Clifford Odets

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Robert Warshow (essay date May 1946)

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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 carriers of the new culture—a role that has brought them into open conflict with their parents. Among Jews these developments manifested themselves in their most extreme form.—"The Jews of Yankee City" (Commentary, January 1946)

The literary treatment of American Jewish life has always suffered from the psychological commitments of Jewish writers. Their motives are almost never pure: they must dignify the Jews, or plead for them, or take revenge upon them, and the picture they create is correspondingly distorted by romanticism or sentimentality or vulgarity. The romantic-sentimental picture, which endows the Jews with superior wisdom and an exaggerated spirituality, is typified in an earlier stage by the movie The Jazz Singer. It appears in more dignified form in Elmer Rice's Street Scene and most recently in the Hollywood biography of George Gershwin. The vulgar exploitation of the Jews is more common; the work of Milt Gross is carried on for a later audience in the self-conscious burlesques of Arthur Kober and the banality of Leonard Q. Ross. A more serious and more savage type of satire, focusing on the economic and social behavior of Jews, has appeared recently in the work of such writers as Jerome Weidman and Budd Schulberg, but their picture, if more honest, is still limited and superficial.

By a considerable margin, the most important achievement in the literature of the American Jews is that of Clifford Odets. No one else has been able to maintain that degree of confidence in the value of the exact truth which made his best work possible. His social understanding is limited, but he has been able to keep his eyes on reality and to set down his observations with great imagination and remarkable detachment. Jews are never commonplace to him—they are never commonplace to any Jew—but neither are they prodigies, either of absurdity or of pathos or of evil. He has perceived that they are human beings living the life which happens to be possible to them.

The elements that make up for most American Jews the image of their group are to be found in the Jewish culture of New York City; more specifically, in the culture of the Jewish lower middle class, in the apartment houses and two-family houses of the Bronx and Brooklyn, among those who all these years have had to think mainly about getting along. Not all Jews actually participate in this culture—perhaps most do not—but almost all are intimately connected with it. The New York pattern is the master pattern, repeated in its main outlines wherever there is a large Jewish population. What is especially characteristic of other areas of Jewish life is often simply the extension of this; what appears most sharply opposed to it, or furthest away from it, is often the expression of a deliberate struggle against it.

The crucial fact is that there are few who cannot immediately recognize and understand its smallest forms of behavior, its accepted attitudes, its language. If it is not "Jewish life," strictly speaking, it is for most American Jews the area of greatest emotional importance. It is what a Jew remembers, it is what he has in his mind when he experiences his more private emotions about being a Jew—affection, pity, delight, shame. Just as the life of the small town can be said in some sense to embody the common experience of the older Americans, so the life of New York can be said at this particular stage in the process of acculturation to embody the common experience of the American Jews.

Clifford Odets is the poet of this life. In the body of his work so far, with its rather specious "development" and its persistent intellectual shallowness, the spectacular achievement which makes him a dramatist of importance is his truthful description of the New York Jews of the lower middle class.

Awake and Sing, his first full-length play, remains the most impressive. He has since become a more skillful dramatist, but his progress in theatrical terms has involved a loss in the simple observation of fact which is his greatest talent: he has become more superficial and more sentimental. His significant field of knowledge is among the Jews, and what he knows about the Jews is in Awake and Sing.

In reading Awake and Sing, one is likely to be struck by its crudity: there is an illegitimate pregnancy and a hasty marriage, a life insurance policy, a suicide; the final curtain is brought down on a puerile note of "affirmation" (Odets has said, "New art works should shoot bullets"). But in the last analysis these crudities are of no great importance. The special experience of reading or seeing the play has nothing to do with the dramatics used to make it progress through its three acts.

For the Jew in the audience, at least, the experience is recognition, a continuous series of familiar signposts, each suggesting with the immediate communication of poetry the whole complex of the life of the characters: what they are, what they want, how they stand with the world.

It is a matter of language more directly than anything else. The events of the play are of little consequence; what matters is the words of the characters—the way they talk as much as the things they say. Odets employs consistently and with particular skill what amounts to a special type of dramatic poetry. His characters do not speak in poetry—indeed, they usually become ridiculous when they are made to speak "poetically"—but the speeches put into their mouths have the effect of poetry, suggesting much more than is said and depending for the enrichment of the suggestion upon the sensibility and experience of the hearer. Many of the things said on the stage are startling for their irrelevance; they neither contribute to the progress of the plot nor offer any very specific light upon the character of the participants: the hearer supplies a meaning.

The peculiarity of this poetic process is that it operates exclusively between the writer and the audience; it is not in the play. The characters are in a state of ignorance, always saying something different from what they think they are saying. This differs from dramatic irony in the usual sense by the fact that the ignorance of the characters is essential instead of accidental: they do know what is happening in the play; what they do not know is what they are. In a sense they are continually engaged in giving themselves away.

The effect of the method is to increase the distance between the audience and the specific facts of the play, while bringing before the audience more clearly than is usual the general facts about Jews and Jewish life which the play illustrates.

The young son, Ralph, puts into one sentence the history of his frustration: "It's crazy—all my life I want a pair of black and white shoes and can't get them. It's crazy!" The mother, Bessie, responds, betraying the bitterness of her relations with her children, the difficulty of her life, the general picture of what it must be like to live with her: "In a minute I'll get up from the table. I can't take a bite in my mouth no more." Demolishing an argument for the abolition of private property, she presents her concept of man's fate: "Noo, go fight City Hall!" She offers a scrap of worldly wisdom to justify her tricking a young man into marrying her daughter, already pregnant by another man: "Maybe you never heard charity begins at home. You never heard it, Pop?" The old man, Jacob, shows what his daughter is to him: "All you know, I heard, and more yet…. This is a house? Marx said it—abolish such families." Bessie's husband, Myron, demonstrates his ineffectuality: "This morning the sink was full of ants. Where they come from I just don't know. I thought it was coffee grounds … and then they began moving." A sentence exhibits his tenuous grasp on American culture: "My scalp is impoverished," he says, out of nowhere. Sam Feinschreiber, the unfortunate object of Bessie's choice for her daughter ("In three years he put enough in the bank …"), reacts to the news that the baby is not his own: "I'm so nervous—look, two times I weighed myself on the subway station." Uncle Morty, the successful dress manufacturer, replies to the suggestion that he might send a little more money to take care of his father: "Tell me jokes. Business is so rotten I could just as soon lay all day in the Turkish bath." Uncle Morty prepares to leave the house: "Where's my fur gloves?"

To the experienced ear, every speech tells again the whole story, every character presents over and over the image of his particular kind, the role of his kind in the culture which contains it. The characters are diminished as human beings in favor of their function as instruments of poetic evocation. Rich or poor, happy or not, they serve their purpose. The responses called forth by the play are responses to the life of the Jews, to the psychological roots of one's own life, never to the individual lives of the people on the stage.

In the end you really get something like a direct apprehension of sociological truth, the whole picture built up out of the words spoken on the stage, the tones of speech and thought, all is added to the knowledge already possessed by the audience.

It is not the whole picture of the Jews; there is no whole picture of the Jews. And even as a partial picture it calls for some reservations. Assuming all necessary reservations, the picture might be called: what happened to the Jews in New York.

The adult immigrant had some advantages. Whatever it was that drove him to come, he was able to carry with him a sense of his own dignity and importance. He had a kind of security though it is a strange thing to say of a Jew. In Europe, with the club over his head, he had nevertheless lived in a community which was in important ways self-sufficient, and which permitted him to think of himself as a man of value: he was a scholar, or a revolutionist, at the very least he knew himself to be a more serious man than his Gentile persecutors. To be a Jew was a continual burden, even a misfortune, but it could not have seemed to him a joke or a disgrace.

He came off a boat, he had to find a job the very next day, and for the rest of his life he was likely to be taken up by the numberless techniques of getting by: how to make a dollar, how to pursue the infinitesimal advantages which made it possible for him to survive from day to day. The humiliation of his poverty and impotence was tremendous, but he was already equipped with a mechanism for separating from it some of the needs of his personality. In his own mind, and in the semi-European atmosphere he created in the synagogues or the cafés and radical groups, he could contrive for his sad life the appearance of a meaning that went beyond the everlasting pettiness of which it actually consisted. He had a past.

For his children, helping after school with the family's piecework or going themselves to work in the shops, and often suffering in addition under a savage moral discipline with no apparent relevance to the real world, the pretensions of the father could be nothing but nonsense. He could create in the minds of his children only an entirely generalized ideal of moral and intellectual superiority absolutely without content. (Bessie Berger: "I raise a family they should have respect.") If the parents had a great deal of love and wisdom, or if the family made money soon enough, the children could sometimes arrive at a tolerable balance between dignity and economic pressure. But the familiar pattern was not often to be avoided: the children holding before them the image of a suffering and complaining mother and of a father whose life went on outside the home, who was somehow responsible—with his "ideas"—for the family's hardships. It was remembered with undying resentment that he had given money to the synagogue or the Party—to "make a show"—while his family went hungry, and the things he believed in came to represent a wilful refusal to understand the principle that charity begins at home. ("Go in your room, Papa. Every job he ever had he lost because he's got a big mouth. He opens his mouth and the whole Bronx could fall in…. A good barber not to hold a job a week.") If he made money at last, then his demonstrations of allegiance to the things he thought valuable might be received with more tolerance, even with pride, but they still remained for his children outside the area of practical life.

For his part, he was always disappointed in his children and his sense of disappointment was often the only thing he could clearly communicate to them. He succeeded at least in becoming a reproach to them, and the bitterness of the personal conflict which ensued was aggravated by the fact that they could never quite see from what he derived his superiority or what it was he held against them.

The children took hold of what seemed to them the essential point—that they were living in a jungle. It would not be accurate to say that they failed to understand the rest; so far as they were concerned, the rest was not there to see, it had retired into the mind.

They tried to act reasonably. Every day they could see more clearly the basic truth: without a dollar you don't look the world in the eye. This truth was not for a moment welcome to them, they accepted it with all suitable reluctance, they doffed their hats continually in the direction of the "other things," but they really saw no alternative to following out the implications of what they knew. After all, their analysis of the situation was virtually a matter of life and death ("Ralphie, I worked too hard all my years to be treated like dirt…. Summer shoes you didn't have, skates you never had, but I bought a new dress every week. A lover I kept—Mr. Gigolo!… If I didn't worry about the family who would…. Maybe you wanted me to give up twenty years ago. Where would you be now? You'll excuse my expression—a bum in the park!")

Between the facts as they saw them and the burden of undefined moral responsibility laid upon them by the father, no decision was possible. Money was at least effective, it could really solve their worst problems. It was what they had to have. What they wanted was not money, but it was nothing very definite. The best basis they could find for their life was a worldly compromise: money is filth, but money is all you'll ever get.

In general terms, the kind of life they established for themselves is not different from the characteristic life of the rest of their society: its primary concerns are economic security and social prestige; its daydreams are of unlimited economic security and unassailable social prestige. ("Ralph should only be a success like you, Morty. I should only live to see the day when he drives up to the door in a big car with a chauffeur and a radio. I could die happy, believe me.") Indeed, they were especially quick to perceive the underlying pattern of the society and to conform to it. Looking from the outside, and suffering from the hostility of those around them, they naturally understood the significant facts thoroughly; for Jews, that had always been one of the necessities of life.

But it was not merely a matter of a generation moving from one culture into another. As it happened, the newer culture had already come to a point where it was unable to provide much security or dignity even for those who indisputably belonged to it. Understanding was in this case a bar to adjustment, and the life of the Jews has been colored by their awareness of the terms of the compromise they have had to accept. Their frustration is part of a universal frustration, but their unhappiness is more acute because all along they have known what they were doing.

Sometimes their special situation gave them a kind of edge, as if they were a day older in history than everybody else. They were capable of phenomenal success. Errand boys made themselves into millionaires simply by shrewd and unremitting attention to the possibilities of capitalist enterprise. Entertainers, exploiting the contrast between what they were and what they wanted, found a huge audience suddenly ready to see the point. Hollywood became a gold mine, demonstrating that the Jews were not different from everybody else, only a little further along: they could feel the exact level to which culture had come.

Success made no essential difference. A million dollars was a great and wonderful thing—how can you refuse money if you don't know what would be better?—but they could never believe that it was really enough to make a man important. Uncle Morty says "Where's my fur gloves?" not to impress the others but to remind himself of how far he has come.

They wanted also to be good and wise men. Having no frame of reference by which to attach a meaning to "good" and "wise," even a false meaning, they were forced to seek what assurance they could find in the tangible evidences they knew to be valueless: money, prestige, the intellectual superiority of one man to another. Thus from the complex of their fears and desires they evolved the three imperatives that govern them: be secure, be respected, be intelligent. In their world a dentist is better than a machinist, a doctor is better than a businessman, a college professor is best of all. But an unsuccessful intellectual is worse than an unsuccessful businessman: he should have known better than to try.

Their economic strength comes from their ability to act as the situation demands even though the situation is abhorrent to them. But the gap between moral man and the requirements of reality has seemed to them so wide that they have been able to function successfully only by imposing cynicism on themselves as a kind of discipline. They have gone further than most in the acceptance of reality, and this is perhaps the strongest kind of subversion—to take capitalism without sugar.

What it costs them is their characteristic mental insecurity a mixture of self-pity and self-contempt. Self-pity because their way of life was forced upon them, self-contempt because they can accept no excuse.

Awake and Sing is a depression play, and its picture of Jewish life is sharper and more brutal than it would have been a few years earlier. The hidden framework of need and compulsion had come out. If it had ever been possible for the Jews to lull themselves completely in the material benefits of capitalism, that possibility was gone. With the depression, their painfully built structure of defenses shook and fell, respectability itself was threatened, and they looked again into the abyss of poverty, all the more frightening because it was so familiar, because they had given so much to get out of it.

The characters contemplate the meaninglessness of their lives. The image of their failure is constantly before them; they cannot contain themselves, they must burst out every minute in a fury of bitterness and impotence, justifying themselves, calling for pity, enveloping themselves and the world in indiscriminate scorn. They have ceased to communicate; each confronts his own unhappiness, using language primarily as an instrument of self-expression and a weapon of defense.

It is as if no one really listens to anyone else; each takes his own line, and the significant connections between one speech and another are not in logic but in the heavy emotional climate of the family.

RALPH: I don't know…. Every other day to sit around with the blues and mud in your mouth.

MYRON: That's how it is—life is like that—a cakewalk.

RALPH: What's it get you?

HENNIE: A four-car funeral.

RALPH: What's it for?

JACOB: What's it for? If this life leads to a revolution it's a good life. Otherwise it's for nothing.

BESSIE: Never mind, Pop! Pass me the salt.

RALPH: It's crazy—all my life I want a pair of black and white shoes and can't get them. It's crazy!

BESSIE: In a minute I'll get up from the table. I can't take a bite in my mouth no more.

MYRON: Now, Momma, just don't excite yourself

BESSIE: I'm so nervous I can't hold a knife in my hand.

MYRON: Is that a way to talk, Ralphie? Don't Momma work hard enough all day?

BESSIE: On my feet twenty-four hours?

MYRON: On her feet

RALPH: What do I do—go to night clubs with Greta Garbo? The when I come home can't even have my own room? Sleep on a day-bed in the front room!

BESSIE: He's starting up that stuff again. When Hennie here marries you'll have her room—I should only live to see the day.

HENNIE: Me too.

They live on top of one another, in that loveless intimacy which is the obverse of the Jewish virtue of family solidarity, and their discontentment is expressed in continual and undisguised personal hostility. The son, Ralph, is in love:

BESSIE: A girl like that he wants to marry. A skinny consumptive … six months already she's not working—taking charity from an aunt. You should see her. In a year she's dead on his hands…. Miss Nobody should step in the picture and I'll stand by with my mouth shut.

RALPH: Miss Nobody! Who am I? Al Jolson?

BESSIE: Fix your tie!

RALPH: I'll take care of my own life.

BESSIE: You'll take care? Excuse my expression, you can't even wipe your nose yet! He'll take care!

Someone is slow about coming to the dining-room: "Maybe we'll serve for you a special blue-plate supper in the garden?" Morty responds to one of Jacob's dissertations on the class struggle: "Like Boob McNutt you know! Don't go in the park, pop—the squirrels'll get you."

In a brilliant climax, Bessie Berger reveals the whole pattern of psychological and moral conflict that dominates her and her family: when Ralph discovers that his sister's husband was trapped into marriage, Bessie, confronted inescapably with her own immorality, and trembling before her son's contempt, turns upon her father, who has said nothing, and smashes the phonograph records that are his most loved possessions and the symbol of his superiority. This act of fury is irrelevant only on the surface: one understands immediately that Bessie has gone to the root of the matter.

Purposeless, insecure, defeated, divided within themselves, the Bergers made a life like a desert. The process which produced them was not ironbound; one way or another, there were many who escaped. But the Bergers are important. The luckiest is not out of sight of them; no consideration of the Jews in America can leave them out; in the consciousness of most of us they do in some sense stand for "Jew."


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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.

Michael J. Mendelsohn (interview date 1963)

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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 the theatre, rather than to the library.

Well, essentially there are two kinds of playwrights. Both can be excelling, but it would be necessary to make a distinction between the playwright who was essentially a theatre man and not a man of literature—not a man of the library, that is. If I talk about past and very great playwrights, it's obvious from the very style and form and cut and shape and pattern of their work that men like Moliere and Shakespeare were men of the theatre, not men of the library. And you see it on every page of their plays. They write with their feet solidly planted on the platform, and they write with a very knowing and frequently cunning theatrical knowledge, in the sense of what the audience is getting—they don't follow literary canon so much as they follow theatre canon.

At the same time, a piece of dramatic literature, when it is completed and bound between covers, can stand the test of good literature—if it is good literature.

Well, you have to admit that the two men I just mentioned, Molière and Shakespeare, wrote very great literature.

Let's go back to the 1930s. Do you feel the social protest plays accomplished something in themselves, or were they simply a dramatic manifestation in American society that would have taken place anyhow?

The plays undoubtedly came out of ascending values, out of positive values, out of the search of millions of American citizens for some way out of a horrifying dilemma—a dilemma which, by the way, I don't think is over. And the writer, or the playwright like myself, simply had to be alive and aware and partaking of this extraordinary ferment around him. The playwright then, as he always is, became the articulate voice of the aspiration of millions of people. If, for instance, you saw the opening night of Waiting for Lefty, you saw theatre in its truest essence. By which I mean that suddenly the proscenium arch of the theatre vanished and the audience and the actors were at one with each other.

You say that the proscenium disappeared, and I feel that this was something that you were trying to achieve in Waiting for Lefty—

Not consciously.

Not consciously? Well, I'm speaking of the theatrical concept of naturalism versus the Thornton Wilder type of presentational play. Consciously in your plays, it seems to me you are staying within the proscenium, in all of your plays except Waiting for Lefty. Did you have that in mind?

Well, sometimes there are formal ways in which one breaks down the proscenium arch and makes the audience a more active participant in what is going on on the stage. Formal ways consist, sometimes, in a new style for the writer, or sometimes in the physical construction of the theatre. We talk of "theatre in the round." These are all attempts to unify the acting material and the audience. They are, however, in my opinion, artificial ways. The real way to make the proscenium arch disappear, the thrilling and human way, what I should say is the experienced way, is to have your actors speak from your platform materials and values which are profoundly and communally shared with the audience.

And, if this happens, it doesn't matter whether they address the audience directly, as in Waiting for Lefty, or talk to each other, as in Awake and Sing?

It doesn't matter at all. When you have a community of values in the theatre (which is, of course, what we don't have), the proscenium arch disappears. The audience is not watching a play, and the actors are not playing to an audience which is seated passively somewhere in that dark pit which is the auditorium. Theatre in its profoundest sense—all literature in its profoundest sense—has come in periods when the plight or problem expressed by the actors was completely at one with the plight and problems and values or even moralities of the audience. This is why the literature of Homer and the Greek drama and the Bible, or, in music, works of composers like Bach have such size. It's because the artist, the composer, the writer, is not someone apart and inimical to his audience, not a man in opposition to the values he is expressing, but one who completely shares organically the very values of the audience for whom he is writing.

In other words; the specific type of "presentation" or "representation" doesn't make any difference at all?

Well, it does nowadays, when theatre consists, for the most part, of trifles, of weak slaps and gestures at something that you don't like. Or, for the most part, an acceptance of things around you. You take all of the light comedies. What are they about? How amusing adultery is. By the way, they constitute propaganda plays for adultery, whether we realize it or not. They have no positive values; they play upon the patterns of prejudice and the likes and dislikes of the audience. They do not lead the audience. They do not lift the audience.

Are you familiar with Waiting for Godot?


This is a pretty good statement of a negative. I thought of that when you said "no positive values."

All you can say of a play like that—and, by the way, a small gem I should call it—all you can do is sit there sort of stunned and lament that the world is in a hell of a shape. You can be moved in a certain way. From that play I don't think you can be moved to try to lift yourself out of what it's saying into some higher living view of things. Unless, of course, you believe cutting your throat is a value!

Do you accept the label "optimist" that has very often been pinned on you?

"Optimist"? I would say that I have a belief in man and his possibilities as the measure of things, but I would not say that I was an optimistic writer. I would say that I have shown as much of the seamy side of life as any other playwright of the twentieth century, if not more.

It seems that many of your plays, even with the depiction of the seamy side of life, end on a hopeful note.

Sometimes the hopeful note is real, as, for instance, I believe it is in a play like Rocket to the Moon, and sometimes my critics are correct when they say that the optimistic note has been tacked on.

Awake and Sing?

No, not so much Awake and Sing, because I believe in the possibilities expressed in the last scene. I do believe that young people can go through an experience and have their eyes opened, and determine from it to live in a different way. I do believe that older and more crushed human beings can pass on some lifting values to the younger generation. I do believe that, as the daughter in that family does, she can make a break with the groundling lies of her life, and try to find happiness by walking off with a man who is not her husband. I believed it then, and I believe it now. I think I believed it more simply then. I did not express roundly or fully the picture, but I don't think that ending is a lie.

What particular plays did you have in mind when you said that the optimistic ending was "tacked on"?

Well, there is a certain kind of subtle theatrical use that doesn't really ask too much. For instance, what did Waiting for Lefty ask? It asked really that you go out on strike and fight for better conditions. Well, the people did do that. Along came the C.I.O. But it is not enough to go out on strike and ask for better wages; it is much better to go out on strike and say, "Now we have made a beginning." Frequently, the simplicity of some of my endings comes from the fact that I did not say at the same time. "This is a beginning; this will give you the right to begin in a clean and simple way." But these things are not ends in themselves. A strike and a better wage is not an end in itself. It will give you the chance to begin. It will give you the chance, in a democracy, to find your place, to assume your place and be responsible for your growth and continued welfare and happiness in that place.

Why do you sometimes like to direct? Is there a particular reason?

Yes, there are several reasons. First of all, I think that, frankly, I can direct my plays almost as well as anyone I know. Therefore, why not do it myself? I am very capable with actors; I was an actor myself for about 14 years before I became a playwright. The stage, the acting platform, is my home. I am not a library writer. A library writer should not direct his plays, but should find a competent director who will say more or less what he wants to say.

As Archibald MacLeish did?

Yes, or as Maxwell Anderson did. Maxwell Anderson was my idea (and I mean no denigration), my idea of a library writer, although he had a great deal of theatre wisdom, let me say. So, since I can handle the materials of a play of my own, why talk it over with a director? Why not do it myself? Secondly, in a play like The Country Girl, which is relatively, in the body of my work, a superficial play, I knew just exactly how that play should become successful. I wanted to do a successful production. And in that case I trusted no one else, because it seems to me that that play walks on a tightrope and that if it is not done almost with a certain speed and tension, it would plunge right down into the abyss. It took us a year to cast the play. The final casting didn't satisfy me, but there it was. With all of these considerations, I trusted only myself to get the result I wanted to get, and I did get it. Another director, by the way, might have brought added dimension to some of the scenes. He might see things that I didn't see. That's always a danger when you direct your own play. On the other hand, in the case of The Country Girl, I was looking for a certain kind of—to say it vulgarly—a swift, tense strongly-paced production. And I simply didn't trust it to anyone else's hands.

Then, just as with the novelist, who has no one getting in the way, except perhaps an editor, you feel that the fewer people who get in the way of what comes out of your pen, the closer to the pure work it's going to end up?

Yes, there is such an aspect to directing one of my plays. But an even more important aspect is simply the stimulation. It stimulates me as a writer to keep my feet and my hands on the stage. It's not that I'm interested in giving or showing the definitive meaning of a play. That side doesn't bother me too much. The stimulation is very important. It keeps you alive with the script, until the opening night. I used to find that I lost all interest in the script when someone else was directing, even a director I trusted and a director I admired and liked—let's say, Harold Clurman at his best. The whole thing went dead on me, so that when I had to rewrite, it was almost like I was approaching a strange new subject. But when I, myself, am directing the play, although aliveness comes in a different sphere, that of directing, which is quite different from writing, nevertheless it keeps me alive as a writer. So that I can leave the stage when I am directing and go to my hotel room out of town, as I did in The Country Girl, and three or four nights before the New York opening, in Boston, rewrite the last 15 pages, which made the play successful. But if I hadn't been directing that play, I would have been dead on it, and I wouldn't have written those last 15 pages as well.

Your comment about the desire to have The Country Girl be a commercial success suggests to me something else. Can you say that your early plays were written to push forward a certain point of view, and that your later plays were written for more artistic considerations, or for more financial considerations? Is there any way to separate these things?

I can separate them. The result may not always be what I think it is, but I have only two times—I don't know, I think I've written 14 or 15 or 16 plays, 12 or 13 of which have been produced—only two times did I sit down with the goal of writing a play that would be successful on Broadway and have a long run. The other times, I simply sat down to express a "state of being." Sometimes an ache, sometimes an agony, sometimes an excitement, the excitement which comes out of some kind of conversion, emotional lift, a sudden seeing where before one felt blind, and a sudden strength, whereas before one felt weak and muscle bound. It was always to express an inner state of being. I think that any creative writer sits down to express that. Sometimes it's a sense, a very vague sense of hurt, a vague mood, a vague sense of unhappiness, of, let me say, sometimes of disconnection. I don't think that any creative person in any craft or any medium can be creative unless he does sit down with that sense of expressing an inner state of being.

On the other hand I can see a certain shaped play dealing with certain materials, and I would like it to get across in a very successful way. So I will kind of put blinders on and not express the entire spread of what I feel about this material, but just make it theatrically viable, theatrically entertaining, and try to get across something that people will like, that will excite them. The first time I did that was once to keep the Group Theatre together in a play called Golden Boy. That was the other play, with The Country Girl, that I sat down deliberately to write a success. And, in both cases, let me say, "mission accomplished." As a matter of fact, I always held Golden Boy a little in contempt for that season, knowing how the seed had been fertilized. And it was maybe three years later that I saw the play had more quality than I gave it credit for. I don't, however, think I would change my mind about The Country Girl. It's a good show; it's a theatre piece. It does have about it a certain kind of psychological urgency, because if you are creative, things do creep in despite the conscious impulse. For instance, there crept into that play a central problem of my own life. And this did give a certain urgency and heat to much that went on in the script. I didn't mean for that problem to come out; I cannily and unconsciously disguised it. But that is unconsciously what came out in the writing of that play.

You wouldn't go so far as to attribute to Golden Boy the sort of allegorical analysis that George Jean Nathan gave to it—of this being your entire career, and

I will tell you frankly that since the days of my youth were past—from those days on I have had no interest in what George Jean Nathan has written about me or has written about any other playwright dead or alive, or anything about the theatre. I think he was a first-class phony. I will always think so, and I don't miss him and never would miss him.

You've had 11 plays produced, aside from the translation in 1942

Is it 11 plays?

So far as I've been able to keep track.

You've got me; I haven't counted them.

Eleven plus The Russian People—

Oh, let's not count that! They wouldn't let me do any work on it. It was forbidden to change a word. But Mrs. Litvinov, the Ambassador's wife, Ivy Litvinov—a very literate and charming woman—at the last moment got me permission to rewrite and change some of the scenes, but I said, "Mrs. Litvinov, it's too late." (We were opening in New York after, I think, two weeks in Washington, D.C.) "We're opening in New York City in three or four days, and I can't rewrite anything now." I did, here and there, enrich the texture, but no changes were permitted. This was a Soviet governmental order, you know.

Well, we won't worry about that one, but I was going to ask you

Well, it's such a bad play; I shouldn't like to be responsible for it. I have the credit for adapting it.

Incidentally, how does one adapt a play from Russian? Do you get a literal

Yes, you get a literal translation, and then you go to work on it. It's like you buy a chair made of raw wood, and you say now how shall I finish this chair? How shall I upholster it? The essential frame is there; you've bought the frame.

Well, I've counted 11 produced plays, anyhow, and—do you feel they move in a definite direction, from something to something, or is each one an individual expression of what you feel at the moment?

I don't think that I've written two plays alike. This makes trouble for me, because the materials of the play or its shape always seem to baffle not the audiences, but the critics. They seem to expect one thing. I don't do that consciously, but I write out of what interests me, and perhaps I'm still naive.

For instance, in my next group of plays, of which I have five laid out or written in part, I wanted to write the most serious play first. It's called An Old-Fashioned Man, and probably that title will stay. But then I think, if I write that play, and open it in New York—it's a big play, and necessarily will be densely textured—it will lay me open to all sorts of charges of immodesty, of lopsidedness. It's the kind of play you simply cannot get on one viewing. So I think, well, why not come in quietly with a much more modest play? And then when that one has its brief moment I would go to one a little heavier, from their point of view a little more immodest, because it will be attempting more and will be saying more….

Aside from None But the Lonely Heart, how many films would you want to have your name associated with along with your best plays?

Well, let them stand for what they are. They are technically very adept. I have learned a great deal from making and shaping these scripts. I don't know; I suppose that by now I've written—written or rewritten secretly for some friends of mine—fifteen or eighteen, close to twenty films. One need not be ashamed of them. I have not expressed anywhere any loss of standards. I haven't dehumanized people in them. I have even written a little picture that ended up being called Deadline at Dawn. I'm not ashamed of that. It's a little mystery thriller. I see it; it has its living moments. It's not merely that the dialogue is good. Or a picture that I rewrote called Sweet Smell of Success. It's professional work; I'm a professional writer. And I am never ashamed of the professional competence which is in these scripts. I have never downgraded human beings or a certain kind of morality. I'm not ashamed of any of them….

Principal Works

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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).

Michael J. Mendelsohn (essay date Fall 1963)

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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 critics and playgoers alike monotonous as a broken record. The more skilled of the serious dramatists were satisfied to deal with one or two of these themes, while many of the others seemed to feel that a play was worth while if it contained all three subjects. Only a few playwrights, Clifford Odets among them, are remembered today among the score of social protest dramatists who were irretrievably ensnared by the trap that should have been apparent.

Many playwrights of the depression decade viewed the American stage more as a forum than as a place of entertainment. In the early part of his career, Odets was among those who could not completely escape the urge to propagandize even when the subject of the propaganda is unrelated to the main current of the play. Often this penchant halts the dramatic action. For instance, the trait shows up in a less than subtle way even in a relatively late play like Clash By Night, and the intrusion of the anti-fascist theme which threatens to take over the play is particularly jarring. Odets wants the reader to consider the events an allegory of the destruction of a simple, well-meaning individual by totalitarian forces too powerful to resist. But critics were not wrong in considering this aspect of the play to be forced, superimposed on a love-triangle melodrama.

Odets quickly outgrew the tendency to preach and to intrude forced themes; what is more, even his early plays rise above that weakness through their superior craftsmanship. It is a tribute to Odets' integrity as a dramatist that he constantly strove for newer and more expressive insights to advance his themes. This integrity helped Odets to survive the decade that had fostered him and to go on writing excellent plays. Awake and Sing assumes a stature among the plays of 1935 not because the others were necessarily poor, but because Odets combined certain truths with effective dramaturgy in a manner that most other social protest writers found difficult to accomplish. Economic determinism is there, but so are real people. Marxist stock phrases are much in evidence in all his early plays, but so are rich and accurate colloquialisms. Melodramatic clichés abound in the plotting, but these, too, are outweighed by the great number of honest, natural moments. For Odets was—and is—much more than "the poet of the Jewish middle class" or "the little Jesus of the proletarian theatre." His plays remain valid because they deal with universals concretely realized.

Odets was more interested in depicting problems of inequality and repressed opportunity in American society than he was in dealing with more militant social protest themes. His principal medium for doing so was one often used by American dramatists—the family. Playwrights are fond of working within the milieu of domestic life; in American drama the range extends from the ugly Loman family of Death of a Salesman to the Norman Rockwell portraits offered by Eugene O'Neill in Ah, Wilderness! Since he deals almost exclusively with contemporary domestic dramatic situations, Odets naturally shows various pictures of family life in his plays. These include unsuccessful marriages (Libby and Ben in Paradise Lost, Mae and Jerry in Clash By Night), strained but workable ones (the Starks in Rocket to the Moon, the Elgins in The Country Girl), and some older couples, presumably past the point of disputes (the Gordons of Paradise Lost, the Bergers of Awake and Sing). The notable omission is a happy marriage among the younger characters. Perhaps Siggie and Anna in Golden Boy or Shem and Leah in The Flowering Peach come nearest to achieving some reasonable degree of contentment among Odets' younger couples, but they are in their respective plays for comic relief. Perhaps also Joe and Peggy in Clash By Night or Steve and Fay in Night Music are on their way toward happiness in marriage, but Odets does not depict that part of their lives. The suggested conclusions from the observation of all these couples are hardly very startling: marriage accompanied by economic distress is difficult, and marriage must be founded in compromise. This need for mutual understanding is suggested by the ending of The Country Girl and is implied as early as Rocket to the Moon.

But it is the family as a social organism (rather than specific marital problems) that most often occupies Odets' attention, and there seems to be a marked calming in the playwright's attitude on this subject that makes a comparison of his early and late plays interesting. In Odets' early dramas, the family mirrors society and the playwright's emphasis is on rebellion. The process can probably be translated into a simple axiom: the individual must liberate himself from the bonds of a repressive family; the people must liberate themselves from the bonds of a repressive society. Odets' basic attitude is not abnormal in a Western culture, where the emphasis has tended more and more toward individual achievement, less and less toward a family-oriented social structure. Still, Odets carries the idea to an extreme that is surprising, especially when viewed in the light of the traditional Jewish pattern of close family ties.

Few ties of love hold the Berger family together. Rather, according to the playwright in his note that precedes the listing of the characters, they are bound together because they "share a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions." Odets follows this stark reflection with another important one. Describing Bessie he writes, "She knows that when one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life." This jungle morality extends to Paradise Lost as well, wherein Clara Gordon's eagerness to save the family by dishonest means is thwarted by Leo. But there is no Leo in the Berger family. This is a matriarchal group, and there is no one of Bessie's stature to check her activities.

