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Golden Boy

Years before he died in 1963 at the age of fifty-seven, Clifford Odets had assumed a symbolic importance greater than his position as a writer. Calling himself “the foremost playwright manqué of all time,” he allowed, perhaps even encouraged, a myth to evolve which identified him as an artist of great promise who had made a corrupt Faustian contract with the film industry. A television interview conducted in the year of his death shows him, his eyes bulging, his hands working nervously to build a mountain of cigarette butts, as he tries to persuade the interviewer to regard him as a “technician” who turns out movie and TV work for money, and finds his fitful moral purpose, his rare creative satisfactions, in the theater. Odets’s career would seem to confirm his inglorious place in the moral melodrama of our cultural history. It tells a now familiar tale of early auguries and failed achievement, of high expectations dashed by personal ambitions. He considered the Group Theatre, out of which he was born and in whose bosom he was nourished, one of the last embers of a fading American idealism; and like many of his Group colleagues, he helped extinguish those embers by abandoning the company for Hollywood.

In 1935, when Odets was barely twenty-nine, Time magazine called him, in an unfortunate phrase, the White Hope of the American theater. Five of his plays were running simultaneously in New York—among them Waiting for Lefty, Till the Day I Die, and Awake and Sing! A year later, he had gone West to work on The General Died at Dawn where at a Hollywood party he met a movie star (Luise Rainer) whom he later married. For a few years, he continued to shuttle back to New York between screenplays to supervise (and support) productions of other plays with the Group. But to his increasingly hostile critics, he had become an artistic pariah and political hypocrite whose premature death was merely the corporeal extension of a prematurely dead talent. Before he died, the headlines on his reviews already had the quality of obituaries: “White Hope Pales,” “Odets Takes a Holiday,” “Odets Where Is Thy Sting?”

One of the purposes of the first volume of Margaret Brenman-Gibson’s new biography (a second is expected shortly) is to show that the story of Odets as a Hollywood sellout is not a melodrama but a tragedy. Clifford Odets: American Playwright takes us up to the playwright’s thirty-fourth year, right after the failure of Night Music; it is a meticulously detailed, prodigiously researched account of Odets’s frailties and strengths—a heroic project, considering the current lack of interest in his work. One wonders how many people would be interested in wading through 748 closely printed pages of biographical material on a writer generally conceded to be of second rank—his early notes and memorabilia, the brand of his typewriter, his mother’s fondness for giblets, his numerous sexual conquests, his conscious and unconscious methods of attempting suicide. Dr. Brenman-Gibson’s almost personal affection for Odets (she writes of his haunting eyes and “long, beautiful fingers”) is unlikely to be shared by many of her readers who may react to her continual probes into the hidden corners of his life the way Lenny Bruce recoiled from the seethrough dress worn by a middle-aged woman—“only you don’t wanna.”

Conceding that Odets is unfashionable today, Dr. Brenman-Gibson, nevertheless, doesn’t make much of an artistic case for his art (“I do not,” she confesses, “undertake an analysis … of the formal structure of the plays”), preferring instead to deal “essentially with the underlying psychological conflicts and their resolutions.” This decision accounts for the weakest element of her book—its psychobabble. A practicing analyst herself, Dr. Brenman-Gibson calls her work a psychohistory—a treacherous genre which only her mentor Erik Erikson and his mentor Freud ever managed to use persuasively (and then only with figures long dead). Dr. Brenman-Gibson’s method illuminates Odets’s neurosis at the risk of obscuring the plays and losing our attention. In a passage typical of many that stud the text and the notes, she describes the “sensual Hennie-Moe relationship” in Awake and Sing! as

…representing Odets’ “profane” fantasy about his father. When in the original I Got the Blues Hennie gives Moe up, resigning herself to a life with the frightened, ineffectual, and scorned Sam Feinschreiber, this expresses Odets’ fear that if he were wholly to give himself up to his identity as a Writer, he must renounce not only a wild sensuality but all passionate relationships. Such a renunciation of the relationship to his fraudulent passionate, seductive, high-stepping father, however, meant that he would exist only half-alive like his weak, depressed, withdrawn, tubercular mother.

