Waiting for Lefty

by Clifford Odets

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Lefty Costello

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Lefty Costello
Though he is the title character, Lefty never appears on stage, nonetheless, he is a heroic figure, in direct contrast to Fatt's villainy. A dedicated union organizer (and presumably a communist), he enjoys the confidence of the workers and seems to be their true leader, the driving force behind the stake effort. He has been elected chairman of the strike committee, and his absence at the meeting is troubling; it seems the members are counting on his leadership to stand up to Fatt and make the eagerly-awaited strike a reality.

Lefty recalls other heroic, martyred organizers of union lore, like the legendary folk-singer Joe Hill. Though their loss is deeply felt, such figures are never considered irreplaceable, for their cause is one of mass action. The play's climax comes when the workers stop waiting for Lefty and take responsibility for their own struggle. Though they have depended on him, they do not need a leader to give them power; they need only seize the collective power they had always had, by standing together in defiance.

Other Characters

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Dr. Barnes
In Scene VI, Barnes is a hospital administrator torn between his convictions and his professional obligations. He deplores the ruthless, discriminatory policies of the hospital's wealthy board of directors, especially their dismissal of the talented young Dr. Benjamin; but he is also powerless to change these decisions, and sees no choice but to carry them out. Because of his advanced age, and the fact that he must provide for an invalid daughter, he feels unable to participate directly in the workers' struggle. Yet he is a passionate believer in the cause and exhorts the younger man to take up the fight he wishes he could join, encouraging Benjamin to fire a shot "for old Doc Barnes.''

Dr. Benjamin
A talented and dedicated young surgeon, Dr Benjamin learns in Scene VI that he is losing his job because of the discriminatory policies of his hospital's directors. The experience persuades him of the truth of communist theory and fires his determination to fight the capitalist system. He is tempted to emigrate to Russia, in order to work under a system of socialized medicine but decides to stay in America even though this means giving up the medical career for which his parents sacrificed so much to provide him. He takes a job as a cab driver and becomes a member of the stake committee.

See Tom Clayton

Tom Clayton
The "labor spy'' in Scene IV,"Tom Clayton'' poses as a "brother" cabbie from Philadelphia. Having participated in a failed taxi strike there a few months ago, he offers that bitter experience to convince the members that a strike is useless. But a "clear voice" from the crowd—which turns out to be that of his own brother—exposes him as a strikebreaker named "Clancy,'' who has long been employed by industrialists to undermine militant union organizers. His charade exposed, the deceitful "Clayton" flees the wrath of the workers.

"Clear Voice" (Clancy's brother)
Unidentified at first, this "voice" emerges from the crowd in Scene IV to denounce "Tom Clayton" as a labor spy. His knowledge of "Clayton" is irrefutable, for the traitor he detests is "my own lousy brother." Like many other characters, the "voice'' has discovered where his true loyalties lie; in this case, his commitment to the working class far outweighs the bonds of family.

Harry Fatt
Harry Fatt, the corrupt union leader, is the play's most obvious villain and the primary focus of its outrage—a stereotypical "fat cat," driven by a ruthless greed and a hunger for power. He is unmoved by the...

(This entire section contains 2293 words.)

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desperate poverty of the workers he claims to serve. He is purposely exaggerated, a constant force of pure evil. Odets intended the audience to see him as "an ugly menace,'' hovering over the lives of all the characters. Though Fatt pays lip-service to democratic principles and rails against the "anti-American" nature of communism, he is a tyrant and "racketeer," imposing his will on the union by force and intimidation. The union members overwhelmingly support a strike, and the play's political logic demands one. Yet Fatt is determined to prevent it and to maintain control by any possible means, including murder.

