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Critical Essay by Catharine Hughes
SOURCE: "Odets: The Price of Success," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 21, September 20, 1963, pp. 558-60.
Hughes was an American playwright, editor, and critic. On the occasion of Odets's death, Hughes examines his reputation as a promising playwright who sold out to Hollywood.
"What did I want? To be a great man? Get my picture on a postage stamp?"
—Clifford Odets, Paradise Lost
When Clifford Odets died on August 15 , there were the usual paeans, the tributes in obituary and gossip columns, on stages and in drama sections. It was yet another testimony to the observation Albert Camus had recorded in his Notebooks: "a writer's death makes us exaggerate the importance of his work." Yet, running through all the lines of praise and retrospective evaluation, through all the reminiscences, there was an undercurrent, sometimes implicit, sometimes expressed. The obit writer for the New York Times took a stab at it when he noted Odets' "failure to outgrow the adjective 'promising' … the harsh criticism from many friends as a classic case of the artist who had 'sold out' to Hollywood."
Both of the observations in the Times' obituary happen to be true. Odets had become a symbol of literary prostitution long before the accusation—if accusation it be—was valid. He had also become something else, and it was much less noted.
When Waiting for Lefty opened as part of a New Theatre evening on January 5, 1935, and subsequently was reopened on Broadway by the Group Theatre, it was received with excitement by both audiences and the critics. Something new was going on in the theater, and the Depression theater badly needed it. Harold Clurman has termed it "the birth cry of the thirties," an indication that "our youth had found its voice."
It was not, of course, a very good play. A series of scenes, radiating from a meeting called to decide whether or not the taxi drivers' union is to go out on strike, with stereotyped characters: Harry Fatt, the union secretary; Miller, the lab assistant who stands on principle; Fayette, the industrialist; Benjamin, the idealistic Jewish physician: all were but briefly and perfunctorily sketched; all were there simply and solely to give voice to the author's thesis concerning the exploitation of the workingman and the revolutionary antidote.
Waiting for Lefty was a direct descendant—really, little more than a refinement—of the Communist and other left-wing agit-prop dramas of the thirties. Its importance lay not in any intrinsic merits, but in the fact that it was central to the appearance in the commercial theater of the socio-political drama. When the speaker turns to the audience with his exhortation, and all on stage shout "STRIKE, STRIKE, STRIKE!!!" at the curtain, he is only a step from the Fifteen-Minute Red Revue. Lefty was thus symptomatic of the efforts—and the partial success—of numerous writers and other artists who sought to bring their work into the mainstream of American life; to abandon the traditional Ivory Tower and assume roles in the rapidly evolving national scene. Its faults were those of any creative work which wears its Cause on its sleeve.
There is something more than usually ironic in the fact that Odets, starting out as the "symbol" of revolt in the American theater should ultimately have come to the point where, more than any other writer, he was singled out as the symbol of its opposite. Too often discussions of his work have failed to give due importance to the fact that the motion picture studios of the thirties were holding out not merely what were then fabulous salary offers, but also the promise of complete artistic freedom. Needless to say, Odets was far from alone in succumbing to this wooing. Indeed, it is probably accurate to say that a large percentage, if not most, of the successful writers of the period had their abortive fling. In Odets' case, however, the fling became habitual; the promises of a return to the theater, though sporadically and generally ineffectually fulfilled, but a preliminary to another junket West.
In the plays that followed Waiting for Lefty—Awake and Sing, Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moon, Paradise Lost, others—Odets was, consciously or otherwise, a romantic. He possessed little subtlety. If the ending was not happy, it was at least hopeful; it contained the promise of a future in which the sordid surroundings, the defeat and lethargy of the characters, might someday be surmounted. In one form or another, they proclaimed or whispered with young Ralph in Awake and Sing: "My days won't be for nothing…. I'm twenty-two and kickin'! I'll get along. Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No! 'Awake and Sing,' he said…. We're glad we're living."
Even in the anti-Fascist propaganda-piece Till the Day I Die, there is this element of affirmation. At the moment when he is about to commit suicide in order to avoid selling-out his comrades, Ernst feels called upon to assert that "we live in the joy of a great coming people!… Day must follow the night."
Odets was never fully able to avoid a sort of engaging naïveté. Perhaps more than anything else, it is what accounted for his later commercial failure. But, in its way "naïveté" is the wrong term; "sentimentality" would be more accurate. There is such a thing as love; there are such things as dreams. Tomorrow will come. They are sentiments increasingly out of place in the modern theater. Our "sophistication" has become too great. Odets said that an American playwright "shouldn't be afraid of being a bit corny." "Corn is part of American art," and he practiced what he preached.
"When I was twenty-one," Odets recalled, "I vowed I'd be famous. At twenty-eight I was—and found that fame isn't all it's cracked up to be." His comment—the theme of Golden Boy—was, to an extent considerably greater than his earlier revolutionary pronouncements, the most apt epitaph for one of our dominant literary attitudes. And, perhaps more than any other, it accounts for our failures.
