Clifford Odets | Critical Essay by George L. Groman

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Clifford Odets.
This section contains 3,406 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by George L. Groman

Critical Essay by George L. Groman

SOURCE: "Clifford Odets's Musical World, The Failed Utopia," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, edited by Daniel Walden, State University of New York Press, Vol. 5, 1986, pp. 80-88.

Groman is an American educator, editor, and author. In the following essay, he examines the influence of music on Odets and his works. He finds that Odets's plays often equate music with an inner harmony that offers hope amidst the dissonance of the outside world.

In the 1935 production of Paradise Lost, playwright Clifford Odets had one of his major characters conclude the final act of the play with a lyrical affirmation of faith. "Everywhere now men are rising from their sleep," the character, Leo Gordon, asserts. "Men, men are understanding the bitter black total of their lives. Their whispers are growing to shouts! They become an ocean of understanding! No man fights alone…. I tell you the whole world is for men to possess. Heartbreak and terror are not the heritage of mankind! The world is beautiful. No fruit tree wears a lock and key. Men will sing at their work, men will love. Ohhh, darling, the world is in its morning … and no man fights alone!"

Leo Gordon, whose visionary statement ends the play, has just lost his business through bankruptcy and the machinations of a dishonest, longtime partner; he has been evicted from his home, his furniture is on the street, and he and his family can look forward, in the depression year of 1935, to destitution, despair, and the gray anonymity that is the lot of those who mix bad judgment with seemingly idle dreams. The disparity described here between inner vision and external reality lies at the center of Odets's perception of the world. In America, even the America of the 1930s, men and women have the capacity for personal fulfillment, but are thwarted by political and social forces that leave few, if any, options for those without money or power. Odets's dilemma, like that of many another depression writer, was that he sought to make sense out of what appeared to be senseless and to account for those who were stubborn or courageous enough to seek survival on their own terms—terms which at least some of the time encompassed independence of thought, group or family loyalty, and a belief in the sustaining power of artistic vision.

Odets, it is interesting to note, escaped many of the difficulties he so carefully described in his eleven plays and other writing efforts by gaining recognition as a writer and by earning a good deal of money as a result of his work. The son of Central and East European Jewish immigrants and also a high school dropout, he resisted his father's efforts to involve him permanently in the family printing business and set about becoming first an actor and then a playwright. It will be recalled that the first play of Odets to be performed, Waiting for Lefty, in 1935, produced a sensation. Odets here described the attempts of a committee of workers to gain acceptance for a strike, and performances were so effective in moving audiences that even middle-aged matrons from Scarsdale got to their feet to yell "Strike!" along with the actors. According to Odets's most recent biographer, Waiting for Lefty has been the most widely produced and banned play in theatre history. Odets's Awake and Sing!, produced later in 1935 but in fact the first play Odets wrote, focused on the struggles of a Jewish-American family in the Bronx during the depression era. Undoubtedly the play which most closely paralleled Odets's own experience, it described, often by means of pungent dialogue, the frustrations of people with essentially middle-class aspirations and strong personal needs, but an uncertain future. If the characters, in their search for material and emotional security, are sometimes crude and rude in their interactions with and treatment of one another, there is always lurking somewhere beneath the surface Odets's vision of a more satisfying life, one which might in a better world ultimately be made whole through the redeeming power of art. In Awake and Sing! and in many other plays of Odets, the theme is sounded again and again. If art does not and cannot rule the world and banish despair, it nevertheless remains as a haunted utopia and a vision of what might be.

Of all the arts, it was music which made the most profound impression on Odets's imagination and thought. Indeed, this interest was widely noted even during the writer's lifetime. According to one early observer and friend, Odets used music like a drug, "experiencing a remarkable psychological intimacy with vanished composers—whom he called 'the mighty dead'" and "whose message he was always eager to impart to others." Odets's wife, Luise Rainer, the Viennese film actress and Academy Award winner who later divorced him, in fact considered his interest obsessional. She noted that although "their greatest relaxation had long been listening to records," the steady intake of music and his insistence on playing it at top volume eventually created more of a wall than a bond between them. Odets himself often bemoaned the fact that he had not become a musician or composer. In a typical journal entry, he remarked that he had been "destined" in his "flesh and spirit to be a musician but somewhere the spirit clutched wrongly."