Bessie's function seems almost exclusively to be repressive, leading one socially conscious critic to observe, "What Odets is also intent on pointing out is that the family, in circumstances of poverty and frustration, necessarily becomes an instrument of unjust coercion, even of unmorality, perpetuating false and outworn social values." Bessie's interference in Ralph's pitiable love affair is a minor matter; her concurrence in the plan to defraud the insurance company is worse; but her connivance in marrying Hennie to the unsuspecting Sam is a pure act of jungle warfare. The fact that Bessie has many moments of humor and affection, the fact that she acts in what she considers the best interests of the family, is insufficient excuse in Odets' eyes. Bessie is not evil; Awake and Sing is not The Silver Cord. It is her objective that is evil. Bessie is trying to preserve an outmoded institution—the family. Her father tells her so in plain language: "Marx said it—abolish such families."

A somewhat similar attitude is seen in other early Odets plays. In Till the Day I Die "the cause" is much more important than any feeling of family ties. Carl Tausig must dismiss any ideas of protecting his unfortunate brother when Ernst becomes a menace to the underground movement. Even Ernst's wife must reluctantly vote to isolate him from the other party members. Carl expresses the doctrine at the secret meeting:

What are we fighting for? I need not answer the question. Yes, it is brother against brother. Many a comrade has found with deep realization that he has no home, no brother—even no mothers or fathers! What must we do here? Is this what you asked me? We must expose this one brother wherever he is met. Whosoever looks in his face is to point the finger. Children will jeer him in the darkest streets of his life! Yes, the brother, the erstwhile comrade cast out! There is no brother, no family, no deeper mother than the working class. Long live the struggle for true democracy!

And in Waiting for Lefty it is Edna, threatening to leave her husband, who is the spokesman for Odets' thesis that the family as well as the individual is of less importance than the solidarity of the working class.

The family of Golden Boy has a more pleasant relationship. Old Bonaparte, not nearly so dominant a character as Bessie Berger, is portrayed rather sympathetically because his wishes for Joe correspond to the reader's. If Joe's rebellion against family lacks the idealism of Ralph Berger's, the rebellion is there nonetheless. Turning his back on his father and his own better nature, Joe looks to his trainer and his manager for new ties: "Now I'm alone. They're all against me—Moody, the girl … you're my family now, Tokio—you and Eddie!" But Joe's rebellion is incomplete. After he kills Chocolate in his last fight, and even though he has not seen his family in months, his first reaction is, "What will my father say when he hears I murdered a man?"

The half-realized revolt of the golden boy is partially attributable to the fact that the Bonaparte family is not a repressive one and partially to the fact that Odets' own attitude seemed to be undergoing a moderation. In his plays of the late Thirties, the emphasis was gradually shifting from rebellion to search. Odets shows characters who are in search of something to call a family. Cleo Singer in Rocket to the Moon has a horrible home life that she is trying desperately to rise above: "Mom and Gert and two married sisters and their husbands and babies—eight in one apartment! I tell them I want to be a dancer—everybody laughs. I make believe they're not my sisters. They don't know anything—they're washed out, bleached … everybody forgets how to dream." Earl Pfeiffer in Clash By Night is much the same. The search is most pronounced in Night Music in which Steve and Fay represent not only their own yearnings but those of every character in the play. Harold Clurman's introduction clearly expresses the central theme: "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." Hovering in the background of Night Music is the repressive family again. Fay's father makes a brief appearance to demonstrate her very good reasons for escaping Philadelphia. But in the main, Odets pictures an essential groping for family by characters who are homeless.

Odets moved into his late thirties during World War II, and the lost youths simultaneously disappeared from his plays. Beginning with the film None But the Lonely Heart, there is a further noticeable shift away from anti-family rebellion and toward pro-family solidarity. Ernie Mott is a wanderer like Steve Takis in Night Music. But when he learns that his mother is dying of cancer, he suddenly cements his family ties and wanders no more. When she is first introduced, Georgie Elgin (The Country Girl) has packed and is ready to leave Frank, but she, too, remains. And in The Flowering Peach the emphasis on unity reaches its logical end at the opposite pole from Awake and Sing. There is a great difference in the Berger family, where "everybody hates, nobody loves," and the family of Noah, which has love flowing in all directions. The unbending patriarch Noah is made to appear somehow less tyrannical than the resourceful matriarch Bessie, even when he resorts to force to convince Japheth that he should enter the ark. While it is not the dominant element of the play, the concept of family unity is frequently underscored. At the end of scene two Japheth stands outside the family circle as his father intones a Sabbath prayer: "Oh, Lord, our God, the soul is rejoiced in Thee and Thy wonders. Here the family … is united to serve You as You asked." The remainder of the play is partially a chronicle of Japheth's return to the family scene.

The central portrait of cohesive Jewish family life was partially explained by Odets in an interview before the opening of The Flowering Peach: "I have a favorite aunt and uncle in Philadelphia. This uncle of mine is very voluble, very human. It occurred to me that here was a man of flesh and blood who was the Noah of the play…. I said to myself, wait a minute, Noah had three sons, it was a family life, I know family life. There are children and parents, with ambitions, with disappointments, with anger and love." Noah's family is clearly the product of an older and wiser playwright.

Not long ago Harold Clurman attempted to sum up in a single sentence the essence of Odets' significance in American drama: "We should not forget that his contribution to our theatre does not lie in any intellectual or social position he has taken or may take but in the kindness and intuitive brother-feeling he brings to all the themes he treats." While this "intuitive brother-feeling" remains strongly imbedded in his heart and mind, Odets has calmed his anger sufficiently to keep the more obvious propaganda in check. I have attempted to demonstrate this tendency in his work by examining the playwright's changing attitude toward the American family. It is possible, of course, to read too much into this apparent movement. Superficially it seems that the playwright's feelings have undergone a change from rebellion (Awake and Sing) through search (Night Music) to cohesiveness (The Flowering Peach), but Odets himself denies any conscious move in this direction. He has said, on the contrary, that all his plays "deal with homelessness in a certain way…. I've always felt homeless. I have never felt that I had a home. And if that is centrally true of me, and I know it is, that will necessarily come out in the work." Yet it is somehow difficult to reconcile this statement with Odets' remarks before the opening of The Flowering Peach and even more with the events of that play.

Catharine Hughes (essay date 20 September 1963)

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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 observation Albert Camus had recorded in his Notebooks: "a writer's death makes us exaggerate the importance of his work." Yet, running through all the lines of praise and retrospective evaluation, through all the reminiscences, there was an undercurrent, sometimes implicit, sometimes expressed. The obit writer for the New York Times took a stab at it when he noted Odets' "failure to outgrow the adjective 'promising' … the harsh criticism from many friends as a classic case of the artist who had 'sold out' to Hollywood."

Both of the observations in the Times' obituary happen to be true. Odets had become a symbol of literary prostitution long before the accusation—if accusation it be—was valid. He had also become something else, and it was much less noted.

When Waiting for Lefty opened as part of a New Theatre evening on January 5, 1935, and subsequently was reopened on Broadway by the Group Theatre, it was received with excitement by both audiences and the critics. Something new was going on in the theater, and the Depression theater badly needed it. Harold Clurman has termed it "the birth cry of the thirties," an indication that "our youth had found its voice."

It was not, of course, a very good play. A series of scenes, radiating from a meeting called to decide whether or not the taxi drivers' union is to go out on strike, with stereotyped characters: Harry Fatt, the union secretary; Miller, the lab assistant who stands on principle; Fayette, the industrialist; Benjamin, the idealistic Jewish physician: all were but briefly and perfunctorily sketched; all were there simply and solely to give voice to the author's thesis concerning the exploitation of the workingman and the revolutionary antidote.

Waiting for Lefty was a direct descendant—really, little more than a refinement—of the Communist and other left-wing agit-prop dramas of the thirties. Its importance lay not in any intrinsic merits, but in the fact that it was central to the appearance in the commercial theater of the socio-political drama. When the speaker turns to the audience with his exhortation, and all on stage shout "STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE!!!" at the curtain, he is only a step from the Fifteen-Minute Red Revue. Lefty was thus symptomatic of the efforts—and the partial success—of numerous writers and other artists who sought to bring their work into the mainstream of American life; to abandon the traditional Ivory Tower and assume roles in the rapidly evolving national scene. Its faults were those of any creative work which wears its Cause on its sleeve.

There is something more than usually ironic in the fact that Odets, starting out as the "symbol" of revolt in the American theater should ultimately have come to the point where, more than any other writer, he was singled out as the symbol of its opposite. Too often discussions of his work have failed to give due importance to the fact that the motion picture studios of the thirties were holding out not merely what were then fabulous salary offers, but also the promise of complete artistic freedom. Needless to say, Odets was far from alone in succumbing to this wooing. Indeed, it is probably accurate to say that a large percentage, if not most, of the successful writers of the period had their abortive fling. In Odets' case, however, the fling became habitual; the promises of a return to the theater, though sporadically and generally ineffectually fulfilled, but a preliminary to another junket West.

In the plays that followed Waiting for Lefty—Awake and Sing, Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moon, Paradise Lost, others—Odets was, consciously or otherwise, a romantic. He possessed little subtlety. If the ending was not happy, it was at least hopeful; it contained the promise of a future in which the sordid surroundings, the defeat and lethargy of the characters, might someday be surmounted. In one form or another, they proclaimed or whispered with young Ralph in Awake and Sing: "My days won't be for nothing…. I'm twenty-two and kickin'! I'll get along. Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No! 'Awake and Sing,' he said…. We're glad we're living."

Even in the anti-Fascist propaganda-piece Till the Day I Die, there is this element of affirmation. At the moment when he is about to commit suicide in order to avoid selling-out his comrades, Ernst feels called upon to assert that "we live in the joy of a great coming people!… Day must follow the night."

Odets was never fully able to avoid a sort of engaging naïveté. Perhaps more than anything else, it is what accounted for his later commercial failure. But, in its way "naïveté" is the wrong term; "sentimentality" would be more accurate. There is such a thing as love; there are such things as dreams. Tomorrow will come. They are sentiments increasingly out of place in the modern theater. Our "sophistication" has become too great. Odets said that an American playwright "shouldn't be afraid of being a bit corny." "Corn is part of American art," and he practiced what he preached.

"When I was twenty-one," Odets recalled, "I vowed I'd be famous. At twenty-eight I was—and found that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be." His comment—the theme of Golden Boy—was, to an extent considerably greater than his earlier revolutionary pronouncements, the most apt epitaph for one of our dominant literary attitudes. And, perhaps more than any other, it accounts for our failures.

To a considerable degree, Odets' sentiment—and his career—were almost an American prototype: the early overwhelming success and acclaim; the attempts to repeat it; the still-young relegation to the land of Whatever-Became-Of. We knew what had become of Odets; what we did not know was why. The American writer, with few exceptions, does not mature, he merely ages. His initial accomplishment is treated as an accomplishment. Under some all-seeing spotlight, he flails about in the fishbowl of his success. Sometimes, perhaps, it is easier to fail.

Odets, of course, knew what he had done, though not necessarily why he was doing it. In a sense, Golden Boy was his apologia; at least it was his search for one. As much as the Joe Bonaparte of that play, he was constantly seeking to reconcile two worlds. Where Joe, the violinist, attempts to sublimate his own sensitivities by an immersion in the promised quick success, the fame, the expensive cars and the like; where he, eventually—though accidentally—kills another man in the ring because of the necessity that he give vent to "the fury of a lifetime," Odets sought the reconciliation of his talent with the demands of Hollywood. If he did not exactly admit it—and he came reasonably close—it provides the subsurface for many a speech and many an interview. And, in 1949, there was the play The Big Knife, with its idealistic and socially conscious young actor, so like the early Odets, who is destroyed by the easy fanfare, the quick buck of Hollywood.

As Harold Clurman, who knew him so well and directed several of his best plays, observed: "Perhaps what Charlie (Odets) wants most is not 'to do a job' but to be 'great'—just as everything and everyone must be 'great' in our country from our girl friends down to our symphonies, from our dramatists up to our refrigerators. If Charlie is to be taken literally, he is a pig prodded by Odets' conscience." And, it goes without saying, Odets was to be taken literally in nearly everything that he wrote. He was not given over to the veiled allusion, the needlessly—or even the needfully—obscure. In a career abundant with ironies, perhaps the greatest of all was the fact that, having made extensive notes on a half dozen future plays, he had, at his death, just completed the book for a musical version of Golden Boy.

In the thirties, Odets was writing for a theater which was far more relevant to its over-all social context than is the case today. Further, it was a theater which, for all its ventures in didacticism and overt propagandizing, was a majority, rather than minority, spokesman. Elmer Rice, in such plays as Street Scene and The Adding Machine; Sidney Kingsley in Dead End; Robert E. Sherwood in Idiot's Delight, along with much of Odets and numerous other writers, addressed themselves directly to the social and international problems of the time. To some extent, their plays assume the role almost of curiosities, museum pieces respectfully hauled out to say "that's the way it was." There is a strange, in some ways almost eerie feeling that hangs about discussions of the playwrights of the period. They were writing of a world unlike our own. And it all happened too quickly.

Through the scar tissue of our nostalgia, then, is the only way in which they are viewed. To a point, they were caretakers of a form. (Oddly, it is possible to forget fairly quickly that a Waiting for Lefty, a Street Scene or an Adding Machine was, and rightly, considered the experimental drama of the day.) Perhaps, a decade or two from now, we will find that they possessed more merit than our present myopia can envision. For the moment, though, it is a period decisively clothed in the past tense.

Since Odets was not a great writer—since, indeed, it is doubtful whether he was anything too far beyond a capable and occasionally exciting one—the eulogies proclaiming the "tragedy" of his wasted talent are more nostalgic than accurate. Like all groundbreakers, or all who achieve the reputation for having been such, his initial reputation was at least partially undeserved; also like them, his subsequent work was frequently unfairly and harshly judged against the background of what was thought—or hoped—to be rather than what was.

Perhaps Frank's description in Golden Boy of what he "gets out of life" was an expression of what Odets would later believe he was missing: "The pleasure of acting as you think! The satisfaction of staying where you belong, being what you are" … Then again, perhaps it was not; perhaps all the periodic disavowals that he had sold out were more true than anyone realized. It may be that they reflected merely an unconscious—and accurate—evaluation of his own talent; an acknowledgement of the fact that, all our misplaced values aside, few are great and that, for the rest, like Ralph in Awake and Sing, there's "a job to do," one which is in line with their own talents and, though we strive, can only infrequently reach beyond them. While this may not be an altogether flattering assessment of Odets the Dramatist, it may well be that it is a considerably more valid one of Odets the Man. While it is a truism that "some are born great and some achieve greatness," many others, incapable of either, are more the victim of their supporters' and detractors' aspirations than of their own defection from them. The "tragedy," if such it be, lies in the fact that one can never be sure. It is, of course, also the saving grace. For Clifford Odets, this tragedy was not in the fact of having missed greatness, but in the very norms and standards of the peculiar thing we insist on calling American Culture, where "good" is never good enough, where it is indeed a dirty word.

Further Reading

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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 with movie stars.


Barbour, David, and Seward, Lori. "Waiting for Lefty." The Drama Review 28, No. 4 (Winter 1984): 38-48.

Describes the genesis of Odets's first play and its production, with a complete summary of plot, action, and characters, and lists the original casts from the 1935 debut and subsequent Broadway run.

Bray, Bonita. "Against All Odds: The Progressive Arts Club's Production of Waiting for Lefty." Journal of Canadian Studies 25 No. 3 (Fall 1990): 106-122.

Bray includes a social analysis of Waiting for Lefty in her recounting of a controversial 1935 production of the play during tense civil times in Canada.

Canby, Vincent. "Odets Waves An Olive Leaf in a Last Play." The New York Times (27 March 1994): Sec. 2, 5,32.

In a review of a modern production of The Flowering Peach, Canby analyzes the play within the context of Odets's testimony before HUAC.

"Clifford Odets." Educational Theatre Journal 28 No. 4 (December 1976): 495-500.

Excerpt from an interview in which Odets discusses his early years as an actor and director in the Group Theatre and the influences he found there.

Devlin, Diana. "Period Pieces." Drama No. 151 (1984): 48.

Reviews the collection, Clifford Odets: Six Plays, and argues why Odets's plays are important only as period pieces.

Lahr, John. "Waiting for Odets." The New Yorker, (26 October 1992): pp. 119-22.

Review of a 1992 revival of Awake and Sing! that includes an examination of Odets's work and its current relevance.

Lal, Malashri. "The American Protest Theatre." The Humanities Review 2 No. 2: 16-21.

Places Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! within the context of the protest theater movement of the 1930s.

Miller, Gabriel. "The Chekhovian Vision." In his Clifford Odets, pp. 29-61. New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989.

Aligns Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost with Anton Chekhov's plays on several points, then uses the comparisons to analyze Odets's plays thematically.

Pearce, Richard. "'Pylon,' 'Awake and Sing!' and the Apocalyptic Imagination of the 30's." Criticism XIII No. 2 (Spring 1971): 131-41.

Examines Awake and Sing! in the context of certain literature of the 1930s which reflected "a feeling of sense-lessness and a threat of apocalypse."

Shuman, R. Baird. "Thematic Consistency in Odets' Early Plays." Revue des Langues Vivant XXXV No. 4 (1969): 415-420.

Explores themes of "nonfulfillment, personal isolation, and loneliness," which permeate Odets's early plays and inform his later works.

Simon, John. "From Broadway to Berlin." New York 24, No. 3 (21 January 1991): 55-6.

Discussion of the plot and characters in The Country Girl in a review of a modern production of the play.

Clifford Odets (essay date September 1961)

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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 before Mr. Odets' death.

I had always wanted as a kid to be both an actor and a writer. For a while I thought I would be a novelist, but when I became a professional actor, my mind naturally began to take the form of the play as a means of saying something. I wasn't sure I had anything to say, because some of the other things I wrote were quite dismal. But being an actor. I began to think in terms of three acts, divisions of acts, and scenes within the acts, and whatever technique I have has been unconsciously absorbed—almost through my skin—with all the kinds of acting I have done.

Before Awake and Sing! I wrote a whole very bad novel and a few short stories, all of which I later tore up. The question is really not one of knowing how to write so much as knowing how to connect with yourself so that the writing is, so to speak, born affiliated with yourself. Anybody can teach the craft of playwriting, just as I can teach myself how to make a blueprint and construct a house, on paper. But what cannot be taught, and what I was fortunate in discovering, was simply being myself, with my own problems and my own relationships to life.

Without the Group Theatre I doubt that I would have become a playwright. I might have become some other kind of writer, but the Group Theatre and the so-called "method" forced you to face yourself and really function out of the kind of person you are, not as you thought the person had to function, or as another kind of person, but simply using your own materials. The whole "method" acting technique is based on that. Well, after attempting to write for eight or ten years, I finally started a short story that made me really understand what writing was about in the sense of personal affiliation to the material.

I was holed up in a cheap hotel, in a kind of fit of depression, and I wrote about a young kid violinist who didn't have his violin because the hotel owner had appropriated it for unpaid bills. He looked back and remembered his mother and his hard-working sister, and although I was not that kid and didn't have that kind of mother or sister, I did fill the skin and the outline with my own personal feeling, and for the first time I realized what creative writing was.

A playwright who writes about things that he is not connected with, or to, is not a creative writer. He may be a very skilled writer, and it may be on a very high level of craft, but he's not going to be what I call an artist, a poet. We nowadays use the term creative arts, or a creative person, very loosely. A movie writer thinks of himself as a creative person who writes films or TV shows. Well, in the sense that I'm using the word, he's just a craftsman, like a carpenter. He has so many hammers, so many nails, so much dimension to fill, and he can do it with enormous skill. But the creative writer always starts with a state of being. He doesn't start with something outside of himself. He starts with something inside himself, with a sense of unease, depression, or elation, and only gradually finds some kind of form for what I'm calling that "state of being." He doesn't just pick a form and a subject and a theme and say this will be a hell of a show.

The form, then, is always dictated by the material; there can be nothing ready-made about it. It will use certain dramatic laws because, after all, you have to relate this material to an audience, and a form is the quickest way to get your content to an audience. That's all form is. Form is viability.


I was twenty-six years old when I started Awake and Sing!, my first play. I wrote the first two acts, and six months later, in the spring of 1933, I went home to my folks' house in Philadelphia and finished the last act there. That summer the Group Theatre went to a place called Green Mansions Camp (in the Adirondacks), where we sang for our supper by being the social staff. After he read Awake and Sing! Harold Clurman announced one night at a meeting of the entire company that the Group Theatre idea—that we would develop from our ranks not only our own actors, but our own directors and perhaps our own playwrights—was really working out in practice. "Lo and behold!" he said, "sitting right here in this room is the most talented new young playwright in the United States." And everybody, including me, turned around to see who was in the room, and then with a horrible rush of a blush I realized he was talking about me.

But the Group Theatre didn't want to do the play. Although Harold Clurman, who was kind of the ideological head, liked it, he didn't have the strength to push it through to production against the wishes of the other two directors, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford. Lee Strasberg particularly didn't like the play. He kept saying, "It's a mere genre study." Strasberg and I were always on the outs. Although he has many other qualities, I could take just so much of his, let me call it now, authoritarian or dictatorial manner, his absolutism. And I, who was one of the humbler members of the acting company—even though I had been there practically from the start—would flare out at him and we would be shouting at each other like a pair of maniacs across the bowed heads of the entire company of thirty or so other persons.

I kept pleading with Clurman to do my play and he kept saying that it read so well he didn't know if it would act. I said it would act like a house on fire. And he said, "I don't know, I don't know," and I said, "Well, just take my word for it." I said it very fiercely. So he decided to try the middle act one night on the Green Mansions Camp audience—and it did just what I said. It played like a house on fire. I had felt sure it would, for I knew the theater very well by then. I'd been walking around on stages since I was a kid, putting on plays in high school, with amateurs, being a leading man and director of a company on the radio called "The Drawing Room Players." And when I saw that act up there on the stage I realized I had real writing talent, and right then I was not to be stopped or contained.

Well, now I thought surely that Group Theatre would do my play, but to my bitter disappointment they had not the slightest interest in it. Here was the Group Theatre with all its ideals, here was my own company with which I felt such a sense of brotherhood, and here was my play, which they could have just taken and done; I didn't want any money for it. Furthermore, it seemed to me better than the plays we were doing. The play we were rehearsing at this time (by Sidney Kingsley), called Crisis, seemed to all of us threadbare in texture. It turned out to be very successful—due chiefly to Lee Strasberg's extraordinary and beautiful production, and became very famous as Men in White. Well, I couldn't see why, if they could do Men in White, they couldn't do Awake and Sing!

However, just as Men in White was opening that fall on 46th Street at the Broadhurst Theater, a fellow I had acted with at the Theatre Guild, a nice man named Louis Simon, told me that he was now working with Frank Merlin in the Little Theatre right across the street. He said Merlin, who was looking for new American plays, had heard about Awake and Sing! and he suggested I give him a script for his boss. When I told him I didn't have any copies, he said, "Well, get some typed up and give me one and, who knows, next week you might have $500 advance royalties." I was very impressed with that possibility, so I had six scripts typed up for twelve bucks, which was one-third of my weekly salary of $35. And about five or six days later, I had a check for $500. I'd never seen so much money in my life. And since I had gone again before the Group Theatre and said, "Look, somebody wants to take an option on this play. You going to do it or not?" and they had practically thrown me out, it was with double satisfaction that I got my first option money.

Merlin was rhapsodic about Awake and Sing! He said, "This is the kind of play that America should be producing. It's the beginning of something new in the American theater." Then I thought, well, I'm going to get an immediate production here. But Merlin, poor man, made a fantastic blunder which changed his whole life. Now, Merlin had $50,000 to spend. A wealthy man had given his new wife $50,000 to play around with in the theater. She had walked in on Lee Strasberg and just said she wanted to hand this whole $50,000 over to the Group Theatre in exchange for a humble position as assistant stage manager, or whatever it was she wanted to learn. Well, Lee was such a kind of rabbinical student that he just turned and looked at her, kind of shrugged, and was silent. The woman felt very embarrassed and finally left and took the $50,000 to Frank Merlin at the Little Theatre.

Mr. Merlin, however, now made the sad mistake. He had another play, called False Dreams Farewell, which he said was an inadequate play, but a hell of a show. It had something to do with the sinking of the Titanic or the Lusitania—very expensive and elaborate. He put the play on first because he felt it was going to make money, and he didn't think my play would, and he lost about $40,000. If Mr. Merlin had done Awake and Sing! first—it was a small cast with one set and its operating cost would have run about $3,000 a week—it would have run for two or maybe three years. But he lost most of his money on this first venture.

This was now August or September of 1934, and the Group Theatre was determined, in the purity of its heart, that it would have to go away and do a new play when it might very well have continued the run of the very successful, and by this time Pulitzer Prize, Men in White. But purity prevailed and we went up to Ellenville, New York, to a big, rambling, broken-down hotel—don't forget, with its office and managerial staff the Group Theatre consisted of maybe thirty-six men and women and their children—and we had to find quite a large place to live in. We arrived practically when autumn was setting in at this old Saratoga-type wooden hotel, with all the bedding piled up, and we lived in an itchy and uncomfortable way there for about five or six weeks while we put into rehearsal a play by Melvin Levy, called Gold Eagle Guy. I had, perhaps unfairly, only scorn and contempt for the play because I thought Awake and Sing! was far superior as a piece of writing. Indeed, we all felt that Gold Eagle Guy was a stillborn script, and Luther Adler summed it up for us one morning at rehearsal when he said, kind of sotto voce, "Boys, I think we're working on a stiff." That morning we were almost improvising certain scenes, which we would later scale down to the playwright's words. Levy would get alarmed because the actors were not quite saying his words, and not using his punctuation. To this day there are playwrights who don't know their punctuation isn't very important in the recreation of the character they've written, or that, as we used to say in the Group Theatre, their script is only a series of stenographic notes.


In any case, I had been given my own room at this old hotel, which gave me a certain lift. It's surprising how very important a small satisfaction can be in the life of one who is moving away from what I can only call illness to some kind of health or strength. (You must remember the background to all of this was that before I was twenty-five I had tried to commit suicide three times; once I stopped it myself and twice my life was saved by perfect strangers.) Before this I had always been quartered with one or two and sometimes three other actors, but when they gave me my own room, with clean, whitewashed walls, I began to feel they had some sense that I had some kind of distinction, and I was very happy.

I had by now started Paradise Lost, about a man, Leo, who was trying to be a good man in the world and meets raw, evil, and confused conditions where his goodness means nothing. Almost all of that play came out of my experiences as a boy in the Bronx. I saw people evicted, I saw block parties, I knew a girl who stayed at the piano all day, a boy who drowned, boys who went bad and got in trouble with the police. As a matter of fact, two of the boys I graduated with ended up in the electric chair and another boy became a labor racketeer. Not too much of that play was invented; it was felt, remembered, celebrated.

One night I had the idea for the scene in the play which I call the Fire Bug Scene. It just impelled itself to be written, and since I had no paper I wrote the whole scene as fast as I could on the white wall. The words just gushed out; my hand couldn't stop writing. Then later, I copied it down on the typewriter, but to this day the scene may still be on the wall of that old hotel.

The next day, well, I had that advance money from Merlin, and I had always wondered what real liquor tasted like. Prohibition was over, and all I had ever had was bathtub gin and very phony rye whiskey. I went into a liquor store and bought two cases of mixed liquor—two bottles of everything—Scotch, gin and rye, applejack, sherry, red port, and something called white port which I have not seen again to this day. And I and my particular chums in the Group Theatre, Elia Kazan, Art Smith, Bud Bohnen, and one or two others, went to town on all that stuff. I got to know what real liquor, real Scotch, tasted like. There was booze in those two cases that I have not tasted since. We went down to the village one night, got drunk, and got arrested. We had a helluvatime.

During this time, however, I was extremely discontented about my acting. Many of us were fretful in those days, because we had higher hopes for ourselves than playing bits and walkons. I had been assigned to play two bits in Gold Eagle Guy, but I didn't have a part in Success Story, which we had done before and were now reviving out of town to keep us going while we were rehearsing Gold Eagle Guy.

John Howard Lawson's Success Story—a good play—had, by the way, a very decisive influence on me, by showing me the poetry that was inherent in the chaff of the street. I began to see that there was something quite elevated and poetic in the way the common people spoke. I understudied Luther Adler, who played the lead, and while I never got to play it, I came to understand that living quality in Lawson's play by studying the part and writing down how I thought I would approach it as an actor. Getting a part also meant that you would learn what the hell the technique was about. There wasn't time for too many technique classes, so there was more than an ego problem involved in our wanting good parts, for it was the only way we could really get the benefit of Strasberg's training.


Strasberg worked with a wide range, then, of techniques and things. There were times when you would do improvisation for a part—the sensation, for instance, for riding a train or boat. It would play only a small part in the play, but concentration was given to it. Or you would do exercises or improvisation for simply being cold, for re-creating winter on the stage. As a matter of fact, the Group Theatre built up a set of actors and actresses who were extraordinarily reliable in small parts as well as in leads. Say this woman is a nurse, and this actress would go away and she would be a nurse to the life. She thought about how a nurse waddled, and what kind of shoes she would wear, why she walks the way she does, and what her professional mannerisms are.

Anyway, one day I told Harold Clurman, who by then had become my particular friend among the three Group directors—he was a kind of older brother to me—I told him that since I had never got a part, I was leaving and was going to do something about playwriting. He pleaded with me to stay, promising he would see that I got a good acting part in the coming season, and indeed I think I was leading him on a bit because I wouldn't have known where to go. Where else could you go? All I really wanted was to have the Group Theatre do my plays. These early plays were made for the collective acting company technique. They're written for eight characters, with six or seven of the characters of equal importance. Well, this is purely from the Group Theatre ideal of a stage ensemble, and this so fetched me and so took me over that this was how I wrote. I don't think, still, that even today anyone could put together such a company with its very brilliant ensemble performance but Lee Strasberg. That was Lee Strasberg's baby and he was 100 per cent responsible for it. Later, with this perfected tool, this ensemble, anybody could direct them who had a common lingo, a common frame of reference. It was easy for Harold Clurman to direct Awake and Sing! or Golden Boy with this company that Lee Strasberg had put together—any actor could have directed it, by that time. And Lee Strasberg has never gotten enough credit for that.

Strasberg and Clurman were a unique team. The procedure was that the directors picked the plays—remember, though, that we didn't have our choice of dozens of plays. Strasberg and Clurman saw rather eye-to-eye about what was in a play. They wanted progressive materials, they wanted yea-saying rather than nay-saying materials. After the play was chosen Clurman would call the company together and would talk with extraordinary brilliance for anywhere from two to five hours, analyzing the meaning, talking from every point of view, covering the ground backwards and forwards. And if the actor's imagination was touched, somewhere, which was his intention, then the actor would catch something and begin to work in a certain way, with a certain image or vision of how the part should go, with here and there Clurman giving him a nudge. Strasberg would never say a word. He was the man who, in action, directing, would bring out the things which Clurman had abstracted. Strasberg understood the concrete elements which you give an actor. But the sense of the play, its characters, its meaning, what it stood for, Clurman is most brilliant at this thing.


Well, now we move up to Boston in the late fall of 1934 to open Gold Eagle Guy, and that's when I wrote Waiting for Lefty. I now had behind me the practically completed Awake and Sing! and about half of Paradise Lost, but somehow Waiting for Lefty just kind of slipped itself in there. Its form and its feeling are different from the other two plays, and I actually wrote it in three nights in the hotel room in Boston after returning home from the theater about midnight. It just seemed to gush out, and it took its form necessarily from what we then called the agit-prop form, which, of course, stands for agitational propaganda.

I really saw the play as a kind of collective venture—something we would do for a Sunday night benefit in New York for the New Theatre Magazine, a Left magazine that was always in need of money. My demands were so modest that I tried to get two other actors in the Group Theatre who I thought had writing talent to assist me. One of them, Art Smith, came up with me one night to my hotel room and we talked around and around this thing, but he seemed rather listless about working with me, so I went ahead by myself.

As a matter of fact, the form of Waiting for Lefty is very rooted in American life, because what I semi-consciously had in mind was actually the form of the minstrel show. I had put on two or three minstrel shows in camp and had seen three or four other ones. It's a very American, indigenous form—you know, an interlocutor, end men, people doing their specialties, everyone sitting on the stage, and some of the actors sitting in the audience. There were a number of plays then, usually cheap and shoddy plays, that had actors in the audience. I had played in one called, I think, The Spider, in Camden, New Jersey, when I was in stock. I guess all these things conglomerated in my mind, but what's important for Waiting for Lefty is how it matched my conversion from a fellow who stood on the side and watched and then finally, with a rush, agreed—in this drastic social crisis in the early 'thirties—that the only way out seemed to be a kind of socialism, or the Communist party, or something. And the play represents that kind of ardor and that kind of conviction.

About ten days after the tryout in Boston we opened Gold Eagle Guy at the Morosco Theater in New York, and the play got very bad notices. In all New York theaters you automatically lose the theater when the play receipts fall below a certain figure, so we moved over to the Belasco. It happened that three or four or even five of my plays were done at that theater, which people thought was very glamorous, but I always thought it a rather crummy old joint, shabby, with uncomfortable seats. Anyway, to keep the play going the actors and the playwright took cuts in salary, but in a few weeks it closed and we were forced out into the cold winter. We had no new play to put into rehearsal and there was a sadness around the place.

In the meantime I'd gotten some of the actors together and had started to rehearse Waiting for Lefty. I gave Sandy Meisner, an actor friend of mine, some of the scenes to direct, and I directed the bulk of the play. Strasberg, who was quite resentful of it, told Harold Clurman, "Let 'em fall and break their necks." One of the main things about Strasberg was that he always hated to go out on a limb. He must save his face at all times. Almost Oriental. I suspect that the thing about Strasberg was that whenever the Group Theatre name was used or represented, it was as though his honor was at stake. He didn't like me, he didn't like what I had written, and he felt it would in some way be a reflection on him, on the entire Group Theatre. This man who could be so generous, sometimes could be so niggardly and begrudging. It was with great trepidation that I had proposed putting on this play at all, and when I asked him a few questions about handling a group, an ensemble, he'd answer me very curtly, and I thought to myself, "Oh, the hell with him. I'll just go ahead and do this myself."

And then, the night of the benefit, I had an enormous fight down at the old Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street to get my play put on last. They used to put on eight or nine vaudeville acts there for the Sunday night benefits and they wanted some dance group to close the show, but finally, because I threatened to pull it, they agreed to put Waiting for Lefty on last.

