Clifford Odets (July 18, 1906 – August 14, 1963) was an American playwright, screenwriter, and director. With the retirement of Eugene O'Neil from the Broadway theatre after 1934, Odets was widely seen as his successor as the leading playwright in America. Odets' socially conscious dramas were highly influential during the 1930s, when America was in the throes of the Great Depression. His primacy began to wane in the 1940s, when after the production of his play Clash by Night in the 1941-42 season, he focused his energies on Hollywood.
Except for his adaptation of Konstantin Simonov's play The Russian People, a flop in the 1942-43 season, Odets did not return to Broadway until 1949, with the premiere of The Big Knife, which was a play about Hollywood. By then, his star had been eclipsed by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, the latter of whom had been influenced by Odets' dramaturgy from the 1930s. A the time of his death in 1963, when he served as the script supervisor of The Richard Boone Show, Odets was widely considered a failure who had not lived up to the promise of his early career, someone who had sold out and bartered his artistic promise for Hollywood money.
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. The piece is a series of interconnected scenes depicting workers for a fictional taxi company, but inspired by an actual taxi strike. 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." 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.
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