Waiting for Lefty

by Clifford Odets

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Combating the Negative Stereotypes Regarding Communism

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If you approached Clifford Odets in 1935 and told him that his celebrated play Waiting for Lefty was a work of communist propaganda, he would not likely have been insulted or alarmed. He would probably consider it an accurate description of his drama, exactly what he had intended to create. A few years later, however, the same phrase could only be taken as a vicious accusation, equivalent to being called traitor: the propagandist was no less than an enemy to his own country, preaching an evil gospel that threatened all our cherished American ideals. The infamous work of the House Un-American Activities Committee to root out "communist infiltrators" during the 1950s helped solidify the popular image of communist revolution as the antithesis of the American Dream. But to Odets and his leftist contemporaries in 1935, the two sets of ideals were not necessarily contradictory; rather, they appeared as differing formulations of the same basic human longings. In their embrace of communism, leftist activists sought to realize the promise of an American Dream they believed had long been deferred by the tyranny of capitalism. Waiting for Lefty thus presents a curious spectacle to the modern imagination: an all-American communist uprising.

The "un-American" stereotype of communism was not an invention of the Cold War. After the Russian revolution in 1917, Marxism (communism) was widely portrayed in America as a "foreign" or "alien" philosophy, inconsistent with such native ideals as individual freedom and equal opportunity. With its resistance toward organized religion and private property rights, communism was seen as an assault on America's fundamental institutions. While the deprivations of the Great Depression made leftist ideas more attractive to many Americans, the stereotype remained in circulation, and it was a staple of anticommunist agitation.

A close reading of Waiting for Lefty reveals that Odets sought to counter this widespread perception by presenting revolutionaries whose actions were grounded firmly in the American mainstream. Such an approach makes the philosophical "medicine" more palatable; audience members who had considered themselves "100% Americans" (and therefore uninterested in anything that even resembled communism) might be led to rethink their positions. While Odets is often accused of presenting an oversimplified,"black and white'' picture of society (in which one is either a noble worker or an evil capitalist), he also depicts a political landscape that breaks down the familiar opposition between communism and Americanism.

As the unqualified villain of the play, the arrogant union boss Harry Fatt provides a reliable barometer of how not to interpret the action. Early in the opening scene, he trumpets the traditional stereotype, vilifying the "reds" within the union who want to call a strike as enemies of everything that Americans hold dear. Fatt paints an alarmist, clearly exaggerated picture of a communist takeover: "They'll have your wives and sisters in the whorehouses, like they done in Russia. They'll tear Christ off his bleeding cross. They'll wreck your homes and throw your babies in the river." His view is soon contradicted by Joe Mitchell, who supports the strike and defends the honor of the communist organizer, Lefty Costello. "You boys know me," he tells his fellow workers. "I ain't a red boy one bit! Here I'm carryin' a shrapnel that big I picked up in the war." Joe has risked his life for his country; his patriotism is beyond question. He thus provides "living proof that supporting mass action by workers is not the same as advocating the ruin of everything good and decent. Fatt's appeal to patriotic ideals is shown to be a piece of deceptive rhetoric, an undeserved slur directed at those who oppose...

(This entire section contains 1540 words.)

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his will.

Fatt's false, apocalyptic vision of a revolution is echoed, however, in language describing the real effects of the capitalist system on the lives of the workers. In Scene I, Edna charges that Joe's boss is "giving [our] kids that fancy disease called the rickets" (by paying him so little that he cannot afford a proper diet for them) and is actively breaking up their marriage (for Edna, Joe's boss is "putting ideas in my head a mile a minute... He's throwing me into [her old boyfriend] Bud Haas's lap.") Similar "bosses" prevent the lovers Sid and Florrie from building a life together, and (figuratively) castrate the young actor Philips. If there is a threat to the sanctity of the American family, the audience is meant to find it not in the specter of socialist revolution but in the deprivations required by the capitalist system.

Representatives of capital in the play behave in ways that offend traditional democratic ideals of equality and fair play. The hospital's board of directors is infected with the "virus" of anti-Semitism as surely as Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany was; they fire the gifted Dr. Benjamin because he is Jewish and replace him with the murderously incompetent (but politically well-connected) Dr. Leeds. They also close down a charity ward because it fails to turn a profit. While doctors like Barnes and Benjamin are pledged to relieve human suffering, the board's policy grants their services only to those who can pay.

