Clifford Odets Odets, Clifford (Vol. 98) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Waiting for Lefty (drama) 1935
Awake and Sing! (drama) 1935
Till the Day I Die (drama) 1935
Paradise Lost (drama) 1935
The General Died at Dawn [adaptor; from the novel by Charles G. Booth] (screenplay) 1935
Golden Boy (drama) 1937
Rocket to the Moon (drama) 1938
Night Music (drama) 1940
Clash by Night (drama) 1941
The Russian People [adaptor; from the play by Konstantin Simonov] (drama) 1942
None but the Lonely Heart [adaptor; from the novel by Richard Llewellyn; director] (screenplay) 1944
Deadline at Dawn [adaptor; from the novel by William Irish] (screenplay) 1946
Humoresque [adaptor, with Zachary Gold; from the short story by Fannie Hurst] (screenplay) 1946
The Big Knife (drama) 1949
The Country Girl (drama) 1950
The Flowering Peach (drama) 1954
Sweet Smell of Success [adaptor, with Ernest Lehman; from the novella Tell Me About It Tomorrow by Lehman] (screenplay) 1957
The Story on Page One [director and screenwriter] (screenplay) 1960
Wild in the Country [adaptor; from the novel The Lost Country by I. R. Salamanca] (screenplay) 1961

∗These works were collectively published as Six Plays of Clifford Odets (1939).

Robert Warshow (essay date May 1946)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poet of the Jewish Middle Class: Clifford Odets Voices Its Conflicts and Frustrations" in Commentary, Vol. 1, No. 7, May, 1946, pp. 17-22.

[Warshow was a Jewish-American editor, essayist, and film critic. In the following essay, he discusses Odets's Awake and Sing! and its realistic portrayal of the common Jewish-American experience of its time.]

Before migrating to America, all the ethnic groups of Yankee City possessed a family pattern of the patriarchal type in which the wife was subordinated to the husband and the children to the father. America has disrupted this pattern, increasing the wife's independence and making the children...

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Michael J. Mendelsohn (interview date 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odets at Center Stage," [Parts One and Two] in Theatre Arts, Vol. XLVII, Nos. 5 and 6, May and June, 1963, pp. 16-19, 74-76; pp. 28-30, 78-80.

[Mendelsohn is an American educator, author, and critic. In the following interview conducted shortly before Odets's death, Odets comments on a wide range of topics, including theater, his influences, and his career in Hollywood.]

[Mendelsohn:] I have a number of general questions and some specific ones; do you have any preference as to where we begin?

[Odets:] No, any way you choose to go is all right with me.

Well, let's begin with the idea that the playwright belongs to...

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Michael J. Mendelsohn (essay date Fall 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clifford Odets and the American Family," in Drama Survey, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall, 1963, pp. 238-43.

[In the following essay, Mendelsohn traces a chronological progression in Odets's plays—from an early emphasis on anti-family social rebellion to a later integration and acceptance of the family into his plays' social landscapes. An editorial note states that this essay was in press when Odets died.]

The drama of the Left in the Thirties was notorious for its redundancy in themes. Certain ones, such as championship of the laboring man, attacks on the evils or decadence of American society, pacifism, cropped up with great regularity until they began to sound to...

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Catharine Hughes (essay date 20 September 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odets: The Price of Success," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 21, September 20, 1963, pp. 558-60.

[Hughes was an American playwright, editor, and critic. On the occasion of Odets's death, Hughes examines his reputation as a promising playwright who sold out to Hollywood.]

"What did I want? To be a great man? Get my picture on a postage stamp?"

Clifford Odets, Paradise Lost

When Clifford Odets died on August 15 [1963], there were the usual paeans, the tributes in obituary and gossip columns, on stages and in drama sections. It was yet another testimony to the...

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Clifford Odets (essay date September 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "How a Playwright Triumphs," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 233, No. 1396, September, 1966, pp. 64-70, 73-74.

