Monday, July 18, 2016

Night music struck down

‘I feel as if a lovely delicate child, tender and humorous, had been knocked down by a truck and lay dying.’ This is the US playwright Clifford Odets, born 110 years ago today, commenting in his diary on the opening night reviews of his play Night Music. Though regarded as a key figure in the development of American theatre for his socially-relevant dramas, neither his name nor his plays are remembered as well as those of Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller, or example, perhaps, because he gave in to pressure from McCarthy to name names, or because of, some writers suggest, his ’narrative of decline’.

Odets Was born in Philadelphia on 18 July 1906 the oldest of three children born to Jewish immigrant parents. Later the family moved to the Bronx, New York, where he went to high school, but dropped out to study acting. Having relocated to Greenwich Village, he worked in a number of jobs (such as radio elocutionist and camp drama counsellor) and performed with various theatre groups, before landing a first casting on Broadway in 1928. He worked with the Theatre Guild for a bit, and was then selected, in 1931, to join the newly formed Group Theatre. Famously, this based its performances on the kind of method acting devised by Stanislavski and recently introduced into the US. Elia Kazan, who would go on to become a much feted director on Broadway and in Hollywood, was another member.

Employed only as a rarely used understudy, Odets began to use his time to write plays, but continued to take part in the Group Theatre’s training and rehearsal schedules. His plays, inspired by and suffused with Group Theatre’s techniques, were left wing and socially hard-hitting. However, at first they were not good enough for the group’s leader, and it was not until early in 1935 that one was produced - Waiting for Lefty. The opening night was a huge success. Within weeks, the group was opening with Awake and Sing!, a play Odets had been working on for some time, and which Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1979 edition) says ‘foreshadowed’ Arthur Miller and ‘related Odets with Tennessee Wiilliams’. Further plays followed, including Rocket to the Moon (1938) which led to Odets being featured on the cover of Time, and the highly successful Golden Boy. However, Night Music, which opened in 1940 with Elia Kazan in the lead, was a flop; and it was a disaster for Group Theatre, presaging the company’s end.

By the mid-1930s, Odets had relocated to Hollywood (though he would continue to travel to New York regularly) to work as a screen writer, often declining to be credited, and as a director (None but the Lonely Heart, 1944). There he met and married the German-born actress Luise Rainer (who by then had won best actress awards in 1936 and 1937), though the marriage would last but three years. He marred another actress, Bette Grayson in 1943, and they had two children before divorcing in 1951. Odets was investigated by Joseph McCarthy in 1953, and is suspected of having named names; certainly he continued to work in Hollywood, but lost friends.

Though there have been several major biographies of Odets, his name is clearly not as well remembered as that of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.
 On the centenary of writer’s birth, in 2006, The New Yorker concluded: ‘It’s possible that Odets’s narrative of decline is what has kept him from claiming the privileged place in the theatrical discussion that he deserves. Odets’s plays showed a way for the next generation of playwrights to combine linear movement with psychological complexity and depth. He brought a new demotic music to stage speech. His subject was always the struggle of the heartbroken American soul under capitalism. “I will reveal America to itself by revealing myself to myself,” Odets wrote. His plays and his life, full of unique lament and liveliness, eloquently fulfill his prophecy.’ Further biographical information is also available at Wikipedia and Penniless Press.

Odets kept a diary for just one year, in 1940, though it was not published until 1988 (by Grove, New York) with the title The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journals of Clifford Odets. The book is not widely available in the UK (no copy at the British Library, for example), and there is not much about it online either. However, Kirkus Reviews has a short piece; and Library Journal says this: ‘His journal shows a gigantic ego lavishing severe judgment on friend and enemy alike, and an overactive libido seeking the perfect woman (he had access to a breathtaking array of them). Although Odets was hard on everyone, he judged himself most severely. This journal records the dark journey of a life and time out of joint yet seeking their proper form. Interspersed are glimpses of major figures in modern American theater and film.’

The only quotes from the book I can find online are thanks to The Sheila Variations (‘not a film’) blog - both extracts below concern Odets’s play The Night Music.

22 February 1940
‘This is the time for opening the play. Harold gave the cast a brief line run-through, but I stayed at home, sleeping, resting, lounging it out against my slowly constricting nerves. Restless, finally, I jumped into the roadster and rode out to Sunnyside to take Bill and Lee to dinner. I chattered away, quite calm, really, to that peculiar point of indifference which comes from having done all that one can do in a situation. We rode into New York and had dinner across the street from the theatre, at Sardi’s. A lot of the people who are going across the show were eating dinner there - it was like running the gauntlet. Stella Adler was there with a party, smoke-eyed and neurotic - usually when you are dying she is more dramatic about the event than you are! Finally I pushed my way through a lot of well-wishing people and went over to the theatre. The cast was in fine shape, quietly making up in their own rooms; no noise, no excitement backstage, things routine and orderly.

