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CLIFFORD ODETS AND AMERICAN THEATRE

Alan Dent

 

Clifford Odets is hardly a forgotten name, but if he is a major figure in twentieth century American theatre his profile appears to belie his stature. Trace the development of that theatre and the indispensable names would probably be O'Neill, Odets, Williams, Albee, Miller, Shepard and Mamet. Other names might be added, but could any of these be sensibly omitted? Odets is alone amongst these in having no work in print in Britain. Somehow, the great white hope, the golden boy, the man whose picture appeared on the cover of Time, whose marriage to Louise Rainer made him a feature of the gossip columns, who, as John Lahr puts it, "bushwacked" his way into American theatre in 1935 with Waiting For Lefty, has fallen from grace. His plays are rarely revived on this side of the Atlantic. Mention his name to moderately well-read people and they will often look puzzled, and even very well-read people will admit having heard of him but never having read him or seen a production. What is it that makes Odets different? Why aren't his plays in fat paperback editions in the bookshop chains? Why has the reputation of a major American dramatist been allowed to dwindle to that of an almost peripheral figure?

There are lines in Rocket to The Moon which may well have inspired, consciously or otherwise, Death Of A Salesman. Almost ten years before Miller's play, Odets has Frenchy say:

In this day of stresses I don't see much normal life, myself included. The woman's not a wife. She's the dependent of a salesman who can’t make sales and is ashamed to tell her so....

It seems unlikely that Miller wouldn't have known these words, and whether he seized on them as the inchoate material for a drama of the failure of the American Dream, or merely absorbed their significance and let it play slowly on his imagination, there seems a debt to Odets. Indeed, wouldn't it be fair to argue that the entire subsequent challenge of American theatre to the dominant American ideology, especially the addiction to a naive and shallow definition of success, owes at least something to the ground broken by Odets in the plays of his early productive period from 1935 to 1939? During these four years he wrote six plays. Between 1940 and his death in 1963 he wrote only four more. Though the later plays are by no means artistic failures, it is those of the Thirties, born as they were out of a unique and transient conjunction of art conceived as a force for social change and left-wing optimism, which represent his lasting achievement and can be seen as work which shifted decisively the direction of American drama.

Odets once remarked that without the Group Theatre he would never have been a dramatist. Some other kind of writer maybe, but he needed the home the Group provided, its sense of family (with all the tensions and recriminations of ordinary families ) and its commitment to a theatre of the highest seriousness, surviving in spite of commercial pressures, and determined to deal with the predicament of America at the time, in order to hit that precise point where the public and private met within his own conflicts and aspirations, to flourish as an artist. Group Theatre was ensemble theatre and it shows in his writing. His plays don't work as vehicles for stars. There is an equality among the characters which perhaps reflects Odets's sense of the impossibility of attributing degrees of worth to human lives and certainly his artist's recognition mat whatever rises above mediocrity tends to be smothered and resisted and that imaginative We involves a constant struggle against petty conditions. This is perhaps a good point to stress that Odets was capable of cruelty and neglect in his private life. He found it hard to live up to his own ideals and the conflicts of his early life (especially the domination of his emotions by his vulgar, manipulative, over-bearing and crassly materialistic father who bullied his long-suffering, sensitive mother) resurfaced time and again, especially, as is so often the case, in his relations with women. Great literature is produced by ordinary mortals but, thankfully, writers are often nobler in their work than in their lives. To return to the issue, Odets is an exception, partly because of the kind of theatre for which he wrote. Let your mind wander over the work of O'Neill, Williams, Miller, Albee, Mamet and you’ll probably think of stars in big roles, either on stage or screen. Not so for Odets. He commented himself that his plays are made up of seven or eight characters most of whom carry equal weight. The Group Theatre was the opposite, in this regard, of the Hollywood to which some of its members gravitated on its demise: concerned to sell its product, Hollywood needed easily identifiable stars. Focused on serious issues in serious plays, a star system was useless to the Group.

This may offer a small clue as to Odets's relative neglect. The star systems of film and television have diminished the appreciation of the skills of acting. Struggling to keep up, and in some cases simply to survive, theatre has mimicked the mass visual media. Even a radical and serious dramatist like Miller can be inched towards the emptiness of glamour when stars like Hoffman or Day-Lewis take roles in film versions of his work. This is not to disparage these men as actors, but the mass public will go to see them as stars. Odets's work lends itself very badly to this sort of treatment. Louis. J. Odets, Clifford's atrocious father, absorbed in a simplistic and vicious way the American doctrine of material success. He judged himself and everyone else according to their wealth and position in the pecking order and he was dazzled by the superficial glamour of American capitalism. Because Odets was internally engaged in a life-long, life and death struggle with his father, his work is the locus of his strenuous rejection of his values. Form and content conjoin in this rejection. Odets's plays are structured to reject the false and shadow values of his father's and America's crass pursuit of material success as the measure of all worth. They imply a form of theatre not entirely in keeping with the way theatre has developed since the heyday of the Group. And in spite of his dalliance with Hollywood, his plays don't lend themselves easily to filmic treatment.

