Clifford Odets | Critical Essay by R. Baird Shuman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 33 pages of analysis & critique of Clifford Odets.
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Critical Essay by R. Baird Shuman

SOURCE: "Clifford Odets and the Jewish Context," in From Hester Street to Hollywood, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen, Indiana University Press, 1983, pp. 85-105.

Shuman is an American biographer, editor, and educator. In the following essay, he explores Odets's personal background and relates Odets's upbringing to the Jewish character of his work. He locates in Odets's plays several distinctly Jewish subjects, including Jewish mothers, exile and alienation, redemption, and idiomatic expression.

Significant hazards lurk in any attempt to categorize a writer like Clifford Odets in terms of ethnic identity. Certainly Odets was not a Jew in the sense that he was a participating member of a religious group that practiced the rituals of the Jewish faith. Organized religion never played a significant part in his life. Nevertheless, the ethnicity that surrounded him in his formative years imprinted itself upon his writing, much of which has strong Jewish overtones.

Odets's Exposure to the Jewish Experience

The early Odets, it must be remembered, was essentially and above all a spokesman for the proletariat, a propagandist writing in the first half of the 1930s about the depressed economic and social conditions that threatened the very fiber of American society. Coincidentally, some of the themes directly related to proletarian writing also had legitimate historical archetypes in the Jewish experience.

Odets was born into a Jewish-American family in Philadelphia in 1906. Both his parents had come to the United States as small children; his mother, Pearl Geisinger, came from Austria, his father, Louis, from Russia. For the first six years of Clifford's life, the Odets family lived in the so-called Northern Liberties area of Philadelphia, a section populated largely by German Jews, many of whom still spoke Yiddish, whose English was heavily accented, and whose speech patterns were primarily those of first-and second-generation Eastern European or German Jews.

The Odets family was essentially working class. However, the family was aspiring to the middle class, and in 1912 the Odetses moved to the Bronx, again settling in a largely Jewish neighborhood. They lived near Beck Street and Longwood Avenue in one of the better apartment buildings of the day. Louis Odets gradually advanced from his position as a feeder in a printery to become the owner of the shop. Soon he was able to buy a Maxwell automobile and to send his ailing wife to California to escape the cold of winter.

English was the only language spoken in the Odets household. Both of Clifford's parents were near-native speakers of the language. They neither read nor spoke Yiddish. However, Clifford's Aunt Esther and Uncle Israel Rosman, who were older when they immigrated to the United States than Odets's parents had been, spoke Yiddish and regularly read Yiddish newspapers. Odets recalls, "… while they were still my aunt and uncle, they were much more Jewish in their out-looks, and certainly in their language and customs, than my very American parents."

Odets grew up hearing and speaking English at home, but the dialect of English used there and in the neighborhoods where he grew up probably had in it many of the melodies, intonations, and speech patterns of Eastern European immigrants with strong Jewish religious ties. Such patterns come through even in recorded interviews with Odets, where a sentence like, "I want to show in David, who is pursued by a psychotic Saul, a young poet," illustrates a basic structure and cadence of Jewish-American speech. This phrase structure of indirect object followed by direct object, while common in some instances in Network Standard English where the preposition of the indirect object is omitted (e.g. "He gave her a book"), is uncommon where the preposition is expressed and is a speech pattern characteristic of many Jewish Americans.

But Jewishness enters into the writing of an author with Odets's upbringing and background in more subtle and significant ways than are found solely in speech patterns and intonations. Some of the underlying themes of Jewish culture influenced his reactions to many of the social problems he treats in his plays, particularly the early ones, on both the literal and metaphoric levels. The very fabric of any writers' literary production is based upon the intricacies of his early, and in many cases, largely forgotten, experiences. For people raised in a Jewish family living in Jewish neighborhoods, whether the family appears acculturated or not, facets of the cultural heritage of the Jews come to be an ingrained part of their natures.

Guttmann, in answer to the question of how "Americans often assume that the folkways of Mitteleuropa and of the Russian shtetl are really the essentials of Jewishness," very rightly contends, "To answer such questions fully is to tell the story of the American Jews, but this much is certain: a minority that adopted many of the traits of its European neighbors is now distinguished in the eyes of its American neighbors by these adopted characteristics rather than by the fundamental differences that originally accounted for the minority status." It is, as Guttmann suggests, all too easy to identify as Jewish some characteristics that are essentially European or Slavic. Many Jewish immigrants to this country came from Eastern Europe or from Russia, so that the traditions which they brought with them to the New World represent a melding of two cultures, their traditional Jewish culture and the European or Slavic culture that their forefathers had long since adopted.

Certainly Jacob in Awake and Sing! is typical of the kind of Jew Guttmann alludes to. Much of the political and social philosophy of Eastern European revolutionaries is reflected in Jacob's thinking. He is the somewhat confused and muddled revolutionary living with a much more conservative younger generation (Bessie and Myron Berger) whose ideas are considerably more down-to-earth and conventional than his. If Jacob can say, "If this life leads to a revolution it's a good life. Otherwise it's for nothing." Bessie can provide the putdown by responding. "Never mind, Pop! Pass me the salt."

Biblical Influences

In an interview with Michael Mendelsohn in 1961, two years before his death, Odets was asked about literary influences upon him and specifically about any influence the Bible might have had. He said,

I like to read the Bible. I would like to read it more. I believe much that's in it. I want to write one more play—at least one more play that I know about—on a Biblical theme (that is after The Flowering Peach, which is about Noah and the Ark). I do want to write somewhere out of the two Books of Samuel, particularly the second book, I want to write about the life of Saul and David. I want to show in David, who is pursued by a psychotic Saul, a young poet.

The extent to which Odets wished to use this Old Testament story for any of its specific and inherent Jewish qualities is, indeed, questionable. Rather, he seemed to find in the story a reflection of some of his own most personal feelings about the role of the artist in society. The interview continues:

… I want to show how the young poet becomes a very successful man—indeed, the most successful in his realm, because he becomes the King. And I want to show the life of Man from the time he is a poet until he dies an old man, unhappy, but somehow still a poet gnawing at his soul. I want to turn the various facets of his nature around so that you see what happens to men of big success and how they meet the conflicting situations of their lives.

