Golden Boy

Clifford Odets
Clifford Odets; drawing by David Levine

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…

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