Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

Waiting for Lefty is the best strike play to come out of the Great Depression. Basing his work on a 1934 taxi strike in New York, Clifford Odets wrote the play in three days for a contest of one-act plays that workers could stage at their own meeting places, and soon it was being performed everywhere. The action takes place within the semicircle defined by the members of the strike committee, and scene changes are defined largely by lighting. The lights on the committee are darkened when they become a chorus commenting on action in other times and places, and the lights come back up when the action returns to the committee’s meeting. The audience of the play represents the union membership, and characters attending the meeting are seated among audience members. Those who attended early performances of the play streamed out of the theatre chanting “Strike! Strike!” as if they had been caught up in a strike vote themselves.

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The play was produced by the Group Theatre, a left-wing theater company organized by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. The production was the closest thing to agitprop (agitation propaganda—a work intended to incite its audience to political action) to come out of the 1930’s—a decade that produced a great deal of social fiction and drama. The ideas in the play—including class warfare and exploitation of workers by corrupt companies—are vaguely Marxist, but the force of the drama comes through its stories of human suffering. The conflicts within the play are linked: Fatt is like Fayette (hence their similar names), who is like the medical establishment in scene five. They are all arrayed against honest men and women struggling to build decent lives, such as the workers on stage trying to take over a corrupt union (a story that would be retold a few years later in the 1954 film On the Waterfront).

Characterization tends to be flat in this short play: Fatt and his henchman are stereotypes of corrupt union officials, while the strike committee’s members are noble and self-sacrificing. These relatively simplistic characterizations work, however, in this modern morality play, whose aim is not to achieve aesthetic sophistication but to move the audience to action. Supporting the effectiveness of the play’s message are its language and stagecraft. The dialogue reflects contemporary life, and characters talk as they would be expected to—Sid and Florrie even greet each other in a mock parody of contemporary Hollywood romances. Similarly, the lack of separation between stage and audience means that theatergoers are immediately caught up in the drama: audience members shout out, rush the stage, or flee it down the aisles.

Waiting for Lefty was a landmark in the social theater and radical literature of the 1930’s, “the birth cry of the thirties,” as Harold Clurman wrote in his memoir of the period, The Fervent Years (1945) that somehow caught and crystallized the emotional sympathies of audiences like no other play of the decade. Theatergoers...

(The entire section contains 773 words.)

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Critical Overview