The Berger family are on the verge of the middle class and as such are especially vulnerable. To deny the reality of the American dream is ostensibly to condemn themselves to permanent deprivation. The constant image is one of flight, escape. They look to escape the reality of their situation through marriage, through luck, through a desperate commitment to political or social myths, through a sardonic humour, through self-deceit, or even, most desperately, through suicide, albeit a suicide which, like that which was to send Willy Loman to his death in Death of a Salesman, is designed to liberate the next generation.
—C. W. E. Bigsby, “The Group Theatre and Clifford Odets,” in A Critical Introduction to American Drama, Volume 1: 1900–1940
There can be stability and safety in constriction, as the sweet round of life that defines the existence of the small-town families in Our Town demonstrates. Thornton Wilder’s characters may catch tantalizing glimpses of a world out-side Grover’s Corners, but they do not seek liberation from the unchanging universe they inhabit. Their immovability is their strength. Although written in the same decade as Our Town, Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! stands in stark social contrast to Wilder’s lyrical evocation of small-town America. Odets’s struggling urban Jewish Berger family has risen from immigrant poverty to a working-class plateau in the midst of the Great Depression, where the prevailing reality is emotional, economic, and cultural stagnation and dis-location. Through the Bergers Odets spoke to the need for Americans in the 1930s to escape from economic deprivation and to break free from idealized political and social solutions and stultifying and volcanic family relationships to move up toward a more stable place in society.
Odets once wrote in the New York World-Telegram, “Understand that I am supposed to confess how I came to write ‘Awake and Sing!’ I was sore; that’s why I wrote the play. I was sore at my whole life.” Odets, an unhappy and marginally talented actor before he became a playwright and the new voice of social drama in the 1930s, claimed that he had attempted suicide three times before the age of 25. Certainly his early life and career were marked by struggle. The oldest of three children, Odets was born in 1906 in Philadelphia, where his father, Louis, a Russian Jewish immigrant, held down jobs selling newspapers and peddling salt, and his mother, Pearl, worked in a factory. When Odets was six the family moved to the Bronx. There Louis Odets worked his way up from a job as a feeder in a printing plant to owner of the company. The family later resettled in Philadelphia, where Odets’s father became vice president of a boiler company and owned an advertising agency. Despite his family’s rise from the working class to the prosperous middle class, Odets described himself as a “melancholy kid.” He had a difficult relationship with his father, who wanted him to enter his advertising business rather than pursue his intention to become an actor. Odets dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and tried his skill at poetry, further angering his father, who smashed his son’s typewriter. Louis Odets eventually replaced the machine and gave his permission for Clifford to attempt an acting career.
During the late 1920s Odets acted with an amateur theater group, worked as an announcer for a small Bronx radio station, wrote radio plays, recited poetry on the air, performed in vaudeville for $1 a night, and acted in melodramas produced by a stock company. His entrance onto the Broadway stage was as an understudy for Spencer Tracy in a forgotten play titled Conflict. From there Odets moved to the Theatre Guild, an influential 12-year-old theater collaborative that produced noncommercial American and foreign plays on Broadway. The year 1931 marked the beginning of Odets’s actual career, when he joined the Group Theatre, a new theater collective formed by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, who would go on to found the prestigious Actors Studio. The Group Theatre, which lasted for 10 years, had a major impact on the American theater. Derived from the “method acting” teachings of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the naturalistic acting of the Yiddish theater’s David Kessler, whom Strasberg had seen perform when he was a child, the Group was conceived as an ensemble theater company producing socially relevant, sometimes leftist dramas. A training ground for actors, the Group Theatre emphasized naturalistic, forceful, and disciplined artistry and pioneered what would become the unique American acting technique known simply as the “method.”
Odets played a few minor roles for the Group Theatre, beginning with the company’s first production, Paul Green’s The House of Connelly. However, he remained unnoticed by reviewers and became frustrated by his lack of advancement to better roles. In 1933 he managed to secure a leading role as a patriotic Russian husband in They All Came to Moscow. Odets turned to playwriting in 1932 with a play about Beethoven, about which he noted in his diary, “Here I am writing the Beethoven play, which when it is finished may not even be about Beethoven. Why not write something about the Greenberg family, something I know better, something that is closer to me?” During the winter of 1932–33, while living in a tiny room of the community apartment shared by the financially poorest members of the Group Theatre, Odets wrote I Got the Blues. Greenberg was changed to Berger, and the title eventually became Awake and Sing! In 1934 Odets joined the Communist Party for eight months “in the belief, in the honest and real belief, that this was some way out of the dilemma in which we found ourselves.” At the same time he wrote Waiting for Lefty, the revolutionary work that would establish his career as a playwright. Inspired by the New York taxi strike of February 1934, Lefty is very much a play of its time. In seven vignettes, each separated by a blackout, the theater becomes a union hall, where cabbies meet to plan a strike for higher wages as they anticipate the arrival of Lefty Costello, their elected chairman, who will support them. A play of “originality and fire,” as Clurman described it, Waiting for Lefty was an indictment of capitalism and a statement of the right of every individual and family to have dignity and self-worth. The play debuted in January 1935 and was an immediate sensation when it reached Broadway in March 1935; by July it was playing in 30 cities. Lefty’s status as a hit contributed to the Group Theatre’s decision to produce Odets’s earlier play, Awake and Sing!, which opened at the Belasco Theatre on February 19, 1935.
