Clifford Odets 1906–1963
American playwright, scriptwriter, and film director.
The following entry provides an overview of Odets's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2 and 28.
Odets was among the most prominent American playwrights of the 1930s. His early plays made him an overnight success for their realistic portrayal of Depression-era Americans searching for a place in modern society. Yet Odets never lived up to early critical acclaim that compared him favorably with Anton Chekhov and Eugene O'Neill, and he eventually settled into a financially successful, if lackluster, Hollywood scriptwriting career. His best plays retain historical significance for their portrayal of American—particularly Jewish-American—life after the Great Depression.
Odets was born in Philadelphia and grew up in a Jewish section of the Bronx in New York. His middle-class family had a prosperous business in the 1920s and was financially secure during the Depression. Odets quit high school and pursued poetry writing for a time, provoking his father's anger and disappointment, but soon decided to become a stage actor, to which his parents gave their qualified approval. He joined an amateur company and from 1925 to 1927 performed in radio plays, vaudeville acts, and summer stock productions. In 1930 he joined the Group Theatre, founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg and intended to be both a training ground for actors and an idealistic collective that would attempt to change society through the onstage presentation of alternative values. Odets gained little recognition in the organization as an actor, but with the production of his first play, Waiting for Lefty (1935), a leftist work centered around a taxi drivers' union preparing to take a strike vote, he became an immediate sensation. Awake and Sing! (1935) also garnered wide popular acclaim; in retrospect, it is seen as perhaps Odets's most important work. After the failure of Paradise Lost (1935), which was attacked by many critics for its stock characters and an optimistic closing speech that seemed to have little justification in the body of the play, Odets accepted an offer from Paramount Studios to work as a scriptwriter. Refuting charges that he was "selling out," he contended that his earnings could help finance the Group Theatre. He returned to the Group Theatre for the production of his next play, Golden Boy (1937), which became the great-est commercial success of his career. The story of a young man trying to decide between careers as a violinist and a boxer, Golden Boy reflects Odets's love of music and anticipates his own idealistic turmoil as well. Following the failure of Odets's Clash by Night (1941), the Group Theatre disbanded, and Odets returned to Hollywood. Although he continued to work in theater and enjoyed another success with The Country Girl in 1950, his most acclaimed later works were the scripts for such films as None but the Lonely Heart and Humoresque. Odets alternately defended and spoke disparagingly of his film work, but he remained in Hollywood until his death.
Odets's career as a playwright is often divided by critics into three phases. The first and most important of these encompasses his efforts as a proletarian dramatist. Odets joined the Communist Party in 1934, and Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost were all written during his brief association with that group. These plays confirm leftist principles while declaring archaic the values of middle-class America. 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 that has become disillusioned by an oppressive economic system. In Paradise Lost a middle-class businessman and his family are destroyed by a series of disasters. Each character in this play represents a particular middle-class value, and the catastrophes that befall them symbolize the fall of these values during the 1930s. These plays also reflect the communal influence of the Group Theatre on Odets's writing style as well as the Jewish street idiom with which he was familiar. 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. The final phase of Odets's career comprises semi-autobiographical dramas with psychological overtones. Social commentary is nearly nonexistent in these late works. In The Big Knife (1949) a movie actor is offered a multimillion-dollar contract but wants to escape the corruption of the film industry and return to the New York stage. The Country Girl is about an alcoholic actor who attempts a comeback on Broadway with the help of his wife, upon whom he is totally dependent. Odets's last play, The Flowering Peach (1954), is an adaptation of the biblical story of Noah. It is unusual in Odets's work for combining elements of comedy, philosophy, and theology, and came in the wake of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952.
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. Later critics, however, labeled Odets's early works as propaganda, with stereotypical characters and obvious messages. Recently critics have reappraised his plays, and his work is now appreciated for its dialogue—especially for its realistic capture of Jewish-American idioms—and for the author's belief in the nobility of humanity. The protagonists of Odets's plays are noted for relentlessly pursuing their dreams despite the often apparent futility of the quests. Once criticized for a lack of character development in his plays, Odets has won new praise for delivering emotional impact to his audiences while skillfully communicating the economic and spiritual insecurity of the American experience.