Waiting for Lefty
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Waiting for Lefty is a 1935 play by the American playwright Clifford Odets. Consisting of a series of related vignettes, the entire play is framed by the meeting of cab drivers who are planning a labor strike. The framing uses the audience as part of the meeting.
While this was not Odets' first play, this was the first to be produced. It was staged by the Group Theatre, a New York City theatre company founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, of which Odets was a member. The company was founded as a training ground for actors, and also to support new plays, especially those that mirrored the social and political climate of the day. Waiting for Lefty was the first real critical and popular success for the Group Theatre, appearing on Broadway as well as in cities around the United States. It had its British premiere in 1938 at the Unity Theatre, whose production so impressed a visiting contingent of the American Group Theatre that Unity Theatre was given the British rights to the play.
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The play is composed of seven different vignettes separated by blackouts. As the play opens, several taxi drivers sit in a semicircle. To one side stands a gunman. A large man and union leader, Harry Fatt, tells the men that a strike is not a good idea. Questions come from the crowd as to the whereabouts of Lefty, their elected chairman. Fatt reminds them they already have their elected committee present. He lets Joe, one of the workers, speak. Joe maintains he is not a "red boy", citing his status as a wounded war veteran, and discusses how if a worker expresses dissatisfaction, the union leaders label him a "red" (slang for communist). He says his wife convinced him last week to strike for higher wages.
In the first vignette, set a week before the union meeting, Joe comes home from work to find that the furniture, not yet paid for, was repossessed. Joe's wife Edna urges him to lead a strike and demand a living wage. Joe argues that strikes do not work and that he would lose money while on strike. Edna criticizes the union as only benefitting its bosses. Joe admits that they are "racketeers" but refuses to stand up to them. Edna announces she is going back to her old boyfriend, since he earns a living. Joe protests, and Edna passionately implores Joe to start a workers' union without the racketeers. Joe, swept up in her passion, tells her he is going to find Lefty Costello. Edna cheers him on.
The next vignette features Fayette, an industrialist, and Miller, a lab assistant. Fayette announces that he is raising Miller's salary as a reward for his loyalty, and that tomorrow Miller will be moved to a new laboratory where he will work under an important chemist, Dr. Brenner. Miller is pleased, and accepts Fayette's condition that Miller sleep and eat in the office for the duration of the new project. When Fayette reveals that the goal is create poisonous gas for chemical warfare, Miller loses enthusiasm. Fayette believes that the world is on the brink of war, and that the U.S. needs to be ready. Miller grows distraught, reminiscing about his brother who died in the previous war. Fayette expects Miller to provide a weekly confidential report on Dr. Brenner. Miller refuses to do any "spying", even after Fayette offers a higher salary, and says he would rather lose his job than agree to such terms. Miller's outrage grows and he punches Fayette in the mouth.
In the third vignette, Florence tells her brother Irv that she needs "something out of life", and that Sid, who is going to take her to a dance, provides that. Irv warns her that both he and their mother disapprove of Sid since he makes little money as a taxi driver. Florence insists she loves Sid, and that she works hard to take care of their sick mother. Finally she buckles and says she'll talk to Sid tonight. Sid comes in, and Irv leaves. Sid says he knows he is like "rat poison" to her family. He says he can tell what she is thinking — that she does not want to marry him anymore. He laments their lowly status as "dogs" in life under the thumb of the powerful "big shot money men". He is upset that his brother, a college boy, has swallowed the "money men"'s propaganda and joined the navy to fight foreigners who are, ultimately, just like himself. Florence says she will follow Sid anywhere, but he tells her to be realistic. He turns on a record player and they dance until the music ends.
Fatt tells the taxi drivers that they have not investigated the strike issue as he has; he brings up Tom Clayton, who was in an unsuccessful strike in Philadelphia. Clayton says that his experience has taught him that Fatt is right this time. A man in the audience runs up on stage and says that Clayton's real name is Clancy, and that he is a "rat", a company spy who has been breaking up unions in various fields for years. Clayton keeps denying it, but the man says he knows it is true because Clayton is his brother. He tells Clayton to leave, and he does. The man is skeptical of Fatt's ignorance of Clayton's true identity.
