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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.)
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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 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….
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 that 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. (p. 428)
Joseph Wood Krutch, "Mr. Odets Speaks His Mind," in The Nation, Vol. CXL, No. 3640, April 10, 1935, pp. 427-28.
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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 have been pretty much the same. Their application, as bases for definite situations or subjects, depends on the dramatists' discovery of what will arouse toward them the most powerful and complete response. On this basis, in "Till the Day I Die," the torturing of the Communist by the Nazis until he will be disgraced and lost, is no more than what happened, very likely, to plenty of aristocrats or bourgeois victims under the changed Russian system. You can like or not like, then, Mr. Odets' partisanships, so long as you remember that (setting aside the special appeal of his causes to this man or that) the test of his work lies in its emotional resources, its dialogue, the response it evokes. The test of his work lies in its theatrical powers and its human emotional powers, both of which are at their zeniths when one of them has been made inseparable from the other.
"Till the Day I Die" appears to lack a particularly clear development. During the final scene there is a definite drop. If the suffering Communist … is to get into that kind of generalized semi-noble speech, we need an emotional plane or, perhaps better, a distinct indication, that he has, through pain and strain, been brought into an exalted and not wholly cogent state of speaking. The play has, nevertheless, many good short scenes, flashes here and there into the situation's progress. The dialogue shows great talent. The instinct for getting the scene forward over the footlights is so great as to be perhaps the chief source of this new playwright's promise….
"Waiting for Lefty" jerks along through resilient little scenes, sometimes remarkably graphic, secure or moving. It gains greatly over "Till the Day I Die" by its nearness and vernacular. The whole tone of it is essentially gay; which is a great compliment to it as theatre; and yet the conviction of grave reality is strong. Creation of character (realistic), if strongly achieved, is in itself so full of satisfaction for us that it rises above mere depression. The vim and sharp eyes and theatre invention of much of this play are such as to bring the whole of it up to theatre delight. And nothing is lost thereby; the progress of a zest for life, combined with a fighting spirit, is, however rousing, prophetic or passionate, not grim. The grim become theatre is very different from theatre turned grim.
Stark Young, "Lefty and Nazi," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXII, No. 1062, April 10, 1935, p. 247.
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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 speaking in his own person. And this was good art. In the two one-act plays which the Group Theatre has now presented ["Till the Day I Die" and "Waiting for Lefty"], 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."…
In the course of ["Till the Day I Die"] are introduced a number of stock characters; the Nazis all either hysterical, degenerate, brutal or stupid; the Communists, idealistc 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….
"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.
Grenville Vernon, "Two Communist Plays," in Commonweal (copyright © 1935 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XXI, No. 24, April 12, 1935, p. 682.∗
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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 sins, felonies, and other torts, legal and moral, crowded into one evening….
If one knew nothing of the author one might assume that the play was an unsuccessful attempt at the pure macabre, but in a statement issued to the press Mr. Odets warned all concerned that he was about to present them with a picture of the state of the middle class today, and we are left with the necessity of assuming that he asks us to believe his picture in some sense typical. Surely, if it were, even the solid foundations of the Bronx would not be standing this morning….
My own faith in the reality of Mr. Odets's talents is sufficiently firm to make me quite sure that only the force of some strong delusion could make him guilty of such an atrocity, and I think that I know what that delusion is…. Mr. Odets has lost his reason (only temporarily, I hope) from too much brooding over the Marxian eschatology. For Marxism also does, of course, have its "science of last things," its vision of the process by which the end of the world will come about and of the portents by which the approach of the millennium will be announced. There will be wars and rumors of wars. But that is not all. The middle class, collapsing economically, will lose faith in itself. It will be seized with all sorts of neuroses, and finally it will expire miserably in the midst of its futilities, its corruptions, and its perversities—precisely as this strange family is expiring in the Bronx….
I am perfectly sure that Mr. Odets is at least ahead of events, that what he professes to have discovered has not happened yet, and that what he is giving us is not a picture of anything as it now exists but an apocalyptic vision of what he feels sure will happen and of what, being an impatient millennarian, he wants to believe is happening now. But he can be answered by thousands of citizens of the Bronx who, should they see the play, would reply with one voice in terms of the American folk phrase, "Home was never like this." If it were, then the revolution would be closer than even most of Mr. Odets's fellow-believers think that it is.
Joseph Wood Krutch, "The Apocalypse of St. Clifford," in The Nation, Vol. CXLI. No. 3677, December 25, 1935, p. 752.
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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, and their hope of redemption through a new social system. This is almost exactly the theme of Awake and Sing, except that in the earlier play Mr. Odets chose a family in the Bronx as his protagonist, and tried to prove his thesis from his type. In Paradise Lost he has broadened his canvas 'to find a theatrical form with which to express the mass as hero'. (pp. 94-5)
It is good, in these cowardly days when old men are afraid to think freely, to see a young man boldly hitting out for a new paradise, convinced not only that he knows what is wrong and why, but that he can, quite surely, put us all on the real right road out of a world's unrighteousness that tortures him. 'Take it from me,' he seems to say; and whether you take it or not, you must be impressed by his earnestness and his ideals.
Such a subjective method applied to playwriting has, of course, its obvious penalties. As you watch the play, you find the playwright himself recurrently, and insistently, showing through his characters, and pretty soon you find yourself judging not the play, but the playwright, saying to yourself, 'This boy thinks the Bronx is the world'. He is not only cock-sure, but naively inexperienced. Someone should tell him that [his characters],… while they may be American citizens, are not in any sense representative of the middle-class, nor is there anything in their thinking or acting to indicate that they are liberal. They are the dregs of the social system, money-loving, money-starved capitalists who have gone rotten through spinelessness and the frustration of their own golden longings. No revolution would help them. They are too old—every one of them, but especially the young ones.
All of this only means that Mr. Odets has not made you accept either his first premise or his conclusion. But between the two there still stands a play of more than usual power, observation, tension. (pp. 95-6)
The special quality in Odets' playwriting … that is the most developed facet of his talent is related to his own acting experience—although it is by no means accounted for by that alone. His plays are made to the measure of his actors; there is nothing he demands of them, no characterization, no action, no conflict, that is beyond the reach of a fairly competent player. He knows how and why and when actors should speak, when the emphasis should be on the character who is speaking, on the immediate situation, on the play's theme. (p. 96)
Odets' speech, moreover, when it is not affected, or perhaps it is more generous to say when it is not affected by his desire to try the higher flights of poetry, almost speaks itself, it is so exactly and seems to instinctively right for the stage—even if it is not always rightly adjusted to the individual character. Half of the strength of Waiting for Lefty was the strength of speech, clear, simple, expressive, every word doing its work singly and as a part of a phrase, a speech, a scene. In Paradise Lost Odets has carried both of these marked talents—the talent for the word and for writing an actors' play—far ahead of what he did in Awake and Sing. (p. 97)
Edith J. R. Isaacs, "At Its Best," in Theatre Arts Monthly, Vol. XX, No. 2, February, 1936, pp. 93-7.∗
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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 stylist, I carried away something of the exhilaration that good art gives us when, by the ingratiations of style, it enables us to contemplate even abhorrent things with calmness.
The opportunity to examine the play in print has even heightened my admiration, by revealing the subtlety, complexity and depths of the internal adjustments. For all his conscious symbolism, the author has not merely pieced together a modern allegory. His work seems to embody ritualistic processes that he himself was not specifically concerned with….
At the close of Act I, as the characters listen to Pearl playing the piano upstairs, Gus says: "And when the last day comes—by ice or fire—she'll be up there playin' away." I consider this the "informing" line of the play. "By ice or fire."…
Along with the "ice or fire" epigram, I should note the significant credo of Pike, who, within the conditions of the play, comes nearest to the "proletarian" philosophy: "I'm sayin' the smell of decay may sometimes be a sweet smell." And taking these two passages as seminal, I should say that the play deals with three modes of "redemption"—redemption by ice, fire or decay—and finally chooses the third. Like certain ancient heresies, it pictures the "good" arising from the complete excess of the "bad," as the new growth sprouts from the rotting of the seed.
The first act rejects "redemption by ice." In its simplest objectivization, we find the situation placed before our eyes in the form of Ben's statue on the stage. The friends, Ben and Kewpie, had been under ice together; they had been skating with a third boy, when the ice broke and their friend had drowned. The spell of this "life-in-death" is still upon them….
Act II, by my analysis, considers and rejects "redemption by fire." It is in this way that I would locate the symbolic element underlying the remarkable realism of Mr. May, the professional firebug. Leo refuses to accept his impotent partner Sam's proposal that they solve their financial troubles by employing this man. But Pike, the proletarian furnace tender (who would thaw the ice), had proclaimed his belief in "redemption by decay." He is thus the bridge between Sam's fire solution and Leo's rebirth from decay. And we complete the pattern in the third act where, as the process of decay is finished, Leo's prophesy of rebirth sprouts from the rotted grain, and the curtain descends.
I might note other features of the internal organization. Thus, Pike's mere entrance at times foreshadows the "fatality" of the plot. For he knocks at the door (1) just as Julie has said, "When the time comes—" (2) when Gus has said he would like to "go far away to the South Sea islands and eat coconuts," and (3) when, Clara having asked "Is it the end?" Leo has answered, "Not yet." At these crucial moments, Pike's message is in the offing. But whereas the message remains the same throughout the play, Leo (the "father") must assimilate it in his own way, as he does by conscientiously completing the symbolism of the rotting grain…. (p. 283)
Approached from this angle,… doubts as to the play's statistical value (its actuarial truth as a survey of the bourgeoisie) may seem less relevant. If a poet happens to have the sort of imagination that revivifies an old heresy in modern details, how would he go about it to put this imaginative pattern into objective, dramatic form? At other times, he might have externalized the pattern as a struggle between angels and demons, or between Indians and settlers, or between patriot and foe, or in the "war of the sexes," etc. At present, in keeping with current emphasis, he may symbolize it with relation to an interpretation of historic trends, where its "prophetic" truth is enough. Incidentally, the subjective origin of the pattern need not impair the objective validity of the symbols used. If the bourgeoisie is oppressed by loss of certainty, one may have many good objective reasons for externalizing the pattern of his imagination in this form, particularly as the pattern itself may have been established in the individual poet precisely by the effects of the same frustrating process.
