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Cramped Quarters: The Early Years of Playwright Clifford Odets

“[ Odets had] an appetite for the broken and run-down, together with a bursting love for the beauty immanent in people, a burning belief in the day when this beauty would actually shape the external world. These two apparently contradictory impulses kept him in a perpetual boil that to the indifferent eye might look like either a stiff passivity or a hectic fever.”

–  Harold Clurman, founder of the Group Theatre and director of the original production of Awake and Sing!

In Clifford Odets’ work, one can see etchings of the hardscrabble life that inspired it. Born in Philadelphia in 1906, he spent his earliest years in a cramped apartment in a Jewish ghetto that his parents — recent immigrants named Louis and Pearl — shared with his mother’s sister Esther. His family was strongly religious, but his father was so keen to assimilate that he denied that his mother’s name in their home country had been Gorodetsky, even though it appeared on her tombstone. In 1912, eager to improve the family’s station, Louis moved the family to the Bronx.

Moving to New York started a string of transfers, each to slightly “grander” tenements. Odets would later write in notes for an unfinished play (named after one of these homes 783 Beck Street) that their constant apartment switching symbolized “the American and dehumanizing myth of the steadily expanding economy […] Where does America stop? When does it begin to make homes and sink nourishing roots? […] Perhaps follow the rise and fall of the house by the Odets family moving in and then, several years later (now hating the place!) moving away. Oh the waste of it all.”

Clifford’s father Louis worked as a printer, rising to the rank of foreman and then starting his own press. Much to Louis’ disappointment and anger, Clifford was a poor student, often failing multiple subjects and skipping assignments to spend more time at the movies or rehearsing with his amateur theatrical group. At 17, Odets dropped out of school to become an actor, a discipline where he met with mixed success. Though he found enough work, he was stuck in small parts, stringing together a meager existence through the Black Tuesday crash and the start of the Great Depression. After jobs ranging from Broadway understudy to camp counselor, he was invited in 1931 to join in the founding of director Lee Strasberg’s Group Theatre.

Barbara Nichols and Tony Curtis in the film version of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Frustrated by his slight roles, Odets began to write. Casting about for inspiration, he penned a short story inspired by his surroundings: “I was holed up in a cheap hotel, in a kind of fit of depression, and I wrote about a young kid violinist who didn’t have his violin because the hotel owner had appropriated it for unpaid bills. He looked back and remembered his mother and his hard-working sister, and although I was not that kid and didn’t have that kind of mother or sister, I did fill the skin and the outline with my own personal feeling, and for the first time I realized what creative writing was.”

A natural product of his time spent as an actor, Odets transitioned into plays, and in 1935, premiered four different works back-to-back that would launch his career. First, his famous agit-prop piece Waiting for Lefty dramatizes the unionization of a group of taxi drivers and famously ends on the cry of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” Waiting for Lefty subsequently played on a double bill with his play Till the Day I Die. The third play produced was the earliest begun, Awake and Sing!, which Odets had started roughly when he joined the Group Theatre. The fourth, Paradise Lost, was met with tepid reviews.

Odets went on to a prolific career, authoring more than a dozen plays and six films, including The Sweet Smell of Success. But in those early years, his personal life was marked by loneliness and a longing for the kind of family he saw slipping away from American life. “When I was a boy, the whole promise of American life was contained for me in Christmas cards which showed a warm little house snuggled in a snow scene by night,” Odets wrote. “Often little boys and girls were walking up the path of the door and carrying bundles of good things. This represented protection, a home and hearth, goodness and comfort, all things which become increasingly more difficult to attain.”

- Charles Haugland


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