Clifford Odets | Critical Essay by Harold Cantor

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of Clifford Odets.
This section contains 2,984 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Harold Cantor

SOURCE: "Odets' Yinglish: The Psychology of Dialect as Dialogue," in Studies in American Jewish Literature—From Marginality to Mainstream: A Mosaic of Jewish Writers, State University of New York Press, Vol. 2, 1982, pp. 61-68.

Cantor is an American educator, editor, and non-fiction author. In the following essay, he examines Odets's use of Yinglish—a blend of Yiddish and English language—and its important function in his early plays.

Odets' Yinglish is only one facet in the development of what I have argued elsewhere was a rich poetic dialogue with roots in the Emersonian tradition. Like Emerson's disciple, Whitman, Odets created in his work a barbaric yawp (he used the word "yawping" in The Big Knife) that was original and distinctive enough to express his individual impressions of urbanized twentieth-century America—a rhythmic utterance capable of conveying precisely the myths and ethos of middle class life that previous playwrights, such as John Howard Lawson and Elmer Rice, had only approximated.

The first breakthrough in Odets' invention of a living, memorable dialogue was a discovery of the resources of Yiddish-English and his willingness to seriously represent, not caricature, the speech rhythms and inflections of the American Jew on the stage. In the enclaves of Philadelphia and the Bronx where he grew up, Odets had ample opportunity to listen to the conversation of immigrant Jews. What he heard he remembered, and when he came to write of the Berger family—and, to a lesser extent, of the cabbies and their wives and sweethearts in Waiting for Lefty—he naturally turned to a language that would make the characters he wished to depict believable.

The Group Theater's productions of Awake and Sing! and the double bill of Lefty and Till the Day I Die were historic dramatic events. Before analyzing Odets' linguistic innovations, I should like to cite Alfred Kazan's description of the tremendous liberating effect of Odet's plays on a Jewish intellectual:

… for it seemed to me, sitting high up in the second balcony of the Belasco Theater, watching Julie Garfield, J. Edward Bromberg, Stella and Luther Adler and Morris Carnovsky in Odets's Awake and Sing, that it would at last be possible for me to write about the life I had always known. In Odets's play there was a lyric uplifting of blunt Jewish speech, boiling over and explosive, that did more to arouse the audience than the political catchwords that brought the curtain down. Everybody on that stage was furious, kicking, alive—the words, always real but never flat, brilliantly authentic like no other theater speech on Broadway, aroused the audience to such delight that one could feel it bounding back and uniting itself with the mind of the writer.

Kazin's phrase, "the life I had always known," suggests how deeply Odets' language and the characters who spoke it evoked the Jewish experience. In Robert Warshow's interesting essay, "Clifford Odets: Poet of the Jewish Middle Class," we find the author reacting similarly:

For the Jew in the audience, at least, the experience is recognition, a continuous series of familiar signposts, each suggesting with the immediate communication of poetry the whole complex of the life of the characters: what they are, what they want, how they stand with the world.

What are these familiar poetic "signposts" that Warshow sees and which allowed Odets to give a truthful description of the facts of Jewish life and, in turn, the entire immigrant experience and process of acculturation of New York City Jews? The historical and cultural artifacts of this experience—the shtetl, the East Side tenements and move to the Bronx, the struggle to make a dollar in the garment industry, the snatching of a laugh or a good cry at the thriving Yiddish theaters of from the Forward's "Bintel Brief" column, the revolt of the young against parental tradition and respectability—Bessie Berger: "I raise a family and they should have respect" (Awake and Sing!)—all these nourish and enrich Odets' early plays. He was both influenced by them, in the sense that he drew upon them for sources and prototypes, and critical of them, in the sense that he was aware of the limitations and ironies imposed by what Warshow describes as "the three imperatives" of Jewish life: "be secure, be respected, be intelligent."

