Chapter 8: American Drama

Clifford Odets

© Paul P. Reuben
June 15, 2014

  Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: | Chap. 8: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |  

Athol Fugard Statements Chronology 

Waiting for Lefty is best understood in the context of the 1930s decade of the Depression. Odets believed that through union solidarity it was possible for the downtrodden to find a solution to the economic and social despair. In this play, Odets uses a scenery-less stage and has his actors in the auditorium capture the reality of union hall strike meeting.

Primary Works

Awake and Sing, 1935; Waiting for Lefty, 1935; Six Plays of Clifford Odets, 1935; Golden Boy, 1937; The Country Girl, 1951.

Six plays of Clifford Odets. NY: The Modern Library, 1939. PS3529.D46 S5

The Country Girl, a Play in Three Acts . NY: Viking P, 1951. PS3529.D46 C6

Three Plays, by Clifford Odets; Awake and Sing, Waiting for Lefty, Till the Day I Die . NY: Covici-Friede, 1935. PS3529.D46 T5

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Adler, Stella. Stella Adler on America's Master Playwrights: Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, et al. NY: Knopf, 2012.

Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940. NY: Atheneum, 1981. PS3529 D46 Z58

Eisler, Garrett. ed. "Clifford Odets." in Twentieth-Century American Dramatists: Fifth Series. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

Herr, Christopher J. Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Miller, Gabriel. Clifford Odets. NY: Continuum, 1989. PS 3529 .D46 Z75

---. Critical Essays on Clifford Odets. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1991. PS3529 .D46 Z65

Wertheim, Albert. "Hollywood's Moral Landscape: Clifford Odets's The Big Knife." in Jenckes, Norma. ed. New Readings in American Drama: Something's Happening Here. NY: Peter Lang, 2002.

| Top | Clifford Odets: A Brief Literary Biography

A Student Project by Daniel Tounian 

During the third wave of immigration to America, many European and Russian Jews went to Philadelphia (Breman-Gibson 18). At a house on 207 George Street, a Russian Jew by the name of Louis Odets met his future wife, Esther Pearl. Louis was known to be energetic, dramatic, and he always spoke “in exclamations.” His future son’s written dialogue would later resemble the senior Odets’ “spoken exclamations.” Esther tended to view Louis as a “phony show-off- a bulshitter” who made constant exaggerations and bragged frequently (21).

The union between Esther Pearl and Louis Odets was blessed by the birth of Clifford, their first child, on July 18, 1906. Clifford’s arrival temporarily provided harmony to their marriage (24-25). From his parents, Clifford learned, as Breman-Gibson says, “The permanence and inviolability of at least the outer form of the family, the Jewish family, [which] was a tenet never to be questioned.” (25) Clifford would later adapt this idea for his own plays (25).

As the marriage progressed, the family moved to 747 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. At one point Louis had joined with the local gangsters of the area. When Clifford was nine, a gangster named Becker was electrocuted. The details of the execution fascinated young Clifford, and he incorporated the image of this gangster into multiple plays, most notably Golden Boy (32). Breman says, “[This was] the coolly detached gangster, who, by following a murderous path of self-interest, ‘wears the best, eats the best, and sleeps the best.’” (32)

While also in the Bronx, Clifford found himself enthralled by the life of his parents and the relationships within the family. He later admitted to being on a quest for his father in a letter to Philip Moeller, the director of Eugene O’Neill’s plays. He looked to Moeller as a mentor. Of his father’s qualities, he cites his father’s drive and formidable power as key qualities of interest. (34-35).

            In the post World War I era, Clifford spent his time reading frequently. He read and digested the works of Sigmund Freud. Also, he found himself enamored with Les Miserables and Victor Hugo, the author of the text. He says, “Hugo inspired me, made me aspire; I wanted to be a good and noble man, longed to do the heroic deeds with my bare hands, thirsted to be kind to people, particularly the weak and humble and oppressed.” (51) Aside from reading frequently, Odets found refuge in silent films especially those of Charles Chaplin, who would become a friend of his twenty-five years later (51).

            In 1921, Clifford enrolled at Morris High School (58). He struggled with school, and his grades dropped. His father was angered and perplexed by his son’s performance, and one day he said to the school administration “I sent my boy to high school to get an education . . . not make a bum actor of him.” (68) Perhaps it is best to say that the effects of acting and drama were already rooted inside of Odets.

            1926 would prove to be an important year for Clifford. He began to advertise his services as a “dramatic critic.” Walter Winchell, a prominent New York columnist, called him “New York’s youngest critic.” (90) On a personal level, Breman says, “He recorded [sic] . . . his romantic self-lacerating quest for an unreachable Madonna, a mysterious woman whom he would peep at, adore from afar, call anonymously, write to, and chastely court, usually an actress.” (90) Also, in 1926, Odets arrived at the conclusion that he wanted to be an actor, not a playwright, so he was destined to place himself on the stage (98). He was usually entrusted with larger parts in certain plays. The most notable ones were Way Down East, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and What Price Glory? He often devoted himself to his characterizations, for he tried to take on two or three parts in a play (98).