A conventionally structured three-act drama, Awake and Sing! takes its title from a line in Isaiah 26:19: “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust.” Set in the Berger’s Bronx tenement apartment, the play explores the family’s relation-ships, ambitions, and frustrations with intensity but also with humor. Bessie Berger, characterized as the archetypal Jewish mother, is the play’s antagonist. In her struggle to keep the family fed, clothed, and sheltered, she has developed as a strong-willed, autocratic, possessive, and materialistic woman committed to preserving the respectability of her family at all costs. Her husband, Myron, has worked as a clerk for 30 years. He is a dignified and likable but weak-willed “born follower,” who lives in the past and in denial of the failure that has been his lot in life. The family circle includes Bessie and Myron’s grown children, Ralph and Hennie, and Bessie’s wise old immigrant father, Jacob, a faded Marxist idealist and antimaterialist, and the family’s conscience. Finally, there is Uncle Morty, Bessie’s brother, a shrewd, cynical clothing manufacturer, who lives well, drives a big car, and contributes $5 a week toward the support of his father, whom he calls “a nut.” Ralph, naive and romantic, works as a clerk and complains that all he wants is “a chance to get to first base.” Hennie, beautiful, proud, self-contained, and pregnant by a man who cannot be located, has several suitors, including Schlosser, the janitor, whose wife ran away with another man and whose daughter left him to become a chorus girl in burlesque. She is also courted by the sensitive but ineffectual Sam Feinschreiber and Moe Axelrod, who boards with the Bergers and, it is discovered, was Hennie’s first love. A petty racketeer who lost a leg in the war, Moe brings a vital and masculine life-affirming presence to the household.
The dramatic center of the play is the attempt by Ralph and Hennie, to break free from their stifling environment. Their support in this endeavor comes from Moe and especially Jacob, who is constantly at odds with his daughter: “This is a house? Marx said it, abolish such families.” He urges Ralph to “Go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.” Bessie’s acidulous response to her father’s politics is “Go fight City Hall.” She forces Hennie to marry Sam and to let him think the child is his, and when she learns that Ralph is interested in a girl, she breaks up the relationship so that the family will not lose the weekly salary check he brings home. Hennie’s marriage is predictably unhappy, and after a year, she tells Sam the truth about the child, thus precipitating the climax of the play. Ralph is outraged when he learns of the deception and confronts his mother with her guilt in the matter. Bessie responds to her son’s reproaches by turning angrily on Jacob and breaking the cherished opera records that are the aesthetic and spiritual center of her father’s life. Jacob gives Ralph a last piece of advice: “Do what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution. But you should act. Not like me. A man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea.” He goes up to the roof, ostensibly to exercise the dog, Tootsie, but instead takes his life by falling to his death. A dazed Bessie asks Moe to call Morty with the news. He refuses, and she hesitantly dials the number.
During the last scene of the play, which takes place a week later, Ralph learns that he is the beneficiary of his grandfather’s insurance policy and declares his independence by refusing to share the money with the family. Despite the heinous act Bessie committed against her father, which precipitated his suicide, she inspires our sympathy and commands for herself a certain stature during her last speech to her son:
Ralphie, I worked too hard all my years to be treated like dirt. It’s no law we should be stuck together like Siamese twins. Summer shoes you didn’t have, skates you never had, but I bought a new dress every week. A lover I kept, Mr. Gigolo! . . . Or was Bessie Berger’s children always the clean-est on the block?! . . . Here, I’m not only the mother but also the father. The first two years I worked in a stocking factory for six dollars while Myron Berger went to law school. If I didn’t worry about the family who would? . . . here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year—this is life in America.
“Mom, what does she know? She’s old-fashioned!” But I’ll tell you a big secret: My whole life I wanted to go away too, but with children a woman stays home. A fi re burned in my heart too, but now it’s too late. I’m no spring chicken. The clock goes and Bessie goes. Only my machinery can’t be fixed.
After Bessie goes wearily off to bed, Moe announces that he is leaving for a new life in Cuba and declares his love for Hennie. She agrees to abandon her husband and child to go with him. Ralph decides not to take the money: “Let Mom have the dough. I’m twenty-two and kickin’! I’ll get along. Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No! . . . I saw he was dead and I was born!” Hennie and Moe leave, and Ralph watches them go, standing “full and strong in the doorway seeing them off as the curtain slowly falls.”
Like Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing! debuted at a pivotal moment in American history—1935 was the bleakest year of the Great Depression and also the year in which New Deal measures instituted by the Roosevelt administration began to move the nation slowly toward economic recovery. The rise of fascism in Europe and the American tendency toward isolationism were causes for concern, the latter most prominently among liberals and leftists. Awake and Sing! contains a fair amount of Marxist propagandizing, in keeping with the social and political preoccupations of its author and its time, but the play’s real strength is in Odets’s creation of robust and interesting characters and their interactions with one another. Awake and Sing! is an intimate play and, like all effective drama in which the characters are fighting for survival, raises as many questions as it answers. The play ends on an optimistic note, but the fates of Ralph and Hennie remain ambiguous. Despite the courage Hennie shows in replacing sullen acquiescence with positive action in choosing to go away with the man she loves, she has flouted morality and acted irresponsibly by leaving her husband and especially her baby behind. It is unclear whether the idealistic Ralph will get what he wants from life, or whether he will succumb to the unrealistic romanticism that defines his father. But Odets makes clear that action for its own sake is better than perpetual stagnation. Wilder’s characters in Our Town may speak to a universal nostalgia for certainty needed in the midst of difficult times, but Odets reminds us of the need to look outward and move forward, breaking the grip of family limitation, honoring American dreams, and achieving liberation for future generations.
Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time