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.
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...
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the personal. The emotional "playlets" depict the effects of capitalism not in intellectual abstractions but in stark human realities, as individuals ranging from blue-collar workers to salaried professionals are each destroyed by the same, heartless "system." Each finds the same answer in mass action against the bosses. The "crowd scenes" which bring them together are staged to make audience members feel that they, too, are part of the strike meeting. Presumably, they will also be caught up in the final call to "Strike'" and feel the thrill and power of collective participation.
Odets conceived the work as "people's theatre," something closer to folk art than Broadway glamour. He designed it to be adaptable for informal performance by small, nonprofessional groups. And for several years Waiting for Lefty was produced as a popular fundraiser by leftist political organizations and union factions throughout the country. For Odets and his colleagues, the success of their work would not be measured in box office receipts nor critical approval but in the number of people it inspired in the struggle to transform society.
By 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been the American president for three years and his "New Deal" programs to stimulate the economy were beginning to take effect. Despite encouraging signs, the New Deal, which enacted government-sponsored work programs to put people back to work, was highly controversial. Roosevelt's conservative critics called the program communistic, while leftists felt it conceded far too much to the "evil'' forces of capital.
To workers, the New Deal gave government support to the movement for industrial unionization—which had long been an arena for leftist organizers. Many saw hope in this flowering of unionism, for it seemed to be just the sort of working-class, mass action that communism advocates. However, several of the new industrial unions were tainted by charges of corruption, of dictatorial leaders, ties to organized crime, or collusion with management to limit worker's demands and prevent strikes. To communists, union corruption was a betrayal of the workers' hopes, and the amoral "labor boss" was as much an enemy of the people as the stereotyped "greedy industrialist." As the cab drivers in Waiting for Lefty learn, they cannot count on leaders to give them justice—not even a heroic communist martyr like Lefty. Workers must maintain control of their own movement, and stand united to ensure that their will is carried out.
In the Cold War years following World War II, many who had been Depression-era radicals were persecuted in an anti-communist backlash through the infamous "witch hunts" of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his supporters in the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Those in the entertainment industry were particularly vulnerable; in Hollywood, any past connection with a left-wing organization could cause one's name to appear on a privately circulated "blacklist" as an alleged "security risk." Industry executives caved in to right-wing pressure; to be blacklisted was to be unemployable and perhaps to be the subject of a congressional investigation. Those associated with causes like the Group Theatre often faced the choice of giving up their careers or compromising their principles in hopes of getting off the list. Commonly, they would be asked to swear a loyalty oath, renounce their past leftist associations, and testify freely about the activities of their colleagues.
Odets had been writing screenplays since 1941 and was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952. He testified about his activities in the 1930s, evidently enough to satisfy the subcommittee and remove himself from further suspicion. While he didn't provide the names of anyone who hadn't already been mentioned to the committee, Odets later expressed guilt and "revulsion" over his testimony. He is said to have been tormented by the matter until his death in 1963, and he produced relatively little writing, for stage or screen, after his 1952 subcommittee appearance.
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Staging Odets specifies that Waiting for Lefty is enacted on "a bare stage." Whether the setting is a union hall, an office, or an apartment, there are no furnishings to help establish the scene. The full stage— extending into the audience—represents the strike meeting. For the "flashback" scenes that tell the stories of various individuals, simple lighting effects are used to create small, intimate playing spaces onstage. Such stark, relatively undefined staging is not uncommon, and "minimalist" dramatists often choose it for various aesthetic reasons. In the case of Waiting for Lefty, however, it is clear that Odets' intentions were not merely artistic. As an overfly propagandists work of "proletarian theatre" ("proletariat" meaning the lowest class in a society), his play was meant not only for the formal, professional theatre (with its largely upper- and middle-class audience) but for any group of workers, anywhere, who wished to stage it. The simplified stagecraft thus reflects practical considerations, for it enables the work to be produced in any large meeting-hall, cheaply and with a minimum of technical sophistication.
The lack of formal scenery also tends to blur the distinction between the space of the stage and that of the audience; in effect, the entire theatre becomes the "union hall," and audience members are made to feel part of the action. The rows of seated workers facing the speaker's platform extend into rows of seated customers watching the play, and remarks from the platform are directed to both "crowds." Keller's climactic question, "Well, what's the answer?", is asked not of the workers but of the audience itself. The heckling "voices" of workers often come from actors seated within the audience, and when the "labor spy" in Scene IV is exposed, he flees off the stage and down the center aisle. Such effects are traditionally considered to make the action more vivid and immediate to the audience, to involve them on a visceral, emotional level—these goals are consistent with the play's crusading spirit. They also tend to erode the traditional distinction between drama and "real life"—sometimes to the discomfort of theatre-goers who don't expect or appreciate the "invasion" of their space. Waiting for Lefty was not meant to be viewed with detachment, as an abstract literary fantasy, but to be experienced directly with the urgency of a real-life crisis.
