Odets’s Becomes a Model for Protest Drama Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With its depiction of the social and economic consequences of the Great Depression for three generations of a working-class Jewish American family in the Bronx, Clifford Odets’s play Awake and Sing! influenced the nature of protest drama.

Summary of Event

Awake and Sing! is largely a product of Clifford Odets’s success after Waiting for Lefty (pr., pb. 1935) Waiting for Lefty (Odets) catapulted him to instant prominence in 1935 by winning the New Masses/New Theatre Award and galvanizing audiences during its first performance at the Civic Repertory Theatre in Lower Manhattan. Waiting for Lefty, about a strike of taxicab drivers, was written in three days and could not have been more appropriate to its times. [kw]Odets’s Awake and Sing! Becomes a Model for Protest Drama (Feb. 19, 1935)[Odetss Awake and Sing! Becomes a Model for Protest Drama (Feb. 19, 1935)] [kw]Awake and Sing! Becomes a Model for Protest Drama, Odets’s (Feb. 19, 1935) [kw]Drama, Odets’s Awake and Sing! Becomes a Model for Protest (Feb. 19, 1935)[Drama, Odetss Awake and Sing! Becomes a Model for Protest (Feb. 19, 1935)] Awake and Sing! (Odets) Theater;protest drama Protest drama [g]United States;Feb. 19, 1935: Odets’s Awake and Sing! Becomes a Model for Protest Drama[08860] [c]Theater;Feb. 19, 1935: Odets’s Awake and Sing! Becomes a Model for Protest Drama[08860] [c]Social issues and reform;Feb. 19, 1935: Odets’s Awake and Sing! Becomes a Model for Protest Drama[08860] Odets, Clifford Strasberg, Lee Adler, Stella

Odets, a member of the Group Theatre, Group Theatre had acted in a few of that company’s plays and was an indifferent actor. He lived with members of the Group Theatre during summers in the countryside outside New York City and during winters in the sprawling tenement apartment they rented collectively on New York’s West Fifty-seventh Street. In 1933, he wrote I’ve Got the Blues, which later that year was retitled Awake and Sing! The play was optioned to Frank Merlin, who shortly afterward went bankrupt. Odets then read his script to members of the Group Theatre in the hope that they would produce it.

The play focuses on the social adjustments faced by the members of a three-generation working-class Jewish American family in the Bronx as the Great Depression gradually robs them of their livelihoods and security. Lee Strasberg, the most dyspeptic of the Group Theatre’s three directors, disliked the play, and his disapproval scuttled its chances of being staged, even though its second act was given a reading by the group during the summer of 1933 in Warrensburg, New York. Strasberg had reservations about Waiting for Lefty as well.

Awake and Sing! was resurrected in 1935 because Waiting for Lefty had left the public clamoring for more Odets. Under pressure to capitalize on the enthusiastic recognition Waiting for Lefty had brought him, Odets quickly polished the earlier play, which opened on February 19, 1935, at New York City’s Belasco Theatre to favorable reviews.

Like most plays written with the Group Theatre in mind, Awake and Sing! has a cast of seven characters of relatively equal importance. An eighth character, Schlosser, is minor, but he advances some of the business of the narrative and carries part of its philosophical burden. Odets’s manuscript of I’ve Got the Blues shows that he had Stella Adler in mind for the role of Bessie Berger when he originally conceived of the play; he often referred to Bessie as “Stella” in the typescript that is now housed in the Library of Congress.

Bessie, the mother of the family, belongs to the middle generation. Her father, Jacob, lives with the family in their respectable Bronx apartment. Bessie’s husband, Myron, once had potential; Bessie worked in a stocking factory for two years so that he could attend law school, which he did not complete. Myron has eked out an existence for his family, but his idealism is now badly tarnished and emerges only vestigially when, after Myron spends fifty cents for an Irish Sweepstakes ticket, he tells his skeptical brother-in-law, Morty, that the contest cannot be rigged because the government would not allow it.