Warshow also is on target in his recognition of the special tone of the play: "It is as if no one really listens to anyone else; each takes his own line, and the significant connections between one speech and another are not in logic but in the heavy emotional climate of the family." Some lines from the beginning of Act I are an apt illustration of this process:

RALPH: I don't know … Every other day to sit around with the blues and mud in your mouth.

MYRON: That's how it is—life is like that—a cakewalk.

RALPH: What's it get you?

HENNIE: A four-car funeral.

RALPH: What's it for?

JACOB: What's it for? If this life leads to a revolution it's a good life. Otherwise it's for nothing.

BESSIE: Never mind, Pop! Pass me the salt.

RALPH: It's crazy—all my life I want a pair of black and white shoes and can't get them. It's crazy!

BESSIE: In a minute I'll get up from the table. I can't take a bite in my mouth no more.

MYRON: Now, Momma, just don't excite yourself—

BESSIE: I'm so nervous I can't hold a knife in my hand.

In this arrangement of indirect dialogue, Odets has the ear of a musician for the sharp turns and counterpoints of a verbal fugue.

But what of the jumble of Yiddish-English syntax and expressions poured into the verbal mix—what exactly are they and what do they contribute to the emotional tone? As Gerald Haslam has shown, an expression such as "I should live so long"—generally regarded as a Yiddish-English phrase forty years ago—today is an American cliche'. But Yiddishisms that today are colloquialisms were unfamiliar then, and the prepositional changes and omissions, inverted sentence order, and verb variations Odets employed were alien to non-Jewish (or non-Germanic) members of the audience. Examples from Awake and Sing! are:

BESSIE: You were sleeping by a girl …?

BESSIE: Ralphie, bring up two bottles seltzer from Weiss.

JACOB: … give me for a cent a cigarette.

JACOB: It needs a new world.

SAM: Once too often she'll fight with me, Hennie.

Merely to list these examples of Yiddishisms cannot begin to convey how they function within the play and their cumulative effect on an audience. Odets consciously attempted to create an art—language from Yiddish roots, and to do this he needed a profound knowledge of the psychology of Yiddish as a language. In addition, he had to be aware of its effect on a mixed audience of Gentiles and Jews (many of whom were second-generation sons and daughters of immigrants), and to avoid the extreme of heavy Yiddish dialect which would make his plays unintelligible or ludicrous. He solved the problem by seizing on the exact moment in the history of the Berger family (and later Noah's family, and individuals in other plays) when it was sufficiently acculturated to speak urban—Yiddish-English—an admixture which looks backwards to the shtetl and forward to Americanized urban slang. Here Odets brought into play his sensitivity to the psychological implications of words and phrases for both the older generation and the younger.

Some examples will help demonstrate the verbal signposts by which old and young in Awake and Sing! "give themselves away" (Warshow's phrase). When Bessie asks Jacob "You gave the dog eat?" and he replies, "I gave the dog eat," an entire complex of understandings is involved. On the dramatic level, we know that Bessie regards her father as a ne'erdo-well and relegates him to menial tasks in the household, But, on an additional level, Jews would appreciate Bessie's concern for feeding the animal, remembering the biblical and talmudic injunctions for the care and nourishment of cattle and sheep, which is an ancestral memory of a formerly nomadic people. Linguistically, Bessie's query and Jacob's reply in almost the exact words have a ritualistic quality to which an audience accustomed to incantations applied even to the slaughter of animals would respond. However, there is an irony in the fact that Bessie's concern is for a pet dog. In the shtetl, dogs and cats as pets were unheard of—that was a goyish custom—and Jewish children played with a young calf or ewe. No proster Yid (common Jew) would own a dog, although perhaps a grosser gevir (very rich man) might acquire a watchdog to guard his house and land. Thus, Bessie's concern for Tootsie is a sign of her Americanization; she, above all others, has accepted the status symbols of the new land. Her excessive pride is evinced moments later when she defends her pet to Schlosser, the janitor: "Tootsie's making dirty? Our Tootsie's making dirty in the hall?… Tootsie walks behind me like a lady, any time, any place."

