The way I learned the history of American playwriting went something like this. There was the antediluvian backstory of nineteenth century American drama—and only theater studies majors and, like, Jeopardy champions would be able to name anybody involved in it. And then, out of the clear blue sky, there was Eugene O’Neill, who was essentially adapting Chekhov and European Modernism for an American stage. And then—with the exception of the anomalous Thornton Wilder—there’s a jump forward in time to Arthur Miller, William Inge, Tennessee Williams, and the rich drama of the fifties and sixties, which is where most of our “classics” come from. The other name occasionally thrown in the mix was Clifford Odets, who was talked about like an evolutionary missing link, a figment of the thirties, who helped to anchor American drama in the kind of gritty realism that would be more familiar to contemporary audiences through Death of a Salesman.
When I tried to read my way through American drama in some sort of chronological order, I expected to pass pretty quickly through Odets—I had the idea from somewhere that he was “dated”—and it was a real surprise to me how much I slowed myself down as I was reading him, found myself absorbed in play after play of his, and felt, actually, that he was very urgent, very contemporary (a feeling that for me has only increased as our political surroundings took an abrupt shift and become drastically more apocalyptic). The reality I’m in at the moment—the casual talk of the impending recession; the soaring cost of rent, particularly in New York City; the sense of forced companionship for apartment-dwellers during the pandemic—is not so far off from Odets’s reality. And that convergence of eras raises the possibility for an Odets revival or at least renewed attention to what his drama has to offer.
And what that is—above all—is simply an interest in shared spaces, clusters of people forced to inhabit the same apartment. If nineteenth century realism (Chekhov, Ibsen, etc.) centers on the living room—as a cross-section of middle-class daily life—Odets’s drama roots itself in the kommunalka-like apartments of the thirties, a disparate array of people packed together by poverty. To a surprising extent, that configuration all by itself gives the plays much of their dramatic charge. In a typical Odets scene, a prizefighter, fresh off his first victory, comes home only to find his father—and brother, and the local candy-store owner, who all live together—confronting him about the match. Or an anarchist and one-legged war veteran, both hangers-on in the same apartment, arguing vociferously for a bit about patriotism (“Moe, you’re a no good, a bum of the first water”), and then, once tired of that, settling down for a companionable game of pinochle. Or, very frequently, a character—who has spent the play desperately trying to keep it together—will suddenly break down in tears, only to realize that there is no quiet place to do so without some other apartment resident wandering in.
Constantly in the background of Odets’s plays is a Walker Evans-like panorama of America in the thirties—all the familiar images of the Depression. Characters entering a scene report ever-escalating misery in the outside world: “Still jumping off the high buildings like flies” or “They threw out a family on Dawson Street today. All the furniture on the sidewalk. A fine old woman with gray hair.” Eviction is the ever-present threat in Odets’s plays. But there is the constant sense also that there is something nice about all living together, all being on top of one another—there is an irresistible impulse towards camaraderie and, ultimately, towards collective action. And there is a stiffening of will and purpose. Odets’s characters are embedded in economics—just about everybody has been stripped of illusions long before the curtain rises. They are tough and dedicated to survival. (This is a world in which the harshest criticism that can be leveled at a man is that he can’t make a living for his wife; in which a character can observe that “no man in our generation has time to think about women”; in which the highest enthusiasm is to say “I wish we had a mortgage so that we could pay it off!”; in which the right response of a man, hearing that his girl is in love with someone else, is to declare that he’s going to save up money for a car.) But at the same time—and this is where Odets becomes a really special writer—his characters are idealistic. The feeling is that they have learned something valuable from their shared suffering—the sort of thing that can’t possibly be learned by homeowners in country houses—and that that gives them an animated, propulsive spirit. So that the old anarchist in Awake and Sing! observes, “If this life leads to a revolution, it’s a good life. Otherwise it’s for nothing,” and everybody around him, no matter their political disposition, can matter-of-factly accept that verdict.
That propulsive spirit manifested itself in the premiere of Waiting For Lefty—the moment that launched Odets, then twenty-eight years old, and, really, created a whole new kind of theater. Waiting for Lefty wasn’t a play in the traditional sense, more a revue crossed with agitprop. A cab drivers’ union is deciding whether or not to strike. They argue. A company spy is forcibly exposed. There are flashes of the home lives of the drivers attempting to survive on their meager wages. And it was a phenomenon, absolutely hitting the pulse of 1935. “A shock of delighted recognition struck the audience like a tidal wave,” recalled Harold Clurman, founder of the Group Theatre and Odets’s champion. That feeling rose to a crescendo at the play’s conclusion, as the cab drivers shouted en masse for a strike and the audience spontaneously joined in. Clurman recalled, “Deep laughter, hot assent, a kind of joyous fervor seemed to sweep the audience towards the stage.” The applause went on for something like forty-five minutes.
