Clifford Odets

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Clifford Odets
Clifford Odets-signed.jpg
Born (1906-07-18)July 18, 1906
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died August 14, 1963(1963-08-14) (aged 57)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Stomach cancer
Resting place
Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale
Nationality American
Occupation Playwright, screenwriter, director
Years active 1925–1963
Spouse(s)

Luise Rainer (m. 1937–40)

Bette Grayson (m. 1943–51)
Children Nora (1945–2008)
Walt Whitman (1947–)

Clifford Odets (July 18, 1906 – August 14, 1963)1 was an American playwright, screenwriter, and director.

Early life

Odets was born in Philadelphia to Louis Odets (born Gorodetsky) and Pearl Geisinger, Russian- and Romanian-Jewish immigrants, and raised in Philadelphia and the Bronx, New York.2 He dropped out of high school after two years to become an actor. In 1931, he became a founding member of the Group Theatre, a highly influential New York theatre company that utilized an acting technique new to the United States. This technique was based on the system devised by the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. It was further developed by Group Theatre director Lee Strasberg and became known as The Method or Method Acting. Odets eventually became the Group's primary playwright.

Career

Theatre

Odets pursued acting with great passion and ingenuity. At the age of 19 he struck out on his own, billing himself as ″The Rover Reciter.″ Under this moniker he procured bookings as a radio elocutionist.3 He moved away from his parents, to Greenwich Village, where he acted with the Poet's Theatre under the direction of Village legend Harry Kemp.4 Odets claimed to have become America's first real disc jockey at about this time, at radio station WBNY, as well as a drama critic.5 In this capacity he saw the 1926 Broadway production of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock.6 O'Casey's work would prove to be a powerful influence on Odets as a playwright.

Following stints as a dramatics counselor at Catskill summer camps and periods of employment in stock companies, in 1929 Odets got his Broadway break. He was cast as understudy to Spencer Tracy in Conflict by Vincent Lawrence.7 He landed his first job with the prestigious Theatre Guild in the fall of 1929, as an extra playing bit parts.8 Odets acted in small roles in a number of Theatre Guild productions between 1929 and 1931. It was at the Theatre Guild that he befriended the casting director, Cheryl Crawford. Crawford suggested that Harold Clurman, then a play reader for the Guild, invite Odets to a meeting to discuss new theatre concepts they were developing with Lee Strasberg.9 Odets was mesmerized by Clurman's talks, and became the last actor chosen for the Group Theatre's first summer of rehearsals in June, 1931, at Brookfield Center in Connecticut.1011 From the start, Odets was relegated to small roles and understudying other actors. With the extra time on his hands and at Clurman's urging, he began to write plays. He wrote two early plays, an autobiographical piece entitled 910 Eden Street, and one about his hero, Beethoven. Clurman dismissed these two plays as juvenilia, but encouraged his friend to continue writing while steering him towards familiar milieus. In late 1932, Odets began writing a play about a middle-class Jewish family in the Bronx, initially called I Got the Blues. He worked diligently on this play, sharing drafts of it with Clurman and promising parts to his fellow actors – often the same parts. While at Green Mansions, their 1933 summer rehearsal venue in Warrensburg, New York,1213 the Group performed Act II of the play, now retitled Awake and Sing!, for other camp residents. The audience was enthusiastic,14 but the Group's leadership, Lee Strasberg in particular, was still, at this point, opposed to producing it.1516

Odets trained with the Group at their various summer rehearsal headquarters located in the Connecticut countryside and the Catskills. In addition to Brookfield Center and Green Mansions, these venues included Dover Furnace in Dutchess County (1932)1718 and a large house in Ellenville, New York (1934).1920 The Group spent the summer of 19362122 at Pine Brook Country Club in Fairfield County, Connecticut.23 Their final summer retreat was at Lake Grove, in Smithtown, New York, in 1939.2425 Odets's Group training under Strasberg's tutelage was essential to his development as a playwright. He stated in an interview late in life that ″My chief influence as a playwright was the Group Theatre acting company, and being a member of that company. . . . And you can see the Group Theatre acting technique crept right into the plays.″26

Odets's first play to be produced was the one-act Waiting for Lefty, on January 5, 1935, at the Civic Repertory Theatre on Fourteenth Street in New York City.27 The piece is a series of interconnected scenes depicting workers for a fictional taxi company, but inspired by an actual taxi strike.28 The focus alternates between the drivers' union meeting and vignettes from the workers' difficult and oppressed lives. Not all are taxi drivers. A young medical intern falls victim to anti-Semitism; a laboratory assistant's job is threatened if he doesn't comply with orders to spy on a colleague; couples are thwarted in marriage, and torn apart by the hopelessness of economic conditions caused by the Great Depression. The climax is a defiant call for the union to strike, which brought the entire opening night audience to its feet. The play can be performed in any acting space, including union meeting halls and on the street. Waiting for Lefty's unexpectedly wild success brought Odets international fame.

