Clifford Odets Odets, Clifford (Vol. 28) - Essay


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.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

The pace [of "Waiting for Lefty"] 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 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. (pp. 427-28)

[Mr. Odets] 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...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Stark Young

As an active figure, conducive to sweat, clapping and partisanship, Mr. Odets may be in a short time an impressive dramatist. Already, without appearing to be middle-class and stupid, he gives the impression of convictions. And he does not give the impression of grabbing any movement or cause for its stage exploitation and jabber. I still say, I repeat, that, though to a much less degree in "Till the Day I Die" and "Waiting for Lefty" than in "Awake and Sing," he needs to establish the plane, indicate the measure, of his various motivations. Taking any of his situations, there is still room for a more important interpretation. The line of living, after the jungle has been superseded and left, is not so simple as in many of the speeches it may seem to be. To take a good example, we find one of Mr. Odets' characters speaking of an aged Jewish father, a man who has read Spinoza all his life—and look what they have done to him! It would be a more profound art in Mr. Odets—I am one who believes he will come to it (and this review is written for him)—if he showed us this character, too, this Spinoza-read old man. In sum it would better convince us of the motif intended if he created this spiritual aspect against which the material tides of circumstance beat so disastrously. In sum, we should have a greater and more significant range in character creation if we saw two men between whom there is not only the force of capitalism but also of Spinoza. Otherwise, this flinging of spiritual and musical culture into the scales is much too easy. Thrown in like that, Spinoza is, as theatre argument, not much more carrying than to say that the heroine ate spinach all her life and now the factory has spoiled her liver.

Since the earliest beginnings of drama, obviously, the great motifs or abstractions built on...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Grenville Vernon

In ["Awake and Sing"] 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...

(The entire section is 635 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

Clifford Odets was given every encouragement to let himself go. Unfortunately he chose to be as little critical of his work as his admirers had been, and the result is simply that his latest play seems like nothing so much as an improbable burlesque of "Awake and Sing." Apparently the idea was that if a play about a somewhat neurotic family in the Bronx was good, then a play about a madhouse similarly located would be very much better. And if this theory is accepted, then "Paradise Lost" … must certainly mark the uttermost reach of the author's genius.

Never in the course of more than a decade of persistent theatergoing have I seen quite so much of madness and woe, or quite such a rich variety of...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Edith J. R. Isaacs

Paradise Lost is not a great play, as the Group thinks it is. But it is without doubt an important play because in material and method it marks the fresh, swift advance of a young dramatist who not only thinks and feels deeply but whose writing talents are essentially and in an unusual degree theatre talents: the power to state a situation in terms of its most dramatic elements, to observe and define character, to write active dialogue, to conquer attention.

Paradise Lost, so far as one can interpret Mr. Odets through the play and through what he has said about it in print, aims to be the story of the disintegration of the middle-class liberals in America under the capitalist system,...

(The entire section is 694 words.)

Kenneth Burke

After having been led, by the explicitly formulated objections of some dissenters, to expect that I would dislike Odets' "Paradise Lost," I finally went to see it, and liked it enormously…. And though I had in the past complained against propagandists who compromised their cause by the depiction of people not worth saving, and had been led to believe that Odets transgressed on this score, I found on the contrary that the characters, for all their ills, possessed the ingredients of humanity necessary for making us sympathetic to their disasters. To me there was nothing arbitrary about the prophetic rebirth in Leo's final speech. And as I had witnessed, not pedestrian realism, but the idealizations of an expert...

(The entire section is 1088 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

[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 Italian boy who abandons the fiddle for the prize ring because "you can't pay people back with music," and...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

Stark Young

It seems to me the first thing about Mr. Odets' new play ["Golden Boy"] 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...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Edith J. R. Isaacs

[Even] in Golden Boy, which is far and away better theatre fare than any other Odets play, he is still the most personal of all playwrights, still speaking for himself and listening to himself as he speaks. He is still recording rather than creating, still not quite dramatically mature, with all of his faults as plain to see in his playwriting as white figures on a blackboard. But he has vigor, a mental and spiritual pressure of ideas against his material which does not let his story down, and he is acquiring a sure sense of form. He has, moreover, that gift of rhythmic speech which is the mark of the more-than-one-play author, a gift which most little boys on any street corner possess, and which grown men seem...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

The tendency still persists to make of Clifford Odets and his plays a political issue. That, I think, is a pity from any point of view now that the facts are becoming increasingly clear. Whatever his opinions may have been or; for that matter, may still be, those opinions are shared by many, while Mr. Odets reveals a gift for characterization and a gift for incisive dialogue unapproached by any of his Marxian fellows and hardly equaled by any other American playwright.

