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Critical Essay by Michael J. Mendelsohn
SOURCE: "Clifford Odets and the American Family," in Drama Survey, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall, 1963, pp. 238-43.
In the following essay, Mendelsohn traces a chronological progression in Odets's plays—from an early emphasis on anti-family social rebellion to a later integration and acceptance of the family into his plays' social landscapes. An editorial note states that this essay was in press when Odets died.
The drama of the Left in the Thirties was notorious for its redundancy in themes. Certain ones, such as championship of the laboring man, attacks on the evils or decadence of American society, pacifism, cropped up with great regularity until they began to sound to critics and playgoers alike monotonous as a broken record. The more skilled of the serious dramatists were satisfied to deal with one or two of these themes, while many of the others seemed to feel that a play was worth while if it contained all three subjects. Only a few playwrights, Clifford Odets among them, are remembered today among the score of social protest dramatists who were irretrievably ensnared by the trap that should have been apparent.
Many playwrights of the depression decade viewed the American stage more as a forum than as a place of entertainment. In the early part of his career, Odets was among those who could not completely escape the urge to propagandize even when the subject of the propaganda is unrelated to the main current of the play. Often this penchant halts the dramatic action. For instance, the trait shows up in a less than subtle way even in a relatively late play like Clash By Night, and the intrusion of the anti-fascist theme which threatens to take over the play is particularly jarring. Odets wants the reader to consider the events an allegory of the destruction of a simple, well-meaning individual by totalitarian forces too powerful to resist. But critics were not wrong in considering this aspect of the play to be forced, superimposed on a love-triangle melodrama.
Odets quickly outgrew the tendency to preach and to intrude forced themes; what is more, even his early plays rise above that weakness through their superior craftsmanship. It is a tribute to Odets' integrity as a dramatist that he constantly strove for newer and more expressive insights to advance his themes. This integrity helped Odets to survive the decade that had fostered him and to go on writing excellent plays. Awake and Sing assumes a stature among the plays of 1935 not because the others were necessarily poor, but because Odets combined certain truths with effective dramaturgy in a manner that most other social protest writers found difficult to accomplish. Economic determinism is there, but so are real people. Marxist stock phrases are much in evidence in all his early plays, but so are rich and accurate colloquialisms. Melodramatic clichés abound in the plotting, but these, too, are outweighed by the great number of honest, natural moments. For Odets was—and is—much more than "the poet of the Jewish middle class" or "the little Jesus of the proletarian theatre." His plays remain valid because they deal with universals concretely realized.
Odets was more interested in depicting problems of inequality and repressed opportunity in American society than he was in dealing with more militant social protest themes. His principal medium for doing so was one often used by American dramatists—the family. Playwrights are fond of working within the milieu of domestic life; in American drama the range extends from the ugly Loman family of Death of a Salesman to the Norman Rockwell portraits offered by Eugene O'Neill in Ah, Wilderness! Since he deals almost exclusively with contemporary domestic dramatic situations, Odets naturally shows various pictures of family life in his plays. These include unsuccessful marriages (Libby and Ben in Paradise Lost, Mae and Jerry in Clash By Night), strained but workable ones (the Starks in Rocket to the Moon, the Elgins in The Country Girl), and some older couples, presumably past the point of disputes (the Gordons of Paradise Lost, the Bergers of Awake and Sing). The notable omission is a happy marriage among the younger characters. Perhaps Siggie and Anna in Golden Boy or Shem and Leah in The Flowering Peach come nearest to achieving some reasonable degree of contentment among Odets' younger couples, but they are in their respective plays for comic relief. Perhaps also Joe and Peggy in Clash By Night or Steve and Fay in Night Music are on their way toward happiness in marriage, but Odets does not depict that part of their lives. The suggested conclusions from the observation of all these couples are hardly very startling: marriage accompanied by economic distress is difficult, and marriage must be founded in compromise. This need for mutual understanding is suggested by the ending of The Country Girl and is implied as early as Rocket to the Moon.
