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Critical Essay by George L. Groman
SOURCE: "Clifford Odets and the Creative Imagination," in Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, edited by Gabriel Miller, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 97-105.
In the following essay, Groman examines Odets's reverence for the inspired creativity of Victor Hugo, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Groman then contrasts the high standards of heroism and idealism Odets found in these artists' works with the often hopeless and corrupt situations found in his own.
Clifford Odets, for all of his adult life as a playwright and screenwriter marveled at the gift of creativity, finding inspiration when that gift seemed within his grasp and enduring depression when it seemed beyond reach. His own experience operated as both a resource and an obstacle as he sought to resolve a number of personal crises—as a son whose father viewed his early acting and writing efforts with contempt, as a lover and husband whose stormy relationships ended in failure and bitterness, and as a creative artist whose need for privacy and discipline conflicted again and again with the temptations and demands of a public life and reputation. Yet whatever his own circumstances, Odets consistently sought fulfillment as a writer, viewing the creative act with reverence and continuing attention, and finding in the efforts of others inspiration as well as validation for his own creative identity.
Even as a boy, Odets was drawn to writers of powerful imagination whose heroes struggled with questions of identity and self-realization through social action or artistic effort. As a teenager Odets read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, a book to which he would invariably return and comment on with great affection. Indeed, in his 1940 journal, he called Hugo "the rich love of my boyhood days" and went on to describe Les Misérables as "the most profound art experience I have ever had." The French author, as Odets noted, influenced him in ways that were to affect his later life as a writer and political activist: "Hugo … inspired me, made me aspire; I wanted to be a good and noble man, longed to do heroic deeds with my bare hands, thirsted to be kind to people, particularly the weak and humble and oppressed. From Hugo I had my first feeling of social consciousness. He did not make me a romantic, but he heightened in me that romanticism which I already had. I loved him and love him still, that mother (sic) of my literary heart."
For a boy entering adolescence, Hugo's clear division of right and wrong, his demarcation of heroes and villains, and the endless pursuits of the relentless Inspector Javert must have met the young Odets's need for suspense and adventure. More important, ultimately, was Hugo's gallery of characters who were capable of heroism and sacrifice—the saintly Bishop of Digne, whose every action is devoted to those in need; Fantine, who sells her hair and even her teeth, hoping to preserve the life of her daughter; the young radical and romantic Marius Pontmercy, who gives up an inheritance on political principle; and the hero of heroes, the solitary convict Jean Valjean, who benefits from the Bishop's generosity and repays him by pursuing a life of good works despite enormous personal sacrifice.
Odets was to continue his search for mentors of powerful and wide-ranging vision, and in the American writers [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Walt] Whitman he found new inspiration and direction. As he wrote to Harold Clurman in 1932, it was the business-oriented Louis Odets, the writer's father, who first encouraged him to consider Emerson seriously. Margaret Brenman-Gibson quotes from this letter, in which Odets recalls his father leaving in his room "two volumes of a peculiar edition of Emerson 'made for business men.' In a gaily mocking account of this … (Odets) says, 'The devils quote and underline on every page glorious trumpet sounding maxims about success. They make Emerson the first Bruce Barton of his country. But I am reading with a clear brain and no interest in success.' Emerson is 'certainly the wisest American.'"
Reflecting further on Emerson's importance to him, Odets wrote in his 1932 journal, "I am glad that Emerson lived before I did. He has made life a richer thing for many (sic) of us. That is the function of all great men: that they reveal to us natural truths, ourselves and a realization of ourselves." Writing again in the same journal, he reflected on Emerson in a way that seemed to echo Hugo: "Emerson says somewhere that heroes are bred only in times of danger. I would add great artists are too bred in such times. Now I see the world is drifting into such times. I am waiting to see what heroes and artists will spring from the people."
Although Odets would come to share Emerson's belief that people are not fundamentally bad, he commented that few could or would rise to Emerson's call for "uncorrupted behavior." That he continued to brood over this loss of Emerson's faith in his fellow humans is amply demonstrated in his plays and elsewhere. Even near the end of his life, in a telecast interview, he would remember "what Emerson called 'uncorrupted behavior'" as a quality "with which all children are born … when nothing outside of yourself influences you, when you are in command of yourself with honor, without dishonesty, without lie, when you grasp and deal, and are permitted to deal, with exactly what's in front of you, in terms of your best human instincts."
To be sure, Odets could and did find many calls for "uncorrupted behavior" in Emerson's work and that of other writers but what he seems to have valued most in Emerson was his belief in the range of human potentialities despite the limitations of time, place, accident, or fate. It was Emerson who had emphasized in "Circles" that "there are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile," and in "Fate" that nature, rather than being limited to destructiveness, "solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipotence." In "Circles" Emerson remarked that "the use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it." Such statements were meant to clear the way to new horizons and did so for Odets and countless others.
