Clifford Odets: Biography, Plays & Monologues

Instructor: Siobhan Yarbrough
Delve into the life of a socially conscious playwright who became a trailblazer in theater productions during the 1930s-1960s. Through his plays and monologues, he expressed the issues of classicism during the times of the Great Depression and became a leading voice on matters of social class.

Clifford Odets- ~

Odets Youth

Clifford Odets was born July 18th, 1906 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Odets' family moved from Pennsylvania to the Bronx, NY where his father was a successful businessman and owned a printing company. He was raised in a working-class home of immigrant parents and had two sisters. Although he was raised in a traditional household, Clifford's life as a child was gloomy, and though Odet's family was financially secure, his childhood and adolescence were not void of challenges.

Clifford Odets' dealt with trying conditions at home. His parents had a difficult marriage, which undoubtably left a mark on their son. Odets's mother often struggled with family life and crisis. Due to her circumstances in marriage, she was often worn thin by her children and felt like an unheard member of the family; it was severe enough that she made plans to flee with her children and had even allotted a secret fund to do so. However, she never did fulfill her desire to explore independence away from her husband, and instead resorted to simply not speaking to him. As a means to cope, she would immerse herself into cleaning spells in such an extreme manner that she was nicknamed 'Sanitary Pearl'.

Additionally, Odets struggled in school, and yet, in spite of his lack of academic performance, Odets was an avid reader and moviegoer and was an active member of the drama club. Odets eventually dropped out of high school and found work as an announcer for a radio show. Shortly thereafter, he ventured into acting and writing. It is alleged that Clifford fought depression at a young age and attempted suicide three times by his mid-twenties.

Growing Into Stardom

After Odets' short run in radio and acting, in his later twenties, he joined the Group Theatre in New York. Although he gained little recognition as an actor, through his work at the Group Theatre, Odets developed into a highly acclaimed playwright. The allure of the Group Theatre was its desire to make an impact on society and address issues of the world through theater. The Group Theatre provided an ideal environment for writers like Odets because it allowed for creative license but also took advantage of federal funding. Shortly after his initiation into the Group Theatre, Odets joined the American Communist Party for a brief period; his participation in this party greatly influenced his future writings.

His first play with the Group Theatre was 9-10 Eden Street, however, it was never produced. His next play Awake and Sing was characteristic of actual people that Odets had come into contact with throughout his life. One such character was very similiar to his own mother who endured struggles in her life and marriage; this character flees her family life to pursue a life of independence and change. One of his more notable plays was Waiting for Lefty. This play earned him his fame and gained the attention that he needed to produce more captive plays.

Odets' Plays and Monologues

The 1930s was full of success for Odets. He began with Awake and Sing, which is a play about three generations living under the same roof. In this play, the matron of the family, Bessie, holds the family together and protects the family's name and status against neighborhood naysayers. His other play Waiting for Lefty was also produced in 1935. Waiting for Lefty is a play about the events that surround a cab strike in New York in 1934. In this play, the character Lefty is the leader of a group of cab drivers, who all want to strike to combat the conditions they are faced with during the Great Depression (a time of history categorized by severe economic hardships during the 1920s through the 1940s). The depiction of the American working class in Waiting for Lefty gained Odets many accolades and earned him great fame. Although Waiting for Lefty was provocative for its time, it also helped give voice to the people and the issues of that era. Most notably, the play highlighted corruption, greed, and power during the 1930s.

Also in 1935, the Group Theatre produced Odets' Till the Day I Die, which is about conflict between communists and Nazis. Next, Odets wrote Paradise Lost, which addresses the issues of a middle-class family as their values and morals shift due to the change in social structure. Thereafter, Odets wrote a film adaptation of The General Died at Dawn, which eventually became a film remake in later years. After his lack of success with Paradise Lost and The General Died at Dawn, Odets' took an offer to venture to Hollywood to write screenplays. His films were not received as well as his plays, and he was highly criticized for his decision to change and move to Hollywood. Some critics even coined him as 'a sellout' for this decision.

After several failed attempts at screenwriting in Hollywood, Odets returned to being a playwright. Once he returned, he produced Golden Boy in 1937, which is centered on a character's inner conflict of choosing between a career of fighting or music. This play was viewed as one of Odets' more popular plays due to its shift from social commentary to matters of the self that included: inner struggles, family obligations, success, and personal values. This shift paved the way for his next play Rocket to the Moon in 1939, which was a continuation of Odets' shift away from his yesteryears of political drama.

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