This Day in Jewish History

1935: Awake and Sing!, Featuring Unhappy Jews, Premieres in New York

And thus Clifford Odets, out of nowhere, became at age 29 the great hope of American theater.

Publicity portrait of Clifford Odets, 1936
Wikimedia Commons

On February 19, 1935, “Awake and Sing!” by Clifford Odets had its world premiere, at New York’s Belasco Theater. Coming in wake of the 29-year-old playwright’s surprising one-act hit of a month earlier, “Waiting for Lefty,” suddenly, Odets was the American theater's great hope.

“Awake and Sing!” may have been the first Broadway play to revolve around a Jewish family, the Bergers, three generations of which share a house and a desperate existence in a Depression-era Bronx.

The Bergers definitely constitute a uniquely unhappy family, and they speak the poetic, nave dialect of first-generation, working-class Jews that gave Odets' plays their music.

Drawing from unhappy experience

Odets drew from his own miserable family life in writing the play. He was born in Philadelphia on July 18, 1906. At age 6, he moved with his family to the Bronx, New York, where his father, Louis Odets (born Gorodetsky), worked as a printer.

The Russian-born Lou was loathed and feared by his son, who nonetheless couldn't stop trying to please him, an impossible task.

Clifford’s mother was the former Pearl Geisinger, a Romanian-born, perpetually unsatisfied woman who was remembered by her first child as being incapable of offering him consolation – ever. In a 2006 essay in The New Yorker, John Lahr quoted the playwright as writing, “Any autumn will come, and dusk, and when I am one hundred and one, my heart will hurt that when the streets were cold and dark that, entering the house, my mother did not take me in her arms.”

Clifford left high school before graduation in order to act, and until Harold Clurman convinced him that he might be better suited for writing plays than appearing in them, he had bit parts in dozens of different productions, on stage and on radio.

Awake and Sing!, by Clifford Odets (1972) YouTube

An encounter with Cheryl Crawford, one of the founding triumvirate  – with Clurman and Lee Strasberg – of the avant-garde Group Theater, led to an invitation in 1931 to join the company. Once he saw, however, that he was destined to be a perpetual understudy, he took up Clurman's suggestion, and he began writing. There was a period when he lived in an apartment so cramped that he had to keep the typewriter on his lap while he wrote.

'We don’t like your play'

Odets began work on “Awake and Sing!,” originally called “I Got the Blues,” in 1932. Colleagues who read it as a work-in-progress, or when the company staged its second act in rehearsal, responded warmly to it. However, Strasberg, the acting guru, did not (he and Odets famously loathed one another): In front of the company, he told the author, “You don’t seem to understand, Clifford. We don’t like your play.”

It wasn’t until the unexpected success of “Waiting for Lefty” that the decision not to stage it was reversed.

1935 turned out to be Odets’ annus mirabilis, with the Group Theater premiering four of his works (the other two being "Till the Day I Die" and "Paradise Lost"). "Awake and Sing!" was the masterpiece, and although its original engagement ran for only 184 performances, it is still revived frequently, in New York and around the world.

When Odets did head west to Hollywood, his goal was to make quick money to help the Group Theater remain afloat. He ended up staying for most of the next 30 years, writing, or more often rewriting, screenplays, and being a single parent to his two children, one of whom had serious developmental problems, after the death of his second wife. 

But he was seen as a sellout -- and as far worse, after he appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in 1952, giving up names of people who had already been denounced by Elia Kazan. Old friends shunned him, and he remained tormented over the morality of his actions.

He continued writing, mainly for the movies (Odets did the brilliant rewrite of Ernst Lehman's first draft for "The Sweet Smell of Success") and later for television, and he remained in Los Angeles, with his children. It was there, in July 1963, that he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He died on August 14, at age 57.