Don't call it new theater. Call it real theater. Call all it our theater: of, about, and for the Common Man!

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Attention, all you Clifford Odets fans out there: John Lahr, the Cowardly Lion's son, takes a fresh look at the star playwright of Bolshie thirties agitprop, whose decline, Lahr speculates, may have "kept him from claiming the privileged place in the theatrical discussion he deserves." Because his article is keyed off the psychologist Margaret Brenman-Gibson's book Clifford Odets—American Playwright, which focuses on Odets' career until 1940, Lahr ends up repeating most of the basic Odets mythology: that he was a vibrant voice of the Group Theater in the thirties, then ended up losing his soul in Hollywood. I can't hold that against Lahr, because the fable is easy to repeat and because the socially conscious theater of the thirties is bathed in one of the most durable auras in American culture: Back then, your average engagé performer could in the course of a single day battle Pinkertons in the Central Valley, agitate for the passage of a Social Security law, discuss dialectical materialism with Trotsky, protest Nelson Rockefeller's desecration of Diego Rivera's Rock Center masterpiece, head off to Spain to fight with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and be back to off-Broadway in time to move audiences to shed oceans of tears. And that was just the slow days.

Odets got on the map with his now-unwatchable play Waiting For Lefty, and before we go to the jump, here's a howler: Lahr flatly states that the "play wasn't ideological," then quotes a passage:

Well, maybe I don't know a thing; maybe I fell outa the cradle when I was a kid and ain't been right since… Maybe I got a glass eye, but it come from working in a factory at the age of eleven. They hooked it out because they didn't have a shield on the works. But I wear it like a medal 'cause it tells the world where I belong—deep down in the working class!…This is your life and mine! It's skull and bones every incha the road! Christ, we're dyin' by inches! For what? For the debutant-ees to have their sweet comin' out parties in the Ritz! Poppa's got a daughter she's gotta get her picture in the papers. Christ, they make 'em with our blood… Slow death or fight. It's war!

So if you're keeping score, accusing rentier fatcats of sucking dry the marrow of the laboring classes to amuse their do-nothing offspring does not count as ideological.

As the above passage demonstrates, Waiting For Lefty is a completely awful play. It's not even a play, really, but a pageant of one-dimensional characters designed to get the audience hollering. As Lahr notes, it did just that in January, 1935, but art that gets people politically excited tends not to age well, and Waiting For Lefty didn't even make it out of the thirties. Ditto his even more acclaimed Awake and Sing! If any piece of Odets' stage work has endured, it's his first bona fide stage hit, Golden Boy the first entry in a brief genre of boxer/violinist-fighting-his-way-off-the-streets melodramas. (I'm not kidding: There really was such a genre.) Unnoted by The New Yorker is that Golden Boy only succeeded because of the star power of Odets' woman on the side Frances Farmer (whom he dumped after the first run), and it's only remembered now because Odets eventually rewrote it into the Joan Crawford camp masterpiece Humoresque (which in turn formed the basis of a great Catherine O'Hara parody on SCTV).

The dirty secret of Odets' life is that Hollywood was the best thing that ever happened to him, artistically as well as financially. It's impossible at this point to understand Odets without referring to Barton Fink, the Coen brothers' masterpiece that viciously dissects the mythology by having John Turturro play an Odets figure (he looks exactly like the original) who brings his patented Poetry of the Street out to Los Angeles. As Tom Peyser wrote in Reason a few years ago, Fink is "a 'committed' playwright adrift in 1940s Hollywood, intent on, in his words, 'the creation of a new, living theater, of and about and for the common man,' but totally oblivious to the fact that that theater has already arrived: It's called the movies—for which, of course, Fink has nothing but contempt."

