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Critical Essay by Clifford Odets
SOURCE: "How a Playwright Triumphs," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 233, No. 1396, September, 1966, pp. 64-70, 73-74.
In the following essay, drawn from a September 1961 interview, Odets recounts his genesis and progression as a playwright, with particular focus on his early days with the Group Theatre under Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman.
The following monologue—by one of the best American playwrights of the century—was originally a dialogue. It is drawn from an interview in Hollywood with Clifford Odets by Arthur Wagner of the Department of Theatre at Tulane University. The interview took place over a two-day period in September 1961, two years before Mr. Odets' death.
I had always wanted as a kid to be both an actor and a writer. For a while I thought I would be a novelist, but when I became a professional actor, my mind naturally began to take the form of the play as a means of saying something. I wasn't sure I had anything to say, because some of the other things I wrote were quite dismal. But being an actor. I began to think in terms of three acts, divisions of acts, and scenes within the acts, and whatever technique I have has been unconsciously absorbed—almost through my skin—with all the kinds of acting I have done.
Before Awake and Sing! I wrote a whole very bad novel and a few short stories, all of which I later tore up. The question is really not one of knowing how to write so much as knowing how to connect with yourself so that the writing is, so to speak, born affiliated with yourself. Anybody can teach the craft of playwriting, just as I can teach myself how to make a blueprint and construct a house, on paper. But what cannot be taught, and what I was fortunate in discovering, was simply being myself, with my own problems and my own relationships to life.
Without the Group Theatre I doubt that I would have become a playwright. I might have become some other kind of writer, but the Group Theatre and the so-called "method" forced you to face yourself and really function out of the kind of person you are, not as you thought the person had to function, or as another kind of person, but simply using your own materials. The whole "method" acting technique is based on that. Well, after attempting to write for eight or ten years, I finally started a short story that made me really understand what writing was about in the sense of personal affiliation to the material.
I was holed up in a cheap hotel, in a kind of fit of depression, and I wrote about a young kid violinist who didn't have his violin because the hotel owner had appropriated it for unpaid bills. He looked back and remembered his mother and his hard-working sister, and although I was not that kid and didn't have that kind of mother or sister, I did fill the skin and the outline with my own personal feeling, and for the first time I realized what creative writing was.
A playwright who writes about things that he is not connected with, or to, is not a creative writer. He may be a very skilled writer, and it may be on a very high level of craft, but he's not going to be what I call an artist, a poet. We nowadays use the term creative arts, or a creative person, very loosely. A movie writer thinks of himself as a creative person who writes films or TV shows. Well, in the sense that I'm using the word, he's just a craftsman, like a carpenter. He has so many hammers, so many nails, so much dimension to fill, and he can do it with enormous skill. But the creative writer always starts with a state of being. He doesn't start with something outside of himself. He starts with something inside himself, with a sense of unease, depression, or elation, and only gradually finds some kind of form for what I'm calling that "state of being." He doesn't just pick a form and a subject and a theme and say this will be a hell of a show.
The form, then, is always dictated by the material; there can be nothing ready-made about it. It will use certain dramatic laws because, after all, you have to relate this material to an audience, and a form is the quickest way to get your content to an audience. That's all form is. Form is viability.
"most Talented"—but No Option
I was twenty-six years old when I started Awake and Sing!, my first play. I wrote the first two acts, and six months later, in the spring of 1933, I went home to my folks' house in Philadelphia and finished the last act there. That summer the Group Theatre went to a place called Green Mansions Camp (in the Adirondacks), where we sang for our supper by being the social staff. After he read Awake and Sing! Harold Clurman announced one night at a meeting of the entire company that the Group Theatre idea—that we would develop from our ranks not only our own actors, but our own directors and perhaps our own playwrights—was really working out in practice. "Lo and behold!" he said, "sitting right here in this room is the most talented new young playwright in the United States." And everybody, including me, turned around to see who was in the room, and then with a horrible rush of a blush I realized he was talking about me.
