While this production is, technically speaking, a revival, I would wager that the majority of people, even the most dedicated of theatregoers, will be seeing The Big Knife for the very first time. In a strange way, it’s as though we are getting the opportunity to discover a new play from Clifford Odets in 2013, nearly 50 years after his death. But how did this come to be the case? Odets was the single most celebrated American playwright of the 1930s. He was at the forefront of a new movement towards realism in the theatre, a voice for the downtrodden with four plays on Broadway in a single year and his picture on the cover of Time Magazine. So how is it possible that any of his work was allowed to get fall through the cracks of history? The answer to that question tells a great deal not only about Odets himself but about the character he created in The Big Knife, Charlie Castle.
Born in 1906, Clifford Odets, a son of Jewish immigrant parents, took an early liking to the arts and dropped out of school to become an actor. His future found its shape in 1931, when he became a founding member of the Group Theatre. The Group would become renowned for its employment of “Method” acting under directors Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, but these leaders were skeptical of Odets’s future as a performer. Clurman urged him to write, and after a couple of false starts, Odets realized that his strength was in his affinity for the people and places of his own life. He wrote as they spoke, bringing an almost musical touch to the tough street-talk of his upbringing. And he put characters on stage who faced the same struggles of the Great Depression as the people in the audience. All of the street smarts, anger, and lyricism of the man himself went directly into both Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! These first plays appeared in 1935, became immediate hits, and turned Clifford Odets into the best-known playwright in America.
It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling, wanting Odets to bring his talents out west and willing to pay him nicely for the trip. Odets recognized the temptations that come with money and worried about being away from Broadway for too long, but he also knew that movies offered the kind of cash that would help him keep the Group Theatre solvent. It seemed like a simple enough compromise at the time, but it was a decision that would alter Odets’s life story.
Although he would continue to write plays, Odets never regained the focus he had in those brilliantly productive early years. His New York colleagues began to look down their noses at him for allowing himself to become a mere writer-for-hire on films beneath his talent. Odets struggled with this perception, and he put that struggle into The Big Knife’s Charlie Castle (Bobby Cannavale), a rich and famous movie star so deeply entangled in the studio system that he may never be able to break free. There’s a great deal of Odets in this 1949 play, and it’s a beautiful representation of where the playwright was at this point in his career. His early plays were bold and angry, perfectly in tune with the times and with his own youthful ambition. The Odets of 1949 was far from the same man, but critics weren’t looking for emotional growth. Instead, they interpreted the change in tone as an Odets who had lost his bite. And without bite, was he even still Odets?
Our fantastic Resident Director, Doug Hughes, told me that much of his affection for The Big Knife comes from this assumption that it is a “lesser Odets.” We both feel that it is anything but a lesser work – it’s simply a representation of a man who has done some serious growing up. It’s a phenomenon that we see so often with playwrights, even our great ones: they make a splash early on with a few big hits, but then we don’t know what to do with them as their perspective shifts with time. I’ve seen it happen with everyone from Arthur Miller (a great admirer of Odets, by the way) to Athol Fugard. We’re thrilled to hear what they had to say in their prime, but we become tentative when faced with work that reflects what they learned after that prime had come and gone.
I’m overjoyed to be rediscovering The Big Knife. It’s been away from the Broadway stage for more than six decades, which is far too long. While I will, like so many, always appreciate the early masterworks of Odets, I can’t help but have soft spot in my heart for this ambitious, prophetic, deeply felt piece. I hope you will share your thoughts on the play with me by sending an email to email@example.com. I can’t tell you how greatly I value your feedback.
2012-2013 Season, From Todd Haimes, The Big Knife