In his production notes, Odets leaves no doubt about the character's significance: "Fatt, of course, represents the capitalist system throughout the play.'' An industrialist like Fayette (in Scene II) might seem a more logical representative, but Fatt is equally a "boss'' and enemy of the workers, for his corrupt leadership subverts their struggle for a better life. Whether or not he is directly employed by wealthy capitalists (and the "Labor Spy Episode" implies that he is), he serves their cause well, for his actions work as surely as theirs to secure the corrupt system. Like theirs, his power is based on the workers' continued exploitation. In Scene V, Odets emphasizes this connection by having Fatt act the role of Grady, the wealthy theatrical producer. No other character has such a dual function; the roles of "labor boss" and "business executive" are shown to be literally interchangeable. Like other bosses, Fatt can be defeated only by the collective action of the workers, who rise triumphantly against him as the curtain falls.

The head of a large industrial corporation, Fayette is clearly in the "capitalist'' camp. In Scene II, he offers his employee, the lab assistant Miller, an attractive but unsavory proposition, a generous raise and promotion if he will only agree to help develop fearsome chemical weapons and also agree to spy on his fellow scientists. Fayette is untroubled by the ethical concerns that consume Miller; his only principles seem to be profit and self-interest. "If big business went sentimental over human life," he asserts,"there wouldn't be big business of any sort!" Like other "bosses" in the play, he is an enemy of the working class. When he pays for his transgressions with a solid punch in the mouth, the audience is meant to feel that it is richly-deserved.

In Scene III, Florrie and her boyfriend Sid are tragic lovers, unable to marry because of their poverty. Their situation resembles that of Joe and Edna in Scene I; however, their scene is not a confrontation but an emotional tableaux (a staged depiction, often without words) of shared misery. They see that they are victims of "the money men'' whose system keeps them "lonely" and "trapped"— "highly insulting us," as Florrie says. The pathos of their reluctant parting is only leavened by the suggestion that his heartbreak leads Sid to join the union cause, the only possible hope of changing their circumstances.

See Florence

Mr. Grady
Played by the same actor that plays Harry Fatt, Grady represents the capitalist system in Scene V. He plays a wealthy theatre producer from whom Philips seeks an acting job. He is extravagantly rich, thoroughly self-indulgent, and all but blind to the suffering of others. Though he is an important part of a "creative" profession, Grady is a hard-headed businessman; he bases his decisions on economics not art. Though he has the power to relieve Philips's plight, his decision is automatic and inflexible: not even "Jesus Christ" would get a part from him if he didn't fit the type. Unable to ignore the young actor's misery, he offers a perfunctory "I'm sorry" and "good luck"—but he expresses far more concern for the health of "Boris"—his pet wolfhound.

The Gunman is Harry Fatt's "muscle" and enforcer. Though he has few lines, he is as sinister a figure as Fatt himself, a constant menace. He "keeps order'' at the union meeting by moving in to silence anyone who challenges Fatt's rule. Though the question is left open, it is possible that he (or another of Fatt's "henchmen") is Lefty's murderer. In political terms, he represents all the various forces of violence (military, police, or reactionary gangs) at the disposal of those in power. His kind is used to bully the workers into submission and crush any threat to the establishment. In the final scene, both Fatt and the Gunman try to physically restrain Agate Keller—and, significantly, are unable to do so. Keller's comrades form a human shield, protecting him as he exhorts the meeting to defiance.

See Gunman

Irv appears briefly in Scene III, arguing with his sister Florrie over her relationship with Sid. He knows they are in love but reminds Florrie of the economic facts: Sid doesn'tmake enough to support her, and Florrie is needed at home, to care for their ailing mother. He adopts a stern, paternal tone (perhaps taking the role of their absent father), urging her to break off the affair and threatening Sid with violence if he persists in his attentions.

Agate Keller
Agate Keller is the last strike-committee member to address the meeting, and he leads the workers in the final call for a strike. He seems eccentric at first and deferential to the corrupt union leaders; but this turns out to be a sly pose, enabling him to criticize Fatt's regime by indirect means. As he continues, and receives the support of his comrades, his speech grows more lucid, plain-spoken, and passionate. Keller is proud to come from "deep down in the working class," and he is bitterly resentful of "the boss class," whose luxuries are paid for with the blood of workers. With growing enthusiasm, he tells the union members they have a simple choice: "slow death or flight." When Lefty's death is announced, he leads the group (and the theatre audience) into a declaration of war, exhorting the "stormbirds of the working class" to offer their lives in order to "make a new world."

