Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1235

Waiting for Lefty was inspired by a 1934 taxi strike in New York City, an event that would still have been fresh in the minds of its original, 1935 audience. But while it was sparked by a single historic incident, the play's ambitions extend much further—in fact, they reach far beyond the traditionally accepted terms of entertainment and dramatic art. Odets and his colleagues in the Group Theatre were dedicated political activists and saw their work in the theatre as the means to a much greater purpose: promoting a mass movement for a socialist revolution in America. A popular sensation in its day, the play and its politics have since fallen out of fashion—to the point that today's students may well wonder what all the fuss was about. For this reason, any attempt to appreciate Odets' achievement must be rooted in an understanding of Waiting for Lefty's cultural and historical context.

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The 1930s in America are remembered as "hard times" of poverty and despair, dominated by the continuing crisis of the Great Depression. Banks and businesses had failed, millions of people were without work—and, for several years following the stock market crash of 1929, the efforts of business and government leaders to manage the situation had done little to stem the tide of human suffering.

The "temporary'' crisis of 1929 began to appear permanent, and many Americans saw this as evidence that the country's economic and political system was intrinsically flawed: it had failed completely and could no longer be fixed by traditional remedies. In this context, political ideas that had previously seemed "radical" or "un-American" to the majority took on a new appeal. Activist movements of many kinds sprang up and enjoyed wide popularity—some resembling the right-wing fascist movements rising in Europe (particularly those found in Nazi Germany). Other movements adopted a left-wing (communist or socialist) orientation. Leftist philosophies found a particular appeal among industrial workers as well as a great many young artists and intellectuals—including Clifford Odets, who joined the American Communist Party in 1934. Though his party membership lasted only eight months, it included the period in which Waiting for Lefty was written.

American communists saw the Depression as bitter proof of Karl Marx's socio-economic theories and of the betrayal of traditional American ideals. They did not consider themselves "unpatriotic" (as communists would soon be widely portrayed by the McCarthy "witch hunts" of the 1950s). Rather, by seeking power for "the people" against the power of a wealthy minority, they believed they served the true realization of patriotic ideals—which had been hijacked in the service of capital by its agents, the politicians and business leaders who were failing "the people" so completely.

The revolution Odets and his "comrades'' hoped for was an American one, a quest for equality and justice. To promote its realization, they felt, was a noble and idealistic cause. The Group Theatre, then, did not produce "art of art's sake" but for the sake of the revolution. Its productions were overtly political and propagandists—intended not to amuse but to educate and to inspire the audience to mass action. Group members did not hope to produce an evening's light entertainment or a rarefied aesthetic experience. They considered themselves above such motivations as profit for the producers or fame and fortune for the actors. They were revolutionaries, no less than soldiers on the front line, and their "weapon" was the theatre. They would harness its emotional power to spread the word and to raise the spirits of the struggling masses.

In Waiting for Lefty , Odets dramatizes communist theory, translating politics to the level of the personal. The emotional "playlets" depict the...

(The entire section contains 2576 words.)

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