Saturday, September 5, 2009

Things I Am Going to Steal from Clifford Odets

A year and a half ago when I was writing my 1930s play, I bought a collection of six Clifford Odets plays titled Waiting for Lefty & Other Plays--but, to my chagrin, I didn't get around to reading it till now. As far as I can discern, Odets occupies an uncertain place in the ranks of American playwrights--for everyone who says that he's underrated, you can also find someone who will say that his plays are dated or propagandistic.

And it is easy to make fun of Odets' tendency to end his plays with a rousing speech about the Dignity of Man and the Promise of Socialism. And, living in an ironic age, it's easy to mock his earnestness. (Odets dedicated his play Paradise Lost "To My Dead Mother" and the naked emotionalism of that phrase is almost embarrassing to read.) But I believe that every playwright, no matter how fallen from favor, has some lessons to teach me, and there are very good lessons to be learned from Odets as well. Here are some:
  • It's OK to take the play in a different direction from what the audience expects. Odets' style was "lyrical realism," so it's not like he goes spinning off on really wild tangents, but all the same, he's willing to frustrate your expectations. Here's an example from Awake and Sing. At the end of Act I, the daughter, Hennie, has just told her parents that she is pregnant from a one-night stand. Her parents persuade her that she should marry an immigrant named Sam Feinschreiber ASAP, and pretend that the baby is his. Hennie doesn't love Sam, but she assents. Meanwhile, Hennie has a love-hate relationship with a guy named Moe Axelrod (he's crazy about her; she loves him but is too proud to admit it because he broke her heart once, and he's too proud to apologize) and at the end of Act I, Moe offers to marry Hennie himself. I predicted that the next scene would take place a few days later, showing Moe courting Hennie and trying to wear down her resistance. But when the curtain rises on Act II, it's a year later; Hennie is a mother and married to Sam. The story of Moe and Hennie isn't over yet, but this certainly throws an unexpected--and big--obstacle in their path!

  • Another example of confounding the audience's expectations comes in Act III of Awake and Sing. The grandfather has died and there's a lot of business about who will get the insurance money--he left it to his grandson Ralph, but other family members want it for themselves. And the audience wants to see Ralph triumph. But Ralph doesn't fight for his share of the money; instead, he makes a speech to the effect of "The money doesn't matter, let them have it--what matters is the spiritual legacy that Grandpa left us." On the one hand, this is blatant Odetsian message-mongering. On the other hand, when so many plays are about Who Will Get The Money, it's nice to have a playwright say "Who cares who gets the money?"

  • Music is a part of drama. I'm not talking about "musical theater," but the use of music to enhance a scene. "Melodrama," in the original, literal sense. At the end of Act II of Awake and Sing, Odets has Moe Axelrod sing to himself and play cards while other dialogue takes place, and this ratchets up the tension. (An old trick, but a good one.) Similarly, in Paradise Lost, the character of Pearl Gordon is mainly there to play a piano from the next room so its music can underscore the scenes. (Just like how in Uncle Vanya, the character of "Waffles" Telegin is mainly there to play a guitar and enhance the melancholy mood.) It's a pretty bum deal for the actress playing Pearl, but a good deal for the audience.

  • Related to this: classical music is not pretentious. The grandfather in Awake and Sing loves Caruso; Joe Bonaparte, in Golden Boy, is torn about whether to become a violinist or a boxer. At a time when people are always claiming that classical music is an elitist endeavor, it is nice to recall that 75 years ago, classical music was not thought of this way--and it could fit right into a populist melodrama about lower-class people, representing the universal yearning for art and beauty.

  • ?..., ????!!, and .... are all perfectly valid lines of dialogue. This is one of my favorite Odets-isms, something he started doing in Paradise Lost. Occasionally, instead of writing a line of dialogue like "What do you mean...?" or writing a stage direction like "She looks at him questioningly," he'll just convey it with symbols: "?..." I've seen this kind of thing in the work of more experimental, more modern playwrights like Suzan-Lori Parks, but I wasn't expecting it in the work of a dramatist from the 1930s. For use in those pesky moments of a script where you don't want your characters to say anything, but information needs to be conveyed, all the same.
I may be able to add some more items to this list in a couple of weeks, when I go see a staged Odets play for the first time--Awake and Sing at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley!

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