But the Group Theatre didn't want to do the play. Although Harold Clurman, who was kind of the ideological head, liked it, he didn't have the strength to push it through to production against the wishes of the other two directors, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford. Lee Strasberg particularly didn't like the play. He kept saying, "It's a mere genre study." Strasberg and I were always on the outs. Although he has many other qualities, I could take just so much of his, let me call it now, authoritarian or dictatorial manner, his absolutism. And I, who was one of the humbler members of the acting company—even though I had been there practically from the start—would flare out at him and we would be shouting at each other like a pair of maniacs across the bowed heads of the entire company of thirty or so other persons.
I kept pleading with Clurman to do my play and he kept saying that it read so well he didn't know if it would act. I said it would act like a house on fire. And he said, "I don't know, I don't know," and I said, "Well, just take my word for it." I said it very fiercely. So he decided to try the middle act one night on the Green Mansions Camp audience—and it did just what I said. It played like a house on fire. I had felt sure it would, for I knew the theater very well by then. I'd been walking around on stages since I was a kid, putting on plays in high school, with amateurs, being a leading man and director of a company on the radio called "The Drawing Room Players." And when I saw that act up there on the stage I realized I had real writing talent, and right then I was not to be stopped or contained.
Well, now I thought surely that Group Theatre would do my play, but to my bitter disappointment they had not the slightest interest in it. Here was the Group Theatre with all its ideals, here was my own company with which I felt such a sense of brotherhood, and here was my play, which they could have just taken and done; I didn't want any money for it. Furthermore, it seemed to me better than the plays we were doing. The play we were rehearsing at this time (by Sidney Kingsley), called Crisis, seemed to all of us threadbare in texture. It turned out to be very successful—due chiefly to Lee Strasberg's extraordinary and beautiful production, and became very famous as Men in White. Well, I couldn't see why, if they could do Men in White, they couldn't do Awake and Sing!
However, just as Men in White was opening that fall on 46th Street at the Broadhurst Theater, a fellow I had acted with at the Theatre Guild, a nice man named Louis Simon, told me that he was now working with Frank Merlin in the Little Theatre right across the street. He said Merlin, who was looking for new American plays, had heard about Awake and Sing! and he suggested I give him a script for his boss. When I told him I didn't have any copies, he said, "Well, get some typed up and give me one and, who knows, next week you might have $500 advance royalties." I was very impressed with that possibility, so I had six scripts typed up for twelve bucks, which was one-third of my weekly salary of $35. And about five or six days later, I had a check for $500. I'd never seen so much money in my life. And since I had gone again before the Group Theatre and said, "Look, somebody wants to take an option on this play. You going to do it or not?" and they had practically thrown me out, it was with double satisfaction that I got my first option money.
Merlin was rhapsodic about Awake and Sing! He said, "This is the kind of play that America should be producing. It's the beginning of something new in the American theater." Then I thought, well, I'm going to get an immediate production here. But Merlin, poor man, made a fantastic blunder which changed his whole life. Now, Merlin had $50,000 to spend. A wealthy man had given his new wife $50,000 to play around with in the theater. She had walked in on Lee Strasberg and just said she wanted to hand this whole $50,000 over to the Group Theatre in exchange for a humble position as assistant stage manager, or whatever it was she wanted to learn. Well, Lee was such a kind of rabbinical student that he just turned and looked at her, kind of shrugged, and was silent. The woman felt very embarrassed and finally left and took the $50,000 to Frank Merlin at the Little Theatre.
Mr. Merlin, however, now made the sad mistake. He had another play, called False Dreams Farewell, which he said was an inadequate play, but a hell of a show. It had something to do with the sinking of the Titanic or the Lusitania—very expensive and elaborate. He put the play on first because he felt it was going to make money, and he didn't think my play would, and he lost about $40,000. If Mr. Merlin had done Awake and Sing! first—it was a small cast with one set and its operating cost would have run about $3,000 a week—it would have run for two or maybe three years. But he lost most of his money on this first venture.