It was very lucky they did because there would have been no show after that. The audience stopped the show after each scene; they got up, they began to cheer and weep. There have been many great opening nights in the American theater but not where the opening and the performing of the play were a cultural fact. You saw a cultural unit functioning. From stage to theater and back and forth the identity was so complete, there was such an at-oneness with audience and actors, that the actors didn't know whether they were acting and the audience didn't know whether they were sitting and watching it, or had changed position. I was sitting in the audience with my friend, Elia Kazan, sitting next to me (I wouldn't have dared take on one of the good parts myself) and after the Luther Adler scene, the young doctor scene, the audience got up and shouted, "Bravo! Bravo!" I was thinking, "Shh, let the play continue," but I found myself up on my feet shouting, "Bravo, Luther! Bravo, Luther!" In fact, I was part of the audience. I forgot I wrote the play, I forgot I was in the play, and many of the actors forgot. The proscenium arch disappeared. That's the key phrase. Before and since, in the American theater people have tried to do that by theater-in-the-round, theater this way, that way, but here, psychologically and emotionally, the proscenium arch dissolved away. When that happens, not by technical innovation, but emotionally and humanly, then you will have great theater—theater at its most primitive and grandest.

Of course, the nature of the times had a good deal to do with this kind of reaction. I don't think a rousing play today could have this kind of effect because there are no positive, ascending values to which a play can attach itself. My own new plays will never arouse that kind of enthusiasm, but they will have searched out and will express what has been happening here in the last fifteen years. And this isn't going to be anything to dance and shout about, because what happened here in fifteen years is really frightening. One of the new plays, An Old-fashioned Man, will almost cover the American scene from the time of FDR's death to today. I think the play is of considerable import, but really the kind of import that makes you sit there and think, rather than the kind that makes you get up and burn with zeal.

However, we now had to face the closing of Gold Eagle Guy. There was an emergency meeting and we were told we would have to disband. It was at this time that the actors took over and upset the applecart. We took the theater out of the hands of the three directors, especially Strasberg's, who was still extraordinarily resistant to the idea of doing Awake and Sing! What happened was that the Theatre Guild wanted to do Awake and Sing! for their last production of the season. So I rather timidly asked at this meeting whether the Group Theatre was or was not going to do my play because I had another offer.

Strasberg got up and pointed his finger at me and said, "I have told you a dozen times. I do not like your play. Your play will not be done by the Group Theatre." And it was Stella Adler who got up and said, "Well, is it better to disband, and those people who can get jobs will and the rest are going to be cold and hungry, as they have been many times before? And what's the matter with this play? Why shouldn't we do it?" And one or two other actors chipped in and Strasberg began to fight with them. Clurman says that he just sat letting things develop, and they did. Strasberg said, "But the play doesn't have a third act." I said, "It has a third act. It's not as good as it can be, but I can rewrite that." And, lo and behold, in a wave of what I call the Group Theatre spirit, it was voted, without the directors' interfering, that the next play we would do would be Awake and Sing! And Lee Strasberg kind of withdrew as the active director, so to speak, and Harold Clurman directed it.

When I rewrote the third act of Awake and Sing! I built up the boy to a kind of affirmative voice in the end, more affirmative than he had been in the original. There were technical reasons for this change, but the change had occurred in me, too—a growing sense of power and direction. If I was going up, everything had to go up with me. But as you see, it runs throughout the play. The boy is always resentful of who and what he is, of his position in the world. And he always wants to get married and he can't, because of, let me call it that economic factor in his mother, who is always very authoritarian, always making decisions for him. And the grandfather, as weak as he is, was always against the values by which his daughter and the household lives. He always sided with the boy. So tried and true, that play.

Awake and Sing! opened at the Belasco Theater in February 1935. The notices were legendary. In the meantime we had been playing benefit performances of Waiting for Lefty all around and it was getting more famous by the minute. Even the commercial managers, the Shubert office, had called me and asked to see a copy of it. In the general enthusiasm Strasberg jumped on the bandwagon and now suggested that we bring Waiting for Lefty uptown, and I said, yes, I would write another play to go with it, which later became Till the Day I Die. I had read in The New Masses what I thought was a letter that had been smuggled out of Europe, from a man to his brother in the (anti-Nazi) underground, and in a wave of enthusiasm I wrote, in three or four nights, a play based on that letter. That's how arrogant youth is, for it never occurred to me to clear it in any way with The New Masses, and it turned out that the letter was not a real letter at all, but a short story in letter form, and later I was approached and had to pay that man royalties. In any case, Till the Day I Die was paired with Waiting for Lefty, and the whole town wanted to see it. And the whole town wanted to see Awake and Sing! You know—"America has found a really important playwright"; "The Group Theatre has found its most congenial playwright within its own ranks…."

For me, strangely enough, the success and fame was a source of acute discomfort. I didn't have the psychological strength to face this kind of onslaught. It had on me a strangely isolating effect, even more isolated and cut off from the very things I was trying to get to. Later on when I became really a successful playwright the Group Theatre acting members, my friends, started to treat me quite differently. However, that's ahead. All I wanted then in 1935 were some of the things that were mentioned in Waiting for Lefty—a room of my own, a girl of my own, a phonograph and some records. And I got 'em. Nothing more I wanted.

Then I ran into a nerve-racking period where I thought I was going to go to pieces, just out of emotional exhaustion. I understood in this period of my life how van Gogh felt. I understood the kind of insanity and frenzy of his painting. I almost couldn't stop writing. The hand kept going. It began to frighten me. With all this set in the matrix of an American success—nothing is more noisy and clamorous than that. There are enormous tensions and strains within it, because you don't want to change, you want to hold on. You want time to digest, but you're just kind of swept off your feet, with wire services and interviews and people telephoning you; the parties you're invited to, the people who just take you up. You want to savor these things, flavor them, but you'd like it on your own terms. You'd like the time to establish forms with which to deal with it, or else it will drive you cuckoo.

Some of it, though, was gentle and sweet, like my mother. This was in a way all she ever lived for, to see her son fulfilled. She hadn't been sick; she just lived another couple of months and died. My whole life changed in this period. Within three months I was not the same young man I used to be, but was trying to hold on to him.

In any case, I now began to finish up Paradise Lost. The play, with Harold Clurman directing it, was treated with dignity and importance, and the actors approached it in a very dedicated way. It opened on December 9, 1935. It's too jammed, too crowded, it spills out of its frame, but it is in many ways a beautiful play, velvety; the colors were very gloomy and rich. And no one who acted in it or saw it in that production will ever forget it. It got very bad notices from the working press, but from unexpected people like Clifton Fadiman it got quite extraordinary notices. But the play was by all means a practical failure, judging by the notices and the reception.


I was, by then, being offered all sorts of movie jobs. One man offered me $500 a week. He was then the head of Paramount; poor man, Budd Schulberg's father. I thought going to Hollywood was the most immoral thing I could do, and yet who wouldn't want to go to Hollywood? When I finally went it was with a sense of disgrace, almost. A man came from MGM and just to get rid of him I said I wanted $4,000 a week. He called the Coast and arranged to pay me $4,000 weekly. I didn't accept the offer, but the company was making their usual sacrifices trying to keep Paradise Lost going, and I thought finally I'd go to Hollywood and send back half my salary to the Group Theatre to keep the play going. So in the end I signed with Paramount for $2,500 a week and sent back half to the Group Theatre. That was really not enough to keep the show going, and it closed after another couple of weeks. I went out there and wrote a movie, The General Died at Dawn, which was full of good ideas, but in the end it was a set of clichés on which we made some good birthday decorations.

But I'm not really interested in talking about Hollywood. I am interested in investigating not so much why—I understand why—but how I tried to take some kind of real life I knew and tried to press it into an ideological mold. How, actually technically, I used to try many ways to make the materials of my plays say something that they really were not saying by tacking on a certain ideological posture. I think this did damage to the plays and the material, but I couldn't have done otherwise in that period. It's the one thing that really disturbs me about the early plays—that I would very easily, very fluently and naturally, give an expression of a certain kind of life, and then try to tell the audience what it meant.

I think very simply that the material was always richer than the ideational direction that I tried to superimpose upon it. It was just enough to give birth to the material and let it say what it had to say. And yet, still in all, the life which was expressed, was impelled by some ideological direction in which I was going. It's almost like not trusting the material to make a statement, but you have to add a comment that was not really indigenous to the material. Jack Lawson, for instance, was a distinguished playwright, but he ruined himself artistically by tailoring his materials to fit an ideological conception. The last play he wrote, Marching Song, was concepted along these lines, and it's dead as a nail. I think it's a crime to see what happened to this juicy, gifted playwright when he got an ideology. Fortunately, however, the Left movement didn't absorb too many good talents. When I started to write Awake and Sing! I didn't have a mission in life; I wasn't going to change society. When I came to rewriting it I was going to change the world—or help change it. I should have learned a lesson from Ibsen; that it's simply enough to present the question. "You in the audience think about it; maybe you have some answers."

Soon after I arrived in Hollywood I began working on a new play, The Silent Partner, which is a very sympathetic portrayal of a man from an old American family who is ousted from his plant when the new management takes over. His sons have kind of drifted off; one killed himself in Hollywood while drunk, by jumping into a pool which didn't have any water in it. I've never rewritten the last act, but five of the nine scenes in it are the best writing I've ever done. The Group Theatre was going to do the play but I didn't have it ready. I was kind of discontented with myself and with the way things were going. I had come out to Hollywood to do a movie and now I was getting mixed up with the woman who was going to be my first wife. Finally I rented a little house where I started to work on the play seriously but all the while I was beginning to resent being pushed into plays for the Group Theatre. A play, when I put it into rehearsal, would never be ready, but the Group Theatre needed it, for there was always the prospect of the actors going without work.

When the play was finally put into rehearsal I was not quite satisfied with it yet. I had to sacrifice some of what I call the poetic quality of the play, because the texture was very dense as originally written, and in attempting to make things more concrete the play suffered, but still it kept most of its virtue. By then, with the help of FDR's Administration, the strikers had won and had organized all over the country into the CIO, and the play was a little dated in the sense that these big strikes were now a year or two behind us. The play was also critical of the working class. Because the point was, you know, stop the foolishness. For God's sake, get serious or die. You're going to die for lack of seriousness.

After The Silent Partner was in rehearsal for three or four days Clurman said to me, "Look, we'll produce any play you write. But you know this will be a very heavy and expensive production. We budgeted it for $40,000." So I said, "Why are you telling me all this?" and he said, "Well, the play will fail. We'll be out all that money and the actors will be out of work. But if you want us to do the play we will."

So I said, "Well, when you put it that way you don't give me much choice. Pull the play, then; don't do it." And I was very hurt, but not intelligent or mature enough to say, "Stop the shit and do the play. It's necessary for me. And after all the sacrifices I've made, just do the play and lose $40,000. It's worth it to me." And I never even tried to publish the play. The production of that play was necessary for me, because nobody in the U.S. was writing that way. To this day nobody can write that way, including me. Everything was extremely heightened. You didn't know whether it was real, or mystic. Were these real human beings? Where was this happening? It was the beginning of a new striking out for me. You see, later, when I wrote a play that was successful, like Golden Boy, the Group Theatre had a treasury at last. It was quite all right for them to lose money, most of the time out of my pocket, on experimental things—to give Bobbie Lewis or Gadget Kazan a chance to direct something, to do trash by Irwin Shaw. But while it was necessary and good to help Gadget or Bobbie Lewis to become a director, or to do a special matinee performance of an Irwin Shaw play, I was the first necessity. I never put my mitts up. I just walked away.


And then the Group Theatre again was breaking up. Again there were no scripts. First of all, there was some impossible ideal. There was a time when we turned down plays like Maxwell Anderson's Winterset as not good enough for us. We realized later that we made a grave blunder there, but nobody was resourceful enough to go out and look for plays; the larder was always bare. This is why my plays always went on before they were finished.

Anyway, it looked like the Group Theatre was through. Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford had left; everybody kind of voluntarily disbanded for six months, and Harold Clurman came out here to Hollywood. It was very difficult for him to take the Group Theatre breakup. So I said, "I'll tell you what, Harold, I have an idea. You get the company together on October first and I'll have a new play." I told him in about two sentences what the play was about. I just said there was an Italian boy whose father wanted him to be a violinist and he has true gifts for that, but he wants to be a prizefighter. I had married Luise Rainer by then, and my bride of maybe six or eight months said, "What is that about? It's nothing. It sounds crazy." Harold said, "Let him alone, Luise. He knows what he's doing." She couldn't understand it and was rather bewildered. But he understood that something could come out of that; he knew how I worked.

I went back to the apartment in New York with my one page of notes for the new play, and Clurman set two or three actors to watch me to see that I didn't run off. All that summer I worked on Golden Boy, and it was ready I think before October first. I really wrote that play to be a hit, to keep the Group Theatre together. And it was a hit, my first really big hit. It pleased me, which was foolish on my part. It pleased me because now I was being accepted as a Broadway playwright. Before that I was kind of a nutty artist who had some kind of wild gift, and now, only now, was I a man with a ten-million-dollar arm who could really direct the ball just where I wanted it to go.

I must say, I think now that the circumstances under which I had written the play are what make me not like it. I feel the same way about The Country Girl. It doesn't mean anything to me; it's just a theater piece. I felt that way about Golden Boy for years afterwards, because it seemed to me to be really immoral to write a play for money. But I did see it once out here. Charlie Chaplin had never seen it, so the two wives, Charlie, and I jumped into a car and went to see it at the Pasadena Playhouse, and on seeing the play quite objectively, I thought, "Gee, this is really quite a good play." There's something written into it—a quality of American folk legend—that I really had nothing to do with. It was a much better play than I thought it was. So after that I made my peace with that play.

We revived it for ANTA in 1952. John Garfield always wanted to play the part and Lee Cobb played the father. By then, there were such accepted clichés for playing the parts that Garfield and Lee Cobb fell right into the stereotypes. Every once in a while Cobb would slouch onto the stage, very successful, at ease. Nobody can be so at home on a stage as Cobb, you know. And I'd say, "What are you playing? Are you playing a successful actor, or this rather humble, but perceptive old Italian father?" It was hard to try to break the stereotypes in four weeks.

One play I did like is Rocket to the Moon. It was based on an idea which I had for a long time, although I didn't know the real theme of it until I wrote it. I knew the play was going to take place in a dentist's office and that there was going to be a little dental secretary there who was going to take him away from his wife. But I didn't know that the play would be, so to speak, about love in America, about the search for love, and all the things it turned out to be about.

Plenty of my ideas kind of germinated sometimes for two or three years. On the other hand, sometimes I get an idea and sit down and write from just one page of notes. I find that those things often come out best when I don't know what's going to happen, and in fact, most of the time I don't know what I know or what I think until I say it. Ask me what I think about the world, about the kind of morality in this country, oh, I can give you some intellectual talk about it, but it's not till I write a play that I know what I really think, that I know where I am in the whole mess and can really make a statement that I didn't know was in me to make. That's one of the reasons that keeps me writing plays.

Leslie Weiner (review date Winter 1975)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4050

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 disbanded. I addressed my letter to his agent in New York and the following week received a cheerful note from Beverly Hills. Odets was glad I was still writing plays, he had time on his hands because of a Hollywood strike, and if I'd care to send the script, he'd read it promptly. "Promptly" turned out to be a term of some elasticity, but after an exchange of letters and phone calls, he suggested I come to California for a day or two and hear what he had to say. He met me at the airport, insisted I stay at his home instead of a hotel, introduced me to his friends as "a playwright from New York" (I was then still unproduced), and the "day or two" became eleven fascinating days during which he discussed not only my play but his life. Our work sessions together consisted mainly of his talking and my laughing. I flew back home in a four-engine jet, but I could have made it without the plane.

This flow of memory has been stirred by the simplest of events: in moving my desk to another room, I came across my old, dog-eared copy of Six Plays by Clifford Odets, published in the Modern Library in 1939. The pages opened themselves to Awake and Sing, and immediately I was sucked into a Bronx apartment of forty years ago. All his life Ralphie wanted a pair of black and white shoes, I read, and the delight I once experienced upon hearing those words in the Belasco Theatre came rushing back with such intensity that I spent the rest of the weekend devouring all six plays. During the following week I got hold of the five later Odets plays beginning with Night Music and ending with The Flowering Peach, and for the first time I let myself make the connection between a motif in all his eleven plays and the man himself: all his characters, fool or knave, victim or victimizer, poet or peasant, are drawn with an expansive generosity, a genuine fellow-feeling; though viewed sharply and unsparingly, they are never rendered without a redeeming tolerance and good humor. We are all brother schlemiels in the human comedy, he seems to be saying, so let us try to be kind to one another. It is in this respect, in his loving attitude toward his gallery of creations from Bessie Berger to the Biblical Noah, and not in any penchant for plotlessness, that Odets is still our most Chekhovian playwright. The love which seems to be his special gift is manly and sympathetic and comes out of his awareness of the peculiar pain which American society, promising so much but delivering too little, inflicts on its hopeful middle class. But what was so winning and remarkable about Odets was that he didn't exhaust all his brotherly feeling on his fictional people; he was no less kindly and decent to the living people he went out of his way to know. How different he was from O'Neill, that instinctive recluse. Odets' readiness to offer a hand to me—whom he knew only in a most general way—was entirely consistent with the fraternal spirit which infuses his work and which, in my eyes, is one of the sources of its distinction.

I feel I'm describing some prehistoric age when I say that for the generation that grew up in the Thirties, the Broadway theater was a glamorous and exciting institution. In addition to the great comics and Gershwin and Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart, there were some twenty-odd talented dramatists working regularly, earning a good living from their plays. And the unchallenged star of them all, the playwright who had four productions running in 1935 alone, the face on the cover of Time, the darling of the galleries and the meal ticket of the idealistic Group Theatre was Clifford Odets. It wasn't puffery that made his reputation, nor was it the favor of the critics, who were never more than lukewarm. It was bestowed on him by the audience who paid from 55¢ to $3 to see themselves on the stage for the very first time.

I had been going to the movies every Saturday afternoon since my fist was strong enough to hold a quarter. I was nurtured on American heroes—aviators, criminals, cowpokes, detectives, soldiers, lovers all. I never dreamed that I and my Jewish family could be the subject of drama—what bank did we ever rob, or cavalry outflank, or pretty thing rescue from an onrushing train? When in September of 1935 I saw my first Broadway play (two of them, in fact; Awake and Sing was running with Waiting for Lefty), I had no idea I was starting with the very best Broadway had to offer; I thought naively, well, this is the theater, this is what it's like. And what I saw was a bombshell, real, living, recognizable, ridiculous, passionate Jews, out of the closet at last! Father Coughlin regularly offered his fascist wisdom on the radio, and in the papers Hitler dominated European politics, and here before us came the object of their hatred, the Bergers and Benjamins and Starks of New York. And how they talked, these Odets characters! At a time when other playwrights wrote English, grammatical or otherwise, Odets employed a patois which was urban, sophisticated, funny, and apt. He moved the best of the street idiom from the streets to the stage and added his own joyous color and wordplay. The result was witty and exhilarating; even when he forced his metaphors and invited parody, it was interesting overwriting. Today, so many years later, it's amazing to me how vividly I recall the scene-by-scene progression of Awake and Sing, which, in a sense, is the most unwritten of Odets' work. The Bergers seem to tumble all over each other, writing their own lines, acting out their minor destinies without guidance from anybody, least of all the author. Odets was so full of the struggle of everyday living in a depressed city, he was so in sympathy with his embattled New Yorkers (he was a member in good standing), that he seemed to need very little theatrical artifice to render them lusty and whole. I spent a lot of time with Odets in the spring and fall of 1951 listening to him talk of his plays, and again in 1960 in California, but I don't recall him ever speaking of Awake and Sing. It was as though that play were a fact of nature, like a school of mackerel or a mountain; there wasn't really much to say about it.

The story of Clifford Odets' own life is almost classically American. His most commercially successful creation, Golden Boy, the tale of a gifted youth who had to choose between boxing and music, is the single play which most directly mirrors Odets' own personal conflict between doing his work as an artist and "getting his name in the papers." At three different stages of his working life, he left Broadway for Hollywood to make a bundle, and perhaps to spread his name; Hollywood was his fight game, the theater his fiddle. In his time, when practically all films made in Hollywood bore the flat, adulterated stamp of the studio, artistic work was not only not required, it was forthrightly regarded as an obstacle to production. Through two decades Odets was alternately able to doodle for the screen and to do some of his best work in the theater. But in 1955, after The Flowering Peach closed on Broadway, he turned for the third time to the Coast to raise his two motherless children and earn a livelihood from films. On my visit in 1960 he told me he had "ideas" for five plays. He never wrote them, but not because he was overwhelmed with movie work.

He filled a lot of his time optioning properties, proposing deals, fretting, waiting, waiting for the ponderous machinery of business to inch forward and give him the go-ahead on a screenplay. At that time I had a friend connected with Princeton University. I asked Odets if he would be interested in teaching for a year or two. His quick and emphatic interest surprised me. He would need a house and $25,000 a year and a limited schedule so he could write his plays. "Yes, I think I'd like to be a don," he said musingly, but he couldn't suppress a little laugh. I did try to make a marriage between Odets and Princeton, though I was doubtful he would actually come East. (He had earned $200,000 the previous year and was short of cash.) After mulling it over briefly, Princeton decided to let the matter drop; writers-in-residence, particularly expensive ones, were not yet in vogue.

There's no question that Odets' need for fame and fortune was real and enormous. We can understand Joe Bonaparte's sense of deprivation, his lust for a success that would take him out of the ranks of the nobodies. Joe, the Golden Boy, after all was 21, poor, a member of a despised ethnic minority and cockeyed to boot. But why was it important to Clifford Odets, an American playwright of international stature, that he always be welcome at Billy Rose's table? Or that he be seen in the company of Jascha Heifetz and Ava Gardner? Why did he have to earn $200,000? You don't permit yourself the indulgence of writing a Biblical parable for the stage when you're convinced you need that much "to live." (This was 1960, mind you; what's the equivalent figure today?) Odets knew only too well that in pursuing his art the chances of fashioning a popular success were just about what he had achieved: two hits in eleven tries. The fire to write was present all right, but it burned at a low flame; and if he did complete a play, who would produce it? The Group Theatre was no more, Dwight Deere Wiman was dead, and his experience with Robert Whitehead, who produced The Flowering Peach, was painfully unhappy. No wonder those five plays remained in his head.

He was more comfortable in Hollywood than he realized. He was regarded as a famous dramatist-doctor whose specialty was quick diagnosis and surgery for diseased films already shooting. His price was high, and he could work with energy and zest off the top of his head. He was a night person who enjoyed the social life of Los Angeles.

Tall and trim, he cut an imposing figure with his shrewd wide eyes and his wild half-a-head of reddish hair. He loved his bachelor freedom and took delight in dating the most beautiful women in the world. He was a brilliantly engaging companion and his generosity was excessive. The only thing he needed that he didn't possess was a proper respect for his talent, even though in his preface to his Six Plays he declared, speaking of himself, "Talent should be respected." He didn't even try to write good movies. "A good show" was what he aimed at, an elusive target when your heart's not really in it, as his last two movies proved. ("Did you see Story on Page One?" he asked. I had seen it, but said I hadn't. "See it, it's a good show.") The plain, sad fact is that he was not passionately committed to his work, as Charles Ives was to his music, as O'Neill was to his art; nor did he take Hollywood's money and run home to his desk as Faulkner did. He actually cared about the price he could command as against other screenwriters. That became his measure of respect.

His need for lots of money accounted for more than unwritten plays. It hurt him in the working out of a play which I've always found tremendously appealing and stageworthy, The Country Girl. It is the fashion to regard this play as superficial; even Odets, with enthusiastic reviews in his pocket and the play running strongly, joined in the general disparagement, referring to it as a mere "theater piece." The Country Girl is the story of two talented men of the theater who are dependent on the aid and comfort of a loving woman, Georgie Elgin. Georgie's defeated actor husband has a chance to regain his manhood in a comeback; though used and abused by both him and the director, Georgie sees her husband through his crisis successfully. By now the director has fallen in love with her, and so she has a choice: director, husband, neither. She opts for her husband, thereby satisfying the theme that an artist needs a "friend." Sure, why not, but what does the friend need? We have become convinced she is the only side of the triangle with the character to stand alone. She has paid and overpaid on her responsibility to these attractive but obtuse men; psychologically and dramatically, the way has been opened for her to walk out into the independent life she desires. The play appeared in 1950, two decades before the women's movement, but Odets had a clear chance to affirm in modern detail what Ibsen had dramatized seventy-odd years before in A Doll's House. Nothing holds Georgie back from a believable move to freedom but the playwright. Odets read the play to us in his Actors Studio class, read it proudly because he considered it "the best technical job of construction I ever did." At least five members of the class were so struck by Georgie's last-scene cave-in that they accused Odets of parental abandonment. To our surprise, Clifford made no attempt to defend himself. He said he had considered Georgie's solo exit very seriously, but inasmuch as his purpose in writing the play was to make some badly needed money, he was afraid a commercial audience wouldn't accept an "unhappy" ending. He was "sure" they would go for this more conventional windup.

How one can be "sure" about any new work in the theater is a question worth asking. What is still breathtaking, even discounting the degree to which he claimed he was conscious of the problem, is that an artist of Odets' gifts caught up in the production process—as intense and exhilarating an experience as one mind can deal with (he was his own director as well)—would deliberately debase the most important work of his life, which for a playwright is always the play he is currently working on. Can one imagine O'Neill trimming his sails this way? Last winter a television production of The Country Girl proved remarkably rich and complicated and touching—until that pallid, nerveless last scene.

But then, Odets was always doing things which would protect his flanks or, to be more exact, his earning power. In this sense too he was the playwright of the Thirties par excellence. He was haunted by the specter of the Depression, and he never lost his doubt and wonder that his ten fingers working on a typewriter could defend him from an economic cataclysm. Nor did he underestimate the toll in psychic energy that writing cost him. His life was a constant struggle between wanting to work and wanting to play. He felt guilty and oppressed when not working, but that didn't make him less reluctant to take a chance on something he might not get paid for. The idealism of the Thirties somehow came out in the Fifties as cynicism: all very well, boychick, for a single young man to say life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills, but when your wife is ill and the children require therapy, life turns out to be printed on nothing less than C-notes. More and more he made decisions according to the effect on his income.

At the same time, he was extravagant in the giving of what was indeed priceless: himself. Directly after The Country Girl opened in New York in November, 1950, Odets announced he would conduct a playwriting course, open to anyone interested, admission to be gained by submitting one playscript. Odets would read the scripts and determine the membership of the class. For the New Year of 1951 I quit my well-paying job and foolishly announced to my wife that henceforth I would be a writer. Suddenly with nothing but time on my hands, I couldn't think of anything to write. After a month of idleness I took sick, naturally. One afternoon when my wife and child were out and I was in bed with a fever, the phone rang. The caller identified himself as Clifford Odets. "Cut it out, Harold," I grumbled. "Quit horsing around. I have the flu." But it was Odets: he had read the play I had sent in and he invited me to join his class, clearing up my illness by nightfall. For more than three months, our group met twice a week through a hot muggy spring; Odets, punctual as a German, never missed a session. It was the best tutelage of my life.

In February, 1952, Odets was one of the speakers at a memorial for J. Edward Bromberg, who had been a member of the Group Theatre and the Uncle Morty of Awake and Sing. Odets was genuinely astonished at the huge turnout, the outpouring of affection for the dead blacklisted actor. He began to read what he had written out, but twice he interrupted himself, looked up, blinked at the crowd, and said haltingly, "I didn't realize so many cared, had no idea … I'll have to do some rethinking…." It was clear he was moved and distressed, as though he were already wrestling with the summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee. In May of that year he appeared publicly at the Washington hearings and named the names which would give him absolution in the Committee's eyes but not in his own. He knew better than anyone that they were asking him to repudiate his Paradise Lost and Waiting for Lefty; he was caught in a ritual minuet and figured he might as well do the steps. He was the prize catch of the season for the Committee: the author of the "Communistic" Awake and Sing denouncing the communists.

Why did he cooperate with these petty political morons? Up until his appearance before them, no one had defied the Committee with impunity. The stubborn Hollywood Ten had been cited for contempt and were delaying their jail terms by litigation. The successful non-cooperation of Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller came much later, after several court tests had delimited the Committee's power to punish. Odets was not going to break new ground and challenge "the government." Billy Rose, Jerry Wald, and the guys at "21" would not have understood, nor would they have approved. And the Committee had all the names anyway—what he told them wasn't news. Besides, giving out the names was a tiny fraction of his voluminous testimony. He was naively upset when the press quoted little else than that he had knuckled under; he thought they might have used some of his critical comments! Eight years later he still talked defensively about his testimony. I didn't particularly want to hear about it, for by that time I had resolved my own disappointment with him by deciding that his Committee appearance had really harmed no one but himself. Had he spectacularly challenged the Committee, it would have been exhilarating. But that would not have been the true Odets: for all his rhetoric, he was always more of a lover, in the Whitman sense, than a fighter. What did happen was that he spent many unhappy hours chewing over that experience. And the result of his rumination was his final play, The Flowering Peach, the story of Noah and the ark—Clifford Odets' expression of how, in times of catastrophe, one must be content to ride out the storm. As Rachel says to the character who represents the reflective side of Odets, "There is idealism now in just survival."

The play, begun as an idea for an opera to be written with Aaron Copland, suffered through a rocky shakedown tour before it settled into the Belasco in the last week of 1954. I saw that first production about a month into its run and thought the first half enchanting, the second a little less so, but I left the theater satisfied that I had seen a play. There was a cool mastery in the writing which suggested that, although Odets was certainly speaking of himself, he was telling about Noah at an honest arm's length. The writing in The Flowering Peach had a terseness, a wit, and a felicity of expression that may be superior to any of the other ten plays. Touching and suggestive of better things to come, it bespoke a wounded, chastened Odets immensely attractive even in guilt. It seems cruelly ironic that The Flowering Peach was his last work for the theater; to me, Odets stopping there is like O'Neill never having written The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.

One afternoon during my Beverly Hills visit we'd had a particularly enjoyable session on my play, and later Odets expressed his confidence that I would soon find a producer for it. And then he said a little diffidently, "And listen, I think I'd like to direct it. Yes—I really would." I was delighted. I assured him nothing would make me happier. "I'd be good for the play," he said, trailing off, and then adding soberly, "and it would be good for me."

Movement in the theater being what it is, two years went by before my producer was ready to cast the play. He enthusiastically agreed that Odets should be the director and suggested I call and offer him $5,000. It happened that Clifford was free of movie commitments that fall, and he thanked me for my loyalty to him, but he simply couldn't afford to come East for that kind of money. I pointed out that he'd be receiving a fair percentage of the gross as director, we wouldn't necessarily die at the box office, we'd pick up his expenses, and so on. It was all terribly tempting, but no, thanks. A quarter-of-a-million dollars worth of Paul Klee on his walls, I thought bitterly, but he can't afford the theater! Where does he think he made that money, cutting velvet? In the end, we did die at the box office, but he might have delayed it.

The last time I saw Odets was February, 1963, in New York. He took me to dinner at the Plaza and was generously consoling about the failure of my play. I was blaming myself for the frantic rewriting I had done in Philadelphia and Boston which effectively drained off the strength of the original version. He assured me that it couldn't have been my fault, it was probably them. Depressed as I was, I couldn't help laughing.

When he signed on as script editor of The Richard Boone Show, he tried to get N.B.C. to approve an old script of mine which he had always liked. They turned it down, and he wrote me a note expressing his scorn and disgust with his TV gauleiters. That summer I fell into a spell of vivid dreams. I would wake in the morning remembering the dreams, something unusual for me. One night I dreamed that Clifford had died. In the morning I told my wife about it. That evening I received a call from a writer who had been my classmate in Clifford's playwriting course. He told me that Odets was dead of cancer.

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1536

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 measures against aggression." Communist parties then adopted the Popular Front, whose purpose was to create political coalitions of all anti-fascist groups. The Communists continued to be effective and consistent opponents of the rising power of Nazi Germany.

The conversion to communism of men of letters, often people of unusual sensitivity, expressed feelings sometimes shared by the inarticulate masses who felt that Russia was on the side of the working class. The compelling attraction of "an active comradeship of struggle involving personal sacrifice and abolishing differences of class and race"—was often too great to be resisted.

An American man of letters who joined the Communist party and used his pen to warn theatrical audiences against fascism was Clifford Odets. In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression in America, Till the Day I Die was produced on Broadway and became one of the first serious anti-Nazi plays to reach the commercial theatre. This one-act play was suggested to Odets by a letter purporting to be from Nazi Germany. He had read this letter in The New Masses.

Using the expressionistic method, Odets divides his play into seven startling scenes. The action in Till the Day I Die takes place in Berlin in 1935, a time when Germany is undergoing economic distress. Ernst Tausig, a Communist working with the underground press, believes that the recently published leaflet will make the Nazis perspire once it gets into the workers' hands: "Workers might like to know the American embargo on German goods has increased 50% in the last six months." Wages are low, prices for vital foods have increased, and unemployment is widespread. The purpose of this underground newspaper is to inform the people of the real state of affairs in Germany. There is great distrust among the people, for the Nazis have infiltrated the ranks of the Communists, and Communist sympathizers, in turn, have joined the Nazi party.

The lives of the people in this troubled land have altered drastically. Ernst, once a violinist, has become an active member of the Communist underground in order to combat fascism. The party members, however, are full of hope. Ernst's dream of the world is for happy people everywhere:

I ask for hope in eyes: for wonderful baby boys and girls I ask, growing up strong and prepared for a new world. I won't ever forget the first time we visited the nursery in Moscow. Such faces on those children! Future engineers, doctors; when I saw them I understood most deeply what the revolution meant.

Because the times are not conducive to marriage, he and his fiance, Tillie, postpone theirs to a more favorable time. When the Secret Police enter their underground room, Tillie convinces them that she is a prostitute and Ernst is her customer. At the close of this scene, Odets employs the dramatic device of shrill whistles, variously pitched, which slow with hysterical intensity.

In a scene which takes place inside a Brown House where Ernst is taken as a prisoner, Odets shows some of the forms of Nazi brutality. Schlegel, the interrogator, asks Ernst, whom he knows to be a musician, to place his "sensitive hands" upon the desk, an action which is followed by the smashing of the prisoner's fingers with a rifle butt. This cruel act eventually results in the amputation of Ernst's right hand. The captured Communist, however, adamantly refuses to reveal the requested information to the Nazis. In the barracks the soldiers amuse themselves by seeing who, with the strongest blow to the head, can knock unconscious the unfortunate prisoners.