The children in the family, Ralph and Hennie, are both grown; Ralph is in love with Blanche, whose name heavy-handedly suggests her purity. The two cannot realistically consider marriage, however, because Ralph does not earn a decent living; the future holds little hope for him. Ralph’s sister Hennie, pregnant and unmarried, has no more hope for her future than her brother has for his.

The only people Odets brings onto the stage who have some sort of security are Moe Axelrod, the Berger’s boarder, who makes no secret of his attraction to Hennie, and Uncle Morty, Bessie’s cigar-chomping brother, who, although he has money, shares little of it with his aged father, Jacob. Moe Axelrod has been injured in the war and has the security of a government pension. Uncle Morty represents the dirty, self-centered capitalist indifferent to anyone’s problems except his own.

Bessie lives daily in a hell of insecurity. She recounts to her family how a respectable old lady on the next block has been evicted because she lacks the money to keep her house; the woman is out on the street over on Dawson Avenue, surrounded by her belongings. The old woman’s plight embodies Bessie’s worst nightmare. Bessie’s urgent need is to keep her family intact. She is the caregiver and the manager in a family whose father, the natural provider, has been worn down by a socioeconomic system that, in Odets’s eyes, is destroying the working class. Myron, robbed of his maleness by society (and by a very domineering wife), has been neutered emotionally.

When Hennie turns up pregnant, Bessie has to find a husband for her. To do otherwise would be to jeopardize the family’s respectability in the neighborhood, the limit of Bessie’s encapsulated world. In order to protect this precious image, which could, in her eyes, easily be shattered, Bessie has no qualms about marrying Hennie off to Sam Feinschreiber, a hapless immigrant who is duped into thinking that Hennie’s baby is his.

Both the representatives of the younger generation escape by the play’s end, but the escape is not a happy one. Hennie runs off with Moe Axelrod, leaving her husband and child behind. Distant places have been calling. Odets uses the leitmotif of the evening mail plane that flies over the Berger house in the same way that earlier generations of writers used train whistles to suggest escape to some land of heart’s desire.

Ralph is given his chance when Jacob, who has made Ralph the beneficiary of his small insurance policy, throws himself from the roof. Because Ralph and Hennie have been robbed of their hope, the escape Odets offers them does not involve their doing anything productive to overcome their problems. The point of the play clearly is that the accommodation each of them finds offers no realistic hope for the future, either theirs or society’s.

Significance

Awake and Sing! presents a stinging critique of the capitalist society that, Odets suggests, robs people of their dignity, their hope, and their potential. One cannot really call the play “angry”; the hopeless characters are too demoralized to be angry in the way that Odets’s taxicab drivers are. Instead, the play touched the inner beings, the social consciences, of large audiences—the affluent audiences that sat in the expensive seats as well as the audiences that squeezed into the dollar seats in the balcony on matinee days.

In writing the play, Odets benefited from the new freedom of language that the 1920’s—especially the work of Eugene O’Neill—had brought to American drama. Odets wrote in the vernacular of common people, a vernacular he had learned growing up in a Jewish American family in Philadelphia and New York. The language of Awake and Sing! is both lyrical and authentic. It employs the accents, the clichés, and the wisecracks that working-class people use naturally in their daily speech.

Awake and Sing! also pointed the way to a drama of the people. Odets’s heroes are antiheroes. If their tragedy comes about because of a fall, they do not have far to fall. They are not Oedipuses or Lears or Macbeths. They are, rather, the people next door or around the corner. Their kinship is more to Everyman or to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath than to the classical heroes of ancient Greek or Elizabethan tragedy.

Playwrights associated with the Group Theatre—Paul and Claire Sifton, Paul Green, Sidney Kingsley, Maxwell Anderson, John Howard Lawson—wrote generally about the proletariat, about common people, rather than about the famous or highly placed. Odets and his compatriots during the 1930’s opened new worlds for such later playwrights as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and William Inge, all of whom drew sustenance from the drama that immediately preceded their emergence as playwrights.