To his credit, Lahr defines as "debatable" a central piece of the Odets legend—that he was broken after naming names to HUAC (though apparently remaining a commie at heart). I will go not too far out on a limb here and say Odets' movie work, both before and after his friendly testimony, holds up a hell of a lot better than his stage work. Deadline at Dawn, Sweet Smell of Success, Reason's favorite anti-cortisone film Bigger Than Life, the movie versions of Clash by Night and The Big Knife, and whatever dialogue he contributed to Notorious: I'll take any one of these over the star-studded attempt to reanimate Awake and Sing! going on right now at the Belasco theater.

In fact, if one thing becomes clear in reconsidering Odets, it's that thirties socialist realism and all its outgrowths—method acting, gritty urban poetry, mythologizing of proletarian machismo—were complete artistic dead ends. Lahr's article opens with an anecdote shortly after Odets' death, in which Elia Kazan is about to stage the first performance of Arthur Miller's After the Fall—and I mean, just typing that makes me want to go to sleep. Like the Marxism that inspired it, socially conscious theater was a dynamic, multivaried, immensely fruitful and long-lived mistake. The wonderful thing is that great talents like Kazan, less-great talents like Miller, and minor talents like Odets were not completely smothered under this misguided tradition. Odets does get credit for unwittingly dismantling one piece of that tradition, for as Lahr notes, "Odets' rise signalled [Lee] Strasberg's decline." Anybody who had a hand in bringing down the poisonous Strasberg can't be all bad—though the ultimate credit for that must go to Strasberg himself, whose laughably inept performance as "Hyman Roth" in The Godfather II succeeded in finally driving a stake through the ever-bleeding heart of The Method.

Whole article—the real hero of which seems to be Odets' freeloading father Lou "LJ" Odets, the author of How to Smooth the Selling Path and a man who once called his son "the dummist chunk of humanity I have ever come in contact with"—here.

And two more favorite cultural myths go up in smoke: Frances Farmer was not actually lobotomized, and nobody was killed in the Clark Gable hit-and-run incident that supposedly inspired The Big Knife.

Update, prompted only by my own conscience: If I'm burying The Method, I'm doing it to praise Odets, who died around the same time Kazan's career ran out of wind—at 57, too young, and with the potential for good work still in him. Kudos to Lahr for reporting:

On his deathbed, at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, according to Kazan, Odets had "raised his fist for the last time in his characteristic, self-dramatizing way and said, 'Clifford Odets, you have so much still to do!'"

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  1. So you think ideologically-driven writing is boring? I have a seventy page speech about that!

  2. Let me read you a few paragraphs from my Manifesto Against Imperialist Playrights to comment. Ahem…

    [zip]

  3. Artistic dead ends? Brando and Dean, the Beats, DeNiro and Scorsese, Scarface, Patti Smith, hip hop–sure seems like that alleyway was fertile!

    The Falkneresque novelist/screenwriter/drunk played by Frasier’s dad in Barton Fink represents more of an artistic dead end. How many books since the 30s have topped Falkner? Yet all those listed above top that garbage from Odets.

  4. Faulkner–twice, no less!

  5. SE

    I think DeNiro, Scorsese, Smith, et al aren’t so much inspired by working class heroes (a la Odets and others), but are more inspired by a common, gritty urban experience. In other words we still would be able to enjoy their artistry, vintage Stalinist playwrights or not.

  6. I can see lines emanating from Waiting For Lefty to professional wrestling and the Schwarzenegger Governorship–those relationships might not have been possible without Odets, but I think they belong more to the Theater of the Absurd, clear evidence that, in reality, Cavanaugh may be right about dead ends.

  7. Seriously, isn’t the advent of method acting the entire reason that modern movies are generally watchable while most old films suck ass?

    Well I made a broad claim hoping for a broad response. If you’re willing to defend Method Acting on nothing more than the general watchability of modern movies and the general ass-suckiness of old films, I’ll give that a hearty touch?!

  8. If you want an artistic dead end, read Ayn Rand’s nauseating novels. One of them was made into a nauseating and curiously forgettable movie. I can remember only the urge to vomit.

  9. Ironically, “mythologizing of proletarian machismo” is now equally the province of Left and Right. Union stiffs and day laborers versus Wal-Mart greeters and cowpokes. Criticism goes to fat cats escaping the death tax, or effete intellectuals wavering in the face of terror.