Major Duhring, a Nazi officer who is a Communist sympathizer, warns Ernst of the dangers he will encounter, for the Nazis are determined to obtain certain information from him, such as the names and addresses of party officials. They plan to beat Ernst savagely, nurse him back to health, and inform his comrades that he is a stool pigeon. They will place him next to the Nazi driver when they make raids and will stand him outside the courtroom when his friends are tried for treason. In order to carry out their plans, Ernst will be released immediately so that he can be followed by the Nazis who expect him to make contacts with other party members. Duhring advises Ernst to kill himself. Before long, Duhring and Schlegel have an encounter, and Schlegel is killed. Schlegel has investigated Duhring and found Jewish blood. Unknown to the others, Duhring has been destroying files containing valuable information. His parting words to Ernst echo the philosophy of the Popular Front. He tells Ernst to let the people work for a united front in every capitalist country in the world. After Ernst leaves, the major removes his Nazi arm band, tears the Nazi flag from the wall, and kills himself.

When Ernst goes to Tillie, he learns that she is pregnant with his child. Despite the present gloom there is hope—hope that even if the two adults are not fortunate enough to live to see "strange and wonderful things," their unborn child will live in a better world.

The Nazis follow the procedure outlined by the sympathetic major. Even though Ernst is not guilty, the Communist underground cannot afford to take chances on his doubtful status. Ernst, then, is blacklisted by his group. His brother Carl states fervently the belief of the party: "There is no brother, no family, no deeper mother than the working class." As the scene ends, Tillie slowly raises her hand to be counted among the affirmative voters who expel her lover from the party.

In the final scene, a sick, lonely, and desperate Ernst comes to see his brother, who appears convinced that Ernst is working for the Nazis. Ernst, broken in mind and body, makes a final attempt to clear himself of the spy charges—to clear himself before his lover, his brother, and his comrades. His recitation is a tale of horror, and he begs his brother to kill him. Carl, of course, refuses but tells Ernst that if he destroys himself, the world will know that he is innocent. Before putting the gun into his mouth and firing the shot that ends his life, Ernst exclaims that although their agony is real, they live in the joy of a great and coming people:

… The animal kingdom is past. Day must follow the night. Now we are ready: we have been steeled in a terrible fire, but soon all the desolate places of the world must flourish with human genius. Brothers will live in the soviets of the world! Yes, a world of security and freedom is waiting for all mankind!

Ernst remains faithful to his ideal, and the bitter drama closes on a note of hope.

Till the Day I Die met with disfavor from those who were not in sympathy with its theme. When the play was produced on the West Coast during the 1930's, Will Geer, who was affiliated with the production, was severely beaten by hoodlum sympathizers with the New Germany. In New York, Odets was forced to put a heavy lock on the door of his apartment. Some drama critics wrote unfavorable reviews of the play. Brooks Atkinson, for example, felt that Odets' communistic devotionals would best appeal to the party ear. If one wishes to register an emotional appeal against Nazi polity, declares Atkinson, Odets requires him to join the Communist party.

Despite its flaws, among them the scenes depicting Nazi brutality, Edith Isaacs writes that Till the Day I Die is "dramatic, honest, direct, mounting to its climax by a progress in characterization and a deepening of situation until there is no escape for either the man or the idea." When I reread the play after several years, I was touched by the poetic beauty of many of the lines in this otherwise stark drama.

Dissatisfaction with the economic and political situation in Germany caused the Communists to protest and engage in an active fight for a change. Increased military forces and the production of armaments were the basis of Hitler's economic recovery. Odets, in Till the Day I Die, implies that German Nazism, paralleled in capitalistic countries, was as great a threat to American hopes and integrity as it was to the German people. Odets felt that monopolistic capitalism was growing vicious or fascist. The struggle depicted in Till the Day I Die was for true democracy everywhere. As an artist as well as a social and political critic, Odets devised an expressionistic method that would arouse his audience to the dangers of fascism everywhere….

Benjamin Appel (essay date Summer 1976)

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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 few of the "graduates" would see their plays produced—as Clifford Odets, president, dean and faculty had hoped—and with the cry of Author! Author! in effect be awarded their "degrees." William Gibson who had submitted a play on the life of the young Shakespeare (admission to "Odets University" depended on an approved script) would write Two for the See-Saw, and Louis Peterson would be acclaimed as an important playwright after the production of his Take a Giant Step. Leslie Wiener, Jack Levine, Jimmy McGee and four or five other students whose names skip me would make it to Broadway or Off-Broadway.

It so happened that I had written a play based on one of my novels and like a thousand—or were there ten thousand other would-be playwrights in New York?—I had read about the projected class in the theatrical pages of the New York Times. I mailed mine in, it was accepted, and with some fifteen other successful applicants was admitted to the sessions. We met twice a week; each session lasted four hours with a break in the middle. Odets' theatrical knowledge, his patience, his generosity apparently had no limits. Once, he missed a class due to illness, to return, wrapped in a muffler with a bottle of medicine on his desk.

It was inevitable, however, as we smoked and chatted during the breaks for some of us to speculate about his motives. After all weren't we observers of mankind?

"Clifford's psychiatrist must've advised him to do good …"

"He's compensating for the money he made in Hollywood …"

We had no dearth of amateur psychiatrists. There were also one or two self-appointed commissars of culture:

"Clifford's full of guilt for the years he spent writing movie crap …"

The commissars had no use for The Country Girl, starring Uta Hagen, a Broadway hit. We had all seen it—those free tickets! and Odets had analyzed it in class, discussing the problems he had faced and their solutions. When he was done dissecting a scene he would throw the floor open for a general discussion.

Even his harshest critics in the class admitted that, "Clifford took it on the chin …" But one afternoon he exploded when his play was torn apart as being too commercial, too slick, too Hollywood. He reminded his leftist critics that he was a pro and that we were all beginners. The class was shocked. Hadn't Odets himself declared at the opening sessions that we were all peers, all students of the theatre?

He had been so unprofessionally open, so modest, answering every sort of question. Nothing was barred. Questioned about his politics he had unhesitatingly replied that he was a radical …

To me, Clifford Odets was a semi-legendary figure whose first plays Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, Rocket to the Moon had given shape and voice to the 1930's, that decade of hunger and hope when so many writers, Odets among them had, as the popular phrase put it, "gone left." His early plays made him famous. Airborne to Hollywood, the golden Olympus, he was soon a top writer of movie scripts. Perhaps, he would have remained there if the House Un-American Affairs Committee or HUAC hadn't pulled the curtain on a real-life drama that for all too many years would fascinate the nation. Like that epic of the silent movies, The Perils of Pauline, the HUAC production—it could be called The Red Menace—was a non-stop serial running on and on, featured on the front pages of the national press.

The first scene of the first act—Time: 1947—starred the Hollywood Ten, among them Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz, John Howard Lawson. Scene followed scene, involving still other alleged Communists, fellow travellers, left-wingers: a dazzling fireworks into which "unfriendly witnesses" (that is all who invoked the Fifth Amendment or so-called "Red Amendment") would be tossed. The show went on and on. If "unfriendly witnesses" defied the inquisitors, the "friendly witnesses" beat their once-upon-a-time red or pink breasts and hastily decked themselves out in red-white-and-blue brassieres. Some of the "friendlys" were genuinely sincere, genuinely disillusioned in—their once fervent faith in the haloed Josef Stalin, the Red Jesus. Still others, driven to the confessional box by plain sweaty fear, hoped to save their careers.

No use listing their names. All suffered. The men and women who resisted the pressures to conform, and the many whose principles had either changed or had never been more than skin-deep; red on top, white beneath, like the proverbial radish. HUAC purged Hollywood and when they moved on to other arenas, the blacklist remained. The movie moguls, of course, denied its existence but somehow or other if you weren't "friendly" you were, as they said in Hollywood, as good as dead.

There was also the gray list, so-called because the fate of the listees—writers, directors, actors—still had to be decided. Clifford Odets was one of the gray listees when he returned to New York in 1951 with his actress wife Betty Gray and their children, rented an apartment whose walls displayed his paintings: a mini-museum of Utrillos and Modiglianis.

My first meeting with Clifford Odets wasn't at the Actors Studio but at a party whose guests included Erwin Piscator and Mrs. Berthold Brecht, refugees from Hitler's Germany. Brecht himself had already returned to the eastern and Communist half. Odets, that evening was tense and uncommunicative. Only afterwards would I guess at some of his anxieties. There he was newly arrived in New York, a refugee himself, self-expelled from his native land—for Hollywood like some legendary kingdom has always belonged to its conquerors. He was no longer the young dramatic poet who had flashed like a revolutionary meteor over New York in the 1930's. Still youthful in appearance, the intelligence in his dark eyes like some invisible and preservative glue binding together mouth, chin, nose and high forehead, he was nevertheless in his middle forties. And no actor—and he had been an actor before becoming a playwright—can ignore the calendar reflected in his mirror.

He only came to life when Piscator criticized Odets' play, The Big Knife, the first he had written since his early successes. I had seen it before meeting the playwright and hadn't cared for it. The Big Knife was one of those plays in which art and politics had been shaken together to make an unsatisfactory cocktail. The characters were Hollywood personalities typical of what might be called the HUAC 1950's; torn between their youthful beliefs and the pressures to keep silent, to conform, to betray. There was passion in the play and there was also hysteria as if the big knife had wounded Odets where no writer can afford to be wounded: his artistic vision. Piscator's barbs were sharp. Odets tried to defend his play, arguing that like a painting a play had to be seen more than once before a final judgement …

I have gone into some detail on my first meeting with Clifford Odets—offstage business so to speak—but necessary I feel in understanding the playwright who had left Hollywood and would soon found "Odets University." He had told us he was a radical, a man of the left … I would soon remember that statement of his. There is no doubt that he was already formulating what he would say when summoned by HUAC; rehearsing the role he would play when the lights came on full glare.

Several of his more intransigent critics dropped out of the class. The "off campus" gossip became more caustic. I found myself defending him. What difference did it make, I argued whether Odets felt guilty for his "wasted Hollywood years" or whether his psychoanalyst (if he had one) had told him to Do Good or whether The Country Girl was inferior to Awake and Sing. What mattered were his actions: the four-hour classes; the playdoctoring conferences at his home including weekends. We were lucky, I said, to have Clifford as our teacher.

At the occasional parties he gave at his home for his students and their wives or girl friends, Odets would sometimes ask me for my opinion about his venture. Perhaps, because I was more observer than active student; I hadn't done a thing with the play I had submitted, too busy preparing a new novel for publication—perhaps because like Odets himself I had come of literary age in the 1930's—anyway he was eager to know what I thought. And always I assured this unsure man of how much we appreciated the time, the energy, the knowledge that went into each session. He would visibly relax to hear me.

In the spring of 1951 "Odets University" shut down although he continued working with students at his home, reading their revised scripts and suggesting changes. Then, what he must have expected and feared came to pass. HUAC summoned him to Washington.

I followed the Hearings in the press and later read the full record issued by the Government Printing Office. It seemed to me that two different men had testified before the Committee. A defiant Odets who eloquently upheld the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And a confused, worried Odets who eventually revealed the names of friends and associates who had once been Communists as Odets had been himself. He had "named names" and yet as I heard on the grapevine he didn't regard himself as an informer or as a "friendly witness." Hadn't all the names been named by previous witnesses? It was true. They had been named and Odets felt, it seemed, that he had divulged nothing new or incriminating.

All I was certain of was that I had no right to judge him. That right only belonged to those who themselves had faced the inquisitors. I hadn't been called to testify. I had never known—I could only imagine—the agonies of a man confronted by professional patriots who had the power to pin an updated scarlet letter on the chest of any witness they deemed to be unfriendly. What I did was write Clifford Odets a note in which I expressed my sympathy. I had to do that much. I couldn't forget his generosity, not only to me, but to all of us in that class of his.

This is his reply:


Dear Ben Appel—

I was glad to have your note. For the most part the judgements (so judgmental everyone is!) of what I did and said in Washington have been disgustingly mechanical, based on a few lines printed in newspapers, right or left, when actually there were three hundred pages of typed transcript. Personally, I find this a disturbingly immoral time and this immorality exists as much on the left as on the right. Personal clarity, in my opinion, is the first law of the day—that plus a true and real search for personal identity. I don't believe in any party or group doing my thinking or directing for me. When I find out what I mean it may in some small measure be what this country means and that I will say in play or plays. I hope you are well and writing as I am on the verge of being and doing.

                                  Best regards,

                                 Clifford Odets

He would return to Hollywood to write movie scripts. There would be no new plays. The Big Knife, The Country Girl and The Flowering Peach—this last written while he still lived in New York—completed what theatrical critics would call his opus. He died some years back but his plays, the last plays and the first plays, remain to tell his story.

Real writers like Clifford Odets always write their own autobiographies in their plays or novels. The formal biographies are necessary, of course, and no doubt they will appear.

Richard J. Dozier (essay date Fall 1978)

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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 its poor reception as "a practical theatre work," and twenty years later he was still defending the play by admitting its faults but suggesting that they had somehow grown out of its virtues: "It's too jammed, too crowded, it spills out of its frame, but it is in many ways a beautiful play, velvety; the colors were very gloomy and rich. And no one who acted in it or saw it in that (original) production will ever forget it." So it would seem: when Paradise Lost was recently produced for public television, Harold Clurman, together with Luther and Stella Adler, stepped forward to praise Odets' achievement and to provide nostalgic comment on his first theatrical "failure." About some matters, at least, the Group could still be fervent.

Most of the critics who attended the December, 1935, opening of Paradise Lost were less enthusiastic. On the whole they discovered a play that by comparison with the earlier Awake and Sing! seemed "overwrought" and "confused." Indeed, the latter charge was made with numbing recurrency as reviewer after reviewer found fault with the play's sprawling characterization and plot structure. The new play was not of course without its defenders, even outside the ranks of the Group. John Gassner, who in January of the following year had already praised Odets' "realistic symbolism" in a long and thoughtful New Theatre article, in June reiterated his belief in the play's importance and suggested that it "involved a stylization and an abundance of content that laid the work open to misunderstanding." Nevertheless, in the years since it first appeared Paradise Lost has remained open to the kind of "misunderstanding" that characterized its initial reception in 1935. For the most part, it has continued to be regarded as a poorly managed reworking of material the author had dealt with more successfully in Awake and Sing! or an even more glaring example of the artistic collapse that could overtake a leftist playwright who forced ideological concerns on his art. The persistence of this view is most evident in Edward Murray's Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After (1968). In the long chapter he devotes to Awake and Sing! Murray provides us with the most thorough literary analysis of Odets' work to come out thus far, but in his zeal to establish Odets as a major playwright the author has felt it necessary to dismiss three of the early plays that made Odets famous. Waiting for Lefty is mentioned only briefly as an example of the playwright's misguided political militancy, and Paradise Lost is ignored along with Till the Day I Die since "neither," in Murray's opinion, "can add any luster to Odets' critical reputation."

Interestingly enough, there is less overt Marxism in Paradise Lost than in Awake and Sing! where Jacob's political platitudes are constantly at the mercy of Odets' ironies. Pike, the furnace man who serves as the play's resident revolutionary, remains as confused throughout as the other characters, and as someone nicely observes after one of his jeremiads, "all this radical stuff is like marrying the colored maid." But neither the presence nor absence of political theorizing in itself explains what happens in Paradise Lost, nor can such considerations ultimately dispel the objections lodged against Leo Gordon's hopeful speech at the play's close. Moreover, though the comparison with Awake and Sing! is both inevitable and instructive, the similarity between the two plays breaks down, for while the positive ending of Awake and Sing! is the result of a carefully sustained imagistic and gestural pattern, it is the abortiveness of this pattern that is everywhere emphasized in Paradise Lost. As Gerald Rabkin has noted, "the image is starker than that of Awake and Sing! because the seeds of redemption, although present in the play, are not allowed to flower." Odets' reluctance to establish this redemptive motif is the chief of the differences which separate Paradise Lost from his previous work, differences which suggest that in his final play of 1935 he was beginning to explore several new directions in his art. In order to appreciate Odets' achievement in Paradise Lost we must look beyond the similarity between Leo Cordon's and Ralph Berger's final speeches, as well as certain other elements common to both plays—we must even be prepared to admit that in the final act of Paradise Lost Odets' actual accomplishment may have run counter to his conscious intentions. But to do so is to be more fully aware of the "rich" and "gloomy" colors Odets was striving for in a work that represents a deeper, though more troubling, vision than that in Awake and Sing!


Impatient with the Group's reluctance to produce Awake, Odets had already completed a considerable portion of his second full-length play before the first was produced. "My impulse," he later told interviewer Arthur Wagner, "was—well if they didn't like or think Awake and Sing! was good enough, I would in a certain sense try to write Awake and Sing! better." One consequence of this effort was the strong similarity between the two plays that disgruntled some of Paradise Lost's reviewers. As the idiom in the Gordon household makes clear, theirs is still another urban Jewish family. Unlike the apartment-dwelling Bergers, the Gordons are part-owners of a small business and own their own home. The crash, however, has taken its toll, and the house has been mortgaged to keep the business going. The list of "boarders," which includes Leo's partner Sam Katz, has grown considerably over that in the earlier play, but the paradoxical situation created by the presence of so many "homeless" people under one roof is essentially the same as in Awake.

In both plays the press of economic conditions has either discouraged or deeply affected the romantic attachments of the young people. Like Ralph and Blanche, Pearl Gordon and her Felix reluctantly break off their engagement because of money; but no such misgivings prevent Ben Gordon, the onetime Olympic runner and pride of the family, from entering into a precipitous marriage with Libby Michaels that proves as unfortunate as the one in Awake. There are noticeable similarities between the lovers in the two plays. In her thwarted desire for happiness—"I want fun out of life!"—Libby appears to be a coarser, more calloused version of Hennie; and Ben's cuckoldry at the hands of his sidekick Kewpie recalls the fate of Sam Feinschreiber in Awake. Kewpie's attachment to a married woman, his illegitimate source of income, even his general philosophy—"In case you'd like to know, I'm sore on my whole damn life"—are traits obviously carried over from the character of Moe Axelrod.

Most of the other characters in the play also show traces of having been modelled on those in Awake, Libby's father, Gus Michaels, resembles Awake's Myron Berger both in his talk about movie stars and his preoccupation with the past; the blustery Sam Katz has replaced Uncle Morty as a spokesman from the capitalist class; and Pike, who takes over Jacob's function as political chorus to the action, is a not-too-distant relative of Schlosser, Awake's unhappy janitor. Finally, though there is more than a touch of Bessie Berger in Clara Gordon—her house, like Bessie's, is a matriarchy—it is the self-effacing Bertha Katz who, without any of Bessie's aggressive outer coating, eventually exercises the kind of control over her infantile husband that is practiced on Myron Berger.

More importantly, the Gordon household is another variation of the Odetsian "crazy house" whose inner disorder is designed to reflect the disarray in the world outside. As in Awake, that world is suffering from what Leo calls "a profound dislocation." "The whole world's fallin' to pieces, right under our eyes," Gus exclaims. One senses the disintegration in the physical impairments of the family members whom Clara repeatedly addresses as "lunatics." Leo Gordon is given to nose-bleeds at critical moments; Ben can no longer run because of a bad heart; and his brother Julie, who suffers from encephalitis, is a walking corpse. Perhaps the most ominous sign of conditions in the Gordon house is that the "ants" detected earlier by Myron Berger have now grown into. "spiders" whose presence in the cellar of the building suggests that its very foundation is decayed and crumbling. Clara's warning to Leo that "The lock on the back door's broken again"—coming as it does on the heels of the call about Ben's death—contributes further to the overall impression that things are falling apart in Odets' symbolic house.

In Paradise Lost the emphasis is once again less on economics than on what Pike calls "the depression of modern man's spirit"; and the atmosphere in the Gordon house provides an appropriate setting for the distorted human relationships that constitute the pattern of Odets' particular wasteland vision. The reversal of parental and sexual roles, for instance, is occasionally more striking here than in the earlier play. In contrast to her shy and retiring husband, Clara Gordon takes the initiative when Sam Katz complains about the "bums" who move freely about the house, and her threat to "knock out his teeth" is almost made good when Katz attempts to prevent his wife from airing the truth about their life together. Near the end of the play when Phil Foley, the demagogic leader of the Nemo Democratic Club, demands that the Gordon furniture be removed from the sidewalk lest it interfere with his "prosperity block party," it is Clara who defies him, and she has to be restrained when Foley returns with two detectives. While she is always tolerant and indulgent toward Leo himself—"I found out many years ago I married a fool, but I love him"—her several references to playing "poker" with the "girls" are comic reminders that their relationship is not perhaps what it should be.

The most startling instance of the breakdown of conventional marital roles, however, is reserved for the scene in which Bertha finally reveals why the Katzes have no children. Prior to this Sam has always pretended that the fault lay with his wife, an explanation that has seemed plausible because of the wig a previous illness has forced her to wear. In fact, part of Sam's antagonism toward the shop delegation stems from his resentment that "A fly spot like Gerson should have a baby!" while "a man like an ox can't have a son." He still clings to this illusion, even on the brink of this confession to Leo: "In the circus they got a bearded lady … (and) in my house I got a baldy woman!" Pressured from all sides, however, Sam can no longer conceal either his theft of the company money or his sexual failure, and Gus Michaels' prophetic riddle about "a woman who sleeps with cats" is borne out in Bertha's disclosure of his impotency:

BERTHA: All right, we can't have children.

SAM: Tell everybody, tell the world!

BERTHA: He didn't go out with girls. I never worried about that.

SAM: No, no, no…. (Falls on his knees in the outer hall and writhes in prayer on the lower step.)

BERTHA: We have upstairs a closet full of pills, medicine, electric machines. For seven years Sam Katz didn't sleep with a girl

Helped at last to his feet, the broken Katz makes his final exit, led away by a woman who turns out not to have been "childless" after all.

Although Sam Katz's collapse stands out in the play by virtue of its distressing suddenness, his predicament is not an isolated phenomenon in Paradise Lost. An imputation of childishness, sterility, or impotency—alike symbolic of the inability to order or direct their lives—hangs over most of the other males in the play. Leo, like Katz, cries in his sleep; Julie Gordon, Clara's "beautiful boy," asks his mother not to close her door at night; and Kewpie later tells Ben's parents that their elder son died because "He was a little kid in a man's world … you made him like that." More significantly, Sam Katz's references to his "baldy" wife form part of a pattern, reminiscent of the anecdote about the elder Feinschreiber in Awake, in which hair, beards, and barbering are associated with sexual or spiritual failure.

Despite his apparent fatherhood of Libby's child, Ben Gordon's ritual visits to the barbershop suggest that his "manhood" is in constant need of reassurance. Just such a stopover delays his initial appearance and the news of his and Libby's marriage. Asked to remove his hat, he at first refuses to do so: "Hear that? Pal o' my cradle days calling me a lunatic! Can't do it, Clara. Got to keep the haircomb in place. (Shows hair) Max worked an hour on it. But don't I make a bum out of a hat!" Later on in the play, when his dreams of a "berth on Wall Street" have shrunk to a corner toystand, Ben broods over his condition before making an unusual request of his father:

BEN (working the drumming toy): Poor Mickey Mouse! That's it—always the army to join. Or the navy. Leo, if I wasn't afraid of missing Kewpie here, I'd ask a big favor.

LEO: Ask it….

BEN: I'd ask to advance me a buck seventy-five and then go around to Harry's barber shop and get the whole works—haircut, massage and manicure. Believe you me, I'd like that feeling again.

The symbolic associations with which Odets invests Ben's behavior constantly interact with references elsewhere in the play. Felix, for example, confesses to Pearl that he is just "a worm in the ground," not "a wonderful guy—a musician with a big head of hair" (p. 182). And like Myron Berger—"The moment I began losing my hair I just knew I was destined to be a failure in life"—Gus Michaels, described in the stage directions as "a small alert man with hair combed down to cover his baldness" concludes: "I guess failure's gone to my head." Following his arrest over an incident involving a young girl, the man who has boasted that he is "sweet on the ladies" and has joked of having his own "harem" performs a ceremony that, like Myron's obsessive weighing, seems closely akin to Ben's visits to the barbershop:

PIKE: Well, Gus is out there taking a shave.

LEO: Two and three in the morning sometimes I find him shaving in front of the mirror.

PIKE: He wants to look good.

LEO: But three in the morning? For whom?

PIKE: Man has to have something.

Characteristically, Odets draws together several strands of the pattern near the end of Act I where the play's three "fathers" gather to toast the newlyweds. Under the influence of the cognac which Leo has mistakenly poured for wine, the conversation turns from the young people to the speakers' recollections of their own fathers:

PIKE: My father used to order sherry by the cask. He exorcised the devils by day, but at night, by George, they crawled all over him!…

GUS: Ha, ha, ha.

LEO: My father was a silent man. His hair was black as coal till the day he died. A silent man (maybe) he knew God intimately. I loved him like an idol.

GUS: Why, he was a man with fur cuffs! Hair on his arms grew right down on his wrists—fur cuffs you would say.

The discussion does more than illustrate that the three are hopelessly tied to the past; the description of the elder Gordon is clearly calculated to evoke a comparison between the present "fathers" and the more vigorous beings who inhabit their childhood memories, a comparison that becomes immediately evident in Pike's adolescent show of strength with the bent coin. The elder Gordon may have known God "intimately," but as Clara pointedly reminds him, Leo doesn't even know his own business partner:

LEO: Clara, I've trusted Sam for twenty-two years.

CLARA: A lunatic can make a mistake.

LEO (laughing): She's serious—a man I know intimately for thirty years.

CLARA: Never mind! In business "intimately" don't grow hair on a bald men's head.

Moreover, the "idol" worshipped in the Gordon house not only possesses a weak heart—he is sexually suspect. When we first see them together, Kewpie is strangely incensed because someone at the barbershop has called Ben an "nance," and their intensely close relationship gradually casts doubt on Kewpie's otherwise lustful attachment to Libby. In the midst of one of their reconciliations, Libby asks: "What's this, a love duet?" The hint of homosexuality here is fully realized elsewhere: the titular Milton of Odets' "Paradise Lost" is Phil Foley's lisping assistant (p. 167). Seen in this broad context, Ben's otherwise innocent tomfoolery at the picture-taking ceremony in which he holds the raccoon tail from Gus's motorcycle to his chin (p. 171) reveals more than the customary uncertainty about the step he and Libby have just taken.

As in the earlier play, the dilemma of the frustrated or failed artist is another symptom of the widespread unhappiness in Odets' crazy house. The situation of musicians Felix and Pearl comes readiest to mind, but the list includes others. Pike, for example, is reduced to employing his graphic skills in the depiction of dying men, and Ben Gordon's description of the exhilaration that comes with running suggests that his future inability to do so represents an even more alarming loss of self-expression: "Last night I couldn't sleep. All the way over to the new bridge, I walked. Stood there for a long time looking in the water. Then I began to run, down the street. I used to like to be out front. When I fell in that rhythm and knew my reserve—the steady driving forward—I sang inside when I ran. Yeah, sang like an airplane, powerful motors humming in oil. I wanted to run till my heart exploded … a funny way to die…." Although Julie Gordon, unlike Jacob, rarely exhibits "the flair of an artist," it is significant that his "runs" on the billiard table, like his "runs" on the market, always go unnoticed. Leo's case is much clearer: "Mr. Gordon don't know!" Sam tells the shop delegation: "I run the business, he sits with artistic designs—."

In Paradise Lost images of entrapment, suffocation, and drowning appear in greater profusion than in Awake. "Under the roar of Niagara," Leo asks, "can a man live a normal life?" "There's your children, you, Sam Katz," Pike tells him, "—a big hand got itself around you, squeezin' like all hell gone on!" Kewpie calls Libby "A sleeping clam at the bottom of the ocean"; and when Clara asks, "How's business?" Ben cryptically replies: "Swimming without my water wings by now." Appropriately, it is Kewpie's alliance with "Joe the Shark" that momentarily permits him to thrive in an atmosphere that destroys Ben.

"Did you ever hear of a crazier proposition in all your born days?" Clara says of Leo's attempt to give away the German canary. The comic episode with which the play begins is not only Leo's first futile effort at repudiation; the birdcage, like the one that harbors Florrie in Waiting for Lefty, is also an image of physical and spiritual imprisonment. "Dope! You were sick in bed for two months!" Julie's mother tells him: "You expect to fly like an eagle the first week?" "Home is a prison," Sam Katz laments: "Sing Sing, my house—it's not different." Gus Michaels' pathetic "singing" appears to be an attempt to make his cage a pleasant place: "Goldfish and canary birds. I love to have them things around the house. (Suddenly he is whistling vigorously like a canary) I'm a son of a gun how he comes singin' out of me, this little bird!" "Don't you worry your head about them turtledoves," he says of Ben and Libby. By the end of the play, however, it is clear that Gus' optimistic stratagem has failed: "Leo, Clara, we had so much sorrow outa life, and now we want a good time! Sky rockets bustin' in the house! Ventriloquism! Beasts and birds!" (Suddenly he is gloriously trilling like a bird. But the whistle ends in defeat.) Ben's marriage to Libby and the announcement about his heart condition signal an end to the kind of "flight" he talks about. A moment or so before his own "song" for the cameraman, Post says to him: "I used to think you'd get married in an airplane." Libby is a "beautiful" but more earthbound "machine," however, than the metaphorical airplane of Ben's and Ralph Berger's reveries. Besides, as Kewpie later observes, Ben is a "burnt out spark plug."

Just as in the earlier play, images of escape exist alongside those of entrapment. Gus' desire to "go far away to the South Sea Isles and eat coconuts" obviously recalls the attractions of Moe Axelrod's "land of Yama Yama," but the expression of such hopes is muted in Paradise Lost and the paradisiacal retreats are even more suspicious:

PIKE: Our country is the biggest and best pig-sty in the world!

GUS: I don't know no better place, Mr. P.

PIKE: I do. All picked out for me: the bottom of the ocean.

Ben Gordon's final run, we remember—both the one he describes, and the real one—ends in death.

The similarities between the two plays, however, have already taken us into the important differences between them. Even the overall structure they appear to have in common—the lyrical summation at the end of the first act, the announcement of death at the close of the second, and the "lifting" speech at the curtain—emphasizes the superficiality of their resemblance; for while young Ralph Berger is on his feet and singing at the end of Awake, the "Representative American youth" in Paradise Lost is dead before the final act begins.


One of the major differences between Odets' first and second full-length play lies in the characterization. The difference in this case goes beyond the tendency toward allegory in Paradise Lost that led some critics to dismiss the characters as merely types or "case histories." In Awake the almost identical challenge facing the two sets of lovers was significant because of the way in which Odets' paired characters (Ralph-Moe, Blanche-Hennie) complemented each other. In Paradise Lost this kind of parallelism is more fully exploited, and the device of pairing characters is carried even further.

Nearly everyone in the Gordon household is provided with a "mate" or counterpart. Pike carries in his watch a picture of the two sons he has lost in the war. When Gus Michaels accidentally tunes the radio to an Armistice Day plea for rededication to "country" and "flag," the former recalls the hard times he and others have had to go through: "We lived on and hoped. We lived on garbage dumps. Two of us found canned prunes, ate them and were poisoned for weeks. One died. Now I can't die. But we gave up to despair and life took quiet years. We worked a little. Nights I drank myself insensible. Punched my own mouth." Several matters are worth noting here. First of all, Leo's situation will be much the same by the end of the play, for he will also have "lost" both his sons. Furthermore, Pike's self-flagellation during this speech suggests the peculiar love-hate relationship that exists between Kewpie and Ben. What is most interesting about Pike's out-burst, however, is that the account of his poisoned friend implies that Pike himself is now only half alive, that part of him has somehow died in the past. When Clara tries to convince Julie that he will soon be back at his old post at the bank, the other knows better: "I don't believe it! In high school we had a kid named Gilbert. He had sleeping sickness, too. When he came back to school he began to get old. In two years … he died." A moment later, when Julie asks Gus if he likes "open-air cars," the latter is reminded of the picture he carries in his own watch: "No, I don't like open-air cars. Mrs. Michaels was killed like that. She was a very nervous woman and put her head out…. My wife had one blue eye and one grey eye—there's no use denyin' it, Julie … and if you want the whole truth, she was cockeyed; but I loved her very much." The circumstances of Mrs. Michaels' death provided us with a shocking correlate to Sam Katz's "baldy woman," and the condition of her eyes reminds us that we are once again in the "cockeyed world" against which Lefty's Agate Keller rebels. Near the end of the play when it is clear that Pearl's piano must be surrendered along with the house, Gus recalls the fate of still another acquaintance: "An old friend of mine, Harry Meyers, he used to be in the piano business. A fine and dandy man, but slow in the head. Then he went out on the ocean—April 1912. There was a marine disaster! The sinking of the Titantic…." When we remember that Leo's business partnership as well as his marriage date from that year, it is clear that the story of Harry Meyers applies not only to Pearl, but to the "marine disaster" that is overtaking the other denizens of the Gordon house.

Just as the stories concerning off-stage characters often give the impression that the people in the play are only partially themselves, so several of the "pairings" within the play strongly suggest the disintegration of personality and purpose, and an inevitable drift towards death. From the division of responsibilities at the Cameo Shop it appears that the crisis that befalls Sam and Leo is the result of a fateful split between the material and moral consciousness. The "intimacy" of their relationship goes much deeper than their mutual rejection of the family pet; neither is willing to face the enormity of his incompleteness. What Leo finally fails to understand is that the childless Sam Katz's fate is his own and that he, too, "died … far back."

The tragic division of sensibility from which Leo suffers is also conspicuous in his son and daughter. Kewpie is more than Ben's "man Friday": "I'm in you like a tape worm," his friend tells him—"Yeah, a carbon copy who hates your guts," Libby warns. Though their outward personalities are different—Kewpie arouses Libby sexually, Ben "tells" her "poems"—the toy-doll metaphor in the play suggests that Odets' all-American and his would-be gangster are mirror images for the corrupting drives and lost idealism each perceives in the other. Their fatal kinship is made even more explicit in Ben's recollection of the drowning death of Danny, a childhood friend whose death-dress resembles the formal attire adopted by Ben's dying brother:

We're still under the ice, you and me—we never escaped! Christ, Kewpie! Are we the same kids who used to go up to Whitey Aimer's roof and watch the pigeons fly? You and me and Danny? There's one old pal we know what happened to, where he is. The three of us under the ice with our skates on and not being able to get him out. Then sticking him dead in the box. Dressed in a blue serge suit and a stiff white collar … Christ, Kewpie, tell me, tell me—who died there—me or you or him or what?

