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Critical Review by Leslie Weiner
SOURCE: "Thinking about Odets," in The Columbia Forum, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 35-39.
Weiner is a playwright and a former student and acquaintance of Odets. In the following essay, he uses his familiarity with Odets and his works to offer insight into Odets's controversial career and life.
In the spring of 1960 I completed a draft of a play whose quality puzzled me. Not knowing quite what to do with it, I wrote a letter to Clifford Odets, asking if he'd be willing to read it. I had been one of twenty aspiring playwrights in a unique class given by Odets at the Actors Studio in 1951, but I hadn't been in touch with him in the almost nine years since the class disbanded. I addressed my letter to his agent in New York and the following week received a cheerful note from Beverly Hills. Odets was glad I was still writing plays, he had time on his hands because of a Hollywood strike, and if I'd care to send the script, he'd read it promptly. "Promptly" turned out to be a term of some elasticity, but after an exchange of letters and phone calls, he suggested I come to California for a day or two and hear what he had to say. He met me at the airport, insisted I stay at his home instead of a hotel, introduced me to his friends as "a playwright from New York" (I was then still unproduced), and the "day or two" became eleven fascinating days during which he discussed not only my play but his life. Our work sessions together consisted mainly of his talking and my laughing. I flew back home in a four-engine jet, but I could have made it without the plane.
This flow of memory has been stirred by the simplest of events: in moving my desk to another room, I came across my old, dog-eared copy of Six Plays by Clifford Odets, published in the Modern Library in 1939. The pages opened themselves to Awake and Sing, and immediately I was sucked into a Bronx apartment of forty years ago. All his life Ralphie wanted a pair of black and white shoes, I read, and the delight I once experienced upon hearing those words in the Belasco Theatre came rushing back with such intensity that I spent the rest of the weekend devouring all six plays. During the following week I got hold of the five later Odets plays beginning with Night Music and ending with The Flowering Peach, and for the first time I let myself make the connection between a motif in all his eleven plays and the man himself: all his characters, fool or knave, victim or victimizer, poet or peasant, are drawn with an expansive generosity, a genuine fellow-feeling; though viewed sharply and unsparingly, they are never rendered without a redeeming tolerance and good humor. We are all brother schlemiels in the human comedy, he seems to be saying, so let us try to be kind to one another. It is in this respect, in his loving attitude toward his gallery of creations from Bessie Berger to the Biblical Noah, and not in any penchant for plotlessness, that Odets is still our most Chekhovian playwright. The love which seems to be his special gift is manly and sympathetic and comes out of his awareness of the peculiar pain which American society, promising so much but delivering too little, inflicts on its hopeful middle class. But what was so winning and remarkable about Odets was that he didn't exhaust all his brotherly feeling on his fictional people; he was no less kindly and decent to the living people he went out of his way to know. How different he was from O'Neill, that instinctive recluse. Odets' readiness to offer a hand to me—whom he knew only in a most general way—was entirely consistent with the fraternal spirit which infuses his work and which, in my eyes, is one of the sources of its distinction.
I feel I'm describing some prehistoric age when I say that for the generation that grew up in the Thirties, the Broadway theater was a glamorous and exciting institution. In addition to the great comics and Gershwin and Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart, there were some twenty-odd talented dramatists working regularly, earning a good living from their plays. And the unchallenged star of them all, the playwright who had four productions running in 1935 alone, the face on the cover of Time, the darling of the galleries and the meal ticket of the idealistic Group Theatre was Clifford Odets. It wasn't puffery that made his reputation, nor was it the favor of the critics, who were never more than lukewarm. It was bestowed on him by the audience who paid from 55¢ to $3 to see themselves on the stage for the very first time.
