Director's Notes for Awake and Sing!

Awake and Sing! is the first full-length play Clifford Odets wrote: he began it in the early ’30s, and it premiered in 1935. Odets was 25. Young and idealistic, he was writing at one of the darkest economic times in American history, and he was “drawing up the battle lines” (in the language of biographer Margaret Brenman-Gibson) against “the American individualist who held that all forms of misery…were unchangeable by government action and were ‘natural outcomes of imprudence, idleness, improvidence...’” In other words, the cult of the American Success Story:  any individual with purpose can succeed, and failure is due to weakness. 

Odets wrote that Bessie Berger (the matriarch in Awake and Sing!) knows that “when one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life.” The plays of Odets show us how people can behave horribly towards each other when they feel, as Bessie does, that it is “a jungle out there” and they have to save their family at any cost.

The politics in Odets’ world feel alive to me at this time of increased economic class differences, but it is not simply its ideology that makes this play an American classic.  What keeps us hooked on Odets’ work is his insight into our struggling selves, and the strength of his language in sharing those insights. Like Chekhov, who Odets very begrudgingly credited as an influence later in life, Awake and Sing! captures the challenges and costs we experience in intimacy and in maintaining a family. Odets shows how we struggle even more when we are living in a time of change, of economic shifting, and societal collapse (and when are we not?).

When the Huntington approached me about directing this play my response was immediate – this is a world that I felt I knew inside and out, literally familiar to me. The mix of political passions with difficult personalities; the struggles of individual desires versus family expectations – these dynamics shaped my upbringing and echo in the stories I heard from my grandparents, uncles, and aunts. I had relatives who spoke passionately about Odets and the premieres of his works and who felt that in his plays, their realities were reflected on stage for the first time. I had relatives – may they rest in piece – who echoed Jacob’s arguments in this play, and ones who spoke with Bessie’s voice:  they embodied the ideals of the left, the optimism of a new world, and the economic realities of day-to-day existence.

My hope in this production is that I am not alone in this identification, and that this Jewish family, this struggling group of survivors fighting in the “jungle” of their society, speaks to you as well. There is a deeply hopeful voice under all of Odets’ work, and in particular in Awake and Sing! – the hope of following one’s true spirit, and of waging a battle to make a meaningful life. “Life should not be printed on dollar bills!,” Ralph cries out to us from the stage, and as Caruso sings of Paradise and grandpa Jacob imagines a better world, so Odets pushes us to find our best selves and strive for more meaningful and joyful lives.

Writing of a later play Odets said he hoped audiences would leave the theatre glad to be alive.  It is of course my hope this production gives you at least a glimpse of that vision.

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