Our approach also may have bearing upon the comments of Stanley Burnshaw, who observed in The New Masses that the play erred as political strategy. Inasmuch as the proletariat must expect the petty bourgeoisie to become its allies, he asks, how could people so decayed have the vitality to assist in the tremendous work of establishing a new order? This objection is justified only if one does not believe in the Odets formula for redemption, remembering only the ash and not the Phoenix that arises from the ash. But if one follows the Odets ritual to the end, the objection is weakened. By the Marxist formula, the complete "proletarian" would require no process of rebirth. He would grow up with his morality. He and it would be one. But the bourgeois would have to "come over," dropping the morality that made him and taking another in its place. Converting the situation into drama, we should require rebirth, the ritualistic changing of identity, rather than merely a superficial matter of climbing off one bandwagon and climbing on another. And we should require the dramatist to deepen and broaden the process as greatly as possible.
Thus, I question whether we can appreciate the play by a simple "scientific" test of its truth…. A more integral test is to be found, I submit, in a consideration of the play as ritual. And those who respond to its ritual will be enabled to entertain drastic developments, without drawing simply upon a masochistic desire to be punished. (pp. 283-84)
Kenneth Burke, "By Ice, Fire or Decay?" in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXVI, No. 1115, April 15, 1936, pp. 283-84.
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[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 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 imprisoned 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 back ground 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. (p. 540)
Joseph Wood Krutch, "Two Legends," in The Nation, Vol. 145, No. 20, November 13, 1937, pp. 539-40.∗
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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 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. (p. 45)
Stark Young, "Gods, Golden Lads and Girls," in The New Republic, Vol. XCIII. No. 1198, November 17, 1937, pp. 44-5.
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[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 somehow unhappily to lose before they put their pens to the pages of a play.
This gift of speech Odets has not yet quite under control. To give it full value he must either set it free or discipline it more severely, or both. Many of the most authentic and spirited passages of his dialogue still sound like phrases carefully culled from a notebook carefully documented by a playwright with a fine ear. It is some of the lush, sentimental scenes in Golden Boy, overwritten but with a clear, crisp undertone, that show how well Odets will write when he once creates freely and allows his characters to speak out of their own mouths. (p. 12)
Golden Boy tells Joe Bonaparte's story concretely and well—the swift, almost unthinking plunge into the fighter's world, the first defensive fights that subconsciously protected the musician's hands from danger, the growing lust for success, the love for the girl who belonged to his boss, the separation from his family—especially from the loving, soulful father—the final victory and the death of his opponent, the disillusionment.
Only at the end of the story does the author of Golden Boy fail, both in ambition and attainment. Death is too easy and too false an ending. Golden boys, at the moment of empty victory, do not ride out into the dark with a beautiful maiden and crash against the heavens they thought to storm. (p. 13)
Edith J. R. Isaacs, "When Good Men Get Together," in Theatre Arts Monthly, Vol. XXII, No. 1. January, 1938, pp. 11-13.
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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 less conspicuous than those in any of his previous works, do remain. Moreover, the fable of "Rocket to the Moon," like that of both "Awake and Sing" and "Golden Boy," seems more powerful in conception than in development; so that as the story approaches its end the manipulation of events tends to become more nearly mechanical. Perhaps the play as a whole never rises above the level of its first act. But the personages are endowed with a life almost painfully intense, and the incisive thrusts of the dialogue follow one another relentlessly from the beginning to the end.
Reduced to an outline, the story may seem almost commonplace…. But no such outline can suggest either the solid reality of the characters or the insight exhibited into the workings of their minds. Not one of the personages is a story-book cliché; not one of the situations seems other than freshly imagined; and Mr. Odets exhibits among other things, two gifts not often combined—the gift for a kind of literal realism which makes his characters recognizable fragments of reality, and the gift for endowing these same characters with an intensity of life which lifts them into another realm. They are immediately recognized and accepted, but the sense that one has met them before is soon succeeded by the realization that the full force of what they are and what they imply is here thrust for the first time upon an awakened awareness.
Like the best scenes in previous works, "Rocket to the Moon" is in one sense not a "pleasant" play. The spectator is spared no ugliness and, except perhaps at the very end, permitted no romantic or sentimental evasion of the situation. The broken spirit of the middle-aged failure, the desperate gallantry of the old man trying to pretend that he can accept the emptiness of his own life, and the unconscious cruelty of the girl who cannot even imagine what it is like not to have a whole lifetime before one, are realities which nothing can explain away and nothing make other than painful in themselves. Yet the intensity which makes the play at moments almost unbearable is responsible also for the fact that it is more than a tale of frustration and rises above mere realism toward the tragic level. No desires so agonizingly intense as those which possess these people can be really trivial, and even the defeated become heroes when they fight with such desperation.
The political implications of the play, if they exist at all, are even less intrusive and less explicit than they were in "Golden Boy," and seem to come down to no more than the suggestion that money or the lack of it plays some part in determining the course which our lives must take. It needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us that, and the fact is frequently recognized by writers without party affiliations. Whatever further private meanings the play may have for the author need be no concern of either the general public or the critic. Mr. Odets is welcome to any opinions he may care to hold so long as he can write as impressive a play as the present one. (pp. 600-01)
Joseph Wood Krutch, in a review of "Rocket to the Moon," in The Nation, Vol. 147, No. 23, December 3, 1938, pp. 600-01.
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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.
Odets does not encase this eternal situation in the snug, tight frame of the well-made Broadway "domestic drama." Heaving, racked, volcanic, the play belches the hot subterranean lava of its characters' anger, helplessness, pain. It draws back their skin to leave every nerve exposed. In its best scenes Rocket to the Moon is blisteringly real, its dialogue forks and spits like lightning from a scornful sky.
Like Awake and Sing!, like Paradise Lost, like confusion itself, the new play does not move in a straight line. In his social-minded plays Odets has drawn people who are confused because a materialistic society pulls them one way, their instincts another. But in Rocket to the Moon psychological dislocations result from a clash of temperaments, a lack of drive. And Odets will not stay with his plot. He pursues a mystical theme which overrides it: the need for love to vitalize human lives. Inoculated with this virus, his characters cease to be individuals in a specific situation, turn into orators, poets, philosophers who halt the action to harpoon the cosmos.
Like Paradise Lost, Rocket to the Moon is full of clashing moods, windy flights, people half-real, half-symbolic. At moments the over-intense young girl and the too-sinister old man all but tumble into the whacky farce world of a You Can't Take It With You. The last act wobbles all over the place. This is not miscalculation on Odets' part. It springs from a pretentious side of him that wants to make every common dentist's office widen out into the universe. Sometimes he mistakes abracadabra for revelation. (pp. 44-5)
"White Hope," in Time (copyright 1938 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. XXXII, No. 23, December 5, 1938, pp. 44-7.
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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 shout at the top of their lungs, that their emotion is unrestrained, and at times they utter appalling banalities with an air of owlish wisdom. But all in all their vitality, both emotional and intellectual, is a welcome relief equally from chatterers or sophisticated nothings and from people who are all hard-boiled surface, with no intelligence underneath. Mr. Odets's people are at once primitive and intelligent, and it is this antinomy which imparts to them their color and variety. Neither of these qualities are hurt by the fact that their emotion is not strong enough to conquer their intelligence nor their intelligence deep or keen enough to kill their emotion. It is this struggle of emotion with intelligence which is the basis of much of the great drama of the world, and it is this struggle which is abundantly evident in the half-Americanized Jews of Mr. Odets.
A man familiar with the Yiddish drama told me recently that many of Odets's most pungent speeches are practically direct translations from the Yiddish, and it is this that makes the dialogue so alive and vital. It is dialogue, not created by the dramatist, but inherited by him from the speech of his people, which gives the feeling at once personal and universal which informs the talk in all his plays and notably in his latest success, "Rocket to the Moon." Up to the present Mr. Odets has given no sign of understanding people other than his own type of Jewish-Americans, and for this reason it is not well to hope for the great American play from him; indeed it is unfair…. But as a dramatist of the melting-pot he is unique and unapproached.
Grenville Vernon, "Clifford Odets," in Commonweal (copyright © 1938 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 8, December 16, 1938, p. 215.
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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 cheerful mood, courage, sweetness, yes, and bright advance on the American future that they will share and help create. I hope I can manage to be clear at this point—to do so is difficult without the attendance at the performance assured and remembered or the full text spread out for one to read. A friendly comment tells us that the "play stems from the basic sentiment that people nowadays are affected by a sense of insecurity; they are haunted by the fear of impermanence in all their relationships; they are fundamentally homeless, and whether or not they know it, they are in search of a home, of something real, secure, dependable in a slippery, shadowy, noisy and nervous world."
This search for a home and a security genuinely human can, of course, go in many directions and take many forms, comic, tragic, what not. On the whole, as Mr. Harold Clurman, director of the play [says] …, "Night Music" tends to present "this deeply serious pursuit" in a light vein, wistful, pathetic, even farcical.
