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.
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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 raises Miller's salary as a reward for his loyalty, and reassigns him to a new laboratory where, it is revealed, Miller will be helping to create poisonous gas for chemical warfare. Miller loses enthusiasm, but Fayette believes the world is on the brink of war, and that the U.S. must 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 the project's leader Dr. Brenner. Miller refuses to do any "spying", insisting 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 her boyfriend Sid 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, but then buckles and says she'll talk to Sid tonight. Sid enters and Irv exits. Sid says he knows he is like "rat poison" to her family and knows that she is reconsidering whether she wants to marry him. 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.
Still trying to dissuade the taxi drivers from striking, Fatts 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 on stage and outs Clayton as a company spy who has been breaking up unions in various fields for years. The man says he knows the truth because Clayton is his brother. Clayton leaves and the man voices skepticism of Fatt's supposed ignorance of Clayton's true identity.
The next vignette is set at the hospital office of the elderly Dr. Barnes. The younger Dr. Benjamin enters, upset that he has been replaced for surgery on a woman in the charity ward by an incompetent doctor named Leeds, the nephew of a senator. Barnes reveals 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 has died during surgery. Benjamin throws down his operation gloves, saying he was not fully convinced of the ideas of radicals until now, and vows to fight on even if it means death.
A man named Agate talks to the taxi drivers, insulting their weakness and insulting Fatt. Fatt and the gunman try to detain him, but he eludes them. Agate proclaims that if "we're reds because we wanna strike, then we take over their salute too!" He makes a Communist salute. Agate incites the drivers with fiery rhetoric about the rich killing them off. He tells them to "unite and fight!" and 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, "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!"
The play's strike and union meeting scenes were inspired by a forty-day 1934 strike of New York City cab drivers, and the play was published in New Theatre magazine with the subtitle "A Play in Six Scenes, Based on the New York City Taxi Strike of February 1934." The real-life strike was led by Samuel Orner, after he was fired for failing to make enough money for the cab company on a particular night shift. According to Orner, Odets based the meeting scene on a real meeting in the Bronx where Orner addressed his fellow cab drivers: "He must have taken notes because so many lines in Waiting For Lefty were the same as in the meeting, almost word for word." While the Lefty character is found dead at the end, Orner was found drugged and unconscious, but was roused and taken to the meeting where he rallied the drivers to reject the owners' contract offer.
Odets later distanced himself from the real-life strike, and denied a connection in his testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee. According to Odets, "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." According to historian Christopher Herr, rather than 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.
Productions and reception
Odets' stage directions call for the play to be performed on a bare stage, with actors planted in the audience who react to key moments. The characters often directly address the audience, in an effort to break the fourth wall and incite the viewer to action. In each scene the other characters continue 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.
Waiting For Lefty premiered in January, 1935 at a benefit for New Theater magazine. The play cost about eight dollars to produce.:315 It had a dramatic impact on the audience and was met with great acclaim; the cast that night took 28 curtain calls. Harold Clurman 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.
The play opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theater on March 26, 1935 and continued for 144 performances. It was directed by Odets and Sanford Meisner and its cast included Odets, Meisner, Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb. It then moved to the Belasco Theater in September of that year for 24 performances in repertoire with Awake and Sing!, where its cast included Luther Adler.
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.
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.
The play was shown for the first time in London for over thirty years at the White Bear Theatre in February and March 2013.
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- Cosgrove, Stuart (September 15, 2016). Routledge Revivals: Theatres of the Left 1880-1935 (1985). Routledge. Retrieved 25 March 2017.
- Shteir, Rachel (April 27, 1997). "Championing Odets, Unfashionable as That Is". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 March 2017.
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- "SAMUEL ORNER DIES; INSPIRED ‘LEFTY’ PLAY". The New York Times. September 4, 1973. Retrieved 25 March 2017.
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- Herr, Christopher J. (2003), Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre, Praeger Publishers, ISBN 0-313-31594-9
- 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
- "Waiting For Lefty". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 25 March 2017.
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- 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.