This was now August or September of 1934, and the Group Theatre was determined, in the purity of its heart, that it would have to go away and do a new play when it might very well have continued the run of the very successful, and by this time Pulitzer Prize, Men in White. But purity prevailed and we went up to Ellenville, New York, to a big, rambling, broken-down hotel—don't forget, with its office and managerial staff the Group Theatre consisted of maybe thirty-six men and women and their children—and we had to find quite a large place to live in. We arrived practically when autumn was setting in at this old Saratoga-type wooden hotel, with all the bedding piled up, and we lived in an itchy and uncomfortable way there for about five or six weeks while we put into rehearsal a play by Melvin Levy, called Gold Eagle Guy. I had, perhaps unfairly, only scorn and contempt for the play because I thought Awake and Sing! was far superior as a piece of writing. Indeed, we all felt that Gold Eagle Guy was a stillborn script, and Luther Adler summed it up for us one morning at rehearsal when he said, kind of sotto voce, "Boys, I think we're working on a stiff." That morning we were almost improvising certain scenes, which we would later scale down to the playwright's words. Levy would get alarmed because the actors were not quite saying his words, and not using his punctuation. To this day there are playwrights who don't know their punctuation isn't very important in the recreation of the character they've written, or that, as we used to say in the Group Theatre, their script is only a series of stenographic notes.
The Words Gushed Out
In any case, I had been given my own room at this old hotel, which gave me a certain lift. It's surprising how very important a small satisfaction can be in the life of one who is moving away from what I can only call illness to some kind of health or strength. (You must remember the background to all of this was that before I was twenty-five I had tried to commit suicide three times; once I stopped it myself and twice my life was saved by perfect strangers.) Before this I had always been quartered with one or two and sometimes three other actors, but when they gave me my own room, with clean, whitewashed walls, I began to feel they had some sense that I had some kind of distinction, and I was very happy.
I had by now started Paradise Lost, about a man, Leo, who was trying to be a good man in the world and meets raw, evil, and confused conditions where his goodness means nothing. Almost all of that play came out of my experiences as a boy in the Bronx. I saw people evicted, I saw block parties, I knew a girl who stayed at the piano all day, a boy who drowned, boys who went bad and got in trouble with the police. As a matter of fact, two of the boys I graduated with ended up in the electric chair and another boy became a labor racketeer. Not too much of that play was invented; it was felt, remembered, celebrated.
One night I had the idea for the scene in the play which I call the Fire Bug Scene. It just impelled itself to be written, and since I had no paper I wrote the whole scene as fast as I could on the white wall. The words just gushed out; my hand couldn't stop writing. Then later, I copied it down on the typewriter, but to this day the scene may still be on the wall of that old hotel.
The next day, well, I had that advance money from Merlin, and I had always wondered what real liquor tasted like. Prohibition was over, and all I had ever had was bathtub gin and very phony rye whiskey. I went into a liquor store and bought two cases of mixed liquor—two bottles of everything—Scotch, gin and rye, applejack, sherry, red port, and something called white port which I have not seen again to this day. And I and my particular chums in the Group Theatre, Elia Kazan, Art Smith, Bud Bohnen, and one or two others, went to town on all that stuff. I got to know what real liquor, real Scotch, tasted like. There was booze in those two cases that I have not tasted since. We went down to the village one night, got drunk, and got arrested. We had a helluvatime.
During this time, however, I was extremely discontented about my acting. Many of us were fretful in those days, because we had higher hopes for ourselves than playing bits and walkons. I had been assigned to play two bits in Gold Eagle Guy, but I didn't have a part in Success Story, which we had done before and were now reviving out of town to keep us going while we were rehearsing Gold Eagle Guy.
John Howard Lawson's Success Story—a good play—had, by the way, a very decisive influence on me, by showing me the poetry that was inherent in the chaff of the street. I began to see that there was something quite elevated and poetic in the way the common people spoke. I understudied Luther Adler, who played the lead, and while I never got to play it, I came to understand that living quality in Lawson's play by studying the part and writing down how I thought I would approach it as an actor. Getting a part also meant that you would learn what the hell the technique was about. There wasn't time for too many technique classes, so there was more than an ego problem involved in our wanting good parts, for it was the only way we could really get the benefit of Strasberg's training.
The Strasberg-clurman Team
Strasberg worked with a wide range, then, of techniques and things. There were times when you would do improvisation for a part—the sensation, for instance, for riding a train or boat. It would play only a small part in the play, but concentration was given to it. Or you would do exercises or improvisation for simply being cold, for re-creating winter on the stage. As a matter of fact, the Group Theatre built up a set of actors and actresses who were extraordinarily reliable in small parts as well as in leads. Say this woman is a nurse, and this actress would go away and she would be a nurse to the life. She thought about how a nurse waddled, and what kind of shoes she would wear, why she walks the way she does, and what her professional mannerisms are.
