Clifford Odets | Critical Essay by Jeanne-Marie A. Miller

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Clifford Odets.
This section contains 1,528 words
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Critical Essay by Jeanne-Marie A. Miller

SOURCE: "Odets, Miller and Communism," in CLA Journal, Vol. XIX, No. 4, June, 1976, pp. 484-93.

In the following excerpt, Miller discusses Odets's Till the Day I Die and places it within the social and political contexts of its day.

Between the time of the October Revolution and the Stalin-Hitler Pact, many European and American literati were attracted to communism. Some chose communism at a definite time in history because they had lost faith in democracy and they wanted to defeat fascism. When Hitler came to power in Germany, the Soviet Union felt threatened, and out of this uneasiness came "a Russian foreign policy based on support of collective security measures against aggression." Communist parties then adopted the Popular Front, whose purpose was to create political coalitions of all anti-fascist groups. The Communists continued to be effective and consistent opponents of the rising power of Nazi Germany.

The conversion to communism of men of letters, often people of unusual sensitivity, expressed feelings sometimes shared by the inarticulate masses who felt that Russia was on the side of the working class. The compelling attraction of "an active comradeship of struggle involving personal sacrifice and abolishing differences of class and race"—was often too great to be resisted.

An American man of letters who joined the Communist party and used his pen to warn theatrical audiences against fascism was Clifford Odets. In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression in America, Till the Day I Die was produced on Broadway and became one of the first serious anti-Nazi plays to reach the commercial theatre. This one-act play was suggested to Odets by a letter purporting to be from Nazi Germany. He had read this letter in The New Masses.

Using the expressionistic method, Odets divides his play into seven startling scenes. The action in Till the Day I Die takes place in Berlin in 1935, a time when Germany is undergoing economic distress. Ernst Tausig, a Communist working with the underground press, believes that the recently published leaflet will make the Nazis perspire once it gets into the workers' hands: "Workers might like to know the American embargo on German goods has increased 50% in the last six months." Wages are low, prices for vital foods have increased, and unemployment is widespread. The purpose of this underground newspaper is to inform the people of the real state of affairs in Germany. There is great distrust among the people, for the Nazis have infiltrated the ranks of the Communists, and Communist sympathizers, in turn, have joined the Nazi party.

The lives of the people in this troubled land have altered drastically. Ernst, once a violinist, has become an active member of the Communist underground in order to combat fascism. The party members, however, are full of hope. Ernst's dream of the world is for happy people everywhere:

I ask for hope in eyes: for wonderful baby boys and girls I ask, growing up strong and prepared for a new world. I won't ever forget the first time we visited the nursery in Moscow. Such faces on those children! Future engineers, doctors; when I saw them I understood most deeply what the revolution meant.

Because the times are not conducive to marriage, he and his fiance, Tillie, postpone theirs to a more favorable time. When the Secret Police enter their underground room, Tillie convinces them that she is a prostitute and Ernst is her customer. At the close of this scene, Odets employs the dramatic device of shrill whistles, variously pitched, which slow with hysterical intensity.

In a scene which takes place inside a Brown House where Ernst is taken as a prisoner, Odets shows some of the forms of Nazi brutality. Schlegel, the interrogator, asks Ernst, whom he knows to be a musician, to place his "sensitive hands" upon the desk, an action which is followed by the smashing of the prisoner's fingers with a rifle butt. This cruel act eventually results in the amputation of Ernst's right hand. The captured Communist, however, adamantly refuses to reveal the requested information to the Nazis. In the barracks the soldiers amuse themselves by seeing who, with the strongest blow to the head, can knock unconscious the unfortunate prisoners.

Major Duhring, a Nazi officer who is a Communist sympathizer, warns Ernst of the dangers he will encounter, for the Nazis are determined to obtain certain information from him, such as the names and addresses of party officials. They plan to beat Ernst savagely, nurse him back to health, and inform his comrades that he is a stool pigeon. They will place him next to the Nazi driver when they make raids and will stand him outside the courtroom when his friends are tried for treason. In order to carry out their plans, Ernst will be released immediately so that he can be followed by the Nazis who expect him to make contacts with other party members. Duhring advises Ernst to kill himself. Before long, Duhring and Schlegel have an encounter, and Schlegel is killed. Schlegel has investigated Duhring and found Jewish blood. Unknown to the others, Duhring has been destroying files containing valuable information. His parting words to Ernst echo the philosophy of the Popular Front. He tells Ernst to let the people work for a united front in every capitalist country in the world. After Ernst leaves, the major removes his Nazi arm band, tears the Nazi flag from the wall, and kills himself.

When Ernst goes to Tillie, he learns that she is pregnant with his child. Despite the present gloom there is hope—hope that even if the two adults are not fortunate enough to live to see "strange and wonderful things," their unborn child will live in a better world.

The Nazis follow the procedure outlined by the sympathetic major. Even though Ernst is not guilty, the Communist underground cannot afford to take chances on his doubtful status. Ernst, then, is blacklisted by his group. His brother Carl states fervently the belief of the party: "There is no brother, no family, no deeper mother than the working class." As the scene ends, Tillie slowly raises her hand to be counted among the affirmative voters who expel her lover from the party.

In the final scene, a sick, lonely, and desperate Ernst comes to see his brother, who appears convinced that Ernst is working for the Nazis. Ernst, broken in mind and body, makes a final attempt to clear himself of the spy charges—to clear himself before his lover, his brother, and his comrades. His recitation is a tale of horror, and he begs his brother to kill him. Carl, of course, refuses but tells Ernst that if he destroys himself, the world will know that he is innocent. Before putting the gun into his mouth and firing the shot that ends his life, Ernst exclaims that although their agony is real, they live in the joy of a great and coming people:

… The animal kingdom is past. Day must follow the night. Now we are ready: we have been steeled in a terrible fire, but soon all the desolate places of the world must flourish with human genius. Brothers will live in the soviets of the world! Yes, a world of security and freedom is waiting for all mankind!

Ernst remains faithful to his ideal, and the bitter drama closes on a note of hope.

Till the Day I Die met with disfavor from those who were not in sympathy with its theme. When the play was produced on the West Coast during the 1930's, Will Geer, who was affiliated with the production, was severely beaten by hoodlum sympathizers with the New Germany. In New York, Odets was forced to put a heavy lock on the door of his apartment. Some drama critics wrote unfavorable reviews of the play. Brooks Atkinson, for example, felt that Odets' communistic devotionals would best appeal to the party ear. If one wishes to register an emotional appeal against Nazi polity, declares Atkinson, Odets requires him to join the Communist party.

Despite its flaws, among them the scenes depicting Nazi brutality, Edith Isaacs writes that Till the Day I Die is "dramatic, honest, direct, mounting to its climax by a progress in characterization and a deepening of situation until there is no escape for either the man or the idea." When I reread the play after several years, I was touched by the poetic beauty of many of the lines in this otherwise stark drama.

Dissatisfaction with the economic and political situation in Germany caused the Communists to protest and engage in an active fight for a change. Increased military forces and the production of armaments were the basis of Hitler's economic recovery. Odets, in Till the Day I Die, implies that German Nazism, paralleled in capitalistic countries, was as great a threat to American hopes and integrity as it was to the German people. Odets felt that monopolistic capitalism was growing vicious or fascist. The struggle depicted in Till the Day I Die was for true democracy everywhere. As an artist as well as a social and political critic, Odets devised an expressionistic method that would arouse his audience to the dangers of fascism everywhere….

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This section contains 1,528 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Jeanne-Marie A. Miller
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