To take "this pursuit" is all very well, but taking it thus does not consist in that lively, skip-the-rope, youthful dénouement. No! Taking "this pursuit" thus demands that certain elements shall be found all through the play—such elements are as a matter of fact now and again present, delightfully and truly—and demands a tone in the conclusion of it that sustains the whole approach and impression thus intended or presupposed. As the play stands, however, this is not true: those forward-looking speeches, almost doctrinal or dogmatic, that appear from time to time are often what we might call inserted—they connect, for one instance, rather poorly with the central character, this young man that Mr. Odets writes every one of his plays around, this hero of assorted races—Jewish, Italian, Greek, but always the same. In sum the tone, the general tone, of "Night Music" is not either continuously or definitely or with any total unity established.
Second, in the struggling, loving and aspiring of which we hear in connection with the play, Mr. Odets' idea, or theme, apparently is that the acceptance of the struggle without bitterness or self-pity promises the possibility of growth and of a world where such characters as these in "Night Music" may find a home. Nowadays, that is the kind of statement that may be as good as any other, provided we are catching a train, rushing to cocktails, or to a motor car or supper club, or writing a column, or making a broadcast or listening to the radio, et cetera, et cetera: it will serve—just as one hasty counter lunch is as good as another. Otherwise it is, by default, 50-percent nonsense. Did any historian ever frankly record a civilization, or a social system, that sprang from this negative-positive condition? To stop being sour and stop feeling sorry for yourself is all very well; it is the first step, and almost to be taken for granted. But afterwards comes something else again. There must be some conception—or at least some semi-conception—to go on with. Bitterness, self-pity, the sense of disadvantage, etc., are certainly not desirable as traits that are operant in oneself, and certainly they should be corrected, dramatically or otherwise; but they are all a private disease, not the basis of a social theory.
To give up bitterness, malice and self-pity and start "seeking" may be in certain cases, if you like, a profoundly important move; but it remains, nevertheless, a matter of cases. It is a very limited procedure. It is as if socially (meaning—old style—sociologically) one had never grown up: one has merely turned away from his lamentations. Such a turning, such antistrophic vision and movement, is not enough. Its quality may be lyrical, violent, vitriolic, seething, rabid; or it may be international; or, as against some extant and resented state of things, revolutionary. But essentially it is nomadic, barbaric and without logic. Whatever the boasted tradition of intellectualism behind it may be, it is without all clarity of mind ultimately, without even any passionate mentality that could be said to exist beyond the sheerly subjective.
There is, furthermore, a question that in all fairness should be raised. Can we demand from a dramatist, in an age like ours, scattered, distracted, surging, wide, chopped-up and skimmy, that he provide his play with a background of social conceptions that are basic, sound, organized, prophetic, deep-rooted? Shall he, in sum, be asked to draw the hare of heaven from a shallow cap? The answer is no, we can scarcely demand that. In general we should remind ourselves that there is no reason to ask any theatre to surpass its epoch in solidity, depth or philosophic summation.
Could we ask, then, this everlasting young man of Mr. Odets' play—with that exhibitionism, very considerable commonness, slight hint of the pathetic, and endless resentment—to compensate us somewhat by manifesting some tangible notion of just what his philosophy of life may be, what the nature is of his passionate dream, and, in plain English, what it is he wants and if there is anything he can think of that would put him out of this stew he is in? The answer again is that this would be desirable, but not reasonably to be demanded. We can, however, ask that the dramatist himself make clear the point that the young man does not know. (pp. 377-78)
Stark Young, "Two New Failures," in The New Republic, Vol. 102, No. 12, March 18, 1940, pp. 377-78.∗
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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 pathos but not for tragedy. Here is a triangle of the bored wife, the insentient husband and the handsome lodger: surely no novelty in the theater and demanding the justification of a fresh approach. Or at least a special quality of perception and analysis. It is disappointing to report that Odets has given it neither. Nor has he given the familiar situation stature by relating it to any moral or social standard. Infidelity is meaningless outside the moral arena; tragedy requires a villain, whether it be a person or a society. Odets no longer indiscriminately blames Society, and doesn't recognize the Devil. He succeeds in interesting us in his characters' temperaments, but never in their tragedy.
Before he lets us down, however, Odets gives us three scenes out of his top drawer. Here he shows himself again a master of vivid colloquial dialogue—occasionally over-stylized so that single phrases stand out in epigrammatic isolation, but the stylization is in general a benefit; "lifelike" dialogue is a far more subtle affair than mere stenographic naturalism. (pp. 319-20)
David Burnham, in a review of "Clash by Night," in Commonweal (copyright © 1942 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XXXV, No. 13, January 16, 1942, pp. 319-20.
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[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 audience alike. It is warm with life and with the irrelevant and mysterious action of human beings living on this 'darkling plain'. The scene on the porch of the Wilenski's house on a hot summer night where time and the stars are suddenly close at hand; the scene in the frowzy dance hall; certain haunting moments of search and revelation throughout the play show Odets at his best. If the last half is occasionally labored and repetitious, if, taken as a whole, the play has not the completeness of, let us say, Awake and Sing or Golden Boy, it yet proves that Odets has by no means lost his power or his poetry and that he is as creative as ever when it comes to giving form and substance to character and thought. (p. 152)
Rosamond Gilder, "Time and the Rivals: Broadway in Review" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Theatre Arts, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, March, 1942, pp. 149-60.∗
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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 release. The "enlightenment" of the thirties, its effort to come to a clearer understanding of and control over the anarchy of our society, brought Odets a new mental perspective, but it is his emotional experience, not his thought, that gives his plays their special expressiveness and significance. His thought, the product chiefly of his four years with the Group and the new channels they led to, furnished Odets with the more conscious bits of his vocabulary, with an occasional epithet or slogan that were never fully integrated in his work. The feel of middle-class (and perhaps universal) disquiet in Odets's plays is sharp and specific; the ideas are general and hortatory. The Left movement provided Odets with a platform and a loud-speaker the music that came through was that of a vast population of restive souls, unaware of its own mind, seeking help. To this Odets added the determination of youth. The quality of his plays is young, lyrical, yearning—as of someone on the threshold of life. (pp. 150-51)
Perhaps Odets privately harbored the belief that socialism offers the only solution for our social-economic problems. Perhaps his desire to share a comradely closeness to his fellowmen might attract him to those who hoped to bring about socialist society, but he must also have suspected that temperamentally he might prove a trial to any well-knit party. Instead of being an adherent of a fixed program, a disciplined devotee of a set strategy or system, Odets possessed a talent that always had an ambiguous character. If because of all this the regular press was misled into chatter about his "Marxism" while the Left press was frankly perplexed and troubled by him, it may also be guessed that Odets too was pretty much in the dark on this score.
On the one hand, Odets felt himself very close to the people—the great majority of Americans—even in his bent for the "good old theatre"; on the other hand, his heart was always with the rebels. But who precisely were the rebels, and what did they demand of him? Those he knew were a small minority, and they marked out a line for him that he could not altogether accept. After the first flurry of Odets's success had passed, everyone discovered a "change" in him. The conventional reviewers were glad; the Left was disconcerted. But, in the sense they had in mind, both were wrong—Odets had not changed.
Perhaps the truth is that the vast majority, to which Odets felt he belonged as much as to any rebellious few, had not yet created for itself a cultural clarity or form, not to speak of other kinds of clarity or form—had not, for example, yet made for itself a theatre in which he could function freely. Perhaps the "few" who often criticized him more harshly than anyone else did not know how much they had in common with those they professed to scorn. (pp. 151-52)
Harold Clurman, in his The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties (copyright 1945 and renewed 1973 by Harold Clurman; copyright © 1957 by Harold Clurman; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1945 (and reprinted by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, 329 p.)∗
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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 says so, and because he speaks Odets' dialogue. The process of Charlie's deterioration is not dramatized. We never see him in a normal state. He has almost no history or background. When we meet him he is already a bad husband, a coward, a near drunkard and generally wrong at the top of his voice. (p. 28)
The theme cannot function within the story as Odets has seen fit to tell it. The story is largely off-stage, so that the theme becomes mostly rhetoric. Since this rhetoric is applied beyond the point of positive action, much of it is as impotent as the philosophic insults that Charlie hurls against his oppressors. But it is for these insults rather than for the story that Odets has written his play. Due to its faulty construction, much sincere feeling is wasted, many lines that might have been pithy are rendered pompous.
How then can the play be exciting? The subjective turmoil within the author blows gusts of passion through the proceedings and so sweeps the stage that story, characters, lines, no matter how incredible they may appear when isolated, shape to a form—tortured, inchoate, frustrated and rousing—the like of which no other American playwright can produce.
The lack of coördination between plot and theme in "The Big Knife" arises from emotional confusion in the author. It may be possible to write a clear play from a confused source, if one is honest about what actually motivates one's characters. Odets never tells the truth about Charlie Castle, which is that he loves Hollywood with a vicious zest, and Odets thinks this love sinful. The conflict between appetite—reinforced by society's encouragement of it—and the insistent cry of conscience creates self-loathing and conceit. The self-loathing stems from a desire to punish oneself for one's sin, the conceit from an exalted sense of one's superiority in recognizing the sin and wishing to punish oneself for it. "If I didn't love people so much," Charlie mutters, "oh, how I would hate them."
But this is Odets speaking, and one is inclined to answer that if he would stop hating himself so much he would find it easier to get closer to himself, to people, to society. He would not then have to burn himself in effigy by having his heroes kill themselves, and he would not have to cry out, like Charlie's wife at the final curtain, "Help! Help!"… It is much better to make the world's sorrow one's own than to try to make one's own sorrows the world's.
