Clifford Odets — American Playwright

Audiences had been Waiting for Lefty a long time…

Clifford Odets. Image: pastdaily.com

In December 1950 John Steinbeck wrote Clifford Odets a letter:

Dear Clifford:

I saw The Country Girl last night, and was moved by the lines and the thinking and the sweetness. And as a semi-pro I know that pure theatre can’t be learned but I could wish that it might and that I could learn from you. I’ll have to go back a few times to pick up subtleties I missed seeing square.

It is wonderful and my God it’s good to see a fine clean thing in this musty time. I have just such a sense of triumph, personal triumph, as sometimes comes to me when I hear fine music.

Written with love and admiration.

John

I’m sure Odets was pleased when he received that letter for he and Steinbeck were cut from a similar tree, and I know what Steinbeck meant when he wrote “…a fine clean thing” because when read now Odets’ plays are still clean with a fine and sharp edge.

Clifford Odets’ work is not performed much these days, least of all in the UK, consequently, and sadly, I’ve only been able to read his work recently, most notably those written in the 1930s, which deal, like Steinbeck’s earlier novels, not unnaturally with the exploitation of the working classes in those unforgiving times, creating, in Waiting for Lefty, the only true agitprop classic. Odets called the play “…a machine gun that could be deployed at any strike meeting or picket-line.”

When first performed in New York, and…

As the curtain goes up we see a bare stage. On it are sitting six or seven men in a semi-circle. Lolling against the proscenium down left is a young man chewing a toothpick: a gunman. A fat man of porcine appearance is talking directly to the audience. In other words he is the head of a union and the men ranged behind him are a committee of workers…

On this bare stage — in every sense Shakespearean — and in short scenes that portray, with an ever increasing passion, the injustice and poverty of the situation and of the times, and in the strong language of the streets, the audience on that first night all those years ago, as the players called out to Strike! Strike! were “ blown away” and standing joined in, and as Lee Strasberg remarked afterwards that call became “ the birthcry of the Thirties.”

The theatre director and sometime actor, Harold Clurman, has written in his introduction to the 1987 reprint of the 1939 edition of Odets Six Plays that:

Waiting for Lefty is undoubtedly ‘dated’ because it is a call for unionization among taxi drivers. The play, which may be said to be a dramatic broadside or poster…But the audience which full-heartedly rose to the summons was not composed of taxi drivers nor of folk chiefly concerned with union politics…”

Clurman is right. Those who gathered at that first performance of Odets play, and the subsequent performances, had, as Clurman says, very little to do with taxi drivers, for whom they probably had little concern, but with their own need to gather together and express a suppressed need to shout and be heard. That is what Waiting for Lefty, and all of Odets plays are all about. It’s what all good theatre should be about as with music, as Steinbeck refers.

It’s what Orson Welles — a friend of Odets — did at the same period with his all black production of Othello, which was ground-breaking, as was the show he did next, Marc Blitzstein’s musical The Cradle will Rock, which, with some good songs bashed the US steel industries violent strike breaking methods. It was too much for the White House who ordered it closed. By then it was really too late with Thornton Wilder let loose on Broadway with Our Town. Nothing was ever going to be the same again, but the rest would have to wait until the late 1940s, when Arthur Miller found his stride, and in the UK Joan Littlewood, who opened up theatre to those who needed very much to stand up and shout Strike!

But it’s all down to Clifford Odets: he built the lock and the key.

The Country Girl has been staged many times over the years, with that original 1950 production (directed by Odets) running for 235 performances, with the fabulous Uta Hagen in the lead. The play was turned into a film in 1954, starring Bing Crosby, William Holden and Grace Kelly.

Clifford Odets, born in 1906, was greatly influenced by Eugene O’Neill and wrote plays of seeming simplicity — when seen “ square” — but when read are full of poetic images that are not quite so simple. He died in 1963.

Odets with Lee Strasberg & Tallulah Bankhead. Image: The Fader

Bibliography:

Clifford Odets — Six Plays ( Methuen, London, 1987); John Steinbeck — A Life in Letters (Penguin, London, 1975)

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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