The industrialist Fayette lets ethnic stereotypes and prejudice drive his employment policies: he prefers that his skilled workers refrain from alcohol, but he states that "Pollacks and niggers, they're better drunk—keeps 'em out of mischief.'' Similarly, the theatrical producer Grady calls for "the nigger boy" to bring him a hangover remedy. Throughout the play, the notion that "all men are created equal" seems to be an "alien" philosophy to these alleged defenders of Americanism—but a fundamental principle of the workers' struggle.

The individual workers we meet in Odets' play are steeped in traditional values: hard-working, devoted to family life, and dedicated to fairness and equal rights. In standing up to the corrupt, exploitative "bosses," they also stand for true Americanism. When Fayette asks Miller to abandon his principles by agreeing to work on a sinister military contract, the scientist answers that he'd "rather dig ditches first." "That's a job for foreigners," Fayette replies; to which Miller demands, "But sneaking—and making poison gas—that's for Americans?" The "subversive" worker again displays a deeper commitment to national ideals than the capitalist, who uses them only to justify actions that are thoroughly "un-American."

Dr. Barnes provides the rationale of communist "Americanism" when he ties the proposed workers' revolution to the cause of the Founding Fathers. In his anger at the hospital board he rails: "Out of a revolutionary background! Spirit of '76! Ancestors froze at Valley Forge! What's it all mean? Slops! The honest workers were sold out then, in '76. The Constitution's for rich men, then and now. Slops!" Barnes has no quarrel with the ideals of the American Revolution, only with the idea that they have been achieved. By including laws that enforced the rights of capital, at the expense of individual rights, he sees the Constitution as having subverted the "Spirit of '76." He feels he lives in a land that celebrates government "of, for, and by the people,'' but works to keep power in the hands of a propertied few. The new revolution he urges Benjamin to fight for will be just as "American" as the first—but it will be a successful revolution, one which truly establishes the noble ideals that have been perverted by the rule of capitalism.

Finally, Odets offers a counterpart to the stereotype of a propagandist in the character of the stenographer who recruits the young actor Philips to the workers' cause. In anticommunist lore, such figures are primary villains, the lowest of the low. They serve a Godless, treasonous cause, employing any devious means to seduce their unwitting victims. Though she is sarcastic in her contempt for her boss, the nameless secretary responds humanely to Philips' desperate plight, offering him a dollar and advising him on the fine points of job hunting. In contrast to Grady, she treats Philips "like a human being." (Capitalists consistently treat workers like "dogs,'' but Grady goes further, showing markedly less concern for Philips than he has for his pet dog, Boris.) When she speaks of the Communist Manifesto, the stenographer uses the language of the Bible—implying that it is a kind of bible: a revelatory text, offering a truth that will set Philips free, a vision of heaven, and an inspiring message of hope. The "comrade" who surreptitiously circulates propaganda is commonly cast as an unprincipled spy, luring the innocent to destruction with cool calculation. Instead, the audience is given a character very much like an evangelist, selflessly devoted to the saving of lost souls.

Through such devices, Odets sought to give his play a wider appeal and to make communist ideals resonate with the familiar elements of the American Dream. He was not only "preaching to the converted" (directing the work to those who already supported the cause) but trying to reach new converts as well. In his deployment of traditional American imagery, he sought to overcome the popular stereotype of the Left by showing communists who were also true Americans and contrasting them with villains who speak the language of patriotism but "walk the walk'' of tyranny.

Source: Tom Faulkner, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Faulkner is a professional writer with a B.A.in English.

A More Perfect Union

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There are plays whose historic interest justifies their periodic revival, especially if that interest covers both political and theatrical history. Such is the case of Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty (1935), the strongest agit-prop play written in America. "An essentially lusty outcry, informed with the enthusiasm of a cheering grandstand," as Harold Clurman called it, the work was inspired by an unsuccessful strike of New York's taxi drivers. Though a product of Odets' Communist period, it is happily free from doctrinaire Marxism.

As revived by the Blue Light Theater Company under Joanne Woodward's unfussy direction, the production profits from arena staging as it plants both workers and goons among the audience surrounding an essentially bare platform, and effectively simulates a labor meeting. We are alternatingly in that rented hall and in evoked domestic or workplace situations that conjure up the backgrounds of these destitute cabbies whom the corrupt union boss and his henchmen would prevent from striking. This allows us, in the end, to join in the climactic shouts of "Strike! Strike!! Strike!!!"