"Rocket to the Moon" … carries him at least one step farther along the road he is traveling, and to my mind at least makes the best of the other new plays now current on Broadway seem pallid indeed. Certain crudities, though they are...

(The entire section is 682 words.)


Stripped to the bone, Rocket to the Moon is a triangle play; the story of a kindly, thin-blooded, tired dentist … who has accepted life at prevailing odds, surrendered to routine, "gone to sleep." His bitter nagging wife and his sinister, mocking father-in-law … appreciate his goodness, yet cannot help taunting him. From a romantic young girl … in his office who is fighting to live, do, go somewhere, and who loves him, he gets sympathy. Suddenly he finds himself in love with her. But when the showdown comes, he stays with his wife: not only because of conscience or past ties, but because he is too weary to wrench himself out of the old life and cope with the high-powered demands of the new.


(The entire section is 408 words.)

Grenville Vernon

In all that has been written about the plays of Clifford Odets it is odd that little attention has been paid to the fact that first and foremost these plays are Jewish, and that Mr. Odets himself is a direct descendant of those playwrights such as Gordon and Lubin who once made the Yiddish theatre in America so extraordinarily vital. What has been impressive in Mr. Odets's plays has not been their ideas, which are usually pretty confused, or their structure, which has been pretty melodramatic, but the fact that the characterizations and the dialogue have a bite and an originality of turn which set them apart from the somewhat pallid characters and dialogue of most modern plays. It is true that Mr. Odets's people often...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Stark Young

Mr. Odets' "Night Music" has been generally taken, in so far as I have read comments on it, as a sort of Manhattan "Boy Meets Girl," that Hollywood story, with its appealing jibe…. If Mr. Odets' play was taken this way, as a Manhattan idyll with et cetera trimmings, it is largely his own fault rather than the reviewers' stupidity, as some would have us believe.

It is Mr. Odets' fault for two reasons. First, there is the kind of wandering, seemingly casual, tangential quality in "Night Music" by which it meanders along, or seems superficially at least to do so, until at the last the Good Friend detective has—without beard or reindeer or stockings—brought the young man and the young woman to a...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)

David Burnham

Hollywood has been generally blamed for Clifford Odets's failure to live up to the promise of "Awake and Sing" and "Waiting for Lefty." But the faults of "Clash by Night" aren't the faults of Hollywood; indeed, Mr. Odets might to advantage have borrowed more liberally from the movies' adroitness for plot mechanics and episodic elaboration, particularly in his static second act. No: "Clash by Night" suffers principally from a lack of direction arising from the want of any adequate frame of reference.

Odets's frame of reference in 1935 was the class struggle. What has lasted over into 1942 is principally a humanitarian intuition of the individual's private separation, which is valid background for...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Rosamond Gilder

[The theme of Clash by Night] is eternal, its plot the classic formula of the drame passionel. Yet so vibrant, so steeped in life and passion are Mr. Odets' characters that the world he creates with them exists as solidly, more solidly indeed, than most of the aspects of the world in which we live. Mr. Odets' story is negligible. He is concerned with a quite ordinary couple living on a Staten Island water-front…. Of these everyday ingredients Odets has fashioned a poignant picture of man's loneliness, of his yearnings and frustrations, of mischievous evil, of sorrow, ungainliness, love and death. (pp. 150-51)

The first half of the play offers by far the richest material for actors and...

