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Critical Essay by Richard J. Dozier
SOURCE: "Recovering Odets' Paradise Lost," in Essays in Literature, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall, 1978, pp. 209-221.
In the following essay, Dozier examines Paradise Lost, a play originally criticized for being an inferior version of Awake and Sing!, Odets's first work. Dozier looks beyond superficial similarities between the two plays to analyze several distinct differences between them.
Paradise Lost has always occupied a special place in the Odets canon. For one thing neither the playwright nor his admirers ever quite gave up on the play. In the Preface to the 1939 Six Plays collection Odets described the piece as his "favorite" despite its poor reception as "a practical theatre work," and twenty years later he was still defending the play by admitting its faults but suggesting that they had somehow grown out of its virtues: "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 (original) production will ever forget it." So it would seem: when Paradise Lost was recently produced for public television, Harold Clurman, together with Luther and Stella Adler, stepped forward to praise Odets' achievement and to provide nostalgic comment on his first theatrical "failure." About some matters, at least, the Group could still be fervent.
Most of the critics who attended the December, 1935, opening of Paradise Lost were less enthusiastic. On the whole they discovered a play that by comparison with the earlier Awake and Sing! seemed "overwrought" and "confused." Indeed, the latter charge was made with numbing recurrency as reviewer after reviewer found fault with the play's sprawling characterization and plot structure. The new play was not of course without its defenders, even outside the ranks of the Group. John Gassner, who in January of the following year had already praised Odets' "realistic symbolism" in a long and thoughtful New Theatre article, in June reiterated his belief in the play's importance and suggested that it "involved a stylization and an abundance of content that laid the work open to misunderstanding." Nevertheless, in the years since it first appeared Paradise Lost has remained open to the kind of "misunderstanding" that characterized its initial reception in 1935. For the most part, it has continued to be regarded as a poorly managed reworking of material the author had dealt with more successfully in Awake and Sing! or an even more glaring example of the artistic collapse that could overtake a leftist playwright who forced ideological concerns on his art. The persistence of this view is most evident in Edward Murray's Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After (1968). In the long chapter he devotes to Awake and Sing! Murray provides us with the most thorough literary analysis of Odets' work to come out thus far, but in his zeal to establish Odets as a major playwright the author has felt it necessary to dismiss three of the early plays that made Odets famous. Waiting for Lefty is mentioned only briefly as an example of the playwright's misguided political militancy, and Paradise Lost is ignored along with Till the Day I Die since "neither," in Murray's opinion, "can add any luster to Odets' critical reputation."
Interestingly enough, there is less overt Marxism in Paradise Lost than in Awake and Sing! where Jacob's political platitudes are constantly at the mercy of Odets' ironies. Pike, the furnace man who serves as the play's resident revolutionary, remains as confused throughout as the other characters, and as someone nicely observes after one of his jeremiads, "all this radical stuff is like marrying the colored maid." But neither the presence nor absence of political theorizing in itself explains what happens in Paradise Lost, nor can such considerations ultimately dispel the objections lodged against Leo Gordon's hopeful speech at the play's close. Moreover, though the comparison with Awake and Sing! is both inevitable and instructive, the similarity between the two plays breaks down, for while the positive ending of Awake and Sing! is the result of a carefully sustained imagistic and gestural pattern, it is the abortiveness of this pattern that is everywhere emphasized in Paradise Lost. As Gerald Rabkin has noted, "the image is starker than that of Awake and Sing! because the seeds of redemption, although present in the play, are not allowed to flower." Odets' reluctance to establish this redemptive motif is the chief of the differences which separate Paradise Lost from his previous work, differences which suggest that in his final play of 1935 he was beginning to explore several new directions in his art. In order to appreciate Odets' achievement in Paradise Lost we must look beyond the similarity between Leo Cordon's and Ralph Berger's final speeches, as well as certain other elements common to both plays—we must even be prepared to admit that in the final act of Paradise Lost Odets' actual accomplishment may have run counter to his conscious intentions. But to do so is to be more fully aware of the "rich" and "gloomy" colors Odets was striving for in a work that represents a deeper, though more troubling, vision than that in Awake and Sing!