Anyway, one day I told Harold Clurman, who by then had become my particular friend among the three Group directors—he was a kind of older brother to me—I told him that since I had never got a part, I was leaving and was going to do something about playwriting. He pleaded with me to stay, promising he would see that I got a good acting part in the coming season, and indeed I think I was leading him on a bit because I wouldn't have known where to go. Where else could you go? All I really wanted was to have the Group Theatre do my plays. These early plays were made for the collective acting company technique. They're written for eight characters, with six or seven of the characters of equal importance. Well, this is purely from the Group Theatre ideal of a stage ensemble, and this so fetched me and so took me over that this was how I wrote. I don't think, still, that even today anyone could put together such a company with its very brilliant ensemble performance but Lee Strasberg. That was Lee Strasberg's baby and he was 100 per cent responsible for it. Later, with this perfected tool, this ensemble, anybody could direct them who had a common lingo, a common frame of reference. It was easy for Harold Clurman to direct Awake and Sing! or Golden Boy with this company that Lee Strasberg had put together—any actor could have directed it, by that time. And Lee Strasberg has never gotten enough credit for that.
Strasberg and Clurman were a unique team. The procedure was that the directors picked the plays—remember, though, that we didn't have our choice of dozens of plays. Strasberg and Clurman saw rather eye-to-eye about what was in a play. They wanted progressive materials, they wanted yea-saying rather than nay-saying materials. After the play was chosen Clurman would call the company together and would talk with extraordinary brilliance for anywhere from two to five hours, analyzing the meaning, talking from every point of view, covering the ground backwards and forwards. And if the actor's imagination was touched, somewhere, which was his intention, then the actor would catch something and begin to work in a certain way, with a certain image or vision of how the part should go, with here and there Clurman giving him a nudge. Strasberg would never say a word. He was the man who, in action, directing, would bring out the things which Clurman had abstracted. Strasberg understood the concrete elements which you give an actor. But the sense of the play, its characters, its meaning, what it stood for, Clurman is most brilliant at this thing.
How the Actors Took Over
Well, now we move up to Boston in the late fall of 1934 to open Gold Eagle Guy, and that's when I wrote Waiting for Lefty. I now had behind me the practically completed Awake and Sing! and about half of Paradise Lost, but somehow Waiting for Lefty just kind of slipped itself in there. Its form and its feeling are different from the other two plays, and I actually wrote it in three nights in the hotel room in Boston after returning home from the theater about midnight. It just seemed to gush out, and it took its form necessarily from what we then called the agit-prop form, which, of course, stands for agitational propaganda.
I really saw the play as a kind of collective venture—something we would do for a Sunday night benefit in New York for the New Theatre Magazine, a Left magazine that was always in need of money. My demands were so modest that I tried to get two other actors in the Group Theatre who I thought had writing talent to assist me. One of them, Art Smith, came up with me one night to my hotel room and we talked around and around this thing, but he seemed rather listless about working with me, so I went ahead by myself.
As a matter of fact, the form of Waiting for Lefty is very rooted in American life, because what I semi-consciously had in mind was actually the form of the minstrel show. I had put on two or three minstrel shows in camp and had seen three or four other ones. It's a very American, indigenous form—you know, an interlocutor, end men, people doing their specialties, everyone sitting on the stage, and some of the actors sitting in the audience. There were a number of plays then, usually cheap and shoddy plays, that had actors in the audience. I had played in one called, I think, The Spider, in Camden, New Jersey, when I was in stock. I guess all these things conglomerated in my mind, but what's important for Waiting for Lefty is how it matched my conversion from a fellow who stood on the side and watched and then finally, with a rush, agreed—in this drastic social crisis in the early 'thirties—that the only way out seemed to be a kind of socialism, or the Communist party, or something. And the play represents that kind of ardor and that kind of conviction.
About ten days after the tryout in Boston we opened Gold Eagle Guy at the Morosco Theater in New York, and the play got very bad notices. In all New York theaters you automatically lose the theater when the play receipts fall below a certain figure, so we moved over to the Belasco. It happened that three or four or even five of my plays were done at that theater, which people thought was very glamorous, but I always thought it a rather crummy old joint, shabby, with uncomfortable seats. Anyway, to keep the play going the actors and the playwright took cuts in salary, but in a few weeks it closed and we were forced out into the cold winter. We had no new play to put into rehearsal and there was a sadness around the place.