Odets did, however, continue to be fascinated by the artistic possibilities which music offered and spent a good deal of time thinking about the connections between music and the writing he was doing. In a New York Times article in April of 1951, Odets used a string quartet to illustrate the possibilities for plot development. Here he describes, in hypothetical terms, the playwright who is primarily a technician, who "fabricates," and the playwright who, though he may have "an equal technical grasp," begins always by expressing "a personal state of being." To be sure, even the technician is able to manufacture a competent plot, one in which quartet members "function as one man, are deeply content, socially useful, and without personal problems." Into this "minor" paradise, Odets suggests, comes a young woman, beautiful and destructive, who has just married the cellist, but who begins an affair with the handsome second violinist. Not content with such disruption, she convinces her "uxorious husband" to leave the quartet in order to make "more money and splash as a solo artist. Q.E.D., paradise is lost and the quartet destroyed; farewell to a small, rich communal life dedicated to musical art."

The truly creative playwright, Odets believes, may utilize the same ideas, but will come at them another way. Odets imagines this second writer

morosely suffering … from a sense of alienation, feeling cut off from other workers in the theatre, from men and women in all walks of life. His deepest belief has always been that men must work together, not apart; and now he feels that there is something in modern life (acutely and painfully reflected in himself) which makes this not only difficult but impossible.

Months and months of this mood until one night, without belaboring the point beyond patience, the writer attends a quartet concert and sees there on the stage a perfect image of four men who, by the very nature of their art, must work together, dedicated, connected, humble and true.

Odets goes on to point out that many of the most prominent string quartets of the time have failed. Presumably, the truly creative artist might also make use of such information in shaping his play.

It is interesting to note that Odets uses essentially the same focus for both of the writers he conjures up. Indeed, both may envision a situation in which the artist is destroyed by urgent needs—lust, avarice, and the desire for social and artistic recognition. These needs, paradoxically, clash with the artist's ability to achieve that sublime inner harmony which brings with it the greatest human fulfillment.

Of all the composers Odets admired, it was Beethoven who meant the most to him. In fact, a number of early fictional works modeled on the composer portrayed young musical artists, either violinists or pianists, who are crippled by the loss of a hand or fall victim to the ministrations of an unscrupulous agent. Odets's Louis Brant (modeled on Beethoven) was also to be the central character in a historical play which he finally abandoned in favor of material closer to his own experience. Odets, nevertheless, continued to believe that the composer's lifelong struggles were much like his own. Both Beethoven and he "were shy, suspicious, essentially homeless, and parentless—negative elements that Beethoven had changed into a positive but embattled idealism, a reaching out for 'Bruderschaft.' In his creative work he embraced the entire world … making of it the home he never had."

Odets was also much concerned with the evolution of artistic form in Beethoven's work. Earlier composers like Bach had used the forms of their own time. Beethoven, however, was half master of those forms and half their servant. Beethoven "began to make the forms serve him. A fugue was no longer something to fill with content. Now, with him the fugue was shaped, pounded into serving his purpose in relation to a bigger thing—to the expression of his own individuality." Although later composers, particularly those after Wagner and Debussy, were free to explore themselves completely, they strayed too far away from "the roots and the nourishing earth of social form and life." The result, according to Odets, was sterility and a kind of "danse macabre" filled with "disease, hunger, neurotic pleading and searching, perhaps a complete lack of caring covered with childish cynicism, bitterness, often hatred, lostness, tearing down." Odets concluded, in 1931, that such individuality, what he now described as "sophistication," would die "a swift death" and that artists would come back to the "truth of root things" because of the spirit of artistic and social reform which filled the air. "Beethoven," Odets says, "is so much our man today." Although he was "the first great individualist in art," he also keenly felt "the lack of a group of his own kind of people who would be as intent as he on building up for themselves the same kind of world." That world was soon to be achieved, Odets claimed, through such movements as communism and his own Group Theatre.

