Clifford Odets hit the American theatre world with a force that can scarcely be described today. Within a short period of time, he went from being a journeyman actor to being the voice of progressivism in the middle of the Depression. Awake and Sing (1935), a portrait of a Jewish family crumbling under the economics of the time, was a huge hit for the Group Theatre. A one-act he wrote about a taxi strike called Waiting for Lefty (also 1935) was performed as a benefit and the reaction was so explosive that the audience jumped to their feet and started chanting “Strike! Strike! Strike!” Lefty was coupled with a new one-act Odets wrote and also was soon playing Broadway. And he followed this with Golden Boy (1937), which was also produced by the Group and was also a huge success.
What was it that particularly knocked audiences and critics out at the time? Aside from connecting with the central themes being argued then, Odets had a talent for taking American speech and heightening it.
Now, to my ear, today a lot of this stuff sounds strained. I hear him working too hard to take slang and colloquialisms and push them into something poetic. Golden Boy is filled with lines that I can see Odets furrowing his brow to manufacture. I don’t believe much of it as the spontaneous utterances of real people. “A man who runs a candy store is an outcast of the world.” “Could the Muses put bread and butter on the table?” “Death is playing with us as a cat and her mouse!” “Truth is cheap. We bought it for two cents.” “Every once in a while he shoots across my quiet existence like a roman candle!”
But, yes, the play still works, particularly as performed under the direction of Bartlett Sher in a production staged for the Lincoln Center Theater Company at the Belasco Theatre. The actors play the strained constructions with a passion and sincerity that dismantles the impulse to laugh.
Golden Boy is about a young man whose love is to play the violin but who has a gift for boxing. These are mutually exclusive. If you do too much damage to other people’s bodies with your fists, you won’t have sufficiently flexible hands to make music of any subtlety or grace. Odets is making a point here about relative values, of course, and indeed, at the time when the play was produced, much of the audience saw this not just as the dilemma of one young man but as the dilemma of much of America. We’re still seeing this contest today—the pursuit of beauty (which often pays little or nothing) versus the pursuit of money (which can brutalize the pursuer). That the contest still has resonance today suggests why the revival of Golden Boy has found such favor with the critics and much of the audience.
Of course, when it opened Golden Boy was a picture of the moment. Today, it is a look into a world that has passed. With stage pictures that summon up images from painters Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton, it has the added benefit of looking exotic and more than a little romantic in an artfully tawdry way.
Though a joke about thieves having stolen an office’s telephones reminds us that the play is based in a pre-cellular phone word, you can’t look at Glengarry Glen Ross and think of it as a picture of a world that has passed, Glengarry is almost thirty years old, but its portrait of desperate men engaging in predatory activity in a shrinking pond can’t help but resonate today.
Part of what interests me in the accident of seeing Golden Boy and Glengarry within a short period of time is the thought that Glengarry’s author, David Mamet, is the current incarnation of Clifford Odets.
Like Odets, Mamet acquired an instant and fervent following who found him to represent a new energy in American playwriting.
He resembles Odets in another way.
Odets pretty much destroyed himself by cooperating with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (commonly known as HUAC) and naming names of people who were subsequently blacklisted. At the end of his life, few of his oldest and dearest friends would speak to him. They felt that it was a particular betrayal for a man who had articulated the progressive cause so dramatically during the thirties to cooperate with the thugs of the fifties.
Mamet too has gone through a public political transfomation.
Mamet didn’t present himself as a particularly political figure when he started writing, though one could read political implications into some of it. I remember telling him I thought American Buffalo was a Watergate play. When he asked me to elaborate, I said that the rationalizations the three hoods in his play came up with to justify a burglary weren’t all that different from the rationalizations we heard for the burglary and coverup on the Watergate recordings, except that the characters in his play hadn’t the education to articulate their reasoning in pseudo-legitimate language so their arguments came out funny. David thought for a second and nodded and said, okay, he’d buy that.
But the old David Mamet didn’t think much of plays that were designed to push a political agenda. He thought their primary purposes were to be engines of delight.
Glengarry seems to be old David Mamet. We are appalled by these driven guys and their explosions of rage and obscenity, but we also find them exhilarating company. You could analyze Glengarry as a critique of capitalism—people on a lower rung competing ruthlessly for rewards of little value while the crooks at the top flourish. But I don’t know many people who choose to analyze it that seriously.
Much of the fun of watching the current production, briskly directed by Dan Sullivan, is watching some high-powered actors do bravura work. Al Pacino is Shelley, the aging salesman alternating between a crippling depression and a manic high. Bobby Cannavale is Ricky, the sharpie who can weave a dazzling rationale for selfishness and irresponsibility. John C. McGinley is Moss, the guy who constructs volcanic arias of rage and paranoia. Richard Schiff is Aranow, the zhlub who has the bad luck to listen to the wrong people. I thought they were all splendid. But since Glengarry is about competition, my favorite is ... Nah, I won’t go there.
Recently I saw a play by the new David Mamet called The Anarchist. In this one, there was little delight to be had, though the actors were the extraordinary team of Patti Lupone and Debra Winger. A woman who was involved with violent radical activities in the sixties is facing another woman who holds the key to her last chance to be paroled from prison. The play is framed as a debate. And the arguments fly fast and furiously. So fast and furiously that I kept losing the thread. Finally, the radical, in making a passionate retort to her interrogator, says something that blows her chance.
And I thought about Glengarry again, and about how the play comes to its end when one of the salesmen, in making a passionate retort, says something that betrays he knows something he shouldn’t. Pretty much the same device for two plays separated by nearly thirty years. It works in Glengarry. In The Anarchist, no so much.
The new David Mamet announced himself a few years back with an essay called, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal.” And with that, his claim that he wasn’t in the playwriting business to push an agenda disappeared. In The Anarchist and Race (a 2009 play set in a law office in which Mamet suggests that sentimentality so clouds the judgment of liberals that they can unwittingly work against the interests of justice), he bangs the drum as loudly for his new belief as Odets did for his old.
Embracing conservatism today is not the same as collaborating with HUAC, of course, but Odets wrote nothing for the stage I much care for (including the often-revived Country Girl) in the wake of his testimony, and, though I enjoyed the first act of Race a great deal, I do miss the guy who wrote Glengarry.