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One of the most prominent American playwrights of the 1930s, Clifford Odets realistically portrayed Depression-era Americans searching for a place in modern society. He never lived up to early critical acclaim which compared him favorably with Anton Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill, however, and eventually settled into a financially successful, yet lackluster, Hollywood career. His best plays retain historical significance for their portrayal of American, especially Jewish American, life during and after the Great Depression. His play Awake and Sing! (1935) is regarded as a major turning point in the portrayal of Jews on the American stage.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Finding His Own Path
Born on July 18, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Odets was the son of Louis J. Odets, and his wife Pearl (Geisinger). His father was a printer when he was born, but by the time Odets was six, the family moved to a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. There, his father moved from working as a feeder at a printing plant, to becoming the plant’s owner. The family was solidly middle-class, and eventually returned to Philadelphia where his father became the vice president of a boiler company and later owned an advertising agency.
A melancholy child, Odets quit Morris High School in 1923 and pursued poetry writing for a time, provoking his father’s anger and disappointment, as he expected his son to follow him into the family advertising business. At fifteen, Odets decided to become a stage actor, to which his parents gave their qualified approval. He acted with small theater groups, and also performed in radio plays, vaudeville acts, and summer stock productions. While Odets was still finding his way in the world, he allegedly attempted suicide three times before the age of twenty-five.
Influenced by the Great Depression
By 1930, Odets was living alone in New York City. While his family’s business was still prospering, he grew increasingly aware of the destructive impact of the Great Depression on the city’s suffering masses. The stock market crash of 1929 had effectively launched the Great Depression. The stock market crashed because an investment boom, which began in 1924, was fueled by investors buying stocks on margin (in which investors took out loans to buy stocks for as little as a ten percent down payment) and with purely speculative money. The stocks themselves became wildly overvalued, and their value plummeted as the economy took a downturn. The failure of the stock market caused the economy, first in the United States and then the world, to fall into a dramatic and sustained depression which lasted through the 1930s. Nearly every American was affected in some way by this economic crisis, with one out of every four able-bodied workers unable to find a job at the height of the troubles.
In 1930, Odets joined the Group Theatre, founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg. This theatre was intended to be both a training ground for actors and an idealistic collective which would attempt to change society through the onstage presentation of alternative values. Odets gained little recognition in the organization as an actor—he was apparently a poor one—but did gain prominence as a playwright. His plays reflected the leftist values he espoused after briefly joining the Communist Party in 1934. A small number of Americans joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, believing communism—with its philosophy of sharing wealth equally among the working class—was the answer to the United States’ economic problems.
Odets became an immediate sensation with the Group Theatre’s production of his play Waiting for Lefty (1935). This play centers around a taxi drivers’ union preparing to vote on whether or not they should go on strike. Though it was popular on Broadway, its production was later banned in several cities. Later in 1935, Odets garnered wide popular acclaim for Awake and Sing! It focuses on a poverty-stricken Jewish family living in the Bronx and dealing with difficult life circumstances. In later years, this play became seen in retrospect as perhaps Odets’ most important work.
Soon after, Odets accepted an offer from Paramount Studios to work as a scriptwriter. He was accused by his peers of selling out, but Odets contended that his earnings could help finance the Group Theatre. Among his early screenplays was an adaptation of The General Died at Dawn (1936) from the novel by Charles G. Booth.
Greatest Commercial Success
Having moved away from leftist politics, Odets returned to New York City and the Group Theatre in 1937. He wrote more plays for the company, including Golden Boy (1937), which was the first of four to focus on personal relationships rather than direct social criticism. Golden Boy became the greatest commercial success of his career. The story of a young man trying to decide between careers as a violinist and a boxer, who ultimately destroys himself, the play reflected Odets’s love of music and anticipated his own idealistic turmoil as well.