Bessie's Yiddishisms also point up another psycho-linguistic effect of the language which Odets exploited for serio-comic overtones, namely, the Jewish tendency to identify verbally intense anguish and emotion with the digestive process. In the passage I have previously quoted, Bessie says: "In a minute I'll get up from the table. I can't take a bite in my mouth no more." In American-English, the equivalent phrase probably would be—"I'm leaving any minute. This is making me sick to my stomach." But the Yiddish-English expression is psychologically more acute because the specificity of "bite in my mouth" is tied up with hunger and underscores the preciousness of eating against a background of frequent famine and deprivation in "the old country." This would be apparent even to the younger Jewish members of the audience, who had heard this phrase from their parents; Gentiles could also appreciate its idiomatic verve. (They might even understand why the Bergers are constantly eating in this play.) Similarly, in the pregnancy-revelation dialogue with Hennie, Bessie exclaims, "My gall is bursting in me," and later, growing angry at Jacob, she says, "Your gall could burst from such a man." Bessie is translating her emotional state to a bodily state, but the interesting bit of synecdoche in which gall bladder is omitted and the secretion is stressed, is emblematic of the intensity with which Jews express anguish and anger. In the verbs "bursting" and "bust," one can hear the echo of the Yiddish plotz, as in "His heart will plotz from such suffering."

Finally, Bessie reveals linguistically a rather desperate effort to assimilate into her vocabulary words and phrases picked up from the mass media—"Another county heard from" and "A graduate from the B.M.T."—phrases which show the sarcastic usages by means of which Americanisms could be rendered into Yinglish, and Bessie's class-consciousness is demonstrated by her acidulous reference to Hennie as "Our society lady…."

That Yinglish in Odets' plays involves a reciprocal relationship between young and old is evidenced by the fact that Hennie and Ralph, though for the most part they speak straight urban English, are influenced by speech patterns of their parents and grandparents. In the scene where she is "put down" by Bessie as "Our society lady," Hennie rejects her mother's suggestion that she marry San Feinschreiber: "I'm not marrying a poor foreigner like him. Can't even speak an English word. Not me! I'll go to my grave without a husband." A finely attuned ear would detect something foreign sounding in her last sentence, slyly mocking the sentiments she expresses. Instead of saying, "I'd rather die than marry that mockie (a pejorative meaning "greenhorn" or foreigner, which Hennie uses earlier to describe Sam), she will go to her grave without a husband. The sentence is formalized, and its concrete specificity suggests Yiddish rather than English, an outcry from Tevye the Milkman, or a phrase that Hennie might have picked up from some other melodrama at the Yiddish theater.

In the same way, Ralph's speech is overlaid by patterns learned from his family. The opening line of the play, "Where's advancement down the place?" contains an elision and prepositional omission that are typical of Yinglish. Even more significant is his use of the word "place" rather than "shop" or "factory." Here, the German word platz connotes a much richer meaning, since it is tied in with the Jewish idea of the value of having a place of work—not merely in the physical sense, but in the moral sense of the need to attain a position, a vocation, a useful status in society. Amusingly, Ralph mixes this Yiddish idiom with the very American word "advancement," which establishes at once an ironic link to the theme of a family in economic and linguistic transition. Yet in II, 1, Ralph reverts automatically to Bessie's emotional body language; describing Blanche's home, he says, "Every time I go near the place I get heart failure."

