Broadway Features and Reviews
The Country Girl: Odets Names Names
By Juliane Elizabeth Buntin, Broadway Magazine
Over fifty years have passed since Clifford Odets went face to face with the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) and named names of fellow artists in a blatant act of self-preservation. With the latest revival of The Country Girl at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, revisiting the Odets scandal is inevitable. Although classics like Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, and Paradise Lost have secured the playwright-s theatrical immortality, Odets-s reputation still suffers from the fallout of his HUAC testimony.
As a young actor and budding playwright in the early 1930-s, Clifford Odets was embroiled in the political momentum of the New York artistic class. He was a member of the Group Theatre (founded by Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg) along with several artistic figures that later played huge roles in HUAC testimonies because of communist affiliations---including director Elia Kazan. In keeping with the Group-s mission, Odets imbued his earliest plays with humanity, hoping to create a theater of and for the masses. His efforts resulted in explosive writing about working class people speaking their own language that revolutionized the American stage. Waiting for Lefty, Odets-s first piece for the Group Theatre, tells the story of a group of cab drivers embarking on a wage strike. The play contains overt communist themes and acted as a rallying call, bringing in fresh audiences and increasing theater-s function as a podium for political change. Immediately, Odets rocketed into the spotlight as a leader among left-wing social protesters.
The success of Odets-s plays in New York attracted Hollywood studios, and before long he was a tried and true screenwriter with movie credits under his belt. Despite the plush lifestyle screenwriting granted, Odets didn-t stray far from his roots with the Group Theatre. He continued to write plays for the ensemble, including the huge success Golden Boy. In 1941 he penned Clash by Night, the groups last production. But the hatchet was poised to fall on Hollywood, and Odets-s radical politics and brief dalliance with the Communist Party (he joined in 1934 and left a year later) implicated him in the upcoming fervor and paranoia of the McCarthy era.
In 1947, HUAC declared Clifford Odets one of many Communist screenwriters in America. Convinced Hollywood was a breeding ground for subversive texts and communist propaganda, HUAC began investigations into the supposed communist ties of many prominent actors, writers, and directors. Brutal testimonies followed, dragging Hollywood notables into the courtroom. Those summoned were essentially forced to choose between their ideals and their jobs. Anyone who offered the names of other artists associated with communist activity got spared the blacklist. Those who refused to cooperate were also blacklisted, or even incarcerated. Blacklisting was no joke-it decreed the official end of a Hollywood career, and the ban stayed firmly in place throughout the fifties. When Clifford Odets joined the list of those who named names, he tarnished his reputation, friendships, and his sense of self and identity as an artist. Many critics and historians consider Odets-s un-heroic submission a renunciation of his writing-s themes and passion. Odets, broken quite literally by the scandal, never wrote another play.
Unrestricted by the blacklist, Odets did write a number of screenplays in the aftermath of the scandal. Harsher audiences called him a sellout when he stopped struggling to express the truth of the common man and turned to churning out formulaic money-machines for the big screen. His popularity plummeted, and by the time of his death in 1963 some considered him a disappointment. The latest revival of The County Girl illustrates the upward surge of opinion Odets-s work has gained since the sixties. Contemporary writers ranging from David Mamet to the Coen brothers count Odets among their influences. Today, Clifford Odets is almost unanimously renowned for his social activism and passion, for creating plays whose titles are nearly synonymous with Broadway. Odets-s plays are American standards that pioneered a new way of thinking about the stage-- as a place where real voices and real problems need to be expressed, a place where humans can be heroes, flaws and all.
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