The theme of what success does to an artist, which Odets had earlier dealt with in both The Country Girl and The Big Knife, obviously fascinated him. Those two plays are certainly not prominently ethnic, nor is there any reason to suppose that in any dramatic version he might have done of the Saul/David story, Odets would have set out to write a play which would have been essentially ethnic in its impact. Nevertheless, a number of Odets's early plays, as well as his last play to be produced, The Flowering Peach, have a distinctly Jewish flavor and can legitimately be considered within the context of their Jewish ethnicity, as well as within a number of other contexts. Some of the less overtly Jewish plays can also be considered in terms of elements of the Jewish context that shaped Clifford Odets as a creative artist and as a person.

The Overtly Jewish Plays

Among Odets's early plays, both Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost are about Jewish families. The Bergers in the former play are a lower-middle-class Jewish family struggling against the uncertainties of the economic depression of the 1930s. Three generations of the family live together and suffer the inevitable value confrontations that take place between people of different ages, backgrounds, and outlooks. The Gordons in Paradise Lost are an upper-middle-class Jewish family faced with economic and ethical problems growing out of the loss of the father's business through the dishonesty of his partner. The Gordons are more acculturated into American life, less obviously Jewish, than the Bergers. Indeed, they resemble Odets's own well-acculturated family.

Till the Day I Die focuses on the situation of a Communist in Nazi Germany. A tour de force in the agitprop tradition, it was written to accompany Odets's Waiting for Lefty, which first played at the Civic Repertory Theatre on Fourteenth Street, then was moved uptown to the Longacre Theater where it and Till the Day I Die played together for 136 performances. The protagonist of Till the Day I Die, Ernst Tausig, is a Jew as well as a Communist, so is doubly a target for inhumane treatment by the German SS.

The Less Jewish Plays

Waiting for Lefty, Odets's first successful production, deals with the economic issues of the Depression. The only direct allusion to Jews in this play is in Scene 5, which concerns Dr. Benjamin, a physician who is discharged from his hospital position, presumably because of anti-Semitism on the part of those who run the hospital.

Golden Boy has an Italian protagonist, Joe Bonaparte, and the play is without strong Jewish overtones, although Joe's manager, Mr. Carp, is clearly Jewish. Roxy Gottlieb in this play is also presented as being Jewish, particularly in certain of his speech patterns. Similarly, Rocket to the Moon, Night Music, and Clash by Night, while they have Jewish characters in them, are not directly and primarily concerned with the Jewish experience, although numerous elements of Jewish life glimmer through them. Not until The Flowering Peach did Odets again deal with a subject as quintessentially Jewish as the depiction of the family in Awake and Sing!

Prominent Themes in the Jewish Cultural Heritage

The Jewish cultural heritage is stronger than a number of other heritages which are basically religious in their origins. Even Jews who shun the faith of their progenitors remain in many ways Jews. Karl Shapiro addresses this point in Poems of a Jew: "… a Jew who becomes an atheist remains a Jew. A Jew who becomes a Catholic remains a Jew." Harry Moore calls the Jewish heritage "environmental" and goes on to say "Granted, the environment of the Jews, usually clannish, sometimes produces physical characteristics that are fairly recognizable, yet these are intrinsically environmental. The young Jewish men often break with their community, leaving orthodoxy behind, yet many of them still marry Jewish girls, who understand their men's background, their early conditioning." While Moore's comments perhaps represent a genetic oversimplification, a Jewishness appears to exist which is independent of religiosity and which is identifiable by certain patterns of behavior, philosophical stances, and value systems. Many of these hark back to the traditional religious faith and doctrine of earlier generations of Jews, of course, but they exist also quite noticeably and prominently in modern Jews who may, indeed, have denied the religion of their forefathers.

Irving Malin contends that many modern Jewish-American writers are engaged in "the search for new images of divinity in the absence of orthodox belief." He continues, "Our best (Jewish) writers are 'mad crusaders,' hoping for a transcendent ideal—art, potency?—to replace the tarnished ones they embraced in their youth." He considers Jewish stories to be "those that witness, even in distorted or inverted ways, traditional religious and literary moments." According to his definition, most of Odets's plays are not Jewish—the only ones that could be called Jewish are The Flowering Peach, most certainly Awake and Sing!, somewhat less certainly, and possibly Paradise Lost.

However, Malin identifies themes common to the Jewish heritage, and many of them are prominent in Odets's work, as well as that of many other writers, some of them Gentiles. In Jews and Americans, Malin organizes his material into chapters that deal with individual elements common to the Jewish heritage: exile, fathers and sons, time, head and heart, transcendence, irony, fantasy, and parable. In Contemporary American-Jewish Literature, Malin posits that the creators of Jewish tales "seek to escape from exile, to break old covenants, and to embrace transcendent ideals."

A part of the Jewish cultural heritage is the dominant, often overly protective mother. She will often be counterbalanced by the acquiescent father (like Myron in Awake and Sing!) and, in literature certainly, by the voluptuous, sexually tempting daughter (like Hennie, also in Awake and Sing!). The hope of the future is vested in Jewish children, particularly in boy children, who are viewed as the precious heirs and prospective leaders of what ideally was to be a patriarchal Jewish society.

The mother, while dominant, is also a sufferer. She often is, as Auchincloss might call her, an "injustice collector." She must sacrifice in order to feel fulfilled. Robert Warshow, writing of Awake and Sing!, capsulizes the values of middle-class American Jews: "be secure, be respected, be intelligent." These are very much Bessie Berger's values in Awake and Sing!, Clara Gordon's in Paradise Lost, and Esther's in The Flowering Peach.