To a considerable degree, Odets' sentiment—and his career—were almost an American prototype: the early overwhelming success and acclaim; the attempts to repeat it; the still-young relegation to the land of Whatever-Became-Of. We knew what had become of Odets; what we did not know was why. The American writer, with few exceptions, does not mature, he merely ages. His initial accomplishment is treated as an accomplishment. Under some all-seeing spotlight, he flails about in the fishbowl of his success. Sometimes, perhaps, it is easier to fail.
Odets, of course, knew what he had done, though not necessarily why he was doing it. In a sense, Golden Boy was his apologia; at least it was his search for one. As much as the Joe Bonaparte of that play, he was constantly seeking to reconcile two worlds. Where Joe, the violinist, attempts to sublimate his own sensitivities by an immersion in the promised quick success, the fame, the expensive cars and the like; where he, eventually—though accidentally—kills another man in the ring because of the necessity that he give vent to "the fury of a lifetime," Odets sought the reconciliation of his talent with the demands of Hollywood. If he did not exactly admit it—and he came reasonably close—it provides the subsurface for many a speech and many an interview. And, in 1949, there was the play The Big Knife, with its idealistic and socially conscious young actor, so like the early Odets, who is destroyed by the easy fanfare, the quick buck of Hollywood.
As Harold Clurman, who knew him so well and directed several of his best plays, observed: "Perhaps what Charlie (Odets) wants most is not 'to do a job' but to be 'great'—just as everything and everyone must be 'great' in our country from our girl friends down to our symphonies, from our dramatists up to our refrigerators. If Charlie is to be taken literally, he is a pig prodded by Odets' conscience." And, it goes without saying, Odets was to be taken literally in nearly everything that he wrote. He was not given over to the veiled allusion, the needlessly—or even the needfully—obscure. In a career abundant with ironies, perhaps the greatest of all was the fact that, having made extensive notes on a half dozen future plays, he had, at his death, just completed the book for a musical version of Golden Boy.
In the thirties, Odets was writing for a theater which was far more relevant to its over-all social context than is the case today. Further, it was a theater which, for all its ventures in didacticism and overt propagandizing, was a majority, rather than minority, spokesman. Elmer Rice, in such plays as Street Scene and The Adding Machine; Sidney Kingsley in Dead End; Robert E. Sherwood in Idiot's Delight, along with much of Odets and numerous other writers, addressed themselves directly to the social and international problems of the time. To some extent, their plays assume the role almost of curiosities, museum pieces respectfully hauled out to say "that's the way it was." There is a strange, in some ways almost eerie feeling that hangs about discussions of the playwrights of the period. They were writing of a world unlike our own. And it all happened too quickly.
Through the scar tissue of our nostalgia, then, is the only way in which they are viewed. To a point, they were caretakers of a form. (Oddly, it is possible to forget fairly quickly that a Waiting for Lefty, a Street Scene or an Adding Machine was, and rightly, considered the experimental drama of the day.) Perhaps, a decade or two from now, we will find that they possessed more merit than our present myopia can envision. For the moment, though, it is a period decisively clothed in the past tense.
Since Odets was not a great writer—since, indeed, it is doubtful whether he was anything too far beyond a capable and occasionally exciting one—the eulogies proclaiming the "tragedy" of his wasted talent are more nostalgic than accurate. Like all groundbreakers, or all who achieve the reputation for having been such, his initial reputation was at least partially undeserved; also like them, his subsequent work was frequently unfairly and harshly judged against the background of what was thought—or hoped—to be rather than what was.
Perhaps Frank's description in Golden Boy of what he "gets out of life" was an expression of what Odets would later believe he was missing: "The pleasure of acting as you think! The satisfaction of staying where you belong, being what you are" … Then again, perhaps it was not; perhaps all the periodic disavowals that he had sold out were more true than anyone realized. It may be that they reflected merely an unconscious—and accurate—evaluation of his own talent; an acknowledgement of the fact that, all our misplaced values aside, few are great and that, for the rest, like Ralph in Awake and Sing, there's "a job to do," one which is in line with their own talents and, though we strive, can only infrequently reach beyond them. While this may not be an altogether flattering assessment of Odets the Dramatist, it may well be that it is a considerably more valid one of Odets the Man. While it is a truism that "some are born great and some achieve greatness," many others, incapable of either, are more the victim of their supporters' and detractors' aspirations than of their own defection from them. The "tragedy," if such it be, lies in the fact that one can never be sure. It is, of course, also the saving grace. For Clifford Odets, this tragedy was not in the fact of having missed greatness, but in the very norms and standards of the peculiar thing we insist on calling American Culture, where "good" is never good enough, where it is indeed a dirty word.
This section contains 1,966 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)