The Books: “Waiting for Lefty” (Clifford Odets)

WaitingForLefty.gif Waiting for Lefty was an EXPLOSION, when it first was produced in the 1930s. [That original production is one of my top 10 moments I would LOVE to go back in time and witness, first hand.] It made Clifford Odets a star.

Sure, his plays were relevant to the times, he spoke to the issues of the day, etc. … but to assume that that is the ONLY reason why people responded so strongly to his plays (Shelley Winters and Arthur Miller both said, 50 years later, that they could remember specific blocking from Odets’ plays … productions they had seen half a century earlier. Amazing) is missing the point.

Waiting for Lefty begins in the middle of a scene, and not only does it begin in the “middle” of something: it begins in the middle of an argument. That was just NOT done, at that point.

You, as the audience, are thrown into the situation – like an eavesdropper – and you have to play catch up.

The first line of Waiting for Lefty is “You’re so wrong I ain’t laughing.” I bet most actors know this line by heart … it changed American theatre and its impact can’t be ignored. Look how Odets tosses you right into the middle of the action, the argument has been going on before the curtain came up … this was revolutionary. There was a sense that there was life OUTSIDE the constraints of the script. We are only seeing a glimpse of it all. “You’re so wrong I ain’t laughing.”

In the context of those days, the early 30s, if you look at what was on Broadway at the time – Philiip Barry comedies, Moss Hart … all wonderful playwrights, very very skilled – but they were upperclass drawing-room comedies, essentially.

Odets changed that. Odets paved the way for Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams – two playwrights who listed him as their primary influence.

Here’s Harold Clurman on the language of Odets:

It is an ungrammatical jargon — and constantly lyric. It is composed of words heard on the street, in drugstores, bars, sports arenas, and rough restaurants. (Odets used to cut out newspaper photos of faces to help him flesh the characters who might speak his language.) It is the speech of New York: half-educated Jews, Italians, Irish, transformed into something new-minted, individual, and unique. Above all it makes for crackling theatre dialogue — ask the actors! His dialogue is moving, even thrilling, and very often hilarious. It is not “English”; in a sense it is not “realistic” at all. It is “Odets”; and also incontrovertibly ours in unguarded moments. Listen: “That sort of life [the good life] ain’t for the dogs which is us. Christ, Baby! I got like thunder in my chest when we’re together. God damnit, it’s trying to be a man on the earth.” “The Clancy family is growing nuts.” “You’re so wrong I ain’t laughing.” “The big-shot money men want us like that … highly insulting us –” “I’m piling up a fortune. Why? To be the richest man in the cemetery?”

This language calls attention to itself. It was different than anything being heard at that time, anywhere. It was a huge attention-getter – but it wasn’t a gimmick. Odets would hold a tape recorder under the table, as his raucous immigrant family (all living on the lower East Side in Manhattan) would argue and talk and laugh. Then Odets would play the tape for The Group Theatre (the theatre company he wrote for), saying: “LISTEN to them! The way I write isn’t an exaggeration. People really talk like this, and that’s how you have to talk in my plays.”

Oops one last thing: Harold Clurman wrote about Odets:

Odets wrote some of the finest love scenes to be found in American drama. An all-enveloping warmth, love in its broadest sense, is a constant in all Odets’ writing, the very root of his talent. IT is there in tumultuous harangues, in his denunciations and his murmurs. It is by turns hot and tender. Sometimes it sounds in whimpers. It is present as much in the scenes between grandfather and granson in Awake as in those of Joe and Lorna in Golden Boy. It is touchingly wry in Rocket. This explains why these scenes are chosen by so many actors for auditions and classwork.

The scene snippet I’m posting today shows some of what Clurman talks about. Actors love to work on Odets, because he’s so rich, so multilayered. In one scene alone, you can go from rage to tears, you can have warmth, with a sudden argument … just like happens in real life.

Anyway. Here’s a bit from one of the scenes from Waiting for Lefty. It’s the scene between the young taxi driver and his girl. They’re broke, it’s the Depression, the taxi drivers are considering striking, it’s a very tense situation, the “young hack” wants to make a good life for his girl, they both feel stuck, looking for a way out …

EXCERPT FROM Waiting for Lefty, by Clifford Odets:

SID. You and me — we never even had a room to sit in somewhere.

FLOR. The park was nice …

SID. In winter? The hallways … I’m glad we never got together. This way we don’t know what we missed.

FLOR. [in a burst] Sid, I’ll go with you — we’ll get a room somewhere.

SID. Naw … they’re right. If we can’t climb higher than this together — we better stay apart.

FLOR. I swear to God I wouldn’t care.

SID. You would, you would — in a year, two years, you’d curse the day. I seen it happen.

FLOR. Oh, Sid …

SID. Sure, I know. We got the blues, Babe — the 1935 blues. I’m talkin’ this way ’cause I love you. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t care …

FLOR. We’ll work together, we’ll —

SID. How about the backwash? Your family needs your nine bucks. My family —

FLOR. I don’t care for them!

SID. You’re making it up, Florrie. Little Florrie Canary in a cage.

FLOR. Don’t make fun of me.

SID. I’m not, Baby.

FLOR. Yes, you’re laughing at me.

SID. I’m not. [They stand looking at each other, unable to speak. Finally, he turns to a small portable phonograph and plays a cheap, sad, dance tune. He makes a motion with his hand; she comes to him. They begin to dance slowly. They hold each other tightly, almost as though they would merge into each other. The music stops, but the scratching record continues to the end of the scene. They stop dancing. He finally looses her clutch and seats her on the couch, where she sits, tense and expectant.]

SID. Hello, Babe.

FLOR. Hello. [For a brief time they stand as though in a dream.]

SID. [finally]: Good-bye, Babe. [He waits for an answer, but she is silent. They look at each other.]

SID. Did you ever see my Pat Rooney imitation? [He whistles Rosy O’Grady and soft-shoes to it. Stops. He asks:]

SID. Don’t you like it?

FLOR. No. [Buries her face in her hands. Suddenly he falls on his knees and buries his face in her lap.]


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