Knife, which attacks the film industry with unrelenting anger. However, critics find these plays superior to Odets's love stories because of their intriguing characters and suspenseful scenarios.
By the end of 1935, Odets's impressive first year as a playwright, many critics were praising him as a genius who spoke for the American people. However, even Odets's best plays are not held in such high regard today. His early works are considered simplistic propaganda, with stereotypical characters and obvious messages. Nevertheless, Odets's work is still appreciated for its moving dialogue and his belief in the nobility of humankind. His protagonists perpetually battle to maintain their individuality despite pressure from the conformist forces of society. Odets can be seen from a historical perspective as a skilled craftsman who, according to Allan Lewis, "rose splendidly as the playwright most able to dramatize an injured nation in need of hope and unity."
(See also CLC, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 7, 26.)