In the meantime I'd gotten some of the actors together and had started to rehearse Waiting for Lefty. I gave Sandy Meisner, an actor friend of mine, some of the scenes to direct, and I directed the bulk of the play. Strasberg, who was quite resentful of it, told Harold Clurman, "Let 'em fall and break their necks." One of the main things about Strasberg was that he always hated to go out on a limb. He must save his face at all times. Almost Oriental. I suspect that the thing about Strasberg was that whenever the Group Theatre name was used or represented, it was as though his honor was at stake. He didn't like me, he didn't like what I had written, and he felt it would in some way be a reflection on him, on the entire Group Theatre. This man who could be so generous, sometimes could be so niggardly and begrudging. It was with great trepidation that I had proposed putting on this play at all, and when I asked him a few questions about handling a group, an ensemble, he'd answer me very curtly, and I thought to myself, "Oh, the hell with him. I'll just go ahead and do this myself."
And then, the night of the benefit, I had an enormous fight down at the old Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street to get my play put on last. They used to put on eight or nine vaudeville acts there for the Sunday night benefits and they wanted some dance group to close the show, but finally, because I threatened to pull it, they agreed to put Waiting for Lefty on last.
It was very lucky they did because there would have been no show after that. The audience stopped the show after each scene; they got up, they began to cheer and weep. There have been many great opening nights in the American theater but not where the opening and the performing of the play were a cultural fact. You saw a cultural unit functioning. From stage to theater and back and forth the identity was so complete, there was such an at-oneness with audience and actors, that the actors didn't know whether they were acting and the audience didn't know whether they were sitting and watching it, or had changed position. I was sitting in the audience with my friend, Elia Kazan, sitting next to me (I wouldn't have dared take on one of the good parts myself) and after the Luther Adler scene, the young doctor scene, the audience got up and shouted, "Bravo! Bravo!" I was thinking, "Shh, let the play continue," but I found myself up on my feet shouting, "Bravo, Luther! Bravo, Luther!" In fact, I was part of the audience. I forgot I wrote the play, I forgot I was in the play, and many of the actors forgot. The proscenium arch disappeared. That's the key phrase. Before and since, in the American theater people have tried to do that by theater-in-the-round, theater this way, that way, but here, psychologically and emotionally, the proscenium arch dissolved away. When that happens, not by technical innovation, but emotionally and humanly, then you will have great theater—theater at its most primitive and grandest.
Of course, the nature of the times had a good deal to do with this kind of reaction. I don't think a rousing play today could have this kind of effect because there are no positive, ascending values to which a play can attach itself. My own new plays will never arouse that kind of enthusiasm, but they will have searched out and will express what has been happening here in the last fifteen years. And this isn't going to be anything to dance and shout about, because what happened here in fifteen years is really frightening. One of the new plays, An Old-fashioned Man, will almost cover the American scene from the time of FDR's death to today. I think the play is of considerable import, but really the kind of import that makes you sit there and think, rather than the kind that makes you get up and burn with zeal.
However, we now had to face the closing of Gold Eagle Guy. There was an emergency meeting and we were told we would have to disband. It was at this time that the actors took over and upset the applecart. We took the theater out of the hands of the three directors, especially Strasberg's, who was still extraordinarily resistant to the idea of doing Awake and Sing! What happened was that the Theatre Guild wanted to do Awake and Sing! for their last production of the season. So I rather timidly asked at this meeting whether the Group Theatre was or was not going to do my play because I had another offer.
Strasberg got up and pointed his finger at me and said, "I have told you a dozen times. I do not like your play. Your play will not be done by the Group Theatre." And it was Stella Adler who got up and said, "Well, is it better to disband, and those people who can get jobs will and the rest are going to be cold and hungry, as they have been many times before? And what's the matter with this play? Why shouldn't we do it?" And one or two other actors chipped in and Strasberg began to fight with them. Clurman says that he just sat letting things develop, and they did. Strasberg said, "But the play doesn't have a third act." I said, "It has a third act. It's not as good as it can be, but I can rewrite that." And, lo and behold, in a wave of what I call the Group Theatre spirit, it was voted, without the directors' interfering, that the next play we would do would be Awake and Sing! And Lee Strasberg kind of withdrew as the active director, so to speak, and Harold Clurman directed it.