"The Big Knife" is not a play about Odets—it would have been better if it had been so. It is a play in which Odets' confusion about himself has unsettled the foundation of what it is supposed to be about. That is why it is difficult to praise the flashes of character perception, spiritual energy and virile quest that glint within its texture. (pp. 28-9)
Harold Clurman, "Sins of Clifford Odets," in The New Republic, Vol. 120, No. 11, March 14, 1949, pp. 28-9.
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["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 where he can indulge his natural integrity. (p. 340)
At one point in the action he remarks, very sagely indeed, that "there is nothing so habit-forming as money"; and if Mr. Odets had not been so anxious to shift all the guilt from his hero to "the industry," he might have written a very interesting play on just that theme. Its moral would be that you cannot eat your cake if you insist on having it too. And that is the moral which, despite all the playwright's efforts to distract attention from it, keeps shouting itself out from almost every scene.
If Mr. Odets were not a man of considerable talent, the subject would hardly be worth discussing. But he is a man of considerable talent with a real gift for words, which he all too often misuses, and a real gift for writing effective scenes. As in the old days, he can still strike out a bitter wisecrack and still invent the seemingly irrelevant remark which, like the irrelevant remarks in his professed master, Chekhov, is not really irrelevant. He can also, as is here illustrated by the role of the movie magnate …, sketch out a grand melodramatic villain. But the tendency to blame everything on some system or other becomes obviously absurd when Hollywood and the California climate have become responsible for everything which he used to blame on capitalism. (pp. 340-41)
At one point in the play our hero remarks that "when people say, 'Be yourself,' they don't really mean, 'Be yourself'; what they really mean is, 'Be like me.'" That is Odets at his best. But when, almost at the very end, this same hero utters his final complaint. "I have always wanted a world which would bring out the best in me," that is so completely Odets at his worst as to sound almost like satire. The desire for exculpation is all too plain. Something, alas, is always preventing Odets from being what he ought to be. Sometimes it is the Hollywood system; sometimes it is just "the system." And that makes it rather too much like a woman who might say, "I always wanted a world in which I could be chaste; but the men just will go on asking me." (p. 341)
Joseph Wood Krutch, in a review of "The Big Knife," in The Nation, Vol. 168, No. 12, March 19, 1949, pp. 340-41.
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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 virtues as well as his vices. They also provide an indispensable basis for any effort to discover why this gifted playwright has not fulfilled the hopes many of us entertained for him, and why his writing is so uneven. (pp. 25-6)
To assume that the author of "The Big Knife" is simply careless or bereft of sense, since he made his own premises, is scarcely tenable. On the contrary, he deliberately chose Hollywood as a symbol for everything deteriorative and unscrupulous in our society; he returned to the "Golden Boy" theme of how a materialistic, success-worshipping world corrupts the soul. He overlooked the weak character of his hero in his zeal to transfer guilt to society; he made equations without considering whether the terms were right. Everything that can be charged to faulty logic and unreality, everything that can be attributed to subjective causes in the play, is implicated in this allegorizing tendency. Odets was off his guard because his eyes were fixed on the horizon. He picked his own pocket while looking for signs above. He dropped some of the change while transferring his money from the pocket of immediate fact to the fancy wallet of social criticism. No wonder his bookkeeping didn't tally. I think that this has been his habit ever since he came to attention as a playwright, and that it is indurated in his intention of writing plays that will have large meaning.
Odets has been a writer of allegories in all his work except the underground drama "Till the Day I Die." This has probably passed comparatively unnoticed because allegory is no longer a popular form of writing, and its terms generally too vague today when there is no common belief out of which they can rise. Critics have always been less impressed with his conclusions than with his dramatic drive. The allegorical method was an almost inevitable procedure for a man who sought significance for his narration, vents for explosiveness of his characters, and a function for his poetic and romantic flare. Odets, who could never be content with mere realism … had to transfigure his particulars if he was to write at all.
His early version of "Awake and Sing," under the highly personal title of "I've Got the Blues," had to acquire a social rationale before the play could emerge out of its private chrysalis into the Group Theatre's repertory. A public correlate for personal experience was demanded of writers by the embattled nineteen thirties, when "social significance" was the oriflamme of art, and "the theatre is a weapon" was a slogan. (p. 26)
Odets found identification with others and release from loneliness in the cohesive life of the Group Theatre…. [He] made an identification with the radical and liberal elements that had by 1935 cemented a united front against the vultures of depression and fascism. He was presumably sure that his identification was with the entire working class, even if his characters were either unmistakably middle class or else pastiche; in any event this belief either real or illusory, was an outlet for the love that was in him, as it is in every creative personality. On the social canvas Odets could now draw sketches of class struggle like "Waiting for Lefty" or represent one phase of that struggle—the dissolution of the middle classes which Marxist theory made inevitable and the depression seemed to confirm. The Marxist vanguard proffered numerous keys to individual problems and situations for young writers who wanted to make sense of their experience. Home life was viewed as a miniature class struggle, and intramural revolt was considered a step toward revolutionary consciousness, as it is in "Awake and Sing." (Orthodox psychoanalysts agree, but call it "maladjustment.") The competitive system made exploiters and dealers in human flesh out of fairly decent human beings, and its materialism gave once-unspoiled young people a debased sense of values, as in "Golden Boy." Economic insecurity invaded sexual relations and deprived men of the energy and freedom to love, as in "Rocket to the Moon." The "Little Man What Now" humiliations of the dispossessed and unemployed made them susceptible to the Horst Wessel song of fascism, or disposed to blind accesses of violence as in "Clash by Night." Homelessness and rootlessness bedeviled the individual until he struck new roots of social purpose, as in "Night Music."
A creative spirit, of armed vision and a poet's susceptibility to symbolism, could easily multiply such propositions and the symbols that sustained them…. Odets' commitment to allegory (which was only a perfunctory engagement in "Awake and Sing") became a marriage in "Paradise Lost" and "Golden Boy." The bonds frayed in "Rocket to the Moon." "Clash by Night," and "Night Music," but were still strong enough to hold him in uneasy marriage. In "The Big Knife" he is still wedded—but more uncomfortably than ever.
Particulars reveal the allegorical design. In "Waiting for Lefty" a taxicab strike became synonymous with, among other things, the overthrow of economic exploitation, betrayal by labor bosses, poison-gas manufacture, racial discrimination in medicine, and unemployment in the theatre…. Both the rigid Marxist and the ordinary labor leader could raise an eyebrow at Odet's peculiar orchestration of this song of revolution, in which the trumpets were blown by a doctor, a chemist, and an actor. Skeptics could also question whether low standards of living, corruption of leadership, racialism, and military preparations were exclusively capitalistic indulgences. The overall effect was nevertheless contagious theatre, in which no small part was played by the animated structure of vignettes for the prostrike delegates' moments of conversion, by the inflammatory device of turning the theatre into a strike meeting with actors planted in the audience. The sketchy characterization was not a felt shortcoming in this one-acter, and symbol and fact were so explicitly one that it occurred to neither the author nor his critics to call "Waiting for Lefty" an allegory.
Nor was "Awake and Sing" so patently allegorical that critics could not accept it as a remarkably vivid story of family life, ignoring the explicit conclusion as a dispensable genuflection to the left…. The family was treated as the breeding ground of revolt, stalemate was predicated for the wool-gathering father who lacked force as well as social understanding: the anguish and suicide were assigned to the man of good will, the old Socialist grandfather who had allowed himself to be trapped into compromise. The working-class family with middle-class pretensions was wrecked after the mother's unscrupulous effort to safeguard its respectability. The only thriving individuals were the capitalist Uncle Morty and the racketeer Moe Axelrod.
In "Awake and Sing" Odets already showed the difficulty that was to dog him in all his later playwriting, the discrepancy between the facts he gives us and the interpretation he derives from them. "Awake and Sing" was neither airtight allegory nor completely integrated drama. On neither count were the relations he expressed completely tenable. It was, for instance, much clearer that Hennie's affairs with Moe Axelrod and a second man were attributable to the libido acting up in an intense girl unmarried at twenty-six than to anything in her immediate environment or "the system."… It did not follow either that Ralph's great sorrow, his inability to marry his girl, was more than puppy love, and it made a weak example of frustration by the villain Economics when he was so ready to put her out of mind after his grandfather's death provided him with an inheritance with which he could have located and married her. For Ralph, moreover, to applaud his sister's abandonment of her child and flight with Moe as an awakening does not speak well for his own awakening. As impressionism and as a drama of chaos, stalemate, and fumbling toward self-expression, "Awake and Sing" was the best piece of new writing of its time, without possessing either inevitability or force of argument. It was probably the intent of allegorizing a particular slice of life that made Odets so cavalier with his deductions and valuations. There is a certain arbitrariness in making x equal y, or in saying that if x equals y and y equals z then x equals z. The mathematician can do that freely because all his work is tautology, his system a closed one; because he deals with qualities, not qualities. A writer is not in that fortunate position: his system is entirely open and his human material is qualitative, unfixed and incalculable. It has been fortunate for Odets that he has sometimes written better than he knew. The characters engendered by his considerable creative impulse have often broken the molds prepared for them by his intellect.
