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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Clifford Odets

Born into a middle-class family in Philadelphia, Odets grew up in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the Bronx. Like many successful American authors, he never attended college. After eleventh grade he found acting jobs on the radio and then drifted into work in small local theatre companies.

Odets’s acting career was making little progress when in 1930 he became involved with the Group Theatre, a new and dynamic organization which was just beginning its influential decade in New York. After a number of minor acting roles with that company, he decided to try writing a contemporary family drama for them; his script was the genesis of Awake and Sing (1935), his first full-length play. The early draft of Awake and Sing, however, was rejected by the managers of the Group, and Odets put his script through extensive revisions before the play was eventually performed. In the meantime his rapidly written short play, Waiting for Lefty (1935), made him an instant theatrical celebrity.

A certain amount of theatrical mythology has grown up around the composition of Waiting for Lefty. It was, in fact, first produced in a small union hall; it was probably not, on the other hand, written in three nights or written as an entry in a contest with a $50 prize. It was quite clearly written in response to the urging of Odets’s Communist friends (Odets had joined the party for his brief dalliance in the fall of 1934). More important about the play is the emotional heat which the young playwright was able to convey as well as the theatricality of the presentation. In part because it is a blatant “message” play which can be presented without the benefit of an elaborate stage or scenery, within a few months “Lefty” was being produced all over the country. The reception was predictably enthusiastic in almost every city where it was presented. Even when the play was condemned as mere propaganda, it managed to create enough of a stir to enhance the young playwright’s reputation.

Thus the Depression and the Group Theatre were the two formative factors in Odets’s career as dramatist. It is hard to imagine Odets’s successes coming at any time other than during the Depression. To the left-oriented, often militant American writers like Odets, “The theatre is a weapon” was a rallying cry. Yet the author of Waiting for Lefty went on to write for films, to marry a glamorous Hollywood movie queen, to live comfortably in Beverly Hills, to enjoy the night life of Las Vegas, and to speak openly about Communist infiltration of the arts when he testified in 1952 before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee. These are only a few of the contradictions apparent in Odets’s life.

His subsequent plays, the most popular of which are Golden Boy (1937) and The Country Girl (1950), demonstrate a mature craftsmanship. Some, like The Flowering Peach, even show a calm mood unexpected from the firebrand who wrote Waiting for Lefty. Yet Odets’s reputation will probably rest heavily with the rich colloquial family drama, Awake and Sing, and the angry, experimental Waiting for Lefty, his first two produced dramas.

If Odets did not reach the full measure of fulfillment which any artist seeks, he did earn his niche in the history of American drama. His direct influence on playwrights like William Gibson and Arthur Miller is evident. Always the idealist rather than the doctrinaire leftist, Odets is best characterized not by the “Stormbirds of the Working Class” speech at the conclusion of Waiting for Lefty, but by the line he directed to the younger generation in Awake and Sing: “Go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.”

Michael J. Mendelsohn
University of Tampa

In the Heath Anthology
Waiting for Lefty (1935)

Other Works
Six Plays of Cilffort Odets (1935)
The Country Girl (1951)

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Clifford Odets: Anguish of Many Colors in Paintings
An art review from The New York Times.

Perspectives in American Literature
Part of Paul Reuben's PAL site, offering a biography, bibliography, and pointers for studying Odets.

Secondary Sources

Margaret Brenman-Gibson, Clifford Odets, American Playwright, 1981

Michael J. Mendelsohn, Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist, 1969

Edward Murray, Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After, 1968

Gerald Weales, Clifford Odets, Playwright, 1971