"I'm just as proud as she is …," Libby cries when Pearl scolds her brother for having had the "nerve" to get married. The contrast between them is established with brutal frankness in Pike's response to Pearl's complaints about being "homesick": "There she is alone in her room with the piano—the white keys banked up like lilies and she suckin' at her own breast…. You! Lay awake dreamin' at night. Don't you know it ain't comin' that land of your dreams, unless you work for it?" Nevertheless, Kewpie unwittingly calls attention to their common predicament when he tells Libby that her "shell's lined with pearls." In effect, Libby's pursuit of "fun" is merely a distorted reflection of Pearl's sterile embrace of her piano and refusal to seize hold of life. Like their male counterparts, Odets' two young women also appear to be doomed. Pike's funereal portrait of Pearl recalls the story Gus tells of Libby's birth: "She was a seven months' baby. Just imagine, we never thought she'd live."

Even a cursory glance at some of the other characters in the play reveals that most of them also share a "paired" existence. The apparent exception in the case of Clara, although hers and Bertha's situations are in many ways alike, seems not so much an inconsistency as Odets' way of insisting on her "wholeness." On the other hand, both Phil Foley and Post ("a dark man with a dead face") are accompanied by "assistants," and in the final act Odets' "homeless men," as well as his detectives, arrive at the house in groups of two.

The dialogue in Paradise Lost is also noticeably different from that of the earlier play. In the exchanges between Ben and Kewpie, in the revelations provided by Sam and Bertha, and especially in Pike's terrifying address to Pearl, there is a psychological nakedness and a luxuriance of metaphor that is not present in Awake. The altered tone of the dialogue in Paradise Lost is evident, for instance, in the ease with which the author's editorial comment on Bessie Berger—"She knows that when one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life"—finds its way into one of Kewpie's speeches.

As if these and the other non-realistic elements in Paradise Lost did not sufficiently alert us to its expressionism, Odets' grotesques prowl through the rubble of their dreams upon a stage that is literally strewn with symbols. Even a partial list (the bird-cage, Ben's statue, his medals, the mechanical toys, Gus' motorcycle, his stamp collection, his aviator's cap, Pearl's unseen piano) indicates the depth of association Odets has built around these objects whose gradual disappearance or destruction signals the "fall" of the Gordon "house." In the closing moments of the play the stage has been stripped bare, except for a few pieces of furniture and Gus' useless motorcycle. Only Ben's statue remains intact, the pathetic embodiment of the golden calf in Clara's biblical "bed-time" story.

As Gassner has suggested, much of the "confusion" in the early notices of Paradise Lost probably resulted from a "misunderstanding" of the dramaturgical differences between it and Awake and Sing!, a misunderstanding that was natural enough, considering the resemblances between the two plays. Nevertheless, steps were taken in the production of the play to reflect the shift toward expressionism. In an April 1936 Theatre Arts piece entitled "The Director Takes Command," Morton Eustis recorded several of Clurman's observations about the approach he had taken in staging the play:

Paradise Lost, he decided, after some contemplation, gave him the impression of "a crystal ball revolving in space, with various refracted lights and shadows revolving about it." [Relating] this feeling (now intellectual in character, as well as emotional) still further to the "production quality" of the play, he realized that the drama should have a "slightly circular movement meandering, no straight motion"; that the "visual element"—"the setting"—should be realistic and yet abstract, "the line of the ceiling not straight, the shape of the room not completely realistic and yet giving the impression of realism, the color of the walls of varying degrees of light and shade"; that the lighting should convey the same quasi-realistic impression.

To judge by some of the reviews, this approach was not sufficiently pursued. In fact, the Eustis article contains an admission by Clurman that "the designer's project erred on the realistic side. The abstract intention was not made clear enough." But it may be that no amount of stylization could have enabled Odets' 1935 audience to make the transition from "Longwood Avenue" to "Shakespeare Place."


The most important difference between Paradise Lost and Awake, however, lies neither in the characterization nor the setting of the plays, but in Odets' treatment of the redemptive motif he had established in the earlier work. There Jacob's sacrificial death had forcefully illustrated Odets' fundamental belief that "older and more crushed human beings" could bequeath "lifting values to the younger generation." What Gerald Rabkin has aptly called the "seeds of redemption" are indeed present in Paradise Lost: throughout the play there are unmistakable traces of the gestural pattern Odets had employed before. But the failure of this pattern to "flower" in the later play is an indication that, whatever the author's intentions may have been, Leo Gordon's final speech must not be viewed in the same light as Ralph Berger's. On the contrary, the expression of hope at the end of Paradise Lost is plainly overshadowed by the somber framework in which it is delivered.

Aside from Pike, the character in Paradise Lost who most nearly resembles Jacob is Gus Michaels. "God," he tells Clara, "I would make the world jump if I was a young man again!!" And like his predecessor who had great plans but "drank instead a glass tea," Gus has considered suicide: "I have my troubles, Mrs. G. Be surprised how often I think about it—takin' my own life by my own hand…. But I turn the radio on instead of the gas…." Despite Clara's insistence that the hobby is his "whole life," it is significant that Gus parts not with his life, but with his stamp collection. That such a gesture is intended to represent a symbolic break with the past is evident in the way in which it is associated with Leo's own resolve to "wake up" and face reality following the visit of the shop delegation:

LEO: My brain has been sleeping. My mind is made up: our workers must have better conditions! Tomorrow I mean to start fresh. In life we must face certain facts.

GUS: Yes. Only last night I was thinkin' about selling my stamp collection. I figure she's easily worth a few thousand—but I guess I could just never do it….

But as a redemptive gesture, Gus' action is only a feeble imitation of Jacob's sacrifice.

The futility of Gus' "sacrifice" is reinforced by the failure that attends similar gestures by others in the final act of the play. Kewpie's proffer of money, for instance, obviously represents an effort to repudiate the sense of guilt he feels over Ben's death. And only moments later, Kewpie's frustrating experience is repeated in Leo's attempt to bestow the money on the two "bums" whom Pike has ushered into the house. Much to his surprise, Leo's hollow and somewhat condescending offer—"If it were within my power I would restore to you a whole world which is rightfully yours"—is rejected by Paul: "I look at you and see myself seven years back. I been there. This kind of dream paralyzes the will—confuses the mind. Courage goes. Daring goes … and in the nights there is sighing…. You had a sorta little paradise here. Now you lost this paradise. That should teach you something. But no! You ain't awake yet." It is the bird-cage episode all over again. By the end of the play Leo is just where he started. He is no more aware of his affinity with Paul than he was of his tie with Sam Katz.

The inadequacy of their gestures is finally evident in the inability of Paradise Lost's "older" and "more crushed" characters to pass on anything to the younger generation. The need for such a legacy is stronger here than in the earlier play:

BEN: Orphans of the storm! We are low enough to crawl under a snake! Julie, Pearl, rise and shine! One of the living heirs must amount to something in this goddam family!

JULIE: Let's shoot some billiards, Ben.

BEN: Sure, why not? Anything to kill time. Tell the world we're down in the cellar pushing balls around. Coast to coast.

The trouble is that by the end of Paradise Lost the Gordon children, unlike their counterparts in Awake, are as "dead" as the cushions on their billiard table. Leo Gordon may proclaim that "Heartbreak and terror are not the heritage of mankind" and that "No fruit tree wears a lock and key," but for the "sleepers" in the Gordon house it is too late. "Finished," Felix says to Pearl: "I'll say good-bye and you'll say goodbye." "Finished!" Sam shouts to the shop delegation. "Finished!" Clara says of the idolaters in her story: "God blotted them out of the book." "You have been took like a bulldog takes a pussycat!" Paul informs Leo: "Finished!" The phrase runs like a litany through Paradise Lost. It is a litany for the dead.


A few years before his death Odets appeared to side with some of his critics in explaining the problems posed by his early plays: "I think very simply that the material was always richer than the ideational direction that I tried to superimpose upon it. It was just enough to give birth to the material and let it say what it had to say." It seems clear, however, that regardless of what ideological concerns may have prompted Odets to fashion the play as he did, Paradise Lost does "say what it has to say." That Odets built better than he knew becomes apparent if we attempt to replace the ending we have with another. No more patently pessimistic conclusion could have so effectively sustained the ironic pattern of Leo Gordon's previous false "awakenings" as the beleaguered hero's final desperate assertion that he at last sees life whole.

"Writing plays isn't like doing oil paintings," Odets once remarked. "You can't say if they don't get it now, then they'll get it forty years later; the play doesn't usually survive that long." Perhaps Odets was right. But free at last from the context in which it first appeared, Paradise Lost may yet justify the fervency of its admirers. In his recent full-length study of Odets' work, Gerald Weales has been kinder to the play than earlier critics and has suggested that "of all the Odets plays, it is probably the one that has most to gain from a revival," particularly "now that we are not so enamored of theatrical realism…." Paradise Lost does occasionally "spill out of its frame," but with judicious editing and imaginative staging, it could challenge Awake and Sing! as the best of Odets' early work.

Harold Cantor (essay date 1982)

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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 (he used the word "yawping" in The Big Knife) that was original and distinctive enough to express his individual impressions of urbanized twentieth-century America—a rhythmic utterance capable of conveying precisely the myths and ethos of middle class life that previous playwrights, such as John Howard Lawson and Elmer Rice, had only approximated.

The first breakthrough in Odets' invention of a living, memorable dialogue was a discovery of the resources of Yiddish-English and his willingness to seriously represent, not caricature, the speech rhythms and inflections of the American Jew on the stage. In the enclaves of Philadelphia and the Bronx where he grew up, Odets had ample opportunity to listen to the conversation of immigrant Jews. What he heard he remembered, and when he came to write of the Berger family—and, to a lesser extent, of the cabbies and their wives and sweethearts in Waiting for Lefty—he naturally turned to a language that would make the characters he wished to depict believable.

The Group Theater's productions of Awake and Sing! and the double bill of Lefty and Till the Day I Die were historic dramatic events. Before analyzing Odets' linguistic innovations, I should like to cite Alfred Kazan's description of the tremendous liberating effect of Odet's plays on a Jewish intellectual:

… for it seemed to me, sitting high up in the second balcony of the Belasco Theater, watching Julie Garfield, J. Edward Bromberg, Stella and Luther Adler and Morris Carnovsky in Odets's Awake and Sing, that it would at last be possible for me to write about the life I had always known. In Odets's play there was a lyric uplifting of blunt Jewish speech, boiling over and explosive, that did more to arouse the audience than the political catchwords that brought the curtain down. Everybody on that stage was furious, kicking, alive—the words, always real but never flat, brilliantly authentic like no other theater speech on Broadway, aroused the audience to such delight that one could feel it bounding back and uniting itself with the mind of the writer.

Kazin's phrase, "the life I had always known," suggests how deeply Odets' language and the characters who spoke it evoked the Jewish experience. In Robert Warshow's interesting essay, "Clifford Odets: Poet of the Jewish Middle Class," we find the author reacting similarly:

For the Jew in the audience, at least, the experience is recognition, a continuous series of familiar signposts, each suggesting with the immediate communication of poetry the whole complex of the life of the characters: what they are, what they want, how they stand with the world.

What are these familiar poetic "signposts" that Warshow sees and which allowed Odets to give a truthful description of the facts of Jewish life and, in turn, the entire immigrant experience and process of acculturation of New York City Jews? The historical and cultural artifacts of this experience—the shtetl, the East Side tenements and move to the Bronx, the struggle to make a dollar in the garment industry, the snatching of a laugh or a good cry at the thriving Yiddish theaters of from the Forward's "Bintel Brief" column, the revolt of the young against parental tradition and respectability—Bessie Berger: "I raise a family and they should have respect" (Awake and Sing!)—all these nourish and enrich Odets' early plays. He was both influenced by them, in the sense that he drew upon them for sources and prototypes, and critical of them, in the sense that he was aware of the limitations and ironies imposed by what Warshow describes as "the three imperatives" of Jewish life: "be secure, be respected, be intelligent."

Warshow also is on target in his recognition of the special tone of the play: "It is as if no one really listens to anyone else; each takes his own line, and the significant connections between one speech and another are not in logic but in the heavy emotional climate of the family." Some lines from the beginning of Act I are an apt illustration of this process:

RALPH: I don't know … Every other day to sit around with the blues and mud in your mouth.

MYRON: That's how it is—life is like that—a cakewalk.

RALPH: What's it get you?

HENNIE: A four-car funeral.

RALPH: What's it for?

JACOB: What's it for? If this life leads to a revolution it's a good life. Otherwise it's for nothing.

BESSIE: Never mind, Pop! Pass me the salt.

RALPH: It's crazy—all my life I want a pair of black and white shoes and can't get them. It's crazy!

BESSIE: In a minute I'll get up from the table. I can't take a bite in my mouth no more.

MYRON: Now, Momma, just don't excite yourself—

BESSIE: I'm so nervous I can't hold a knife in my hand.

In this arrangement of indirect dialogue, Odets has the ear of a musician for the sharp turns and counterpoints of a verbal fugue.

But what of the jumble of Yiddish-English syntax and expressions poured into the verbal mix—what exactly are they and what do they contribute to the emotional tone? As Gerald Haslam has shown, an expression such as "I should live so long"—generally regarded as a Yiddish-English phrase forty years ago—today is an American cliche'. But Yiddishisms that today are colloquialisms were unfamiliar then, and the prepositional changes and omissions, inverted sentence order, and verb variations Odets employed were alien to non-Jewish (or non-Germanic) members of the audience. Examples from Awake and Sing! are:

BESSIE: You were sleeping by a girl …?

BESSIE: Ralphie, bring up two bottles seltzer from Weiss.

JACOB: … give me for a cent a cigarette.

JACOB: It needs a new world.

SAM: Once too often she'll fight with me, Hennie.

Merely to list these examples of Yiddishisms cannot begin to convey how they function within the play and their cumulative effect on an audience. Odets consciously attempted to create an art—language from Yiddish roots, and to do this he needed a profound knowledge of the psychology of Yiddish as a language. In addition, he had to be aware of its effect on a mixed audience of Gentiles and Jews (many of whom were second-generation sons and daughters of immigrants), and to avoid the extreme of heavy Yiddish dialect which would make his plays unintelligible or ludicrous. He solved the problem by seizing on the exact moment in the history of the Berger family (and later Noah's family, and individuals in other plays) when it was sufficiently acculturated to speak urban—Yiddish-English—an admixture which looks backwards to the shtetl and forward to Americanized urban slang. Here Odets brought into play his sensitivity to the psychological implications of words and phrases for both the older generation and the younger.

Some examples will help demonstrate the verbal signposts by which old and young in Awake and Sing! "give themselves away" (Warshow's phrase). When Bessie asks Jacob "You gave the dog eat?" and he replies, "I gave the dog eat," an entire complex of understandings is involved. On the dramatic level, we know that Bessie regards her father as a ne'erdo-well and relegates him to menial tasks in the household, But, on an additional level, Jews would appreciate Bessie's concern for feeding the animal, remembering the biblical and talmudic injunctions for the care and nourishment of cattle and sheep, which is an ancestral memory of a formerly nomadic people. Linguistically, Bessie's query and Jacob's reply in almost the exact words have a ritualistic quality to which an audience accustomed to incantations applied even to the slaughter of animals would respond. However, there is an irony in the fact that Bessie's concern is for a pet dog. In the shtetl, dogs and cats as pets were unheard of—that was a goyish custom—and Jewish children played with a young calf or ewe. No proster Yid (common Jew) would own a dog, although perhaps a grosser gevir (very rich man) might acquire a watchdog to guard his house and land. Thus, Bessie's concern for Tootsie is a sign of her Americanization; she, above all others, has accepted the status symbols of the new land. Her excessive pride is evinced moments later when she defends her pet to Schlosser, the janitor: "Tootsie's making dirty? Our Tootsie's making dirty in the hall?… Tootsie walks behind me like a lady, any time, any place."

Bessie's Yiddishisms also point up another psycho-linguistic effect of the language which Odets exploited for serio-comic overtones, namely, the Jewish tendency to identify verbally intense anguish and emotion with the digestive process. In the passage I have previously quoted, Bessie says: "In a minute I'll get up from the table. I can't take a bite in my mouth no more." In American-English, the equivalent phrase probably would be—"I'm leaving any minute. This is making me sick to my stomach." But the Yiddish-English expression is psychologically more acute because the specificity of "bite in my mouth" is tied up with hunger and underscores the preciousness of eating against a background of frequent famine and deprivation in "the old country." This would be apparent even to the younger Jewish members of the audience, who had heard this phrase from their parents; Gentiles could also appreciate its idiomatic verve. (They might even understand why the Bergers are constantly eating in this play.) Similarly, in the pregnancy-revelation dialogue with Hennie, Bessie exclaims, "My gall is bursting in me," and later, growing angry at Jacob, she says, "Your gall could burst from such a man." Bessie is translating her emotional state to a bodily state, but the interesting bit of synecdoche in which gall bladder is omitted and the secretion is stressed, is emblematic of the intensity with which Jews express anguish and anger. In the verbs "bursting" and "bust," one can hear the echo of the Yiddish plotz, as in "His heart will plotz from such suffering."

Finally, Bessie reveals linguistically a rather desperate effort to assimilate into her vocabulary words and phrases picked up from the mass media—"Another county heard from" and "A graduate from the B.M.T."—phrases which show the sarcastic usages by means of which Americanisms could be rendered into Yinglish, and Bessie's class-consciousness is demonstrated by her acidulous reference to Hennie as "Our society lady…."

That Yinglish in Odets' plays involves a reciprocal relationship between young and old is evidenced by the fact that Hennie and Ralph, though for the most part they speak straight urban English, are influenced by speech patterns of their parents and grandparents. In the scene where she is "put down" by Bessie as "Our society lady," Hennie rejects her mother's suggestion that she marry San Feinschreiber: "I'm not marrying a poor foreigner like him. Can't even speak an English word. Not me! I'll go to my grave without a husband." A finely attuned ear would detect something foreign sounding in her last sentence, slyly mocking the sentiments she expresses. Instead of saying, "I'd rather die than marry that mockie (a pejorative meaning "greenhorn" or foreigner, which Hennie uses earlier to describe Sam), she will go to her grave without a husband. The sentence is formalized, and its concrete specificity suggests Yiddish rather than English, an outcry from Tevye the Milkman, or a phrase that Hennie might have picked up from some other melodrama at the Yiddish theater.

In the same way, Ralph's speech is overlaid by patterns learned from his family. The opening line of the play, "Where's advancement down the place?" contains an elision and prepositional omission that are typical of Yinglish. Even more significant is his use of the word "place" rather than "shop" or "factory." Here, the German word platz connotes a much richer meaning, since it is tied in with the Jewish idea of the value of having a place of work—not merely in the physical sense, but in the moral sense of the need to attain a position, a vocation, a useful status in society. Amusingly, Ralph mixes this Yiddish idiom with the very American word "advancement," which establishes at once an ironic link to the theme of a family in economic and linguistic transition. Yet in II, 1, Ralph reverts automatically to Bessie's emotional body language; describing Blanche's home, he says, "Every time I go near the place I get heart failure."

Yet another source of Yiddishisms in the play is Jacob, who represents the intellectual, bookish tradition of Judaism: "I'm studying from books a whole lifetime." He is the melamed, the unworldly teacher, and his words have a prophetic biblical cadence which Odets mixes with a smattering of Marxist-English diction Jacob probably picked up at the Arbeiter Ring (Workmen's Circle) on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Sometimes Jacob's mixed-up English is exploited for broad comic effect, as when he warns Ralph about the family's probable attitude toward Blanche: "Boychick … It's no difference—a plain bourgois prejudice—but when they find out a poor girl—it ain't so kosher." More often, there is a pathetic side to Jacob which, linguistically, is expressed by the juxtaposition of poetic prophecy with the cant Marxist terms which represent his process of acculturation. In a moving speech in II, 1, Jacob tells the assembled family:

So you believe in God … you got something for it? You! You worked for all the capitalists. You harvested the fruit from your labor? You got God! But the past comforts you? The present smiles on you, yes? Did you find a piece of earth where you could live like a human being and die with the sun on your face? Tell me, yes, tell me. I would like to know myself. But on these questions, on this theme—the struggle for existence—you can't make an answer. The answer I see in your face … the answer is your mouth can't talk. In this dark corner you sit and die. But abolish private property!

The last sentence is totally incongruous and destroys the poetry by its platitudinous, soap-box quality. The audience would see the irony of a scholar who speaks Hebrew and quotes Isaiah being taken in by the cant terms of a then popular Americanized philosophy. (It could be assumed that Jacob had become a Marxist in the old country, but that it is hardly possible since, in Act III, Ralph examines his Marxist volumes and discovers "the pages ain't cut in half of them." We should remember that a subsidiary meaning for melamed is "an incompetent," and Jacob himself is aware that he is "a man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass of tea." The poignancy of that image is difficult to translate unless one has childhood memories of elderly Jews carefully lifting steaming glasses of hot brew to their mouths and smacking their lips in an almost obscene surrender to the exotic and sensually stimulating beverage. Although he is a failure, Jacob's role in the play is not to point the way to some Communist panacea for social ills (insofar as he does this, he is comic and pathetic), but to stand for older traditional Jewish values in opposition to Bessie and her cohorts. In II, 1, he tells Morty: "In my day the propaganda was for God. [Now] it's for success." Linguistically, Jacob's Yinglish reminds one of the moral authority and hortatory quality which was carried over syntactically into Yiddish-urban-English. One should not be told that one should make success. One should remember the words of Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I … And if not now—when?"

It is remarkable how often Jacob uses the obligatory construction "it should." (used ironically); "My insurance policy. I don't like it should lay around…." Both moral stricture and putative hope are expressed in his language. By contrast, the more assimilated characters in the play have lapsed into vulgar Yiddish: Uncle Morty says, "We'll give them strikes—in the kishkas (guts) we'll give them"; and in the same act, Moe Axelrod informs Ralph: "The insurance guys coming tonight. Morty 'shtupped' him." The vulgar materialists in the play add their minor notes to what I have referred to as a verbal fugue but, to continue the metaphor, the major counterpoints in the fugue are Jacob's Yinglish versus Bessie's—a contrast which Odets later would repeat in the language of the partriarchal, world-weary Noah and his practical, down-to-earth wife, Esther.

The overall effect of these foreign inflections and idiomatic phrases was threefold. For Gentiles (and even many Jews) it imparted a comic twist of fractured English that amused and provided some relief from the grim and gritty world of some of his plays. Indeed, Awake and Sing! proves Blake's adage: "Excess of sorrow laughs," and stands as the progenitor of Jewish "black humor" found in the works of dozens of later Jewish-American writers. Second, the Yiddish idiom conveyed a sense of family solidarity despite the family's conflicts and arguments and the "feel" of a social unit moving "up." Third, by this marvelous alchemy due to the addition of symbolic and metaphoric language and ironic, abrasive, cynical lines to the rhythmic foreign inflections, Odets transforms Yiddish-English into a rich poetic tongue. Many years ago Eleanor Flexner said of Awake and Sing!: "His dialogue displays what is little less than genius for sharp vivid phrasing which is unrealistic while it is still lifelike and human, a poetizing of speech that is nevertheless more realistic than poetic." And she added, "These (phrases from the play) are the poet's transformation of a commonplace idiom into literature."

R. Baird Shuman (essay date 1983)

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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 participating member of a religious group that practiced the rituals of the Jewish faith. Organized religion never played a significant part in his life. Nevertheless, the ethnicity that surrounded him in his formative years imprinted itself upon his writing, much of which has strong Jewish overtones.


The early Odets, it must be remembered, was essentially and above all a spokesman for the proletariat, a propagandist writing in the first half of the 1930s about the depressed economic and social conditions that threatened the very fiber of American society. Coincidentally, some of the themes directly related to proletarian writing also had legitimate historical archetypes in the Jewish experience.

Odets was born into a Jewish-American family in Philadelphia in 1906. Both his parents had come to the United States as small children; his mother, Pearl Geisinger, came from Austria, his father, Louis, from Russia. For the first six years of Clifford's life, the Odets family lived in the so-called Northern Liberties area of Philadelphia, a section populated largely by German Jews, many of whom still spoke Yiddish, whose English was heavily accented, and whose speech patterns were primarily those of first-and second-generation Eastern European or German Jews.

The Odets family was essentially working class. However, the family was aspiring to the middle class, and in 1912 the Odetses moved to the Bronx, again settling in a largely Jewish neighborhood. They lived near Beck Street and Longwood Avenue in one of the better apartment buildings of the day. Louis Odets gradually advanced from his position as a feeder in a printery to become the owner of the shop. Soon he was able to buy a Maxwell automobile and to send his ailing wife to California to escape the cold of winter.

English was the only language spoken in the Odets household. Both of Clifford's parents were near-native speakers of the language. They neither read nor spoke Yiddish. However, Clifford's Aunt Esther and Uncle Israel Rosman, who were older when they immigrated to the United States than Odets's parents had been, spoke Yiddish and regularly read Yiddish newspapers. Odets recalls, "… while they were still my aunt and uncle, they were much more Jewish in their out-looks, and certainly in their language and customs, than my very American parents."

Odets grew up hearing and speaking English at home, but the dialect of English used there and in the neighborhoods where he grew up probably had in it many of the melodies, intonations, and speech patterns of Eastern European immigrants with strong Jewish religious ties. Such patterns come through even in recorded interviews with Odets, where a sentence like, "I want to show in David, who is pursued by a psychotic Saul, a young poet," illustrates a basic structure and cadence of Jewish-American speech. This phrase structure of indirect object followed by direct object, while common in some instances in Network Standard English where the preposition of the indirect object is omitted (e.g. "He gave her a book"), is uncommon where the preposition is expressed and is a speech pattern characteristic of many Jewish Americans.

But Jewishness enters into the writing of an author with Odets's upbringing and background in more subtle and significant ways than are found solely in speech patterns and intonations. Some of the underlying themes of Jewish culture influenced his reactions to many of the social problems he treats in his plays, particularly the early ones, on both the literal and metaphoric levels. The very fabric of any writers' literary production is based upon the intricacies of his early, and in many cases, largely forgotten, experiences. For people raised in a Jewish family living in Jewish neighborhoods, whether the family appears acculturated or not, facets of the cultural heritage of the Jews come to be an ingrained part of their natures.

Guttmann, in answer to the question of how "Americans often assume that the folkways of Mitteleuropa and of the Russian shtetl are really the essentials of Jewishness," very rightly contends, "To answer such questions fully is to tell the story of the American Jews, but this much is certain: a minority that adopted many of the traits of its European neighbors is now distinguished in the eyes of its American neighbors by these adopted characteristics rather than by the fundamental differences that originally accounted for the minority status." It is, as Guttmann suggests, all too easy to identify as Jewish some characteristics that are essentially European or Slavic. Many Jewish immigrants to this country came from Eastern Europe or from Russia, so that the traditions which they brought with them to the New World represent a melding of two cultures, their traditional Jewish culture and the European or Slavic culture that their forefathers had long since adopted.

Certainly Jacob in Awake and Sing! is typical of the kind of Jew Guttmann alludes to. Much of the political and social philosophy of Eastern European revolutionaries is reflected in Jacob's thinking. He is the somewhat confused and muddled revolutionary living with a much more conservative younger generation (Bessie and Myron Berger) whose ideas are considerably more down-to-earth and conventional than his. If Jacob can say, "If this life leads to a revolution it's a good life. Otherwise it's for nothing." Bessie can provide the putdown by responding. "Never mind, Pop! Pass me the salt."


In an interview with Michael Mendelsohn in 1961, two years before his death, Odets was asked about literary influences upon him and specifically about any influence the Bible might have had. He said,

I like to read the Bible. I would like to read it more. I believe much that's in it. I want to write one more play—at least one more play that I know about—on a Biblical theme (that is after The Flowering Peach, which is about Noah and the Ark). I do want to write somewhere out of the two Books of Samuel, particularly the second book, I want to write about the life of Saul and David. I want to show in David, who is pursued by a psychotic Saul, a young poet.

The extent to which Odets wished to use this Old Testament story for any of its specific and inherent Jewish qualities is, indeed, questionable. Rather, he seemed to find in the story a reflection of some of his own most personal feelings about the role of the artist in society. The interview continues:

… I want to show how the young poet becomes a very successful man—indeed, the most successful in his realm, because he becomes the King. And I want to show the life of Man from the time he is a poet until he dies an old man, unhappy, but somehow still a poet gnawing at his soul. I want to turn the various facets of his nature around so that you see what happens to men of big success and how they meet the conflicting situations of their lives.

The theme of what success does to an artist, which Odets had earlier dealt with in both The Country Girl and The Big Knife, obviously fascinated him. Those two plays are certainly not prominently ethnic, nor is there any reason to suppose that in any dramatic version he might have done of the Saul/David story, Odets would have set out to write a play which would have been essentially ethnic in its impact. Nevertheless, a number of Odets's early plays, as well as his last play to be produced, The Flowering Peach, have a distinctly Jewish flavor and can legitimately be considered within the context of their Jewish ethnicity, as well as within a number of other contexts. Some of the less overtly Jewish plays can also be considered in terms of elements of the Jewish context that shaped Clifford Odets as a creative artist and as a person.


Among Odets's early plays, both Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost are about Jewish families. The Bergers in the former play are a lower-middle-class Jewish family struggling against the uncertainties of the economic depression of the 1930s. Three generations of the family live together and suffer the inevitable value confrontations that take place between people of different ages, backgrounds, and outlooks. The Gordons in Paradise Lost are an upper-middle-class Jewish family faced with economic and ethical problems growing out of the loss of the father's business through the dishonesty of his partner. The Gordons are more acculturated into American life, less obviously Jewish, than the Bergers. Indeed, they resemble Odets's own well-acculturated family.

Till the Day I Die focuses on the situation of a Communist in Nazi Germany. A tour de force in the agitprop tradition, it was written to accompany Odets's Waiting for Lefty, which first played at the Civic Repertory Theatre on Fourteenth Street, then was moved uptown to the Longacre Theater where it and Till the Day I Die played together for 136 performances. The protagonist of Till the Day I Die, Ernst Tausig, is a Jew as well as a Communist, so is doubly a target for inhumane treatment by the German SS.


Waiting for Lefty, Odets's first successful production, deals with the economic issues of the Depression. The only direct allusion to Jews in this play is in Scene 5, which concerns Dr. Benjamin, a physician who is discharged from his hospital position, presumably because of anti-Semitism on the part of those who run the hospital.

Golden Boy has an Italian protagonist, Joe Bonaparte, and the play is without strong Jewish overtones, although Joe's manager, Mr. Carp, is clearly Jewish. Roxy Gottlieb in this play is also presented as being Jewish, particularly in certain of his speech patterns. Similarly, Rocket to the Moon, Night Music, and Clash by Night, while they have Jewish characters in them, are not directly and primarily concerned with the Jewish experience, although numerous elements of Jewish life glimmer through them. Not until The Flowering Peach did Odets again deal with a subject as quintessentially Jewish as the depiction of the family in Awake and Sing!


The Jewish cultural heritage is stronger than a number of other heritages which are basically religious in their origins. Even Jews who shun the faith of their progenitors remain in many ways Jews. Karl Shapiro addresses this point in Poems of a Jew: "… a Jew who becomes an atheist remains a Jew. A Jew who becomes a Catholic remains a Jew." Harry Moore calls the Jewish heritage "environmental" and goes on to say "Granted, the environment of the Jews, usually clannish, sometimes produces physical characteristics that are fairly recognizable, yet these are intrinsically environmental. The young Jewish men often break with their community, leaving orthodoxy behind, yet many of them still marry Jewish girls, who understand their men's background, their early conditioning." While Moore's comments perhaps represent a genetic oversimplification, a Jewishness appears to exist which is independent of religiosity and which is identifiable by certain patterns of behavior, philosophical stances, and value systems. Many of these hark back to the traditional religious faith and doctrine of earlier generations of Jews, of course, but they exist also quite noticeably and prominently in modern Jews who may, indeed, have denied the religion of their forefathers.

Irving Malin contends that many modern Jewish-American writers are engaged in "the search for new images of divinity in the absence of orthodox belief." He continues, "Our best (Jewish) writers are 'mad crusaders,' hoping for a transcendent ideal—art, potency?—to replace the tarnished ones they embraced in their youth." He considers Jewish stories to be "those that witness, even in distorted or inverted ways, traditional religious and literary moments." According to his definition, most of Odets's plays are not Jewish—the only ones that could be called Jewish are The Flowering Peach, most certainly Awake and Sing!, somewhat less certainly, and possibly Paradise Lost.

However, Malin identifies themes common to the Jewish heritage, and many of them are prominent in Odets's work, as well as that of many other writers, some of them Gentiles. In Jews and Americans, Malin organizes his material into chapters that deal with individual elements common to the Jewish heritage: exile, fathers and sons, time, head and heart, transcendence, irony, fantasy, and parable. In Contemporary American-Jewish Literature, Malin posits that the creators of Jewish tales "seek to escape from exile, to break old covenants, and to embrace transcendent ideals."

A part of the Jewish cultural heritage is the dominant, often overly protective mother. She will often be counterbalanced by the acquiescent father (like Myron in Awake and Sing!) and, in literature certainly, by the voluptuous, sexually tempting daughter (like Hennie, also in Awake and Sing!). The hope of the future is vested in Jewish children, particularly in boy children, who are viewed as the precious heirs and prospective leaders of what ideally was to be a patriarchal Jewish society.

The mother, while dominant, is also a sufferer. She often is, as Auchincloss might call her, an "injustice collector." She must sacrifice in order to feel fulfilled. Robert Warshow, writing of Awake and Sing!, capsulizes the values of middle-class American Jews: "be secure, be respected, be intelligent." These are very much Bessie Berger's values in Awake and Sing!, Clara Gordon's in Paradise Lost, and Esther's in The Flowering Peach.

If Jewish society can be viewed as being ideally patriarchal. The Jewish family is in many ways matriarchal. The Jewish wife, when she becomes a mother, adopts a new role of dominance, particularly when she has sons whom she regards as the chief hope for the future. She becomes the beacon in an alien environment. She makes the home, which is because of her an impregnable fortress against all that might threaten it. With the birth of a son into a Jewish family, the father's dominance decreases and the mother's increases. In Odets's Awake and Sing! and The Flowering Peach, dominant women are the mortar that holds the family together in the most trying of times.


Some of Odets's plays have in them what might be called the conventional Jewish mother, the dominant female who suffers and serves, who is constantly urging food on her young, who assumes the responsibility for many of the necessary decisions within the family. Other of Odets's plays present in prominent roles women who, while they may be neither Jewish nor mothers, attempt to be surrogate mothers for weak husbands whom they treat as surrogate sons.