    Is classism the last acceptable prejudice?

  10. Watch it Jim, those descriptions are dripping with Lookism, the real last acceptable prejudice.

  11. isn’t the advent of method acting the entire reason that modern movies are generally watchable while most old films suck ass?

    Yeah, nothing sucks ass like watching Bogart, Hepburn, Tracy, and Grant.

    Give me Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie any day!

    If I had to assign the descriptors “suck ass” and “watchable” to the categories “old films” and “modern movies”, I don’t think my first instinct would be to match “suck ass” and “old films”, although that may have more to do with the stellar quality of the scripts back in the day compared to the almost universal hackery on display at the multiplex in recent decades.

  12. Easy, RC. Barton Fink is from recent decades.

  13. RC, I’d wager that the overall balance of hackery and genius has remained constant over time. Most of the crap produced in the early days literally disappeared as its film stock deterioriated. What we see on AMC or TCM or in the video store is a small slice of the Hollywood reel.

  14. I suspect “the method,” even in its heyday and among those who claimed to be true believers, was always more honored in the breach than not. For that matter, I suspect the most “mechanical” of actors (Olivier springs to mind here) brought as much intuition as stagecraft to their work.

    I do, however, think R.C. Dean largely nails it. In the otherwise unwatchable “Troy,” beyond question the only decent piece of acting was from Peter O’Toole, whose Priam may as well have been saying in his scene with Pitt’s Achilles “This, son, is acting. It has nothing to do with what you are doing in this movie or are likely ever to do in your career.” The mere thought of Brad Pitt as John Galt in “Atlas Shrugged” strikes me as almost divinely inspired casting — could Hollywood have possibly found any more superficial a talent for Rand’s preeminently one-dimensional hero? I think not.

  15. could Hollywood have possibly found any more superficial a talent for Rand’s preeminently one-dimensional hero?

    Keanu Reeves. Pitt is actually quite good in movies like “12 Monkeys,” “Fight Club,” “Seven,” and “Snatch.”

  16. the only decent piece of acting was from Peter O’Toole, whose Priam may as well have been saying in his scene with Pitt’s Achilles “This, son, is acting. It has nothing to do with what you are doing in this movie or are likely ever to do in your career.

    I’ve seen Caligula. O’Toole is in no position to lecture anyone about atrocious acting in a bronze-age period pieces. 🙂

  17. Les: Pitt knows how to chew the scenery (e.g., 12 Monkeys), but to paraphrase Parker’s review of Katherine Hepburn, running the emotional gamut of emotions from A to Z is meaningless unless one has mastered a few letters in between.

    DB: Certainly O’Toole is capable of phoning it in, a fact true of most actors. Nonetheless and contra Pitt or at least what I’ve seen of him, he is also capable of wonderful performances.

  18. Peter O’Toole is great. Watch Lawrence of Arabia sometime. Or even My Favorite Year, if you can find it.

    I really liked A River Runs Through It, which colors my criticism of Pitt a bit. I don’t think he’s some great actor, but he isn’t horrible and has turned in a few decent performances. And he is willing to take on some offbeat roles–that’s worth a little credit these days.

    Troy was a mistake for everyone concerned. The Iliad without gods? Right there, I knew I’d be passing on the movie. It’s a myth, not history, and the gods are arguably the central characters (though Agamemnon and Achilles are mildly important, too). Grrr.

  19. I haven’t seen Troy (looked sucky, why bother?), but Pitt has given some pretty good performances. In addition to the list Les gave, I’m a big fan of his druggy roommate in True Romance. He was pretty convincingly scary in Kalifornia, too.

  20. Brad Pitt? Sure, there’s Fight Club and Snatch, but there’s also Seven Different German Accents–er, Seven Years in Tibet.

  21. Certainly O’Toole is capable of phoning it in

    That’s putting it mildly. He’s been slumming for almost four decades now.

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