Waiting for Lefty

by Clifford Odets

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Critical Overview

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Since its opening, Waiting for Lefty has been considered a prime example of the dramatic genre known as agit-prop (and also known as revolutionary theatre and proletarian drama, among other labels). The play is often considered the definitive example of this genre. How one feels about that type—widely popular in its time but unfashionable in recent years—seems to have a great deal to do with one's critical reaction.

Waiting for Lefty's original production in 1935 was a critical success and a popular hit. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Brooks Atkinson praised it as not only "one of the best working-class dramas that have been written" but as "one of the most dynamic dramas of the year in any department of our theatre." He stressed its realism and intensity: "the characters are right off the city pavements; the emotions are tender and raw, and some of them are bitter." Remaining neutral on the play's political message, Atkinson stressed its social importance as well as its relevance to the troubled moment in history it portrays: "People who want to understand the times through which they are living," he wrote, "can scarcely afford to ignore it.'' Harold Clurman, a founder of the Group Theatre, recalled of an early performance that the audience joined spontaneously and enthusiastically in the climactic call to "Strike! Strike!" As he recalled in The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties, Clurman considered their reaction both "a tribute to the play's effectiveness" and "a testimony of the audience's hunger for constructive social action. It was the birth cry of the thirties. Our youth had found its voice." By May of 1935 (within six months of its debut), Waiting for Lefty had been produced in thirty cities across the country. For several years, productions of the play were staged as fundraisers and morale boosters by a variety of left-wing organizations.

While he produced one of its most celebrated works, Odets wrote little else in the agit-prop vein. His later dramas and screenplays are far more conventional, with little emphasis on overt political messages. For this reason—coupled with his commercial success on Broadway and in Hollywood—many of his revolutionary comrades accused him of selling out the cause and betraying his principles. Odets clearly changed his thinking in some ways and came to renounce his Communist Party membership. Other critics, however, question whether he experienced any abrupt reversal in his earlier conceptions of drama. In this view, Waiting for Lefty is a one-of-a-kind effort, produced in a burst of idealistic exuberance, and its political crusading is atypical of Odets's usual concerns, before and after its composition. As a whole, his writing bears more resemblance to this play's intimate domestic sketches than to the high drama of the raucous strike meeting. In such works as Awake and Sing!, Golden Boy, and The Big Knife, Odets's strengths are generally considered to include his realistic characterization and dialogue as well as his deft exploration of personal and domestic conflicts.

Waiting for Lefty was not written "for the ages," to stand as an immortal work of art but for a specific time and culture to advance particular social and political aspirations. In that light, it may be somewhat irrelevant that, by most accounts, the play no longer inspires the admiration and enthusiasm it sparked in the 1930s. To modern tastes, it typically appears as an anachronism, obsolete in both style and substance. Its slogan-laced dialogue seems forced and unnatural, while its broad characterizations seem simplistic and melodramatic. Its moralizing tone is far less palatable...

(This entire section contains 744 words.)

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today, when preaching of any kind is unfashionable, and its "party-line" analysis seems dogmatic and unsophisticated.

Most importantly, the solution it offers—a communist revolution—appears in a radically different light for modern audiences. During the Depression, it appeared as a viable and desirable alternative; true believers thought they could glimpse it on the horizon. But after decades of tense Cold War geopolitics followed by the rapid decline of world communism in the late-1980s, to even consider such a revolution possible requires an imaginative leap. It is certainly possible to appreciate a work for its formal qualities, or its treatment of universal human themes, apart from its specific "message" and historical context—but for a play like Waiting for Lefty, the message was its entire reason for being, and its ability to influence audiences in that crucial moment of history was its greatest measure of success

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