Clifford Odets | Critical Review by Brendan Gill

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Clifford Odets.
This section contains 705 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Brendan Gill

SOURCE: "Remaking Mankind," in The New Yorker, Vol. 60, March 19, 1984, p. 116.

Gill is an American novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review, he pans a modern production of Odets's Awake and Sing! and wonders if the work has been lost to history.

Innumerable plays have earned recognition in histories of the stage but are no longer readily producible on a stage, and I have the impression that Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing! may be one of them. I call it an impression, and not a conviction, because nobody could possibly judge the value of the play, either as a work deserving a certain place in history or as a source of entertainment to contemporary audiences, by the ramshackle version of it that is currently on view at the Circle in the Square. Odets finished the play when he was twenty-eight, early in 1935; that was his annus mirabilis, in the course of which he wrote three other plays as well, working in feverish, fruitful collaboration with the Group Theatre. What an assortment of gifted young radical idealists (if not quite revolutionaries) they were! Their aspiration was to change the entire world for the better, beginning—their idea of reasonableness—with America. The Bronx in the depths of the Great Depression was the setting of Awake and Sing!, and it was also a symbol: free the inmates of that grim gray prison house of the soul and mankind would take the hint and assume the heroic task of making itself over, in order that, among other welcome consequences, "life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills."

The cast of the first production of Awake and Sing! is worth noting, so we can remind ourselves of how distinguished the Group Theatre was from the very start: Art Smith, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Phoebe Brand, Jules Garfield, Roman Bohnen, Luther Adler, J. E. Bromberg, and Sanford Meisner. The scenery for the play was designed by Boris Aronson, and the director was Harold Clurman, Odets' close friend and, in Odets' phrase, "helpful obstetrician." Most of these people sprang from the same first- or second-generation Jewish American middle-class background, and they felt affection for and revulsion from the family life that Odets depicted. With the exception of Paul Sparer and Benjamin Hendrickson, the cast of the present production of Awake and Sing! seems as totally at sea as if the Bronx in the thirties were Tibet in the twelfth century; they are out of touch with the lilting, robust patois in which the play is written, and even with the way the characters ought to move about, embracing each other and recoiling from each other (what we nowadays call body English and in this case, looking back, we may risk calling body Yiddish). Odets describes Bessie Berger—the Stella Adler role—as a woman who "loves life, likes to laugh, has great resourcefulness, and enjoys living from day to day." Nancy Marchand plays Bessie as a bleak, stiff-jointed, scheming, and unaffectionate Protestant matron; her Jewish accent falters at every turn. The young hero, Ralph Berger, is played in the original production by Jules (later John) Garfield, is played by Thomas G. Waites; he brings innocence and ardor to the role, but he lacks the charm that would lead us to hope that the world will someday grant his ambition "to get to first base." We fear he will remain where he is, and that is not what the optimistic Odets, himself a prodigious hitter of home runs, wished Ralph's fate to be. Dick Latessa is touching as Myron Berger, the contented failed father of the family, and Harry Hamlin brings a necessary hardboiled vigor, but no Jewishness, to the role of Moe Axelrod. As Sam Feinschreiber, a classic lonely and unloved nebbish, fresh from the Old Country, Mr. Hendrickson works a trifle too hard for his own good but by doing so helps a dying play to stay alive. The calculated ugly Bronx-apartment setting is by John Conklin, the costumes are by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, the lighting is by Richard Nelson, and the heavy-handed direction is by Theodore Mann. We miss that jaunty, irrepressible Roman candle Harold Clurman on this occasion, as we do on so many others.

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This section contains 705 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by David Denby
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