If Jewish society can be viewed as being ideally patriarchal. The Jewish family is in many ways matriarchal. The Jewish wife, when she becomes a mother, adopts a new role of dominance, particularly when she has sons whom she regards as the chief hope for the future. She becomes the beacon in an alien environment. She makes the home, which is because of her an impregnable fortress against all that might threaten it. With the birth of a son into a Jewish family, the father's dominance decreases and the mother's increases. In Odets's Awake and Sing! and The Flowering Peach, dominant women are the mortar that holds the family together in the most trying of times.

Jewish Mothers

Some of Odets's plays have in them what might be called the conventional Jewish mother, the dominant female who suffers and serves, who is constantly urging food on her young, who assumes the responsibility for many of the necessary decisions within the family. Other of Odets's plays present in prominent roles women who, while they may be neither Jewish nor mothers, attempt to be surrogate mothers for weak husbands whom they treat as surrogate sons.

Among the former are Bessie Berger (Awake and Sing!) and Esther (The Flowering Peach). Somewhat midway between the two polarities is Clara Gordon in Paradise Lost. The surrogate mother type is represented by Bertha Katz in Paradise Lost, in a much more fully developed way by Belle in Rocket to the Moon, and in a somewhat different way by Georgie Elgin in The Country Girl.

In the list of characters preceding Awake and Sing!, Bessie Berger is described in more than twice the detail accorded to either her husband, Myron, her daughter, Hennie, or her son, Ralph. The description presents, it would seem, Odets's conception of what the prototypical Jewish mother is, although it must be remembered that Bessie Berger lives in the strained economic context of the Depression and that many of her characteristics are heightened by the pressures this context imposes. Odets calls her "not only the mother in this home but also the father. She is constantly arranging and taking care of her family." He comments on her joy in living from day to day and on her resourcefulness.

Bessie is concerned with the here and now, with the day-to-day matters of human existence; her men, particularly Jacob, the grandfather, and Ralph, the son, are the dreamers, the philosophers in the family. Bessie deals with the mundane and revels in doing so. Odets writes of her, "She is a shrewd judge of realistic qualities in people in the sense of being able to gauge quickly their effectiveness…. She is naive and quick in emotional response. She is afraid of utter poverty. She is proper according to her own standards, which are fairly close to those of most middle-class families. She knows that when one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life." Bessie needs to be in control of things and she essentially is. The one threat to that control is the poverty she fears, because this could destroy her home and her family. Bessie alludes to this fear early in Awake and Sing!: "They threw out a family on Dawson Street today. All the furniture on the sidewalk. A fine old woman with gray hair." This concern is repeated toward the end of the play when Bessie warns, "A family needs for a rainy day. Times is getting worse. Prospect Avenue, Dawson, Beck Street—every day furniture's on the sidewalk."

Bessie's worst fears are the realities with which her counterpart Clara Gordon, in Paradise Lost must contend; Clara and Leo's furniture actually is put out into the street. They lose their business, their home, and indeed their hope for the future, which has been vested in their children—one is shot during a robbery, one is dying of encephalitis, and one is rapidly becoming a recluse.

If Bessie seems to some to be "instinctively dedicated to emasculating the men in the family," she is equally devoted to keeping the family intact when it is threatened from without. She is also concerned with projecting an image of respectability for her family even when to do so involves an act such as deceiving the gullible Sam Feinschreiber into marrying her daughter, Hennie, who is pregnant by another man. Through this marriage, Odets implies that the whole family cycle will recur; Sam will become the emasculated husband, Hennie the dominant wife and controlling mother.

Both Clara Gordon and Bessie Berger tend to be shrill much of the time, hypercritical, opinionated. They bicker. Granted they sometimes emasculate their men, but at the base of all this are love and concern such as that reflected in Clara's line, "I found out many years ago I married a fool, but I love him." Odets's Jewish mothers represent continuity and continuance. They are concerned with the survival of the Jewish tradition but equally, if not more so, with the economic and physical survival of the family. The Bergers in Awake and Sing! are under extreme financial pressures, but throughout the play they eat almost constantly. Bessie sees to that. The family survives and in Ralph's new beginning at the end of the play is the hope that both the Jewish tradition and the Berger family will continue.

The dramatic tensions in Awake and Sing!, Paradise Lost, The Flowering Peach, and to some extent in all of Odets's other plays, except perhaps his two agitprop dramas, Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die, are part and parcel of the head-heart conflict which is developed through the interplay of practical, down-to-earth women who, in the last analysis, represent head, and impractical, idealistic men, who, in the last analysis, represent heart. Granted that Jacob, who reads books and listens to opera, is more the intellectual than Bessie; however, he functions according to emotion more than according to reason. Bessie, within her own value system, makes rational decisions that will preserve the family's appearance of respectability and improve its chances of survival. One must note that Odets, as his writing career progressed, came increasingly to side more often with the idealistic men than with the women.

As early as Paradise Lost, the play's last word is a long idealistic statement by Leo, whereas in Awake and Sing!, the idealistic Jacob commits suicide and there is less to suggest that Ralph is really going to be able to conquer new worlds despite his closing oratory. By the time of The Flowering Peach. written nearly two decades after Awake and Sing!, the Jewish mother, Esther, while somewhat carping and domineering, has mellowed a great deal. The idealism of Noah, her husband, who was commanded by God to build an Ark and did so despite the aspersions cast by others upon his judgment—indeed, upon his sanity—is, in the end, vindicated because his act saves the human race from total annihilation in the Flood. At the end of The Flowering Peach, Esther is dead, a victim of old age; but through Noah's idealistic following of God's word, future generations are saved and continuance is assured.

Toward the end of Awake and Sing!, Bessie has a speech that states very succinctly the head-heart conflict which exists in a Jewish mother like her: "'Mom, what does she know? She's old-fashioned!' But I'll tell you a big secret: My whole life I wanted to go away, too, but with children a woman stays home. A fire burned in my heart too, but now it's too late. I'm no spring chicken. The clock goes and Bessie goes." The theme of the worn-out mother recurs in The Flowering Peach. Esther says to Noah toward the end of the play, "Whatta you want from me, Noah? I'm a tired old woman … you're a young man." As the action nears its resolution, Esther still fights for the family while Noah stands as the patriarch who will preserve the laws of God, laws much more abstract than those of the family:

Esther: (to Noah) Marry the children … for the sake of happiness in the world …

Noah: Old friend, it hurts me to refuse you, but it stands in the books for a thousand years—

Esther:—But all the books are in the water now…. Marry the children before I go.

