Clifford Odets was born in Philadelphia on July 18, 1906. His family moved to New York City when he was six, and Odets grew up in the Bronx. He dropped out of high school to work as an actor in small companies around the city. In 1931 he became a founding member of the Group Theatre, which became the most influential company in the history of American theatre.
The plays Odets wrote for the Group ensemble reflect his interest in Marxist principles. In 1934 he joined the Communist party, but left within a year in favor of a broader humanistic philosophy, a morality that emphasized the value of individual happiness.
Like many East Coast writers, Odets received offers from Hollywood. He went west in early 1936 to write his first screenplay. While there he met German actress Luise Rainer, whom he married in 1937. Both volatile in temperament, they separated twice within two turbulent years and divorced in 1940. Odets married actress Bette Grayson in 1943. The couple had two children, but the marriage ended in 1951. Grayson died suddenly in 1954 at age 32, leaving Odets as the children’s sole caretaker.
Because of his early and brief Communist affiliation and the perceived radicalism of his plays, Odets was under surveillance from the mid 1930s for what the government called “premature anti-fascism.” He never abandoned his support of progressive causes and was subpoenaed in 1952 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He testified twice and reiterated names of former Group Theatre colleagues who had Communist ties. Elia Kazan, Odets’s fellow Group member, had named these same people in his testimony a month before. Odets adamantly upheld the Communist Party’s right to exist and gave evidence of positive as well as negative Communist activity. He felt he had defied the Committee as he gave them no new information. Negative reactions to his testimony confused him; he was surprised and hurt by criticism that came his way from both the political right and left. He was deeply traumatized, and his ability to work suffered as a result.
Odets died on August 14, 1963 of advanced colon cancer.
The Group Theatre employed an acting technique new to the United States, based on the teachings of the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski’s “system” encouraged realism and naturalism by using actors’ personal experiences and truthful emotions. The system was further developed by Group director Lee Strasberg and became known as “The Method.”
Odets’s colleagues did not consider him to be a particularly good actor, and he grew frustrated with the insignificant roles in which he was cast. He began to write plays, adapting Strasberg’s technique to his writing process. Waiting for Lefty, his one-act play based on an actual taxi strike, was produced as the winning entry of a playwriting contest conducted by the left-wing New Theatre magazine. Those present on the opening night of January 5, 1935 responded with such passionate enthusiasm that Odets found himself instantly famous. The Group soon produced Waiting for Lefty itself along with another Odets one-act, the anti-fascist Till the Day I Die. Awake and Sing!, the first full-length play on Broadway to focus exclusively on the tribulations of a Jewish family, solidified Odets’s reputation. His next play, Paradise Lost, which continued his trend of expressing Depression era themes, was not well received.
Early in 1936 Odets accepted his first lucrative film assignment in order to keep Paradise Lost running and the Group afloat. This initiated a period of frequent travel between the coasts, during which Odets continued to write both plays and films. Golden Boy, written in 1937 expressly for commercial success, proved to be the Group’s greatest hit. Rocket to the Moon (1938) and Night Music (1940) followed, but neither was well received and the Group was forced to disband.
Odets returned to Hollywood, where he stayed from 1943 to mid-1948 writing screenplays. In 1944 he adapted and directed None but the Lonely Heart, which starred Cary Grant and garnered Ethel Barrymore an Oscar. Still, Odets’s increasing disgust with the emptiness of Hollywood led him to send his friend, director and critic Harold Clurman, an outline for the play that would become The Big Knife. They corresponded throughout 1947 and into the spring of 1948 about a possible collaboration.
Meanwhile, Odets did not stop his political activity in support of left-wing causes. In late 1947 HUAC intensified its investigation of the film industry, and Odets decided to move his young family back the New York. They arrived in June 1948. Odets spent an intense summer and early fall writing The Big Knife, which provides a harsh view of the world of Hollywood.
Odets had two more plays produced in New York, The Country Girl (1950) and The Flowering Peach (1954). The Country Girl was a commercial success, but The Flowering Peach was not. Odets felt forced to return to Hollywood in order to support himself and his children. He acted as a consultant and doctored scripts, and in 1957 he wrote the screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, an exposé of the newspaper world. It has since become a cult classic film and the basis of a 2002 Broadway musical. He began work on a musical adaptation of Golden Boy and acted as script supervisor for NBC’s new dramatic anthology, “The Richard Boone Show.” He also contracted to write four of a proposed total of thirteen teleplays for the series, and two of his scripts were aired posthumously.
Odets marks a turning point in American theatre history. Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! have become classics of the American stage. Odets’s singular contribution is his lyrical treatment of urban speech. An “Odetsian line” transforms street talk into poetry. Odets is primarily remembered as a spokesman for the working man, despite the fact that he dropped his Marxist stance by the time he wrote Golden Boy, a mere two years after he first came to international attention. His influence can be traced through the works of Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, David Mamet, Tony Kushner, and countless others.
CHRONOLOGY OF PLAYS
1935: Waiting for Lefty
1935: Awake and Sing!
1935: Till the Day I Die
1935: Paradise Lost
1937: Golden Boy
1938: Rocket to the Moon
1940: Night Music
1941: Clash By Night
1949: The Big Knife
1950: The Country Girl
1954: The Flowering Peach
Biography compiled with thanks to Beth Phillips.
2012-2013 Season, The Big Knife