When I rewrote the third act of Awake and Sing! I built up the boy to a kind of affirmative voice in the end, more affirmative than he had been in the original. There were technical reasons for this change, but the change had occurred in me, too—a growing sense of power and direction. If I was going up, everything had to go up with me. But as you see, it runs throughout the play. The boy is always resentful of who and what he is, of his position in the world. And he always wants to get married and he can't, because of, let me call it that economic factor in his mother, who is always very authoritarian, always making decisions for him. And the grandfather, as weak as he is, was always against the values by which his daughter and the household lives. He always sided with the boy. So tried and true, that play.
Awake and Sing! opened at the Belasco Theater in February 1935. The notices were legendary. In the meantime we had been playing benefit performances of Waiting for Lefty all around and it was getting more famous by the minute. Even the commercial managers, the Shubert office, had called me and asked to see a copy of it. In the general enthusiasm Strasberg jumped on the bandwagon and now suggested that we bring Waiting for Lefty uptown, and I said, yes, I would write another play to go with it, which later became Till the Day I Die. I had read in The New Masses what I thought was a letter that had been smuggled out of Europe, from a man to his brother in the (anti-Nazi) underground, and in a wave of enthusiasm I wrote, in three or four nights, a play based on that letter. That's how arrogant youth is, for it never occurred to me to clear it in any way with The New Masses, and it turned out that the letter was not a real letter at all, but a short story in letter form, and later I was approached and had to pay that man royalties. In any case, Till the Day I Die was paired with Waiting for Lefty, and the whole town wanted to see it. And the whole town wanted to see Awake and Sing! You know—"America has found a really important playwright"; "The Group Theatre has found its most congenial playwright within its own ranks…."
For me, strangely enough, the success and fame was a source of acute discomfort. I didn't have the psychological strength to face this kind of onslaught. It had on me a strangely isolating effect, even more isolated and cut off from the very things I was trying to get to. Later on when I became really a successful playwright the Group Theatre acting members, my friends, started to treat me quite differently. However, that's ahead. All I wanted then in 1935 were some of the things that were mentioned in Waiting for Lefty—a room of my own, a girl of my own, a phonograph and some records. And I got 'em. Nothing more I wanted.
Then I ran into a nerve-racking period where I thought I was going to go to pieces, just out of emotional exhaustion. I understood in this period of my life how van Gogh felt. I understood the kind of insanity and frenzy of his painting. I almost couldn't stop writing. The hand kept going. It began to frighten me. With all this set in the matrix of an American success—nothing is more noisy and clamorous than that. There are enormous tensions and strains within it, because you don't want to change, you want to hold on. You want time to digest, but you're just kind of swept off your feet, with wire services and interviews and people telephoning you; the parties you're invited to, the people who just take you up. You want to savor these things, flavor them, but you'd like it on your own terms. You'd like the time to establish forms with which to deal with it, or else it will drive you cuckoo.
Some of it, though, was gentle and sweet, like my mother. This was in a way all she ever lived for, to see her son fulfilled. She hadn't been sick; she just lived another couple of months and died. My whole life changed in this period. Within three months I was not the same young man I used to be, but was trying to hold on to him.
In any case, I now began to finish up Paradise Lost. The play, with Harold Clurman directing it, was treated with dignity and importance, and the actors approached it in a very dedicated way. It opened on December 9, 1935. It's too jammed, too crowded, it spills out of its frame, but it is in many ways a beautiful play, velvety; the colors were very gloomy and rich. And no one who acted in it or saw it in that production will ever forget it. It got very bad notices from the working press, but from unexpected people like Clifton Fadiman it got quite extraordinary notices. But the play was by all means a practical failure, judging by the notices and the reception.
