Thursday, 14 February 2013

Clifford Odets

"The Great Depression", writes Anne Fletcher, "no doubt defined the American 1930s" (2007, p. 108). It is perhaps difficult for us to understand the impact of the Depression in American in the 1930s. True, Britain had experienced its own elongated depression following two world wars which had crippled the nation financially. But for America, such deprivations made a far starker contrast to what had gone before. 

Although many Americans had opposed any intervention in the war in Europe, economically the war had not hurt the nation it the way it had European countries. By the end of the war, American had leapfrogged the major European super-powers to become to most powerful nation in the world, both militarily and economically. The increased productivity for the war effort, as well, had brought about almost 100 percent employment levels, and when the restrains of wartime expenditure were lifted by the wars end, a brief period of economic depression from 1920 was quickly alleviated by a consumer boom which lapped up the 63 percent increase in productivity levels generated to support it (Herr, 2003. p. 12). The registrations of automobiles rocketed from 9 million to 27 million, and a cavalcade of new and convenient electrical goods like the refrigerator, the hoover, and the radio quickly went from being elite luxuries to domestic essentials. All this economic optimism was fuelled by a Stock Exchange which swelled with a seemingly unstoppable momentum from 1922 until 1929, filling businessmen with a powerful confidence in the economic stability of this boom (Himmelberg, 2001. p. 4, 5). This was the Roaring Twenties:

Many of the images we think of now as defining this period of American history, are images of the light, carefree, and prosperous lives lived by the classes depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York--every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour, if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d'oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

By seven o'clock the orchestra has arrived--no thin five-piece affair but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors and hair shorn in strange new ways and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier, minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath--already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group and then excited with triumph glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.

(The Great Gatsby, Chapter 3)

In truth, such images tell a rather misleading tale. Certainly, with the increased productivity and the boom in public spending, the huge profits made by companies meant that there was an excess which could be ploughed back into wages - and wages did rise. But the wages did not rise in equal measure: "Between 1920 and 1929, per capita disposable income for all Americans rose by 9 percent, but the top 1 percent of income recipients enjoyed a whopping 75 percent increase in disposable income" (Robert S. McElvaine, 1984. pp. 22, 38).

For the government, under newly elected Warren G. Harding, big business was providing economic wealth for all, and the widening gap between the richest and the poorest was easily justified by the fact that the poor were seeing wage increases. Harding's government established a pro-business domestic economic policy which supported the growth of capitalism - and which looked leniently on the capitalist "trusts" which, as we have already seen through the example of the Syndicate theatre production agency, created market monopolies. This monopolisation, ironically, made the kind of entrepreneurial spirit of the American Dream an impossibility.

This kind of pro-business government was largely swept away when Hoover arrived in office, following Harding's heart attack. Hoover continued though, to espouse the same optimism that the prosperity generated by the markets would never end. During his presidential campaign he even claimed that his presidency might see the eradication of poverty altogether:

But although Hoover quickly established a reputation as an effective leader, there was nothing even he could do to reverse the effects of the stock market crash in 1929, when despite the confidence of the Stock Exchange, and of the American people, the bubble of the boom seemed to be bursting. The leading market millionnaires - people like William C. Durant, Thomas W. Lamont, or the 'Great Bear' of Wall Street Jesse Livermore - were initially believed to be responsible for this crash, and were expected to resolve it. They certainly tried to, investing millions of dollars into trying to restore market confidence. The market had broken though - investors large and small turned round to find that the abstractions of the Stock Exchange mean't that what they once thought of as stable wealth, had quickly become dust:

For a nation whose decade of economic growth had lead them to believe they were depression-proof (Himmelberg, 2001. p. 8), the shock to national confidence and self-belief was catastrophic. Throughout the next decade, unemployment steadily rose, while consumer spending steadily fell. Exports fell as European markets were hit by the waves of the American stock exchange crash, and with them fell the optimism of the American people. Those once-untouchable billionaires of the Stock Exchange were not immune to the effects of the crash. Durant would be declared bankrupt, and end his days managing a bowling alley in Michigan. Lamont would spend much of his later days defending himself in court against accusations about his role in the crash. Livermore would eventually put a gun to his head in a hotel toilet. 

If times were hard for the uber-wealthy, they were harder still for those small investors that had lost everything. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, newspaper salesmen, barbers and shoe-shiners had all followed the pied-piper of the markets promises. Many of these people had employed others, and they were now out of work. Whole swathes of American society drifted into poverty and joined the growing numbers congregating in shanty-towns, where the homeless and jobless reached the bottom of the proverbial barrel. These shanty-towns were given the nick-name 'Hoovervilles', and they could be seen everywhere from Seattle to New York City's Central Park:

This Hooverville is in New York's Central Park, 1931.