I had been going to the movies every Saturday afternoon since my fist was strong enough to hold a quarter. I was nurtured on American heroes—aviators, criminals, cowpokes, detectives, soldiers, lovers all. I never dreamed that I and my Jewish family could be the subject of drama—what bank did we ever rob, or cavalry outflank, or pretty thing rescue from an onrushing train? When in September of 1935 I saw my first Broadway play (two of them, in fact; Awake and Sing was running with Waiting for Lefty), I had no idea I was starting with the very best Broadway had to offer; I thought naively, well, this is the theater, this is what it's like. And what I saw was a bombshell, real, living, recognizable, ridiculous, passionate Jews, out of the closet at last! Father Coughlin regularly offered his fascist wisdom on the radio, and in the papers Hitler dominated European politics, and here before us came the object of their hatred, the Bergers and Benjamins and Starks of New York. And how they talked, these Odets characters! At a time when other playwrights wrote English, grammatical or otherwise, Odets employed a patois which was urban, sophisticated, funny, and apt. He moved the best of the street idiom from the streets to the stage and added his own joyous color and wordplay. The result was witty and exhilarating; even when he forced his metaphors and invited parody, it was interesting overwriting. Today, so many years later, it's amazing to me how vividly I recall the scene-by-scene progression of Awake and Sing, which, in a sense, is the most unwritten of Odets' work. The Bergers seem to tumble all over each other, writing their own lines, acting out their minor destinies without guidance from anybody, least of all the author. Odets was so full of the struggle of everyday living in a depressed city, he was so in sympathy with his embattled New Yorkers (he was a member in good standing), that he seemed to need very little theatrical artifice to render them lusty and whole. I spent a lot of time with Odets in the spring and fall of 1951 listening to him talk of his plays, and again in 1960 in California, but I don't recall him ever speaking of Awake and Sing. It was as though that play were a fact of nature, like a school of mackerel or a mountain; there wasn't really much to say about it.
The story of Clifford Odets' own life is almost classically American. His most commercially successful creation, Golden Boy, the tale of a gifted youth who had to choose between boxing and music, is the single play which most directly mirrors Odets' own personal conflict between doing his work as an artist and "getting his name in the papers." At three different stages of his working life, he left Broadway for Hollywood to make a bundle, and perhaps to spread his name; Hollywood was his fight game, the theater his fiddle. In his time, when practically all films made in Hollywood bore the flat, adulterated stamp of the studio, artistic work was not only not required, it was forthrightly regarded as an obstacle to production. Through two decades Odets was alternately able to doodle for the screen and to do some of his best work in the theater. But in 1955, after The Flowering Peach closed on Broadway, he turned for the third time to the Coast to raise his two motherless children and earn a livelihood from films. On my visit in 1960 he told me he had "ideas" for five plays. He never wrote them, but not because he was overwhelmed with movie work.
He filled a lot of his time optioning properties, proposing deals, fretting, waiting, waiting for the ponderous machinery of business to inch forward and give him the go-ahead on a screenplay. At that time I had a friend connected with Princeton University. I asked Odets if he would be interested in teaching for a year or two. His quick and emphatic interest surprised me. He would need a house and $25,000 a year and a limited schedule so he could write his plays. "Yes, I think I'd like to be a don," he said musingly, but he couldn't suppress a little laugh. I did try to make a marriage between Odets and Princeton, though I was doubtful he would actually come East. (He had earned $200,000 the previous year and was short of cash.) After mulling it over briefly, Princeton decided to let the matter drop; writers-in-residence, particularly expensive ones, were not yet in vogue.
There's no question that Odets' need for fame and fortune was real and enormous. We can understand Joe Bonaparte's sense of deprivation, his lust for a success that would take him out of the ranks of the nobodies. Joe, the Golden Boy, after all was 21, poor, a member of a despised ethnic minority and cockeyed to boot. But why was it important to Clifford Odets, an American playwright of international stature, that he always be welcome at Billy Rose's table? Or that he be seen in the company of Jascha Heifetz and Ava Gardner? Why did he have to earn $200,000? You don't permit yourself the indulgence of writing a Biblical parable for the stage when you're convinced you need that much "to live." (This was 1960, mind you; what's the equivalent figure today?) Odets knew only too well that in pursuing his art the chances of fashioning a popular success were just about what he had achieved: two hits in eleven tries. The fire to write was present all right, but it burned at a low flame; and if he did complete a play, who would produce it? The Group Theatre was no more, Dwight Deere Wiman was dead, and his experience with Robert Whitehead, who produced The Flowering Peach, was painfully unhappy. No wonder those five plays remained in his head.
He was more comfortable in Hollywood than he realized. He was regarded as a famous dramatist-doctor whose specialty was quick diagnosis and surgery for diseased films already shooting. His price was high, and he could work with energy and zest off the top of his head. He was a night person who enjoyed the social life of Los Angeles.
Tall and trim, he cut an imposing figure with his shrewd wide eyes and his wild half-a-head of reddish hair. He loved his bachelor freedom and took delight in dating the most beautiful women in the world. He was a brilliantly engaging companion and his generosity was excessive. The only thing he needed that he didn't possess was a proper respect for his talent, even though in his preface to his Six Plays he declared, speaking of himself, "Talent should be respected." He didn't even try to write good movies. "A good show" was what he aimed at, an elusive target when your heart's not really in it, as his last two movies proved. ("Did you see Story on Page One?" he asked. I had seen it, but said I hadn't. "See it, it's a good show.") The plain, sad fact is that he was not passionately committed to his work, as Charles Ives was to his music, as O'Neill was to his art; nor did he take Hollywood's money and run home to his desk as Faulkner did. He actually cared about the price he could command as against other screenwriters. That became his measure of respect.