What Damaged the Plays
I was, by then, being offered all sorts of movie jobs. One man offered me $500 a week. He was then the head of Paramount; poor man, Budd Schulberg's father. I thought going to Hollywood was the most immoral thing I could do, and yet who wouldn't want to go to Hollywood? When I finally went it was with a sense of disgrace, almost. A man came from MGM and just to get rid of him I said I wanted $4,000 a week. He called the Coast and arranged to pay me $4,000 weekly. I didn't accept the offer, but the company was making their usual sacrifices trying to keep Paradise Lost going, and I thought finally I'd go to Hollywood and send back half my salary to the Group Theatre to keep the play going. So in the end I signed with Paramount for $2,500 a week and sent back half to the Group Theatre. That was really not enough to keep the show going, and it closed after another couple of weeks. I went out there and wrote a movie, The General Died at Dawn, which was full of good ideas, but in the end it was a set of clichés on which we made some good birthday decorations.
But I'm not really interested in talking about Hollywood. I am interested in investigating not so much why—I understand why—but how I tried to take some kind of real life I knew and tried to press it into an ideological mold. How, actually technically, I used to try many ways to make the materials of my plays say something that they really were not saying by tacking on a certain ideological posture. I think this did damage to the plays and the material, but I couldn't have done otherwise in that period. It's the one thing that really disturbs me about the early plays—that I would very easily, very fluently and naturally, give an expression of a certain kind of life, and then try to tell the audience what it meant.
I think very simply that the material was always richer than the ideational direction that I tried to superimpose upon it. It was just enough to give birth to the material and let it say what it had to say. And yet, still in all, the life which was expressed, was impelled by some ideological direction in which I was going. It's almost like not trusting the material to make a statement, but you have to add a comment that was not really indigenous to the material. Jack Lawson, for instance, was a distinguished playwright, but he ruined himself artistically by tailoring his materials to fit an ideological conception. The last play he wrote, Marching Song, was concepted along these lines, and it's dead as a nail. I think it's a crime to see what happened to this juicy, gifted playwright when he got an ideology. Fortunately, however, the Left movement didn't absorb too many good talents. When I started to write Awake and Sing! I didn't have a mission in life; I wasn't going to change society. When I came to rewriting it I was going to change the world—or help change it. I should have learned a lesson from Ibsen; that it's simply enough to present the question. "You in the audience think about it; maybe you have some answers."
Soon after I arrived in Hollywood I began working on a new play, The Silent Partner, which is a very sympathetic portrayal of a man from an old American family who is ousted from his plant when the new management takes over. His sons have kind of drifted off; one killed himself in Hollywood while drunk, by jumping into a pool which didn't have any water in it. I've never rewritten the last act, but five of the nine scenes in it are the best writing I've ever done. The Group Theatre was going to do the play but I didn't have it ready. I was kind of discontented with myself and with the way things were going. I had come out to Hollywood to do a movie and now I was getting mixed up with the woman who was going to be my first wife. Finally I rented a little house where I started to work on the play seriously but all the while I was beginning to resent being pushed into plays for the Group Theatre. A play, when I put it into rehearsal, would never be ready, but the Group Theatre needed it, for there was always the prospect of the actors going without work.
When the play was finally put into rehearsal I was not quite satisfied with it yet. I had to sacrifice some of what I call the poetic quality of the play, because the texture was very dense as originally written, and in attempting to make things more concrete the play suffered, but still it kept most of its virtue. By then, with the help of FDR's Administration, the strikers had won and had organized all over the country into the CIO, and the play was a little dated in the sense that these big strikes were now a year or two behind us. The play was also critical of the working class. Because the point was, you know, stop the foolishness. For God's sake, get serious or die. You're going to die for lack of seriousness.
After The Silent Partner was in rehearsal for three or four days Clurman said to me, "Look, we'll produce any play you write. But you know this will be a very heavy and expensive production. We budgeted it for $40,000." So I said, "Why are you telling me all this?" and he said, "Well, the play will fail. We'll be out all that money and the actors will be out of work. But if you want us to do the play we will."