Similarly, Hennie’s abandonment of her baby suggests to the author “Odets’ chronic terror of abandonment and betrayal, plus his lifelong search for a woman who would not betray him as he consciously felt his mother had.” Moe’s remark to Ralphie that he wouldn’t trade him for “two pitchers and an outfielder” she interprets to be “Odets’ fulfillment of his yearning for the love of his baseball-fan father,” for whom he had contracted a “fantasy of a profane love affair.” Such psychocriticism connects neither with Odets nor with his plays.

The author is perfectly capable of lucid critical analysis (and eloquent prose, as suggested by her moving opening chapter on Odets’s death); her clinical readings may be a tactical way to avoid it. For a more literary, non-psychologizing approach might well have revealed why history has not been kind to Odets. If he helped to create a time, he was eclipsed by the passing of that time; serious audiences today find it hard to share the electrical thrill that flowed through audiences at the opening of Waiting for Lefty or Awake and Sing! Odets’s highly charged urban characters and pungent, nervous, colloquial, gritty dialogue can still evoke an age drenched in blues and jazz; but the plays have something, too, of the quaintness of that age, the same crackle we hear in the sound track of 1930s movies, the same artificially pitched voices.

Odets’s sloganeering politics, congenial to those who embraced him as a revolutionary playwright, are embarrassing today (they were embarrassing even to him—he joined the Party out of a hatred of abstractions like injustice and inequality, but left it after discovering he had been duped into an ill-fated trip to Batista’s Cuba). But his treatment of American materialism and alienation—the obsessive theme of his later work and thought—was also weakened by circumstance. Dr. Brenman-Gibson is short with a Time magazine interviewer who responded to Odets’s remark that “the American people don’t know who they are or where they’re going,” by saying: “Clifford Odets knows where he is going—to NBC as a television writer.” But Odets’s contradictions made his social pronouncements unusually vulnerable to the vindictive spite of other bought intellects.

Odets’s criticism of America was easy to dismiss because he was himself so implicated in compromise and corruption. But the curious thing is how Odets’s own capacity for self-loathing—unsparing and elegiac—sometimes exceeded that of his detractors. Dr. Brenman-Gibson’s clinical method may not vindicate Odets’s writing, but it does persuade us to respect Odets’s suffering. She demonstrates the awful personal effort it cost him to sustain his convictions, since they were based on perceptions of his own failings.

The author has chosen for her epigraph Odets’s remark, “I will reveal America to itself by revealing myself to myself.” This she makes the basis not only for her exhausting investigation of the playwright’s emotional problems but also for an excellent study of the social, cultural, and historical conditions that produced him. If such an examination does not fully rehabilitate Odets the man or writer, it nevertheless reveals that he shared his failure with his society. The book’s greatest value lies in its exposing direct links between his shaky career and the shaky qualities of our nation, as immediately reflected in the equally shaky American theater. It is the setting in which Odets succeeded and failed that continues to fascinate long after the reader has tired of him and his work.

Odets’s story is inextricable from that of the Group Theatre, and in telling it, Dr. Brenman-Gibson has succeeded in writing the best history of this embattled company to be found apart from Harold Clurman’s The Fervent Years. Like Clurman, she provides abundant evidence that this legendary art theater, so justly celebrated in cultural and theatrical histories, had a record of continual commercial failure and financial emergency, of dismal treatment by the press and rejection by the public. Aside from the odd aberrant success like Men in White, only Odets’s plays attracted any sustained attention to the Group—and, remarkably, only Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy could be considered box office successes (Waiting for Lefty was produced at another theater.)

It is admittedly doubtful if any of the Group’s plays, including those of Odets, were destined to endure as dramatic literature. The company’s policy of performing American works exclusively (an uncompleted Odets version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters was the only foreign work ever even contemplated) proved a major obstacle to the Group’s ambition to be compared with great European companies, particularly the Moscow Art Theatre. But if the Group was not noteworthy for the deathless quality of its plays, it was by most accounts unmatched in the quality of its playing—and by comparison with most of the trash being acclaimed on Broadway at the time, even its plays should have been recognized for their superior scope and commitment. Instead, they were for the most part rudely dismissed, with little understanding of how the Group’s organic ensemble performance differed from the common Broadway artifact. After his glorious first year of success in 1935, Odets shared with the Group the repeated experience of short runs and bad notices, despite the enormous amount of personal attention he had earlier received from the press.