Awake and Sing!, produced in February 1935, is generally regarded as Odets's masterpiece. It has been cited as ″the earliest quintessential Jewish play outside the Yiddish theatre."29 The play concerns the Berger family, living in the Bronx under the shadow of economic collapse. Odets's choice of opening the play in media res, his dialogue style, and the fact that it was the first play on Broadway to focus entirely on a Jewish family, distinguish Awake and Sing! from other full-length plays of its time.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1937

The 1935 one-acts Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die, along with a number of other plays produced by the Group Theatre, are harsh criticisms of profiteers and exploitative economic systems during the Great Depression. These two early plays by Odets have been dismissed by some critics as left-wing propaganda. More commonly, however, Waiting for Lefty is considered iconic in the agitprop genre, and the piece is widely anthologized. Odets asserted that all of his plays deal with the human spirit persevering in the face of any opponent, whether or not the characters are depicted as struggling with the capitalist system. The highly successful Golden Boy (1937) portrays a young man torn between artistic and material fulfillment. Ironically, it was the Group Theatre's biggest commercial success. From Golden Boy on, Odets's work focused more on the dynamics of interpersonal relationships as affected by the moral dilemmas of individual characters. In 1938 the Group presented Odets's Rocket to the Moon, a more reflective piece. Leftist critics rebuked Odets for abandoning his formerly overt political stance. The playwright George S. Kaufman queried, "Odets, where is thy sting?"30 Nonetheless, Rocket to the Moon garnered enough attention to place Odets on the cover of Time magazine in December 1938.31

Odets's last play, The Flowering Peach, was produced on Broadway in 1954. The Flowering Peach was the preferred choice of the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1955, but under pressure from Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the prize went instead to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which the jury considered the weakest of the five shortlisted nominees.32

Four of Odets's plays – Golden Boy, Clash by Night, The Big Knife and The Country Girl – have been made into films, though Odets did not write the screenplays.

Hollywood

The success of Odets's early plays attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. He first went to Hollywood in early 193633 to write for the screen as well as the stage. From this point on he would spend most of his life in Hollywood. His initial intention was to make money to help subsidize the Group Theatre's run of his late-1935 play Paradise Lost34 and to help him fulfill his own financial obligations.35 His first screenplay was produced by Paramount and directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carroll, The General Died at Dawn (1936) received some positive reviews, though Frank Nugent of the New York Times reiterated Kaufman's barb in his article's title.

Like most screenwriters of the time, Odets worked within the studio system until the advent of independent production in the 1950s. Thus Odets would often write drafts that were handed off to another screenwriter or team for further development. Odets declined to be credited for many of the films on which he worked. He did, however, accept principal credit as both screenwriter and director for None but the Lonely Heart (1944), adapted from the novel by Richard Llewellyn, and produced by RKO. The film starred Cary Grant, Ethel Barrymore (who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Barry Fitzgerald, and Jane Wyatt.

Odets wrote the 1957 screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, based on the novelette by Ernest Lehman and produced by the independent company Hill-Hecht-Lancaster. Starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, this film noir depicts the underbelly of the newspaper world. The character of J.J. Hunsecker, played by Lancaster, was voted the 35th most despicable villain in 100 years of film by the American Film Institute.36 Odets directed one other film, for which he also wrote the screenplay, The Story on Page One (1959).