In his next two plays, "Paradise Lost" and "Golden Boy," the calculations appear to have been present from the beginning, not the afterthoughts of "Awake and Sing." The first of these was acceptable drama, in fact, only when taken as a poetic parable whose large assortment of catastrophes and blunderings serve an allegorical purpose and represent the social chaos that Odets felt. "Paradise Lost" failed for most people who saw it, since the allegorical scheme used people instead of being used by them, drained their vitality instead of enhancing it. The symbolism lacked an objective coordinate, except by poetic or Marxist license, when it made Leo Gordon's schematically deviled family stand for the doldrums and errors of the American middle class…. [The] son, a glorified Olympic runner who counted on connections to launch his career, is the impersonation of the American ideal of athletic prowess, and he is adrift in the cold world of economic fact: he contracts a weak heart, loses his wife, drifts into crime, and courts death by policemen's bullets. The trustful liberal Leo Gordon loses his business and his home. The desperate partner Katz, who contributed to the catastrophe by stealing money from the business, is the rugged individualist who has no future…. When the Gordon family has to leave its foreclosed home, its situation is Paradise Lost for the bourgeoisie. These and other symbolic situations comprise a social whole, according to Odets and those whose beliefs he shared. That these disasters should all happen to one single family made the jeremiad look like a fabricated play and a fulsome contrivance.
In "Golden Boy," on the contrary, symbolism and fact were sufficiently close, and allegory sufficiently fused with reality, to make it Odets' most successful play. Odets had found in his prizefight saga a fable recognizably rooted in American life, and therefore amenable to allegorical explication. He did not have to employ esoteric detail to vaporize characterization, to warp reality, to strain simple credibility after starting with the hypothesis that a boy who had the hands and soul of a violinist could become a champion boxer. (Hypotheses at the start, as we have found ever since "Oedipus Rex," do not destroy convictions as do far-fetched assumptions in the body of a play.) The drama progressed clearly and relentlessly until the last scene, even if in that Odets used a somewhat less acceptable hypothesis: that his hero and heroine, Joe and Lorna, having found themselves and their love at last, decide to commit suicide. Those who cared to trace social significance in the parable could do so without ambiguity, and those who cared only for the personal story and character drama could find sufficient satisfaction on that level. The rise and fall of Joe Bonaparte in the context of the prizefighting business made a self-contained story, and anyone was welcome to make as much as he wished of the playwright's references to the corruption of values by economic insecurity. In "Golden Boy" Odets was singularly fortunate. Dealing with a piece of Americana for which a common understanding existed, Odets did not have to force too many parallels outside the realistic context of the work. Never again did he light upon another fable that would serve him nearly as well.
His next play, "Rocket to the Moon," with its simple story of a married dentist's inability to win freedom from an unhappy marriage and to enjoy the love of his secretary, seemed to achieve no more than a minor-key variation on men's ineffectual striving for happiness. Odets found himself in the position of dealing with an essentially undramatic character and a tepid situation, which may explain why the play runs downhill after an excellent first act. He tried to make it run uphill by giving self-realization to the girl, who renounces the weak-spirited dentist who could only nibble at love, and rejects the advances of an old man (and an admirably drawn one) who offers her only financial security. But neither the personal drama nor the gospel of liberation could climb with sufficient conviction for anyone not implicated in the author's strategy as director or actor. The girl was simply too unimportant for significant or exciting action and too commonplace a person to represent a theme or ideal…. Written with real sensitivity and vividness, as well as with more restraint and balance than any of the other plays, "Rocket to the Moon" failed to advance a promising career at precisely the point where it should have reaped the best harvest.
Thereafter the author seemed rattled and unsure. Personal problems, we assume, and unsteady weather in the Marxist bailiwick as well as in the nation, were unfavorable to righting the keel of his dramaturgy. "Night Music," with its theme of homelessness in the modern world, was a fugue with variations that went off in too many directions. It proved to be more bewildering than enlightening, although a creative imagination attempted some of its boldest strokes in this work. The allegory was slipshod and the symbolism sometimes miniscule, sometimes esoteric. "Clash by Night," in 1941, emerged as a rather febrile triangle, and again some laudable intentions went by the board. Even more regrettably, good writing went to waste as Odets invited obtuseness with his fable of adultery, and skepticism by the earnestness with which he sought to impose significance on the banal plot. Most recently, "The Big Knife" cut the throat of its argument almost as thoroughly as the life-thread of its Hollywood hero, even though once more Odets reminded us that only two young writers since his emergence, Williams and Miller, can write with such animation.
Odets can find comfort that his talent is intact, and we may still expect much when matter and the significance he intends for it can meet. It may be unreasonable to expect that he will some day take the fact and let the symbol go, for his ambition is of a higher order and compulsive. All the division in his writing, all the breach between intention and execution, is attributable to that ambition. The largeness of his spirit, as well as his artist's need to impose unity upon the disordered raw material of observation, cries out against easy victories in the theatre. Like other men of original talent, he must do things the hard way or not undertake them at all. Like other driven spirits, he can find no sure middle ground between the sublime and the ridiculous, between exalted feeling and mere patter. It is either a major encounter or no encounter. Alignment with a body of values, with a critique of society and dreams for it, has been a creative necessity for Odets. (pp. 27-8, 30)
John Gassner, "The Long Journey of a Talent" (reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of John Gassner), in Theatre Arts, Vol. XXXIII, No. 6, July, 1949, pp. 25-30.
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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 actor: the man's moral weakness, superimposed aggressiveness, and natural talent are blended in a dimensional character which is not at all attractive, but is commanding because it is true. (pp. 196-97)
The play is well balanced: passages of quiet, careful motivation are followed by inevitable and satisfying flareups; nothing is tacked on; everything moves with easy confidence. (p. 197)
Walter Kerr, in a review of "The Country Girl," in Commonweal (copyright © 1950 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LIII, No. 8, December 1, 1950, pp. 196-97.
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"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 a virtue, the strength of Odets' work lies in his main theme and the particular quality of its statement. The question Odets constantly asks is: What helps a man live? Since we are citizens of the twentieth century, we may translate this as: What today injures man's spirit? What enhances or diminishes the creatively human in him? (pp. 29-30)
Odets' art has an immediacy and an intimacy equaled by no other dramatist of our generation. His plays strike home; they touch us where we live. Though they often shout, they are powerful because, in fact, they speak quietly to our hearts. They are moving because beneath their occasional bluster they sigh and weep with our own unadvertised and non-literary anguish. Their tone sometimes has a slight aura of portentousness, but at bottom they are unabashedly homey.
When at first he emphasized economic pressure as the deterrent to man's development, Odets was considered new, bold and "revolutionary," and his name became consonant with a big social noise. But this was partly due to the mood of the thirties and our foolish appetite for novelty. Later, when he began to explore the depressive effect of the wounded ego on man's soul, he no longer seemed so "new," though in fact he had become subtler and more valuable. The truth is that even "the economic interpretation" of man's unhappiness in Odets' first plays was only an indirect statement of one of the ways Americans feel the injury to their egos.
This confusion in understanding Odets results in part from his immaturity of judgment in regard to his own feeling. Corresponding to the conflict between his inadequate plot structures and his swarming emotion, there has always been a discrepancy between what he is and what he thinks he is, a breach between his consciousness and his actual experience. The most visible dramatic symptom of this was the clash between the story line in some of his later plays and what he expected us to gather from them. This produced an increasing emotional and artistic turmoil which reached its most distressing state in "The Big Knife."
To evade this dilemma, Odets has written "The Country Girl," in which he pretends to do nothing but tell a "human-interest" story as effective stage ware. But he is so subjective a writer that he must disclose something of his true feeling. In "The Country Girl" he tells us that the faltering and enfeebled artist (or man) may be restored by the staunch love of a woman if it is combined with the steady assistance of a friend.
To my mind the play is thin in characterization, meager in authentic feeling, shallow in invention. It is by no means dull, because Odets can never be uninteresting. Even his least vital effort smolders unmistakably with the black burn of his not-so-secret hurt—and there are always those flashes of humor and warm understanding that make us realize that we are in the presence of a person, not just a showman. This play, then, is a victory by default. By giving up some of his complexity, Odets has, for the moment, ceased to trouble us, even as he has failed to inspire. The negative discipline Odets has here imposed on himself may prove useful to his future even as it has proved profitable to his present. (p. 30)
Harold Clurman, "The First 15 Years," in The New Republic, Vol. 123, No. 24, December 11, 1950, pp. 29-30.
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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 Mr. Odets' drawing of the important roles of Rachel and Japheth: these characters seem like intrusions from an alien world—their anguished self-regard is too conscious, too articulate, and dwarfed by the massive, obliterating humanity of Noah and Esther. Yet beyond these flaws, how vivifying it is to hear the Jewish idiom transmuted by tact and wit into art; how wonderful, above all, to find in this time of noisy commitments and harassing coercion a serious statement about human life which never says must or should, never imposes, sets up programs, announces, prescribes—only draws from the neglected well of our common pieties the small, permanent manifestations of tenderness and affection, of pleasure and reverence and a faith rich enough to nourish the seeds of the world. (p. 502)
Richard Hayes, in a review of "The Flowering Peach," in Commonweal (copyright © 1955 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXI, No. 19, February 11, 1955, pp. 502-03.
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[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 were presented with authenticity. All of the familiar devices for the stage recognition of Jewish family life are in the play: there is the mixture of practical wisdom and semi-philosophic foolishness, which in this case should be inspiration, in Noah and his wife; there are the loud, pointless arguments; there is the emphasis on getting ahead; there are the recurrent references to food. The desultory chatter that weaves in and out of these identification marks is written and read in the inverted singsong that characterizes and caricatures English-Yiddish speech, but Odets vulgarizes the whole process…. As often as not Odets sounds as though he is writing an extended dialect joke, a friendly one of course. There are occasional funny lines, but for the most part the cheapness goes beyond the rhythm of the speech and takes in the content as well. (pp. 74-5)
It may be that Awake and Sing was no more authentic, that it was, in fact, consciously arty in its transmutation of a family in the Bronx to a family on the stage. Yet the vigor of the language and the relevance of the setting to the theme gave the play a reality that The Flowering Peach cannot hope to duplicate….
