This section contains 3,407 words
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Interview by Michael J. Mendelsohn
SOURCE: "Odets at Center Stage," [Parts One and Two] in Theatre Arts, Vol. XLVII, Nos. 5 and 6, May and June, 1963, pp. 16-19, 74-76; pp. 28-30, 78-80.
Mendelsohn is an American educator, author, and critic. In the following interview conducted shortly before Odets's death, Odets comments on a wide range of topics, including theater, his influences, and his career in Hollywood.
[Mendelsohn:] I have a number of general questions and some specific ones; do you have any preference as to where we begin?
[Odets:] No, any way you choose to go is all right with me.
Well, let's begin with the idea that the playwright belongs to the theatre, rather than to the library.
Well, essentially there are two kinds of playwrights. Both can be excelling, but it would be necessary to make a distinction between the playwright who was essentially a theatre man and not a man of literature—not a man of the library, that is. If I talk about past and very great playwrights, it's obvious from the very style and form and cut and shape and pattern of their work that men like Moliere and Shakespeare were men of the theatre, not men of the library. And you see it on every page of their plays. They write with their feet solidly planted on the platform, and they write with a very knowing and frequently cunning theatrical knowledge, in the sense of what the audience is getting—they don't follow literary canon so much as they follow theatre canon.
At the same time, a piece of dramatic literature, when it is completed and bound between covers, can stand the test of good literature—if it is good literature.
Well, you have to admit that the two men I just mentioned, Molière and Shakespeare, wrote very great literature.
Let's go back to the 1930s. Do you feel the social protest plays accomplished something in themselves, or were they simply a dramatic manifestation in American society that would have taken place anyhow?
The plays 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. And the writer, or the playwright like myself, simply had to be alive and aware and partaking of this extraordinary ferment around him. The playwright then, as he always is, became the articulate voice of the aspiration of millions of people. If, for instance, you saw the opening night of Waiting for Lefty, you saw theatre in its truest essence. By which I mean that suddenly the proscenium arch of the theatre vanished and the audience and the actors were at one with each other.
You say that the proscenium disappeared, and I feel that this was something that you were trying to achieve in Waiting for Lefty—
Not consciously? Well, I'm speaking of the theatrical concept of naturalism versus the Thornton Wilder type of presentational play. Consciously in your plays, it seems to me you are staying within the proscenium, in all of your plays except Waiting for Lefty. Did you have that in mind?
Well, sometimes there are formal ways in which one breaks down the proscenium arch and makes the audience a more active participant in what is going on on the stage. Formal ways consist, sometimes, in a new style for the writer, or sometimes in the physical construction of the theatre. We talk of "theatre in the round." These are all attempts to unify the acting material and the audience. They are, however, in my opinion, artificial ways. The real way to make the proscenium arch disappear, the thrilling and human way, what I should say is the experienced way, is to have your actors speak from your platform materials and values which are profoundly and communally shared with the audience.
And, if this happens, it doesn't matter whether they address the audience directly, as in Waiting for Lefty, or talk to each other, as in Awake and Sing?
It doesn't matter at all. When you have a community of values in the theatre (which is, of course, what we don't have), the proscenium arch disappears. The audience is not watching a play, and the actors are not playing to an audience which is seated passively somewhere in that dark pit which is the auditorium. 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 and problems and values or even moralities of the audience. This is why the literature of Homer and the Greek drama and the Bible, or, in music, works of composers like Bach have such size. It's because the artist, the composer, the writer, is not someone apart and inimical to his audience, not a man in opposition to the values he is expressing, but one who completely shares organically the very values of the audience for whom he is writing.
In other words; the specific type of "presentation" or "representation" doesn't make any difference at all?
Well, it does nowadays, when theatre consists, for the most part, of trifles, of weak slaps and gestures at something that you don't like. Or, for the most part, an acceptance of things around you. You take all of the light comedies. What are they about? How amusing adultery is. By the way, they constitute propaganda plays for adultery, whether we realize it or not. They have no positive values; they play upon the patterns of prejudice and the likes and dislikes of the audience. They do not lead the audience. They do not lift the audience.
Are you familiar with Waiting for Godot?
This is a pretty good statement of a negative. I thought of that when you said "no positive values."
All you can say of a play like that—and, by the way, a small gem I should call it—all you can do is sit there sort of stunned and lament that the world is in a hell of a shape. You can be moved in a certain way. From that play I don't think you can be moved to try to lift yourself out of what it's saying into some higher living view of things. Unless, of course, you believe cutting your throat is a value!
Do you accept the label "optimist" that has very often been pinned on you?
"Optimist"? I would say that I have a belief in man and his possibilities as the measure of things, but I would not say that I was an optimistic writer. I would say that I have shown as much of the seamy side of life as any other playwright of the twentieth century, if not more.