But it is the family as a social organism (rather than specific marital problems) that most often occupies Odets' attention, and there seems to be a marked calming in the playwright's attitude on this subject that makes a comparison of his early and late plays interesting. In Odets' early dramas, the family mirrors society and the playwright's emphasis is on rebellion. The process can probably be translated into a simple axiom: the individual must liberate himself from the bonds of a repressive family; the people must liberate themselves from the bonds of a repressive society. Odets' basic attitude is not abnormal in a Western culture, where the emphasis has tended more and more toward individual achievement, less and less toward a family-oriented social structure. Still, Odets carries the idea to an extreme that is surprising, especially when viewed in the light of the traditional Jewish pattern of close family ties.
Few ties of love hold the Berger family together. Rather, according to the playwright in his note that precedes the listing of the characters, they are bound together because they "share a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions." Odets follows this stark reflection with another important one. Describing Bessie he writes, "She knows that when one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life." This jungle morality extends to Paradise Lost as well, wherein Clara Gordon's eagerness to save the family by dishonest means is thwarted by Leo. But there is no Leo in the Berger family. This is a matriarchal group, and there is no one of Bessie's stature to check her activities.
Bessie's function seems almost exclusively to be repressive, leading one socially conscious critic to observe, "What Odets is also intent on pointing out is that the family, in circumstances of poverty and frustration, necessarily becomes an instrument of unjust coercion, even of unmorality, perpetuating false and outworn social values." Bessie's interference in Ralph's pitiable love affair is a minor matter; her concurrence in the plan to defraud the insurance company is worse; but her connivance in marrying Hennie to the unsuspecting Sam is a pure act of jungle warfare. The fact that Bessie has many moments of humor and affection, the fact that she acts in what she considers the best interests of the family, is insufficient excuse in Odets' eyes. Bessie is not evil; Awake and Sing is not The Silver Cord. It is her objective that is evil. Bessie is trying to preserve an outmoded institution—the family. Her father tells her so in plain language: "Marx said it—abolish such families."
A somewhat similar attitude is seen in other early Odets plays. In Till the Day I Die "the cause" is much more important than any feeling of family ties. Carl Tausig must dismiss any ideas of protecting his unfortunate brother when Ernst becomes a menace to the underground movement. Even Ernst's wife must reluctantly vote to isolate him from the other party members. Carl expresses the doctrine at the secret meeting:
What are we fighting for? I need not answer the question. Yes, it is brother against brother. Many a comrade has found with deep realization that he has no home, no brother—even no mothers or fathers! What must we do here? Is this what you asked me? We must expose this one brother wherever he is met. Whosoever looks in his face is to point the finger. Children will jeer him in the darkest streets of his life! Yes, the brother, the erstwhile comrade cast out! There is no brother, no family, no deeper mother than the working class. Long live the struggle for true democracy!
And in Waiting for Lefty it is Edna, threatening to leave her husband, who is the spokesman for Odets' thesis that the family as well as the individual is of less importance than the solidarity of the working class.
The family of Golden Boy has a more pleasant relationship. Old Bonaparte, not nearly so dominant a character as Bessie Berger, is portrayed rather sympathetically because his wishes for Joe correspond to the reader's. If Joe's rebellion against family lacks the idealism of Ralph Berger's, the rebellion is there nonetheless. Turning his back on his father and his own better nature, Joe looks to his trainer and his manager for new ties: "Now I'm alone. They're all against me—Moody, the girl … you're my family now, Tokio—you and Eddie!" But Joe's rebellion is incomplete. After he kills Chocolate in his last fight, and even though he has not seen his family in months, his first reaction is, "What will my father say when he hears I murdered a man?"