I get chills thinking about this moment—a very different experience from any play I’ve ever been to. That moment, wrote Clurman, “was the birth cry of the thirties. Our youth had found its voice.” And there’s something in the distant echo of that performance of Waiting for Lefty that’s worth pausing on. The energy of America since then has been all about diffusion, atomization, an energy that ruined Odets personally and that has rendered theater an ever-diminishing aspect of the culture. But, to a great extent, periods of economic hardship make it clear how illusory atomization really is. That’s what the superficial generation of the 1920s discovered with the stock market crash. And we may well be dealing with a version of that—an understanding of the limits of technology-driven atomism; a state of economic precarity and an incipient awareness that hard times force people into physical proximity, shared living. That may be uncomfortable and unpleasant, but a fringe benefit of it is that it’s good for theater—and, specifically, the populist, cheap-seats theater propounded by Odets and The Group.
As for Odets himself, the overriding sense with him is that nothing could possibly compete with that debut; that the rest of his life was determined from that moment to take on a tragic arc. I tend to think of him as a sequence of shattering, hard-to-believe tableaux. First, there’s the origin story: growing up poor in the Bronx, an environment very similar to the setting of his plays; the difficult, philandering father with whom Odets would be estranged for most of his life, and would desperately attempt to reconcile with on his deathbed. Then there’s Odets, high school dropout, radio elocutionist, actor on the fringes of The Group Theatre—“in that bottom group who … played small parts,” as he recalled of himself—but a part of its social life and communal housing arrangement. Clurman remembered his paltry contributions to group cooking (he could only make latkes and hot chocolate) and the drips-and-drabs readings he would organize of Awake and Sing!, inviting his roommates, the company’s more famous actors, into the kitchen (the only warm room in the apartment) to read a few pages of the play at a time. Then the coup within The Group, the company’s members chafing under the dictatorial control of Lee Strasberg, Odets—the most insignificant member of the company—suggesting a reading of Awake and Sing!, Strasberg saying acidly, “You don’t seem to understand, Cliff. We don’t like your play. We don’t want to do your play,” and then Clurman and The Group coming to Odets's defense, insisting on the reading. Then the tableaux of tableaux—Odets’s spectacular year of 1935, when the kinds of things that do not happen happened for him. The actors of the Group Theatre hurling their costumes into the air in excitement at the news that The Group’s next play would be Odets’s—and this for a completely unperformed, unknown playwright. The performance of Waiting for Lefty—as an afterthought at a benefit showing—with the audience storming the stage in rapture. The productions on Broadway of four of Odets’s plays in the same year. And then the break-up of The Group, Odets’s ill-conceived journey to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, the mothballing of him by the movie industry. (This is memorialized most vividly in The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, which culminates in the Odets-like Fink, played by John Turturro, trying hard not to cry in a meeting with a bullying Hollywood executive and just barely able to get out the words, “I tried to show you something beautiful.”) And then the pietà of his death at age fifty-seven—“[a] mountain blown to dust in two weeks,” as his son recalled; summoning everybody from his life to his hospital, declaring to them “I’ll do all the talking”; dividing the bouquets sent to him between those that were sincere and those that were phony; enlisting his nurses to write down outlines for fresh plays for him; and then, on his last lucid day, calling an old friend to say, “You know all those plays I was going to write, well I can’t write them now because I’m dying.”
In the end—somehow inevitably, I think—Odets sounded very much like one of his characters, the kinds of behind-on-the-rent tenants who wander into the common spaces of the collective apartments and try to figure out what went wrong in their lives. It’s not too difficult to itemize a few of those reasons. There was the difficult personality—the New York critics never really forgave him for sending a letter to them on the eve of the performance of Paradise Lost in which he appeared to compare himself to Chekhov. There was the way in which he seemed to be a playwright of the Depression and to be less relevant once the Depression faded. (And, sadly, much of the wonderful, rich language and the barrage of insults—“Don’t be no medium-sized rabbit, Gus”; “Pick out a racket, shake down the coconuts. See what that does”; “All other remarks are so much alfalfa!”—seem often to be confined to their time.) There was the waste of his talent in the transition to Hollywood. (Odets, no stranger to self-pity, called himself “not only the foremost playwright manqué of our time but of all time.”) There was the controversy over his appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which led to his being snubbed by former colleagues. And, in terms of reviving him, there was the challenge of not knowing which was the most producible play—Waiting for Lefty, which was basically agitprop; the occasionally clunky Awake and Sing!; the amazingly well-balanced and vital Rocket to the Moon, which is, unfortunately, set in a dentist’s office; or Golden Boy, a commercially successful, crowd-pleasing play, actually my favorite of all of them, but with a plot that makes it sound like the runt of the slush pile: a young man forced to choose between his talent at boxing and his talent at the violin.
None of that should matter. The vagaries of theatrical fame have played out so that Odets has become predominantly a period piece rather than a classic, but as time goes by (and things like HUAC and the disapproving theater critics of the mid-thirties become less important) it’s possible for the culture to find Odets again. As that happens, what will be discovered is a drama that’s real and that’s explosive—that’s rooted in economics and the sheer misery of day-to-day existence, but reaches to a feeling of camaraderie and collectivity and to a poetic transcendence, a belief that what’s important in the end is aspiration, inner feeling. Or, as Odets’ character Ralph says in Awake and Sing!, “When I was a kid … I used to think of all the things I wanted to do. What was it, Jake? Just a bunch of noise in my head?” To which the response is: basically yes, this world is all about holding down a job, keeping from starving, but that somewhere, somewhere, “there must be happy boys and girls who can teach us the way of life! … Must all men live afraid to laugh and sing?”