Just before Esther dies, Noah having denied her wish that he marry the children, she proclaims, "The children, their happiness … is my last promised land."

This is a curious reversal and represents Odets's coming far afield from Awake and Sing!; in The Flowering Peach, which begins with Esther representing head and Noah representing heart, Esther, in the end wants Noah to violate his conscience and to perform marriages among the children according to the dictates of her heart. Noah, by building the Ark, has assured the physical continuation of the human race; Esther now calls upon him to play God, as it were, and to help reestablish the conventions of the world which the Flood has destroyed. Esther, like Bessie Berger, remains concerned with the here and now; but Noah, with his more abstract philosophical concerns, really triumphs at the conclusion of The Flowering Peach.

Surrogate Mothers

Some of the wives in Odets's plays are surrogate Jewish mothers. They are married to men of questionable strength and self-assurance. These men need strong women to tell them what to do (Ben Stark in Rocket to the Moon) or to keep them from vices that would destroy them (Frank Elgin in The Country Girl), wives who will suffer the abuse that stems from the husbands' own insecurities and inadequacies (Sam Katz in Paradise Lost). The first tentative step toward this kind of character is found in Tilly, Ernst Tausig's fiancee in Till the Day I Die. Tilly is the comforter, the one who understands and encourages Ernst after he has been interrogated, intimidated, and physically mutilated by the German SS. When Ernst returns to Tilly after the SS has crushed his hand, he is depicted as wincing in pain and Tilly tells him, "Sit down again. Don't be afraid of softness, of sorrow." She is the comforting mother type; but Ernst is not basically weak, as some male characters in other of Odets's plays have been. He has been victimized by a force much stronger than any man might be expected to resist.

Not until Paradise Lost did Odets develop to the utmost the surrogate mother type of character. Bertha Katz is childless, like Belle Stark in Rocket to the Moon and Georgie (a non-Jew) in The Country Girl. Being childless is particularly difficult for Jewish women, as Odets was well aware; they cannot obey the Biblical injunction, "Be fruitful and multiply." They are unfulfilled, and Odets turns their need for fulfillment toward their husbands. In Paradise Lost, where Odets really becomes concerned with this particular theme, it is Sam Katz, not his wife, who is responsible for their childlessness. Bertha tolerates Sam's abuse, both physical and verbal, dealing with him just as she might have with the children she has never had. He calls her "Momma," and she speaks the line, "Momma, he says, In the night he cried to God and no answer came. In my arms he cried, and no answer came." In the tense lines which follow, Bertha tells the Gordons of Sam's impotence, reveals to them that he has not slept with a girl in seven years, and then, like the good mother, she says, "He's a good boy—We'll go home Sam." The set directions here are especially revealing: "Goes up to Sam. Helps him up from the lower step. Wipes his face with handkerchief."

Belle Stark in Rocket to the Moon is Odets's next depiction of the surrogate mother type. She is by no means so sympathetic a character as Bertha Katz. She has miscarried in her first pregnancy and can have no more children. Her internalized anger reveals itself in sarcasm and often in outright nastiness. Odets suggests that Belle's mother was temperamentally very like Belle. He also intimates that Ben once had promise, but that during his marriage to Belle, his promise has remained unfulfilled. Ben reveals some of his past potential in the lines, "I was a pioneer with Gladstone in orthodontia, once. Now I'm a dentist, good for sixty dollars a week, while men with half my brains and talents are making their twenty and thirty thousand a year!" But Belle has now reduced him to the state where she does much of his thinking for him and says contemptuously, "Any day now I'm expecting to have to powder and diaper you."

Belle presumably does not want Ben to advance professionally, because she would then have difficulty controlling him. As Odets had originally conceived the play, Ben's affair with his receptionist, Cleo Singer, was to have given him strength through love, however, as the play finally appeared, the affair is fleeting, Ben is weak even in its midst, as is evidenced by his not even discouraging Cleo from going out with other men while it is going on; and when the affair is over, Ben presumably will return to the same trap in which he was before, except that Belle will have collected one more injustice to hold over him. Her longing for a child will continue, and she will use Ben as the child she cannot have, nagging him until the end of his days. There is a terrible irony in Ben's lines to Mr. Prince, his father-in-law, toward the end of the play: "For years I sat here, taking things for granted, my wife, everything. Then just for an hour my life was in a spotlight. I saw myself clearly, realized who and what I was. Isn't that a beginning? Isn't it?" And with these words, with this plaintive questioning, he seals his fate. Even at the close of the original play, ending as it does with the word "Awake," which is an allusion to Ben's earlier line, "A man falls asleep in marriage," there is little hope that Ben will ever be anything but emasculated, mothered and smothered by a woman who must control him through diminishing him as a person.

The relationship between Georgie and Frank Elgin in The Country Girl is somewhat different. Frank, a gifted actor whose alcoholism has all but ruined his career, is offered a last chance, an important role in a play. His wife, Georgie, who has suffered with him through the decline in his career caused by his alcoholism, has become his protectress. Georgie does not resemble the Jewish mother quite so much as she does the deeply concerned wife. Her mothering grows out of her concern, and much of it seems necessary to her husband's professional survival as well as to her own survival, which is closely allied to her husband's success. She protects his interests, sees that his rights and privileges are duly accorded. She says of him, "He doesn't like to make the slightest remark that might lose him people's regard and affection. I've simply grown into the habit of doing it for him." She then goes on to argue with Bennie Dodd, the play's director, about Frank's salary.

Georgie tells of having left Frank twice and of having twice resumed to him, largely, it would seem from the dialogue, in a motherly role: "Twice left, twice returned. He's a helpless child." Later she allows, "Yes, he has to be watched—he has to be nursed, guarded, and coddled." And she then adds the line, "But not by me, my very young friend (Bernie Dodd)!"