Impatient with the Group's reluctance to produce Awake, Odets had already completed a considerable portion of his second full-length play before the first was produced. "My impulse," he later told interviewer Arthur Wagner, "was—well if they didn't like or think Awake and Sing! was good enough, I would in a certain sense try to write Awake and Sing! better." One consequence of this effort was the strong similarity between the two plays that disgruntled some of Paradise Lost's reviewers. As the idiom in the Gordon household makes clear, theirs is still another urban Jewish family. Unlike the apartment-dwelling Bergers, the Gordons are part-owners of a small business and own their own home. The crash, however, has taken its toll, and the house has been mortgaged to keep the business going. The list of "boarders," which includes Leo's partner Sam Katz, has grown considerably over that in the earlier play, but the paradoxical situation created by the presence of so many "homeless" people under one roof is essentially the same as in Awake.
In both plays the press of economic conditions has either discouraged or deeply affected the romantic attachments of the young people. Like Ralph and Blanche, Pearl Gordon and her Felix reluctantly break off their engagement because of money; but no such misgivings prevent Ben Gordon, the onetime Olympic runner and pride of the family, from entering into a precipitous marriage with Libby Michaels that proves as unfortunate as the one in Awake. There are noticeable similarities between the lovers in the two plays. In her thwarted desire for happiness—"I want fun out of life!"—Libby appears to be a coarser, more calloused version of Hennie; and Ben's cuckoldry at the hands of his sidekick Kewpie recalls the fate of Sam Feinschreiber in Awake. Kewpie's attachment to a married woman, his illegitimate source of income, even his general philosophy—"In case you'd like to know, I'm sore on my whole damn life"—are traits obviously carried over from the character of Moe Axelrod.
Most of the other characters in the play also show traces of having been modelled on those in Awake, Libby's father, Gus Michaels, resembles Awake's Myron Berger both in his talk about movie stars and his preoccupation with the past; the blustery Sam Katz has replaced Uncle Morty as a spokesman from the capitalist class; and Pike, who takes over Jacob's function as political chorus to the action, is a not-too-distant relative of Schlosser, Awake's unhappy janitor. Finally, though there is more than a touch of Bessie Berger in Clara Gordon—her house, like Bessie's, is a matriarchy—it is the self-effacing Bertha Katz who, without any of Bessie's aggressive outer coating, eventually exercises the kind of control over her infantile husband that is practiced on Myron Berger.
More importantly, the Gordon household is another variation of the Odetsian "crazy house" whose inner disorder is designed to reflect the disarray in the world outside. As in Awake, that world is suffering from what Leo calls "a profound dislocation." "The whole world's fallin' to pieces, right under our eyes," Gus exclaims. One senses the disintegration in the physical impairments of the family members whom Clara repeatedly addresses as "lunatics." Leo Gordon is given to nose-bleeds at critical moments; Ben can no longer run because of a bad heart; and his brother Julie, who suffers from encephalitis, is a walking corpse. Perhaps the most ominous sign of conditions in the Gordon house is that the "ants" detected earlier by Myron Berger have now grown into. "spiders" whose presence in the cellar of the building suggests that its very foundation is decayed and crumbling. Clara's warning to Leo that "The lock on the back door's broken again"—coming as it does on the heels of the call about Ben's death—contributes further to the overall impression that things are falling apart in Odets' symbolic house.
In Paradise Lost the emphasis is once again less on economics than on what Pike calls "the depression of modern man's spirit"; and the atmosphere in the Gordon house provides an appropriate setting for the distorted human relationships that constitute the pattern of Odets' particular wasteland vision. The reversal of parental and sexual roles, for instance, is occasionally more striking here than in the earlier play. In contrast to her shy and retiring husband, Clara Gordon takes the initiative when Sam Katz complains about the "bums" who move freely about the house, and her threat to "knock out his teeth" is almost made good when Katz attempts to prevent his wife from airing the truth about their life together. Near the end of the play when Phil Foley, the demagogic leader of the Nemo Democratic Club, demands that the Gordon furniture be removed from the sidewalk lest it interfere with his "prosperity block party," it is Clara who defies him, and she has to be restrained when Foley returns with two detectives. While she is always tolerant and indulgent toward Leo himself—"I found out many years ago I married a fool, but I love him"—her several references to playing "poker" with the "girls" are comic reminders that their relationship is not perhaps what it should be.