Yet another source of Yiddishisms in the play is Jacob, who represents the intellectual, bookish tradition of Judaism: "I'm studying from books a whole lifetime." He is the melamed, the unworldly teacher, and his words have a prophetic biblical cadence which Odets mixes with a smattering of Marxist-English diction Jacob probably picked up at the Arbeiter Ring (Workmen's Circle) on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Sometimes Jacob's mixed-up English is exploited for broad comic effect, as when he warns Ralph about the family's probable attitude toward Blanche: "Boychick … It's no difference—a plain bourgois prejudice—but when they find out a poor girl—it ain't so kosher." More often, there is a pathetic side to Jacob which, linguistically, is expressed by the juxtaposition of poetic prophecy with the cant Marxist terms which represent his process of acculturation. In a moving speech in II, 1, Jacob tells the assembled family:

So you believe in God … you got something for it? You! You worked for all the capitalists. You harvested the fruit from your labor? You got God! But the past comforts you? The present smiles on you, yes? Did you find a piece of earth where you could live like a human being and die with the sun on your face? Tell me, yes, tell me. I would like to know myself. But on these questions, on this theme—the struggle for existence—you can't make an answer. The answer I see in your face … the answer is your mouth can't talk. In this dark corner you sit and die. But abolish private property!

The last sentence is totally incongruous and destroys the poetry by its platitudinous, soap-box quality. The audience would see the irony of a scholar who speaks Hebrew and quotes Isaiah being taken in by the cant terms of a then popular Americanized philosophy. (It could be assumed that Jacob had become a Marxist in the old country, but that it is hardly possible since, in Act III, Ralph examines his Marxist volumes and discovers "the pages ain't cut in half of them." We should remember that a subsidiary meaning for melamed is "an incompetent," and Jacob himself is aware that he is "a man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass of tea." The poignancy of that image is difficult to translate unless one has childhood memories of elderly Jews carefully lifting steaming glasses of hot brew to their mouths and smacking their lips in an almost obscene surrender to the exotic and sensually stimulating beverage. Although he is a failure, Jacob's role in the play is not to point the way to some Communist panacea for social ills (insofar as he does this, he is comic and pathetic), but to stand for older traditional Jewish values in opposition to Bessie and her cohorts. In II, 1, he tells Morty: "In my day the propaganda was for God. [Now] it's for success." Linguistically, Jacob's Yinglish reminds one of the moral authority and hortatory quality which was carried over syntactically into Yiddish-urban-English. One should not be told that one should make success. One should remember the words of Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I … And if not now—when?"

It is remarkable how often Jacob uses the obligatory construction "it should." (used ironically); "My insurance policy. I don't like it should lay around…." Both moral stricture and putative hope are expressed in his language. By contrast, the more assimilated characters in the play have lapsed into vulgar Yiddish: Uncle Morty says, "We'll give them strikes—in the kishkas (guts) we'll give them"; and in the same act, Moe Axelrod informs Ralph: "The insurance guys coming tonight. Morty 'shtupped' him." The vulgar materialists in the play add their minor notes to what I have referred to as a verbal fugue but, to continue the metaphor, the major counterpoints in the fugue are Jacob's Yinglish versus Bessie's—a contrast which Odets later would repeat in the language of the partriarchal, world-weary Noah and his practical, down-to-earth wife, Esther.

The overall effect of these foreign inflections and idiomatic phrases was threefold. For Gentiles (and even many Jews) it imparted a comic twist of fractured English that amused and provided some relief from the grim and gritty world of some of his plays. Indeed, Awake and Sing! proves Blake's adage: "Excess of sorrow laughs," and stands as the progenitor of Jewish "black humor" found in the works of dozens of later Jewish-American writers. Second, the Yiddish idiom conveyed a sense of family solidarity despite the family's conflicts and arguments and the "feel" of a social unit moving "up." Third, by this marvelous alchemy due to the addition of symbolic and metaphoric language and ironic, abrasive, cynical lines to the rhythmic foreign inflections, Odets transforms Yiddish-English into a rich poetic tongue. Many years ago Eleanor Flexner said of Awake and Sing!: "His dialogue displays what is little less than genius for sharp vivid phrasing which is unrealistic while it is still lifelike and human, a poetizing of speech that is nevertheless more realistic than poetic." And she added, "These (phrases from the play) are the poet's transformation of a commonplace idiom into literature."

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