Like Hugo and Emerson, Walt Whitman assumed heroic proportions for Odets, who even kept a plaster cast of the poet in his room. In 1940 he bought first editions of November Boughs and Drum Taps, as well as a collection of Whitman's letters to his mother. In 1947, when Odets's only son was born, he named him Walt Whitman Odets.
If the large-scale models of Emerson and Whitman were encouraging, Odets nevertheless understood that American life might bring forth artists of quite different scope and temperament. In conversations with the composer Aaron Copland at Dover Furnace, the Group Theatre's summer retreat, Odets came to grips with this issue. He noted that "today the artists are not big, full, epic, and Aaron shows what I mean. They squeeze art out a thousandth of an inch at a time, and that is what their art, for the most part, lacks: bigness, vitality and health and swing and lust and charity…." Odets concludes by asserting, "there I go to Whitman again. Of course that's what we need, men of Whitman's size."
In another entry in the 1932 journal, Odets suggests that Whitman "roars in your ears all the time. When you swing your arms and the muscles flex, they are Whitman's muscles too." Elsewhere Odets celebrates not only the strength that may come with well-being but also the sexuality and autoeroticism that made Whitman famous and, in the nineteenth century, generally disreputable: "I think with love o (sic) Whitman's lines, something like, 'Oh the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness (sic) and sexuality of it and the great goodness and clarity of it.' And I myself feel that way with love for people and the earth and women and dark nights and being together and close to naked women, naked as I am naked."
Eventually, Odets's excitement and passion would cool—a result of hard living, many personal and professional disappointments, and, simply, aging. However, it may be that Whitman's imagery linked to a sense of purpose remained embedded in the playwright's consciousness, as suggested by a passage written a year before his death: "The whole fabric of my creative life I have built a room in which every corner there is a cobweb. They have mostly been swept away and I must begin again, spinning out of myself (italics mine) the dust and 'shroudness' of that room with its belaced and silent corners." The passage brings to mind Whitman's noiseless, patient spider involved in the act of creation, launching forth "filament, filament, filament, out of itself." Like the spider, the narrator's soul in the second verse of Whitman's poem (now personified) sends out "gossamer thread" to "catch somewhere," thereby hoping to end a pattern of isolation. If Odets, like the spider and soul of the poem, sought to reach out to others, he seemed also to be settling old scores here, undergoing a ritualistic purgation in a rather stifling atmosphere and, in doing so, readying himself for the task of creation, which Whitman's spider image so powerfully evokes.
Odets's search for heroic models extended to the musical world as well as to literature, and in the life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven he found a source of inspiration that was to last until his death. Odets listened to Beethoven's music frequently and intensively, wrote on Beethoven's importance as a creative artist and man of his time, and would sometimes self-consciously compare and contrast Beethoven's problems and solutions with his own. In his early attempts at fiction and drama, Odets used the maimed musician or composer as a central figure. Indeed, in his unproduced play Victory he carefully modeled the hero, Louis Brant, on Beethoven himself. In later years in Hollywood, Odets also planned a screenplay on the composer's life, but the project was never completed.
Beethoven's early poverty, his difficult social relationships (often with women), and his dedication to his art (despite hearing problems and eventual deafness) greatly moved Odets. And in looking at W. J. Turner's biography of the composer, which Odets read while writing Victory, he would find one acquaintance of Beethoven remarking of him "that he loved his art more than any woman" and "that he could not love any woman who did not know how to value his art." Later, as Beethoven's hearing problems increased in severity and further isolated him, the composer thought of suicide but desisted, "art alone" restraining his hand. At other times he wrote of seizing "fate by the throat" to reach his goals. Clearly, for Odets, Beethoven was a truly courageous man and artist despite his personal difficulties.
Odets, in commenting on Beethoven's music, found the Eroica Symphony "an awesome and terrible piece of work' and his fourth piano concerto a composition in which the "characters of the orchestra never for a moment stop their exuberant conversation." As for Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, he noted, one must "be virgin of heart and spirit to write it. Beethoven did not lose the innocence," though ordinary mortals give it up simply "to survive." Odets's descriptions, quoted here, underscore the intensity of his feelings about Beethoven and sometimes suggest Emersonian parallels. They also indicate the kind of close thematic connections between music and literature the writer would make in his plays and films.
As Odets struggled with form, so did the Old Master, but Beethoven triumphed again and again. As Odets put it, "every time he found a form for his content he simultaneously found that his content had progressed in depth and a new form was necessary—a very Tantalus of life! He, however, had the hardheadedness to see it through to the bitter end—he obviously died looking for a new form—and he died having pushed music to a level which before had never been attained nor has yet been equalled. Great unhappy man!"