The most startling instance of the breakdown of conventional marital roles, however, is reserved for the scene in which Bertha finally reveals why the Katzes have no children. Prior to this Sam has always pretended that the fault lay with his wife, an explanation that has seemed plausible because of the wig a previous illness has forced her to wear. In fact, part of Sam's antagonism toward the shop delegation stems from his resentment that "A fly spot like Gerson should have a baby!" while "a man like an ox can't have a son." He still clings to this illusion, even on the brink of this confession to Leo: "In the circus they got a bearded lady … (and) in my house I got a baldy woman!" Pressured from all sides, however, Sam can no longer conceal either his theft of the company money or his sexual failure, and Gus Michaels' prophetic riddle about "a woman who sleeps with cats" is borne out in Bertha's disclosure of his impotency:
BERTHA: All right, we can't have children.
SAM: Tell everybody, tell the world!
BERTHA: He didn't go out with girls. I never worried about that.
SAM: No, no, no…. (Falls on his knees in the outer hall and writhes in prayer on the lower step.)
BERTHA: We have upstairs a closet full of pills, medicine, electric machines. For seven years Sam Katz didn't sleep with a girl
Helped at last to his feet, the broken Katz makes his final exit, led away by a woman who turns out not to have been "childless" after all.
Although Sam Katz's collapse stands out in the play by virtue of its distressing suddenness, his predicament is not an isolated phenomenon in Paradise Lost. An imputation of childishness, sterility, or impotency—alike symbolic of the inability to order or direct their lives—hangs over most of the other males in the play. Leo, like Katz, cries in his sleep; Julie Gordon, Clara's "beautiful boy," asks his mother not to close her door at night; and Kewpie later tells Ben's parents that their elder son died because "He was a little kid in a man's world … you made him like that." More significantly, Sam Katz's references to his "baldy" wife form part of a pattern, reminiscent of the anecdote about the elder Feinschreiber in Awake, in which hair, beards, and barbering are associated with sexual or spiritual failure.
Despite his apparent fatherhood of Libby's child, Ben Gordon's ritual visits to the barbershop suggest that his "manhood" is in constant need of reassurance. Just such a stopover delays his initial appearance and the news of his and Libby's marriage. Asked to remove his hat, he at first refuses to do so: "Hear that? Pal o' my cradle days calling me a lunatic! Can't do it, Clara. Got to keep the haircomb in place. (Shows hair) Max worked an hour on it. But don't I make a bum out of a hat!" Later on in the play, when his dreams of a "berth on Wall Street" have shrunk to a corner toystand, Ben broods over his condition before making an unusual request of his father:
BEN (working the drumming toy): Poor Mickey Mouse! That's it—always the army to join. Or the navy. Leo, if I wasn't afraid of missing Kewpie here, I'd ask a big favor.
LEO: Ask it….
BEN: I'd ask to advance me a buck seventy-five and then go around to Harry's barber shop and get the whole works—haircut, massage and manicure. Believe you me, I'd like that feeling again.
The symbolic associations with which Odets invests Ben's behavior constantly interact with references elsewhere in the play. Felix, for example, confesses to Pearl that he is just "a worm in the ground," not "a wonderful guy—a musician with a big head of hair" (p. 182). And like Myron Berger—"The moment I began losing my hair I just knew I was destined to be a failure in life"—Gus Michaels, described in the stage directions as "a small alert man with hair combed down to cover his baldness" concludes: "I guess failure's gone to my head." Following his arrest over an incident involving a young girl, the man who has boasted that he is "sweet on the ladies" and has joked of having his own "harem" performs a ceremony that, like Myron's obsessive weighing, seems closely akin to Ben's visits to the barbershop:
PIKE: Well, Gus is out there taking a shave.
