Clifford Odets’s Rocket to the Moon was first produced for the stage by the Group Theatre in New York in 1938. The play was the second Odets play produced by the Group Theatre after Odets’s return from a brief hiatus in Hollywood where he worked as a scriptwriter. Like its predecessor, Golden Boy, the play signaled a move on the part of Odets away from the more overtly political drama of his earlier plays towards a drama more focused on interpersonal relationships and the pressures of life on the individual.
Set entirely in the waiting room of a dentist’s office in New York City, the play focuses on the relationships between its central characters. In the play, dialogue is more important than action. The play takes place between June and August, and the oppressive heat of a stifling New York summer serves as the backdrop to the play’s events. The play focuses on the mid-life crisis of a dentist, Ben Stark, who attempts to escape the confines of his life by having an affair with his secretary, Cleo. In the play, Odets develops many of the themes familiar to his audience from his earlier (and more overtly political) plays: economic pressures, the ability of the individual to rise above his circumstances, and the effects of personal responsibility on ambition. The play can also be seen as a meditation on the effects of marriage and personal relationships on the development of artistic talent.
The first act of Rocket to the Moon opens with an argument between Ben Stark and his wife, Belle. Stark wishes to develop his dental practice by moving his offices to a more affluent part of town and specializing in orthodontics. His father-in-law, a retired businessman, has offered to provide Stark with money for the move. However Belle—who hates her father—wants Stark to refuse his offer. While Belle sees her desire for Stark to stay where he is as a practical one, Stark believes that his wife is trying to limit his aspirations. Despite these misgivings, Stark gives in to Belle and agrees not to move.
Stark’s colleague, Dr. Cooper, enters during this conversation to get a drink of water from the cooler. His presence reminds Belle that Cooper, who rents his office from Stark, owes four month’s rent. Belle views Stark’s refusal to press Cooper for the money as weakness, and criticizes him for it. Belle tells Stark that she has been feeling depressed all morning and reminds him that it is the anniversary of the death of their son, who died during childbirth. At this point the play’s central female character, Stark’s secretary Cleo, enters and is immediately criticized by Stark (who is trying to mollify his wife) for taking a two-hour lunch break. When Dr. Cooper re-enters the waiting room, Belle demands that he pay Stark the money he is owed and accuses Cooper of drunkenness. Cooper tells Belle that he cannot even afford to pay the medical bills for his son, who recently broke his arm. Belle looks on Cooper more sympathetically and tells him to take another month before paying off his debts.
As Belle leaves the office, her father, Prince, enters. Prince sees Cleo and asks her who she is. This question prompts a long conversation between the two during which Cleo tells Prince that she does not like Belle. Prince is clearly attracted to Cleo and makes a number of attempts to impress her. Prince comes across as an energetic, playful, and intelligent man. Stark returns to the room and watches the two silently for a moment before Prince notices that he has returned. Stark tells Prince that he is rejecting his offer of financial help. Prince blames Belle for this decision, and the two men talk at great length about the effects of marriage on a man. Prince describes his own feelings about marriage, telling Stark that if he had been single he might have become a great actor. After describing his own position, Prince criticizes Stark for letting Belle run his life and tells him that he should have an affair with Cleo. Stark laughs at...
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