Following the failure of Odets’s play Clash by Night (1941), the Group Theatre disbanded and he returned to Hollywood. In 1944, he wrote a screenplay adaptation of None But the Lonely Heart (1943), a novel by Richard Llewellyn. It is considered one of his best screenplays, along with Humoresque (1946), which he co-adapted with Zachary Gold from the short story by Fannie Hurst.
During this time period, the United States—like much of Europe and Asia—was embroiled in World War II. The war began when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland in September 1939 and overran the country. England and France declared war on Germany, but Germany soon controlled much of the European continent. The United States entered the war in 1941, after Japan bombed an American naval base in Hawaii. The war was fought in a number of theaters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific, involving sixty-one countries and leaving fifty-five million people dead.
Old Ghosts and Stalled Plays
In the late 1940s, Odets continued to occasionally write dramas, primarily semi-autobiographical dramas with psychological overtones and little social commentary. The Country Girl (1950)—about an alcoholic actor who attempts a comeback on Broadway with the help of his wife, upon whom he is totally dependent—was his last major success in the theater. The Flowering Peach (1954), his last completed play, was an adaptation of the biblical story of Noah in terms of Jewish life.
In 1952, Odets was forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In the late 1940s and early 1950s, HUAC investigated charges of Americans working in government, Hollywood, and other professions about alleged Communist activities, beliefs, and leanings. Over six million people were checked by a security program implemented by President Harry S. Truman, and several hundred lost their jobs and/or were jailed as a result of the hearings. When Odets appeared, he spoke about his earlier Communist activities—including a brief trip to Cuba in 1935 to investigate conditions there with other Communists—but his statements did little to enhance his personal reputation as he mentioned the names of individuals he believed to have been Communist Party members in the 1930s. Odets was not blacklisted like other prominent entertainment figures, however, and returned to California.
After the death of his second wife, actress Betty Gray-son, in the mid-1950s, Odets started several plays but failed to complete them. He was, however, able to write for the screen. Thus, Odets continued to live and work in Hollywood, but continued to alternately defend and disparage his film work as he had for the years he worked in Hollywood. He wrote such screenplays as The Story on Page One (1960) and Wild in the Country (1961). Odets also directed The Story on Page One, and Elvis Presley starred in the latter. Working on a dramatic series for television at the time of his death, Odets died in Los Angeles, California, on August 14, 1963.
Works in Literary Context
Very much a product of his time, Odets was spurred to write plays of social impact by the events of the 1930s, primarily the Great Depression. While his early plays have an explicit socialist message, later plays moderated this tone. Although his techniques changed considerably during the course of his career—from the strident call to action of Waiting for Lefty to the quiet allegory of The Flowering Peach—Odets primarily wrote about the individual trying to preserve a sense of identity in an often hostile world. His plays are filled with brilliant dialogue (including an emphasis on Jewish idioms), an emphasis on the importance of family, and a profound belief in the dignity of the human race. As a writer, Odets was influenced by the events of the 1930s, the communal life influence of the Group Theatre, and his Jewish background and childhood. Authors such as Victor Hugo also inspired Odets as a writer.
Odets was briefly a member of the Communist Party in 1934, and his first three produced plays—Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost—were all written during his brief association with that group. These plays confirm leftist principles while declaring archaic the values of middle-class America in the 1930s. Odets also employed Jewish street idioms to great effect. With Waiting for Lefty, Odets structured the play so that the personal problems of the characters reflected the conflict between the union and the taxi company, mirroring the struggle of the working class, or proletariat, against the wealthy business owners that Communists were rebelling against. Awake and Sing! examines the aspirations of a Jewish working-class family that has become disillusioned by an oppressive economic system. In Paradise Lost, a middle-class businessman and his family are destroyed by a series of disasters. Each character in the play represents a particular middle-class value, and the catastrophes that befall them symbolize the fall of these values in the 1930s.