Style

Odets' dramatic style is distinguished by a kind of poetic, metaphor-laden street talk. Arthur Miller observed that, with Odets' first plays, ″For the very first time in America, language itself . . . marked a playwright as unique.″37 Odets' use of ethnic and urban speech patterns reflects the influence of another socialist playwright with proletarian concerns, Sean O'Casey. Other hallmarks of Odets' style are his humanistic point of view, and his way of dropping the audience right into the conflict with little or no introduction. Often character is more important than plot, reflecting the influence of Anton Chekhov.38

HUAC

In May 1952, Odets was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA; more commonly, HUAC). He had belonged to the Communist Party for less than a year, between 1934 and 193539 and sponsored many left-wing, progressive groups. He cooperated with the Committee to the extent that he responded to their questions, and reiterated names of Communist Party members who had been previously cited by his friend and former Group colleague, Elia Kazan. Prior to Kazan’s final testimony in April 1952, they agreed to name each other.40 Odets thereby avoided blacklisting, but reactions to his testimony confused him; he did not consider himself a cooperative witness. A partial transcript of Odets’ testimony can be found in Eric Bentley’s Thirty Years of Treason.41 Odets was reportedly tormented by public reaction to his testimony until his death in 1963. In his autobiography, Kazan recalls incidents of Odets being accosted in the street and snubbed in Hollywood restaurants after his HUAC appearance.42 Odets's productivity declined after his 1952 testimony.43

Later years

In the early 1960s, Odets contracted to write four of a proposed total of thirteen teleplays for NBC's new dramatic anthology, The Richard Boone Show, and to act as script supervisor.44 Two of Odets's finished scripts were aired posthumously: "Big Mitch" (December 10, 1963), and "The Mafia Man" (January 7, 1964).45 Odets also worked on the libretto for a projected musical version of Golden Boy. He died before the project came to fruition. Playwright William Gibson, a former student of Odets, completed the book.

Personal life

Odets first married two-time Academy Award winning actress Luise Rainer in January of 1937.46 They divorced in May of 1940.47 He married for a second time, in 1943. Odets and actress Bette Grayson had two children, Nora, born in 1945, and Walt Whitman,48 born in 1947. Odets and Grayson divorced in 1951.49 Nora Odets died at Long Beach, Long Island in 2008; Walt Odets became a clinical psychologist, author and photographer residing in Berkeley, California.

Clifford Odets also had relationships with actresses Frances Farmer and Fay Wray,5051 among others.

Death

On July 23, 1963, Odets was admitted to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles to undergo treatment for stomach ulcers. During surgery, doctors discovered that he had stomach cancer.52 He received bedside visits from such movie and theater friends as Marlon Brando, Lee Strasberg and Paula Strasberg, Jean Renoir and his wife, Dido, Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman, Shirley MacLaine, and Danny Kaye,53 among others. Renoir dedicated a chapter of his autobiography to his friendship with Odets.54 On August 14, 1963, Odets died of stomach cancer at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital at the age of 57.55

Odets's ashes were interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale in Glendale, California.

Legacy

Odets has been looked on by many as an icon of the American theatre. According to Arthur Miller, ″An Odets play was awaited like news hot off the press, as though through him we would know what to think of ourselves and our prospects.″56 According to Marian Seldes, ″Paddy Chayefsky, who felt competitive with Odets, . . . told an interviewer, ′There isn't a writer of my generation, especially a New York writer, who doesn't owe his very breath–his entire attitude toward theatre–to Odets.′″57

Golden Boy was made into a 1939 film and became the basis for a 1964 musical of the same name. The Flowering Peach became the basis for the 1970 Broadway musical Two by Two, which starred Danny Kaye. Odets's screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success became the basis for the 2002 musical of the same name.

Lincoln Center celebrated the centennial of Odets's birth with their 2006 production of Awake and Sing!, directed by Bartlett Sher. It won that year's Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and sparked a revival of interest in Odets's work. Another centennial production, Rocket to the Moon, directed by Daniel Fish, was produced by Long Wharf Theater. Golden Boy, also produced by Lincoln Center with Bartlett Sher again directing, opened on December 5, 2012 to enthusiastic reviews, subsequently garnering 8 Tony Award nominations.58 John Lahr declared, "In this distinguished, almost symphonic production, Sher and Lincoln Center have done a great thing: they have put Odets finally and forever in the pantheon, where he belongs." 59