Roosevelt's Democratic government swept to office following the percieved failures of the Republican faith in the markets. Roosevelt promised the American people a "New Deal" which would solve all the nations problems. It is, perhaps, a mark of the desperation of then people that they eagerly lapped up the prospect."The day of enlightenment has come," Franklin Roosevelt informed the American people in his campaign in 1932. "Our government owes every man an avenue to possess himself of a portion of that plenty sufficient for his needs…" (Caldwell, 2006. p,103).

Roosevelt's plan was one designed to re-ignite the old confidence and optimism which had fuelled the decade of economic growth in the 1920s, and appealed to the desires of middle-class materialism. Roosevelt was given wide-ranging powers by Congress in order to institute governmental control of "banking, finance, public works, housing, education, electrfication, labor, and social security" (Caldwell, 2006. p. 103). Unions were appeased by a move to favour labour over business.

Despite such positive moves, which perhaps surprisingly did appear to initiate a slow but noticeable period of recovery, there were side effects. The depression had generated a new political cynicism (Caldwell, 2006. p. 103). The absolute trust in governmental leadership which had characterised much of the 1920s, had treated the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor an a relatively tolerant light, largely because even the poor were seeing definite economic growth of some kind - even if only a fraction of the growth being seen by the wealth. 

After the crash, those distinctions had suddenly become of very great significance, and there was a sense among many that the government was to blame. Certainly it appeared to many that the government was doing little to help those who were struggling to find work, to the extent that employers were able to determine both salaries and conditions which were close to slave labour. Clifford Odets, in one of his most powerful agit-prop plays, Waiting for Lefty, includes a scene in which 'Fatt' - symbolic of the wealthy employers who try to keep the workers on their knees - is trying to discourage his work-force from foing on strike. Notice in this scene, Fatt has a body-guard in the background whose job it is to marginalise dissent. In the play, the body-guard is armed.

The cynicism of the depression in the 1920s was still very much present when Roosevelt brought in the new sweeping governmental powers of the New Deal in the 1930s. What hope was there for economic recovery? Some thought the crash proved that democracy has failed, and were frightened about how they should respond to a government suddenly taking active control of so many aspects of public life. Where might it end? Would the government take control of their own bank accounts too? Their jobs? Their relationships? 

During the minor depression of 1920, the fear of Communist uprising had lead the attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer to aggressively raid homes and arrest around 10,000 suspected "reds". The growing anti-capitlist sentiment was seen by the government as a force for political instability - a view which was exacerbated by the terrorist activities of some extreme anarchists, including the bombing of Palmer's house

It is, perhaps, useful to consider here something of the character of this developing paranoia. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had precipitated a fear of similar rebellion in the United States, which culminated in the "Red Scare" of 1919 - 1920. New immigration laws made membership in the Communist Party a criminal offence, and Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, executed raids in which 10,000 suspected "reds" were arrested and many of them deported. The fear of foreign radicals therefore combined the separate fears of leftist politics and immigration. Members of the leftist groups and unions were lumped together as "Bolsheviks" or "reds." Fear was transmuted onto Union organisations, whose left-wing sympathies and workers perspectives meant that any attempt at industrial action was seen as a direct attack on America on behalf of an East European communism:

One of the outgrowths of the Palmer paranoia was one of the most famous scenes of the 1920s: the arrest and trial of two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for a payroll robbery and murder in Massachusetts. After a trial of dubious legitimacy, they were convicted in 1921 and eventually executed in 1927. The Sacco-Vanzetti trial became a rallying point for leftists during the 1920s, a symbol of the political battle lines of postwar America. Maxwell Anderson, one of the leading American playwrights of the 1920s and 1930s, would find the events surrounding the case so important that he would make it the subjects of two full-length plays, Gods of Lightning (1927) and Winterset (1935) (Herr, 2003. p. 10). You can watch a film adaptation of Winterset in full here:

"The anxiety of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and the Palmer raids would manifest itself in increasingly isolationist laws. The immigration Act of 1917 had prevented illiterate immigrants from entering the country, and for the first time in 1921 - 1922 immigration quotas were set - at 35 percent of the projected immigration form that year. Thousands of immigrants, most from Southern and Eastern Europe, were stranded at Ellis Island or returned to their homelands, while Congress also passed a series of strong tarrifs on foreign goods, protecting the homegrown // products of American industry against invasion. On the domestic front, the Klu Klux Klan was revived in the South and Midwest in 1915, tap[ping into a deeply rooted American xenophobia and racism. Membership of the Klan skyrocketed, from 2,000 members in 1920 to almost 4 million by 1924 ...The Klan's rise, like the Palmer raids and the new immigration legislation, evinced a growing fear of "radical" European influence and a nostalgia for a pioneer Americanism that eschewed "foreign" influences. Indeed, the plight of African-Americans in the South had been growing steadily worse since the end of Reconstruction. The imposition of the restrictive Jim Crow legislation prevented most from voting, and violence was common against those who tried to assert their rights. As a reaction, African-Americans began to move North in enormous numbers - over half a million in the years 1916 - 1920 - looking to industrialized cities in the Midwest and Northeast for employment and new opportunities. These men and women settled in places like Chicago's South Side and New York's Harlem, creating new areas composed entirely of black Americans. These communities soon developed a rich, vibrant culture and economy, manifested most significantly in the flowering of the Harlem Renaissance. Nevertheless, race relations throughout the country were tense" (Herr, 2003. pp. 10-11).

