Clifford Odets, one of America’s greatest playwrights, passed away on this day in 1963 at the age of 57. Odets grew up in the Bronx but migrated downtown as soon as he could in order to be around the artists, musicians, actors and writers who inhabited the Village. He began his career as an actor at 19 and indeed spent much of his fruitful career in the Village.
Odets became a radio announcer of a small radio station in New York. While he received perks of sorts, like occasional free meals in restaurants and items of clothing from various department stores, the job was unpaid. But he sold himself as an “elocutionist” and came to be regarded as “the Rover Reciter.” He had as many as 12 (unpaid) bookings per week.
His big break came when he was noticed by the Theatre Guild. At that time, the Theatre Guild was the mecca of every actor. The Guild was the first to really produce theatrical literature on the American stage; both European plays and those of burgeoning American voices. They produced many of the plays of Eugene O’Neill, Maxwell Anderson, Sidney Howard, Philip Barry, and all of the great playwrights of the Twenties. To get a part with the Theatre Guild was every actor’s dream. Odets eventually got the chance to meet Cheryl Crawford, the Guild’s casting director, who was, along with Harold Clurman and Lee Strasbourgh, one of the founders of The Group Theatre. Crawford cast him in bit roles and walk ons as well as in an understudy role (he famously understudied Spencer Tracy at one point) in what was emerging as The Group Theatre.
The Group was envisioned by Clurman, Crawford, and Strasberg as a theater collective. It was intended as a base for a forceful, naturalistic, and highly disciplined artistry of theater making. The members of the The Group were pioneers of what would become an “American acting technique”, derived from the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky. The company included actors, directors, playwrights, and producers. The name “Group” came from the idea of the actors as a pure ensemble. The company was founded as a training ground for actors, as well as to support new plays, especially those that mirrored the social and political climate of the day.
The Group Theatre grew steadily for about four years. The acting company consisted of about thirty persons, with six or so persons connected with staff, stage management, and publicity. Odets continued playing bit parts.
Odets began to write during the first summer The Group decamped to Connecticut in order to rehearse and formulate a plan for producing in New York.
Harold Clurman, who had become Odets’ friend, was rather discouraging to him as a playwright. Clurman said to him: “Look. I read your play. You know I like you. I’m your friend. But take my advice, and don’t waste your time writing plays because you will never be a playwright. You don’t know anything about people. You don’t see people. You’re not objective. You don’t hear what they’re saying. The best thing for you to do is to keep a daily diary and write down your real, most objective impressions of people and of what is going on around you. But don’t waste your time, because you will never write a play.” A year later Odets wrote Awake and Sing!
Waiting for Lefty was not Odets’ first play, but it was the first play of his that was produced and became the first real critical and popular success for the Group Theatre, appearing on Broadway as well as in cities around the United States.
Odets’ influence on American culture has been enduring and immense. Odets and The Group created the first truly indigenous American theater. Waiting for Lefty marked a shift in American culture that has been compared to the Woodstock Festival of 1969 and it became the rallying cry of a generation. In his autobiography, Elia Kazan, one of The Group actors, called the rousing 28 curtain calls “the most overwhelming reception I’ve ever heard in the theater.”