There's a nice story about Mary McCarthy attacking The Iceman Cometh on the grounds that O'Neill "couldn't write a sentence". Lionel Abel replied: “O'Neill isn't a good writer. Neither is Theodore Dreiser a good writer. But they're great writers." Does the same distinction apply to Odets? If he isn't a good writer it's not because he can’t write a sentence. His dialogue glistens. But the weakness in his writing may come from his ideological assumptions. Perhaps there is a resonance of Lefty even in The Country Girl or The Flowering Peach. All the same, as Gerald Weales has written : "..Odets never let the preacher run free, the pessimist hobbled the optimist, the realist partnered the idealist." Odets is saved from ideological simplicities by the power and accuracy of his observation. Even when assumption takes precedence over dramatization, as in Clash By Night, he can still be convincing in his characterization and dialogue. Nevertheless, Odets may be one of those writers who leaves some people with a sense of unease because he seems to play the game by suspicious rules.

Towards the end of his life Odets remarked : " When you start out you have to champion something.....But if you still feel that way after ten or fifteen years, you're nuts." Was this a repudiation of Lefty? Almost certainly in dramatic terms, for what could move an audience in the specific conditions of Depression America might turn out to have greater sociological than dramatic significance (although I believe, for all its faults, the play displays real dramatic qualities). The comment has to be taken with a small pinch of salt too because it was made shortly before Odets's appearance before HUAC. Yet while it may be true that Odets gave up championing a cause, he never ceased nagging at the same question: “the struggle for life amidst petty conditions'' as he put it in Awake and Sing. A theme taken up, in my view, by David Mamet on whom, I would argue, Odets has had a greater influence than the much cited Pinter. It may be the continuation of this theme through Odets's work which helps explain his relative neglect, for through it he constantly puts in question the values upon which his society, our society, capitalist society is based. What distinguishes Odets from other dramatists who could be said to question the same values as radically, is the form of his questioning: it centres on individuals, on their closest relationships, their intimate lives and reveals them blighted. The serious and petty humiliations of the impersonal world of commerce and work invade the realm of the personal and prevent people from functioning as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, lovers, friends. The Odets of Lefty is easy to dismiss as a naive rabble-rouser and shallow ideologue but the Odets of Rocket To The Moon or The Big Knife is exploring the way personal relations of reciprocal warmth, generosity, care and love without counting the cost, are corrupted and made impossible by the crude incursion of the ulterior values of the market-place where every investment must have its return, where mutual trust is replaced by legal contract, where money is the unforgiving measure of all things. Odets did this so well because it was his own condition. His father's inner world was populated by the demons of the capitalist cult of material success to such a degree that he was unable to relate even to his own children in a simple, sincere, human fashion. Odets didn't need any theory, he could write from his own pain, disgust and struggle. Anti-capitalist ideology, even when dramatized by a talent like Brecht's, is easy to resist but drama which makes you aware of the emptiness of your own most intimate relations is harder to rebuff. Beckett shows us emptiness. So does Pinter. Brecht attacks capitalism. So does Bond. Odets is unique in dramatizing the personal heartbreak of capitalism. His emptiness is not some putative metaphysical ailment. It is the result of the atrocious struggle for a poetry of everyday life in conditions which deny it. Odets was fond of Whitman and named his only son after him. Whitman, of course, knew his Thoreau. The quiet desperation of which Thoreau wrote is at the heart of Odets's pervading theme.

William Gibson, in his introduction to Odets's diary from the forties, The Time Is Ripe, says “nobody knows how to act Odets anymore". John Lahr disagrees and points out, in his review of Awake and Sing published in his fascinating collection Light Fantastic, that in the seventies and eighties London saw an excellent set of Odets revivals. Surely it can't be true that the ensemble demands of Odets's plays are beyond most of today's actors ? If Odets's reputation in American theatre has fallen below that of its other shaping geniuses, isn't the explanation likely to be in some difference within his work which makes him more awkward, less assimilable? Critics have consistently spoken of Odets as dated. This would be fair in relation to Lefty, but how would it apply to Awake and Sing or Rocket To The Moon ? In what way are they more dated than A Streetcar Named Desire or Death Of A Salesman? Perhaps the perception of datedness comes from too superficial an interpretation and perhaps that in turn stems from not seeing the wood of human heartbreak for the ideological trees, it may be that whenever Odets's name is mentioned people think automatically of Lefty, see him as a writer championing a cause and look resolutely for signs of that in all his work. People have a tendency to like things in neat pigeon notes. Perhaps it's hard to make Odets fit.

It would be a mistake to overstate the case. As I said at the start of this piece, Odets is not a neglected figure, but he hasn't entered the educated consciousness as a formative voice in American drama in the way that, say, Williams and Miller have. It's the contention of this article that he deserves to. 2006 will be the centenary of his birth. Perhaps an apposite time for a new British edition of his major plays and, who knows, a revival or two ?