Among the former are Bessie Berger (Awake and Sing!) and Esther (The Flowering Peach). Somewhat midway between the two polarities is Clara Gordon in Paradise Lost. The surrogate mother type is represented by Bertha Katz in Paradise Lost, in a much more fully developed way by Belle in Rocket to the Moon, and in a somewhat different way by Georgie Elgin in The Country Girl.

In the list of characters preceding Awake and Sing!, Bessie Berger is described in more than twice the detail accorded to either her husband, Myron, her daughter, Hennie, or her son, Ralph. The description presents, it would seem, Odets's conception of what the prototypical Jewish mother is, although it must be remembered that Bessie Berger lives in the strained economic context of the Depression and that many of her characteristics are heightened by the pressures this context imposes. Odets calls her "not only the mother in this home but also the father. She is constantly arranging and taking care of her family." He comments on her joy in living from day to day and on her resourcefulness.

Bessie is concerned with the here and now, with the day-to-day matters of human existence; her men, particularly Jacob, the grandfather, and Ralph, the son, are the dreamers, the philosophers in the family. Bessie deals with the mundane and revels in doing so. Odets writes of her, "She is a shrewd judge of realistic qualities in people in the sense of being able to gauge quickly their effectiveness…. She is naive and quick in emotional response. She is afraid of utter poverty. She is proper according to her own standards, which are fairly close to those of most middle-class families. She knows that when one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life." Bessie needs to be in control of things and she essentially is. The one threat to that control is the poverty she fears, because this could destroy her home and her family. Bessie alludes to this fear early in Awake and Sing!: "They threw out a family on Dawson Street today. All the furniture on the sidewalk. A fine old woman with gray hair." This concern is repeated toward the end of the play when Bessie warns, "A family needs for a rainy day. Times is getting worse. Prospect Avenue, Dawson, Beck Street—every day furniture's on the sidewalk."

Bessie's worst fears are the realities with which her counterpart Clara Gordon, in Paradise Lost must contend; Clara and Leo's furniture actually is put out into the street. They lose their business, their home, and indeed their hope for the future, which has been vested in their children—one is shot during a robbery, one is dying of encephalitis, and one is rapidly becoming a recluse.

If Bessie seems to some to be "instinctively dedicated to emasculating the men in the family," she is equally devoted to keeping the family intact when it is threatened from without. She is also concerned with projecting an image of respectability for her family even when to do so involves an act such as deceiving the gullible Sam Feinschreiber into marrying her daughter, Hennie, who is pregnant by another man. Through this marriage, Odets implies that the whole family cycle will recur; Sam will become the emasculated husband, Hennie the dominant wife and controlling mother.

Both Clara Gordon and Bessie Berger tend to be shrill much of the time, hypercritical, opinionated. They bicker. Granted they sometimes emasculate their men, but at the base of all this are love and concern such as that reflected in Clara's line, "I found out many years ago I married a fool, but I love him." Odets's Jewish mothers represent continuity and continuance. They are concerned with the survival of the Jewish tradition but equally, if not more so, with the economic and physical survival of the family. The Bergers in Awake and Sing! are under extreme financial pressures, but throughout the play they eat almost constantly. Bessie sees to that. The family survives and in Ralph's new beginning at the end of the play is the hope that both the Jewish tradition and the Berger family will continue.

The dramatic tensions in Awake and Sing!, Paradise Lost, The Flowering Peach, and to some extent in all of Odets's other plays, except perhaps his two agitprop dramas, Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die, are part and parcel of the head-heart conflict which is developed through the interplay of practical, down-to-earth women who, in the last analysis, represent head, and impractical, idealistic men, who, in the last analysis, represent heart. Granted that Jacob, who reads books and listens to opera, is more the intellectual than Bessie; however, he functions according to emotion more than according to reason. Bessie, within her own value system, makes rational decisions that will preserve the family's appearance of respectability and improve its chances of survival. One must note that Odets, as his writing career progressed, came increasingly to side more often with the idealistic men than with the women.

As early as Paradise Lost, the play's last word is a long idealistic statement by Leo, whereas in Awake and Sing!, the idealistic Jacob commits suicide and there is less to suggest that Ralph is really going to be able to conquer new worlds despite his closing oratory. By the time of The Flowering Peach. written nearly two decades after Awake and Sing!, the Jewish mother, Esther, while somewhat carping and domineering, has mellowed a great deal. The idealism of Noah, her husband, who was commanded by God to build an Ark and did so despite the aspersions cast by others upon his judgment—indeed, upon his sanity—is, in the end, vindicated because his act saves the human race from total annihilation in the Flood. At the end of The Flowering Peach, Esther is dead, a victim of old age; but through Noah's idealistic following of God's word, future generations are saved and continuance is assured.

Toward the end of Awake and Sing!, Bessie has a speech that states very succinctly the head-heart conflict which exists in a Jewish mother like her: "'Mom, what does she know? She's old-fashioned!' But I'll tell you a big secret: My whole life I wanted to go away, too, but with children a woman stays home. A fire burned in my heart too, but now it's too late. I'm no spring chicken. The clock goes and Bessie goes." The theme of the worn-out mother recurs in The Flowering Peach. Esther says to Noah toward the end of the play, "Whatta you want from me, Noah? I'm a tired old woman … you're a young man." As the action nears its resolution, Esther still fights for the family while Noah stands as the patriarch who will preserve the laws of God, laws much more abstract than those of the family:

Esther: (to Noah) Marry the children … for the sake of happiness in the world …

Noah: Old friend, it hurts me to refuse you, but it stands in the books for a thousand years—

Esther:—But all the books are in the water now…. Marry the children before I go.

Just before Esther dies, Noah having denied her wish that he marry the children, she proclaims, "The children, their happiness … is my last promised land."

This is a curious reversal and represents Odets's coming far afield from Awake and Sing!; in The Flowering Peach, which begins with Esther representing head and Noah representing heart, Esther, in the end wants Noah to violate his conscience and to perform marriages among the children according to the dictates of her heart. Noah, by building the Ark, has assured the physical continuation of the human race; Esther now calls upon him to play God, as it were, and to help reestablish the conventions of the world which the Flood has destroyed. Esther, like Bessie Berger, remains concerned with the here and now; but Noah, with his more abstract philosophical concerns, really triumphs at the conclusion of The Flowering Peach.


Some of the wives in Odets's plays are surrogate Jewish mothers. They are married to men of questionable strength and self-assurance. These men need strong women to tell them what to do (Ben Stark in Rocket to the Moon) or to keep them from vices that would destroy them (Frank Elgin in The Country Girl), wives who will suffer the abuse that stems from the husbands' own insecurities and inadequacies (Sam Katz in Paradise Lost). The first tentative step toward this kind of character is found in Tilly, Ernst Tausig's fiancee in Till the Day I Die. Tilly is the comforter, the one who understands and encourages Ernst after he has been interrogated, intimidated, and physically mutilated by the German SS. When Ernst returns to Tilly after the SS has crushed his hand, he is depicted as wincing in pain and Tilly tells him, "Sit down again. Don't be afraid of softness, of sorrow." She is the comforting mother type; but Ernst is not basically weak, as some male characters in other of Odets's plays have been. He has been victimized by a force much stronger than any man might be expected to resist.

Not until Paradise Lost did Odets develop to the utmost the surrogate mother type of character. Bertha Katz is childless, like Belle Stark in Rocket to the Moon and Georgie (a non-Jew) in The Country Girl. Being childless is particularly difficult for Jewish women, as Odets was well aware; they cannot obey the Biblical injunction, "Be fruitful and multiply." They are unfulfilled, and Odets turns their need for fulfillment toward their husbands. In Paradise Lost, where Odets really becomes concerned with this particular theme, it is Sam Katz, not his wife, who is responsible for their childlessness. Bertha tolerates Sam's abuse, both physical and verbal, dealing with him just as she might have with the children she has never had. He calls her "Momma," and she speaks the line, "Momma, he says, In the night he cried to God and no answer came. In my arms he cried, and no answer came." In the tense lines which follow, Bertha tells the Gordons of Sam's impotence, reveals to them that he has not slept with a girl in seven years, and then, like the good mother, she says, "He's a good boy—We'll go home Sam." The set directions here are especially revealing: "Goes up to Sam. Helps him up from the lower step. Wipes his face with handkerchief."

Belle Stark in Rocket to the Moon is Odets's next depiction of the surrogate mother type. She is by no means so sympathetic a character as Bertha Katz. She has miscarried in her first pregnancy and can have no more children. Her internalized anger reveals itself in sarcasm and often in outright nastiness. Odets suggests that Belle's mother was temperamentally very like Belle. He also intimates that Ben once had promise, but that during his marriage to Belle, his promise has remained unfulfilled. Ben reveals some of his past potential in the lines, "I was a pioneer with Gladstone in orthodontia, once. Now I'm a dentist, good for sixty dollars a week, while men with half my brains and talents are making their twenty and thirty thousand a year!" But Belle has now reduced him to the state where she does much of his thinking for him and says contemptuously, "Any day now I'm expecting to have to powder and diaper you."

Belle presumably does not want Ben to advance professionally, because she would then have difficulty controlling him. As Odets had originally conceived the play, Ben's affair with his receptionist, Cleo Singer, was to have given him strength through love, however, as the play finally appeared, the affair is fleeting, Ben is weak even in its midst, as is evidenced by his not even discouraging Cleo from going out with other men while it is going on; and when the affair is over, Ben presumably will return to the same trap in which he was before, except that Belle will have collected one more injustice to hold over him. Her longing for a child will continue, and she will use Ben as the child she cannot have, nagging him until the end of his days. There is a terrible irony in Ben's lines to Mr. Prince, his father-in-law, toward the end of the play: "For years I sat here, taking things for granted, my wife, everything. Then just for an hour my life was in a spotlight. I saw myself clearly, realized who and what I was. Isn't that a beginning? Isn't it?" And with these words, with this plaintive questioning, he seals his fate. Even at the close of the original play, ending as it does with the word "Awake," which is an allusion to Ben's earlier line, "A man falls asleep in marriage," there is little hope that Ben will ever be anything but emasculated, mothered and smothered by a woman who must control him through diminishing him as a person.

The relationship between Georgie and Frank Elgin in The Country Girl is somewhat different. Frank, a gifted actor whose alcoholism has all but ruined his career, is offered a last chance, an important role in a play. His wife, Georgie, who has suffered with him through the decline in his career caused by his alcoholism, has become his protectress. Georgie does not resemble the Jewish mother quite so much as she does the deeply concerned wife. Her mothering grows out of her concern, and much of it seems necessary to her husband's professional survival as well as to her own survival, which is closely allied to her husband's success. She protects his interests, sees that his rights and privileges are duly accorded. She says of him, "He doesn't like to make the slightest remark that might lose him people's regard and affection. I've simply grown into the habit of doing it for him." She then goes on to argue with Bennie Dodd, the play's director, about Frank's salary.

Georgie tells of having left Frank twice and of having twice resumed to him, largely, it would seem from the dialogue, in a motherly role: "Twice left, twice returned. He's a helpless child." Later she allows, "Yes, he has to be watched—he has to be nursed, guarded, and coddled." And she then adds the line, "But not by me, my very young friend (Bernie Dodd)!"

However, despite this proclamation, Georgie, talking to Bernie backstage on opening night about the congratulatory telegrams Frank received, clearly shows that she cannot stop mothering her husband:

Georgie: It was sweet of you to send him all those wires.

Bernie: impassively: Who told you?

Georgie: Guessed. How many did you send?

Bernie: Nine or ten. And you?

Georgie: Four or five.

The husband-wife relationship in Odets's plays are often based upon sexual stereotypes current when he wrote. The Jewish mother and the surrogate mother present an interesting reversal of what was the usual role designation of Odets's era, i.e., the dominant male and the dependent female; but such role reversal is found in other plays which metaphorically presented the social and economic emasculation of their protagonists by a world which seems organized against them, characters like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman.


The story of the exodus as related in the Old Testament has long been with worldwide Jewry. As a cohesive ethnic group frequently in exile, Jews have been ghettoized throughout much of history. Those who have chosen to leave the ghetto have, nevertheless, been forced to bear all the kinds of discrimination visited upon Jews by many dominant cultures throughout history. Outbreaks of violent anti-Semitism through the history of the Western world have been sufficiently frequent and regular to remind Jews everywhere, particularly before the founding of the state of Israel, of their exile and to reinforce their feelings of alienation and homelessness. During Odets's early creative years, many Jews were exiling themselves from an insanely anti-Semitic Germany where, in many cases, they and their forefathers had lived for generations. Jews everywhere identified with these refugees, as today large numbers of Jews identify with their counterparts in the USSR.

Exiled and alienated as many Jews have been through the ages and were particularly during the Nazi era, there has always been a strong theme of redemption in their existence. Warshow writes,

The adult immigrant had some advantages. Whatever it was that drove him to come (to the United States), he was able to carry with him a sense of his own dignity and importance. He had a kind of security, though it is a strange thing to say of a Jew. In Europe, with the club over his head, he had nevertheless lived in a community which was in important ways self-sufficient, and which permitted him to think of himself as a man of value: he was, a scholar, or a revolutionist; at the very least he knew himself to be a more serious man than his Gentile persecutors. To be a Jew was a continual burden, even a misfortune, but it could not have seemed to him a joke or a disgrace.

A unique admixture of exile, alienation, and redemption exists among Jews and has so existed through much of their history.

It must be remembered that in Nazi German, anti-Semitism was directed against anyone with so-called "Jewish blood." Birth conferred the distinction of being Jewish in the Nazi view, and, as Ernest Van den Haag notes, "This was one part of the complicated truth which the Nazis grasped." The Jewish Americans by whom Odets was surrounded in his youth, both in the neighborhoods in which his parents lived and among his associates in the Group Theatre, were well aware of the historic persecution of the Jews; the rise of the Nazi party in Germany during the thirties only intensified their awareness of this long and unhappy history.

Superimposed upon the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany was the complication of a worldwide economic depression which, within Odets's own immediate frame of reference, threatened the economic security of large numbers of people by whom he was surrounded and made them feel alienated from their society. The threat of homelessness loomed large for working-class Americans. In his interview with Michael Mendelsohn, Odets said. "Theatre in its profoundest sense—all literature in its profoundest sense—has come in periods when the plight or problem expressed by the actors was completely at one with the plight or problems and values or even moralities of the audience."

During his interview with Arthur Wagner, Odets, in speaking about how one writes, asserted, "The question is really not one of knowing how to write so much as knowing how to connect with yourself so that the writing is, so to speak, born affiliated with yourself." In the same monologue he acknowledges what he calls his "blood ties" with Paradise Lost, and indeed he could have established similar blood ties with most of his early plays.

Odets's immediate tie in a play like Waiting for Lefty was a tie with the working class caught up in the problems of the Depression. However, his blood ties to his material came out of his whole past, as they must in any author, and such ties reflect the way a Jewish-American writer reacts to the materials about which he is writing. Certainly Odets was not oblivious to the situation of Jews in Germany, as Till the Day I Die clearly illustrates. The "plights and problems" of which Odets speaks were the most legitimate plights and problems of his age and his Jewish background gave him a special competence to deal with them, "to connect with himself," as he put it.

Schaar suggests the pervasiveness of the exile motif and the attendant sense of alienation that accompanies it: "The motif of the eternal wanderer begins in the dawn of the Jewish tradition and weaves in and out of the whole subsequent history of Western religion. Abram is the prototype and universal symbol of alienated man." Rosenberg and Bergen contend, "In becoming an object-self, part of an objective social history, the person can come to feel that he has lost control over his own being." Many of Odets's characters, particularly those in Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die, have lost control of their own destinies. Yet in both these early plays, the common Jewish motif of redemption is evident. Redemption for the cabbies in Waiting for Lefty comes after Lefty, who has been interpreted by some as being a Christ-like figure, is murdered and the men gathered in the union hall call for a strike, moved to fever pitch by their indignation over the murder. The same motif occurs in a different way in Till the Day I Die. Ernst Tausig kills himself at the conclusion of the play, but Tillie is pregnant with his child, the prospective leader, the precious heir. Tillie emphasizes this: "Let us hope we will both live to see strange and wonderful things. Perhaps we will die before then. Our children will see it then." Just before Ernst's suicide, his brother says to Tillie, "Let him die," but after the shot is heard, he utters the more redemptive, "Let him live."

Odets deals with the themes of exile (variations on the wandering Jew theme) and alienation throughout much of his writing. The concern is a central one for him. In Waiting for Lefty, the disparate group of people brought together by the economic uncertainties of their society are, for the most part, living unfulfilled lives—for example, the young hack and his girl cannot marry and Dr. Benjamin drives a taxicab rather than completing his hospital residency—and they are dealing with the "object-self." If they are to overcome the threat of complete alienation, they can do so only by joining together, and this is what they are forced into at the end of the play when they rally to strike after Lefty has been found dead behind the carbarns, a bullet in his head.

Odets, during the uncertain years of the Depression, was a member of the close-knit Group Theatre, and in the unity of this association he felt less alienated personally than he might otherwise have felt. Deeper alienation came later in his life, first when he left the Group Theatre to go to Hollywood, an act which was in his eyes a prostitution of his talents and ideals, largely so he could earn money to help the Group Theatre stay afloat; and later when he began to rankle under the artistic pressures of Hollywood, where he experienced a significant loss of identity and self-esteem.

In Awake and Sing!, the threat of economic disaster always impends, but the family unit remains together, as it does in the face of great crisis in The Flowering Peach. Some hope remains in the Berger household, despite all its tribulations and discontent: Bessie, after protesting at Myron's wish to buy a fifty-cent Irish Sweepstakes Ticket from Moe Axelrod, says, "I'll give you money. Buy a ticket in Hennie's name. Say, you can't tell—lightning never struck us yet. If they win on Beck Street, we could win on Longwood Avenue." Bessie, reflecting a mentality which keeps exiles alive, always holds on to the hope of a better future.

Jacob in Awake and Sing! is the philosophical center of the play; Bessie Berger is the practical center. Jacob is the idealist whose immediate world is not threatened in quite the same way that Bessie's is, partly because Jacob has not so long to live as Bessie and partly because Bessie's concerns about security are more specific, focusing as they do upon her family, than Jacob's, whose concerns focus upon mankind more broadly. Jacob has more philosophical detachment than Bessie, whose point of view is limited by the immediacy of assuring on a day-to-day basis her own survival and that of her family.

Bessie, struggling to preserve the family's respectability can pressure her pregnant daughter Hennie into marrying the unsuspecting Sam Feinschreiber, saying of him, "He's going to night school, Sam. For a boy only three years in the country he speaks very nice," followed by the crucial, "In three years he put enough money in the bank, a good living." She can first tell Moe Axelrod that Hennie is engaged to Sam, and then, upon hearing Moe, who is richer than Sam, say, "… maybe I'd marry her myself," can turn around and say, "why don't you, Moe? An old family friend like you. It would be a blessing on us all." Bessie is convinced that she is doing all this for the good and for the security of the family, which are her prime concerns; she can justify any deceit that will help her family to project an image of decency and respectability, to prevent an alienation of her family from its social milieu.

But Jacob's whole philosophical framework is different from Bessie's. He is sufficiently removed from the particulars of the immediate situation to be able to make a moral judgment about it and to be able to utter in disgust, "Marx said it—abolish such families." Their diverging viewpoints cause an estrangement between Bessie and Jacob, and the two are farthest apart when Hennie tells Sam that he is not the father of their child and Sam confronts Bessie with this information. Ralph tells his mother, "You trapped this guy," and Bessie's whole world is collapsing. Now, because of her efforts to keep up a respectable front, she is beginning to be alienated from her own family. At this point she turns to Jacob, venting her wrath upon him, saying, "You'll stand around with Caruso and make a bughouse. It ain't enough all day long. Fifty times I told you I'll break every record in the house," and she there-upon breaks Jacob's cherished recordings, and in so doing probably precipitates his suicide.

Of this tense scene Warshow writes, "Bessie Berger reveals the whole pattern of psychological and moral conflict that dominates her and her family…. (She) turns upon her father, who has said nothing, and smashes the phonograph records that are his most loved possessions and the symbol of his superiority." What remains to Bessie is the outer symbol of her superiority: respectability in the eyes of middle-class society, which probably scarcely knows she exists. In Awake and Sing!, redemption lies, albeit more facilely than artistically justifiable, not in Jacob's leaving Ralph three thousand dollars in insurance money—Ralph finally decides to "Let Mom have the dough"—but in Ralph's realization that Jacob's life and ultimately his death have perhaps given Ralph something on which to build a new beginning: "I'll get along. Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No! 'Awake and Sing,' he said. Right here he stood and said it. The night he died, I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born!" (Italics mine). The cycle is repeated; Odets is suggesting that continuance is assured.

Noah, in The Flowering Peach, is alienated from his society for quite lofty reasons. God has come to him in a dream and told him that the earth will be destroyed in a flood. He orders him to build an ark and to take his family upon it along with seven pairs of clean, and one pair of unclean, animals. Noah's wife chides him for drinking too much and is, along with his sons, quite skeptical of the validity of Noah's dream, attributing it to his drinking. But when God sends signs and portents to Noah—first a gitka and then other animals arrive to be put on the Ark, and a tired old Noah becomes young and strong so that he can work at constructing the Ark—the family becomes more credulous. Yet even at this point, Noah is shunned. He is stoned out of town when he goes for supplies. He must refuse passage on the Ark to respected old friends, because God's command is that he shall take only his family on board. But Noah's oneness is with God, so his alienation is not complete nor will his exile during the flood be permanent.

Odets's Noah story ends on a note of affirmation. Noah's wife, Esther, has died on the Ark, but life will continue. Rather than drinking himself into drunkenness at the end of the story, as in the Biblical version, Odets's Noah asks God for a covenant: "You know what I want, Lord. Just like you guarantee each month, with a woman's blood, that men will be born … give such a sign that you won't destroy the world again," and at that point a rainbow appears in the sky. Although the ending is again a bit facile, the theme of redemption is stronger in The Flowering Peach than in any of Odets's other plays. Noah's alienation and his exile—his forty days on the waters—have led him to be humble before God and obedient to Him. Life will go on thanks to Noah's heeding of God's command.

Night Music is a play about homelessness and alienation despite its bittersweet resolution. Writing of the theme of homelessness in the play, Harold Clurman, its director, says, "Odets does not state this (homelessness) as his theme in so many words; he does not have to, since he has made it part of every character, of every scene, almost of every prop. It is not a thesis, it is the 'melody' that permeates the play. The central character is made angry and adolescently belligerent by his inability to take hold in society." This sort of alienation, this waste of human potential, had always angered Odets: "Nothing moves me so much as human aspirations blocked, nothing enrages me like waste. I am for use as opposed to abuse." The wasted human potential of the Depression provided him with material for his early plays, but he was no less incensed by the waste and futility that he sometimes felt characterized his own endeavors in Hollywood.

In many ways his most acerbic play is The Big Knife; in it he addresses directly the frustrations that had been gnawing away at him during his first decade in California and makes an open attack upon the motion picture industry. But these gnawings actually had been festering in the writer for quite a long time. Golden Boy addressed problems of unfulfillment that later came to be a major part of the substance of The Big Knife. Both plays can be viewed as escape-from-the-ghetto plays. Joe Bonaparte escapes through his boxing ability, but the price he pays is enormous; he is an accomplished violinist, but in becoming a boxer, he sacrifices his hands. In the end, he kills another boxer in the ring and then goes out in his new, expensive Duesenberg, a symbol of his success, and crashes it, killing himself and his female companion, Laura. Similarly, Charlie Castle moves from his humble background into a successful career as an actor, only to be destroyed by the threat of a disclosure that he has been involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident for which he has allowed someone else to accept the blame and be punished. The threat drives Castle to suicide.

The writing of both of these plays was a very self-searching activity for their author and each in its own period grew out of Odets's feelings of alienation and, in the case of Golden Boy particularly, out of the sense of self-imposed exile which he felt in deserting the Group Theatre for Hollywood, even though the desertion was done in the best interests of the Group. Cantor writes, "Indeed, it is difficult to disentangle the work and the man in Odets' career, for Odets' major plays on the subject of selling-out, Golden Boy and The Big Knife, are rooted in his personal experience." The loss of identity with which Charlie Castle had to deal in The Big Knife raises again the object-self question; Charlie, like Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, becomes a commodity to be haggled over. A loss of identity, which begins with his having to change his name at the studio's command, progresses to the point that he has to sign a fourteen-year contract which he does not wish to sign, has to sign away fourteen years of his life, as it were, because the studio is blackmailing him. Well might he utter such lines as "I'll bet you don't know why we all wear these beautiful, expensive ties in Hollywood…. It's a military tactic—we hope you won't notice our faces," or "free speech is the highest-priced luxury in this country today."

As Odets moved away from specifically Jewish settings for his plays, he nevertheless imbibed deeply from his Jewish heritage in their thematic development, and the intertwining concerns with alienation and homelessness appear to be outgrowths of the exile motif which is pervasive in the whole of Jewish history.


Reflecting on his early experience of seeing Odets's Awake and Sing!, Alfred Kazin remarks, "In Odets' play there was a lyric up lifting of blunt Jewish speech, boiling over and explosive, that did more to arouse the audience than the political catchwords that brought the curtain down." Odets probably had a better ear for language than any other playwright of his period. His early plays surge with the vitality of an authentic Yiddish-American which, as employed by Odets, is neither exaggerated nor burlesqued. He made such speech a legitimate idiom of the theater at a time when dialects were used so exaggeratedly in some other plays (Abie's Irish Rose), on the radio (The Goldbergs or Amos and Andy), or in comic strips (The Katzenjammer Kids) that they really demeaned the people portrayed as using them.

The Goldbergs was one of the more popular radio shows of the thirties; Weales notes that the dialect in the Goldberg scripts ("For vat is your fadder slaving for vat I'm esking you?" or "Maybe he got himself runned over by a cabsitac") uses "verbal humor at the expense of a real language, and it is used, perhaps unintentionally, to destroy any suggestion of validity in the characters and the situation." Weales continues, "Odets manages to find the humor in the language and retain the psychological truth of the family." For the first time in American drama, Jews were represented, through an honest recording of their language, in something other than caricature.

At times Odets deliberately employed the dialect of older, less acculturated Jews, particularly for such characters as Jacob, Bessie, and Myron in Awake and Sing!. However, elements of Yiddish-American appear in all of his plays and, indeed, quite tellingly, in his responses to questions in interviews. Even in situations where Odets is not striving to project a Jewish image, as he is with a character like Bessie Berger, for example, Yiddish-American word order and phrasing still are evident. Sid in Waiting for Lefty quite unselfconsciously speaks lines like, "If we went off together I could maybe look the world straight in the eye," naturally selecting a locution which is Jewish-American in its placement of the adverb maybe.

Cantor, who writes in detail about Odets's use of language, says of it, "It is Yiddish in its inflections (sometimes even when he is writing about the goyish milieux), and contains Yiddish-English expressions." Odets strove to establish a credible language for the people in his earlier plays and in so doing became the first American dramatist to use the Jewish-American dialect, with all of its humor, with all of its distinguishing cadences, for other than comic effects. Pocnmann claims that while few Jews outside Palestine (and now Israel) speak Hebrew, Judaeo-German (Yiddish) has become more or less the tongue of the Jewish people throughout much of the world. From this Judaeo-German language Odets has borrowed so heavily.

One can open to any page of Awake and Sing! and find in it the most faithful representations of the Yiddish-American dialect. A few follow:

Bessie: Go to your room, Papa. Every job he ever had he lost because he's got a big mouth. He opens his mouth and the whole Bronx could fall in. [In an editorial note, Shuman "finds the object of the sentence in the primary position (Every job) and also finds the exaggerated humorous cliché, 'the whole Bronx could fall in,' so common to Yiddish-English." He also notes "the third person singular aside."]

Myron: I was a little boy when it happened—the Great Blizzard. [Shuman notes that in "this case the referent of the pronoun follows the pronoun."]

Bessie: Myron, make tea. You'll have a glass tea. [Shuman notes: "Characteristic of Yiddish-English is the omission of the qualifier (some tea) and of the preposition (glass of tea)."]

Haslam, writing about Odets's use of language in Awake and Sing!, notes that Odets used "four major types of lexical or grammatical aberrations in constructing a believable stage Yiddish: (1) prepositional differences; (2) sentence order; (3) verb variations; and (4) Yiddish loans." He notes that an authenticity of dialect is achieved because Odets capitalizes on the difficulty that speakers like Jacob or Bessie have in translating words like the Yiddish foon, which can mean of or from; or bei, a more difficult preposition which can mean at, by, among, beside, or with.

In order to achieve believable Yiddish-American sentence structure, Haslam illustrates how Odets uses four specific techniques: (1) misplacement of modifiers; (2) the running together of some independent clauses without punctuation or conjunctions; (3) the misplacement of noun clusters used as objects; and (4) the omission of the objects of prepositions from the end of sentences. Haslam cites two types of verb variations that lend authenticity to Odets's dialogue, one which he identifies as mistranslation ("I won't stand he should make me insults") and the other as the frequent omission or addition of auxiliaries in verb clusters ("Wait, when you'll get married you'll know.")

Paradise Lost surges with the Yiddish-American idiom, despite the acculturation of the Gordons. Clara likes to begin speeches with "Do yourself a personal favor;" "Take a piece of fruit" is another staple of her conversation throughout the play, reminding one of the frequent allusions to fruit in Awake and Sing!. The well-ordered Jewish household will have fruit to offer guests. In the same play, one finds locutions like, "He's finished in ten minutes," rather than the more American. "He will be."

Odets tried to move away from his earlier idiom in plays like Golden Boy, Night Music, Rocket to the Moon, and Clash by Night, but one still finds bits of the Jewish idiom creeping in: "Don't change the subject. Like my father-in-law here—he's always changing the subject when I get a little practical on him" or a typical Jewish wisecrack, "You can't insult me, I'm too ignorant" or a malapropism, "How do you like it with our boy for gratitude? He leaves us here standing in our brevities!"

Odets has been accused of abandoning his natural dialect as he became more successful and, indeed, of losing "his ear for this idiom." Cantor, however points out that Odets's ear did not fail him when he was writing The Country Girl and The Big Knife, but that in these plays he "is dealing with success and failure in the upper echelons of Hollywood and Broadway." The Country Girl, which Odets asserted "doesn't mean anything to me; it's just a theater piece," does not have the idiom of his other plays, nor is there any reason for this idiom. The cast of the play is not Jewish, nor does the play have overt ethnic characteristics. But Cantor makes a persuasive case for the idiom of The Big Knife, writing that in it "Yiddish-American dialect took a new turn when it went to Hollywood and incorporated a strain of what Charlie Castle called 'phony cathedral eloquence';… Nat Danziger, Charlie Castle's agent, has 'all the qualities of the president of a synagogue,' though he is still capable of inverted Yiddish sentences and verb variants, such as 'Her I'm gonna talk to again' and 'a million dollars is got an awful big mouth' (I)."

If any doubt existed about Odets's ability to use the Yiddish-American idiom in his later productive years, The Flowering Peach should have erased it. In this play, Odets pulls out all the stops, borrowing Yiddish words like tuchter, the term Esther uses in addressing her daughter-in-law, using inverted word order, capitalizing on the comedy of Yiddish wisecracks and clichés much more than he ever had previously. The Flowering Peach is a comedy, and much of its comic character is found in its demotic language. When Noah tells a skeptical Esther that God has come to him in a dream and told of the impending flood Esther replies, "And all this God told you in one single dream?" to which Noah responds, "Told it to me in one dream, yeh! So now you know." When Esther wants Noah to urge their son Japheth to take himself a wife, Noah asks, "Such a boy, so strange, what could he offer a decent girl?" and Esther responds with the Yiddish humor of understatement "He could offer her a nice boat ride!" This sort of cynical litotes, characteristic of much Yiddish humor, blossoms in The Flowering Peach and grounds it in reality. Also the scatological is mingled with the idealistic to produce a similar comic effect in, for example, the scene where Noah discovers Shem has been making briquettes from manure and storing them on the Ark so that he can sell them at the flood's end: "On the Holy Ark he's makin' business! manure! With manure you want to begin a new world? Everybody's life he put in danger!"

Certainly in Awake and Sing! Odets strove most consciously to present the Yiddish-American dialect, using it as a means of building his characters and social setting. Cantor indicates how Odets manipulates the dialect: "That Yinglish in Odets's play involves a reciprocal relationship between young and old is evidenced by the fact that Hennie and Ralph, though for the most part they speak straight urban English, are influenced by the speech patterns of their parents and grandparents." The gradations of dialect by generation is particularly interesting in Awake and Sing!. Jacob, the least acculturated member of the family, speaks a clearly identifiable sort of Yinglish, using borrowed words, mistranslated prepositions, misplaced objects, and verb clusters without the auxiliary. The next generation, as represented by Bessie, Myron, and Uncle Morty, still clearly speaks Yiddish-American, and at times Bessie's dialect is stronger than Jacob's. However, Ralph and Hennie speak essentially an urban American English with only an occasional injection of Jewish locutions here and there. Haslam notes two sorts of borrowings from Yiddish: words taken over in toto such as knish or shtupped or the chick ending in boychick, or locutions which are translated directly into English from Yiddish such as the recurrent "by me," which comes from Yiddish bei mir or the frequent "already," which is translated from German and Yiddish schon.


Odets will be remembered historically more as a proletarian playwright than as a Jewish playwright. Nevertheless, his background and upbringing imposed a Jewishness upon his work, a Hébrewtude, as I have called it elsewhere, in which were the roots of his depiction of characters (the dominant mother/wife, the acquiescent husband), his concern with the themes of homelessness and alienation which are outgrowths of the Jewish motif of the exile, his concern with redemption, and his use of language as found both in his depiction of Yiddish-American life and in his general use of a more conventional standard English.

Odets's social view in his early plays often suggested affirmation. Speaking of these plays, Odets said that they "undoubtedly came out of ascending values, out of positive values, out of the search of millions of American citizens for some way out of a horrifying dilemma—a dilemma which, by the way, I don't think is over." These final words ring very true today as the United States faces problems which seem even more threatening than those of the Great Depression of the 1930s. By focusing on the plight of Jews during the Depression, Odets was able to write about characters whom he understood from the inside out and was also able to build the dramatic tensions which vivified his productions. It can certainly be said that the social and economic circumstances of the 1930s provided him with the perfect dramatic material to write about and that his early exposure to Jewish society provided him with themes, language, and folkways which lent themselves perfectly to the kind of writing that accounted for his meteoric rise as a playwright.

