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Clifford Odets

Clifford Odets photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1937
Born July 18, 1906(1906-07-18)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died August 18, 1963 (aged 57)
Los Angeles, California
Spouse(s) Luise Rainer (1937-1940)
Bette Grayson (m.1943)

Clifford Odets (July 18, 1906 – August 18, 1963) was an American playwright, screenwriter, socialist, and social protester.


Early life

Odets was born in Philadelphia of immigrant parents, Lou Odets (born Gorodetsky) and Esther Geisinger, and raised in the Bronx, New York. He dropped out of high school to pursue acting. He helped found the Group Theatre, a highly influential theatre company in the U.S. that utilized a new acting technique, closely associated with the thinking of the Russian master Constantin Stanislavski.


After briefly trying acting, Odets decided to become the Group Theatre's first original playwright. At the urging of Group co-founder Harold Clurman, he wrote Awake and Sing! in 1935. Although his first play, it is often considered his masterpiece. It follows the story of a large Jewish family in New York.

Mainly due to the misgivings of Group leader Lee Strasberg, Awake and Sing! was not produced right away. Odets's first play to be produced was the one-act Waiting for Lefty. This is a series of interconnected scenes depicting workers for a fictional taxi company. The focus alternates between the drivers' union meeting and vignettes from their difficult, oppressed lives. The climax is a defiant call for the union to strike. The play can be performed in any acting space, including union meeting halls and on the street. The play's wild success brought Odets unexpected fame and fortune. Odets would soon move to Hollywood to begin writing for the screen as well as the stage. His play The Flowering Peach was the preferred choice of the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1955, but under pressure from Joseph Pulitzer Jr., the prize went instead to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which the jury considered the weakest of the five shortlisted nominees.[1]

These plays, along with Odets's other major Group Theatre plays of the 1930s, are harsh criticisms of profiteers and exploitative economic systems during the Great Depression. They have been dismissed by some critics as mere propaganda, but Odets asserted that all of his plays deal with the human spirit persevering in the face of all opponents, whether they be the capitalist class or not. In later years, Odets's plays became more reflective and autobiographical, although class consciousness was ever in the background. The playwright George S. Kaufman gently tweaked him about his innocuous turn: "Odets, where is thy sting?"[2]

In 1952, Odets was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He disavowed his communist affiliations and cooperated by "naming names"; as a result, he did not share the fate of many of his colleagues who were blacklisted. Odets didn’t provide the names of anyone who hadn’t already been mentioned to the committee, but he later expressed guilt and “revulsion” over his testimony. Odets was reportedly tormented by his testimony until his death in 1963, and he wrote relatively little for stage or screen after his 1952 subcommittee appearance.[3]


Odets's dramatic style is distinguished by a kind of poetic, metaphor-laden street talk, by his socialist politics, and by his way of dropping the audience right into the conflict with little or no introduction. Often character is more important than plot, which Odets attributed to the influence of Anton Chekhov. In general, Odets's political statements reflect the Marxism that was common in the 1930s; he often points to the Soviet Union as an example of a perfect socialist state.

Personal life

His first wife was Academy-Award winning actress Luise Rainer; his second wife was actress Bette Grayson, and he also had a relationship with actress Frances Farmer. Grayson's death at 32 left Odets to care for their two children, Nora, born in 1945, and Walt Whitman[1], now a clinical psychologist, author and painter, born in 1947. He was a close friend of Jean Renoir, who was also working in Hollywood during the 1940s. Renoir dedicated an entire chapter of his autobiography to his friendship with Odets[2] including a moving visit to the playwright on his deathbed.

Clifford Odets died of colon cancer at the age of 57 in 1963 and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.



Acted in

  • Midnight - 1930
  • 1931 - 1931
  • Big Night - 1933
  • They All Come to Moscow - 1933
  • Men in White - 1933
  • Gold Eagle Guy - 1934




The Flowering Peach became the basis for the 1970 musical Two by Two. Golden Boy was made into a 1939 film and became the basis for a 1964 musical of the same name. His screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success became the basis for the 2002 musical of the same name.

A (very) loose retelling of Clifford Odets's trouble adapting to writing screenplays in Hollywood is the basis for the 1991 film Barton Fink.

Odets was the subject of a critically acclaimed biography by Margaret Brenman-Gibson, wife of playwright William Gibson: Clifford Odets - American Playwright - The Years from 1906-1940. This was supposed to be a two-volume work, with the second volume to cover the final twenty-three years of Odets's life. However, no second volume was ever published, and Brenman-Gibson died in 2004.

Odets was played by Jeffrey DeMunn in Frances, and by John Heard in the 1983 biography, Will There Be A Morning?, both about Frances Farmer.

External links


  1. ^ Fischer, Heinz-Dietrich & Erika J. Fischer. The Pulitzer Prize Archive: A History and Anthology of Award-Winning Materials in Journalism, Letters, and Arts München: K.G. Saur, 2008. ISBN 3598301707 ISBN 9783598301704 p. 246
  2. ^ Hall, Donald, ed. (1981). The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes. New York: Oxford. p. 304. 
  3. ^ "Waiting for Lefty (Historical Context),


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Clifford Odets (1906-07-181963-08-18) was an American playwright, screenwriter and film director. His plays include Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing! and Golden Boy.


  • I believe in the vast potentialities of mankind. But I see everywhere a wide disparity between what they can be and what they are. That is what I want to say in writing. I want to say the genius of the human race is mongrelized; I want to find out how mankind can be helped out of the animal kingdom into the clear sweet air.
    • Letter to John Mason Brown, 1935; cited from Margaret Brenman-Gibson Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940 (New York: Atheneum, 1981) p. 337.
  • Boychick, wake up! Be something! Make your life something good. For the love of an old man who sees in your young days his new life, for such love take the world in your two hands and make it like new. Go out and fight so life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills.
    • Jacob, in Awake and Sing! (1935), Act I
  • Music is the great cheer-up in the language of all countries.
    • Mr. Bonaparte, in Golden Boy (1937), Act I, sc. ii

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