However, despite this proclamation, Georgie, talking to Bernie backstage on opening night about the congratulatory telegrams Frank received, clearly shows that she cannot stop mothering her husband:

Georgie: It was sweet of you to send him all those wires.

Bernie: impassively: Who told you?

Georgie: Guessed. How many did you send?

Bernie: Nine or ten. And you?

Georgie: Four or five.

The husband-wife relationship in Odets's plays are often based upon sexual stereotypes current when he wrote. The Jewish mother and the surrogate mother present an interesting reversal of what was the usual role designation of Odets's era, i.e., the dominant male and the dependent female; but such role reversal is found in other plays which metaphorically presented the social and economic emasculation of their protagonists by a world which seems organized against them, characters like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman.

Exile and Alienation

The story of the exodus as related in the Old Testament has long been with worldwide Jewry. As a cohesive ethnic group frequently in exile, Jews have been ghettoized throughout much of history. Those who have chosen to leave the ghetto have, nevertheless, been forced to bear all the kinds of discrimination visited upon Jews by many dominant cultures throughout history. Outbreaks of violent anti-Semitism through the history of the Western world have been sufficiently frequent and regular to remind Jews everywhere, particularly before the founding of the state of Israel, of their exile and to reinforce their feelings of alienation and homelessness. During Odets's early creative years, many Jews were exiling themselves from an insanely anti-Semitic Germany where, in many cases, they and their forefathers had lived for generations. Jews everywhere identified with these refugees, as today large numbers of Jews identify with their counterparts in the USSR.

Exiled and alienated as many Jews have been through the ages and were particularly during the Nazi era, there has always been a strong theme of redemption in their existence. Warshow writes,

The adult immigrant had some advantages. Whatever it was that drove him to come (to the United States), he was able to carry with him a sense of his own dignity and importance. He had a kind of security, though it is a strange thing to say of a Jew. In Europe, with the club over his head, he had nevertheless lived in a community which was in important ways self-sufficient, and which permitted him to think of himself as a man of value: he was, a scholar, or a revolutionist; at the very least he knew himself to be a more serious man than his Gentile persecutors. To be a Jew was a continual burden, even a misfortune, but it could not have seemed to him a joke or a disgrace.

A unique admixture of exile, alienation, and redemption exists among Jews and has so existed through much of their history.

It must be remembered that in Nazi German, anti-Semitism was directed against anyone with so-called "Jewish blood." Birth conferred the distinction of being Jewish in the Nazi view, and, as Ernest Van den Haag notes, "This was one part of the complicated truth which the Nazis grasped." The Jewish Americans by whom Odets was surrounded in his youth, both in the neighborhoods in which his parents lived and among his associates in the Group Theatre, were well aware of the historic persecution of the Jews; the rise of the Nazi party in Germany during the thirties only intensified their awareness of this long and unhappy history.

Superimposed upon the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany was the complication of a worldwide economic depression which, within Odets's own immediate frame of reference, threatened the economic security of large numbers of people by whom he was surrounded and made them feel alienated from their society. The threat of homelessness loomed large for working-class Americans. In his interview with Michael Mendelsohn, Odets said. "Theatre in its profoundest sense—all literature in its profoundest sense—has come in periods when the plight or problem expressed by the actors was completely at one with the plight or problems and values or even moralities of the audience."

During his interview with Arthur Wagner, Odets, in speaking about how one writes, asserted, "The question is really not one of knowing how to write so much as knowing how to connect with yourself so that the writing is, so to speak, born affiliated with yourself." In the same monologue he acknowledges what he calls his "blood ties" with Paradise Lost, and indeed he could have established similar blood ties with most of his early plays.

Odets's immediate tie in a play like Waiting for Lefty was a tie with the working class caught up in the problems of the Depression. However, his blood ties to his material came out of his whole past, as they must in any author, and such ties reflect the way a Jewish-American writer reacts to the materials about which he is writing. Certainly Odets was not oblivious to the situation of Jews in Germany, as Till the Day I Die clearly illustrates. The "plights and problems" of which Odets speaks were the most legitimate plights and problems of his age and his Jewish background gave him a special competence to deal with them, "to connect with himself," as he put it.

Schaar suggests the pervasiveness of the exile motif and the attendant sense of alienation that accompanies it: "The motif of the eternal wanderer begins in the dawn of the Jewish tradition and weaves in and out of the whole subsequent history of Western religion. Abram is the prototype and universal symbol of alienated man." Rosenberg and Bergen contend, "In becoming an object-self, part of an objective social history, the person can come to feel that he has lost control over his own being." Many of Odets's characters, particularly those in Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die, have lost control of their own destinies. Yet in both these early plays, the common Jewish motif of redemption is evident. Redemption for the cabbies in Waiting for Lefty comes after Lefty, who has been interpreted by some as being a Christ-like figure, is murdered and the men gathered in the union hall call for a strike, moved to fever pitch by their indignation over the murder. The same motif occurs in a different way in Till the Day I Die. Ernst Tausig kills himself at the conclusion of the play, but Tillie is pregnant with his child, the prospective leader, the precious heir. Tillie emphasizes this: "Let us hope we will both live to see strange and wonderful things. Perhaps we will die before then. Our children will see it then." Just before Ernst's suicide, his brother says to Tillie, "Let him die," but after the shot is heard, he utters the more redemptive, "Let him live."

Odets deals with the themes of exile (variations on the wandering Jew theme) and alienation throughout much of his writing. The concern is a central one for him. In Waiting for Lefty, the disparate group of people brought together by the economic uncertainties of their society are, for the most part, living unfulfilled lives—for example, the young hack and his girl cannot marry and Dr. Benjamin drives a taxicab rather than completing his hospital residency—and they are dealing with the "object-self." If they are to overcome the threat of complete alienation, they can do so only by joining together, and this is what they are forced into at the end of the play when they rally to strike after Lefty has been found dead behind the carbarns, a bullet in his head.