Brendan Gill (review date 19 March 1984)

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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 entertainment to contemporary audiences, by the ramshackle version of it that is currently on view at the Circle in the Square. Odets finished the play when he was twenty-eight, early in 1935; that was his annus mirabilis, in the course of which he wrote three other plays as well, working in feverish, fruitful collaboration with the Group Theatre. What an assortment of gifted young radical idealists (if not quite revolutionaries) they were! Their aspiration was to change the entire world for the better, beginning—their idea of reasonableness—with America. The Bronx in the depths of the Great Depression was the setting of Awake and Sing!, and it was also a symbol: free the inmates of that grim gray prison house of the soul and mankind would take the hint and assume the heroic task of making itself over, in order that, among other welcome consequences, "life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills."

The cast of the first production of Awake and Sing! is worth noting, so we can remind ourselves of how distinguished the Group Theatre was from the very start: Art Smith, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Jules Garfield, Roman Bohnen, Luther Adler, J. E. Bromberg, and Sanford Meisner. The scenery for the play was designed by Boris Aronson, and the director was Harold Clurman, Odets' close friend and, in Odets' phrase, "helpful obstetrician." Most of these people sprang from the same first- or second-generation Jewish American middle-class background, and they felt affection for and revulsion from the family life that Odets depicted. With the exception of Paul Sparer and Benjamin Hendrickson, the cast of the present production of Awake and Sing! seems as totally at sea as if the Bronx in the thirties were Tibet in the twelfth century; they are out of touch with the lilting, robust patois in which the play is written, and even with the way the characters ought to move about, embracing each other and recoiling from each other (what we nowadays call body English and in this case, looking back, we may risk calling body Yiddish). Odets describes Bessie Berger—the Stella Adler role—as a woman who "loves life, likes to laugh, has great resourcefulness, and enjoys living from day to day." Nancy Marchand plays Bessie as a bleak, stiff-jointed, scheming, and unaffectionate Protestant matron; her Jewish accent falters at every turn. The young hero, Ralph Berger, is played in the original production by Jules (later John) Garfield, is played by Thomas G. Waites; he brings innocence and ardor to the role, but he lacks the charm that would lead us to hope that the world will someday grant his ambition "to get to first base." We fear he will remain where he is, and that is not what the optimistic Odets, himself a prodigious hitter of home runs, wished Ralph's fate to be. Dick Latessa is touching as Myron Berger, the contented failed father of the family, and Harry Hamlin brings a necessary hardboiled vigor, but no Jewishness, to the role of Moe Axelrod. As Sam Feinschreiber, a classic lonely and unloved nebbish, fresh from the Old Country, Mr. Hendrickson works a trifle too hard for his own good but by doing so helps a dying play to stay alive. The calculated ugly Bronx-apartment setting is by John Conklin, the costumes are by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, the lighting is by Richard Nelson, and the heavy-handed direction is by Theodore Mann. We miss that jaunty, irrepressible Roman candle Harold Clurman on this occasion, as we do on so many others.

George L. Groman (essay date 1986)

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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 sleep," the character, Leo Gordon, asserts. "Men, men are understanding the bitter black total of their lives. Their whispers are growing to shouts! They become an ocean of understanding! No man fights alone…. I tell you the whole world is for men to possess. Heartbreak and terror are not the heritage of mankind! The world is beautiful. No fruit tree wears a lock and key. Men will sing at their work, men will love. Ohhh, darling, the world is in its morning … and no man fights alone!"

Leo Gordon, whose visionary statement ends the play, has just lost his business through bankruptcy and the machinations of a dishonest, longtime partner; he has been evicted from his home, his furniture is on the street, and he and his family can look forward, in the depression year of 1935, to destitution, despair, and the gray anonymity that is the lot of those who mix bad judgment with seemingly idle dreams. The disparity described here between inner vision and external reality lies at the center of Odets's perception of the world. In America, even the America of the 1930s, men and women have the capacity for personal fulfillment, but are thwarted by political and social forces that leave few, if any, options for those without money or power. Odets's dilemma, like that of many another depression writer, was that he sought to make sense out of what appeared to be senseless and to account for those who were stubborn or courageous enough to seek survival on their own terms—terms which at least some of the time encompassed independence of thought, group or family loyalty, and a belief in the sustaining power of artistic vision.

Odets, it is interesting to note, escaped many of the difficulties he so carefully described in his eleven plays and other writing efforts by gaining recognition as a writer and by earning a good deal of money as a result of his work. The son of Central and East European Jewish immigrants and also a high school dropout, he resisted his father's efforts to involve him permanently in the family printing business and set about becoming first an actor and then a playwright. It will be recalled that the first play of Odets to be performed, Waiting for Lefty, in 1935, produced a sensation. Odets here described the attempts of a committee of workers to gain acceptance for a strike, and performances were so effective in moving audiences that even middle-aged matrons from Scarsdale got to their feet to yell "Strike!" along with the actors. According to Odets's most recent biographer, Waiting for Lefty has been the most widely produced and banned play in theatre history. Odets's Awake and Sing!, produced later in 1935 but in fact the first play Odets wrote, focused on the struggles of a Jewish-American family in the Bronx during the depression era. Undoubtedly the play which most closely paralleled Odets's own experience, it described, often by means of pungent dialogue, the frustrations of people with essentially middle-class aspirations and strong personal needs, but an uncertain future. If the characters, in their search for material and emotional security, are sometimes crude and rude in their interactions with and treatment of one another, there is always lurking somewhere beneath the surface Odets's vision of a more satisfying life, one which might in a better world ultimately be made whole through the redeeming power of art. In Awake and Sing! and in many other plays of Odets, the theme is sounded again and again. If art does not and cannot rule the world and banish despair, it nevertheless remains as a haunted utopia and a vision of what might be.

Of all the arts, it was music which made the most profound impression on Odets's imagination and thought. Indeed, this interest was widely noted even during the writer's lifetime. According to one early observer and friend, Odets used music like a drug, "experiencing a remarkable psychological intimacy with vanished composers—whom he called 'the mighty dead'" and "whose message he was always eager to impart to others." Odets's wife, Luise Rainer, the Viennese film actress and Academy Award winner who later divorced him, in fact considered his interest obsessional. She noted that although "their greatest relaxation had long been listening to records," the steady intake of music and his insistence on playing it at top volume eventually created more of a wall than a bond between them. Odets himself often bemoaned the fact that he had not become a musician or composer. In a typical journal entry, he remarked that he had been "destined" in his "flesh and spirit to be a musician but somewhere the spirit clutched wrongly."

Odets did, however, continue to be fascinated by the artistic possibilities which music offered and spent a good deal of time thinking about the connections between music and the writing he was doing. In a New York Times article in April of 1951, Odets used a string quartet to illustrate the possibilities for plot development. Here he describes, in hypothetical terms, the playwright who is primarily a technician, who "fabricates," and the playwright who, though he may have "an equal technical grasp," begins always by expressing "a personal state of being." To be sure, even the technician is able to manufacture a competent plot, one in which quartet members "function as one man, are deeply content, socially useful, and without personal problems." Into this "minor" paradise, Odets suggests, comes a young woman, beautiful and destructive, who has just married the cellist, but who begins an affair with the handsome second violinist. Not content with such disruption, she convinces her "uxorious husband" to leave the quartet in order to make "more money and splash as a solo artist. Q.E.D., paradise is lost and the quartet destroyed; farewell to a small, rich communal life dedicated to musical art."

The truly creative playwright, Odets believes, may utilize the same ideas, but will come at them another way. Odets imagines this second writer

morosely suffering … from a sense of alienation, feeling cut off from other workers in the theatre, from men and women in all walks of life. His deepest belief has always been that men must work together, not apart; and now he feels that there is something in modern life (acutely and painfully reflected in himself) which makes this not only difficult but impossible.

Months and months of this mood until one night, without belaboring the point beyond patience, the writer attends a quartet concert and sees there on the stage a perfect image of four men who, by the very nature of their art, must work together, dedicated, connected, humble and true.

Odets goes on to point out that many of the most prominent string quartets of the time have failed. Presumably, the truly creative artist might also make use of such information in shaping his play.

It is interesting to note that Odets uses essentially the same focus for both of the writers he conjures up. Indeed, both may envision a situation in which the artist is destroyed by urgent needs—lust, avarice, and the desire for social and artistic recognition. These needs, paradoxically, clash with the artist's ability to achieve that sublime inner harmony which brings with it the greatest human fulfillment.

Of all the composers Odets admired, it was Beethoven who meant the most to him. In fact, a number of early fictional works modeled on the composer portrayed young musical artists, either violinists or pianists, who are crippled by the loss of a hand or fall victim to the ministrations of an unscrupulous agent. Odets's Louis Brant (modeled on Beethoven) was also to be the central character in a historical play which he finally abandoned in favor of material closer to his own experience. Odets, nevertheless, continued to believe that the composer's lifelong struggles were much like his own. Both Beethoven and he "were shy, suspicious, essentially homeless, and parentless—negative elements that Beethoven had changed into a positive but embattled idealism, a reaching out for 'Bruderschaft.' In his creative work he embraced the entire world … making of it the home he never had."

Odets was also much concerned with the evolution of artistic form in Beethoven's work. Earlier composers like Bach had used the forms of their own time. Beethoven, however, was half master of those forms and half their servant. Beethoven "began to make the forms serve him. A fugue was no longer something to fill with content. Now, with him the fugue was shaped, pounded into serving his purpose in relation to a bigger thing—to the expression of his own individuality." Although later composers, particularly those after Wagner and Debussy, were free to explore themselves completely, they strayed too far away from "the roots and the nourishing earth of social form and life." The result, according to Odets, was sterility and a kind of "danse macabre" filled with "disease, hunger, neurotic pleading and searching, perhaps a complete lack of caring covered with childish cynicism, bitterness, often hatred, lostness, tearing down." Odets concluded, in 1931, that such individuality, what he now described as "sophistication," would die "a swift death" and that artists would come back to the "truth of root things" because of the spirit of artistic and social reform which filled the air. "Beethoven," Odets says, "is so much our man today." Although he was "the first great individualist in art," he also keenly felt "the lack of a group of his own kind of people who would be as intent as he on building up for themselves the same kind of world." That world was soon to be achieved, Odets claimed, through such movements as communism and his own Group Theatre.

As indicated, Odets's creative output for the theatre and for films was heavily influenced by his absorption with music. This interest is clearly reflected in Awake and Sing!, his play about the fortunes and misfortunes of a Jewish-American family living in the Bronx during the 1930s. Bessie Berger, the matriarchal head of the family, much like Brecht's Mother Courage, will do anything she can to keep her family together and to provide whatever security may be available at the time. In contrast, the men in the family were weak or psychologically maimed. Grandfather Jacob Berger, who dreams of Marxian revolutions, settles for the charity of his children, Caruso records, and a "glass tea." The father and husband, Myron Berger, who had attended law school for two years, ekes out a living as a haberdashery clerk and always ends by accepting his wife's judgments and decisions. Ralph Berger, like his sister, Hennie, is under his mother's domination—though he broods about the childhood pleasures Bessie failed to provide (skates and black and white shoes). When he thinks of marrying, Bessie prevents him from doing so because his fiancee is an orphan and has no financial resources. Hennie's husband, Sam Feinschreiber (fine writer) is dominated by his wife as well as his mother-in-law. He broods about his wife's lack of interest in him and senses that he plays second fiddle to another man. (Bessie remarks to other members of the family that as far as she is concerned, he doesn't even belong in the orchestra.) Bessies' brother, Mort, has been successful in business, but cares for little else. Even the more vigorous Moe Axelrod, who was Hennie's first lover and who convinces her at the end of the play to go away with him, is crippled. He has lost a leg in World War I, and his bitterness and cynicism show him to be spiritually as well as physically maimed.

At the end of Act II, Ralph learns that Bessie has duped Sam Feinschreiber into marrying Hennie, knowing full well that her daughter is pregnant by another man. He also learns that his grandfather and father have done nothing to prevent the deception. When Ralph confronts his mother, the enraged Bessie marches into Grandfather Jacob's room and smashes his Caruso records—here asserting a symbolic reaffirmation of her own role as head of the family and denying values that are irrelevant to survival and vaguely subversive. Ralph picks up a fragment of one of the records which turns out to be "O Paradiso" from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. Earlier in the play, Jacob had expressed pleasure in hearing the piece and had recalled that in the opera "a big explorer comes on a new land—'O Paradiso.'" Jacob imagines Caruso in the role (in Act IV of the opera) standing on the deck of a ship and looking on a Utopia. "Oh paradise! Oh paradise on earth! Oh blue sky, oh fragrant air," sings the legendary Caruso. Clearly for Jacob, the paradise is not to last. Although Ralph grieves for his grandfather's loss of the records, Moe Axelrod, the family friend and Hennie's onetime lover, does not. He begins to sing a popular ballad of the day, the "Yama Yama" song. If paradise is unavailable, at least some forms of comfort are readily at hand:

      Lights are blinking while you're drinking,
      That's the place where the good fellows go.
      Good-by to all your sorrows,
      You never hear them talk about the war,
      In the land of Yama Yama
      Funicalee, funicala, funicalo….

It is worth nothing that although classical music in Odets's writing is used to represent a realization of human potential, popular music usually is not. Here the trivialization of deeply felt experience underscores the inadequacy of the response.

Later that same evening, Jacob commits suicide by jumping off the roof of the house, and the money from his small insurance goes to Ralph. However, he turns over the money to Bessie. Although Odets suggests that Ralph has gained in new understanding and vitality, one suspects that Bessie will continue to prevail because her vision and even her denials are an enduring source of family strength.

It was in Golden Boy, first produced as a play in 1937 and later as a film, that Odets dealt most directly with the theme of the failed musical artist. His protagonist, Joe Bonaparte, exchanges one identity for another, giving up promising studies on the violin to become a boxer. He desperately wants to reach for the big prizes—money, fame, and power, but he discovers that the path he has chosen is not an easy one. The prizes somehow seem elusive and even when they come, fail to provide the satisfactions he had dreamed of. Those who work with and for him—Tom Moody, his problem- and debt-ridden manager, Lorna Moon, Moody's fiancée who comes to love Joe, the gangster Eddie Fuseli who dreams of "owning" the golden boy—all desperately seek something of their own through Joe's successes in the ring. Indeed, for all of them, life is little more than a succession of risks. As one earnest, if uneducated, backer of the golden boy says, in a burst of Odetsian humor, Joe must win or they will all be left in their "brevities."

For Joe himself, the issue is more complex than simple victory or loss in the ring because he discovers that he cannot escape his past after all. He confides to Lorna Moon that music has provided him with a special kind of support and wellbeing. "When I play music," Joe says, "nothing is closed to me. I'm not afraid of people and what they say. There's no war in music. It's not like the streets." However, Joe also makes clear that music is not enough. He says, "You can't get even with people by playing the fiddle. If music shot bullets I'd like it better…."

That Joe continues to think of returning to music is made clear by the fact that in his early bouts he is careful to protect his hands. In one instance, he sees a man carrying a violin case and is so upset by it that he loses a bout scheduled for later the same day. Joe continues to box scientifically, and although he wins, his manager protests because scientific boxing does not give the crowds the kind of excitement that comes with seeing the losing fighter savagely beaten. Finally, the pressures on him are overwhelming, and he gives an important opponent a terrific beating. His hand broken, he has effectively shut the door on the past and become the "professional" who will destroy those who stand in his way.

Joe's father, Old Mr. Bonaparte, serves as a kind of moral center for the play. An Italian immigrant with a great love for music, he has encouraged Joe in his studies on the violin and even bought him a costly instrument for his twenty-first birthday. He disapproves of Joe's career as a fighter, but Joe, nevertheless, seems to need his support and asks him again and again for "the word." Finally, on the night of the fight in which Joe is to break his hand, Mr. Bonaparte gives his assent, but in a burst of anger and with the recognition that Joe will not and cannot turn back. He says, "Yeah … you fight. No I know … as'a too late for music. The men musta be free an' happy for music … not like-a you. Now I see whatta you are … I give-a you every word to fight. I sorry for you." That paradisical inner world with its serene and special harmonies, reserved for the "free an' happy," is lost forever. Indeed, it is the world outside which is out of tune and will eventually help to destroy the golden boy.

In his final fight, with the restraints removed, Joe puts "all of the fury of a lifetime" into a knockout punch and literally kills his opponent. Now he is at last made aware of what he has become, and he fears his father's response. Joe and Lorna speed into the night to meet death in a car crash—either through accident or design. Odets's melodramatic ending brings the story to its conclusion, but the dilemma posed by the playwright remains unresolved.

Other plays of Odets also make use of music for thematic and metaphorical purposes. In Paradise Lost, Pearl Gordon loses her fiancé, a violinist, because he can find no work, but she continues to play her piano and give lessons until the family falls victim to economic catastrophe. In Till the Day I Die, Ernst Tausig, an underground activist and former violinist, is imprisoned by the Nazis. When his interrogator learns of his career as a violinist, he asks Tausig if he is familiar with the Joachim Cadenza for Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major and then suddenly and angrily smashes Tausig's hand with a rifle butt. In Night Music, it is Steve Takis, a clarinet-playing Greek American who seeks a precarious foothold in the urban jungle. In Clash by Night, it is old Mr. Wilenski, a Polish immigrant who plays the accordion and dreams of better times long past. In Odets's last play, The Flowering Peach, based on the story of Noah and the Ark, it is the mythical gitka, a creature with rare musical powers, that offers respite in the midst of turmoil. Clearly, music in Odets's plays continued to be pervasive and significant.

To be sure, other important American writers have also been drawn to music and used it in their work. One thinks of Willa Cather's Youth and the Bright Medusa where music fills a cultural void and forms a raison d'être when all else fails or, more recently, of William Styron's Sophie's Choice where a former concentration camp inmate and her mad lover reassert their basic humanity and reclaim a sense of dignity through the redeeming power of music. Clifford Odets's lifelong love of music also encompassed such broad understanding. For Odets as well, music continued to be the sustaining force. In the chaos of modern life, music could, finally, provide a sense of the good and the beautiful, and a special place for the soul.

Gerald Peary (essay date Winter 1986/1987)

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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 something. The stage was where 'real' dramatic artists made their stand. Eugene O'Neill never, ever went to Hollywood, Clifford Odets was reminded over and over again. And if Odets wished to be the next O'Neill—or maybe better than O'Neill—he must stay in New York and pump out plays. Some fifty-odd years ago, in 1935, MGM offered Odets $3,000 a week, or more, to write screenplays in Los Angeles. The playwright, though amazed, resisted. 'Like a conspirator, he whispered that he might be willing to consider it,' wrote Harold Clurman, co-founder of the Group Theatre, in The Fervent Years. The Group, however, kept its resident playwright in hand.

In Hollywood, riches awaited Odets. In New York, he remained almost as indigent as ever. He shared the heartfelt frustration of young Ralph in Awake and Sing!: 'He dreams all night of fortunes. Why not? Don't it say in the movies he should have a personal steamship, pyjamas for fifty dollars a pair, and a toilet like a monument. But in the morning he wakes up and for ten dollars he can't fix his teeth.' Odets planned his escape to Hollywood. He was angered by the Group's righteous demands on him.

Ever the hopeful suitor, MGM invested $17,000 in Odets' play Paradise Lost—significantly, the Group Theatre didn't turn down this Hollywood financing. But the play faltered at the box-office, and the courtship abruptly ended. Though the MGM contract was lost, Odets adopted a new tack: he paid a money-raising visit to Hollywood on the Group's behalf. Conscience-stricken in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, he bragged about the superiority of the Group Theatre back home in New York. He assured Lewis Milestone that his real interest was in the stage and the purpose of his trip was to keep Paradise Lost afloat; Milestone countered by asking Odets to produce a screenplay for The General Died at Dawn, from an unpublished China-set pulp novel which had landed on Ernst Lubitsch's desk at Paramount.

In February 1936, Odets signed a four-week contract with Paramount Pictures worth $2,500 a week. According to his biographer Margaret Brenman-Gibson, he felt respected 'as he had not since the opening of Awake and Sing!' It was as if, six months after the death of his own mother, Odets had achieved Bessie's most passionate hope for her son Ralph: 'I should only live to see the day when he rides up to the door in a big car with a chauffeur and a radio. I could die happy, believe me' (Awake and Sing!). Seemingly, Odets liked being in Hollywood. That was his guilt. How could he explain this to Clurman and the Group? The point can be made by jumping ahead for a moment, to Odets' autobiographical play about Southern California, The Big Knife. The play dissatisfied Clurman: the motivation for the protagonist's unhappiness was too shadowy. "'First you must show," I said, "how anxious the actor is to leave Hollywood how and why he hates it so much …" Odets suddenly blurted out, "He loves it."

What could be more enjoyable than writing at Lewis Milestone's behest on The General Died at Dawn? Director of the uncompromisingly pacifist All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Milestone was a European-born Jewish intellectual, a friend of the Group Theatre (he lent money for its production of Johnny Johnson), and he was a left-liberal—some might say, more politically conscious than Odets. When, under the influence of Malraux's novel Man's Fate, Odets edged his screenplay towards the recent revolutionary struggles in China, Milestone did not baulk. In fact, the director added (uncredited) a key political scene to the script: the opening, in which a high-handed colonialist is punched to the ground by the hero, O'Hara, an American fighting the Chinese revolution.

At night, Odets struggled with The Silent Partner, the labour play he had long promised the Group. The film script, however, progressed smoothly, at the rate of three or four pages a day. His hero's impoverished early life was modelled on that of the Group actor Jules (later John) Garfield. For the right-wing antagonist, General Yang, Odets used Hitler's oratory. For good measure he added fire-and-brimstone agitprop, Big Speeches attacking capitalists and dictators which could have been lifted verbatim from propagandist stands in Waiting for Lefty.

Had Odets managed to bite the hand which fed him $2,500 a week? By May he had finished the script and was so confident of its virtues, both aesthetic and political, that he told the New York Times: 'There is no attempt in Hollywood to stop anyone doing good writing … I believe that my ideas can be put over in pictures.' To prove his point, the shooting script of The General Died at Dawn found its way to the radical journal the New Masses for ideological inspection. In the magazine's July 1936 issue Sidney Kaufman endorsed the screenplay without reservation, praising Odets' instant mastery of cinematic technique. The New Masses also printed the text of two scenes, one in which O'Hara expounds on why he fights dictatorships ('You ask me why I'm for oppressed people? Because I got a background of oppression myself, and O'Hara and elephants don't forget'), and a second in which he rails against the warlord Yang for his self-serving philosophy ('Your belief is in your own very limited self-mine is in people! One day they'll walk on earth, straight, proud … men, not animals').

Both speeches survived in the release print. Why? Because here was evidence—to Paramount's glory—of the hand of Clifford Odets, the famous author of Waiting for Lefty: There is, however, evidence of post-production studio tampering. The lovers, Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll, are thrown together on a train in the middle of a complicated plot without introduction: the key meeting scene is simply missing. Surely Odets wrote it, and surely Milestone filmed it? Important political elements have also vanished. Kaufman alludes to a village laid ruin by Yang and a dead woman in a puddle: neither detail is in the movie. Yang's devastation is kept off screen entirely. Kaufman rejoiced that '150 million eyes and ears closely attentive' would heed the line, 'We who have been the anvil—will soon be the hammer.' But he rejoiced too soon: Odets' most overtly Marxist passage is not to be found in The General Died at Dawn.

O'Hara's radical speeches are in fact practically all that remains of 'leftist' content—and even these are undercut by Gary Cooper's delivery. Paramount Pictures was not the Group Theatre, and Gary Cooper, a political conservative, utters Odets' passionate words with the commitment of an actor under a multi-picture contract. Clurman wrote to Odets: 'Our greatest lesson was to hear lines so characteristic of you become almost imperceptible … when said by actors with no relation to them.'

The General Died at Dawn won no Academy Awards, nor deserved to. Seen today, it seems a silly, toothless imitation of, in particular, Shanghai Express (Paramount, 1932), which was similarly located on an Oriental train to nowhere. General Yang is a brazen copy of the title character in Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932). (And, yes, Gary Cooper does say to Madeleine Carroll, 'We could have made wonderful music together.' That woeful line was written by Odets.) As for the film's politics, who can unravel the warring sides? When Paramount re-released the film in 1949, an opening title was added: 'Some time back in the early days of the Chinese government, the Chinese people, led by the great Chiang Kai-Shek, fought to rid themselves of the last of the warlords who preyed upon remote provinces. This picture is inspired by that battle and by its victorious conclusion.'

Odets never refuted this Cold War interpretation, which was undoubtedly the antithesis of his intentions: Chiang Kai-Shek, in fact, was probably the inspiration of General Yang. However, when Odets appeared voluntarily before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, he denied having inserted any social comment into the film, or even that he had told the Daily Worker in 1937 that 'I got away with some stuff' in the script. Odets confessed, perhaps disingenuously: 'I thought the whole matter was nonsense because The General Died at Dawn is a picture that starred Gary Cooper and (was) done by Paramount. There was nothing of any subversive or propaganda nature in it … I don't think Hollywood has ever made a movie with left propaganda in it. And I think the whole matter of social messages … cannot happen.'

Back in Hollywood, 1937, now married to the actress Luise Rainer, Odets was employed by Paramount on two projects, Gettysburg and Castles in Spain. Of Gettysburg Margaret Brenman-Gibson wrote: 'As soon would become his practice, Odets let this film script become longer and longer as he tried to improve it. He seemed unable to accomplish this, and the mammoth screenplay, with its torrent of colourful, lively dialogue, would soon be shelved …' Castles in Spain, an adaptation of Ilya Ehrenburg's The Loves of Jeanne Ney, switched to Loyalist Spain, went through two versions before the project was passed to another Group playwright, John Howard Lawson; his rewrite became the film Blockade (1938). Odets complained in public for the first time about the Hollywood screenwriting process. He told World Film News: 'When I saw (Blockade), I couldn't find one line left of what I'd written … I never sat through a film y'know without thinking to myself, "That's not true. It's a lie."

Hollywood began to fill up with members of the Group Theatre seeking film work: Elia Kazan, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Ruth Nelson, Luther Adler and even Harold Clurman himself. The arrival of his colleagues did not free Odets' scenario-writing blocks, but it did ease the passage of his new play, Golden Boy. The critic Gerald Rabkin noted how Odets turned Hollywood subject matter and technique (the short scene and the fadeout) 'against itself, in order to combat the mythic Hollywood success story.' In Golden Boy, Odets, the insider, thumbed his nose at Hollywood. Unlike his pre-studio plays, which were sprinkled with references to cinema stars and visits to the local bijou, Golden Boy never directly mentions the movies. Joe Bonaparte punches his way through the boxing world without once thinking of Paramount Pictures. At the same time, Odets expected his audience to recognise that Bonaparte's rise to the top, in a plot full of stock film figures, follows the mythic, linear form of Hollywood at its streamlined best. Then Odets mocked Hollywood with the downbeat off-screen deaths of Joe and Lorna, as intentionally unmotivated as the most tacked-on studio ending.

Golden Boy was a Broadway hit and Odets was converted back to the theatre. He published a bilious attack on the cinema under the studio system in the New York Times (21 November 1937): 'It is sad to see what movies are doing to America's consciousness of itself … Hollywood has set our citizens examples of conduct and behaviour patterns fit only for lower animals.' Odets became obsessed with getting the Federal Theatre to produce The Silent Partner across America (that same play which had lain stillborn in Hollywood because of The General Died at Dawn). Meanwhile, his new play, Rocket to the Moon, maltreated and ridiculed its only Hollywood-tainted character, the movie dance director Willy Wax. On the East Coast, Wax is regarded as an interloper, practically a carpetbagger. Success, Odets wrote of this weakling and womanizer, had given him an 'unpleasant uneasiness'. He narrowly escapes death by strangulation.

Odets was asked on radio if serious-minded dramatists should try Hollywood. 'Flatly, the answer is they must stay where they are, myself included.' True to his new word, Odets declined Rouben Mamoulian's offer to write the script of Golden Boy for Columbia Pictures. In 1939, Hollywood took its revenge. The film of Golden Boy, written by Daniel Taradash and Lewis Meltzer stripped away Joe's brother Frank, the radical labour organiser, and also much of Odets' social-consciousness sermonising. Most serious, the unhappy ending was blithely repaired with a full life ahead for Joe and Lorna.

In 1940, unable to mount a Boston-to-New York production of Night Music without investment money from United Artists, Odets was lured to Los Angeles to try to write a Night Music screenplay for the producers Albert Lewin and David Loew. His efforts were unavailing. The dramatist's swift artistic comeback was the 1941 play Clash by Night, in which the villain, Earl, is a movie projectionist. Willy Wax was only threatened with death; Earl is actually strangled. He dies in his projection box ('a veritable picture of some minor hell') while a vapid Hollywood picture runs on, wedding bells on the soundtrack.

The keynote speech in Clash by Night echoes Odets' criticism of Hollywood in Awake and Sing! Motion pictures give false hope to America's Little People. Joe speaks for all the play's lost characters: 'Earl, Jerry, Mae, millions like them clinging to a goofy dream—expecting life to be a picnic. Who taught them that? Radio, songs, the movies …' Clash by Night failed as Night Music had failed. Odets returned to Hollywood in 1942 and again (with his new wife, Betty Grayson) in 1943: this time he stayed for five years. In 1948 he told the New York Times: 'I went West … because I wanted to shake out of my system the disappointments of two successive commercial failures in the theatre … I was looking for a period of "creative repose": money, rest, and simple clarity.' Again he turned about. 'I went to Hollywood and found much of interest there … The cinema medium, as the platitude goes, is a very great one: why not explore the possibilities? Why not mingle with and learn from some of the world's shrewdest theatre technicians, including writers?'

Odets was signed by Warner Brothers to write a life of George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue. Odets adored Gershwin and his script was 900 pages long. When he delivered it, Jack L. Warner promptly fired him, even though, according to Jean Negulesco, Odets begged to be allowed for no extra fee to compress the script to a more normal length. 'J. L. was adamant,' Negulesco remembered. 'He didn't want Odets in the studio. Another writer was called in to do a completely new job …'

The next studio to beckon Odets to Hollywood was RKO. In 1943 his agent arranged for Odets to write a movie version of None But the Lonely Heart, from the new novel by Richard Llewellyn. Odets liked the tale of a Cockney lad wandering in the bowels of between-the-wars London. He took the train West. On arrival at RKO, he learnt that Cary Grant was planned for the lead. 'There was silence for a moment and I asked if anyone read this book. It seemed no one had … When I met Cary for the first time, he said that he'd like me to direct the movie, too … (he) told me if I could write the words, I shall certainly be able to direct their use. Well, I did.'

Out of Clifford Odets' screenplays came the narrative technique for Golden Boy; out of his life in Hollywood came The Big Knife. At the centre of his career as a film-maker, however, is None But the Lonely Heart. Among its admirers were James Agee and Jean Renoir, and the reason is not far to seek. On his first time behind the camera, Odets took command. The result was assured, poetic and personal. Though there are compromises in the studio casting—an insufferably pixyish Barry Fitzgerald and a miscast Cary Grant—None But the Lonely Heart remains a small model of a successful literary transformation, rather than an adaptation.

The ambitious, overlong and overwritten novel is about a working-class boy who never learns. Like his father, Ernie Mott aspires to be a painter; but he's sidetracked by flashy mobsters. Eventually, he stops talking about art and begins carting a gun. 'The gun felt like some old pal … kind of cool and steady, ready to do a job without no backchat or fuss.' As his mother lies dying of cancer, Ernie for a moment grows fearful of impending loneliness. 'Funny how the whole place was sort of dead cold without her … He started shaking so much he could hardly make a move, and the place was coming over dark with the grey of rain outside.' By the end, however, Ernie is back to oblivion: 'He was going to get a suit like Jim, and a tie pin, and proper look the part of The Smasher. He started feeling sorry for everybody going to work, because there was no need of it.'

The movie Ernie Mott is of a different, romantic breed: an instantly recognizable Odets dreamer, wishing for so much more than his assigned slum-life existence. As Cary Grant's Ernie Mott walks through London, a voice proclaims: 'The Story of Ernie Mott, who searched for a free, a beautiful and noble life in the second quarter of the twentieth century.' The conflict is pure Odets from the time of Awake and Sing!: the head-in-the-clouds son versus the materialistic mother. Ernie's mother wants her son in her second-hand shop. But he objects: 'I'm not in the business of sweating pennies out of devils poorer than myself.' In a patented Odets soliloquy, Ernie ponders his ambitions: 'Life is a piece of meat, when you know how … Take what you want? Right? Right! So that's what it's all about—either be a Victim or be a Thug. But suppose … suppose you don't want to be neither? Not a hare an' not a hound. Then what?'

Having discovered that his mother has cancer, Ernie decides for the time being to stay at home and help in the shop; and the movie's most tender scenes are those in which Ernie and his mother (Ethel Barrymore) come together as a true family. On the outside, however, Ernie chooses to run with the hounds: he joins a gang of thieves headed by Jim Mordinoy, having fallen in love with Mordinoy's girl, Ada. Odets takes Ernie through a swirl of London nightlife: it is a familiar film noir tale of the 40s, of the outsider whose love for a corroded woman weds him to a decadent and criminal, 24-hour-a-day nightclub life. The noir sections of the film are swift, hardboiled and laced with tart dialogue. When Odets makes mistakes they are personal rather than generic, such as overplaying a Jewish pawnbroker, a sententious character who acts as Ernie's conscience, or making too much of the dichotomy between dark Ada and nice Aggie, who plays the cello at night and loves Ernie loyally despite his errant ways.

The last scenes of None But the Lonely Heart show Odets in the full flood of his romantic idealism, and they bear comparison with the final curtains of his best plays. The Cockney Orpheus has ascended from the underworld, given Ada back to the sharks and turned away from crime. London is about to be blitzed. He stands on a bridge and addresses his ageing pal, Twite: 'I'm dreaming, Dad, "a dream of a better man." Where's the decent, human life the books tell us about? When's the world coming out of its midnight? When's the human soul getting off its knees?' Twite reminds him that it sometimes takes a war. Ernie agrees: 'That's it, Dad, one thing is left. I see it plain as London town! Fight with the men who'll fight for a human way of life!' With that chivalrous pledge, Ernie descends from the bridge into the dark tentative city. The last shot is subdued: Ernie, all sobriety, standing at Aggie's door; he enters, but there is no shot of the lovers. Odets holds his camera on the street, keeping sentimentality at bay.

Ethel Barrymore won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her role in None But the Lonely Heart the film, however, did poorly at the box office, this being the reason, perhaps, why Odets' directing career was curtailed. What did follow, however, were numerous writing assignments in the 1940s and two screen credits.