As indicated, Odets's creative output for the theatre and for films was heavily influenced by his absorption with music. This interest is clearly reflected in Awake and Sing!, his play about the fortunes and misfortunes of a Jewish-American family living in the Bronx during the 1930s. Bessie Berger, the matriarchal head of the family, much like Brecht's Mother Courage, will do anything she can to keep her family together and to provide whatever security may be available at the time. In contrast, the men in the family were weak or psychologically maimed. Grandfather Jacob Berger, who dreams of Marxian revolutions, settles for the charity of his children, Caruso records, and a "glass tea." The father and husband, Myron Berger, who had attended law school for two years, ekes out a living as a haberdashery clerk and always ends by accepting his wife's judgments and decisions. Ralph Berger, like his sister, Hennie, is under his mother's domination—though he broods about the childhood pleasures Bessie failed to provide (skates and black and white shoes). When he thinks of marrying, Bessie prevents him from doing so because his fiancee is an orphan and has no financial resources. Hennie's husband, Sam Feinschreiber (fine writer) is dominated by his wife as well as his mother-in-law. He broods about his wife's lack of interest in him and senses that he plays second fiddle to another man. (Bessie remarks to other members of the family that as far as she is concerned, he doesn't even belong in the orchestra.) Bessies' brother, Mort, has been successful in business, but cares for little else. Even the more vigorous Moe Axelrod, who was Hennie's first lover and who convinces her at the end of the play to go away with him, is crippled. He has lost a leg in World War I, and his bitterness and cynicism show him to be spiritually as well as physically maimed.

At the end of Act II, Ralph learns that Bessie has duped Sam Feinschreiber into marrying Hennie, knowing full well that her daughter is pregnant by another man. He also learns that his grandfather and father have done nothing to prevent the deception. When Ralph confronts his mother, the enraged Bessie marches into Grandfather Jacob's room and smashes his Caruso records—here asserting a symbolic reaffirmation of her own role as head of the family and denying values that are irrelevant to survival and vaguely subversive. Ralph picks up a fragment of one of the records which turns out to be "O Paradiso" from Meyerbeer's L'Africaine. Earlier in the play, Jacob had expressed pleasure in hearing the piece and had recalled that in the opera "a big explorer comes on a new land—'O Paradiso.'" Jacob imagines Caruso in the role (in Act IV of the opera) standing on the deck of a ship and looking on a Utopia. "Oh paradise! Oh paradise on earth! Oh blue sky, oh fragrant air," sings the legendary Caruso. Clearly for Jacob, the paradise is not to last. Although Ralph grieves for his grandfather's loss of the records, Moe Axelrod, the family friend and Hennie's onetime lover, does not. He begins to sing a popular ballad of the day, the "Yama Yama" song. If paradise is unavailable, at least some forms of comfort are readily at hand:

      Lights are blinking while you're drinking,
      That's the place where the good fellows go.
      Good-by to all your sorrows,
      You never hear them talk about the war,
      In the land of Yama Yama
      Funicalee, funicala, funicalo….

It is worth nothing that although classical music in Odets's writing is used to represent a realization of human potential, popular music usually is not. Here the trivialization of deeply felt experience underscores the inadequacy of the response.

Later that same evening, Jacob commits suicide by jumping off the roof of the house, and the money from his small insurance goes to Ralph. However, he turns over the money to Bessie. Although Odets suggests that Ralph has gained in new understanding and vitality, one suspects that Bessie will continue to prevail because her vision and even her denials are an enduring source of family strength.

It was in Golden Boy, first produced as a play in 1937 and later as a film, that Odets dealt most directly with the theme of the failed musical artist. His protagonist, Joe Bonaparte, exchanges one identity for another, giving up promising studies on the violin to become a boxer. He desperately wants to reach for the big prizes—money, fame, and power, but he discovers that the path he has chosen is not an easy one. The prizes somehow seem elusive and even when they come, fail to provide the satisfactions he had dreamed of. Those who work with and for him—Tom Moody, his problem- and debt-ridden manager, Lorna Moon, Moody's fiancée who comes to love Joe, the gangster Eddie Fuseli who dreams of "owning" the golden boy—all desperately seek something of their own through Joe's successes in the ring. Indeed, for all of them, life is little more than a succession of risks. As one earnest, if uneducated, backer of the golden boy says, in a burst of Odetsian humor, Joe must win or they will all be left in their "brevities."