[Even if Odets had] managed to bring to The Flowering Peach the vitality of Awake and Sing, it is doubtful that the Noah legend could have become a modern Jewish folk play. (p. 75)
[The] story of Noah, even though it is a Jewish legend, seems to have little relation to the only two possible forms for a modern Jewish folk play. Neither Odets nor Noah could be comfortable in the European Yiddish folk tradition represented by Sholom Aleichem and Y. L. Peretz…. This kind of writing is inevitably marked by the situation of the European Jews out of whom it grew; it is tinged with the deprecating laughter of survival that is sometimes called "ghetto humor." Odets, as an American Jew, could not write this kind of literature and Noah, as a pre-Diaspora patriarch, could not fit comfortably into it. Any new tradition would have to lie where Odets, in his earlier plays, vaguely sees it, in the communities with a Jewish population dense enough to allow its members to retain a group personality even while they absorb everything that is more widely American. (pp. 75-6)
One might, at least, have supposed that Odets undertook his attempt at folk art because he had something important that he hoped to say in this new guise. The Flowering Peach does not offer even that consolation. Just as the play cuts Noah down in stature, it reduces God to a series of lighting effects…. This is perhaps understandable because Odets is ordinarily more interested in men than he is in God. Yet the message of the play, if it has a message, is one that we have had from Odets before. When, shortly before the final curtain, Noah cocks his head and looks inquiringly toward the Lord, he comes up only with the news that the Flood was God's last bit of interference, that from now on the earth is in the hands of men. What Noah is actually telling us to do is to awake and sing—individually, not collectively this time—but, still to awake and sing. There is also the idea that Japheth spells out heavily, before he and his wife go off to repopulate the world, the new truth that he and Noah and all the brothers have learned on the voyage, that no man is always right, and that humility is more useful as a social weapon than self-righteousness. Even this idea is not totally new to Odets, for Dr. Stark has a glimmer of this truth at the end of Rocket to the Moon. The trouble with Odets's ideas, however, does not lie in the fact that he has said them before; they seem pointless here largely because they have no dramatic validity. Japheth says that everyone has changed on the voyage, but there has been no evidence of the changes on stage, except that Noah does let two of the sons swap wives, which he certainly would not have done at the beginning of the play. Noah's last conference with God is even more plainly outside the action of the play.
There were a few imaginative touches, one of which was the mouselike animal that Odets invented, which sang to indicate the presence of God. Another was his depiction of Ham…. In the play Ham's own predilection for liquor at any price and his lack of interest in anything beyond the immediate possibilities give an interesting twist to the sentence from Genesis; Shem makes the connection quite clear by shouting in a moment of anger that Ham will always work for him, for he will always have something that Ham needs. But because Odets has nothing very new or very exciting to say and because he chooses to cheapen the vessel that carries his old wine, The Flowering Peach is an extremely disappointing play. Because, this time at least, he has written badly and at some length, The Flowering Peach is a very tiresome play. (p. 76)
Gerald Weales, "'Bronx Ararat': Mr. Odets's Folk Drama" (copyright 1983 by Gerald Weales; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author; all rights reserved), in Commentary, Vol. 20, No. 1, July, 1955, pp. 74-6.
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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 in blood and tears in order to feel that he is writing a play…. (p. 10)
Thus the simple Bronx apartment dwellers of Awake and Sing appear in Golden Boy dressed up as gangsters, prizefighters, and tarts. Mr. Odets has taken a collection of types out of any underworld film, and on them he has grafted the half-ludicrous, half-touching cultural aspirations, the malapropisms, the pride in material possessions, the inarticulate longing for a sunny life, that make up the Odets formula of frustration. The Chekhovian baggage of middle-class futility with which Mr. Odets equips these low-life stereotypes is, of course, fearfully inappropriate to the milieu of lust, murder, crime and perversion in which they must travel. The voices are the dreamy, ineffectual voices of the little people of the world; the deeds are the deeds of the headliners. This contradiction between form and substance gives the play the aspect of a fancy-dress ball; there is the same grotesquerie, the same stridency, the same laughable yet indecent incongruity.
Golden Boy is a much more popular play than A wake and Sing. The melodramatic nature of the characters and events would alone guarantee its success at the box office. But Mr. Odets has taken out double insurance against the failure of his work by stuffing it with familiar Jewish low-comedy jokes and ancient wheezes out of vaudeville. Yet, though the stale luridity of characters and plot and the stale gag-comedy of the lines have been sufficient to keep audiences in the alternate shivers and stitches to which the underworld films have habituated them, it is not these qualities which have commanded the deferential attention of both critics and playgoers. Serious people have sat unflinchingly through this play, because they knew or thought they knew that Mr. Odets had Something To Say, that somewhere in this theatrical grab bag there lay a treasure.
Mr. Odets has a theme which in the last century would have been stated as Money Does Not Bring Happiness. But Mr. Odets conceives of it in more modern terms. He would summarize it, I suppose, by saying that the struggle for financial success which the capitalist system tends to impose on the individual is detrimental to personal happiness and to culture. Stated thus abstractly, the theme does Mr. Odets credit. Concretely visualized as a choice between playing the violin and fighting in the prize ring, it already becomes a little ridiculous. But, granting Mr. Odets the virtue of this rather simple-minded antithesis, one finds that here it has been distorted out of all truth and vulgarized out of all nobility. In the selection of a superman for a hero lies the essential hollowness of the play, for the choice between culture and money cannot be valid for a character who possesses two such remarkable gifts. If Mr. Odets' hero were a potentially great violinist, he could have become rich or at least prosperous via the concert stage, and he need never have considered prize-fighting as an alternative career. If he were not, then his abandonment of the violin was surely no tragedy. But Mr. Odets' juggling of his theme does not stop with this original false alternative; it eats deeper into the plot. What is the cause of Bonaparte's downfall and death? His greed for money, his selection of prizefighting as a life work? Not at all. A purely accidental, non-social circumstance: the fact that the girl he loved felt pity, loyalty, and tenderness for another man. One assumes that, were it not for the girl, Mr. Odets' hero would have been as successful and as long-lived as Jack Dempsey, Mickey Walker, Gene Tunney, or any other well-known fighter…. Mr. Odets' social theme, like his formula for the manufacture of characters, is a carry-over from his first and most sincere play. It is clearly inoperative in the world of macabre melodrama into which he has imported it. That he was forced to use a fortuitous, melodramatic device to dissolve the elements of his play and bring it to its falsely tragic curtain is itself an exposé of the play's "serious" pretentions. (pp. 10-12)
Mary McCarthy, "Odets Deplored" (copyright 1938 by Mary McCarthy; reprinted by permission of the author; originally published in a slightly different form in Partisan Review, Vol. IV, No. 2, January. 1938), in her Sights and Spectacles; 1937–1956, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956, pp. 9-12.
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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 to write and direct it. The only intrinsic lure for him could have been the contrast between the mothers of the two protagonists—the heroine's hard-working mother … and the hero's silkily domineering rich mother…. If so, it was a small and trite return on a large investment.
The theme of all this is meant to be regret and stubborn hope. American films certainly can use what Odets, at his best, can give them. The theater misses desperately the slash and thrust of his usually faulty but always exciting plays. "I'm 53 years old," he says, "a professional writer, and there's never been any loss or shrinkage of integrity." But there has, alas, been some shrinkage in intensity and relevance. What we badly need at this time is a 53-year-old edition of the Clifford Odets that was.
Stanley Kauffmann, "Is Artistic Integrity Enough?" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents Inc.; copyright © 1960 by The New Republic), in The New Republic, Vol. 142, No. 6, February 8, 1960, p. 22.
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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)
[Few of Odets' films are] of more than routine interest, except The Story on Page One, which he originated and directed. It is unquestionably the purest finished product of any task Odets attempted in Hollywood. The entire work, from its conception as a story idea to its actual filming, may safely be credited to him.
It is unfortunate, then, that the net result of his tremendous effort as author-director is not more satisfying. The Story on Page One is a rather ordinary courtroom melodrama in which, true to tradition, the defense is clever, vigorous, occasionally taken by surprise by a prosecution maneuver, but never in doubt as to ultimate victory. The prosecution team is clearly the villain of the piece. Viewers conditioned by several years of watching the unconquerable Perry Mason on television would easily forecast the jury's verdict. Odets' script does not save the unraveling until the end; the viewers are let in on the entire story almost from the beginning. The adulterous love affair that leads to the husband's death is thin plot material. The characters involved in it are hardly engrossing: Mike Morris, a crass, unfeeling detective; Jo, his attractive wife; Larry, a vacuous, mother-dominated accountant. The theme, at least from the viewpoint of the central character, would seem to be that adultery is acceptable, given the proper set of circumstances.
It is safe to assume that Odets, recognizing all the weaknesses of his script, wished his emphasis on another facet of the film, a typical social protest—equal justice. Early in the screen play, the young defense attorney, approached by Mrs. Brown to defend her daughter in court, makes a ringing speech about the inequality of justice. He explains to the mother that the state is willing to commit unlimited resources to gain a conviction, while poor Mrs. Brown can't afford even a single trained investigator. Oddly, though, this is the last the audience hears of this theme. With echoes of Zola rushing to the aid of Dreyfus, Vic Santini takes the case; from that point on, the state, with all its trained experts and unlimited bankroll, does not stand a chance for conviction.