None of the action takes place in a clearly enclosed space; in the personal vignettes, a spotlit area loosely defines an apartment or office, but the "outside world" of the strike meeting constantly intrudes on these private dramas. Odets directs that the "workers" onstage remain visible at the fringes of the light, milling about, often commenting directly on the action in the manner of a classical Greek chorus. Above all, the villainous figure of Harry Fatt is never absent, hovering over these small tragedies as an "ugly menace:" "Perhaps he puffs smoke into the spotted playing space," the playwright suggests in his production notes; "perhaps during the action of a playlet he might insolently walk in and around the unseeing players." In its various forms, the capitalist system he represents has brutalized each of the protagonists, but in the larger space of the strike meeting, their collective strength enables them to defy, and ultimately defeat, their oppressor. The blurring of the stage/audience "boundary" encourages a similar response to the play itself inviting the individual viewer to feel he is a part of the collective "struggle" surrounding him and connecting the dramatized strike within the theatre to the larger, real-life drama outside. In more ways than one, Odets intended Waiting for Lefty as a play of the people.
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1935: The United Automobile Workers (UAW) holds its first convention in Detroit, Michigan. After a long, bitter, and often violent struggle between union organizers and corporate management, climaxed by a celebrated "sit-down" strike at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, one of the nation's biggest and most important industries is unionized.
Today: Once vilified as a subversive threat, the UAW remains one of the country's largest trade unions. After World War II, the powerful American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) federation (of which the UAW was a member) removed communists and their "sympathizers" from its governing board, as the trade union movement was caught up in the rising tide of anticommunist fervor. During the post-war economic boom, while auto sales rose steadily, the UAW adopted more cooperative strategies toward management, and negotiated contracts that secured a high standard of living for a generation of autoworkers, until declining sales in the 1970s weakened the industry as a whole.
1935: An Iowa statistician named George Gallup founds the American Institute of Public Opinion and develops a procedure to measure reader reaction to newspaper stories. The "Gallup Poll" initiates a new industry the sampling and packaging of public opinion.
Today: Polling is a pervasive part of American life, as the computer revolution has facilitated "instant" surveys and the retention of vast stores of information. Sophisticated statistical analyses play an important role in the decision-making of businesses from television networks to diaper manufacturers, who rely on polling not just to measure the preferences of customers but to anticipate their responses to products still under development. The similar use of polling by media savvy politicians and by trial attorneys' jury selection has inspired wide controversy.
1935: On May 11, President Roosevelt establishes the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) to facilitate the spread of electricity to sparsely populated areas. Of the thirty million Americans living in rural areas, only 10% have access to electricity. The REA not only provides valuable utilities to numerous homes, it creates numerous jobs for out-of-work tradesman and engineers.
Today: Virtually all of the country has electricity. Within fifteen years of the establishment of the REA, only 10% of U.S. farms were without electricity. Electricity provides rural communities with access to the same technological advances as urban areas.
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SOURCES Atkinson, Brooks. Review of Waiting for Lefty in the New York Times, March 27, 1935.
Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years- The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties, Knopf, 1945, reprinted, Harcourt, 1975.
FURTHER READING Brenman-Gibson, Margaret Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940, Atheneum, 1982. This is an extensive, thoroughly researched account of Odets's early career, and contains a detailed treatment of his years with the Group Theatre.
Goldstein, Malcolm. The Political Stage American Drama and Theatre of the Great Depression, Oxford, 1974. Goldstein presents a full history of Depression-era political drama, covering not only the Group Theatre but many similar organizations, including the Theatre Guild, Theatre Union, and the "Living Newspaper" productions of the Federal Theatre Project.
Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1968. Goodman offers a thorough history of the Congressional committee that was at the center of the Cold War anticommunist crusade, including the appearances of Odets and several of his 1930s contemporaries.
Mendelsohn, Michael J. Clifford Odets: Humanitarian Dramatist, Everett/Edwards, 1969. Mendelsohn provides a concise biography of the playwnght, including a critical analysis of each of his works.
Smiley, Sam. The Drama of Attack: Didactic Plays of the American Depression, University of Missouri Press, 1972. This work of literary scholarship closely analyzes a wide range of politically concerned plays of the 1930s, including works by Odets, John Howard Lawson, George Sklar, Albert Maltz, Paul Perkins, and Elmer Rice.
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Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets—American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940. New York: Atheneum, 1981.
Cantor, Harold. Clifford Odets: Playwright-Poet. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2000.
Herr, Christopher J. Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.
Mendelsohn, Michael J. Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1969.
Miller, Gabriel, ed. Critical Essays on Clifford Odets. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.
Murray, Edward. Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After. New York: Ungar, 1968.
Odets, Clifford. The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Shuman, R. Baird. “Clifford Odets and the Jewish Context.” In From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Weales, Gerard. Clifford Odets: Playwright. New York: Pegasus, 1971.