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Critical Essay by Benjamin Appel
SOURCE: "Odets University," in The Literary Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, Summer, 1976, pp. 470-75.
Appel was an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and one-time student of Odets. In the following essay, he relates his personal experience with Odets and discusses Odets's role at the House Un-American Activities Committee Hearings in the 1950's.
"Odets University" was my nickname for the playwrighting class Clifford Odets conducted for one memorable session in 1951 at the Actors Studio.
Everything was free. Tuition. Tickets to Broadway plays. Advice after class as well as free drinks in some nearby bar or at Odets' home in the East 60's. Quite a few of the "graduates" would see their plays produced—as Clifford Odets, president, dean and faculty had hoped—and with the cry of Author! Author! in effect be awarded their "degrees." William Gibson who had submitted a play on the life of the young Shakespeare (admission to "Odets University" depended on an approved script) would write Two for the See-Saw, and Louis Peterson would be acclaimed as an important playwright after the production of his Take a Giant Step. Leslie Wiener, Jack Levine, Jimmy McGee and four or five other students whose names skip me would make it to Broadway or Off-Broadway.
It so happened that I had written a play based on one of my novels and like a thousand—or were there ten thousand other would-be playwrights in New York?—I had read about the projected class in the theatrical pages of the New York Times. I mailed mine in, it was accepted, and with some fifteen other successful applicants was admitted to the sessions. We met twice a week; each session lasted four hours with a break in the middle. Odets' theatrical knowledge, his patience, his generosity apparently had no limits. Once, he missed a class due to illness, to return, wrapped in a muffler with a bottle of medicine on his desk.
It was inevitable, however, as we smoked and chatted during the breaks for some of us to speculate about his motives. After all weren't we observers of mankind?
"Clifford's psychiatrist must've advised him to do good …"
"He's compensating for the money he made in Hollywood …"
We had no dearth of amateur psychiatrists. There were also one or two self-appointed commissars of culture:
"Clifford's full of guilt for the years he spent writing movie crap …"
The commissars had no use for The Country Girl, starring Uta Hagen, a Broadway hit. We had all seen it—those free tickets! and Odets had analyzed it in class, discussing the problems he had faced and their solutions. When he was done dissecting a scene he would throw the floor open for a general discussion.
Even his harshest critics in the class admitted that, "Clifford took it on the chin …" But one afternoon he exploded when his play was torn apart as being too commercial, too slick, too Hollywood. He reminded his leftist critics that he was a pro and that we were all beginners. The class was shocked. Hadn't Odets himself declared at the opening sessions that we were all peers, all students of the theatre?
He had been so unprofessionally open, so modest, answering every sort of question. Nothing was barred. Questioned about his politics he had unhesitatingly replied that he was a radical …
To me, Clifford Odets was a semi-legendary figure whose first plays Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, Rocket to the Moon had given shape and voice to the 1930's, that decade of hunger and hope when so many writers, Odets among them had, as the popular phrase put it, "gone left." His early plays made him famous. Airborne to Hollywood, the golden Olympus, he was soon a top writer of movie scripts. Perhaps, he would have remained there if the House Un-American Affairs Committee or HUAC hadn't pulled the curtain on a real-life drama that for all too many years would fascinate the nation. Like that epic of the silent movies, The Perils of Pauline, the HUAC production—it could be called The Red Menace—was a non-stop serial running on and on, featured on the front pages of the national press.
The first scene of the first act—Time: 1947—starred the Hollywood Ten, among them Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz, John Howard Lawson. Scene followed scene, involving still other alleged Communists, fellow travellers, left-wingers: a dazzling fireworks into which "unfriendly witnesses" (that is all who invoked the Fifth Amendment or so-called "Red Amendment") would be tossed. The show went on and on. If "unfriendly witnesses" defied the inquisitors, the "friendly witnesses" beat their once-upon-a-time red or pink breasts and hastily decked themselves out in red-white-and-blue brassieres. Some of the "friendlys" were genuinely sincere, genuinely disillusioned in—their once fervent faith in the haloed Josef Stalin, the Red Jesus. Still others, driven to the confessional box by plain sweaty fear, hoped to save their careers.
No use listing their names. All suffered. The men and women who resisted the pressures to conform, and the many whose principles had either changed or had never been more than skin-deep; red on top, white beneath, like the proverbial radish. HUAC purged Hollywood and when they moved on to other arenas, the blacklist remained. The movie moguls, of course, denied its existence but somehow or other if you weren't "friendly" you were, as they said in Hollywood, as good as dead.
There was also the gray list, so-called because the fate of the listees—writers, directors, actors—still had to be decided. Clifford Odets was one of the gray listees when he returned to New York in 1951 with his actress wife Betty Gray and their children, rented an apartment whose walls displayed his paintings: a mini-museum of Utrillos and Modiglianis.