Finally, in Beethoven, Odets found a paradigm for the quintessential Romantic—a superman for all seasons—one who is "amazed, impressed, delighted, and enraged by the caprices of life." As Odets noted further, "It is the romantic who cries out that he is out of harmony with life—by which he means that life is not in harmony with his vision of it, the way he saw it as a youth with moral and idealistic hunger to mix his hands in it and live fully and deeply. The classic art is to accept life, the romantic to reject it as it is and attempt to make it over as he wants it to be." The man and his method were for Odets a means of perception, a symbol of hope, and possibly a basis for social action and change.
When we turn to Odets's own work, however, we find a curious paradox. The heroic models have disappeared, and in their place the protagonists of his plays respond at a primal level to a brutal, self-serving world; either they are (or become) corrupt or they are overwhelmed by an environment over which they have little or no control. Indeed, the America that Odets lived in and responded to was far different from the private and idealized world about which he wrote with such intensity and even affection and that he later abandoned with such regret. In Waiting for Lefty, Odets's first-produced and perhaps most well-known play, there is a rousing call for strike action by the rank and file of a taxi union after much indecision and argument. However, Lefty, the guiding spirit of the union, has already been murdered by unknown assailants, and even the ringing call to action at the end of the play suggests martyrdom as well as the benefits of solidarity. As Agate, one of the rallying strikers, puts it, "HELLO AMERICA! HELLO. WE'RE STORMBIRDS OF THE WORKING-CLASS. WORKERS OF THE WORLD…. OUR BONES AND BLOOD! And when we die they'll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces. We'll die for what is right! put fruit trees where our ashes are!" (My italics.)
In Awake and Sing!, Odets's Depression-era play centered on an American-Jewish family in the Bronx, the Marxist Grandfather Jacob is ineffectual even in his own family and ends his life by suicide. His grandson Ralph Berger, who surrenders the insurance money Jacob had left him at his mother's insistence, will in all likelihood have little influence in times to come. As a number of critics have suggested, his optimism strikes a false note as he faces the future without a clear sense of purpose, training, or money. Indeed, as more than one character comes to understand, despite arguments to the contrary, life is "printed on dollar bills." The well-to-do Uncle Morty, a dress manufacturer, will continue to have the respect of Ralph's mother Bessie, he will continue to oppose strike action vigorously and probably successfully, and he will lead a personal life without personal responsibilities, sleeping with showroom models and seeking other creature comforts. Moe Axelrod, the World War One veteran and ex-bootlegger, has by the end of the play convinced Bessie's daughter Hennie to abandon her much-abused husband and infant to seek a life of pleasure with him. To be sure, arguments for social or family responsibility may be found in this often moving play, but the resolution nevertheless seems to suggest a definition of success devoid of commitment or love.
In Golden Boy, Joe Bonaparte, a violinist turned boxer, does become a hero for his time, defined by physical strength and a willingness to incapacitate or destroy his opponents in the prize ring. Although he has read the encyclopedia from cover to cover (perhaps fulfilling Ralph Berger's quest for learning) and "practiced his fiddle for ten years," the private world he has created is no longer sufficient for him. It cannot offer him the sense of power or perhaps the ability to dominate others for which he yearns. Indeed, he is seduced by the monied world that surrounds the prize arena and by the temptations offered by the gangster Eddie Fuseli, who seeks to remold the Golden Boy and turn him into a fighting machine—careless of others, indifferent to love, and irrevocably cut off from family ties and memories of the past. As the reborn Joe aggressively puts it, "When a bullet sings through the air it has no past—only a future—like me." Joe returns to his dressing room after what is to be his last fight, and his trainer, Tokio, notices that one eye is badly battered, symbolic of Joe's impairment of vision on a number of levels. The triumphant fighter learns that he has killed his opponent in the ring, and he must confront the implications of the disaster. In rejecting a personal integrity, he has betrayed his moral and spiritual center, and at the end of the play he dies, an apparent suicide. His personal tragedy is an awareness of the vacuity his life has become. He is trapped in a world that he himself has made, rejecting his father's simple but encompassing Old-World Italian version of what his personal struggle must lead to: fulfillment of a dream predicated on the yells of a mob over ten rounds, the quick buck, and tabloid headlines forgotten at a glance.
Both The Big Knife and The Country Girl are plays that show the failure of art and artists destroyed by a world that demands too much, too fast, too soon. In The Big Knife, Charlie Castle has given up a promising career in the theater and a somewhat vague belief in political and social action to become one of Hollywood's big stars. Like Joe Bonaparte or perhaps Odets himself, Charlie is plagued by the idea that he has betrayed his considerable talent in exchange for money and stardom. Early in the play, he argues that the theater is "a bleeding stump. Even stars have to wait years for a decent play." Now in the movie business, he cannot afford "acute attacks of integrity." In a succession of films, he reflects "the average in one way or another" or is at best "the warrior of the forlorn hope." As Hank Teagle, a family friend, puts it, "Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul. America is full of it."