The audience was no better or worse than the usual opening night crowd. If anything they were an edge more respectful. Harold I had met outside the theatre for a moment - he was white and tired and was going to see a musical comedy, true to his habit of never attending an opening. I, on the other hand, get a kind of perverse spiteful pleasure from attending an opening. I saw none of the critics but shook hands with several friends.

The performance of the play was tip-top - the cast had never been better. The play suffered from what had always been wrong with it because of a certain lack in the direction - a lack of clear outlining of situations, a lack of building up scenes, a certain missing in places of dramatic intensity. But none of these things was enough to do vital harm to a beautiful show, smooth, powerful and yet tender, fresh, moving, and touching, with real quality in all the parts. But I could see during the first act that the audience was taking it more seriously than it deserved; and I knew that the old thing was here again - the critics had come expecting King Lear, not a small delicate play. It all made me very tired, but at the end I thought to myself that it didn’t matter, for the show was more or less what I intended; it was lovely and fresh, no matter what the critics said. And I knew, too, that if another and unknown writer’s name had been on the script, there would have been critical raves the next day.

People surged backstage after the curtain - they all seemed to have had a good time. There were the usual foolish remarks from many of them - “Enjoyable, but I don’t know why,” etc., etc. Also, a good deal of insincere gushing from a lot of people who would like nothing better than to stick a knife in your ribs. God knows why!

I invited some people down to the house for a drink. Along came the Eislers, Kozlenkos, Bette, Julie [John] Garfield, Boris Aronson, old Harry Carey and his wife, Morris and Phoebe later, Harold, Aaron Copland and Victor [Kraft[, Bobby Lewis and his Mexican woman, etc. etc. We drank champagne, Scotch when the wine ran out, smoked, filthied up the house, listened to some music. Then they went and I dropped into bed, dog-tired, unhappy, drunk, knowing what the reviews would be like in the morning. In and out I slept, in and out of a fever - all of modern twentieth-century life in one day and a night.’

23 February 1940
‘The biggest shock I have experienced since the auto crash in Mexico a year ago was the reviews of the play today. Perhaps it was the serious lack of sleep which kept me so calm and quiet. I wanted to send the Times man a wire telling him I thought his notice stupid and insulting, but I gave up that idea after a while. Equally distressing to me was the attitude at the office, an ugly passivity. They are quite inured there to the humdrum commercial aspect of doing a play this way - close if the notices are bad.

My feelings were and are very simple. I feel as if a lovely delicate child, tender and humorous, had been knocked down by a truck and lay dying. For this show has all the freshness of a child. It was Boris A. who called the turn. He said, “This show is very moving to me, a real artwork, but I don’t think they will get its quality - it is not commercial.”

In the morning I cashed fifteen thousand dollars worth of the baby bonds I hold. I thought to spend it on advertising, to keep the show open, etc., but by the time I finished at the office in the afternoon it was easy to see the foolishness of that; the show costs almost ten thousand a week to run.

So, friend, this is the American theatre, before, now, and in the future. This is where you live and this is what it is - this is the nature of the beast. Here is how the work and delight and pain of many months ends up in one single night. This is murder, to be exact, the murder of loveliness, of talent, of aspiration, of sincerity, the brutal imperception and indifference to one of the few projects which promise to keep the theatre alive. And it is murder in the first degree - with forethought (perhaps not malice, perhaps!), not second or third degree. Something will have to be done about these “critics”, these lean dry men who know little or nothing about the theatre despite their praise of the actors and production. How can it happen that this small handful of men can do such murderous mischief in a few hours? How can it be that we must all depend on them for our progress and growth, they who maybe drank a cocktail too much, quarreled with a wife, had indigestion or a painful toe before they came to see the play - they who are not critics, who are insensitive, who understand only the most literal realism, they who should be dealing in children’s ABC blocks? How can the audience be reached directly, without the middleman intervention of these fools?

I think now to write very inexpensive plays in the future, few actors, one set; perhaps hire a cheap theatre and play there. Good or bad, these “critics” must never be quoted, they must not opportunistically be used. A way must be found to beat them if people like myself are to stay in the theatre with any health and love. Only bitterness results this way, with no will or impulse for fresh work. The values must be sorted out and I must see my way clearly ahead, for I mean to work in the American theatre for many years to come.

I have such a strong feeling - a lovely child was murdered yesterday. Its life will drag on for another week or ten days, but the child is already stilled. A few friends will remember, that’s all.’

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