Waiting for Lefty

by Clifford Odets

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Class Conflict
Odets wrote Waiting for Lefty while a member of the Communist Party and intended it as a work of propaganda to promote the cause of a socialist revolution in America (much like the one that took place in Russia on November 6, 1917). Given that Marxist theory (based in a work called the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, from which leftist political philosophies derive) focuses on the economic conflict among social classes, it is perhaps inevitable that this is an intensely "class-conscious" play. Characters are clearly identified by class, and these classes are presented in vivid opposition: on the one hand, virtuous and long-suffering members of the working class; on the other, the greedy, inhumane capitalists who exploit them at every turn. Despite the realistic conventions and dialogue that characterize the domestic relationships in Scenes I ("Joe and Edna") and III ("The Young Hack and his Girl"), the larger struggle between "workers" and "capitalists" is painted in broad strokes of black and white. The villainous Harry Fatt is a purposely exaggerated stereotype, and even the heroic workers border on cartoonishness in their constant, one-dimensional nobility.

The effect of all this is far from subtle and may tempt modern readers to consider the work beyond all credibility. But given its specific, highly political purposes aimed at a specific moment in time, it may be unfair to evaluate Waiting for Lefty by traditional critical standards. Odets sought to dramatize Marxism—a notoriously dry and complex theory whose expressions are often mired in specialized jargon and clinical abstractions. Its logic is that of the "dialectic," rooted in the dynamic of competing, opposing forces (including, of course, the classes of Capital and Labor).

Odets applies Marx's insights to individual experience, replacing abstract theories with the gritty and affecting stuff of human lives. As Dr. Benjamin (played by Odets himself in some early productions) says, "you don't believe theories until they happen to you." Here the playwright shows theory happening to people as the individual characters come to realize how their misery has been engineered by the "bosses" and "money men." Individually, they are powerless to change their lot, but collectively—working as a class in response to those in power—they are able to triumph.

The wide variety of characters, and the diversity of paths they follow to the strike meeting, cuts across many traditional boundaries of class. Impoverished blue-collar workers like Joe and Sid, for example, are often considered to inhabit a different world from that of salaried, relatively-privileged professionals like Dr. Benjamin or the lab assistant Miller—yet they all belong to the strike committee, and the union is presumably stronger for the combination of their talents and backgrounds, the confluence of various classes working together. Had Miller and Dr. Benjamin continued to serve their capitalist bosses, of course, they would have remained "class enemies" to the workers; but their experience has shown them that they are affected by the machinations of power no less than the working class; their interests cannot be separated from those of "common laborers." They have realized that their ultimate loyalty is to "the people," transcending any personal distinctions among comrades.

The diversity of "types" also increases the chances that an individual audience member will find at least one character with whom to identify— and, since each character's story points to the same, class-based enemy, it makes no practical difference which character that may be. Together, their stories demonstrate the many, insidious ways the system sustains itself and abuses those dependent upon it for their livelihood. The characters' shared determination eclipses their differences; solidarity against the capitalist class outweighs all other private loyalties, including self-interest (the prestige and money Miller turns down) and even family (the "lousy" brother Clancy who is exposed as a strike-breaker).

Class struggle, according to Marx, is the primary fact of economic existence, and Odets holds to it as a central theme, though his work unfolds in a radically different form. By the time Agate Keller cries, "Well, what's the answer?", the play's logic allows only one possible response; the individual reader/viewer response to the play depends largely on our answer to another question: "Which side are you on?"

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