Like Joe Bonaparte, Charlie understands only too well what he has become. He remarks that he has become an imitation of his old self, and young new actors now imitate—or parody—the imitation. However, it is Marion Castle, Charlie's estranged wife, who most emphatically reminds Charlie of his self-betrayal, warning that he acts against his own nature. She says to him, "Your passion of the heart has become a passion of the appetite. Despite your best intentions, you're a horror."
Indeed, Charlie has taken a downward path. He is on the way to becoming an alcoholic, he has been unfaithful to his wife, and he has avoided prosecution for an accident that occurred during an evening of drunken driving by allowing a studio employee to confess in his place and serve a prison term. Only when the studio management obliquely threatens to murder the woman companion turned blackmailer who was with him on the evening of the accident does Charlie assert himself by preventing a new crime. However, despite his one moment of decency, Charlie is lost. He has, over Marion's objections, signed a new contract with the studio moguls who have by turns enticed and threatened him. Too weak to face a loss of status poverty, and the unstable life of the theater, perversely attracted by the life he has been leading, and yet filled with self-loathing, Charlie takes his own life. Marion, his wife, leaves with Hank Teagle, the writer who has been faithful to his principles and whom Charlie had called his Horatio. Indeed, it is Teagle who will tell Charlie's story to the world—the tale of a man who was certainly not a Hamlet in depth or breadth, one who could understand and even dream but who could not change himself or the world, which paradoxically offered him so much and so little.
In The Country Girl, a play better structured and developed than The Big Knife, Broadway director Bernie Dodd is ready to take a chance on a new play starring a has been, an older actor named Frank Elgin. Dodd is "in love with art" and tells Elgin's wife Georgie that although he could "make a fortune in films," he intends to continue in the theater, where important work can still be done. Elgin's brilliant performances in two mediocre plays, based on his intuitive understanding of character and situation, had long ago inspired Dodd and now lead him to believe that the old actor can excel again. However, there are real problems. Elgin is weak and self-indulgent, he is an alcoholic, he is a liar, he needs constant reassurance, and like Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, he needs desperately to be well liked. As the play develops, Bernie Dodd and Georgie struggle with each other and with Frank. Each of the three seeks personal fulfillment, but finally the play becomes the all-consuming and all-important issue. Frank Elgin does succeed (with the help of the two closest to him) in rising to his full stature as an actor. He vindicates Bernie's judgment and justifies (or necessitates) Georgie's remaining with him—after years of failure and disappointment.
In this play about theater life, Frank Elgin's transgressions are forgiven in the name of art and artistry. Bernie discovers that Frank has lied about his wife's past. He has told Bernie that Georgie was once Miss America (possibly to enhance his own prestige), that she is an alcoholic, and that she is a depressive who has attempted suicide. Georgie learns that Frank has lied about her (his lies are partially based on a play in which he once appeared) and observes that he has begun to drink again. When the producer (Phil Cook), Bernie Dodd, and others in the company find out, there is turmoil, but there are no lasting repercussions. Because of Bernie's belief in Frank Elgin's talent, the actor is to continue in the play. Frank himself is simply following an old pattern. He has for much of his adult life drunk steadily, taken pills, and lied to relieve the pressures on him. When his and Georgie's only child dies, when he loses much of his money in producing a play, and when he begins to fail as an actor, the old remedies are close at hand. The conflict between the easy indulgence of the moment and the stern realities of working in a creative but uncertain world—with its quick rewards and even quicker condemnations—leads to the kind of disintegration Odets so often sought to depict. In this play, as in The Big Knife, intuitive understanding, talent, and artistry bring some forms of self-fulfillment and recognition, but are by themselves no protection against weakness or personal loss. In The Big Knife, Charlie Castle finds suicide the only way out. Frank Elgin is successful at the end of The Country Girl, but one suspects that his future success will depend on the continued availability of the long-suffering wife who mothers him, on directors and producers who excuse his frequent lapses, on unending applause, and on total self-involvement and self-delusion.
Odets, then, in his work revealed his fascination with the world of art and his belief that art may enhance our understanding of the human condition, though it cannot alter the environment or our responses to it. The romantic vision that Odets pursued so intensely in a personal way might seem ennobling or heroic, but in a world of shrunken values and failed personal lives, it offers only a sense, a resonance, of what might have been. Indeed, the romantic stance—as Odets portrayed it in the America of his time—was collateral to be called in, leaving only a shell without substance. Despite the excitements of the conflict, Odets's vision of the truth was profoundly pessimistic. That he portrayed it as he did often showed courage as well as artistry.
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