Odets' 900-page Rhapsody in Blue was transformed into Humoresque (Warner, 1946). A new writer, Zachary Gold, cut the script down, eliminated the Gershwin biography, but kept Oscar Levant, Gershwin's pianist friend, as a major character; then he grafted what was left on to bits of Fanny Hurst's 1919 short story. That, at least, is director Jean Negulesco's version of how Odets and Zachary Gold came to share screen credit on Humoresque. But confusion arises from the number of Humoresque versions in the Warner Film Library housed at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Film and Theater Research. There are eight treatments by different people, plus scripts by Waldo Salt and Barney Glazer, but nothing from Zachary Gold. (Odets is represented by an anthology composite of Rhapsody in Blue scenes, seemingly compiled by a secretary.)

If Odets' career is to be measured by how shrewdly he subverted the studio system, then Humoresque is a meretricious project, the ultimate sellout. It is artificial, overripe, quintessentially Hollywood. But taken on its own terms, as a delirious John Garfield-Joan Crawford 'woman's picture', it often succeeds. It is played to the hilt by the dashing stars, and reaches a crescendo in a grand steal from A Star Is Born: Joan Crawford drowns herself in the ocean, in sacrifice, while violinist Garfield plays on, courtesy of Isaac Stern.

In 1946, Odets wrote Deadline at Dawn from a florid, amusing Cornell Woolrich thriller. It was directed at RKO by Harold Clurman, who at night in Hollywood wrote his masterly memoir of the 1930s, The Fervent Years. Clurman never particularly liked the movies, even when making one. Later he recalled, 'My almost casual attitude towards the job met with resentment, perhaps because I finished the film on time and it proved moderately profitable.' Clurman labelled Deadline at Dawn 'a run-of-the-mill RKO movie for which Clifford Odets as a favour to me wrote the screenplay.' Odets had a better opinion of it. 'I'm not ashamed of that,' he said in 1963. 'It's a little mystery thriller. I see it; it has its living moments.'

Between 1942–48, Odets was a prolific Hollywood scenarist. He planned a biography of Beethoven for Charles Laughton, though how much was written is unclear. Margaret Brenman-Gibson credits him with unproduced screenplays for projects called All Brides Are Beautiful, April Shower and The Whispering Cup and, interestingly, an adaptation of Dreiser's Sister Carrie. She also lists Odets working uncredited on Sister Kenny (1946) and Hitchcock's Notorious (1946). Unfortunately, there is no other record of Odets' involvement with the latter. And there is another project calling for further research: the complete Odets script for It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Although Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were hired for the final script, Frank Capra acknowledges in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, that he retained Odets' early scenes.

Odets' West Coast days between 1942–48 exploded back on the New York stage as The Big Knife in 1949. The character of actor Charlie Castle is, unmistakably, a projection of the screen writer Odets. But what exactly troubles Castle? The second-rate movies he has worked on? All Hollywood pictures? The compromised work ethic of Southern California? The sterile life in the sun? Failed personal relationships? (The dissolution of the Group?) As its many critics have observed, The Big Knife is as muddled and contradictory as Odets' own vacillating opinions of Hollywood. (Regrettably, the 1955 film, directed by Robert Aldrich, was foggy and ill-motivated, probably because it was too loyal to the original script.)

In 1952, Odets appeared before HUAC, named names and then described his own non-subversive occupation: 'To speak generally, I go to Hollywood to make a living, not to write something … to demean or disgrace American people as I believe many people do. But to make an honest living, after writing entertaining scripts.' In 1955, after the death of his wife, Odets returned for good to Hollywood. He worried obsessively about having been a 'friendly' government witness. And he went back to writing screenplays.

Odets' chief disappointment in the years 1955–63 was that his monumental Biblical screenplay Joseph and His Brethren remained unproduced, even though Harry Cohn, president of Columbia, was an enthusiast. Frank Capra and Otto Preminger were asked to direct it, and Rita Hayworth was scheduled to star. Perhaps Odets' most challenging assignment in these years was to write (uncredited) the last scene of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956). What is to happen when James Mason wakes in hospital and realises, having suffered delusions of grandeur under a new wonder drug, that he tried to kill his son in imitation of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac? Odets' solution was disappointingly conventional: Mason wakes up healed and normal, realises his mistake and embraces his wife and son in reaffirmation of the 1950s nuclear family.

The best of the later screenplays is Sweet Smell of Success, a patented Odets story about the heated symbiotic relationship between a Broadway press agent and a big-time gossip columnist. For this script, revised from an earlier one by Ernest Lehman, Odets could run free with zesty New York dialogue and non-stop Runyanisms. Here are none of the conscience-stricken characters of The Big Knife. Sweet Smell of Success wisely stays among the show-business shills and heels: Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), PR man supreme, 'the boy with the ice-cream face', and J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the Walter Winchell-like gossip maven, who brags 'My right hand hasn't seen my left hand for thirty years.'

In 1960, Odets both wrote and directed a picture for the first time since None But the Lonely Heart. But The Story on Page One is two hours of tired and overacted courtroom drama which reveals, principally, that as Odets' politics grew more conservative, his vision of the working class grew more condescending. While Odets' films were claustrophobic, with their weak, compromised characters, the playwright himself began to speak out about the need for strong, uncontaminated national heroes. On 25 May 1952, six days after his final HUAC appearance, Odets eulogised John Garfield, who had just died aged 39, in a letter to the New York Times: 'He was as pure an American product as can be seen these days, processed by democracy, knowing or caring nothing for any other culture or race … His feeling never changed: that he had been mandated by the American people to go in there and "keep punching" for them.'

'One thing we need badly is heroes,' Odets told the New York Herald Tribune in 1958. 'As Emerson said, a hero must be a minority of one. He must be an ethical model who breaks the mould of conformity, but this is the age of conformity.' Four years later, he romanticised Marilyn Monroe in Show as a natural spirit who was ruined by the deprivations of her childhood, then callously treated by the studio system: 'That she could be sensitive, intuitive and with an animal wisdom far beyond them, most of the executives with whom she collided did not even dream.'

Odets' last screenplay was Wild in the Country, written for Elvis Presley in 1962. 'It pained me to hear him rationalise writing the screenplay,' Harold Clurman said, 'by declaring that Presley was something more than he seemed.' But was not Presley the perfect new Odets hero: the truck-driving country boy who keeps his Tennessee accent and Southern ways in homogenised Southern California? As the title suggests, the film is about a tearaway who keeps his rural integrity while all about him—bullying family, dishonourable towns-people—try to corrupt him, send him to jail, break his spirit. Yet there are echoes of that unmistakable Odets voice. Presley (Glenn Taylor): 'Don't let your Pa beat your wings down.' Tuesday Weld: 'Your aim is to fly above me. But if you ever come tumbling down, I can wait!' And the solution to the hero's burden of social problems? He is packed off to a safe university to become a writer. The last cinematic image Odets leaves us is of Glenn Taylor walking awed into the halls of learning: Elvis Goes to College.

In 1963, Clifford Odets became a writer for the Richard Boone Show, suddenly evincing the same enthusiasm for television that he had expressed, at various times, for the movies. He died of cancer that same year aged 57. Dead in Hollywood.

Were his years in movies worth it? His old Group Theatre friends, those still left after HUAC, remained as angry about the sacrifice of talent as they had been when Odets sidled off to Hollywood in 1935. In August 1963, Harold Clurman wrote in the New York Times: 'Now think of … the little floozie in The Big Knife. The girl is a confused victim of the Hollywood industry. She is both sordid and pathetic … She is Odets' female alter ego.' According to Margaret Brenman-Gibson, 'Elia Kazan said he could have forgiven Clifford anything except the grievous waste of … time and talent in writing films.'

None But the Lonely Heart, yes, and that splendid script for Sweet Smell of Success. Otherwise the Group Theatre was right from the start: one of America's major playwrights became only an intriguing footnote among film-makers. He sold out. Having gone merely to look round, he ended by becoming Hollywood. He was cremated, appropriately enough, at Forest Lawn cemetery. Odets' friend Jean Renoir understood the ties that bind. 'When Clifford Odets died,' Renoir said, 'I thought I wanted to leave Hollywood. He was a prince. Every gesture, every way of thinking was noble. Although I love Hollywood, I have to say it is without nobility. But I stayed, of course.'

David Denby (review date 29 September 1988)

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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 actor Richard Boone). The journal he kept in 1940, now published by Grove Press as The Time is Ripe, suggests how much the movies attracted and shamed him. In the course of the year (he is thirty-three at the beginning of it) the Group, beginning to lose its way, failed with its New York production of his play Night Music. Odets then traveled to Los Angeles to write a screen adaptation of the play (never made). He was earning $2,500 a week. He was restless, with little to do but work, drink, and sleep with the actress Fay Wray, and he quickly came back.

The year was a turning point for him. No longer the famous young playwright whose picture had been on the cover of Time two years before, be had begun his excruciating career as a famous American has-been.

The Time is Ripe is an emotional record of Broadway, 1940, as a vale of soul-making. Fascinated by Casanova and Stendhal and Byron, Odets made breathless notation of his erotic triumphs, mixing rhapsodic ardor with homely notes of the bachelor life:

Home I came to write on the trio play. And yet this goddam acute loneliness makes me leave the telephone on, hoping that by accident someone may call. And then the phone rang!… She came here in record time, whereupon we fell upon each other and slept and awoke and chatted and massacred each other again and again and then she fell asleep and I prowled around the house unable to sleep until past ten in the morning, she stained and scented beside me with all the exercises of the night.

There are many girls, some famous, some not; much restless driving around the city late at night; and, on every page, amid the lyricism, descriptions of his friends and himself almost painful in their harshness. Idealistic, impassioned, and fatally lacking in canniness, even routine common sense, Odets demonstrates in this journal the intoxicating sweetness and seriousness of his famous conversation (by reputation, he was one of the best talkers of his time). He was a prodigious autodidact, and he had caught art fever that year, reading Stendhal, Gide, Heine, and Strindberg, gearing himself up with long stretches of Beethoven on the record player—more than one beautiful young woman was forced to listen to the late piano sonatas before climbing into bed.

The journal details plans for projected plays about Van Gogh, Nijinsky, Woodrow Wilson, and reveals why he had so much trouble completing anything. Piety and frivolity were so ruinously mixed in Odets's nature that he could not begin to write without episodes of exaltation (Beethoven and more Beethoven) yet could not work seriously without stopping to run out and meet, say, Leonard Lyons or Walter Winchell at a nightclub. Returning home from the Stork Club at dawn, exhausted and guilty, he would write for an hour or so before falling asleep. Inspiration, raised in Odets's journal to a fetish, required the constant celebration of scribes and photographers.

He knew he was turning himself into a fool. "This living from the jowls and testicles is murderous for me. It engulfs me, a man with an essentially religious purpose and use in life, a sort of sunken cathedral of a person." The actor Lionel Stander said to him in a club one night: "You are a first-class man. What are you doing with these nitwits?" On the other hand, Odets got something useful out of the nitwits—the dialogue he added, years later, to Ernest Lehman's screenplay for The Sweet Smell of Success, an acrid portrait of columnists and press agents prowling the corrupt New York night world. But his own play about his Hollywood experience, The Big Knife, was overblown and self-pitying. Like many other serious writers, he thought the movies were childish but had great difficulty mastering the peculiar skill of screenwriting. At one of Dorothy Parker's cocktail parties, he sees the moldering figure of F. Scott Fitzgerald—"pale, unhealthy, as if the tension of life had been wrenched out of him." It is a meeting sad to imagine—one writer drawing near the end of his Hollywood martyrdom, the other beginning his long descent.

George L. Groman (essay date 1991)

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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 depression when it seemed beyond reach. His own experience operated as both a resource and an obstacle as he sought to resolve a number of personal crises—as a son whose father viewed his early acting and writing efforts with contempt, as a lover and husband whose stormy relationships ended in failure and bitterness, and as a creative artist whose need for privacy and discipline conflicted again and again with the temptations and demands of a public life and reputation. Yet whatever his own circumstances, Odets consistently sought fulfillment as a writer, viewing the creative act with reverence and continuing attention, and finding in the efforts of others inspiration as well as validation for his own creative identity.

Even as a boy, Odets was drawn to writers of powerful imagination whose heroes struggled with questions of identity and self-realization through social action or artistic effort. As a teenager Odets read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, a book to which he would invariably return and comment on with great affection. Indeed, in his 1940 journal, he called Hugo "the rich love of my boyhood days" and went on to describe Les Misérables as "the most profound art experience I have ever had." The French author, as Odets noted, influenced him in ways that were to affect his later life as a writer and political activist: "Hugo … inspired me, made me aspire; I wanted to be a good and noble man, longed to do heroic deeds with my bare hands, thirsted to be kind to people, particularly the weak and humble and oppressed. From Hugo I had my first feeling of social consciousness. He did not make me a romantic, but he heightened in me that romanticism which I already had. I loved him and love him still, that mother (sic) of my literary heart."

For a boy entering adolescence, Hugo's clear division of right and wrong, his demarcation of heroes and villains, and the endless pursuits of the relentless Inspector Javert must have met the young Odets's need for suspense and adventure. More important, ultimately, was Hugo's gallery of characters who were capable of heroism and sacrifice—the saintly Bishop of Digne, whose every action is devoted to those in need; Fantine, who sells her hair and even her teeth, hoping to preserve the life of her daughter; the young radical and romantic Marius Pontmercy, who gives up an inheritance on political principle; and the hero of heroes, the solitary convict Jean Valjean, who benefits from the Bishop's generosity and repays him by pursuing a life of good works despite enormous personal sacrifice.

Odets was to continue his search for mentors of powerful and wide-ranging vision, and in the American writers [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Walt] Whitman he found new inspiration and direction. As he wrote to Harold Clurman in 1932, it was the business-oriented Louis Odets, the writer's father, who first encouraged him to consider Emerson seriously. Margaret Brenman-Gibson quotes from this letter, in which Odets recalls his father leaving in his room "two volumes of a peculiar edition of Emerson 'made for business men.' In a gaily mocking account of this … (Odets) says, 'The devils quote and underline on every page glorious trumpet sounding maxims about success. They make Emerson the first Bruce Barton of his country. But I am reading with a clear brain and no interest in success.' Emerson is 'certainly the wisest American.'"

Reflecting further on Emerson's importance to him, Odets wrote in his 1932 journal, "I am glad that Emerson lived before I did. He has made life a richer thing for many (sic) of us. That is the function of all great men: that they reveal to us natural truths, ourselves and a realization of ourselves." Writing again in the same journal, he reflected on Emerson in a way that seemed to echo Hugo: "Emerson says somewhere that heroes are bred only in times of danger. I would add great artists are too bred in such times. Now I see the world is drifting into such times. I am waiting to see what heroes and artists will spring from the people."

Although Odets would come to share Emerson's belief that people are not fundamentally bad, he commented that few could or would rise to Emerson's call for "uncorrupted behavior." That he continued to brood over this loss of Emerson's faith in his fellow humans is amply demonstrated in his plays and elsewhere. Even near the end of his life, in a telecast interview, he would remember "what Emerson called 'uncorrupted behavior'" as a quality "with which all children are born … when nothing outside of yourself influences you, when you are in command of yourself with honor, without dishonesty, without lie, when you grasp and deal, and are permitted to deal, with exactly what's in front of you, in terms of your best human instincts."

To be sure, Odets could and did find many calls for "uncorrupted behavior" in Emerson's work and that of other writers but what he seems to have valued most in Emerson was his belief in the range of human potentialities despite the limitations of time, place, accident, or fate. It was Emerson who had emphasized in "Circles" that "there are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile," and in "Fate" that nature, rather than being limited to destructiveness, "solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipotence." In "Circles" Emerson remarked that "the use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it." Such statements were meant to clear the way to new horizons and did so for Odets and countless others.

Like Hugo and Emerson, Walt Whitman assumed heroic proportions for Odets, who even kept a plaster cast of the poet in his room. In 1940 he bought first editions of November Boughs and Drum Taps, as well as a collection of Whitman's letters to his mother. In 1947, when Odets's only son was born, he named him Walt Whitman Odets.

If the large-scale models of Emerson and Whitman were encouraging, Odets nevertheless understood that American life might bring forth artists of quite different scope and temperament. In conversations with the composer Aaron Copland at Dover Furnace, the Group Theatre's summer retreat, Odets came to grips with this issue. He noted that "today the artists are not big, full, epic, and Aaron shows what I mean. They squeeze art out a thousandth of an inch at a time, and that is what their art, for the most part, lacks: bigness, vitality and health and swing and lust and charity…." Odets concludes by asserting, "there I go to Whitman again. Of course that's what we need, men of Whitman's size."

In another entry in the 1932 journal, Odets suggests that Whitman "roars in your ears all the time. When you swing your arms and the muscles flex, they are Whitman's muscles too." Elsewhere Odets celebrates not only the strength that may come with well-being but also the sexuality and autoeroticism that made Whitman famous and, in the nineteenth century, generally disreputable: "I think with love o (sic) Whitman's lines, something like, 'Oh the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness (sic) and sexuality of it and the great goodness and clarity of it.' And I myself feel that way with love for people and the earth and women and dark nights and being together and close to naked women, naked as I am naked."

Eventually, Odets's excitement and passion would cool—a result of hard living, many personal and professional disappointments, and, simply, aging. However, it may be that Whitman's imagery linked to a sense of purpose remained embedded in the playwright's consciousness, as suggested by a passage written a year before his death: "The whole fabric of my creative life I have built a room in which every corner there is a cobweb. They have mostly been swept away and I must begin again, spinning out of myself (italics mine) the dust and 'shroudness' of that room with its belaced and silent corners." The passage brings to mind Whitman's noiseless, patient spider involved in the act of creation, launching forth "filament, filament, filament, out of itself." Like the spider, the narrator's soul in the second verse of Whitman's poem (now personified) sends out "gossamer thread" to "catch somewhere," thereby hoping to end a pattern of isolation. If Odets, like the spider and soul of the poem, sought to reach out to others, he seemed also to be settling old scores here, undergoing a ritualistic purgation in a rather stifling atmosphere and, in doing so, readying himself for the task of creation, which Whitman's spider image so powerfully evokes.

Odets's search for heroic models extended to the musical world as well as to literature, and in the life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven he found a source of inspiration that was to last until his death. Odets listened to Beethoven's music frequently and intensively, wrote on Beethoven's importance as a creative artist and man of his time, and would sometimes self-consciously compare and contrast Beethoven's problems and solutions with his own. In his early attempts at fiction and drama, Odets used the maimed musician or composer as a central figure. Indeed, in his unproduced play Victory he carefully modeled the hero, Louis Brant, on Beethoven himself. In later years in Hollywood, Odets also planned a screenplay on the composer's life, but the project was never completed.

Beethoven's early poverty, his difficult social relationships (often with women), and his dedication to his art (despite hearing problems and eventual deafness) greatly moved Odets. And in looking at W. J. Turner's biography of the composer, which Odets read while writing Victory, he would find one acquaintance of Beethoven remarking of him "that he loved his art more than any woman" and "that he could not love any woman who did not know how to value his art." Later, as Beethoven's hearing problems increased in severity and further isolated him, the composer thought of suicide but desisted, "art alone" restraining his hand. At other times he wrote of seizing "fate by the throat" to reach his goals. Clearly, for Odets, Beethoven was a truly courageous man and artist despite his personal difficulties.

Odets, in commenting on Beethoven's music, found the Eroica Symphony "an awesome and terrible piece of work' and his fourth piano concerto a composition in which the "characters of the orchestra never for a moment stop their exuberant conversation." As for Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, he noted, one must "be virgin of heart and spirit to write it. Beethoven did not lose the innocence," though ordinary mortals give it up simply "to survive." Odets's descriptions, quoted here, underscore the intensity of his feelings about Beethoven and sometimes suggest Emersonian parallels. They also indicate the kind of close thematic connections between music and literature the writer would make in his plays and films.

As Odets struggled with form, so did the Old Master, but Beethoven triumphed again and again. As Odets put it, "every time he found a form for his content he simultaneously found that his content had progressed in depth and a new form was necessary—a very Tantalus of life! He, however, had the hardheadedness to see it through to the bitter end—he obviously died looking for a new form—and he died having pushed music to a level which before had never been attained nor has yet been equalled. Great unhappy man!"

Finally, in Beethoven, Odets found a paradigm for the quintessential Romantic—a superman for all seasons—one who is "amazed, impressed, delighted, and enraged by the caprices of life." As Odets noted further, "It is the romantic who cries out that he is out of harmony with life—by which he means that life is not in harmony with his vision of it, the way he saw it as a youth with moral and idealistic hunger to mix his hands in it and live fully and deeply. The classic art is to accept life, the romantic to reject it as it is and attempt to make it over as he wants it to be." The man and his method were for Odets a means of perception, a symbol of hope, and possibly a basis for social action and change.

When we turn to Odets's own work, however, we find a curious paradox. The heroic models have disappeared, and in their place the protagonists of his plays respond at a primal level to a brutal, self-serving world; either they are (or become) corrupt or they are overwhelmed by an environment over which they have little or no control. Indeed, the America that Odets lived in and responded to was far different from the private and idealized world about which he wrote with such intensity and even affection and that he later abandoned with such regret. In Waiting for Lefty, Odets's first-produced and perhaps most well-known play, there is a rousing call for strike action by the rank and file of a taxi union after much indecision and argument. However, Lefty, the guiding spirit of the union, has already been murdered by unknown assailants, and even the ringing call to action at the end of the play suggests martyrdom as well as the benefits of solidarity. As Agate, one of the rallying strikers, puts it, "HELLO AMERICA! HELLO. WE'RE STORMBIRDS OF THE WORKING-CLASS. WORKERS OF THE WORLD…. OUR BONES AND BLOOD! And when we die they'll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces. We'll die for what is right! put fruit trees where our ashes are!" (My italics.)

In Awake and Sing!, Odets's Depression-era play centered on an American-Jewish family in the Bronx, the Marxist Grandfather Jacob is ineffectual even in his own family and ends his life by suicide. His grandson Ralph Berger, who surrenders the insurance money Jacob had left him at his mother's insistence, will in all likelihood have little influence in times to come. As a number of critics have suggested, his optimism strikes a false note as he faces the future without a clear sense of purpose, training, or money. Indeed, as more than one character comes to understand, despite arguments to the contrary, life is "printed on dollar bills." The well-to-do Uncle Morty, a dress manufacturer, will continue to have the respect of Ralph's mother Bessie, he will continue to oppose strike action vigorously and probably successfully, and he will lead a personal life without personal responsibilities, sleeping with showroom models and seeking other creature comforts. Moe Axelrod, the World War One veteran and ex-bootlegger, has by the end of the play convinced Bessie's daughter Hennie to abandon her much-abused husband and infant to seek a life of pleasure with him. To be sure, arguments for social or family responsibility may be found in this often moving play, but the resolution nevertheless seems to suggest a definition of success devoid of commitment or love.

In Golden Boy, Joe Bonaparte, a violinist turned boxer, does become a hero for his time, defined by physical strength and a willingness to incapacitate or destroy his opponents in the prize ring. Although he has read the encyclopedia from cover to cover (perhaps fulfilling Ralph Berger's quest for learning) and "practiced his fiddle for ten years," the private world he has created is no longer sufficient for him. It cannot offer him the sense of power or perhaps the ability to dominate others for which he yearns. Indeed, he is seduced by the monied world that surrounds the prize arena and by the temptations offered by the gangster Eddie Fuseli, who seeks to remold the Golden Boy and turn him into a fighting machine—careless of others, indifferent to love, and irrevocably cut off from family ties and memories of the past. As the reborn Joe aggressively puts it, "When a bullet sings through the air it has no past—only a future—like me." Joe returns to his dressing room after what is to be his last fight, and his trainer, Tokio, notices that one eye is badly battered, symbolic of Joe's impairment of vision on a number of levels. The triumphant fighter learns that he has killed his opponent in the ring, and he must confront the implications of the disaster. In rejecting a personal integrity, he has betrayed his moral and spiritual center, and at the end of the play he dies, an apparent suicide. His personal tragedy is an awareness of the vacuity his life has become. He is trapped in a world that he himself has made, rejecting his father's simple but encompassing Old-World Italian version of what his personal struggle must lead to: fulfillment of a dream predicated on the yells of a mob over ten rounds, the quick buck, and tabloid headlines forgotten at a glance.

Both The Big Knife and The Country Girl are plays that show the failure of art and artists destroyed by a world that demands too much, too fast, too soon. In The Big Knife, Charlie Castle has given up a promising career in the theater and a somewhat vague belief in political and social action to become one of Hollywood's big stars. Like Joe Bonaparte or perhaps Odets himself, Charlie is plagued by the idea that he has betrayed his considerable talent in exchange for money and stardom. Early in the play, he argues that the theater is "a bleeding stump. Even stars have to wait years for a decent play." Now in the movie business, he cannot afford "acute attacks of integrity." In a succession of films, he reflects "the average in one way or another" or is at best "the warrior of the forlorn hope." As Hank Teagle, a family friend, puts it, "Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul. America is full of it."

Like Joe Bonaparte, Charlie understands only too well what he has become. He remarks that he has become an imitation of his old self, and young new actors now imitate—or parody—the imitation. However, it is Marion Castle, Charlie's estranged wife, who most emphatically reminds Charlie of his self-betrayal, warning that he acts against his own nature. She says to him, "Your passion of the heart has become a passion of the appetite. Despite your best intentions, you're a horror."

Indeed, Charlie has taken a downward path. He is on the way to becoming an alcoholic, he has been unfaithful to his wife, and he has avoided prosecution for an accident that occurred during an evening of drunken driving by allowing a studio employee to confess in his place and serve a prison term. Only when the studio management obliquely threatens to murder the woman companion turned blackmailer who was with him on the evening of the accident does Charlie assert himself by preventing a new crime. However, despite his one moment of decency, Charlie is lost. He has, over Marion's objections, signed a new contract with the studio moguls who have by turns enticed and threatened him. Too weak to face a loss of status poverty, and the unstable life of the theater, perversely attracted by the life he has been leading, and yet filled with self-loathing, Charlie takes his own life. Marion, his wife, leaves with Hank Teagle, the writer who has been faithful to his principles and whom Charlie had called his Horatio. Indeed, it is Teagle who will tell Charlie's story to the world—the tale of a man who was certainly not a Hamlet in depth or breadth, one who could understand and even dream but who could not change himself or the world, which paradoxically offered him so much and so little.

In The Country Girl, a play better structured and developed than The Big Knife, Broadway director Bernie Dodd is ready to take a chance on a new play starring a has been, an older actor named Frank Elgin. Dodd is "in love with art" and tells Elgin's wife Georgie that although he could "make a fortune in films," he intends to continue in the theater, where important work can still be done. Elgin's brilliant performances in two mediocre plays, based on his intuitive understanding of character and situation, had long ago inspired Dodd and now lead him to believe that the old actor can excel again. However, there are real problems. Elgin is weak and self-indulgent, he is an alcoholic, he is a liar, he needs constant reassurance, and like Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, he needs desperately to be well liked. As the play develops, Bernie Dodd and Georgie struggle with each other and with Frank. Each of the three seeks personal fulfillment, but finally the play becomes the all-consuming and all-important issue. Frank Elgin does succeed (with the help of the two closest to him) in rising to his full stature as an actor. He vindicates Bernie's judgment and justifies (or necessitates) Georgie's remaining with him—after years of failure and disappointment.

In this play about theater life, Frank Elgin's transgressions are forgiven in the name of art and artistry. Bernie discovers that Frank has lied about his wife's past. He has told Bernie that Georgie was once Miss America (possibly to enhance his own prestige), that she is an alcoholic, and that she is a depressive who has attempted suicide. Georgie learns that Frank has lied about her (his lies are partially based on a play in which he once appeared) and observes that he has begun to drink again. When the producer (Phil Cook), Bernie Dodd, and others in the company find out, there is turmoil, but there are no lasting repercussions. Because of Bernie's belief in Frank Elgin's talent, the actor is to continue in the play. Frank himself is simply following an old pattern. He has for much of his adult life drunk steadily, taken pills, and lied to relieve the pressures on him. When his and Georgie's only child dies, when he loses much of his money in producing a play, and when he begins to fail as an actor, the old remedies are close at hand. The conflict between the easy indulgence of the moment and the stern realities of working in a creative but uncertain world—with its quick rewards and even quicker condemnations—leads to the kind of disintegration Odets so often sought to depict. In this play, as in The Big Knife, intuitive understanding, talent, and artistry bring some forms of self-fulfillment and recognition, but are by themselves no protection against weakness or personal loss. In The Big Knife, Charlie Castle finds suicide the only way out. Frank Elgin is successful at the end of The Country Girl, but one suspects that his future success will depend on the continued availability of the long-suffering wife who mothers him, on directors and producers who excuse his frequent lapses, on unending applause, and on total self-involvement and self-delusion.

Odets, then, in his work revealed his fascination with the world of art and his belief that art may enhance our understanding of the human condition, though it cannot alter the environment or our responses to it. The romantic vision that Odets pursued so intensely in a personal way might seem ennobling or heroic, but in a world of shrunken values and failed personal lives, it offers only a sense, a resonance, of what might have been. Indeed, the romantic stance—as Odets portrayed it in the America of his time—was collateral to be called in, leaving only a shell without substance. Despite the excitements of the conflict, Odets's vision of the truth was profoundly pessimistic. That he portrayed it as he did often showed courage as well as artistry.

John Lahr (review date 4 April 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260

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 fifty-seven, and on his writing desk were two copies of Time. One was the December 5, 1938, issue, which had Odets on the cover as a wunderkind (between 1935 and 1939 he wrote seven plays, including Awake and Sing! Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy, and Rocket to the Moon) and bantered his famous battle cry "Down with the general fraud!" The other was a 1962 story announcing his appointment as script editor and chief writer on NBC's TV drama series The Richard Boone Show. In the intervening twenty-four years, Odets had had five more plays performed, and had created one major public sensation: in 1952, he testified as a "friendly witness" before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Odets had been one of the theatrical standard-bearers of the left, and his dialogue, with its pithy swagger, cut a raffish new figure on the American stage. But after that moment of compromise Odets' language, which had captured both the utopian thrill and the radical lament of the times, lost its moral purchase on the American experience. The true combative, lyric note of his literary voice was strangulated. Odets lapsed into a long period of inactivity, and when he emerged, in 1954, as the writer-director of The Flowering Peach (revived now by the National Actors Theatre, at the Lyceum), he spoke in a new voice and in a new way. Earlier, he had wanted to purge himself of Jewishness and be accepted as "a regular American playwright," but in The Flowering Peach, a retelling of the story of Noah and the Ark, he returned to his Jewish roots, and he also tried to rationalize his political volte-face. "There is idealism now in just survival," Rachel, Noah's daughter-in-law, says in the play, doing the author's special pleading. Noah, like Odets, was a true believer, but Odets turned Noah into someone like himself, whose values were confounded by the absurd turn of apocalyptic events. Out of God's awesome petulance ("I shall wipe off the face of the earth this human race which I have created") Odets created a comedy of righteousness in which Noah's ideals are sorely tested. Like Odets, he is forced to acknowledge the hard pragmatic fact of life: every dogma has its day.

Noah, the Bible tells us, was six hundred years old when the flood came, but the hoary-headed Eli Wallach, who bustles onto the Lyceum stage protesting to the heavens about being commanded to build an ark in the desert, doesn't look a day over a hundred. "I'm awake," he says, of his call to duty, "but I wish I was dead." Noah has been selected by God to repopulate the new and improved universe, but he is also that universe's first standup comic—a hostile sharpshooter loudly proclaiming his innocence. When his wife, Esther (Anne Jackson), kvetches about his drinking, he says, "You should be satisfied that I drink, otherwise I'd leave you." But age and drink—which are two large and endearing comic components of Noah's personality—are generally downplayed in Martin Charnin's sleepy production. It's a testament to the conviction in Odets' argument that The Flowering Peach holds the attention of the National Actors Theatre audience. (Jurors voted the play the Pulitzer Prize but were overruled by the advisory board, which gave it to Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) The debate between Noah, God, and Noah's recalcitrant family almost makes the audience forget some of the production's startling visual anomalies, like the impoverished prostitute Goldie (the curvaceous Molly Scott), who comes on board as Japheth's would-be wife, and, in her gold bangles and colorful pink and green silks, looks like a fugitive from Kismet. The Flowering Peach, in a sense, is the forerunner of Mel Brooks' Two Thousand Year Old Man ("Joan of Arc? I dated her"), with this difference: Noah is a test of faith, not of fun. To succeed, though, The Flowering Peach requires the eccentric conviction of great comic playing. The characters are a collection of ideas, not psychologies, and the play needs stars to bring their large personalities to bear on this sketchily drawn tribe which has been delegated to make the world over after God wipes it clean. But instead of comic cameos Charnin can manage only lacklustre cartoons. Noah's sons are a collection of isms for the new world order: idealism (Japheth), cynicism (Ham), and capitalism (Shem). Of this winded crew, only the enormous Josh Mostel, as Shem, finally gets into the swing of things, but not until the second act, when his stash of "dried manure briquettes" (his investment for the future) is discovered in the listing Ark. "With manure you want to begin a new world?" the outraged Noah says, ordering it dumped overboard, but not before Mostel's face has turned pink, his behemoth body wobbling with choked fury. "Poppa," he says. "But what am I without my money?!"

The play's original tryout included Washington and coincided with the Senate's censuring of Joseph McCarthy, and Robert Whitehead, the original producer, remembers that Odets was completely distracted by this political development. "Clifford would not come to terms with the end of the play," Whitehead recalls. "He kept saying to me, 'I'm locked in my room. I can't do anything, because you're forcing me to try (and write). I've got nothing but ashes in my mouth. You want poetry. I've got ashes.'"

The play still feels unresolved. When Noah's wife dies (Odets' last wife, Bette Grayson, died in 1954), he is weakened by grief and by his rigid adherence to his faith in the face of certain disaster. Japheth (played by David Aaron Baker) refuses to trust to God's will and let the leaking and rudderless Ark founder, and ultimately his faith in reason prevails over Noah's insistence on the will of God. "I have a strange feeling that God changed today," says Japheth, whose assertion of authority finally separates him from his father. When they reach land, Noah sends his offspring out to be fruitful and multiply. The flowering peach tree is an emblem, as plants always were for Odets, of the universal potential for "perfect form." In the midst of this hope of perfection is the spectacle of man's imperfection. Noah blesses the unborn child of his favorite and idealistic son, Japheth, and his new bride, Rachel, but chooses to live with Shem and the status quo. "Why?" Noah says, as Shem exits ahead of him with his wheelbarrow piled high with booty from the trip, and he answers, "It's more comfortable." According to the Bible, Noah, after fulfilling his mission, lived three hundred and fifty years longer. But Odets lived only nine years more, hounded by a sense of incompleteness. "I may well be not only the foremost playwright manqué of our time but of all time," he wrote in his diary in 1961. "I do not believe a dozen playwrights in history had my natural endowment…. Perhaps it is not too late."

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Odets, Clifford (Vol. 28)