It seems that many of your plays, even with the depiction of the seamy side of life, end on a hopeful note.
Sometimes the hopeful note is real, as, for instance, I believe it is in a play like Rocket to the Moon, and sometimes my critics are correct when they say that the optimistic note has been tacked on.
Awake and Sing?
No, not so much Awake and Sing, because I believe in the possibilities expressed in the last scene. I do believe that young people can go through an experience and have their eyes opened, and determine from it to live in a different way. I do believe that older and more crushed human beings can pass on some lifting values to the younger generation. I do believe that, as the daughter in that family does, she can make a break with the groundling lies of her life, and try to find happiness by walking off with a man who is not her husband. I believed it then, and I believe it now. I think I believed it more simply then. I did not express roundly or fully the picture, but I don't think that ending is a lie.
What particular plays did you have in mind when you said that the optimistic ending was "tacked on"?
Well, there is a certain kind of subtle theatrical use that doesn't really ask too much. For instance, what did Waiting for Lefty ask? It asked really that you go out on strike and fight for better conditions. Well, the people did do that. Along came the C.I.O. But it is not enough to go out on strike and ask for better wages; it is much better to go out on strike and say, "Now we have made a beginning." Frequently, the simplicity of some of my endings comes from the fact that I did not say at the same time. "This is a beginning; this will give you the right to begin in a clean and simple way." But these things are not ends in themselves. A strike and a better wage is not an end in itself. It will give you the chance to begin. It will give you the chance, in a democracy, to find your place, to assume your place and be responsible for your growth and continued welfare and happiness in that place.
Why do you sometimes like to direct? Is there a particular reason?
Yes, there are several reasons. First of all, I think that, frankly, I can direct my plays almost as well as anyone I know. Therefore, why not do it myself? I am very capable with actors; I was an actor myself for about 14 years before I became a playwright. The stage, the acting platform, is my home. I am not a library writer. A library writer should not direct his plays, but should find a competent director who will say more or less what he wants to say.
As Archibald MacLeish did?
Yes, or as Maxwell Anderson did. Maxwell Anderson was my idea (and I mean no denigration), my idea of a library writer, although he had a great deal of theatre wisdom, let me say. So, since I can handle the materials of a play of my own, why talk it over with a director? Why not do it myself? Secondly, in a play like The Country Girl, which is relatively, in the body of my work, a superficial play, I knew just exactly how that play should become successful. I wanted to do a successful production. And in that case I trusted no one else, because it seems to me that that play walks on a tightrope and that if it is not done almost with a certain speed and tension, it would plunge right down into the abyss. It took us a year to cast the play. The final casting didn't satisfy me, but there it was. With all of these considerations, I trusted only myself to get the result I wanted to get, and I did get it. Another director, by the way, might have brought added dimension to some of the scenes. He might see things that I didn't see. That's always a danger when you direct your own play. On the other hand, in the case of The Country Girl, I was looking for a certain kind of—to say it vulgarly—a swift, tense strongly-paced production. And I simply didn't trust it to anyone else's hands.
Then, just as with the novelist, who has no one getting in the way, except perhaps an editor, you feel that the fewer people who get in the way of what comes out of your pen, the closer to the pure work it's going to end up?
Yes, there is such an aspect to directing one of my plays. But an even more important aspect is simply the stimulation. It stimulates me as a writer to keep my feet and my hands on the stage. It's not that I'm interested in giving or showing the definitive meaning of a play. That side doesn't bother me too much. The stimulation is very important. It keeps you alive with the script, until the opening night. I used to find that I lost all interest in the script when someone else was directing, even a director I trusted and a director I admired and liked—let's say, Harold Clurman at his best. The whole thing went dead on me, so that when I had to rewrite, it was almost like I was approaching a strange new subject. But when I, myself, am directing the play, although aliveness comes in a different sphere, that of directing, which is quite different from writing, nevertheless it keeps me alive as a writer. So that I can leave the stage when I am directing and go to my hotel room out of town, as I did in The Country Girl, and three or four nights before the New York opening, in Boston, rewrite the last 15 pages, which made the play successful. But if I hadn't been directing that play, I would have been dead on it, and I wouldn't have written those last 15 pages as well.
Your comment about the desire to have The Country Girl be a commercial success suggests to me something else. Can you say that your early plays were written to push forward a certain point of view, and that your later plays were written for more artistic considerations, or for more financial considerations? Is there any way to separate these things?
