Clifford Odets (1906-1963)
Contributing Editor: Michael J. Mendelsohn
Classroom Issues and Strategies
If Odets occasionally seems dated, he is less so for those who put this play into its 1930s milieu. Consider having student reports or general class discussion on major concerns in the United States in the mid-1930s. With some understanding of the depression decade, it may be less difficult for students to believe that this militant young dramatist was able to present such a play to sympathetic, even enthusiastic audiences.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Playwright Odets clearly believed in 1935 that through union solidarity the little man might find a way out of the despair of America's economic and social ills. For many, American society was not fulfilling its true promise; in the big novel of the thirties, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck asserted much the same theme. With only a touch of hyperbole, Harold Clurman called Waiting for Lefty "the birth of the thirties."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Techniques of speaking across the proscenium, a scenery-less stage, and planting actors in the audience give instructors plenty to work with. For instructors interested in theatrical links and analogues, Pirandello or Wilder would be appropriate points of departure.
Audience for this work is especially important. It was intended for presentation in union halls before small, typically preconvinced audiences. It is obviously strident, intended to make a militant emotional appeal. Unlike much of our theater today, it was not intended merely to entertain or inform. Politically, Odets was going through the same sort of youthful flirtation with communism that marked the careers of many of his 1930s contemporaries. Without this sort of context, the play comes off as merely a strident little piece of propaganda.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare with Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).
Examine Pirandello or Wilder for some comparison of theatrical techniques of crossing the proscenium and merging actors with audiences.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What is the unifying plot for all these episodes?
2. Is this play universal, or is it too tied to place (New York) and to time (The Great Depression of the 1930s)?
3. Is the message too blatant? Is the language too strident? Is Odets more a "revolutionary" or "reformer" if you compare, for example, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, a product of the same decade?
4. Which scenes have the greatest impact, and why?
5. Odets has often been praised for his use of vivid, colorful language. Which speeches work well for you? Which are less successful?
6. How successful is the playwright in crossing the proscenium and breaking down the traditional separation between audience and action? Why does he use this technique?
Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets. Boston: Atheneum, 1981, 299-306.
Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957, 138-42.
Mendelsohn, Michael. Clifford Odets. New York: Everett/Edwards, 1969, 21-26.
Murray, Edward. Clifford Odets. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1968. Chapter 1.
Weales, Gerald. Clifford Odets. Indianapolis: Pegasus, 1971. Chapter 3.