LEO: Two and three in the morning sometimes I find him shaving in front of the mirror.
PIKE: He wants to look good.
LEO: But three in the morning? For whom?
PIKE: Man has to have something.
Characteristically, Odets draws together several strands of the pattern near the end of Act I where the play's three "fathers" gather to toast the newlyweds. Under the influence of the cognac which Leo has mistakenly poured for wine, the conversation turns from the young people to the speakers' recollections of their own fathers:
PIKE: My father used to order sherry by the cask. He exorcised the devils by day, but at night, by George, they crawled all over him!…
GUS: Ha, ha, ha.
LEO: My father was a silent man. His hair was black as coal till the day he died. A silent man (maybe) he knew God intimately. I loved him like an idol.
GUS: Why, he was a man with fur cuffs! Hair on his arms grew right down on his wrists—fur cuffs you would say.
The discussion does more than illustrate that the three are hopelessly tied to the past; the description of the elder Gordon is clearly calculated to evoke a comparison between the present "fathers" and the more vigorous beings who inhabit their childhood memories, a comparison that becomes immediately evident in Pike's adolescent show of strength with the bent coin. The elder Gordon may have known God "intimately," but as Clara pointedly reminds him, Leo doesn't even know his own business partner:
LEO: Clara, I've trusted Sam for twenty-two years.
CLARA: A lunatic can make a mistake.
LEO (laughing): She's serious—a man I know intimately for thirty years.
CLARA: Never mind! In business "intimately" don't grow hair on a bald men's head.
Moreover, the "idol" worshipped in the Gordon house not only possesses a weak heart—he is sexually suspect. When we first see them together, Kewpie is strangely incensed because someone at the barbershop has called Ben an "nance," and their intensely close relationship gradually casts doubt on Kewpie's otherwise lustful attachment to Libby. In the midst of one of their reconciliations, Libby asks: "What's this, a love duet?" The hint of homosexuality here is fully realized elsewhere: the titular Milton of Odets' "Paradise Lost" is Phil Foley's lisping assistant (p. 167). Seen in this broad context, Ben's otherwise innocent tomfoolery at the picture-taking ceremony in which he holds the raccoon tail from Gus's motorcycle to his chin (p. 171) reveals more than the customary uncertainty about the step he and Libby have just taken.
As in the earlier play, the dilemma of the frustrated or failed artist is another symptom of the widespread unhappiness in Odets' crazy house. The situation of musicians Felix and Pearl comes readiest to mind, but the list includes others. Pike, for example, is reduced to employing his graphic skills in the depiction of dying men, and Ben Gordon's description of the exhilaration that comes with running suggests that his future inability to do so represents an even more alarming loss of self-expression: "Last night I couldn't sleep. All the way over to the new bridge, I walked. Stood there for a long time looking in the water. Then I began to run, down the street. I used to like to be out front. When I fell in that rhythm and knew my reserve—the steady driving forward—I sang inside when I ran. Yeah, sang like an airplane, powerful motors humming in oil. I wanted to run till my heart exploded … a funny way to die…." Although Julie Gordon, unlike Jacob, rarely exhibits "the flair of an artist," it is significant that his "runs" on the billiard table, like his "runs" on the market, always go unnoticed. Leo's case is much clearer: "Mr. Gordon don't know!" Sam tells the shop delegation: "I run the business, he sits with artistic designs—."
In Paradise Lost images of entrapment, suffocation, and drowning appear in greater profusion than in Awake. "Under the roar of Niagara," Leo asks, "can a man live a normal life?" "There's your children, you, Sam Katz," Pike tells him, "—a big hand got itself around you, squeezin' like all hell gone on!" Kewpie calls Libby "A sleeping clam at the bottom of the ocean"; and when Clara asks, "How's business?" Ben cryptically replies: "Swimming without my water wings by now." Appropriately, it is Kewpie's alliance with "Joe the Shark" that momentarily permits him to thrive in an atmosphere that destroys Ben.