Odets, during the uncertain years of the Depression, was a member of the close-knit Group Theatre, and in the unity of this association he felt less alienated personally than he might otherwise have felt. Deeper alienation came later in his life, first when he left the Group Theatre to go to Hollywood, an act which was in his eyes a prostitution of his talents and ideals, largely so he could earn money to help the Group Theatre stay afloat; and later when he began to rankle under the artistic pressures of Hollywood, where he experienced a significant loss of identity and self-esteem.

In Awake and Sing!, the threat of economic disaster always impends, but the family unit remains together, as it does in the face of great crisis in The Flowering Peach. Some hope remains in the Berger household, despite all its tribulations and discontent: Bessie, after protesting at Myron's wish to buy a fifty-cent Irish Sweepstakes Ticket from Moe Axelrod, says, "I'll give you money. Buy a ticket in Hennie's name. Say, you can't tell—lightning never struck us yet. If they win on Beck Street, we could win on Longwood Avenue." Bessie, reflecting a mentality which keeps exiles alive, always holds on to the hope of a better future.

Jacob in Awake and Sing! is the philosophical center of the play; Bessie Berger is the practical center. Jacob is the idealist whose immediate world is not threatened in quite the same way that Bessie's is, partly because Jacob has not so long to live as Bessie and partly because Bessie's concerns about security are more specific, focusing as they do upon her family, than Jacob's, whose concerns focus upon mankind more broadly. Jacob has more philosophical detachment than Bessie, whose point of view is limited by the immediacy of assuring on a day-to-day basis her own survival and that of her family.

Bessie, struggling to preserve the family's respectability can pressure her pregnant daughter Hennie into marrying the unsuspecting Sam Feinschreiber, saying of him, "He's going to night school, Sam. For a boy only three years in the country he speaks very nice," followed by the crucial, "In three years he put enough money in the bank, a good living." She can first tell Moe Axelrod that Hennie is engaged to Sam, and then, upon hearing Moe, who is richer than Sam, say, "… maybe I'd marry her myself," can turn around and say, "why don't you, Moe? An old family friend like you. It would be a blessing on us all." Bessie is convinced that she is doing all this for the good and for the security of the family, which are her prime concerns; she can justify any deceit that will help her family to project an image of decency and respectability, to prevent an alienation of her family from its social milieu.

But Jacob's whole philosophical framework is different from Bessie's. He is sufficiently removed from the particulars of the immediate situation to be able to make a moral judgment about it and to be able to utter in disgust, "Marx said it—abolish such families." Their diverging viewpoints cause an estrangement between Bessie and Jacob, and the two are farthest apart when Hennie tells Sam that he is not the father of their child and Sam confronts Bessie with this information. Ralph tells his mother, "You trapped this guy," and Bessie's whole world is collapsing. Now, because of her efforts to keep up a respectable front, she is beginning to be alienated from her own family. At this point she turns to Jacob, venting her wrath upon him, saying, "You'll stand around with Caruso and make a bughouse. It ain't enough all day long. Fifty times I told you I'll break every record in the house," and she there-upon breaks Jacob's cherished recordings, and in so doing probably precipitates his suicide.

Of this tense scene Warshow writes, "Bessie Berger reveals the whole pattern of psychological and moral conflict that dominates her and her family…. (She) turns upon her father, who has said nothing, and smashes the phonograph records that are his most loved possessions and the symbol of his superiority." What remains to Bessie is the outer symbol of her superiority: respectability in the eyes of middle-class society, which probably scarcely knows she exists. In Awake and Sing!, redemption lies, albeit more facilely than artistically justifiable, not in Jacob's leaving Ralph three thousand dollars in insurance money—Ralph finally decides to "Let Mom have the dough"—but in Ralph's realization that Jacob's life and ultimately his death have perhaps given Ralph something on which to build a new beginning: "I'll get along. Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No! 'Awake and Sing,' he said. Right here he stood and said it. The night he died, I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born!" (Italics mine). The cycle is repeated; Odets is suggesting that continuance is assured.

Noah, in The Flowering Peach, is alienated from his society for quite lofty reasons. God has come to him in a dream and told him that the earth will be destroyed in a flood. He orders him to build an ark and to take his family upon it along with seven pairs of clean, and one pair of unclean, animals. Noah's wife chides him for drinking too much and is, along with his sons, quite skeptical of the validity of Noah's dream, attributing it to his drinking. But when God sends signs and portents to Noah—first a gitka and then other animals arrive to be put on the Ark, and a tired old Noah becomes young and strong so that he can work at constructing the Ark—the family becomes more credulous. Yet even at this point, Noah is shunned. He is stoned out of town when he goes for supplies. He must refuse passage on the Ark to respected old friends, because God's command is that he shall take only his family on board. But Noah's oneness is with God, so his alienation is not complete nor will his exile during the flood be permanent.

Odets's Noah story ends on a note of affirmation. Noah's wife, Esther, has died on the Ark, but life will continue. Rather than drinking himself into drunkenness at the end of the story, as in the Biblical version, Odets's Noah asks God for a covenant: "You know what I want, Lord. Just like you guarantee each month, with a woman's blood, that men will be born … give such a sign that you won't destroy the world again," and at that point a rainbow appears in the sky. Although the ending is again a bit facile, the theme of redemption is stronger in The Flowering Peach than in any of Odets's other plays. Noah's alienation and his exile—his forty days on the waters—have led him to be humble before God and obedient to Him. Life will go on thanks to Noah's heeding of God's command.

Night Music is a play about homelessness and alienation despite its bittersweet resolution. Writing of the theme of homelessness in the play, Harold Clurman, its director, says, "Odets does not state this (homelessness) as his theme in so many words; he does not have to, since he has made it part of every character, of every scene, almost of every prop. It is not a thesis, it is the 'melody' that permeates the play. The central character is made angry and adolescently belligerent by his inability to take hold in society." This sort of alienation, this waste of human potential, had always angered Odets: "Nothing moves me so much as human aspirations blocked, nothing enrages me like waste. I am for use as opposed to abuse." The wasted human potential of the Depression provided him with material for his early plays, but he was no less incensed by the waste and futility that he sometimes felt characterized his own endeavors in Hollywood.