Such paranoia had effectively put a lid on any political reactionaries for a while, but in the face of the Great Depression it is perhaps no wonder that people began to again question the causes of their suffering, and to ask whether an alternative system of government might be more effective in alleviating it. FDR's sweeping new powers felt for many like the first steps towards fascism (Weales, 1991. p. 143), and the tensions between these radical perspectives and a re-emergence of anti-Communist paranoia would soon lead to the communist trials made famous by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and by Arthur Miller's thinly veiled reference to them in his play The Crucible.

Clifford Odets is widely regarded to be one of the most significant American playwrights of the twentieth century - and almost universally the most significant playwright during the crisis decade of the 1930s. It is, therefore, a little strange that he has become something of a forgotten figure in recent studies. As Gabriel Miller comments, "Odet's work has received scant attention from academic critics" (Miller, 1991. p. 3). He worked on radio as 'first ever disc jockey', and went on to write Hollywood screenplays (including one for Elvis). He had maintained communist sympathies throughout his life, and his plays were often a powerful voice for political reform. In Waiting for Lefty, the greed and harshness of the capitalist employers (Fatt) is contrasted with the human and dometic suffering of individuals. The America which is portryed in Waiting for Lefty is one in which men and women have been reduced to powerlessness and poverty - but it is one in which there is always the potential for these men and women to stand as one, and to challenge the systems which oppress them:

Following the Depression, and the rise of anti-communist sentiment which was most strongly (and terrifyingly) expressed in the McCarthy trials, Odets as put on trial for Communism in 1952.

Issues for Consideration

  • Odets' plays are not always concerned with psychological realism. Agit-prop theatre is often a little like a cartoon (Fatt, Lefty - the names are not names, but labels). Within each scene, the point is more important than the dramatic action.
  • Note the ways in which Odets breaks down the barriers between audience and characters in Waiting for Lefty. This play is not written for traditional proscenium arch theatres, but for school and community halls. 
"Distrustful of their own articulateness, fearful of stressing the individual component of experience, left-wing groups, particularly in the early 1930s, saw some virtue and integrity in a flight from realism. But in Literature and Revolution (1924) Leon Trotsky defended both the need for art and the necessity for retaining realism: "Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes … But …if one cannot get along without a mirror, even in shaving oneself, how can one reconstruct oneself or one's life, without seeing oneself in the 'mirror' of literature?" He distrusted the abandonment of psychological drama, asking, "What does it mean to 'deny experiences,' that is, deny individual psychology, in literature and on the stage?" replying that "This is a late and long outlived protest of the Left wing of the intelligentsia against the passive realism of the Checkhov school and against dreamy symbolisms." But, he insisted, "If the experiences of Uncle Vanya have lost a little of their freshness - and this sin has actually taken place - it is none the less true that Uncle Vanya is not the only one with an inner life. In what way, on what grounds, and in the name of what, can art turn its back on the inner life of present-day man who is building a new external world, and thereby rebuilding himself? If art will not help this // new man to educate himself, to strengthen and redefine himself, then what is it for? And how can it organize the inner life, if it does not penetrate it and reproduce it?" (Bigsby, 1982. pp. 153 - 4)

Citation: Tulloch, J. (2013). Clifford Odets [Internet]. Available from: <> [Accessed 14 February 2013].


Smith, A. I. P. (2006). ‘American Political Culture’, in Temperley, H.and Bigsby, C., eds.. A New Introduction to American Studies. Harlow: Pearson, 50-74

Hethmon, R. H. (2002), 'Days with the Group Theatre: An Interview with Clifford Odets', Michigan Quarterly Review, 41, 2, pp. 175-200

Cardullo, R. (2006), 'Odets's Awake and Sing!', Explicator, 64, 4, pp. 234-236

Fletcher, A. (2007). ‘Reading Across the 1930s’, in Krasner, D., ed.. A Companion to Twentieth-century American Drama. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 106-126

Hornby, R. (n.d.), 'Odets 'Awake and sing'!', Hudson Review, 59, 3, pp. 449-455
Lahr, J. (2006), 'STAGE LEFT', New Yorker, 82, 9, pp. 72-78