"Did you ever hear of a crazier proposition in all your born days?" Clara says of Leo's attempt to give away the German canary. The comic episode with which the play begins is not only Leo's first futile effort at repudiation; the birdcage, like the one that harbors Florrie in Waiting for Lefty, is also an image of physical and spiritual imprisonment. "Dope! You were sick in bed for two months!" Julie's mother tells him: "You expect to fly like an eagle the first week?" "Home is a prison," Sam Katz laments: "Sing Sing, my house—it's not different." Gus Michaels' pathetic "singing" appears to be an attempt to make his cage a pleasant place: "Goldfish and canary birds. I love to have them things around the house. (Suddenly he is whistling vigorously like a canary) I'm a son of a gun how he comes singin' out of me, this little bird!" "Don't you worry your head about them turtledoves," he says of Ben and Libby. By the end of the play, however, it is clear that Gus' optimistic stratagem has failed: "Leo, Clara, we had so much sorrow outa life, and now we want a good time! Sky rockets bustin' in the house! Ventriloquism! Beasts and birds!" (Suddenly he is gloriously trilling like a bird. But the whistle ends in defeat.) Ben's marriage to Libby and the announcement about his heart condition signal an end to the kind of "flight" he talks about. A moment or so before his own "song" for the cameraman, Post says to him: "I used to think you'd get married in an airplane." Libby is a "beautiful" but more earthbound "machine," however, than the metaphorical airplane of Ben's and Ralph Berger's reveries. Besides, as Kewpie later observes, Ben is a "burnt out spark plug."
Just as in the earlier play, images of escape exist alongside those of entrapment. Gus' desire to "go far away to the South Sea Isles and eat coconuts" obviously recalls the attractions of Moe Axelrod's "land of Yama Yama," but the expression of such hopes is muted in Paradise Lost and the paradisiacal retreats are even more suspicious:
PIKE: Our country is the biggest and best pig-sty in the world!
GUS: I don't know no better place, Mr. P.
PIKE: I do. All picked out for me: the bottom of the ocean.
Ben Gordon's final run, we remember—both the one he describes, and the real one—ends in death.
The similarities between the two plays, however, have already taken us into the important differences between them. Even the overall structure they appear to have in common—the lyrical summation at the end of the first act, the announcement of death at the close of the second, and the "lifting" speech at the curtain—emphasizes the superficiality of their resemblance; for while young Ralph Berger is on his feet and singing at the end of Awake, the "Representative American youth" in Paradise Lost is dead before the final act begins.
One of the major differences between Odets' first and second full-length play lies in the characterization. The difference in this case goes beyond the tendency toward allegory in Paradise Lost that led some critics to dismiss the characters as merely types or "case histories." In Awake the almost identical challenge facing the two sets of lovers was significant because of the way in which Odets' paired characters (Ralph-Moe, Blanche-Hennie) complemented each other. In Paradise Lost this kind of parallelism is more fully exploited, and the device of pairing characters is carried even further.