Odets's early, more left-wing plays, such as Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost, have enjoyed numerous revivals since the 2008 economic crash. The Roundabout Theatre Company presented the first revival of Odets's 1949 play, The Big Knife, in the Spring of 2013 at the American Airlines Theatre in New York, with Doug Hughes directing Bobby Cannavale in the lead role of Charlie Castle.60 The role was originated by Odets's former Group Theatre colleague, John Garfield.61 The National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) mounted a highly acclaimed production of Awake and Sing! in September 2013 with an Asian cast. Performed in a small downtown theatre space in New York's Soho area, the limited run played to sold out houses. According to New York Times Reviewer Anita Gates, "the production easily makes the point that ethnicity is transcended by the humanity of frightened, imperfect people facing unpleasant realities." 62

Joel and Ethan Coen’s film Barton Fink contains a number of indirect visual and historical references to Odets’s personal appearance, background and career. But, according to the Coen brothers, the film is not meant to be biographical in relation to Odets.63 A minor character in the 1982 film Diner speaks only lines from Odets' screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success. The Odets character was played by Jeffrey DeMunn in the film Frances, and by John Heard in the 1983 biography, Will There Be A Morning?, both about Frances Farmer.

Odets's name is mentioned in an episode of the NBC series Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, "The Wrap Party." The episode's subplot dealt with The Hollywood Ten.

Odets was the subject of a psycho-biography by psychoanalyst Margaret Brenman-Gibson, wife of playwright William Gibson: Clifford Odets – American Playwright – The Years from 1906–1940. It was one component of an umbrella project undertaken by Brenman-Gibson on the subject of creativity. The biography was intended to be a three-volume work, with the second and third volumes to cover the final twenty-three years of Odets's life. Brenman-Gibson died in 2004, leaving the project unfinished. A new, full-length biography of Odets is currently in progress with the cooperation of the Odets Estate. The book, to be published by Random House Knopf, is expected to be completed in late 2016.

Apart from Brenman-Gibson's work, six critical biographies have appeared by the following authors: R. Baird Shuman (1962);64 Edward Murray (1968);65 Michael Mendelsohn (1969);66 Gerald Weales (1971);67 Harold Cantor (1978);68 and Christopher J. Herr (2003).69

Stage

Actor

  • Midnight (1930)
  • 1931– (1931)
  • Big Night (1933)
  • They All Come to Moscow (1933)
  • Men in White (1933)
  • Gold Eagle Guy (1934)
  • Waiting for Lefty (1935)

Writer

Director

Writer

  • Sarah Bernhardt (1936)

Filmography

Writer

Director

Bibliography

  • Introduction to Modern Library edition of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls (1936)