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Harold Clurman

Odets's work from the beginning contained "a protest that is also prophecy." There was in it a fervor that derived from the hope and expectation of change and the desire for it. But there was rarely any expression of political consciousness in it, no deep commitment to a coherent philosophy of life, no pleading for a panacea. "A tendril of revolt" runs through all of Odets's work, but that is not the same thing as a consistent revolutionary conviction. Odets's work is not even proletarian in the sense that Gorky's work is. Rather is it profoundly of the lower middle class with all its vacillation, dual allegiance, fears, groping, self-distrust, dejection, spurts of energy, hosannas, vows of conversion, and prayers for...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Harold Clurman

Logic might insist that there are three kinds of plays—good, bad, indifferent—but Clifford Odets' "The Big Knife" is none of these. It represents the state of Odets' soul in 1949; it is exasperating and exciting.

As a mechanism for conveying a definite theme, idea or emotion, "The Big Knife" is misbegotten….

The ostensible point of [the play] is that a good person in our society becomes the prisoner of forces that will manipulate him as a commodity. Unless he is a saint or a revolutionary he can live only by dying. Apart from any judgment as to the validity of this thesis, the play fails to demonstrate it.

The victim here is a good person because his wife...

(The entire section is 626 words.)

Joseph Wood Krutch

["The Big Knife"] is an exposure of the movie capital which must take its place beside the exposures of the advertising business written by bright young advertising men and the exposures of the publishing business written by bright young publishers….

Most of us think of Hollywood as a place where mediocrity is overpaid—in money and in fame; but to Mr. Odets it is, instead, a place where genius is prevented from expressing itself. His hero is a fabulously successful young leading man of the films whose better self we are expected to take on faith while he, languishing under a fourteen-year contract assuring him several million dollars, laments that he cannot get away from it all into some world...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

John Gassner

It is no small tribute to Clifford Odets that his return to Broadway after eight years of Hollywood peonage should have roused singular expectations. Although these were not exactly fulfilled in "The Big Knife," it was a relief to learn that his talent had not been eviscerated in Southern California, that he retains his capacity for passion, and that he is still a formidable scene-wright. If one could drive a team of horses through some of the gaps in his argument, if his writing was charged with subjective perversities and non sequiturs, we had reason to be concerned only over the more obvious presence of faults we had tended to overlook in his earlier work. They pertain to his habits of thought and implicate his...

(The entire section is 2704 words.)

Walter Kerr

Clifford Odets has taken a very small and very familiar situation ["The Country Girl"] and, by the simple process of being patient with it, found it to contain more dramatic interest than anyone could have supposed. His story is that of the actor who has drunk himself downhill and of the wife of the director who pulls him back into shape for a performance. The trouble with clichés is that people treat them as clichés; they slap them onto a stage in their baldest outlines, without taking the trouble to think them through again. Odets has thought this one through, down to the last detail, and it comes out with the reality it must have had the first time someone used it. He has been particularly successful with his...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

Harold Clurman

"The Country Girl" is lightweight Odets. That the least meaty of his plays should prove to be almost the most popular is significant of the press, not of the author.

No more gifted playwright has appeared in the past fifteen years. I doubt whether any American playwright at all has a greater talent for living dramatic speech, for characterization, for intensity of feeling. Above all, Odets is a true theatre poet: he is never literal, and his power with words does not represent verbal proficiency but a blood tie with the sources from which sound literature and dramatic action spring.

Apart from a certain romantic afflatus, which is at times an easily discernible defect but more often...

(The entire section is 687 words.)

Richard Hayes

Mr. Clifford Odets' ["The Flowering Peach"] is a work of secular piety, imperfect and somewhat arid, but nonetheless, luminously touched with the imagination of reverence. To his recasting of the Biblical tale of Noah, Mr. Odets brings a discreet humanism which shapes the experience beautifully, constantly points but never presses its contemporary reference. He was not, I think, wise to include among his dramatic baggage on the Ark so many rancorous family disputes: they do not illumine, rather they rasp and fatigue. They are, moreover, the remains of a moral intention exhausted in the more "activist" plays of Mr. Odets' youth, and as such have a somewhat gratuitous, calculated air. The same uncertainty of tone mars...

(The entire section is 274 words.)