Nearly everyone in the Gordon household is provided with a "mate" or counterpart. Pike carries in his watch a picture of the two sons he has lost in the war. When Gus Michaels accidentally tunes the radio to an Armistice Day plea for rededication to "country" and "flag," the former recalls the hard times he and others have had to go through: "We lived on and hoped. We lived on garbage dumps. Two of us found canned prunes, ate them and were poisoned for weeks. One died. Now I can't die. But we gave up to despair and life took quiet years. We worked a little. Nights I drank myself insensible. Punched my own mouth." Several matters are worth noting here. First of all, Leo's situation will be much the same by the end of the play, for he will also have "lost" both his sons. Furthermore, Pike's self-flagellation during this speech suggests the peculiar love-hate relationship that exists between Kewpie and Ben. What is most interesting about Pike's out-burst, however, is that the account of his poisoned friend implies that Pike himself is now only half alive, that part of him has somehow died in the past. When Clara tries to convince Julie that he will soon be back at his old post at the bank, the other knows better: "I don't believe it! In high school we had a kid named Gilbert. He had sleeping sickness, too. When he came back to school he began to get old. In two years … he died." A moment later, when Julie asks Gus if he likes "open-air cars," the latter is reminded of the picture he carries in his own watch: "No, I don't like open-air cars. Mrs. Michaels was killed like that. She was a very nervous woman and put her head out…. My wife had one blue eye and one grey eye—there's no use denyin' it, Julie … and if you want the whole truth, she was cockeyed; but I loved her very much." The circumstances of Mrs. Michaels' death provided us with a shocking correlate to Sam Katz's "baldy woman," and the condition of her eyes reminds us that we are once again in the "cockeyed world" against which Lefty's Agate Keller rebels. Near the end of the play when it is clear that Pearl's piano must be surrendered along with the house, Gus recalls the fate of still another acquaintance: "An old friend of mine, Harry Meyers, he used to be in the piano business. A fine and dandy man, but slow in the head. Then he went out on the ocean—April 1912. There was a marine disaster! The sinking of the Titantic…." When we remember that Leo's business partnership as well as his marriage date from that year, it is clear that the story of Harry Meyers applies not only to Pearl, but to the "marine disaster" that is overtaking the other denizens of the Gordon house.
Just as the stories concerning off-stage characters often give the impression that the people in the play are only partially themselves, so several of the "pairings" within the play strongly suggest the disintegration of personality and purpose, and an inevitable drift towards death. From the division of responsibilities at the Cameo Shop it appears that the crisis that befalls Sam and Leo is the result of a fateful split between the material and moral consciousness. The "intimacy" of their relationship goes much deeper than their mutual rejection of the family pet; neither is willing to face the enormity of his incompleteness. What Leo finally fails to understand is that the childless Sam Katz's fate is his own and that he, too, "died … far back."
The tragic division of sensibility from which Leo suffers is also conspicuous in his son and daughter. Kewpie is more than Ben's "man Friday": "I'm in you like a tape worm," his friend tells him—"Yeah, a carbon copy who hates your guts," Libby warns. Though their outward personalities are different—Kewpie arouses Libby sexually, Ben "tells" her "poems"—the toy-doll metaphor in the play suggests that Odets' all-American and his would-be gangster are mirror images for the corrupting drives and lost idealism each perceives in the other. Their fatal kinship is made even more explicit in Ben's recollection of the drowning death of Danny, a childhood friend whose death-dress resembles the formal attire adopted by Ben's dying brother:
We're still under the ice, you and me—we never escaped! Christ, Kewpie! Are we the same kids who used to go up to Whitey Aimer's roof and watch the pigeons fly? You and me and Danny? There's one old pal we know what happened to, where he is. The three of us under the ice with our skates on and not being able to get him out. Then sticking him dead in the box. Dressed in a blue serge suit and a stiff white collar … Christ, Kewpie, tell me, tell me—who died there—me or you or him or what?
"I'm just as proud as she is …," Libby cries when Pearl scolds her brother for having had the "nerve" to get married. The contrast between them is established with brutal frankness in Pike's response to Pearl's complaints about being "homesick": "There she is alone in her room with the piano—the white keys banked up like lilies and she suckin' at her own breast…. You! Lay awake dreamin' at night. Don't you know it ain't comin' that land of your dreams, unless you work for it?" Nevertheless, Kewpie unwittingly calls attention to their common predicament when he tells Libby that her "shell's lined with pearls." In effect, Libby's pursuit of "fun" is merely a distorted reflection of Pearl's sterile embrace of her piano and refusal to seize hold of life. Like their male counterparts, Odets' two young women also appear to be doomed. Pike's funereal portrait of Pearl recalls the story Gus tells of Libby's birth: "She was a seven months' baby. Just imagine, we never thought she'd live."