[In the following essay, drawn from a September 1961 interview, Odets recounts his genesis and progression as a playwright, with particular focus on his early days with the Group Theatre under Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman.]

The following monologue—by one of the best American playwrights of the century—was originally a dialogue. It is drawn from an interview in Hollywood with Clifford Odets by Arthur Wagner of the Department of Theatre at Tulane University. The interview took place over a two-day period in September 1961, two years...

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Leslie Weiner (review date Winter 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thinking about Odets," in The Columbia Forum, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 35-39.

[Weiner is a playwright and a former student and acquaintance of Odets. In the following essay, he uses his familiarity with Odets and his works to offer insight into Odets's controversial career and life.]

In the spring of 1960 I completed a draft of a play whose quality puzzled me. Not knowing quite what to do with it, I wrote a letter to Clifford Odets, asking if he'd be willing to read it. I had been one of twenty aspiring playwrights in a unique class given by Odets at the Actors Studio in 1951, but I hadn't been in touch with him in the almost nine years since the class...

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Jeanne-Marie A. Miller (essay date June 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odets, Miller and Communism," in CLA Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 4, June, 1976, pp. 484-93.

[In the following excerpt, Miller discusses Odets's Till the Day I Die and places it within the social and political contexts of its day.]

Between the time of the October Revolution and the Stalin-Hitler Pact, many European and American literati were attracted to communism. Some chose communism at a definite time in history because they had lost faith in democracy and they wanted to defeat fascism. When Hitler came to power in Germany, the Soviet Union felt threatened, and out of this uneasiness came "a Russian foreign policy based on support of collective security...

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Benjamin Appel (essay date Summer 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odets University," in The Literary Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, Summer, 1976, pp. 470-75.

[Appel was an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and one-time student of Odets. In the following essay, he relates his personal experience with Odets and discusses Odets's role at the House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings in the 1950's.]

"Odets University" was my nickname for the playwrighting class Clifford Odets conducted for one memorable session in 1951 at the Actors Studio.

Everything was free. Tuition. Tickets to Broadway plays. Advice after class as well as free drinks in some nearby bar or at Odets' home in the East 60's. Quite a...

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Richard J. Dozier (essay date Fall 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Recovering Odets' Paradise Lost," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1978, pp. 209-221.

[In the following essay, Dozier examines Paradise Lost, a play originally criticized for being an inferior version of Awake and Sing!, Odets's first work. Dozier looks beyond superficial similarities between the two plays to analyze several distinct differences between them.]

Paradise Lost has always occupied a special place in the Odets canon. For one thing neither the playwright nor his admirers ever quite gave up on the play. In the Preface to the 1939 Six Plays collection Odets described the piece as his "favorite" despite...

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Harold Cantor (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odets' Yinglish: The Psychology of Dialect as Dialogue," in Studies in American Jewish Literature—From Marginality to Mainstream: A Mosaic of Jewish Writers, State University of New York Press, Vol. 2, 1982, pp. 61-68.

[Cantor is an American educator, editor, and non-fiction author. In the following essay, he examines Odets's use of Yinglish—a blend of Yiddish and English language—and its important function in his early plays.]

Odets' Yinglish is only one facet in the development of what I have argued elsewhere was a rich poetic dialogue with roots in the Emersonian tradition. Like Emerson's disciple, Whitman, Odets created in his work a barbaric yawp...

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R. Baird Shuman (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clifford Odets and the Jewish Context," in From Hester Street to Hollywood, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen, Indiana University Press, 1983, pp. 85-105.

[Shuman is an American biographer, editor, and educator. In the following essay, he explores Odets's personal background and relates Odets's upbringing to the Jewish character of his work. He locates in Odets's plays several distinctly Jewish subjects, including Jewish mothers, exile and alienation, redemption, and idiomatic expression.]

Significant hazards lurk in any attempt to categorize a writer like Clifford Odets in terms of ethnic identity. Certainly Odets was not a Jew in the sense that he was a...

