Clifford Odets | Critical Review by John Lahr

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Clifford Odets.
This section contains 1,269 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Lahr

SOURCE: "Ark Angels," in The New Yorker, April 4, 1994, pp. 94-6.

John Lahr is an American author of both fiction and nonfiction, a playwright, and a critic. In the following excerpt, he reviews a 1992 performance of The Flowering Peach and gives background on the play and Odets's reasons for writing it.

"Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul," says Hank Teagle, a character in Clifford Odets' The Big Knife—a play about Hollywood, where Odets moved from New York in 1936, in search of a big audience and big bucks. He lived with a moral malaise every subsequent day of his professional life. Odets died, of cancer, on August 14, 1963, when he was fifty-seven, and on his writing desk were two copies of Time. One was the December 5, 1938, issue, which had Odets on the cover as a wunderkind (between 1935 and 1939 he wrote seven plays, including Awake and Sing! Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy, and Rocket to the Moon) and bantered his famous battle cry "Down with the general fraud!" The other was a 1962 story announcing his appointment as script editor and chief writer on NBC's TV drama series The Richard Boone Show. In the intervening twenty-four years, Odets had had five more plays performed, and had created one major public sensation: in 1952, he testified as a "friendly witness" before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Odets had been one of the theatrical standard-bearers of the left, and his dialogue, with its pithy swagger, cut a raffish new figure on the American stage. But after that moment of compromise Odets' language, which had captured both the utopian thrill and the radical lament of the times, lost its moral purchase on the American experience. The true combative, lyric note of his literary voice was strangulated. Odets lapsed into a long period of inactivity, and when he emerged, in 1954, as the writer-director of The Flowering Peach (revived now by the National Actors Theatre, at the Lyceum), he spoke in a new voice and in a new way. Earlier, he had wanted to purge himself of Jewishness and be accepted as "a regular American playwright," but in The Flowering Peach, a retelling of the story of Noah and the Ark, he returned to his Jewish roots, and he also tried to rationalize his political volte-face. "There is idealism now in just survival," Rachel, Noah's daughter-in-law, says in the play, doing the author's special pleading. Noah, like Odets, was a true believer, but Odets turned Noah into someone like himself, whose values were confounded by the absurd turn of apocalyptic events. Out of God's awesome petulance ("I shall wipe off the face of the earth this human race which I have created") Odets created a comedy of righteousness in which Noah's ideals are sorely tested. Like Odets, he is forced to acknowledge the hard pragmatic fact of life: every dogma has its day.

Noah, the Bible tells us, was six hundred years old when the flood came, but the hoary-headed Eli Wallach, who bustles onto the Lyceum stage protesting to the heavens about being commanded to build an ark in the desert, doesn't look a day over a hundred. "I'm awake," he says, of his call to duty, "but I wish I was dead." Noah has been selected by God to repopulate the new and improved universe, but he is also that universe's first standup comic—a hostile sharpshooter loudly proclaiming his innocence. When his wife, Esther (Anne Jackson), kvetches about his drinking, he says, "You should be satisfied that I drink, otherwise I'd leave you." But age and drink—which are two large and endearing comic components of Noah's personality—are generally downplayed in Martin Charnin's sleepy production. It's a testament to the conviction in Odets' argument that The Flowering Peach holds the attention of the National Actors Theatre audience. (Jurors voted the play the Pulitzer Prize but were overruled by the advisory board, which gave it to Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.) The debate between Noah, God, and Noah's recalcitrant family almost makes the audience forget some of the production's startling visual anomalies, like the impoverished prostitute Goldie (the curvaceous Molly Scott), who comes on board as Japheth's would-be wife, and, in her gold bangles and colorful pink and green silks, looks like a fugitive from Kismet. The Flowering Peach, in a sense, is the forerunner of Mel Brooks' Two Thousand Year Old Man ("Joan of Arc? I dated her"), with this difference: Noah is a test of faith, not of fun. To succeed, though, The Flowering Peach requires the eccentric conviction of great comic playing. The characters are a collection of ideas, not psychologies, and the play needs stars to bring their large personalities to bear on this sketchily drawn tribe which has been delegated to make the world over after God wipes it clean. But instead of comic cameos Charnin can manage only lacklustre cartoons. Noah's sons are a collection of isms for the new world order: idealism (Japheth), cynicism (Ham), and capitalism (Shem). Of this winded crew, only the enormous Josh Mostel, as Shem, finally gets into the swing of things, but not until the second act, when his stash of "dried manure briquettes" (his investment for the future) is discovered in the listing Ark. "With manure you want to begin a new world?" the outraged Noah says, ordering it dumped overboard, but not before Mostel's face has turned pink, his behemoth body wobbling with choked fury. "Poppa," he says. "But what am I without my money?!"

The play's original tryout included Washington and coincided with the Senate's censuring of Joseph McCarthy, and Robert Whitehead, the original producer, remembers that Odets was completely distracted by this political development. "Clifford would not come to terms with the end of the play," Whitehead recalls. "He kept saying to me, 'I'm locked in my room. I can't do anything, because you're forcing me to try (and write). I've got nothing but ashes in my mouth. You want poetry. I've got ashes.'"

The play still feels unresolved. When Noah's wife dies (Odets' last wife, Bette Grayson, died in 1954), he is weakened by grief and by his rigid adherence to his faith in the face of certain disaster. Japheth (played by David Aaron Baker) refuses to trust to God's will and let the leaking and rudderless Ark founder, and ultimately his faith in reason prevails over Noah's insistence on the will of God. "I have a strange feeling that God changed today," says Japheth, whose assertion of authority finally separates him from his father. When they reach land, Noah sends his offspring out to be fruitful and multiply. The flowering peach tree is an emblem, as plants always were for Odets, of the universal potential for "perfect form." In the midst of this hope of perfection is the spectacle of man's imperfection. Noah blesses the unborn child of his favorite and idealistic son, Japheth, and his new bride, Rachel, but chooses to live with Shem and the status quo. "Why?" Noah says, as Shem exits ahead of him with his wheelbarrow piled high with booty from the trip, and he answers, "It's more comfortable." According to the Bible, Noah, after fulfilling his mission, lived three hundred and fifty years longer. But Odets lived only nine years more, hounded by a sense of incompleteness. "I may well be not only the foremost playwright manqué of our time but of all time," he wrote in his diary in 1961. "I do not believe a dozen playwrights in history had my natural endowment…. Perhaps it is not too late."

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This section contains 1,269 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Lahr
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