The basic theme of all Odets’s plays is simply the struggle of the individual to maintain his or her integrity. This integrity, as well as sense of self, was challenged by the events of the Great Depression of the 1930s, and impacted family and love relationships as well as corrupt businesses. Golden Boy, for example, focuses on Jon Bonaparte, a musician turned prizefighter who becomes successful, but destroys himself by going against his nature. In the play, Odets depicts his loss of integrity as a tragedy, the result of faulty decisions and changes in values which corrupted him. Mid-career plays like Rocket to the Moon (1938), Night Music (1940), and Clash by Night (1941) are love stories which touch on the topic of integrity. Rocket to the Moon, in particular, deals with loneliness and the need for love, noting how conditions within and outside humans impede attaining love. In The Big Knife (1949), a movie actor is offered a multimillion-dollar contract but wants to escape the corruption of the film industry and return to the New York stage, thereby regaining his integrity.
Works in Critical Context
By the end of 1935, Odets’s impressive first year as a playwright, many critics praised him as a genius who spoke for the American people. Later, however, critics, labeled Odets’s early works as propaganda, with stereotypical characters and obvious messages. More recently, critics have re-appraised his plays, and his work became appreciated for its dialogue—especially for realistically capturing Jewish American idioms—and the author’s belief in the nobility of humanity. Once criticized for a lack of character development in his plays, Odets also impressed such critics for delivering emotional impact to his audiences while skill-fully communicating the economic and spiritual insecurity of the American experience. In general, whatever faults have been found in Odets’s plays have been transcended by his writing skill, especially regarding his character presentation and language.
Awake and Sing!
Many critics believe that Awake and Sing! is among Odets’s finest plays. When first performed, most critics found the play enjoyable and indicative of the emergence of a new important playwright. Stark Young writes in the New Republic,” Awake and Sing shows great promise, especially in the field of melodrama. It begins, moves along and develops with real skill. The attention it exacts is definite and constant.” Another contemporary critic, Grenville Vernon of the Commonweal, was even more enthusiastic. Vernon lauds Odets and his work by writing, ”Mr. Odets’s play proves to be one of the truest, most vital productions of the year, a play which deserves a place in the front rank of American drama.” Scholars who later wrote about Awake and Sing! were impressed about how the play resonated over time. Richard H. Goldstone in Proceedings of the IV th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association writes:
What makes the play both arresting and important is that from unpromising basic materials—the Bergers are, after all, a commonplace group—Odets has created characters who join the line of older American families: the Laphams, the Babbitts, the Comp-sons, the Gants, and the Joads.
Many critics consider Golden Boy Odets’s most successful play and the first to gain a wide audience. In The Nation, Joseph Wood Krutch gives much praise to the play, noting ”the piece exhibits unmistakable power and genuine originality.” Krutch also writes, ”There are moments when Golden Boy seems near to greatness . . .” Young, reviewing the play in the New Republic, was particularly impressed by the way Odets drew his characters. Young writes, ”He has a sense of character drawing that exhibits the courage of outline. An unusual number of the characters in Golden Boy are set beside one another with the right bold theatre instinct …” In The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson calls it ”one of his best plays” and concludes that ”it is a pithy and thoroughly absorbing drama that restores to the theatre a pungent theatrical talent.”
- Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets, An American Biography: The Years from 1960 to 1940. New York: Athenaeum, 1981.
- Gladstone, Richard H. ”The Making of Americans: Clifford Odets’s Implicit Theme.” Proceedings of the IVth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, edited by Francois Jost. Paris: Mouton & Co., 1966, pp. 654-660.
- Weales, Gerald. Clifford Odets, the Playwright. New York: Methuen, 1985.
- Atkinson, Brooks. ”Golden Boy: Clifford Odets Rewards the Group Theatre with One of His Best Plays.” The New York Times (November 21, 1937): sec. 2, p. 1.
- Krutch, Joseph Wood. A review of Golden Boy. The Nation (November 13, 1937): 540.
- Vernon, Grenville. A review of Awake and Sing! The Commonweal (March 15, 1935): 570.
- Young, Stark. A review of Golden Boy. The New Republic (November 17, 1937): 44-45.
- –. ”Awake and Whistle at Least.” The New Republic (March 13, 1935): 134.
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