Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1456
The Flowering Peach is a modern retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. The play begins just before dawn as a rooster crows and Noah, dazed and half-asleep, enters his living room, becomes agitated, and, sobbing, falls on his knees. When his wife, Esther, enters, Noah tries to pretend that nothing is wrong, but he finally tells her that God has revealed to him in a dream that He will destroy the world, saving only Noah and his family and animals and birds of all species. Incredulous, Esther accuses Noah of being drunk. Japheth, their youngest son, awakened by the noise, enters and Noah tells Japheth to fetch Ham and Shem, Noah’s two older sons. Japheth replies that Shem and his wife are harvesting the olive crop and will not want to come. Noah instructs Japheth to say that a building proposition has come up, and he needs Shem to give an estimate.
As Japheth leaves to get his brothers, Noah explains to Esther that they are to build an ark according to God’s specifications. Esther reminds him that he has never seen a boat—to which he replies that he has seen one “twiced.” (Throughout, the characters’ speech is slangy, ungrammatical, and down-to-earth.) She insists that Noah must be sick. When he begins to speak aloud to God, she gives up and leaves to bake the Sabbath bread. Noah, musing, wonders if God actually spoke to him. Complaining that he is too old for such a task and that he will be ridiculed, he prays, “Oh God . . . pass me by. Please.” As God’s presence is expressed by a musical shimmer, Noah asks God not to give him such a task, pleading that total destruction of the world “is something terrible.” The Presence of God fades away into silence, and antiphonal roosters crow as the stage lights dim out.
Scene 2 introduces the rest of the principal characters except for Ham’s wife, Rachel, and Goldie, a girl who will be proposed as a wife for Japheth. In his early twenties, Japheth is a “proud, private and thinking young man,” slow and shy, with whom Noah unconsciously identifies, believing that “they are two outcasts in the more competent and fluent world.” Ham, the middle son, is a restless man in whom “malice and jealousy are frequently masked . . . as humor and good fellowship,” but he knows how to charm his older brother, Shem, for whom he works. Shem is sometimes “shrewd to the point of foolishness,” and his wife, Leah, “is a fit and sometimes prodding mate” for him. Esther is the practical Jewish mother, bossing her daughter-in-law, chiding her sons for disrespect toward their father, chiding Noah with loving banter, breaking up arguments, and maintaining her sanity by keeping occupied with daily chores. Assembled in Noah’s house, they discuss Noah’s dream, expressing disbelief, and asking Noah how he will gather all the animals.
Only Japheth believes Noah because such cruel imagining is not in Noah’s nature, but Japheth wants to die in the flood “to protest such an avenging, destructive God!” In the midst of the bickering, a mouselike creature, the mythical gitka, appears, runs into Noah’s hands, and sings in a wordless, falsetto voice while everyone stands amazed. Japheth returns from outside, telling everyone to look out the windows, where animals and birds of all kinds are gathering. Ham and Shem repent in fear, Noah intones Sabbath prayers, and Japheth stands in awe and horror outside the family circle.
The next three scenes occur on a high hillside where the men are building the ark and Esther and her daughters-in-law are preparing provisions. Esther mistrusts Leah’s stubborn smugness but loves the delicate, hesitant Rachel. Esther laments Rachel’s unhappy five-year marriage to Ham. Noah and Japheth argue over how to pronounce the word “tiger” and whether to put a rudder on the ark; Noah contends that a rudder is not needed because God will steer the ship. Noah also insists that Japheth find a wife because the new world will need plenty of babies; Japheth, lamenting the “bushels of babies” who will die in the flood, leaves, saying he will not be back.
Later, Noah goes into town to buy seeds, but the townspeople refuse to sell to him, calling him crazy and stoning him to drive him out of town. He returns to the hillside angry and humiliated. Japheth also returns, saying that he has come to help build the ark “for the family, not for God.” Japheth brings with him a girl, Goldie, who has saved him from being killed by an angry mob. A tax collector appears, seeking taxes for the sale of Shem’s land and orchards. Noah, stating that nothing will be for sale on the ark, commands Shem to hand over the money, but Shem refuses to relinquish his keys. Japheth knocks Shem unconscious and retrieves the keys, and the tax collector goes to get the hoarded money. Noah, exhausted, goes to sleep behind a bush. When Esther hears moaning and thrashing from behind the bush, she seeks to awaken Noah, and, frightened, calls her sons, who take hold of their father, then jump back in awe as Noah emerges, transformed, a young man of fifty, and returns to town to buy seeds.