            On October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression formally began in the United States. While the masses became homeless, unemployed, and disenfranchised, Odets suffered from continued loneliness and depression. At one point, he remarked, “[I am] tired of myself, of the depths I contained, of all the words I kept repeating in my mind.” (138) Despite the gloominess surrounding him, he found solace and appeal in the “bourgeois” playwright, Anton Chekhov (142). As the United States Bank collapsed in 1930, Odets underwent spiritual rebirth, and his creative peak would coincide while the United States was in the deepest, darkest economic conditions it would ever face (143).

            As Odets entered the thirties, he began to shift from the acting stage to writing plays. The Group Theater was a group that Odets belonged to until 1940, and it was this group that impacted the way he began to write his plays. The founders of the theater, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, were responding to the cynicism and disillusionment of the twenties. The theater stressed both theme and form. The specific ideals that Odets would export from the theater included his hope for man and his love of humanity (Murray 12-13).

            Perhaps the most popular play Odets wrote in the thirties was Waiting For Lefty. Harold Clurman, one of Odets’ influences, said, “[the play] was the birth cry of the thirties.” (24) The play itself, as Murray says, “was inspired by the New York taxi strike of February, 1934, [yet] Odets, according to his testimony in Washington, had ‘never been near a strike.’ (25) Odets would not release similar plays to this play because, Murray says, “[there was a] communist shift from an emphasis on class war to the Popular Front alignment against Fascism, ‘proletarian literature’ passed off the scene.” (24) The following year, 1936, was another time of relocation for Odets. He moved to Hollywood and became immersed in the scene. Perhaps a reason for relocating to this venue was because of the Left press attacking him. The Left had criticized him for joining the Communist Party in 1934, but he quit a year later (25).

| Top |             Another important aspect of 1935 is in Odets’ productions. He had Waiting For Lefty, Awake and Sing!, Till the Day I Die, and Paradise Lost produced. However, after Paradise Lost flopped, Odets was “left in peace.” (27) He signed a movie contract for twenty-five hundred dollars a week, and he sent the money back to the Group Theater in part to help them and assist his ailing plays (27).  After 1935, as Murray says, “Odets was growing in artistry and subtlety.” (27-28) Also, one of Odets’ influences, Harold Clurman said:

[Odets] did not want to remain a Left playwright. He wanted to be at the very center of standard playwrights of quality. He wanted to be inside, not outside that circle which the mass of Americans might regard as their own. In this center was safety- not simply crude economic safety, since in one way or another he would do very well, but the safety that comes from feeling oneself part of a whole community (28).

As the thirties closed, Odets would shift the focus of his plays to the tensions of the forties and fifties (98).

            As the forties moved forward, Odets became a prolific writer for Hollywood. 1940-1941 were years when Clifford wrote Clash By Night. In 1942, he produced a documentary on the life of George Gershwin. 1944-1948 were busy years for Clifford as well. During this time, he wrote the screenplay for Deadline at Dawn, which was to be directed by his Harold Clurman. He also wrote other notables hits such as Sister Kenny and Notorious, The Whispering Cup, and The Greatest Gift. Besides his frequent writing of screenplays, he began to collect paintings and drawing from artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Rouault, and others. On April 18, 1945, his daughter Nora was born and on February 4, 1947, his son Walt Whitman is born. In 1947, he was named by the House Un-American Activities Committee as one of seventy-five Communist screenwriters in America. He attacks the committee in Time, and he was summoned before them in May 1952 (Breman-Gibson 616-617). However, as Murray says, “what compromised [his] position as a spokesman for humanistic values . . . was his own unheroic submission to the House Un-American Activities Committee . . . and his own ‘grab for success’ represented by the plush life he enjoyed for years in Hollywood.” (102) Ironically, his own relationship to the Communist party was, as Odets says, “a very distant one.” (103)

            Aside from the Communist issue, Odets remained busy with his writings. He wrote notable hits such as The Big Knife and The Flowering Peach.  In the last few years of his life, Odets stayed in Holywood and focused on Hollywood screenplays. Several screenplays included Sweet Smell of Success, Wild in the Country (which starred Elvis Presley), and a musical adaptation of Golden Boy, which starred Sammy Davis Jr. Odets finally passed away of cancer on August 14, 1963 (Breman-Gibson 617). On a final note, Odets was sometimes criticized for being a failure, but as he once said to Time, “To Hell with the last century! This is a wonderful time to write. There is no time for weakness, but it is certainly a time for poets.”  (Murray 3)

Works Cited

Breman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets: American Playwright. New York: Atheneum. 1981.

Miller, Gabriel. Clifford Odets. New York: Continuum. 1989.

Murray, Edward. Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After. New York: Ungar. 1968.

Study Questions

1. Is Waiting for Lefty a universal play, or is it too tied to place (New York) and to time (the Great Depression of the 1930s)?

2. 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?

3. What is the unifying plot for all these episodes?

4. 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?

5. Which scenes have the greatest impact, and why?

6. Odets has often been praised for his use of vivid, colorful language. Which speeches work well for you? Which are less successful?

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 8: Clifford Odets." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL: (provide page date or date of your login).

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