In Waiting for Lefty, Odets captures fully the folk idiom of the six people on whom his play focuses. Each is a taxicab driver. Each has a story to tell. The six characters come from several walks of life but have one thing in common: They are forced by economic necessity to become cab drivers. Each exemplifies the antagonism that exists between the values of the business community and the human values of the play’s protagonists.
In the six vignettes, connected only by the job that the actors have in common, Odets explores such matters as collective bargaining, anti-Semitism, environmental irresponsibility, family cohesiveness, and the exploitation of the masses. The big question the play poses concerns the extent to which workers should control their own destinies. A union organizer, who does not appear on stage, is scheduled to meet with them to discuss means by which workers can deal with big business. Lefty never arrives because he has been murdered on his way to the meeting. When his death is revealed, the audience, already at fever pitch, is drawn into the action of the play with the cry to “Strike, Strike, Strike.”
Waiting for Lefty was premiered on January 14, 1935, and was staged innovatively, played on a blacked-out stage with the characters projected as shadows created by directional lighting. From the standpoint of play production, Waiting for Lefty was just what amateur groups were looking for. It had the simplest of sets, and its very structure lent it a versatility and flexibility that made it appealing to producers and directors. News of this play quickly spread across the country and throughout Europe, where Waiting for Lefty was performed extensively.
The dialogue in this play is rapid-fire. One critic referred to its short, jabbing scenes and commented on how well Odets captured the speech rhythms of the characters who told their stories in their highly charged vignettes. Nevertheless, the play, which was so right for its time, lacks the timely appeal of some of Odets’s other plays. Michael Mendelsohn in Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist (1969) muses that Waiting for Lefty has become dated, as dead as yesterday’s newspaper, which is probably an apt assessment.
At a meeting of taxi drivers, a union official urges a committee of six men not to call a strike. Voices from the audience call out for Lefty, who was elected chairman of this strike committee, but Lefty has mysteriously disappeared. The union official, Fatt, and his Henchman threaten the union members and call those urging a strike “reds” (that is, communists). One of the committee members, Joe Mitchell, gets up and makes an impassioned plea for the strike. He starts to describe an encounter with his wife, Edna, which is then enacted onstage. The committee remains onstage in the background, where it comments as a chorus on the action it observes.
Joe comes home from a hard day driving a cab to find that the furniture he and Edna have been buying on installment has been repossessed and that Edna has had to put their two children to bed hungry. Edna accuses Joe of belonging to a union that is run by racketeers, urges him to start his own honest union, and threatens to go back to her old boyfriend. The chorus of committee members in the darkened semicircle beyond Joe and Edna comments that she will. Joe exits, saying he is going to look for another taxi driver, Lefty Costello, who was recently making statements similar to Edna’s.
In a flashback, Miller, another one of the committee members, encounters Mr. Fayette, an industrialist. Fayette gives a raise to Miller, then a lab assistant, and moves him to a new project, working with a Dr. Brenner to manufacture poison gas. Fayette also asks Miller to send him secret weekly reports on Dr. Brenner. Miller balks at what he calls spying, but Fayette warns him to think of the consequences of refusing—the chorus comments that he will lose his job. Fayette then fires Miller, and Miller punches Fayette in the mouth.
(The entire section is 3,678 words.)