Gerald Weales

[In The Flowering Peach it] was Odets's apparent decision to make of the Biblical story a modern Jewish folk play…. The pattern of Noah's family is that of many lower-middle-class Jewish families in New York. The old folks, who speak with a Yiddish accent, hold close the tradition of the family; they demand of the sons and their wives, who are Americanized (i.e., modernized) in speech and thought, a loyalty that cannot easily be given. (p. 74)

[It is] to such an environment that Odets tries to wed the Noah legend. He fails for two reasons. First, his setting sounds surprisingly phony, even to an outsider; second, there is a good chance that Noah could not fit into such a setting even if it...

(The entire section is 1019 words.)


Golden Boy again demonstrates the lesson of the Odets' Paradise Lost: that this author appears to be psychically glued to the material of his first play. He cannot advance beyond Awake and Sing: he can only revive it with different costumes, scenery, and (sometimes) accents. That the refurbishing of the material implies its adulteration seems not to concern Mr. Odets, who perhaps imagines that he is exploring genuinely new horizons; but to those who have admired Awake and Sing, each new play seems a more shocking caricature of the first. (p. 9)

The narrowness of his invention, the monotony of his subject matter have anaesthetized [Mr. Odets] to a point where he must wade...

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

Odets's new film, in terms of its script, lives up to its advance defense; it is not a prostituted work. But the author has stoutly defended the wrong portal, or not enough portals. The picture may be uncompromised but it is also undistinguished, pointless, and dull….

We look for positive achievements, and of these The Story on Page One has virtually none. It is an utterly routine courtroom drama, devoid of rewarding characters and development even of superficial plot twist and, what is most disheartening, with hardly a trace of the arresting pungency that has been a hallmark of Odets dialogue. The picture plods along until it is finished, at which moment we ask ourselves why Odets bothered...

(The entire section is 282 words.)

Michael J. Mendelsohn

Odets' motion picture career can be roughly divided into three periods: 1936–38, 1943–47, and 1955–61. His name finally appeared on only seven produced films, but he estimated the output of those years variously from fifteen or twenty scripts to "dozens." The Hollywood practice of script-doctoring explains the disparity. He told an interviewer in 1944 that though he had written many scripts, he had taken credit only for The General Died at Dawn. "'The others were rewritten … after I left town, by four or five hacks to each script,' he says, 'and rather than share credit for what they churned out between gin-rummy games, I decided to pass up fame and keep my self-respect.'" (p. 31)


(The entire section is 669 words.)

Edward Murray

The structure of Odets' plays has been misinterpreted. To some extent the playwright himself is responsible for this critical confusion. "I was influenced a little by Chekhov," Odets told Mendelsohn in 1963. "Not by Ibsen, because you see my forms are not Ibsen's. But my chief influence as a playwright was the Group Theater acting company…." Invariably, critics and scholars of the drama refer to Odets' plays as Chekhovian in structure. The truth of the matter, however, is that the basic structure of an Odets play is Ibsenite; that is, one can perceive in it a single rising line of action which can be analyzed in terms of a point of attack, a turning point, and a resolution composed of a crisis, climax and...

(The entire section is 2487 words.)

Allan Lewis

The most acclaimed writer of the thirties was Clifford Odets. He rose out of the Depression to give voice to a world in crisis. He put the Bronx Jewish middle class on stage and gave them courage, dignity, and stature. (p. 109)

Paradoxically, Odets was the playwright least able to maintain persuasive drama in the sixties. His exodus to Hollywood, together with many members of the Group Theatre, removed him from his natural nourishment. When he returned to Broadway ten years later with The Big Knife, he no longer was a man of social anger. Success had deprived him of identification with the downtrodden. Of the next plays, The Country Girl (1950) was an outright attempt at a superficial...

(The entire section is 934 words.)

Gerald Weales

Mr. Bonaparte was wrong and so was Marion Castle. No man is so simply made that he has a single nature which a wrong turn can violate. The violation, too, is in his nature. Both fist and fiddle were natural to Joe; both Hollywood and the escape from it were necessary to Charlie. The observer in Odets knew this; the idealist, the idealogue did not want to know. Alter the circumstances, rearrange the environment, brick off the false choices, said the latter, and the natural man will flower; home, love, happiness will become possible. This assumption had personal and artistic consequences for Odets.

He was a restless man. In his work and in his life, we can see the vacillation between a home which turns...

(The entire section is 825 words.)