His need for lots of money accounted for more than unwritten plays. It hurt him in the working out of a play which I've always found tremendously appealing and stageworthy, The Country Girl. It is the fashion to regard this play as superficial; even Odets, with enthusiastic reviews in his pocket and the play running strongly, joined in the general disparagement, referring to it as a mere "theater piece." The Country Girl is the story of two talented men of the theater who are dependent on the aid and comfort of a loving woman, Georgie Elgin. Georgie's defeated actor husband has a chance to regain his manhood in a comeback; though used and abused by both him and the director, Georgie sees her husband through his crisis successfully. By now the director has fallen in love with her, and so she has a choice: director, husband, neither. She opts for her husband, thereby satisfying the theme that an artist needs a "friend." Sure, why not, but what does the friend need? We have become convinced she is the only side of the triangle with the character to stand alone. She has paid and overpaid on her responsibility to these attractive but obtuse men; psychologically and dramatically, the way has been opened for her to walk out into the independent life she desires. The play appeared in 1950, two decades before the women's movement, but Odets had a clear chance to affirm in modern detail what Ibsen had dramatized seventy-odd years before in A Doll's House. Nothing holds Georgie back from a believable move to freedom but the playwright. Odets read the play to us in his Actors Studio class, read it proudly because he considered it "the best technical job of construction I ever did." At least five members of the class were so struck by Georgie's last-scene cave-in that they accused Odets of parental abandonment. To our surprise, Clifford made no attempt to defend himself. He said he had considered Georgie's solo exit very seriously, but inasmuch as his purpose in writing the play was to make some badly needed money, he was afraid a commercial audience wouldn't accept an "unhappy" ending. He was "sure" they would go for this more conventional windup.
How one can be "sure" about any new work in the theater is a question worth asking. What is still breathtaking, even discounting the degree to which he claimed he was conscious of the problem, is that an artist of Odets' gifts caught up in the production process—as intense and exhilarating an experience as one mind can deal with (he was his own director as well)—would deliberately debase the most important work of his life, which for a playwright is always the play he is currently working on. Can one imagine O'Neill trimming his sails this way? Last winter a television production of The Country Girl proved remarkably rich and complicated and touching—until that pallid, nerveless last scene.
But then, Odets was always doing things which would protect his flanks or, to be more exact, his earning power. In this sense too he was the playwright of the Thirties par excellence. He was haunted by the specter of the Depression, and he never lost his doubt and wonder that his ten fingers working on a typewriter could defend him from an economic cataclysm. Nor did he underestimate the toll in psychic energy that writing cost him. His life was a constant struggle between wanting to work and wanting to play. He felt guilty and oppressed when not working, but that didn't make him less reluctant to take a chance on something he might not get paid for. The idealism of the Thirties somehow came out in the Fifties as cynicism: all very well, boychick, for a single young man to say life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills, but when your wife is ill and the children require therapy, life turns out to be printed on nothing less than C-notes. More and more he made decisions according to the effect on his income.
At the same time, he was extravagant in the giving of what was indeed priceless: himself. Directly after The Country Girl opened in New York in November, 1950, Odets announced he would conduct a playwriting course, open to anyone interested, admission to be gained by submitting one playscript. Odets would read the scripts and determine the membership of the class. For the New Year of 1951 I quit my well-paying job and foolishly announced to my wife that henceforth I would be a writer. Suddenly with nothing but time on my hands, I couldn't think of anything to write. After a month of idleness I took sick, naturally. One afternoon when my wife and child were out and I was in bed with a fever, the phone rang. The caller identified himself as Clifford Odets. "Cut it out, Harold," I grumbled. "Quit horsing around. I have the flu." But it was Odets: he had read the play I had sent in and he invited me to join his class, clearing up my illness by nightfall. For more than three months, our group met twice a week through a hot muggy spring; Odets, punctual as a German, never missed a session. It was the best tutelage of my life.