The dramatic memory vignettes are simple, almost schematic, but they work. To quote Gerald Weales' Clifford Odets, Playwright, lack of psychological depth is no problem where "characters are not thin realistic figures but thickened-out agit-prop cartoons." Yet these Depression-starved workers and their exploiters get at the essential issues in high-voltage, vaulting verbiage. We believe them as we believe a piece of electrifying newspaper reportage. A stark platform with a stool or two becomes the home of assorted human miseries. We relive the original audiences' involvement in the call to strike, their mingling with the cast as they emerged into the street charged with revolutionary ardor. Miss Woodward prefaces the short play with the actors' singing period songs of a similarly activist nature, and the device works rousingly. The performers are all solidly in character, which means that they play boldly but not hysterically. And then there is Marisa Tomei.

Although Miss Tomei blends smoothly into the ensemble, the actress, here playing two very different but equally well-etched parts, proves again what charm can do for an artist when she has it in spades. Good as Miss Tomei is in movies, it is on the stage that we need her. We must follow up that concluding "Strike! Strike!! Strike!!!" with a "Stay! Stay!! Stay!!!" especially for her.

Source: John Simon,"A More Perfect Union'' in New York, Vol. 30, No. 20, May 26, 1997 , pp 78-79.

Review of Waiting For Lefty

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East Chicago, Indiana, is not one of the great theatre centers of the United States. Driving towards Calumet College's playhouse one is aware of the fires from steel mills and the smell of the oil refineries, of homes owned by steelworkers and oilworkers, of a city far from lovely but alive. One is also conscious that this is a union town. What better place than Calumet College for a production of Waiting for Lefty? This play, in this locale, at this moment, is also appropriate because much that it portrays is, still and again, with us. Though hard times are felt a little less sharply in steel and oil centers than in auto towns, hard times are here. No wonder that the audience for this play was involved and interested.

Calumet College's theatre is a converted house, decorated in black and lack-of-paint, showing loving care but little money. On entering, recorded union songs provide a musical background; posters from the thirties are plastered everywhere. The first "act" of the play is not the play at all, but a live concert by five musicians of labor songs, held together by a narrative which tells each song's history. The audience sings along, claps, joins, enjoys. The cast members, in the meantime, have seated themselves on stage and in the audience, distinguishable only by their thirties clothing. Then there is an intermission.

When the play begins, the audience is prepared for the union-hall setting, and seems to have little trouble accepting the convention of the cab drivers telling their stories by acting out scenes from their lives. Joe shows us how his wife Edna's insistence turned him militant; Sid demonstrates why he and Florrie cannot marry under these economic circumstances. Between these scenes there is the union-hall strike talk, the exposure of the labor spy, and, dominating everything, the figure of Fatt, the labor racketeer.

But director Walter Skiba makes a serious mistake. Instead of letting the scenes from the workers' lives and the union hall scenes follow one another, thus leading to the climax at which Lefty's killing is announced and the strike is called, Skiba interrupts the action. After each scene, the musicians perform another song, while slides of labor struggles of the thirties and of more recent years are projected onto an upstage screen. The screen is too small for the images to be seen clearly and, although the pictures from the sixties and seventies make an apt political point, they are too obviously anachronistic, distracting from the play's milieu of the thirties.

The actors are earnest and serious about their work, though they are certainly not professionals, and not even of the caliber one might find at a college with a highly developed theatre department. It hardly matters. There are moving moments in this play, moving because one is aware of the reality outside the theatre, moving because one senses that Odets' passion has been communicated to these actors who are steel and oil workers and the sons and daughters of steel and oil workers. Even the most obvious of Odets' scenes have about them an earnestness which is often the most engaging aspect of "committed" art by a competent artist. In that sense, the play holds up, and the Calumet College Theater performs a real service in producing it.

The play lacks depth, however, as it simplifies, in the most blatant way, both the problem and the solution. It is meant to bring people into struggle, but its shallowness becomes most apparent when one realizes that, by 1935, Brecht had already written The Measures Taken, The Mother, The Baden Play for Learning, and The Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeois. The comparison exposes not only problems in the American radical theatre, but also problems for American political radicalism— perhaps the very problems that made it impossible for so many leftists of the thirties, in and out of the theatre, to retain their radical ideology. Brecht's awareness of both political and moral complexity is such that commitment come with open eyes and aware mind, while Odets' play can only lead to an emotional charge. The charge can only last so long, perhaps for the length of a play or of a strike, but not long enough for a lifetime of radical activity. It may be unfair to ask Odets' play to carry the weight of such a comparison. He was writing, after all under the influence of "agit-prop" and, for "agit-prop" purposes, his play works well, even here in this college theatre.