The trend of writing about common people continued in the work of such later playwrights as Lanford Wilson, August Wilson, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, and Samuel Beckett. Eugene O’Neill O’Neill, Eugene had made strides in this direction during the 1920’s with such plays as Anna Christie (pr. 1921), The Hairy Ape (pr., pb. 1922), and Desire Under the Elms (pr. 1924). Writers such as Odets benefited greatly from O’Neill’s daring ventures and built on them in ways that moved American theater forward into unexplored dramatic territory.

An earlier generation in Europe—Gerhart Hauptmann, Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen—had already used drama as a vehicle for advancing proletarian ideas. Those who wrote for the Group Theatre eagerly plugged into the currents these dramatic pioneers had sparked. They made their own advances, which in turn led to a burgeoning of plays about common people in the 1940’s and after.

Awake and Sing! is a prime example of a play that departs from a blind acceptance of the star system. The counterbalancing of seven significant characters in the play replicates the actual dynamics of the informal human relationships that characterize family existence and interaction. The star system makes protagonists of Shakespearean proportions obligatory; the Group Theatre approach, however, reduces those proportions to dimensions common people understand.

In many respects, Awake and Sing! was a key element in the advance toward much of the drama in vogue in the late twentieth century. Although its impact is essentially socialistic, Awake and Sing! is also a significantly democratic play in that it takes seriously the lives of people who, in cultures that are less egalitarian, probably would evoke little interest or attention. Awake and Sing! (Odets) Theater;protest drama Protest drama

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bentley, Eric, ed. Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from the Hearings Before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. 1971. Reprint. New York: Nation Books, 2002. It is difficult to understand Odets fully without understanding his reaction to being summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, when his national loyalty and that of many others working in theater and film was questioned. Indispensable resource for readers interested in the political ramifications of Odets’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets: An American Playwright—The Years from 1906 to 1940. 1981. Reprint. New York: Applause Books, 2002. Well-documented, comprehensive biography is a monument in its field. Covers Odets’s early life in greater detail than any previous biography. Presents a brilliant and original psychoanalytic interpretation of Awake and Sing!
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cantor, Harold. Clifford Odets: Playwright Poet. 2d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2000. Reviews Odets’s use of language, especially of dialects, through close readings of eleven plays. This approach is particularly relevant to Awake and Sing! as the play’s lyricism and authenticity have been widely acknowledged.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties. 1945. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983. Quintessential history of the Group Theatre, out of which much of Odets’s work grew. Goes into great detail about the genesis of Awake and Sing!
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooperman, Robert. Clifford Odets: An Annotated Bibliography, 1935-1989. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1990. Begins with a thoughtfully conceived and well-presented bibliographical essay. Part 2 provides a comprehensive list of Odets’s writings, and part 3 contains an extensive bibliography of writings about Odets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffin, Robert J. “On the Lovesongs of Clifford Odets.” In The Thirties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren G. French. Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1967. Focuses on Odets’s two most notable family plays, Awake and Sing! and Paradise Lost (pr. 1935). Valuable for comments on Odets’s language and on his social outlook as reflected in these plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herr, Christopher J. Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Places Odets’s works in the context of the time of social, political, and economic change in which they were written. Includes chronology, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Gabriel, ed. Critical Essays on Clifford Odets. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Presents essays on Odets by such critics as Joseph Wood Krutch, Brooks Atkinson, and John Mason Brown. Also includes interviews with Odets conducted by Michael Mendelsohn, Arthur Wagner, and Armand Aulicino. Includes three entries specifically on Awake and Sing!
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weales, Gerald. Clifford Odets: Playwright. Reprint. New York: Methuen, 1985. Excellent brief critical biography provides valuable insights into each of Odets’s major plays, including Awake and Sing! Relates Odets’s work to the sociopolitical currents of the period in which he was most productive.

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