In February, 1952, Odets was one of the speakers at a memorial for J. Edward Bromberg, who had been a member of the Group Theatre and the Uncle Morty of Awake and Sing. Odets was genuinely astonished at the huge turnout, the outpouring of affection for the dead blacklisted actor. He began to read what he had written out, but twice he interrupted himself, looked up, blinked at the crowd, and said haltingly, "I didn't realize so many cared, had no idea … I'll have to do some rethinking…." It was clear he was moved and distressed, as though he were already wrestling with the summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee. In May of that year he appeared publicly at the Washington hearings and named the names which would give him absolution in the Committee's eyes but not in his own. He knew better than anyone that they were asking him to repudiate his Paradise Lost and Waiting for Lefty; he was caught in a ritual minuet and figured he might as well do the steps. He was the prize catch of the season for the Committee: the author of the "Communistic" Awake and Sing denouncing the communists.
Why did he cooperate with these petty political morons? Up until his appearance before them, no one had defied the Committee with impunity. The stubborn Hollywood Ten had been cited for contempt and were delaying their jail terms by litigation. The successful non-cooperation of Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller came much later, after several court tests had delimited the Committee's power to punish. Odets was not going to break new ground and challenge "the government." Billy Rose, Jerry Wald, and the guys at "21" would not have understood, nor would they have approved. And the Committee had all the names anyway—what he told them wasn't news. Besides, giving out the names was a tiny fraction of his voluminous testimony. He was naively upset when the press quoted little else than that he had knuckled under; he thought they might have used some of his critical comments! Eight years later he still talked defensively about his testimony. I didn't particularly want to hear about it, for by that time I had resolved my own disappointment with him by deciding that his Committee appearance had really harmed no one but himself. Had he spectacularly challenged the Committee, it would have been exhilarating. But that would not have been the true Odets: for all his rhetoric, he was always more of a lover, in the Whitman sense, than a fighter. What did happen was that he spent many unhappy hours chewing over that experience. And the result of his rumination was his final play, The Flowering Peach, the story of Noah and the ark—Clifford Odets' expression of how, in times of catastrophe, one must be content to ride out the storm. As Rachel says to the character who represents the reflective side of Odets, "There is idealism now in just survival."
The play, begun as an idea for an opera to be written with Aaron Copland, suffered through a rocky shakedown tour before it settled into the Belasco in the last week of 1954. I saw that first production about a month into its run and thought the first half enchanting, the second a little less so, but I left the theater satisfied that I had seen a play. There was a cool mastery in the writing which suggested that, although Odets was certainly speaking of himself, he was telling about Noah at an honest arm's length. The writing in The Flowering Peach had a terseness, a wit, and a felicity of expression that may be superior to any of the other ten plays. Touching and suggestive of better things to come, it bespoke a wounded, chastened Odets immensely attractive even in guilt. It seems cruelly ironic that The Flowering Peach was his last work for the theater; to me, Odets stopping there is like O'Neill never having written The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey into Night, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.
One afternoon during my Beverly Hills visit we'd had a particularly enjoyable session on my play, and later Odets expressed his confidence that I would soon find a producer for it. And then he said a little diffidently, "And listen, I think I'd like to direct it. Yes—I really would." I was delighted. I assured him nothing would make me happier. "I'd be good for the play," he said, trailing off, and then adding soberly, "and it would be good for me."
Movement in the theater being what it is, two years went by before my producer was ready to cast the play. He enthusiastically agreed that Odets should be the director and suggested I call and offer him $5,000. It happened that Clifford was free of movie commitments that fall, and he thanked me for my loyalty to him, but he simply couldn't afford to come East for that kind of money. I pointed out that he'd be receiving a fair percentage of the gross as director, we wouldn't necessarily die at the box office, we'd pick up his expenses, and so on. It was all terribly tempting, but no, thanks. A quarter-of-a-million dollars worth of Paul Klee on his walls, I thought bitterly, but he can't afford the theater! Where does he think he made that money, cutting velvet? In the end, we did die at the box office, but he might have delayed it.
The last time I saw Odets was February, 1963, in New York. He took me to dinner at the Plaza and was generously consoling about the failure of my play. I was blaming myself for the frantic rewriting I had done in Philadelphia and Boston which effectively drained off the strength of the original version. He assured me that it couldn't have been my fault, it was probably them. Depressed as I was, I couldn't help laughing.
When he signed on as script editor of The Richard Boone Show, he tried to get N.B.C. to approve an old script of mine which he had always liked. They turned it down, and he wrote me a note expressing his scorn and disgust with his TV gauleiters. That summer I fell into a spell of vivid dreams. I would wake in the morning remembering the dreams, something unusual for me. One night I dreamed that Clifford had died. In the morning I told my wife about it. That evening I received a call from a writer who had been my classmate in Clifford's playwriting course. He told me that Odets was dead of cancer.
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