Waiting for Lefty is certainly of historical interest, and in this setting has relevance. It would have been easier to judge the play, forty years after it was first produced, if we could have seen it without the interruption of music, without the forced and failed effort to "update" it by using slides from labor struggles of more recent vintage. I saw the play on the last night of its run. The audience—students and faculty, families of cast members, some area radicals and liberals—seemed excited by the play and highly appreciative of it. I found myself disturbed by the technical problems I have described and both saddened and politically trouble by the shallowness of the play. Perhaps I ask too much of the theatre, of the play, and of the playwright. Perhaps those in the audience who simply let the emotions flow are right—but I really don't think so.

Source: Frederick C. Stern, review of Waiting for Lefty in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 27, No. 3, October, 1975, pp. 411-12.

Mr. Odets Speaks His Mind

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A new production by the Group Theater supplies the answer to a question I asked in this column three weeks ago. Mr. Clifford Odets, the talented author of Awake and Sing!, has come out for the revolution and thrown in his artistic lot with those who use the theater for direct propaganda. The earlier play, it seems, was written some three years ago before his convictions had crystallized, and it owes to that fact a certain contemplative and brooding quality. The new ones—there are two on a double bill at the Longacre—waste no time on what the author now doubtless regards as side issues, and they hammer away with an unrelenting insistency upon a single theme: Workers of the World Unite!

Waiting for Lefty, a brief sketch suggested by the recent strike of taxi drivers, is incomparably the better of the two, and whatever else one may say of it, there is no denying its effectiveness as a tour de force. It begins in media res on the platform at a strikers' meeting, and "plants" interrupting from the audience create the illusion that the meeting is actually taking place at the very moment of representation. Brief flashbacks reveal crucial moments in the lives of the drivers, but the scene really remains in the hall itself, and the piece ends when the strike is voted. The pace is swift, the characterization is for the most part crisp, and the points are made, one after another, with bold simplicity. What Mr. Odets is trying to do could hardly be done more economically or more effectively.

Cold analysis, to be sure, clearly reveals the fact that such simplicity must be paid for at a certain price. The villains are mere caricatures and even the very human heroes occasionally freeze into stained-glass attitudes, as, for example, a certain lady secretary in one of the flashbacks does when she suddenly stops in her tracks to pay a glowing tribute to ''The Communist Manifesto'' and to urge its perusal upon all and sundry. No one, however, expects subtleties from a soap-box, and the interesting fact is that Mr. Odets has invented a form which turns out to be a very effective dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory.

Innumerable other ''proletarian'' dramatists have tried to do the same thing with far less success. Some of them have got bogged in futuristic symbolism which could not conceivably do more than bewilder "the worker"; others have stuck close to the usual form of the drama without realizing that this form was developed for other uses and that their attempt to employ it for directly hortatory purposes can only end in what appears to be more than exceedingly crude dramaturgy. Mr. Odets, on the other hand, has made a clean sweep of the conventional form along with the conventional intentions. He boldly accepts as his scene the very platform he intends to use, and from it permits his characters to deliver speeches which are far more convincing there than they would be if elaborately worked into a conventional dramatic story. Like many of his fellows he has evidently decided that art is a weapon, but unlike many who proclaim the doctrine, he has the full courage of his conviction. To others he leaves the somewhat nervous determination to prove that direct exhortation can somehow be made compatible with "art" and that "revolutionary" plays can be two things at once. The result of his down-rightness is to succeed where most of the others have failed. He does not ask to be judged by any standards except those which one would apply to the agitator, but by those standards his success is very nearly complete.

Waiting for Lefty is played upon what is practically a bare stage. It could be acted in any union hall by amateur actors, and the fact accords well with the intention of a play which would be wholly in place as part of the campaign laid out by any strike committee. Indeed, it is somewhat out of place anywhere else for the simple reason that its appeal to action is too direct not to seem almost absurd when addressed to an audience most of whose members are not, after all, actually faced with the problem which is put up to them in so completely concrete a form. The play might, on the other hand, actually turn the tide at a strikers' meeting, and that is more than can be said of most plays whose avowed intention is to promote the class war.

Source: Joseph Wood Krutch, "Mr. Odets Speaks His Mind" in the Nation, Vol. 140, No. 3640, April 10, 1935, pp. 427-28.


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