The half-realized revolt of the golden boy is partially attributable to the fact that the Bonaparte family is not a repressive one and partially to the fact that Odets' own attitude seemed to be undergoing a moderation. In his plays of the late Thirties, the emphasis was gradually shifting from rebellion to search. Odets shows characters who are in search of something to call a family. Cleo Singer in Rocket to the Moon has a horrible home life that she is trying desperately to rise above: "Mom and Gert and two married sisters and their husbands and babies—eight in one apartment! I tell them I want to be a dancer—everybody laughs. I make believe they're not my sisters. They don't know anything—they're washed out, bleached … everybody forgets how to dream." Earl Pfeiffer in Clash By Night is much the same. The search is most pronounced in Night Music in which Steve and Fay represent not only their own yearnings but those of every character in the play. Harold Clurman's introduction clearly expresses the central theme: "The play stems from the basic sentiment that people nowadays are affected by a sense of insecurity; they are haunted by the fear of impermanence in all their relationships; they are fundamentally homeless, and, whether or not they know it, they are in search of a home." Hovering in the background of Night Music is the repressive family again. Fay's father makes a brief appearance to demonstrate her very good reasons for escaping Philadelphia. But in the main, Odets pictures an essential groping for family by characters who are homeless.
Odets moved into his late thirties during World War II, and the lost youths simultaneously disappeared from his plays. Beginning with the film None But the Lonely Heart, there is a further noticeable shift away from anti-family rebellion and toward pro-family solidarity. Ernie Mott is a wanderer like Steve Takis in Night Music. But when he learns that his mother is dying of cancer, he suddenly cements his family ties and wanders no more. When she is first introduced, Georgie Elgin (The Country Girl) has packed and is ready to leave Frank, but she, too, remains. And in The Flowering Peach the emphasis on unity reaches its logical end at the opposite pole from Awake and Sing. There is a great difference in the Berger family, where "everybody hates, nobody loves," and the family of Noah, which has love flowing in all directions. The unbending patriarch Noah is made to appear somehow less tyrannical than the resourceful matriarch Bessie, even when he resorts to force to convince Japheth that he should enter the ark. While it is not the dominant element of the play, the concept of family unity is frequently underscored. At the end of scene two Japheth stands outside the family circle as his father intones a Sabbath prayer: "Oh, Lord, our God, the soul is rejoiced in Thee and Thy wonders. Here the family … is united to serve You as You asked." The remainder of the play is partially a chronicle of Japheth's return to the family scene.
The central portrait of cohesive Jewish family life was partially explained by Odets in an interview before the opening of The Flowering Peach: "I have a favorite aunt and uncle in Philadelphia. This uncle of mine is very voluble, very human. It occurred to me that here was a man of flesh and blood who was the Noah of the play…. I said to myself, wait a minute, Noah had three sons, it was a family life, I know family life. There are children and parents, with ambitions, with disappointments, with anger and love." Noah's family is clearly the product of an older and wiser playwright.
Not long ago Harold Clurman attempted to sum up in a single sentence the essence of Odets' significance in American drama: "We should not forget that his contribution to our theatre does not lie in any intellectual or social position he has taken or may take but in the kindness and intuitive brother-feeling he brings to all the themes he treats." While this "intuitive brother-feeling" remains strongly imbedded in his heart and mind, Odets has calmed his anger sufficiently to keep the more obvious propaganda in check. I have attempted to demonstrate this tendency in his work by examining the playwright's changing attitude toward the American family. It is possible, of course, to read too much into this apparent movement. Superficially it seems that the playwright's feelings have undergone a change from rebellion (Awake and Sing) through search (Night Music) to cohesiveness (The Flowering Peach), but Odets himself denies any conscious move in this direction. He has said, on the contrary, that all his plays "deal with homelessness in a certain way…. I've always felt homeless. I have never felt that I had a home. And if that is centrally true of me, and I know it is, that will necessarily come out in the work." Yet it is somehow difficult to reconcile this statement with Odets' remarks before the opening of The Flowering Peach and even more with the events of that play.
This section contains 2,438 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)