The Books: “Till the Day I Die” (Clifford Odets)

Another entry for my Excerpt a Day:

WaitingForLefty.gif Another Clifford Odets play – Till the Day I Die.

Odets wrote this to be a curtain-opener for Waiting for Lefty (excerpt here). Eventually it got its own production, opening in 1935. It’s an anti-Nazi play, it takes place in 1935 in Berlin, and it’s about the Communist underground fighting back against the Nazis, trying to stop their march to power. It was really the only thing of its kind on Broadway at that time. It’s not my favorite of his plays – maybe because it feels more like propaganda than an actual play … the characters are less important than the GREAT BIG IDEAS being expressed.

But still. The writing is so good that you want to chew on it. You want to say the words. They are meant to be spoken.

Here’s a scene between two members of the Communist underground. Tilly and Carl. Tilly is going out with Ernst – (the lead character and Carl’s brother) – and she has just discovered she’s having a baby. Carl and Tilly huddle in this bunker-like atmosphere, typing out pamphlets. Oh, and Ernst (Tilly’s lover) has, if I recall correctly, been arrested by the S.S. And the Communists believe that he has turned on them, become an informer. So in the scene below when Carl tells her not to name her baby after “him” – that’s what he’s referring to. Even though Ernst is his brother – the ’cause’ is more important. Ernst is now a traitor.

My favorite exchange in the scene below is:

Tilly. He’s your brother!

Carl. That won’t sell a postage stamp.

Oh, and by the way … just take note of Tilly’s small monologue following Carl’s statement: “Nothing is too good for the proletariat”. Read it a couple of times. It can be taken as a literal story, or it can be taken as a metaphor. But Odets, with his playwriting instinct, takes the scene to another place – another level – full of sensory details and personalization – after the propagandistic statement of Carl’s. It’s amazing. Subtle. Odets never gets enough credit for that – for his subtlety.

EXCERPT FROM Till the Day I Die, by Clifford Odets.

[Carl’s room. Only a door set up in center. In darkness we hear two typewriters. When lights fade up we see Carl and Tilly each at a typewriter. Typing. Tilly finally stops.]

TILLY. A few mistakes.

CARL [older]. No matter.

TILLY. My heart hurts. Hurt me all day.

CARL. Take care. Lie down before we go.

TILLY. I can’t rest. [Comes down to him]

TILLY. Carl, I want to ask you — are you ever afraid?

CARL. Sometimes.

TILLY. Now? Tell me the truth.

CARL. Yes, if you want it. The place we’re going to is swarming with S.S. men. We might never come out alive. I’m not so masculine that I won’t admit I’m scared.

TILLY. All day I had this pain under the heart.

CARL. When will the baby be coming?

TILLY. A long time yet.

CARL. [in a low voice] What will you call him?

TILLY. If it’s a girl, I don’t know. If it’s a boy …

CARL. Not his name.

TILLY. [suddenly clutching him] Tell me, how do you know? What makes you so sure?

CARL. There’s proof — plenty!

TILLY. You believe it?

CARL. In the beginning I didn’t. Maybe the brown shirts spread the tales themselves.

TILLY. They’ve done it before.

CARL. I don’t say no. That’s why I didn’t believe a word I heard at first.

TILLY. Now you believe it.

CARL. Yes. Too many reliable comrads have checked on his activity.

TILLY. Maybe he’s drugged. Maybe he walks in his sleep. You know — yes, you know — he would have found some way to do away with himself before he was forced to act as a spy. You know that! You know you do!

CARL. Don’t tear my shirt. [Trying to jest]

TILLY. [persistently] Answer the question!

CARL. [finally, in a burst] Goddamit, I say he’s guilty!

TILLY. If he came here, broken in mind and body, would you refuse to see him? Can you stand there and tell me you wouldn’t even listen to what he has to say?

CARL. To me he has nothing to say!

TILLY. He’s your brother.

CARL. That won’t sell a postage stamp!

TILLY. Suppose he knocks on the door this minute!

CARL. You’re in love.

TILLY. Answer what I ask!

CARL. What makes you think you’re the only one? Maybe I slept better at night the last two months. Maybe I cried myself to sleep some nights. This big blustering idiot wept like a girl. [walks around] Yes, yes, the whole thing funnels up in me like a fever. My head’ll bust a vein!

TILLY. [catching herself] We’re talking too loud.

CARL. [whispering, but with same intense flow] Seeing him at the hospital the last time — the picture follows me like a dog. I’m sick, I tell you I’m sick of the whole damn affair! [sitting] Perhaps we ought to change — do our work apart. This way, this is a secret eating thing between us. Each reminds the other.

TILLY. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. I want to find a glass of milk before we start to work.

CARL. We’ll get some on the corner.

TILLY. The baby has to eat … [He gets her coat. Smiles at its shabbiness]

CARL. Nothing is too good for the proletariat.

TILLY. I had a nice coat once. I had a mother. I had a father. I was a little girl with pigtails and her face scrubbed every morning. I was a good child. I believed in God. In summer I ate mulberries from our own tree. In late summer the ground was rotten where they fell. [Knock at the door] Open the door. Don’t ask who it is. It’s Ernst. I know it is.

CARL. [looks at her, puzzled. Tilly goes to open door. He stops her. Whispering.] Are you crazy?

TILLY. I know it’s him.

CARL. Let the door alone.

VOICE. [outside] Carl …

CARL. [covers door] You can’t let him in.

TILLY. You can’t keep him out. [waits] He’s waiting …

CARL. He’ll go away.

TILLY. Maybe he’s sick.

CARL. And the others in detention camps, they’re not sick?

TILLY. You might be wrong.

CARL. Then better one mistake like this than a thousand arrests and murder.

VOICE. [knocks without] Carl …

TILLY. He won’t leave. [After another knock] Give me the key, Carl. [Carl looks at her. Puts key on table. Walks away. She opens door with it. Opens wide the door. There stands Ernst. Looks terrible. Wears a large velour hat, black, making his face look small. This man, sick, broken, alone, desperate, something of amusement in him too. Has a handful of coins he plays with. Clothes are too big on him. Looks like a ghost.]

ERNST. Tilly …

TILLY. Come in, Ernst.

ERNST. May I …?

TILLY. Come in …

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