It was this attention that may have caused his ruin. Temporarily lionized, eulogized, and glorified, Odets soon became a praise addict, a victim of what Clurman called “the desire for this-and-that.” Odets, Clurman added, “wanted to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds; he wanted to be the great revolutionary playwright of our day and the white-haired boy of Broadway. …” Running on this double track made him particularly vulnerable to the critics; he generally regarded them with the same ambivalence as a junkie regards his dealer. After the negative notices for Paradise Lost, he wrote to all the reviewers begging them to attend new rehearsals he had called in an “effort to work several of your critical statements into concrete theatre practice” (he tried this tack again later—unsuccessfully once more—after the failure of Rocket to the Moon). He cajoled his critics, solicited their advice, pleaded with them to keep him in the theater, wheedled and whined, all the time feeling a deep contempt for their values. Writing to Bernard Shaw, he told him there was no “first-rate theatre critic in New York … one who writes from a constant point of view … who looks at writers on a longterm basis … who has in his work any continuity of ideas or approach to the theatre.”

From Hollywood, he complained that “reviews are driving me out of the theatre.” Every time he wrote a play, the critics condemned him for not having produced another masterpiece. “I’m not a genius,” he moaned, “I can’t write like a genius.” At the same time, he was declaring that people of great gifts are inevitably stifled and strangled in America: “We live in a strange dry country. A strong heart is needed, iron nerves to continue to be a serious writer here.” He made plans to write a tragedy about “the way America treats its artists.”

Odets had scented what he was later (in the title of one of his screenplays) to call the “sweet smell of success” and the odor hung in his nostrils like a sickly cologne. “America keeps you keenly conscious of success…,” he wrote. “Before you were free; you are a prisoner now.” Odets’s “America” was now less a geographical entity than a vast Gentile abstraction—an omnipotent provider that had offered a banquet to this hungry Jewish outsider before, like Prospero, making the table disappear. For one year, he had enjoyed both fame and respect, both money and admiration. Now he felt obliged to choose between material needs and spiritual satisfactions, between Mammon and God, between Hollywood and the Group. Still greedy, still famished, he continued to hunger for both, inevitably disappointed.

Bertolt Brecht had fewer illusions about his American reception—“Why should they pay,” he asked, “for their own extinction?” But like so many radical-minded American theater people, Odets was unable to apply his Marxist theories to his career expectations in a capitalist culture. He believed he could continue to attack materialism and captivate audiences, to speak of alienation and surround the Critics Circle. The failure of Night Music thus evoked in him the rage of a bewildered, disappointed lover: “So, friend, this is the American theatre, before, now and in the future. … How can it happen that this small handful of men can do such murderous mischief in a few hours?”

It is curious that Odets should still have been asking such questions. The power of the New York press had been bestowed on it by the needs of a market he had been among the first to analyze, by a consumer demand he had been among the first to identify. His anguish reflected internal confusions which he shared with his company. It is traditionally assumed that the Group was destined to fail because, as one of its play-writing members, Robert Ardrey, said, “its premise went against the American grain, trying to inculcate a collective discipline when America was primarily individualistic.” But the failure of Odets and the Group lay not so much in trying to maintain a collective identity in a competitive society. It was the result rather of trying to establish a permanent theater within the structure of the commercial Broadway system. It remained for the percipient Harold Clurman to express this frankly: “The basic defect in our activity was that while we tried to maintain a true theatre policy artistically, we proceeded economically on a show business basis.”