The elderly Dr. Barnes angrily talks into a phone, upset that he has to deliver some bad news to Dr. Benjamin on an issue he opposed. Dr. Benjamin joins him. Benjamin is upset that he has been replaced for surgery on a poor woman in critical condition in the charity ward by an incompetent doctor named Leeds, the nephew of a senator. Barnes tells him that the hospital is shuttering the charity ward because it is rapidly losing money. Furthermore, they are firing some staff members, including Benjamin. Though Benjamin has seniority, he is losing his job because he is Jewish. Barnes takes a phone call and learns that the woman operated on has died. Benjamin throws down his operation gloves, and Barnes praises his idealism. Benjamin says he was not fully convinced of the ideas of radicals until now. He decides he has to work on America, and possibly get a job such as driving a taxi to allow him to keep studying. He vows to fight, though it may mean death.
A man named Agate talks to the taxi drivers, first insulting their lack of strength, then insulting Fatt. Fatt and the gunman try to detain him, but he gets away with the help of the committee men. Agate proclaims that if "we're reds because we wanna strike, then we take over their salute too!" He makes a Communist salute. While the committee men join in or take over part of his speech, Agate incites the taxi drivers with fiery rhetoric about the rich killing them off. He tells them to "unite and fight!" He says the "reds" have helped him in the past. He tells them not to wait for Lefty, who may never arrive. A man runs into the house and says they just found Lefty, shot dead. Agate yells to his fellow union men, "Hello America! Hello. We're storm birds of the working-class. Workers of the world.... Our Bones and Blood!" and urges them to die to "make a new world." He leads them in a chorus of "Strike!"
Production and reception
Published in the New Theatre with the subtitle "A Play in Six Scenes, Based on the New York City Taxi Strike of February 1934", the play is in fact only loosely related to that specific event. Odets himself said "But it is just something I kind of made up...I didn't know anything about a taxicab strike...I have never been near a strike in my life." Instead of trying to create a historical account, Odets used the strike as a way to attack what he saw as the larger issue: that in the middle of the Great Depression the capitalist structures of the time had remained unaltered.
Performed on a bare stage, actors planted in the audience reacted to key moments or speeches. The characters often directly addressed the audience, in an effort to break the fourth wall and incite the viewer to action. In each scene the other characters continued to be dimly present in a circle around the current characters, illustrating their effect on the events of the events unfolding before them. Odets claimed that he took this form from minstrel shows, but critics suggest it is more likely that Odets was inspired by agitprop productions which were gaining popularity in the early 1930s.
Those involved with and in attendance of the initial production of Waiting for Lefty agree that it had a dramatic impact on the audience. Harold Clurman, co-founder of the Group Theatre said of the performance:
The first scene of "[Waiting for] Lefty" had not played two minutes when a shock of delighted recognition struck the audience like a tidal wave. Deep laughter, hot assent, a kind of joyous fervor seemed to sweep the audience toward the stage. The actors no longer performed, they were being carried along as if by an exultancy of communication such as I had never witnessed in the theater before. Audience and actors had become one ...
While the energy of the performance greatly stimulated the audience, the archetypal characters and the obvious socialist leanings were a source of criticism for many writers, including Joseph Wood Krutch who wrote:
The villains are mere caricatures and even the very human heros occasionally freeze into stained-glass attitudes, as, for example, a certain lady secretary in one of the flashbacks does when she suddenly stops in her tracks to pay tribute to "The Communist Manifesto" and to urge its perusal upon all and sundry. No one, however, expects subtleties from a soap-box, and the interesting fact is that Mr. Odets has invented a form which turns out to be a very effective dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory.
Following the initial run, both the play and Odets' popularity greatly increased, with hundreds of theatre groups requesting the rights to perform the piece. The play resonated with both the general public and the artistic community, and its simple staging allowed it to become a popular production for union halls and small theatres across the country. Such was Odets' fame that his next play, Awake and Sing!, was billed as a piece by the author of Waiting for Lefty, even though it had been written first.
The play was shown for the first time in London for over thirty years at the White Bear Theatre in February and March 2013.
- Weales, Gerald (1991), "Waiting for Lefty", in Miller, Gabriel, Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, G.K. Hall & Co., ISBN 0-8161-7300-1
- Herr, Christopher J. (2003), Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre, Praeger Publishers, ISBN 0-313-31594-9
- Brenman-Gibson, Margaret (2002), Clifford Odets: American playwright : the years from 1906 to 1940, Applause theatre & Cinema Books
- Krutch, Joseph Wood (1991), "Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die", in Miller, Gabriel, Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, G.K. Hall & Co., ISBN 0-8161-7300-1
- Mendelsohn, Michael J. (1969), Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist, Everett/Edwards Inc.
Voelker, Selena. The Power of Art and the Fear of Labor: Seattle’s Production of Waiting for Lefty in 1936, Great Depression in Washington State Project.