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