Even a cursory glance at some of the other characters in the play reveals that most of them also share a "paired" existence. The apparent exception in the case of Clara, although hers and Bertha's situations are in many ways alike, seems not so much an inconsistency as Odets' way of insisting on her "wholeness." On the other hand, both Phil Foley and Post ("a dark man with a dead face") are accompanied by "assistants," and in the final act Odets' "homeless men," as well as his detectives, arrive at the house in groups of two.
The dialogue in Paradise Lost is also noticeably different from that of the earlier play. In the exchanges between Ben and Kewpie, in the revelations provided by Sam and Bertha, and especially in Pike's terrifying address to Pearl, there is a psychological nakedness and a luxuriance of metaphor that is not present in Awake. The altered tone of the dialogue in Paradise Lost is evident, for instance, in the ease with which the author's editorial comment on Bessie Berger—"She knows that when one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life"—finds its way into one of Kewpie's speeches.
As if these and the other non-realistic elements in Paradise Lost did not sufficiently alert us to its expressionism, Odets' grotesques prowl through the rubble of their dreams upon a stage that is literally strewn with symbols. Even a partial list (the bird-cage, Ben's statue, his medals, the mechanical toys, Gus' motorcycle, his stamp collection, his aviator's cap, Pearl's unseen piano) indicates the depth of association Odets has built around these objects whose gradual disappearance or destruction signals the "fall" of the Gordon "house." In the closing moments of the play the stage has been stripped bare, except for a few pieces of furniture and Gus' useless motorcycle. Only Ben's statue remains intact, the pathetic embodiment of the golden calf in Clara's biblical "bed-time" story.
As Gassner has suggested, much of the "confusion" in the early notices of Paradise Lost probably resulted from a "misunderstanding" of the dramaturgical differences between it and Awake and Sing!, a misunderstanding that was natural enough, considering the resemblances between the two plays. Nevertheless, steps were taken in the production of the play to reflect the shift toward expressionism. In an April 1936 Theatre Arts piece entitled "The Director Takes Command," Morton Eustis recorded several of Clurman's observations about the approach he had taken in staging the play:
Paradise Lost, he decided, after some contemplation, gave him the impression of "a crystal ball revolving in space, with various refracted lights and shadows revolving about it." [Relating] this feeling (now intellectual in character, as well as emotional) still further to the "production quality" of the play, he realized that the drama should have a "slightly circular movement meandering, no straight motion"; that the "visual element"—"the setting"—should be realistic and yet abstract, "the line of the ceiling not straight, the shape of the room not completely realistic and yet giving the impression of realism, the color of the walls of varying degrees of light and shade"; that the lighting should convey the same quasi-realistic impression.
To judge by some of the reviews, this approach was not sufficiently pursued. In fact, the Eustis article contains an admission by Clurman that "the designer's project erred on the realistic side. The abstract intention was not made clear enough." But it may be that no amount of stylization could have enabled Odets' 1935 audience to make the transition from "Longwood Avenue" to "Shakespeare Place."
The most important difference between Paradise Lost and Awake, however, lies neither in the characterization nor the setting of the plays, but in Odets' treatment of the redemptive motif he had established in the earlier work. There Jacob's sacrificial death had forcefully illustrated Odets' fundamental belief that "older and more crushed human beings" could bequeath "lifting values to the younger generation." What Gerald Rabkin has aptly called the "seeds of redemption" are indeed present in Paradise Lost: throughout the play there are unmistakable traces of the gestural pattern Odets had employed before. But the failure of this pattern to "flower" in the later play is an indication that, whatever the author's intentions may have been, Leo Gordon's final speech must not be viewed in the same light as Ralph Berger's. On the contrary, the expression of hope at the end of Paradise Lost is plainly overshadowed by the somber framework in which it is delivered.