Several days later, signs point to the imminent flood: A blood-red sun reverses itself and moves from west to east; everyone is rushing to load the ark with the animals. Esther, concerned because she is now much older than Noah, flirts with him, putting on a fancy hat and asking him if she is pretty. Ham flirts with Goldie, but, near hysterics over the supernatural occurrences, she resists his advances. Rachel and Ham bicker, and Esther, knowing that Rachel and Japheth are in love, tries to persuade Japheth to stay on the ark; he has said that he will not sail. When he appears with his luggage, Rachel asks him to change his mind. They declare their love for each other, but Japheth is determined to leave. Noah orders him to sail on the ark, while Esther pleads with him not to die. Finally, Noah knocks him out and Shem and Ham carry him onto the ark. Lightning flashes, thunder rolls, rain begins to fall, and everyone scrambles aboard the ark. Three old men appear and ask to be taken on board, but Noah refuses. They are left, chanting, with rain dripping from their unbowed heads.
Scene 6 shows the forty-first day on the ark. The rain has stopped, but nothing is going well. Noah and Japheth feud, Shem has given Ham liquor to do his work, Esther and Rachel refuse to sleep with their husbands, and Shem and Leah are threatening to sink the ark by hoarding dried manure bricks to sell to the others for fuel. Noah wants to marry Japheth to Goldie, but Japheth refuses, saying he wants to marry Rachel; Esther takes their part against Noah, saying that Ham wants to marry Goldie. Noah rejoins that the law will not allow this and asks God to strike them down. When God does not comply, Noah, deserted, takes a keg of brandy and gets drunk.
Later, Noah faces the changes that have occurred while he was drunk. Japheth has taken control of the ark and gained new respect from his brothers. He steers the ark with a rudder, to which Noah must acquiesce when Japheth refuses to repair a large hole in the ark unless the rudder stays. Moreover, Esther is now gravely ill, but Noah still refuses to marry the two couples. Estranged from human communication, he talks to the old lion and awaits the return of two doves that he has sent out to find land. Esther comes on deck, where she begs Noah to marry the children “for the sake of happiness in the world” and tells him that the old laws no longer apply. As a dove returns with an olive leaf, Esther dies, and Noah grants her dying wish to marry the children.
In the last scene, the ark is aground and the couples go their separate ways; Noah decides to go with Shem. Symbolizing new life, the three wives are pregnant and a little peach tree is discovered in full bloom. Noah gives the children his blessing and talks once more with God, who gives a rainbow as a symbol that He will not destroy the world again. In awe and thankfulness, Noah declares, “Yes, I hear You, God—now it’s in man’s hands to make or destroy the world”; the play concludes as he repeats Esther’s last words, “I’ll tell you a mystery.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348
Bringing a classic work to the contemporary stage is an enterprise fraught with peril, whether the project in question is a modern production of a classic drama (a Greek tragedy, a Shakespearean play) or, as in the case of The Flowering Peach, a fresh adaptation of a nondramatic source. It is the authority of the classic—its claim to enduring significance—that makes it an appealing vehicle in the first place, yet authority can be stifling: The classic work may appear to be distant, stuffy, or simply irrelevant to the concerns of a contemporary audience.
Well aware of this tension, Odets in The Flowering Peach employs the device of deliberate anachronism. The male characters appear in modern dress, yet the female characters, Odets indicates, are to wear traditional Oriental costumes. More important, as noted above, the characters’ speech is highly colloquial. By violating the stereotype of elevated biblical language, Odets clearly sought to underline the timelessness of the Flood story. (One danger of this approach is evident to the reader who comes to Odets’s play several decades after it was written: Slang dates very quickly, and the once-contemporary becomes embarrassingly quaint.)
Odets also employs a variety of physical devices, including “shimmering” music, thunder, and lightning to represent God’s presence onstage; other supernatural effects such as the mouselike gitka, which sings before the Flood and when Esther dies; the movement of a blood-red sun from west to east just before the Flood, symbolizing impending destruction; Esther’s hat decorated with flowers, fruits, and berries to symbolize youth; and Noah’s transformation (an Odets invention) from an old man to a younger man, symbolizing rejuvenation of spirit, energy, and purpose.
Finally, the perpetuation and continuation of life are shown through several symbols: the preservation of the animals, the pregnancy of the three wives at the end of the play, Esther’s one-leaf plant that needs sun to grow, the flowering peach tree from which the play takes its title, and the rainbow symbolizing God’s promise of hope for world survival—Odets’s principal concern in this play.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99
Sources for Further Study
Cantor, Harold C. Clifford Odets. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2000.
Clurman, Harold. “American Playwrights: Clifford Odets, The Flowering Peach.” In Lies Like Truth: Theatre Reviews and Essays. New York: Macmillan, 1958.
Cooperman, Robert. Clifford Odets: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism, 1935-1989. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Demastes, William W. Clifford Odets. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Goldstein, Malcolm. “Clifford Odets and the Found Generation.” In American Drama and Its Critics, edited by Alan S. Downer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.
Hayes, Richard. “The Flowering Peach.” Commonweal 61 (February 11, 1955): 502-503.
Shuman, R. Baird. Clifford Odets. New York: Twayne, 1962.
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