In spite of such disheartening drawbacks, there are moments to admire in The Story on Page One. Odets wisely places nearly three quarters of the action in the courtroom. Vic Santini for the defense and Phil Stanley for the state are cunning, ruthless, worthy opponents. Though the necessity of making Stanley the heavy tends to cause Odets to exaggerate his disagreeable side, he is nonetheless, a brilliantly drawn courtroom tiger. Aided by some well-drawn minor characters, its vigorous dialogue, and its frequent moments of veracity, The Story on Page One, though a long way from the best of Odets' plays, is a workmanlike script. (pp. 33-4)
Odets tended to separate his playwriting from his film and television writing, though he frequently asserted that he was not ashamed of anything he wrote. To the end of his life he was filled with grandiose plans; something big was always in the immediate offing. Much as he wished to outgrow his reputation as the playwright of the Thirties, Odets was never granted more. Hollywood was not the answer. (p. 34)
Michael J. Mendelsohn, "Odets: The Artist in Wonderland" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Drama Critique, Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1966, pp. 31-4.
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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 conclusion. Chekhov's plays do not have this single action structure…. It was Odets' achievement to integrate a basic Ibsenite action with certain structural techniques of a Chekhov play, and thus assure his work a rising line of tension while simultaneously enriching the piece by counterpoint and the indirect expression of emotion and feeling. In short, Odets avoided, on the one hand, reducing the Ibsenite structure to a bald, straight-forward thesis play, and, on the other, fashioning a static genre study in the alleged Russian manner. It is necessary to add, however, that Odets' recourse to Chekhovian devices is much more apparent in Awake and Sing! than in his other plays. Finally, Odets has sometimes been dubbed a "scenewright" by critics; but as I hope to show throughout this study the structure of an Odets play is generally much more unified than some critics have allowed. In short, Odets is very much a "playwright." (pp. 33-4)
[Awake and Sing!] is far more unified than critics generally allow. John Howard Lawson was one of the first critics to attack the structure of Odets's play. According to the author of Theory and Technique of Playwriting the turning point in the piece looks back to the scene in Act One in which Jacob entertains Moe by playing Caruso records …; but, says Lawson, Jacob's death "has no organic connection with the play as a whole." Lawson misses the point of attack—his analytical approach fails to include such a point—and hence he does not account for the total action of the play. Furthermore, contrary to what Lawson maintains, Ralph does show signs of development as a result of Jacob's death: he is able to choose social idealism in favor of Blanche—something he was not able, or willing, to do before—and, moreover, this change is dramatized when Ralph breaks with his girl, when he reads Jacob's books, and when he asserts himself with Bessie. True, Ralph will remain at home, but his situation will not be the same as it had been with the family. Finally, Ralph's motivation is clear because the basic dramatic conflict was focused at the point of attack and logically developed throughout the action of the play.
Nevertheless, there is a structural defect in Awake and Sing!. Lawson says that Jacob's death does not make Hennie's flight with Moe "inevitable." One should add that the grandfather's death does not make Ralph's choice of revolution "inevitable" either. Nor should Jacob's death make either choice "inevitable": for that way lies contrivance and determinism. What the turning point in the action makes "inevitable" is a decision of some kind: either girl or revolution—either self or society. Jacob's death, however, does not influence Hennie's escape in the same terms, for Hennie has not been involved in the main structure of the play. Yet one might be willing to accept Hennie's action if Odets presented it as a credible response to the situation enacted in the play…. Ralph, who is supposed to be socially "mature" now, announces the dawn of a new world—but how will Hennie's irresponsible behavior usher in that new world? What of her child? Is leaving the child in the keeping of Bessie a wise thing to do? What of Sam? Won't he become another Schlosser? People may act like Hennie in our society, but why the idealistic Marxist Ralph should applaud such action remains a mystery. One might argue that Ralph's new love of action—"DO!"—has gotten the better of him; this would be credible. It would not square entirely, however, with Odets' evident approval of Ralph standing "full and strong in the doorway" as the curtain falls…. One is forced to conclude that Odets remained somewhat confused about the significance of his play's ending. There is also a suggestion of an agitprop conversion in the last act which runs counter to the more realistic elements in the piece. Furthermore, Awake and Sing!, like some other plays and novels of the period, poses an "either-or" dramatic question. But why must it be either Blanche or the revolution? Wasn't Marx married? Wasn't Lenin? Apparently Odets anticipated such objections, and consequently endeavored to downgrade Blanche by emphasizing her cowardice and lack of sympathy. It is a weakness in the play, however, that the audience is never permitted to see Blanche. After all, she is the counterweight to Jacob's dream and as such she should be palpably on view to sharpen the dramatic conflict. Had she been on stage, though, the logical weakness in Odets's "either-or" construction would have been more clearly manifest. This is not to say, of course, that all "either-or" situations in drama are to be censured. After all, life itself occasionally poses "either-or" questions. It is to say, though, that in Awake and Sing! the dramatic question seems unrealistic.
The crude Marxist thrust of Awake and Sing! makes embarrassing reading today…. It is only the warmth of Odets' compassion and characterization that saves his first important play from the oblivion deserved by other less genuinely conceived works. "Waiting for Lefty had a functional value," Odets was quoted as saying in the New York World-Telegram on March 19, 1935. "This is sometimes called the propaganda angle in writing. But the important thing about Awake and Sing! is the fact that the play stems first from real character, life and social background of these people."… The years have not diminished the power and realism of A wake and Sing!, qualities which endure in spite of Odets' "ideology." Not even the romanticism that at the end degenerates into a mindless irresponsibility as the lovers escape causes any great harm to the piece. It would be a mistake, then, to put Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! in the same category. As Charles Kaplan recently pointed out, Awake and Sing! "is less a play dealing with the class struggle than one embodying the vague dissatisfactions of the lower middle class at the thwarting of normal human desires." Indeed, few works in American drama reveal so well what happens to a family when natural relations are perverted.
Bessie Berger has usurped control in the household …, and as a result all the male characters are warped, impotent and crippled in some way. (pp. 40-3)
The characters in Awake and Sing! are extremely frustrated in their social relations, their normal development is blocked, and as a consequence they seem to regress to primitive, or infantile, modes of desire and expression. It is striking how often Odets' characters reveal what the psychoanalyst calls an "oral orientation." "Every other day to sit around," says Ralph, "with the blues and mud in your mouth."… "In a minute I'll get up from the table," Bessie declares. "I can't take a bite in my mouth no more."… Clearly, then, Marxist and Freudian motivation, which for some critics are like oil and water, appear to mix here, making Awake and Sing! one of the most complex plays in the American drama.
As a result of their pervasive frustration on both the personal and the social level, the characters in Awake and Sing! evince strong aggressive drives and a preoccupation with death. It is still another mark of Odets' skill as a playwright that he is able to fuse the death imagery of his language with the resurrection motif in the play. Analysis of dialogue reveals an astonishing number of references to violent action and death. (pp. 45-6)
[The] resurrection motif, the references to Ralph as "boy-chick," Hennie's name, and lines like the following: "Mom can mind the kid. She'll go on forever, Mom," says Moe. "We'll send money back, and Easter eggs" …—all are part of a thematic pattern of imagery. A study of the language in Awake and Sing!, then, reveals a high degree of verbal unity in the play.
Note, furthermore, how subtly Odets integrates structure, imagery and theme in his characterization of Moe. The following exchange takes place in Act One:
MOE. Didn't I go fight in France for democracy? Didn't I get my goddam leg shot off in that war the day before the armistice? Uncle Sam give me the Order of the Purple Heart, didn't he? What'd you mean, a no-good?
JACOB. Excuse me.
MOE. If you got an orange I'll eat an orange.
JACOB. No orange. An apple.
MOE. No oranges, huh?—what a dump!
Here Odets' "Chekhovian" technique is brilliantly rendered. As Stark Young once said: "[Odets'] theater gift most appears … in the dialogue's avoidance of the explicit…. 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." The orality that I discussed earlier is also evident in [this same scene in Act One], which indicates that Moe's oblique expression of emotion is part of a thematic pattern. Furthermore, the structure of the scene anticipates the end of Act One and the turning point of the play.
Later in the scene just discussed, Odets orchestrates his themes:
MOE. Ever see oranges grow? I know a certain place—One summer I laid under a tree and let them fall right in my mouth.
JACOB. (off, the music is playing; the card game begins). 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 on earth! Oh blue sky, oh fragrant air—"
MOE. Ask him does he see any oranges?
The counterpoint here is more than merely humorous, for Odets juxtaposes Jacob's Marxist "Utopia" with Moe's version of "Paradise."… Whereas Jacob opts for the Marxist gospel, Moe seeks a romantic apotheosis. When Hennie remarks: "Oh God, I don't know where I stand," Moe tells her: "Don't look up there. Paradise, you're on a big boat headed south…. The whole world's green grass and when you cry it's because you're happy."… It is interesting to observe that Moe identifies Hennie with "oranges": "Gone big time, Paradise? Christ, it's suicide! Sure, kids you'll have, gold teeth, get fat, big in the tangerines."… Hence, "oranges" equal "tangerines" equal "breasts." If one recalls that Moe has said: "One summer I laid under a tree and let [oranges] fall in my mouth" …, one can see that this imagery in Awake and Sing! runs counter to the basic structure of social awakening, for Moe and Hennie, like Myron and Morty, are attempting to solve adult problems in an oral, or infantile, manner. This fact would seem to undercut Odets' confidence in Hennie's attempt to make a new life and appears to be further proof of a certain amount of confusion in the playwright's conception of his material. A search for womb-like security and oral passivity seems plain when Moe informs Hennie: "Come away. A certain place where it's moonlight and roses. We'll lay down, count stars. Hear the big ocean making noise. You lay under the trees. Champagne flows like—"…. Which contrasts sharply with the image of Ralph at the end of the play: "Spit on your hands and get to work," he says, and Moe remarks of Ralph: "The kid's a fighter!"…. The tensions within Awake and Sing! no doubt spring from polarities in Odets himself.