Odets, therefore, was not alone in his ambivalent attitude toward the commodity culture, just a little more extreme. His plays rejected, his money running short, he left New York for Hollywood in 1936 to join Franchot Tone, the Group’s first defector. Odets, in turn, would soon be joined by every major member of the company: Stella Adler (who changed her name—and nose—to adapt to her new surroundings), Luther Adler, John Garfield, Bobby Lewis, Lee J. Cobb, J. Edward Bromberg, Elia Kazan, even Clurman himself for a time. Odets, like all his colleagues, always maintained his loyalty to the Group and continued to contribute money and plays until it dissolved. But these defections—along with internal quarrels, continual financial worries, defective leadership, ideological battles, and, worst of all, the consistent failure of society to recognize and support the importance of the work—crippled the collective will of the Group, and eventually resulted in the dissolution of the theater and the final Diaspora to Broadway and Hollywood.

For Odets, Hollywood provided not just a dependable source of income, but also a dependable source of indignation. He hated the crude, reactionary mentality of such magnates as Louis B. Mayer (who was soon cooperating with the Dies Committee and trying to placate Hitler), and he loathed the voluntary servitude of the contract system. These feelings he shared with his new wife, Luise Rainer, one of the few stars with distinguished theater experience (she had acted under Max Reinhardt); Miss Rainer’s antagonism toward the film industry, in fact, may even have exceeded her husband’s. Having twice earned the Academy Award—for The Good Earth and The Great Ziegfeld—she demanded the right to choose her own roles and when this privilege was denied, she announced to Mayer her decision to walk out on Hollywood.

Luise, we’ve made you,” Mayer responded, “and we’re gonna kill you.” Miss Rainer replied, “I was already a star on the stage before I came here…. Besides, God made me, not you.” This rejoinder suggests some of the dignity and strength of will that originally attracted Odets. It also displays the element of “queenliness” that was eventually to help ruin their marriage. Luise, Odets complained, continually made him feel uncouth and vulgar; he found her tasteful delicacy a form of aggression, her faultfinding a way of absolving herself: “It’s sugar, sugar, sugar…that’s all you want.” But Odets’s behavior toward his wife was even more awful. He was insanely jealous of every man she met—including Einstein and Stieglitz—and he responded to her letter announcing that she was going to have a baby with a cable which read: “Dear Luise will wire you Monday because now I don’t know what to say love Clifford.” Not surprisingly, she immediately decided to have an abortion and file for divorce.

Dr. Brenman-Gibson is interesting on the subject of Odets’s marriage and love affairs; she is even better describing Odets’s involuted relations with his father, “L.J.,” a financial ne’er-do-well and moral bankrupt whose letters to “big boy” are as colorful as any dialogue his son produced.* But her most valuable contribution, to my mind, is the way she manages to establish Odets’s place in the pantheon of blighted American careers. Odets was not the first American writer to prove a poor caretaker of his talents; he was not the last American theater artist to sell his birthright for a mess of poolside parties and a movie-star marriage. He was, however, among the most poignant in his wasted life and his compromised gifts, among the least forgiving toward his own artistic trespasses, among the most knowledgeable about the forces contributing to his ruin. Today, when the values by which Odets measured his personal failure are considered either obsolete or futile—when our invincible system has absorbed most of the opposition and annihilated most of the alternatives—Odets’s nostalgia for a pure life seems almost archaic; as even the seventeen-year-old heroine of Woody Allen’s Manhattan now could tell him, “Everybody gets corrupted.”

At the end of his life, dying of cancer of the bowel which had metastasized to his stomach, he was visited in the hospital by Marlon Brando, who, as a former member of the Actors Studio, could be considered a direct descendant of the Group and one of the heirs of its legacy. In his interview, Brando—who looked on Odets as the very incarnation of the Thirties—reported that the dying man “was leaking from all parts of his body, his life running out in ugly fluids.” Odets didn’t seem frightened; in fact, he spent most of the time making bitter jokes. At one point, he looked at Brando and said, “Life is about shitting in a towel.” He was no doubt referring to his own incontinence, but it was an odd thing to say to an actor who, like many of his contemporaries, was already giving a new dimension to the notion of prodigal waste.

  1. *

    In a note, the author mentions that, during an interview, Odets’s father tried to assault her sexually.

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