A playwright, film scenarist, and director, Clifford Odets (1906-1963) was America's outstanding dramatist in the 1930s. His colloquial dialogue, vital ideological protests on behalf of human dignity, and feeling for the family were distinctive.
Clifford Odets was born on July 18, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pa. The family moved in 1912 to New York, where his father became a successful businessman.
In spite of his upbringing with his two sisters in a comfortable, middle-class, Jewish home, Odets was a melancholy child. His formal education ended after 2 years of high school. During most of the 1920s he acted with small theater groups and held various positions in radio stations, joining the Group Theater in 1930. Reportedly, he attempted suicide three times before the age of 25.
The theatrical approach of the Group Theater transformed Odets from a poor actor into a good playwright. While with the Group, he also joined the Communist party. As a result of his sensational writing debut in 1935, he received many offers from Hollywood. In 1937 he married the actress Luise Rainer.
Writings of the Thirties
Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing, Till the Day I Die, and Paradise Lost, all produced in 1935, quickly established Odets as a powerful dramatist. Waiting for Lefty, framed within a union meeting, is a series of indignant vignettes. Although the play has been criticized for simplistic views and characterizations, its raw power and anger are notable. Concerned with a family in the Bronx, Awake and Sing pinpoints the impact of the capitalistic economic structure on the people within it and the fraudulency involved in adjusting human lives to economic forces; the characterizations and use of symbols are well done. Till the Day I Die deals with conflict between Nazis and Communists. Paradise Lost focuses on the bewilderment of a middle-class family as their values shift in relation to changing social forces. Viewed as a realistic work, it is unsatisfactory; assessed symbolically, it is more convincing.
After Paradise Lost, Odets wrote the film adaptation of The General Died at Dawn. His next stage play, Golden Boy (1937), proved his most popular success. In selecting a career in boxing instead of in music, Joe Bonaparte goes against his nature; he becomes successful but destroys himself. Although Golden Boy contains social observations, its orientation is toward individuals rather than politics. (In 1964 it was made into a Broadway musical.) Rocket to the Moon (1938) deals with loneliness and the need for love, noting how conditions within and outside man impede attaining love.
When the Group Theater dissolved in 1941, it had produced seven of Odets's plays. That year, following his divorce, Odets returned to Hollywood to write and direct films. In quick succession he wrote Humoresque (1942), None but the Lonely Heart (1943), and Deadline at Dawn (1944).
In 1943 Odets married another actress, Betty Grayson; they had two children. In addition to his constant screen obligations (including more than 15 scenarios), he continued to write for the stage. In 1952 he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of his earlier Communist affiliations; his performance did little to enhance his personal reputation.
Odets's wife died in 1954. He started several plays after that but failed to complete them. His last film, Wild in the Country (1961), starred Elvis Presley. At the time of his death in Los Angeles on Aug. 14, 1963, Odets was working on a dramatic series for television.
The burning concern for poor workers that propelled Odets's early success became, ironically, something of an albatross. Though he had changed from his propagandistic style as early as Golden Boy and never really returned to extreme political postures in later plays, many critics had trouble accepting him on his new terms. Further, since he had initially championed the poor, his remunerative employment in Hollywood stirred insinuations that he lacked artistic integrity. Thus evaluations of his later writings are occasionally less objective than one might hope.
Night Music (1940), although realistic, has a strong poetic component. Steve Takis's loneliness and frustration have some socioeconomic aspects, but Odets's hand is uncertain. There is confusion in treating the subject and an imperfect development of structure. Clash by Night (1941) is a standard treatment of the eternal love triangle to which Odets adds nothing important. Pessimism permeates the work, and there is little hope either by an individual for himself or for understanding between people. Odets felt that his plays were always concerned with "the struggle not to have life nullified by circumstances, false values, anything." The Big Knife (1949), showing the annihilation of a Hollywood star, focuses on personal integrity in combat with practical necessity and perhaps displays something of Odets's own dilemma. His increasing craftsmanship, noted in The Big Knife, is clearly evident in The Country Girl (1950). The portraits of the alcoholic actor Frank Elgin and his confused wife are very effective. A fine piece of theater, the play shows Odets deeply involved in human psychology. The Flowering Peach (1954), his last produced play, is Odets at his mature best. His examination of the biblical Noah concentrates on the family, this time with an increased awareness of and tolerance for man's imperfections.
Further Reading on Clifford Odets
Two works on Odets contain biographical material and criticism of the plays: R. Baird Shuman, Clifford Odets (1962), and Edward Murray, Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After (1968). Among the many critical studies with material on Odets are Anita Block, The Changing World in Plays and Theatre (1939); Harold Clurman, The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties (1945); Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times (1946); and Daniel Aaron, Writers on the Left (1961).
Additional Biography Sources
Brenman-Gibson, Margaret, Clifford Odets, American playwright: the years from 1906 to 1940, New York: Atheneum, 1981.
Weales, Gerald Clifford, Odets, the playwright, London; New York: Methuen, 1985.