Aside from Pike, the character in Paradise Lost who most nearly resembles Jacob is Gus Michaels. "God," he tells Clara, "I would make the world jump if I was a young man again!!" And like his predecessor who had great plans but "drank instead a glass tea," Gus has considered suicide: "I have my troubles, Mrs. G. Be surprised how often I think about it—takin' my own life by my own hand…. But I turn the radio on instead of the gas…." Despite Clara's insistence that the hobby is his "whole life," it is significant that Gus parts not with his life, but with his stamp collection. That such a gesture is intended to represent a symbolic break with the past is evident in the way in which it is associated with Leo's own resolve to "wake up" and face reality following the visit of the shop delegation:
LEO: My brain has been sleeping. My mind is made up: our workers must have better conditions! Tomorrow I mean to start fresh. In life we must face certain facts.
GUS: Yes. Only last night I was thinkin' about selling my stamp collection. I figure she's easily worth a few thousand—but I guess I could just never do it….
But as a redemptive gesture, Gus' action is only a feeble imitation of Jacob's sacrifice.
The futility of Gus' "sacrifice" is reinforced by the failure that attends similar gestures by others in the final act of the play. Kewpie's proffer of money, for instance, obviously represents an effort to repudiate the sense of guilt he feels over Ben's death. And only moments later, Kewpie's frustrating experience is repeated in Leo's attempt to bestow the money on the two "bums" whom Pike has ushered into the house. Much to his surprise, Leo's hollow and somewhat condescending offer—"If it were within my power I would restore to you a whole world which is rightfully yours"—is rejected by Paul: "I look at you and see myself seven years back. I been there. This kind of dream paralyzes the will—confuses the mind. Courage goes. Daring goes … and in the nights there is sighing…. You had a sorta little paradise here. Now you lost this paradise. That should teach you something. But no! You ain't awake yet." It is the bird-cage episode all over again. By the end of the play Leo is just where he started. He is no more aware of his affinity with Paul than he was of his tie with Sam Katz.
The inadequacy of their gestures is finally evident in the inability of Paradise Lost's "older" and "more crushed" characters to pass on anything to the younger generation. The need for such a legacy is stronger here than in the earlier play:
BEN: Orphans of the storm! We are low enough to crawl under a snake! Julie, Pearl, rise and shine! One of the living heirs must amount to something in this goddam family!
JULIE: Let's shoot some billiards, Ben.
BEN: Sure, why not? Anything to kill time. Tell the world we're down in the cellar pushing balls around. Coast to coast.
The trouble is that by the end of Paradise Lost the Gordon children, unlike their counterparts in Awake, are as "dead" as the cushions on their billiard table. Leo Gordon may proclaim that "Heartbreak and terror are not the heritage of mankind" and that "No fruit tree wears a lock and key," but for the "sleepers" in the Gordon house it is too late. "Finished," Felix says to Pearl: "I'll say good-bye and you'll say goodbye." "Finished!" Sam shouts to the shop delegation. "Finished!" Clara says of the idolaters in her story: "God blotted them out of the book." "You have been took like a bulldog takes a pussycat!" Paul informs Leo: "Finished!" The phrase runs like a litany through Paradise Lost. It is a litany for the dead.
A few years before his death Odets appeared to side with some of his critics in explaining the problems posed by his early plays: "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." It seems clear, however, that regardless of what ideological concerns may have prompted Odets to fashion the play as he did, Paradise Lost does "say what it has to say." That Odets built better than he knew becomes apparent if we attempt to replace the ending we have with another. No more patently pessimistic conclusion could have so effectively sustained the ironic pattern of Leo Gordon's previous false "awakenings" as the beleaguered hero's final desperate assertion that he at last sees life whole.
"Writing plays isn't like doing oil paintings," Odets once remarked. "You can't say if they don't get it now, then they'll get it forty years later; the play doesn't usually survive that long." Perhaps Odets was right. But free at last from the context in which it first appeared, Paradise Lost may yet justify the fervency of its admirers. In his recent full-length study of Odets' work, Gerald Weales has been kinder to the play than earlier critics and has suggested that "of all the Odets plays, it is probably the one that has most to gain from a revival," particularly "now that we are not so enamored of theatrical realism…." Paradise Lost does occasionally "spill out of its frame," but with judicious editing and imaginative staging, it could challenge Awake and Sing! as the best of Odets' early work.
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