A scientist working in the research department of a large industrial corporation, Miller is the "lab assistant" of Scene II and a strike-committee member. His conversion to the movement grows out of a crucial career decision. His boss, the powerful industrialist Fayette, offers him an attractive promotion and a chance to work with a renowned chemist. But the "opportunity" has several strings attached: he must sacrifice his home life, even spy on his colleague—and his job will be to develop chemical weapons, to be used in the "new war" Fayette assures him is coming. Miller has seen a brother and two cousins killed in the last war (World War I), possibly by poison gas; he is haunted by their memory and by his mother's belief that their deaths served no "good cause." His principles will not allow him to do Fayette's bidding. He refuses the job and is promptly fired. His pacifism does not prevent him, however, from punching Fayette "square in the mouth."

Edna Mitchell
In Scene I, Edna provides the motivation for her husband Joe to become active in the strike movement. Fed up with the family's desperate poverty, she bitterly vents her frustration and finally threatens to leave Joe for her old boyfriend. As she admits, her behavior is that of a"sour old nag,'' but Odets makes clear that this is a result of her circumstances, not her character—and that her "nagging'' includes the truth Joe needs to understand what he must do. Edna loves Joe and knows that he is not to blame for their condition. She also knows, however, that their condition is truly desperate and this knowledge provokes her to consider desperate measures. When Joe finally decides to enlist in the union struggle, Edna is "triumphant" and drops all thought of breaking up the family.

Joe Mitchell
A member of the strike committee, Joe is the first to rise and speak in Lefty's place. He is not motivated by political abstractions but by the hard facts of life: the hopeless poverty that engulfs his family and the families of his fellow workers. In Scene I, he is goaded into action by his long-suffering wife, Edna. Though he works hard, they are falling further behind, and he feels powerless to change things. Edna demands that he "do something," and "get wise'' to the way he and the others are being exploited. She nags, pleads, and finally threatens to leave him; at last, her desperation breaks through his denial, opening his eyes to the fact that only a strike can force the cab companies to pay a living wage. He chooses to stand and fight for his family, and that decision is what keeps his family together.

The "young actor" in Scene V, Philips becomes politicized through his inability to find a job and the intervention of Grady's communist stenographer. Devoted to his art and desperate to provide for his pregnant wife, he finds that his "market value'' depends on his physical appearance, not his acting ability or his creative "soul." Under the system (represented by the wealthy, self-indulgent Grady), art must make a profit and its "creative decisions" (such as the casting of a play) are based on iron-clad business principles. Disillusioned, feeling less-than-human in his defeat, Philips is ready for the message of the Communist Manifesto and the hope of revolution. Introduced to communism by the secretary, he goes on to serve as a member of the strike committee.

The "young hack'' in scene III, Sid is forced to break off his engagement to Florrie, because he cannot earn enough to support her. Humiliated and heartbroken, he feels like "a dog,'' not a man—for that is how he feels "the money men'' treat people like him. But he can also see a day when "all the dogs like us will be down on them together—an ocean knocking them to hell and back." Though he does not speak at the meeting, he is presumably a member of the strike committee and a part of the "ocean" that rises at the play's climax.

In Scene V, Grady's nameless stenographer recruits the young actor Philips to the workers' cause by introducing him to communist theory. In private, she freely expresses her contempt for her boss and for all that he stands. Though she works "within the system," she is passionately committed to its eventual destruction. In anti-communist works, such subversive agents are primary villains (like the Fatt/Grady character here); they seduce their unwitting victims into ruthless service for an evil cause. But Odets's "Comrade'' is humane, as her concern for Philips demonstrates. He is touched that she treats him "like a human being,'' and desperately in need of the nourishment she offers, both for his body (the bread her dollar will buy) and his soul (the promise of liberation). Her devotion to the cause mirrors religious fervor, and she speaks of the Communist Manifesto in biblical terms, leaving no doubt that it contains a truth that will set him free.




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