I can separate them. The result may not always be what I think it is, but I have only two times—I don't know, I think I've written 14 or 15 or 16 plays, 12 or 13 of which have been produced—only two times did I sit down with the goal of writing a play that would be successful on Broadway and have a long run. The other times, I simply sat down to express a "state of being." Sometimes an ache, sometimes an agony, sometimes an excitement, the excitement which comes out of some kind of conversion, emotional lift, a sudden seeing where before one felt blind, and a sudden strength, whereas before one felt weak and muscle bound. It was always to express an inner state of being. I think that any creative writer sits down to express that. Sometimes it's a sense, a very vague sense of hurt, a vague mood, a vague sense of unhappiness, of, let me say, sometimes of disconnection. I don't think that any creative person in any craft or any medium can be creative unless he does sit down with that sense of expressing an inner state of being.
On the other hand I can see a certain shaped play dealing with certain materials, and I would like it to get across in a very successful way. So I will kind of put blinders on and not express the entire spread of what I feel about this material, but just make it theatrically viable, theatrically entertaining, and try to get across something that people will like, that will excite them. The first time I did that was once to keep the Group Theatre together in a play called Golden Boy. That was the other play, with The Country Girl, that I sat down deliberately to write a success. And, in both cases, let me say, "mission accomplished." As a matter of fact, I always held Golden Boy a little in contempt for that season, knowing how the seed had been fertilized. And it was maybe three years later that I saw the play had more quality than I gave it credit for. I don't, however, think I would change my mind about The Country Girl. It's a good show; it's a theatre piece. It does have about it a certain kind of psychological urgency, because if you are creative, things do creep in despite the conscious impulse. For instance, there crept into that play a central problem of my own life. And this did give a certain urgency and heat to much that went on in the script. I didn't mean for that problem to come out; I cannily and unconsciously disguised it. But that is unconsciously what came out in the writing of that play.
You wouldn't go so far as to attribute to Golden Boy the sort of allegorical analysis that George Jean Nathan gave to it—of this being your entire career, and—
I will tell you frankly that since the days of my youth were past—from those days on I have had no interest in what George Jean Nathan has written about me or has written about any other playwright dead or alive, or anything about the theatre. I think he was a first-class phony. I will always think so, and I don't miss him and never would miss him.
You've had 11 plays produced, aside from the translation in 1942—
Is it 11 plays?
So far as I've been able to keep track.
You've got me; I haven't counted them.
Eleven plus The Russian People—
Oh, let's not count that! They wouldn't let me do any work on it. It was forbidden to change a word. But Mrs. Litvinov, the Ambassador's wife, Ivy Litvinov—a very literate and charming woman—at the last moment got me permission to rewrite and change some of the scenes, but I said, "Mrs. Litvinov, it's too late." (We were opening in New York after, I think, two weeks in Washington, D.C.) "We're opening in New York City in three or four days, and I can't rewrite anything now." I did, here and there, enrich the texture, but no changes were permitted. This was a Soviet governmental order, you know.
Well, we won't worry about that one, but I was going to ask you—
Well, it's such a bad play; I shouldn't like to be responsible for it. I have the credit for adapting it.
Incidentally, how does one adapt a play from Russian? Do you get a literal—
Yes, you get a literal translation, and then you go to work on it. It's like you buy a chair made of raw wood, and you say now how shall I finish this chair? How shall I upholster it? The essential frame is there; you've bought the frame.
Well, I've counted 11 produced plays, anyhow, and—do you feel they move in a definite direction, from something to something, or is each one an individual expression of what you feel at the moment?
I don't think that I've written two plays alike. This makes trouble for me, because the materials of the play or its shape always seem to baffle not the audiences, but the critics. They seem to expect one thing. I don't do that consciously, but I write out of what interests me, and perhaps I'm still naive.
For instance, in my next group of plays, of which I have five laid out or written in part, I wanted to write the most serious play first. It's called An Old-Fashioned Man, and probably that title will stay. But then I think, if I write that play, and open it in New York—it's a big play, and necessarily will be densely textured—it will lay me open to all sorts of charges of immodesty, of lopsidedness. It's the kind of play you simply cannot get on one viewing. So I think, well, why not come in quietly with a much more modest play? And then when that one has its brief moment I would go to one a little heavier, from their point of view a little more immodest, because it will be attempting more and will be saying more….
Aside from None But the Lonely Heart, how many films would you want to have your name associated with along with your best plays?
Well, let them stand for what they are. They are technically very adept. I have learned a great deal from making and shaping these scripts. I don't know; I suppose that by now I've written—written or rewritten secretly for some friends of mine—fifteen or eighteen, close to twenty films. One need not be ashamed of them. I have not expressed anywhere any loss of standards. I haven't dehumanized people in them. I have even written a little picture that ended up being called Deadline at Dawn. I'm not ashamed of that. It's a little mystery thriller. I see it; it has its living moments. It's not merely that the dialogue is good. Or a picture that I rewrote called Sweet Smell of Success. It's professional work; I'm a professional writer. And I am never ashamed of the professional competence which is in these scripts. I have never downgraded human beings or a certain kind of morality. I'm not ashamed of any of them….
This section contains 3,407 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)