In many ways his most acerbic play is The Big Knife; in it he addresses directly the frustrations that had been gnawing away at him during his first decade in California and makes an open attack upon the motion picture industry. But these gnawings actually had been festering in the writer for quite a long time. Golden Boy addressed problems of unfulfillment that later came to be a major part of the substance of The Big Knife. Both plays can be viewed as escape-from-the-ghetto plays. Joe Bonaparte escapes through his boxing ability, but the price he pays is enormous; he is an accomplished violinist, but in becoming a boxer, he sacrifices his hands. In the end, he kills another boxer in the ring and then goes out in his new, expensive Duesenberg, a symbol of his success, and crashes it, killing himself and his female companion, Laura. Similarly, Charlie Castle moves from his humble background into a successful career as an actor, only to be destroyed by the threat of a disclosure that he has been involved in a fatal hit-and-run accident for which he has allowed someone else to accept the blame and be punished. The threat drives Castle to suicide.

The writing of both of these plays was a very self-searching activity for their author and each in its own period grew out of Odets's feelings of alienation and, in the case of Golden Boy particularly, out of the sense of self-imposed exile which he felt in deserting the Group Theatre for Hollywood, even though the desertion was done in the best interests of the Group. Cantor writes, "Indeed, it is difficult to disentangle the work and the man in Odets' career, for Odets' major plays on the subject of selling-out, Golden Boy and The Big Knife, are rooted in his personal experience." The loss of identity with which Charlie Castle had to deal in The Big Knife raises again the object-self question; Charlie, like Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy, becomes a commodity to be haggled over. A loss of identity, which begins with his having to change his name at the studio's command, progresses to the point that he has to sign a fourteen-year contract which he does not wish to sign, has to sign away fourteen years of his life, as it were, because the studio is blackmailing him. Well might he utter such lines as "I'll bet you don't know why we all wear these beautiful, expensive ties in Hollywood…. It's a military tactic—we hope you won't notice our faces," or "free speech is the highest-priced luxury in this country today."

As Odets moved away from specifically Jewish settings for his plays, he nevertheless imbibed deeply from his Jewish heritage in their thematic development, and the intertwining concerns with alienation and homelessness appear to be outgrowths of the exile motif which is pervasive in the whole of Jewish history.


Reflecting on his early experience of seeing Odets's Awake and Sing!, Alfred Kazin remarks, "In Odets' play there was a lyric up lifting of blunt Jewish speech, boiling over and explosive, that did more to arouse the audience than the political catchwords that brought the curtain down." Odets probably had a better ear for language than any other playwright of his period. His early plays surge with the vitality of an authentic Yiddish-American which, as employed by Odets, is neither exaggerated nor burlesqued. He made such speech a legitimate idiom of the theater at a time when dialects were used so exaggeratedly in some other plays (Abie's Irish Rose), on the radio (The Goldbergs or Amos and Andy), or in comic strips (The Katzenjammer Kids) that they really demeaned the people portrayed as using them.

The Goldbergs was one of the more popular radio shows of the thirties; Weales notes that the dialect in the Goldberg scripts ("For vat is your fadder slaving for vat I'm esking you?" or "Maybe he got himself runned over by a cabsitac") uses "verbal humor at the expense of a real language, and it is used, perhaps unintentionally, to destroy any suggestion of validity in the characters and the situation." Weales continues, "Odets manages to find the humor in the language and retain the psychological truth of the family." For the first time in American drama, Jews were represented, through an honest recording of their language, in something other than caricature.

At times Odets deliberately employed the dialect of older, less acculturated Jews, particularly for such characters as Jacob, Bessie, and Myron in Awake and Sing!. However, elements of Yiddish-American appear in all of his plays and, indeed, quite tellingly, in his responses to questions in interviews. Even in situations where Odets is not striving to project a Jewish image, as he is with a character like Bessie Berger, for example, Yiddish-American word order and phrasing still are evident. Sid in Waiting for Lefty quite unselfconsciously speaks lines like, "If we went off together I could maybe look the world straight in the eye," naturally selecting a locution which is Jewish-American in its placement of the adverb maybe.

Cantor, who writes in detail about Odets's use of language, says of it, "It is Yiddish in its inflections (sometimes even when he is writing about the goyish milieux), and contains Yiddish-English expressions." Odets strove to establish a credible language for the people in his earlier plays and in so doing became the first American dramatist to use the Jewish-American dialect, with all of its humor, with all of its distinguishing cadences, for other than comic effects. Pocnmann claims that while few Jews outside Palestine (and now Israel) speak Hebrew, Judaeo-German (Yiddish) has become more or less the tongue of the Jewish people throughout much of the world. From this Judaeo-German language Odets has borrowed so heavily.

One can open to any page of Awake and Sing! and find in it the most faithful representations of the Yiddish-American dialect. A few follow:

Bessie: Go to your room, Papa. Every job he ever had he lost because he's got a big mouth. He opens his mouth and the whole Bronx could fall in. [In an editorial note, Shuman "finds the object of the sentence in the primary position (Every job) and also finds the exaggerated humorous cliché, 'the whole Bronx could fall in,' so common to Yiddish-English." He also notes "the third person singular aside."]

Myron: I was a little boy when it happened—the Great Blizzard. [Shuman notes that in "this case the referent of the pronoun follows the pronoun."]

Bessie: Myron, make tea. You'll have a glass tea. [Shuman notes: "Characteristic of Yiddish-English is the omission of the qualifier (some tea) and of the preposition (glass of tea)."]

Haslam, writing about Odets's use of language in Awake and Sing!, notes that Odets used "four major types of lexical or grammatical aberrations in constructing a believable stage Yiddish: (1) prepositional differences; (2) sentence order; (3) verb variations; and (4) Yiddish loans." He notes that an authenticity of dialect is achieved because Odets capitalizes on the difficulty that speakers like Jacob or Bessie have in translating words like the Yiddish foon, which can mean of or from; or bei, a more difficult preposition which can mean at, by, among, beside, or with.