My first meeting with Clifford Odets wasn't at the Actors Studio but at a party whose guests included Erwin Piscator and Mrs. Berthold Brecht, refugees from Hitler's Germany. Brecht himself had already returned to the eastern and Communist half. Odets, that evening was tense and uncommunicative. Only afterwards would I guess at some of his anxieties. There he was newly arrived in New York, a refugee himself, self-expelled from his native land—for Hollywood like some legendary kingdom has always belonged to its conquerors. He was no longer the young dramatic poet who had flashed like a revolutionary meteor over New York in the 1930's. Still youthful in appearance, the intelligence in his dark eyes like some invisible and preservative glue binding together mouth, chin, nose and high forehead, he was nevertheless in his middle forties. And no actor—and he had been an actor before becoming a playwright—can ignore the calendar reflected in his mirror.
He only came to life when Piscator criticized Odets' play, The Big Knife, the first he had written since his early successes. I had seen it before meeting the playwright and hadn't cared for it. The Big Knife was one of those plays in which art and politics had been shaken together to make an unsatisfactory cocktail. The characters were Hollywood personalities typical of what might be called the HUAC 1950's; torn between their youthful beliefs and the pressures to keep silent, to conform, to betray. There was passion in the play and there was also hysteria as if the big knife had wounded Odets where no writer can afford to be wounded: his artistic vision. Piscator's barbs were sharp. Odets tried to defend his play, arguing that like a painting a play had to be seen more than once before a final judgement …
I have gone into some detail on my first meeting with Clifford Odets—offstage business so to speak—but necessary I feel in understanding the playwright who had left Hollywood and would soon found "Odets University." He had told us he was a radical, a man of the left … I would soon remember that statement of his. There is no doubt that he was already formulating what he would say when summoned by HUAC; rehearsing the role he would play when the lights came on full glare.
Several of his more intransigent critics dropped out of the class. The "off campus" gossip became more caustic. I found myself defending him. What difference did it make, I argued whether Odets felt guilty for his "wasted Hollywood years" or whether his psychoanalyst (if he had one) had told him to Do Good or whether The Country Girl was inferior to Awake and Sing. What mattered were his actions: the four-hour classes; the playdoctoring conferences at his home including weekends. We were lucky, I said, to have Clifford as our teacher.
At the occasional parties he gave at his home for his students and their wives or girl friends, Odets would sometimes ask me for my opinion about his venture. Perhaps, because I was more observer than active student; I hadn't done a thing with the play I had submitted, too busy preparing a new novel for publication—perhaps because like Odets himself I had come of literary age in the 1930's—anyway he was eager to know what I thought. And always I assured this unsure man of how much we appreciated the time, the energy, the knowledge that went into each session. He would visibly relax to hear me.
In the spring of 1951 "Odets University" shut down although he continued working with students at his home, reading their revised scripts and suggesting changes. Then, what he must have expected and feared came to pass. HUAC summoned him to Washington.
I followed the Hearings in the press and later read the full record issued by the Government Printing Office. It seemed to me that two different men had testified before the Committee. A defiant Odets who eloquently upheld the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And a confused, worried Odets who eventually revealed the names of friends and associates who had once been Communists as Odets had been himself. He had "named names" and yet as I heard on the grapevine he didn't regard himself as an informer or as a "friendly witness." Hadn't all the names been named by previous witnesses? It was true. They had been named and Odets felt, it seemed, that he had divulged nothing new or incriminating.
All I was certain of was that I had no right to judge him. That right only belonged to those who themselves had faced the inquisitors. I hadn't been called to testify. I had never known—I could only imagine—the agonies of a man confronted by professional patriots who had the power to pin an updated scarlet letter on the chest of any witness they deemed to be unfriendly. What I did was write Clifford Odets a note in which I expressed my sympathy. I had to do that much. I couldn't forget his generosity, not only to me, but to all of us in that class of his.
This is his reply:
Dear Ben Appel—
I was glad to have your note. For the most part the judgements (so judgmental everyone is!) of what I did and said in Washington have been disgustingly mechanical, based on a few lines printed in newspapers, right or left, when actually there were three hundred pages of typed transcript. Personally, I find this a disturbingly immoral time and this immorality exists as much on the left as on the right. Personal clarity, in my opinion, is the first law of the day—that plus a true and real search for personal identity. I don't believe in any party or group doing my thinking or directing for me. When I find out what I mean it may in some small measure be what this country means and that I will say in play or plays. I hope you are well and writing as I am on the verge of being and doing.
He would return to Hollywood to write movie scripts. There would be no new plays. The Big Knife, The Country Girl and The Flowering Peach—this last written while he still lived in New York—completed what theatrical critics would call his opus. He died some years back but his plays, the last plays and the first plays, remain to tell his story.
Real writers like Clifford Odets always write their own autobiographies in their plays or novels. The formal biographies are necessary, of course, and no doubt they will appear.
This section contains 2,036 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)