So I said, "Well, when you put it that way you don't give me much choice. Pull the play, then; don't do it." And I was very hurt, but not intelligent or mature enough to say, "Stop the shit and do the play. It's necessary for me. And after all the sacrifices I've made, just do the play and lose $40,000. It's worth it to me." And I never even tried to publish the play. The production of that play was necessary for me, because nobody in the U.S. was writing that way. To this day nobody can write that way, including me. Everything was extremely heightened. You didn't know whether it was real, or mystic. Were these real human beings? Where was this happening? It was the beginning of a new striking out for me. You see, later, when I wrote a play that was successful, like Golden Boy, the Group Theatre had a treasury at last. It was quite all right for them to lose money, most of the time out of my pocket, on experimental things—to give Bobbie Lewis or Gadget Kazan a chance to direct something, to do trash by Irwin Shaw. But while it was necessary and good to help Gadget or Bobbie Lewis to become a director, or to do a special matinee performance of an Irwin Shaw play, I was the first necessity. I never put my mitts up. I just walked away.
"really Quite a Good Play"
And then the Group Theatre again was breaking up. Again there were no scripts. First of all, there was some impossible ideal. There was a time when we turned down plays like Maxwell Anderson's Winterset as not good enough for us. We realized later that we made a grave blunder there, but nobody was resourceful enough to go out and look for plays; the larder was always bare. This is why my plays always went on before they were finished.
Anyway, it looked like the Group Theatre was through. Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford had left; everybody kind of voluntarily disbanded for six months, and Harold Clurman came out here to Hollywood. It was very difficult for him to take the Group Theatre breakup. So I said, "I'll tell you what, Harold, I have an idea. You get the company together on October first and I'll have a new play." I told him in about two sentences what the play was about. I just said there was an Italian boy whose father wanted him to be a violinist and he has true gifts for that, but he wants to be a prizefighter. I had married Luise Rainer by then, and my bride of maybe six or eight months said, "What is that about? It's nothing. It sounds crazy." Harold said, "Let him alone, Luise. He knows what he's doing." She couldn't understand it and was rather bewildered. But he understood that something could come out of that; he knew how I worked.
I went back to the apartment in New York with my one page of notes for the new play, and Clurman set two or three actors to watch me to see that I didn't run off. All that summer I worked on Golden Boy, and it was ready I think before October first. I really wrote that play to be a hit, to keep the Group Theatre together. And it was a hit, my first really big hit. It pleased me, which was foolish on my part. It pleased me because now I was being accepted as a Broadway playwright. Before that I was kind of a nutty artist who had some kind of wild gift, and now, only now, was I a man with a ten-million-dollar arm who could really direct the ball just where I wanted it to go.
I must say, I think now that the circumstances under which I had written the play are what make me not like it. I feel the same way about The Country Girl. It doesn't mean anything to me; it's just a theater piece. I felt that way about Golden Boy for years afterwards, because it seemed to me to be really immoral to write a play for money. But I did see it once out here. Charlie Chaplin had never seen it, so the two wives, Charlie, and I jumped into a car and went to see it at the Pasadena Playhouse, and on seeing the play quite objectively, I thought, "Gee, this is really quite a good play." There's something written into it—a quality of American folk legend—that I really had nothing to do with. It was a much better play than I thought it was. So after that I made my peace with that play.
We revived it for ANTA in 1952. John Garfield always wanted to play the part and Lee Cobb played the father. By then, there were such accepted clichés for playing the parts that Garfield and Lee Cobb fell right into the stereotypes. Every once in a while Cobb would slouch onto the stage, very successful, at ease. Nobody can be so at home on a stage as Cobb, you know. And I'd say, "What are you playing? Are you playing a successful actor, or this rather humble, but perceptive old Italian father?" It was hard to try to break the stereotypes in four weeks.
One play I did like is Rocket to the Moon. It was based on an idea which I had for a long time, although I didn't know the real theme of it until I wrote it. I knew the play was going to take place in a dentist's office and that there was going to be a little dental secretary there who was going to take him away from his wife. But I didn't know that the play would be, so to speak, about love in America, about the search for love, and all the things it turned out to be about.
Plenty of my ideas kind of germinated sometimes for two or three years. On the other hand, sometimes I get an idea and sit down and write from just one page of notes. I find that those things often come out best when I don't know what's going to happen, and in fact, most of the time I don't know what I know or what I think until I say it. Ask me what I think about the world, about the kind of morality in this country, oh, I can give you some intellectual talk about it, but it's not till I write a play that I know what I really think, that I know where I am in the whole mess and can really make a statement that I didn't know was in me to make. That's one of the reasons that keeps me writing plays.
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