In order to achieve believable Yiddish-American sentence structure, Haslam illustrates how Odets uses four specific techniques: (1) misplacement of modifiers; (2) the running together of some independent clauses without punctuation or conjunctions; (3) the misplacement of noun clusters used as objects; and (4) the omission of the objects of prepositions from the end of sentences. Haslam cites two types of verb variations that lend authenticity to Odets's dialogue, one which he identifies as mistranslation ("I won't stand he should make me insults") and the other as the frequent omission or addition of auxiliaries in verb clusters ("Wait, when you'll get married you'll know.")

Paradise Lost surges with the Yiddish-American idiom, despite the acculturation of the Gordons. Clara likes to begin speeches with "Do yourself a personal favor;" "Take a piece of fruit" is another staple of her conversation throughout the play, reminding one of the frequent allusions to fruit in Awake and Sing!. The well-ordered Jewish household will have fruit to offer guests. In the same play, one finds locutions like, "He's finished in ten minutes," rather than the more American. "He will be."

Odets tried to move away from his earlier idiom in plays like Golden Boy, Night Music, Rocket to the Moon, and Clash by Night, but one still finds bits of the Jewish idiom creeping in: "Don't change the subject. Like my father-in-law here—he's always changing the subject when I get a little practical on him" or a typical Jewish wisecrack, "You can't insult me, I'm too ignorant" or a malapropism, "How do you like it with our boy for gratitude? He leaves us here standing in our brevities!"

Odets has been accused of abandoning his natural dialect as he became more successful and, indeed, of losing "his ear for this idiom." Cantor, however points out that Odets's ear did not fail him when he was writing The Country Girl and The Big Knife, but that in these plays he "is dealing with success and failure in the upper echelons of Hollywood and Broadway." The Country Girl, which Odets asserted "doesn't mean anything to me; it's just a theater piece," does not have the idiom of his other plays, nor is there any reason for this idiom. The cast of the play is not Jewish, nor does the play have overt ethnic characteristics. But Cantor makes a persuasive case for the idiom of The Big Knife, writing that in it "Yiddish-American dialect took a new turn when it went to Hollywood and incorporated a strain of what Charlie Castle called 'phony cathedral eloquence';… Nat Danziger, Charlie Castle's agent, has 'all the qualities of the president of a synagogue,' though he is still capable of inverted Yiddish sentences and verb variants, such as 'Her I'm gonna talk to again' and 'a million dollars is got an awful big mouth' (I)."

If any doubt existed about Odets's ability to use the Yiddish-American idiom in his later productive years, The Flowering Peach should have erased it. In this play, Odets pulls out all the stops, borrowing Yiddish words like tuchter, the term Esther uses in addressing her daughter-in-law, using inverted word order, capitalizing on the comedy of Yiddish wisecracks and clichés much more than he ever had previously. The Flowering Peach is a comedy, and much of its comic character is found in its demotic language. When Noah tells a skeptical Esther that God has come to him in a dream and told of the impending flood Esther replies, "And all this God told you in one single dream?" to which Noah responds, "Told it to me in one dream, yeh! So now you know." When Esther wants Noah to urge their son Japheth to take himself a wife, Noah asks, "Such a boy, so strange, what could he offer a decent girl?" and Esther responds with the Yiddish humor of understatement "He could offer her a nice boat ride!" This sort of cynical litotes, characteristic of much Yiddish humor, blossoms in The Flowering Peach and grounds it in reality. Also the scatological is mingled with the idealistic to produce a similar comic effect in, for example, the scene where Noah discovers Shem has been making briquettes from manure and storing them on the Ark so that he can sell them at the flood's end: "On the Holy Ark he's makin' business! manure! With manure you want to begin a new world? Everybody's life he put in danger!"

Certainly in Awake and Sing! Odets strove most consciously to present the Yiddish-American dialect, using it as a means of building his characters and social setting. Cantor indicates how Odets manipulates the dialect: "That Yinglish in Odets's play 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 the speech patterns of their parents and grandparents." The gradations of dialect by generation is particularly interesting in Awake and Sing!. Jacob, the least acculturated member of the family, speaks a clearly identifiable sort of Yinglish, using borrowed words, mistranslated prepositions, misplaced objects, and verb clusters without the auxiliary. The next generation, as represented by Bessie, Myron, and Uncle Morty, still clearly speaks Yiddish-American, and at times Bessie's dialect is stronger than Jacob's. However, Ralph and Hennie speak essentially an urban American English with only an occasional injection of Jewish locutions here and there. Haslam notes two sorts of borrowings from Yiddish: words taken over in toto such as knish or shtupped or the chick ending in boychick, or locutions which are translated directly into English from Yiddish such as the recurrent "by me," which comes from Yiddish bei mir or the frequent "already," which is translated from German and Yiddish schon.

Odets as a Jewish Writer

Odets will be remembered historically more as a proletarian playwright than as a Jewish playwright. Nevertheless, his background and upbringing imposed a Jewishness upon his work, a Hébrewtude, as I have called it elsewhere, in which were the roots of his depiction of characters (the dominant mother/wife, the acquiescent husband), his concern with the themes of homelessness and alienation which are outgrowths of the Jewish motif of the exile, his concern with redemption, and his use of language as found both in his depiction of Yiddish-American life and in his general use of a more conventional standard English.

Odets's social view in his early plays often suggested affirmation. Speaking of these plays, Odets said that they "undoubtedly came out of ascending values, out of positive values, out of the search of millions of American citizens for some way out of a horrifying dilemma—a dilemma which, by the way, I don't think is over." These final words ring very true today as the United States faces problems which seem even more threatening than those of the Great Depression of the 1930s. By focusing on the plight of Jews during the Depression, Odets was able to write about characters whom he understood from the inside out and was also able to build the dramatic tensions which vivified his productions. It can certainly be said that the social and economic circumstances of the 1930s provided him with the perfect dramatic material to write about and that his early exposure to Jewish society provided him with themes, language, and folkways which lent themselves perfectly to the kind of writing that accounted for his meteoric rise as a playwright.

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