For Joe himself, the issue is more complex than simple victory or loss in the ring because he discovers that he cannot escape his past after all. He confides to Lorna Moon that music has provided him with a special kind of support and wellbeing. "When I play music," Joe says, "nothing is closed to me. I'm not afraid of people and what they say. There's no war in music. It's not like the streets." However, Joe also makes clear that music is not enough. He says, "You can't get even with people by playing the fiddle. If music shot bullets I'd like it better…."

That Joe continues to think of returning to music is made clear by the fact that in his early bouts he is careful to protect his hands. In one instance, he sees a man carrying a violin case and is so upset by it that he loses a bout scheduled for later the same day. Joe continues to box scientifically, and although he wins, his manager protests because scientific boxing does not give the crowds the kind of excitement that comes with seeing the losing fighter savagely beaten. Finally, the pressures on him are overwhelming, and he gives an important opponent a terrific beating. His hand broken, he has effectively shut the door on the past and become the "professional" who will destroy those who stand in his way.

Joe's father, Old Mr. Bonaparte, serves as a kind of moral center for the play. An Italian immigrant with a great love for music, he has encouraged Joe in his studies on the violin and even bought him a costly instrument for his twenty-first birthday. He disapproves of Joe's career as a fighter, but Joe, nevertheless, seems to need his support and asks him again and again for "the word." Finally, on the night of the fight in which Joe is to break his hand, Mr. Bonaparte gives his assent, but in a burst of anger and with the recognition that Joe will not and cannot turn back. He says, "Yeah … you fight. No I know … as'a too late for music. The men musta be free an' happy for music … not like-a you. Now I see whatta you are … I give-a you every word to fight. I sorry for you." That paradisical inner world with its serene and special harmonies, reserved for the "free an' happy," is lost forever. Indeed, it is the world outside which is out of tune and will eventually help to destroy the golden boy.

In his final fight, with the restraints removed, Joe puts "all of the fury of a lifetime" into a knockout punch and literally kills his opponent. Now he is at last made aware of what he has become, and he fears his father's response. Joe and Lorna speed into the night to meet death in a car crash—either through accident or design. Odets's melodramatic ending brings the story to its conclusion, but the dilemma posed by the playwright remains unresolved.

Other plays of Odets also make use of music for thematic and metaphorical purposes. In Paradise Lost, Pearl Gordon loses her fiancé, a violinist, because he can find no work, but she continues to play her piano and give lessons until the family falls victim to economic catastrophe. In Till the Day I Die, Ernst Tausig, an underground activist and former violinist, is imprisoned by the Nazis. When his interrogator learns of his career as a violinist, he asks Tausig if he is familiar with the Joachim Cadenza for Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major and then suddenly and angrily smashes Tausig's hand with a rifle butt. In Night Music, it is Steve Takis, a clarinet-playing Greek American who seeks a precarious foothold in the urban jungle. In Clash by Night, it is old Mr. Wilenski, a Polish immigrant who plays the accordion and dreams of better times long past. In Odets's last play, The Flowering Peach, based on the story of Noah and the Ark, it is the mythical gitka, a creature with rare musical powers, that offers respite in the midst of turmoil. Clearly, music in Odets's plays continued to be pervasive and significant.

To be sure, other important American writers have also been drawn to music and used it in their work. One thinks of Willa Cather's Youth and the Bright Medusa where music fills a cultural void and forms a raison d'être when all else fails or, more recently, of William Styron's Sophie's Choice where a former concentration camp inmate and her mad lover reassert their basic humanity and reclaim a sense of dignity through the redeeming power of music. Clifford Odets's lifelong love of music also encompassed such broad understanding. For Odets as well, music continued to be the sustaining force. In the chaos of modern life, music could, finally, provide a sense of the good and the beautiful, and a special place for the soul.

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