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...

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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.

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 found a dramatic, cathartic vehicle for their Depression-era frustrations. Waiting for Lefty was only the first of five plays Odets saw produced in 1935, and he had later successes in the theater, including Golden Boy (pr., pb. 1937) and The Country Girl (pr. 1950, pb. 1951), as well as a parallel career as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

Like much of the radical literature that came out of the 1930’s, Waiting for Lefty was ignored or attacked in the Cold War culture that permeated the United States in the decades after the 1930’s, but starting in the 1960’s and 1970’s the literature and legacy of the 1930’s were rediscovered. Odets—like John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and other leftwing writers of the 1930’s—was reevaluated, and plays such as Waiting for Lefty were reexamined. In that process, it was discovered that the play is a stirring piece of theater that captured human emotions at the bottom of America’s worst economic crisis.

Odets’s revolutionary sympathies are as much for the individual as for any social class; the two most affecting scenes in the play focus on couples. As the political and cultural pendulum has swung back toward the middle following the Cold War, critics and historians have discovered other ideas in Odets to discuss, such his dynamic feeling for the American family, his dramatic sense of the socioeconomic forces stifling the American Dream during the Great Depression, and his compassion for the characters trapped by those forces. Waiting for Lefty is now seen as a vital work of theater that emerged in a unique moment in American history and as a play that speaks out for essential American values.

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Critical Overview