By the 1930s, Clifford Odets (1906-63) was seen as a possible successor to the great American dramatist Eugene O'Neill. In 1936 the Nobel Prize for literature went to O'Neill, after which his presence in theater grew scarce. "The Iceman Cometh" showed up in the 1940s, and the great "Long Day's Journey Into Night" was first performed in 1956 three years after his death. Right around the time of O'Neill's withdrawal, Odets was coming through the door in a big way.
In 1935 he had four plays running. They were important plays, and they spoke directly to the times in a way O'Neill's did not. Odets was young, still in his 20s, but by virtue of this quite spectacular year he was established as the star writer for the Group Theatre, arguably the most influential collaboration in American theater. The play that galvanized his reputation was a one-act labor play, "Waiting for Lefty." In the same year were "Til the Day I Die," "Paradise Lost" and, most of all, "Awake and Sing!"
These were dark times. O'Neill was preoccupied with the soul's dark corners, but for young writers like Odets the Great Depression was the backdrop against which they felt they must write. "Waiting for Lefty" was unabashedly left-wing, and "Awake and Sing!" -- the title derives from the Bible's Isaiah, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust" -- was a gritty account of life in a working-class immigrant family. Odets was from a family of New York Jewish immigrants.
Earlier, Elmer Rice had written "The Adding Machine" in 1923, "Street Scene" in 1929 and "Counsellor-at-Law" in 1931. (John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl novel "The Grapes of Wrath," was in 1939, and even Ernest Hemingway directed his attention to the effects of economic vicissitudes in "To Have and Have Not" in 1937.)
"Awake and Sing!" will be performed at the Kavinoky Theatre starting Jan. 8, and a week later on Jan. 15 the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre begins performing "A Taste of Honey" by Shelagh Delaney.
Delaney's play is from 1958, Britain. She wrote it when she was 17. If it isn't autobiographical, it is close enough. Like Odets' "Awake and Sing!" it reports from experience. The script fell into the hands of Joan Littlewood, an important figure in left-wing British theater, who worked on it in her theater workshop. It created a stir when it was presented to the public by which time Delaney was still only 19. "A Taste of Honey" was made into a fine movie soon after.
Class differences in Britain are taken for granted. They are much more out in the open than here. World War II separated the grim misfortunes of the 1930s from the comparatively prosperous 1950s. The war had done wonders for the U.S. economy, but Britain's recovery was more difficult and prolonged, as was its experience with the war itself. A postwar era of playwriting was defined by John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" (1956). Osborne was out of a middle-class background, but, the tooth of class being very sharp in Britain, he pulled few punches. Arnold Wesker, like Odets out of a poor Jewish background, was writing furiously. Allan Sillitoe was writing working-class novels and his "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" was made into a fine film in 1961.
Delaney's play is about life even further down the social scale. People in her play are from the almost-working class or seldom-working class. The play was remarkable for its blunt truthfulness. There is a mother, Helen, and her adolescent daughter, Josephine. Mother is an habitue of pubs, and less kindly, an occasional prostitute. She drags her out-of-wedlock daughter from one dreary, ugly, dirty apartment to another. Food and heat occupy their minds. They possess a combative sense of humor that keeps them going.
Delaney's play was written 40 years ago, but as the problems and circumstances of the life she describes never seem to change, it is completely up-to-date. Daughter Jo gets pregnant by a charming black sailor who sails away. Mother Helen takes another stab at marriage, doomed from the start in everyone's eyes but her own. She drops out of Jo's life, a vacancy soon filled by Geoffrey, an art student, generous friend, and gay. Let's see, we have then a feckless, neglectful mom, teen-age pregnancy, gay/straight, black/white, addiction (Helen never met a drink she didn't like) and the ever-present dead weight of the poor dragging society down. Sounds like a conservative think tank's laundry list of liberal blame.
Within both "A Taste of Honey" and "Awake and Sing!" is a single primitive motive force: escape. But to where? In Delaney's play any chance of extricating oneself remains minuscule because the circumstances effectively block all routes out, also because they work to domesticate desire itself, transforming it into empty gestures. Mom talks marriage, but it's to a drunken bar mate. Daughter seeks love, but the lover is a roamer. People in both plays look for what philosophers, the late Isaiah Berlin for example, call the freedom to choose, rather than be chosen for. What they get is a desperate scramble. They can only dream of the freedom from unintended choices -- the kind that fall under the formula, "There was no other choice, I had do it." Slivers of choice, hemmed in and under constant threat, figure as the core of these stories.
It is the Berger family in "Awake and Sing!" and specifically the son, Ralph, and the daughter, Hennie, who harbor aspirations long ago squashed in other family members by the passage of time and proximity to poverty. The spiritual center of the play is the grandfather, Jacob, from the old country. He sees things in the large and keeps after Ralph with the thought that there is something better than life "printed on dollar bills."
This was the 1930s and this was Odets' way of saying that the crude materialism and greed that brought the glittering 1920s to a crashing halt was to be deplored. Reckless materialism has resurfaced again, of course, as the featured mantra of the 1990s economy, going to show that Odets' play is more timeless than we may have thought.
Odets' career spiraled upward, out of theater. A not entirely fair judgment is that his life began to be "printed on dollar bills." He took Hollywood money and his output diminished. He wrote other successful pieces for theater and movies, and for a time maintained his connection with the Group Theatre, but nothing surpassed the raw power and honesty of his early work, namely "Waiting for Lefty" and "Awake and Sing!"
Delaney, a celebrated teen-ager, wrote a little more for theater, then TV and film scripts, but began concentrating on writing novels.
For the Kavinoky at D'Youville College, Thomas Martin directs the Odets play. Saul Elkin plays the grandfather, Jacob, Katie White is Hennie, Christopher Kelly is Ralph, Bess Brown Kregal plays the mother, and other key roles are played by Richard Wesp, Jack Hunter, Gerry Maher, Michael Karr and Jesse Abel. Performances begin Jan. 8 and continue through Feb. 8. A preview performance has been scheduled for Jan. 7 at 8 p.m., at reduced prices, to benefit the David Fendrick Memorial Theatre Fund.
Richard Lambert directs "A Taste of Honey" for the Buffalo Ensemble Theatre. Pamela Rose Mangus plays Helen, Amybeth Whissel is her daughter Jo, Jonathan K. Lee is the sailor, David Butler is Jo's gay friend, and Scott Stambach plays the mother's lover. Performances begin Jan. 15 in the New Phoenix Theatre, 95 N. Johnson Park, and continue through Feb. 8.