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Brendan Gill (review date 19 March 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Remaking Mankind," in The New Yorker, Vol. 60, March 19, 1984, p. 116.

[Gill is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review, he pans a modern production of Odets's Awake and Sing! and wonders if the work has been lost to history.]

Innumerable plays have earned recognition in histories of the stage but are no longer readily producible on a stage, and I have the impression that Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing! may be one of them. I call it an impression, and not a conviction, because nobody could possibly judge the value of the play, either as a work deserving a certain place in history or as a source of...

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George L. Groman (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clifford Odets's Musical World, The Failed Utopia," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, edited by Daniel Walden, State University of New York Press, Vol. 5, 1986, pp. 80-88.

[Groman is an American educator, editor, and author. In the following essay, he examines the influence of music on Odets and his works. He finds that Odets's plays often equate music with an inner harmony that offers hope amidst the dissonance of the outside world.]

In the 1935 production of Paradise Lost, playwright Clifford Odets had one of his major characters conclude the final act of the play with a lyrical affirmation of faith. "Everywhere now men are rising from their...

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Gerald Peary (essay date Winter 1986/1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odets of Hollywood," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1986/1987, pp. 59-63.

[In the following essay, Peary explores Odets's flirtation with and eventual immersion into Hollywood screenwriting.]

Consider three contemporary playwrights. Sam Shepard becomes a movie star, a heartthrob, Harold Pinter turns out clever screenplays; David Hare directs films—and they do so without looking over their shoulders. Who today would criticise them for diminishing themselves as playwrights, squandering their talents, or just plain selling out? Selling Out—in capitals—the very notion is an anachronism. But in the 30s, for the theatre, the term still meant...

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David Denby (review date 29 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Odd Man In," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXV, No. 14, September 29, 1988, pp. 37-42.

[In the following excerpt, Denby reviews The Time is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets, and comments on Odets's personal revelations at the beginning of a career slide.]

Clifford Odets, [Elia] Kazan's friend and colleague in the Group, had such a mission [an artist's] and was ruined. In love with the theater but eager to make money, Odets dragged himself unhappily through long years in Hollywood, often working on screenplays never filmed or on anonymous rewrites of other men's work (at the end of his life. be was writing a television series for the...

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George L. Groman (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Clifford Odets and the Creative Imagination," in Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, edited by Gabriel Miller, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 97-105.

[In the following essay, Groman examines Odets's reverence for the inspired creativity of Victor Hugo, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Groman then contrasts the high standards of heroism and idealism Odets found in these artists' works with the often hopeless and corrupt situations found in his own.]

Clifford Odets, for all of his adult life as a playwright and screenwriter marveled at the gift of creativity, finding inspiration when that gift seemed within his grasp and enduring...

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John Lahr (review date 4 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ark Angels," in The New Yorker, April 4, 1994, pp. 94-6.

[John Lahr is an American author of both fiction and nonfiction, a playwright, and a critic. In the following excerpt, he reviews a 1992 performance of The Flowering Peach and gives background on the play and Odets's reasons for writing it.]

"Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul," says Hank Teagle, a character in Clifford Odets' The Big Knife—a play about Hollywood, where Odets moved from New York in 1936, in search of a big audience and big bucks. He lived with a moral malaise every subsequent day of his professional life. Odets died, of cancer, on August 14, 1963, when he was...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. "The Creation of Plays: With a Specimen Analysis." Psychoanalysis, Creativity, and Literature: A French-American Inquiry, edited by Alan Roland, pp. 178-230. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978

Psychoanalysis of Odets and his works that includes substantial biographical information.

Odets, Nora and Walt Whitman. "Hollywood and its Discontents." American Film XIII No. 7 (May 1988): 28-34.

Excerpt from Odets's 1940 journal that chronicles Odets in Hollywood and his thoughts on "selling out," the movie business, and his interactions...

(The entire section is 515 words.)