Waiting for Lefty
|Waiting for Lefty|
|Written by||Clifford Odets|
|Date premiered||January 6, 1935|
|Place premiered||Civic Repertory Theatre, New York City|
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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 the first play Odets wrote, this was his 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.
The play is composed of seven vignettes. The first takes place at a union meeting of taxi drivers, where union boss Harry Fatt tries dissuading the men from striking. A few drivers ask of the whereabouts of Lefty, their elected chairman. Fatt reminds them their elected committee is already present, then lets Joe, one of the drivers, speak. Joe maintains he is not a "red boy", citing his status as a wounded war veteran, but complains of how any driver who expresses dissatisfaction with working conditions is labelled a "red" (slang for communist) by the bosses. He says his wife has convinced him to strike for higher wages.
In the second vignette, set a week before the union meeting, Joe comes home 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 the union bosses 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 implores Joe to start a workers' union without the racketeers. Joe, swept up by her passion, tells her he is going to find Lefty Costello.
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 Miller will help 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 fourth vignette, Florence tells her brother Irv that she loves her boyfriend Sid. Irv urges her to break up with Sid, since he earns too little money as a taxi driver. Sid enters and Irv exits. Sid says he knows he is like "rat poison" to her family and knows that she is reconsidering whether to marry him. He laments their lowly status as "dogs" under the thumb of powerful rich 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.
Back at the union meeting, Fatt brings up Tom Clayton, who took part in an unsuccessful strike in Philadelphia. Clayton says that his experience taught him that Fatt is right. Clayton's brother then runs on stage and outs Clayton as a company spy who has been breaking up various unions for years. Clayton leaves and his brother voices skepticism of Fatt's supposed ignorance of Clayton's true identity.
The next vignette occurs in the hospital office of the elderly Dr. Barnes. The younger Dr. Benjamin enters, upset that he has been replaced for surgery on a patient 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 losing money. Furthermore, they are firing some staff, including Benjamin. Though Benjamin has seniority, he is being fired because he is Jewish. Barnes takes a phone call and learns that the patient has died in surgery. Benjamin grows furious, saying he was skeptical of the ideas of radicals until now, and vowing 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 his armed guard try to detain him, but Agate 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 in and reports that Lefty has just been found, shot dead. Agate yells to his fellow union men, "Workers of the world... Our Bones and Blood!" and 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 January 6, 1935, for an audience of 1,400 at the Civic Repertory Theatre, 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.
Only one Broadway reviewer happened to be present at the premiere—Henry Senber, second-string drama critic for The Morning Telegraph. He wrote Odets' first Broadway review. "One left the theatre Sunday evening with two convictions," Senber wrote. "The first was that one had witnessed an event of historical importance in what is academically referred to as the drama of the contemporary American scene. The other was that a dramatist to be reckoned with had been discovered." He concluded, "It has not been announced just where and when Waiting for Lefty will be presented again, but you can rest assured that it will be ... soon. A play like this does not die."
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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