See also

References

  1. ^ ProQuest Historical Newspapers, “The New York Times”, (1851–2006). “Obituary.” 15 August 15, 1963: 27
  2. ^ John Lahr, "The Struggles of Clifford Odets.", The New Yorker, April 17, 2006
  3. ^ Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years 1906-1940. New York: Atheneum, 1982, p. 83
  4. ^ Brenman-Gibson 1982, p. 84
  5. ^ Brenman-Gibson 1982, pp. 89, 90
  6. ^ Brenman-Gibson 1982, p. 92
  7. ^ Brenman-Gibson 1982, p. 132.
  8. ^ Brenman-Gibson 1982, p. 141
  9. ^ Brenman-Gibson 1982, p. 165
  10. ^ Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years. New York: Hill and Wang, 1945. ed. 1968, p.36
  11. ^ Smith, Wendy. Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990. p.32
  12. ^ Brenman-Gibson 1982, p. 264
  13. ^ Smith, p. 139
  14. ^ Clurman, p. 119
  15. ^ Clifford Odets: American Playwright Margaret Brenman-Gibson 1982
  16. ^ Clurman, p. 123
  17. ^ Brenman-Gibson, p. 216
  18. ^ Smith, p. 84
  19. ^ Brenman-Gibson 1982, p. 287
  20. ^ Smith, p. 180
  21. ^ Clurman, p. 172
  22. ^ Smith, pp. 264–65
  23. ^ Images of America, Trumbull Historical Society, 1997, p. 123
  24. ^ Brenman-Gibson, 1982, p. 564
  25. ^ Smith, p. 364
  26. ^ Mendelsohn, Michael. Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist. Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1969, p. 9
  27. ^ Clurman, p. 138
  28. ^ Weales, Gerald. Clifford Odets, Playwright. New York: Pegasus 1971, pp. 39–43
  29. ^ Schiff, Ellen. From Stereotype to Metaphor: The Jew in Contemporary Drama Albany: SUNY Press, 1982, p. 33
  30. ^ Hall, Donald, ed. (1981). The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes. New York: Oxford. p. 304. 
  31. ^ Brenman-Gibson, p. 539
  32. ^ Fischer, Heinz-Dietrich & Erika J. Fischer. The Pulitzer Prize Archive: A History and Anthology of Award-Winning Materials in Journalism, Letters, and Arts München: K.G. Saur, 2008. ISBN 3-598-30170-7 ISBN 9783598301704 p. 246
  33. ^ Brenman-Gibson, p. 397
  34. ^ Clurman, p. 162
  35. ^ Brenman-Gibson, pp. 393, 397
  36. ^ American Film Institute (2003-06-04). "AFI's 100 YEARS...100 HEROES & VILLAINS". Afi.com. Retrieved 2012-11-07. 
  37. ^ Miller, Arthur. Timebends. Penguin, 1995, p. 229
  38. ^ Mendelsohn, Michael, p. 34
  39. ^ Brenman-Gibson, pp. 296, 302
  40. ^ Kazan, Elia, A Life. New York: Doubleday, 1988, pp. 462–63
  41. ^ Thirty Years of Treason: Excerpts from Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities 1938–1968. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002, pp. 498–533
  42. ^ Kazan, pp. 134–35
  43. ^ "Waiting for Lefty (Historical Context), Answers.com http://www.answers.com/topic/waiting-for-lefty-play-5
  44. ^ Weales, p. 184
  45. ^ Weales, p. 185
  46. ^ "Viennese Stars Weds Dramatist". Reading Eagle. January 9, 1937. p. 3. Retrieved April 13, 2013. 
  47. ^ "Luise Rainer Awarded Divorce From Odets". The Hartford Courant. May 15, 1940. p. 8. 
  48. ^ LCTreview.com
  49. ^ Brenman-Gibson, p. 617
  50. ^ Wray, Fay. On the Other Hand: A Life Story. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1989, pp. 194–196; 204–213
  51. ^ Odets, Clifford. The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets. New York: Grove Press, 1988. pp. 28, 204 et al.
  52. ^ "CLIFFORD ODETS, PLAYWRIGHT,DIES". The New York Times. August 16, 1963. p. 27. 
  53. ^ Brenman-Gibson, pp. 8–11
  54. ^ Renoir, Jean. My Life and My Films. New York: Atheneum, 1974
  55. ^ Cantor, Halold (2000). Clifford Odets: Playwright-poet (2 ed.). Scarecrow Press. p. 169. ISBN 0-810-83732-3. 
  56. ^ Miller, Arthur, p. 232
  57. ^ Seldes, Marion. America's Fervent Playwright. Lincoln Center Theater Review, Spring 2006, p. 26
  58. ^ Teachout, Terry (December 6, 2012). "An American Master Returns to Broadway". The Wall Street Journal. 
  59. ^ Lahr, John. "Sucker Punch: Clifford Odets and David Mamet on winners and losers." The New Yorker, December 17, 2012, pp. 86-7
  60. ^ "Roundabout Theatre Company - Shows & Events". Roundabouttheatre.org. 2012-06-19. Retrieved 2012-11-07. 
  61. ^ Odets, Clifford. The Big Knife. New York: Dramatists Play Service, ISBN 0-8222-0115-1, ISBN 978-0-8222-0115-1
  62. ^ http://theater.nytimes.com/2013/08/31/theater/reviews/odetss-awake-and-sing-family-is-alive-in-tribeca.html
  63. ^ "That Barton Fink Feeling: An Interview with the Coen Brothers"
  64. ^ Shuman, R. Baird. Clifford Odets. Twayne’s United States Authors. Ed. Bowman, Sylvia. New York: Twayne, 1962
  65. ^ Murray, Edward. Clifford Odets: The Thirties and After. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1968
  66. ^ Mendelsohn, Michael J. Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist. 1st ed. Delano, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1969
  67. ^ Weales, Gerald. Clifford Odets, Playwright. Pegasus American Authors. Ed. Ludwig, Prof. Richard M. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971
  68. ^ Cantor, Harold. “Clifford Odets: Playwright-Poet.” Dissertation: Ph.D. Diss. State University of New York at Binghamton, 1975
  69. ^ Herr, Christopher J. Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre. Westport, CT and London: Praeger, 2003
  70. ^ Accessed 19 April 2012.

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