Finally, I should like to point out how pervasive verbal echoes are in the play and how they knit together its various motifs. Perhaps some of the imagery already discussed was not consciously contrived by Odets, but it seems likely that the greater part of his language, with its various levels of significance, was deliberately wrought. Take, for example, the conclusion of the opening act:
MYRON. I remember that song … beautiful. Nora Bayes sang it at the old Proctor's Twenty-third Street—"When It's Apple Blossom Time in Normandy."
MOE. [Hennie] wantsa see me crawl—my head on a plate she wants! A snowball in hell's got a better chance. (Out of sheer fury he spins the quarter in his fingers.)
MYRON (as his eyes slowly fill with tears). Beautiful …
MOE. Match you for a quarter. Match you for any goddam thing you got. (Spins the coin viciously.) What the hell kind of house is this it ain't got an orange!!
Myron's reference to the song, "When It's Apple Blossom Time in Normandy" looks back to Hennie's line, "Wake me up when it's apple blossom time in Normandy" …, and, what is more important, both lines underscore the resurrection motif. Myron's dialogue also anticipates the end of the play when Hennie escapes with Moe. (p. 51)
Odets maintains his control [of language] when, at the end of [Act two], he reveals, through a sensitive extension of Chekhovian technique, the deeper feelings of Moe after the death of Jacob is announced:
BESSIE. [Jacob] slipped….
MOE (deeply moved). Slipped?
BESSIE. I can't see the numbers. Make [the call to Morty], Moe, make it….
MOE. Make it yourself. (He looks at her and slowly goes back to his game of cards with shaking hands.)
BESSIE. Riverside 7- … (Unable to talk she dials slowly. The dial whizzes on.)
MOE. Don't … make me laugh…. (He turns over cards.)…
Moe and Morty have both learned how to exist in the jungle, but Moe "fights against his own sensitivity" while Morty has no sensitivity against which to fight…. Moe's tag: "Don't make me laugh," contrasts with the hollow, wooden, inhuman tag of Morty: "Ha, ha, ha!"—which suggests that Moe means: "Don't make me laugh like Morty!" Awake and Sing! is full of such subtle touches of characterization and language.
With all its faults, then, Awake and Sing! is a powerful drama and one of the most impressive achievements in the modern theater. An absorbing enactment, told with anger and pity, with humor and love—and above all with verbal brilliance—of people caught in a moment of time, it nevertheless transcends the thirties to reveal the human being in the agony and longing that represents the continuing spiritual plight of man in the twentieth century. (p. 52)
Edward Murray, in his Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After (copyright © 1968 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.). Ungar, 1968, 229 p.
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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 success, and The Flowering Peach (1954), a drama that never focused precisely on what it had to say.
The human dislocation caused by the Depression supplied Odets with his strength as an artist. He rallied a nation to action and hope…. The result is theatre in its oldest form, an Epic theatre technique involving the audience and propelling them into open participation. Waiting for Lefty has a hard-hitting, bare, cumulative power, very much like a tribal war dance.
The members of a thug-dominated, taxi-drivers' union belong, for the most part, to the middle class that has fallen socially—the American dream in reverse. No longer do they have hopes of rising beyond their station. To Odets, as to Bernard Shaw, the greatest crime is poverty. Not psychopathic disturbances, but failure to support the family, turns men to desperate actions or makes them submit to failure. In Awake and Sing and Paradise Lost, a disintegrating family is held together momentarily by a courageous mother. (p. 110)
The language Odets used was fresh and invigorating—twisted, torn images of rare strength, a poetry of the people often excessive and at times brilliant. (pp. 110-11)
Though Waiting for Lefty is expressionist in form, its content is realistic, as is all of Odets' work. The small people crushed by economic forces and pictured magnificently as they give way or rise in dignity. Too often, the final affirmation is tagged on mechanically. In Waiting for Lefty, the rank-and-file voice of Agate shouts out like a Communist leader on the barricades. (p. 111)
[The] final exhilarating but inconsistent affirmations [as in Awake and Sing] were requirements of the play of the Depression, for actuality was full of heartbreak and terror. Pain and suffering make up the substance of the Depression play. Lives are destroyed, but there is hope for a better world, if people fight for it, a world in which people will be able to "awake and sing." In an interview published in Theatre Arts Magazine, Odets said of Leo's speech that he did believe in the possibilities expressed in this theme, and that it was a logical outgrowth of the text. "I believe that older and more crushed human beings can pass on some lifting values to the younger generation."
In Odets' plays, the Depression, as a special moment in American life, is evident in every scene. Today, the working class has risen to middle-class comfort, and Odets' former Bronx characters now live more comfortably in the suburbs. Audiences no longer have the same identification, save for the underprivileged and the oppressed minorities. Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun is an Odets drama with Negro replacements. In his own day, Odets was a man with a mission, and his plays burned with furious intensity. He gave vitality to the theatre of an era and established a memorable place in our history, but today his early plays are rarely revived. A production of Waiting for Lefty at Williams College was greeted with loud applause by the sons of the wealthy, all of whom shouted at the end, with playful enthusiasm, "Strike!" The work has become a museum piece, a sociological document.
When Odets returned to Broadway with The Big Knife, his first play after many years of financial success in Hollywood, he retreated to the personal drama. Charley Castle seeks to escape from Hollywood's erosion of his artistic integrity, but he really wants the physical comfort that Hollywood offers. The drama never reached beyond Odets' own dilemma. Everyone attacks Hollywood, particularly those who have been its best-paid hirelings. No one yet has made the attack significant. Satire would be a more effective weapon.
Odets seemed troubled by success and his desertion of a cause. Golden Boy is his own story, raising the question of whether art and commerce mix. Odets wanted big money, but his voluntary submission to its code became the big knife. No one else was particularly concerned. (pp. 111-12)
Odets' technique kept him afloat in the less demanding medium of the motion picture, but he longed to return to the theatre with another try at socially significant drama. Before his death in 1963, however, he was back in Hollywood preparing a television series for Richard Boone's acting company, which encouraged serious work. Only two scripts were completed.
Odets betrayed his own talent. He was a sensitive man who believed in a better world to come, but he was unable to sustain that belief under difficult and changing social conditions. He was a lonely writer, but too weak to become a great one. In the thirties, however, he rose splendidly as the playwright most able to dramatize an injured nation in need of hope and unity. (p. 113)
Allan Lewis, "The Survivors of the Depression—Hellman, Odets, Shaw," in his American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre (copyright © 1970 by Allan Lewis; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), revised edition, Crown, 1970, pp. 99-115.∗
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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 out to be a trap and a promised land that fails to keep its promises. That comic figure, the radical playwright in the fashionable Hollywood restaurant, is an oblique image for the artist who never found consolation in his art. The idealist in Odets could point Ralph toward the future, but the observer in him, who could see the self-pity and the weakness in the character, also knew that the making of Awake and Sing! did not bring peace. Odets did what was "ina [his] nature to do" and it was not enough. He ran, in disappointment, to Hollywood and ran back, in guilt, to the stage. "A job is a home to a homeless man," says Bernie in The Country Girl, but he is looking around for a real home or its equivalent in Georgie. Odets was still coping with the homelessness of art at the end of his life…. In an odd piece he wrote for Show, half fiction, half sociology, the profile of a mythical movie star, Odets quoted his friend Jean Renoir. The lines are aimed at the actor, but since he is Odets's invention, it is safe to assume that they were at some time spoken to the inventor himself: "Maybe, my friend, when you were given so many other gifts, you must grow used to the fact that happiness is not among them."
The artistic consequences of Odets's ideational approach to man are less conjectural than the personal ones. The plays are their own testimony. "I believe in the vast potentialities of mankind …" Odets wrote to John Mason Brown back in 1935. "I want to find out how mankind can be helped out of the animal kingdom into the clear sweet air." The rhetoric may be a little heady (Odets was only twenty-nine), but the line contains a statement of artistic intentions that can be tested in all of Odets's plays. The "how" is finally less important than that there be a way into the "clear sweet air." From the certainty of Waiting for Lefty to the uncertainty of The Flowering Peach, Odets has organized his plays to make a specific point about human possibility; he has manipulated his characters to let one or more of them reach the moment of change, of recognition that will allow the play to look into a better future. A propagandist, first and last, he has always held out hope of the happy land. It is this quality that makes Odets such a likable playwright, since a happy ending (even if it is a tragic one) is hard to resist. The same quality limits him as a playwright, threatens to reduce him to the simplicity of his ideas, his themes. Yet the observer in Odets never let the preacher run free, the pessimist hobbled the optimist, the realist partnered the idealist…. [In Odets's plays] the characters, the dramatic situations, the lines slip their traces and escape their functions within the ideational drama. From Bessie Berger to Noah, the characters refuse to stay nailed down. Villains start charming us, heroes turn into milksops, minor characters stroll across stage and walk off with the play. I sort out the symbols in Golden Boy only to discover that my mind's eye is on Roxy in I, 3, where, having made a mess of things as usual by shooting off his mouth, he says, "What's the matter? What happened?" and shrugging, "I think I'll run across the street and pick up an eight-cylinder lunch." I satisfy myself about the use of the Washington-Lincoln motif in Night Music, but the concept is upstaged by the hot-fur salesman in I, 2: "Take it for ten plus ten—that's what I'll do—two ten spots an' you can't go wrong." The contrast between the simplicity of concept and the complexity of creation which in the man himself must have caused pain and unrest, in the plays brought richness. Odets's plays have a way of being less than what the perfectionist in us wants them to be, but they are a great deal more than they seem to the jaundiced eye. (pp. 187-89)
Gerald Weales, in his Clifford Odets: Playwright (© 1971; reprinted by permission of the author), Bobbs-Merrill—Pegasus, 1971, 205 p.
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