Ode to Odets:
Main Street Theater Production
Sizzles With Relevance
by Harley Schlanger
Awake and Sing!
by Clifford Odets
Main Street Theater, Houston
Director Cheryl L. Kaplan
Main Street Theater closes its 08-09 season with Clifford Odets’ masterpiece, Awake and Sing! May 2 – June 7 at Main Street Theater – Rice Village, 2540 Times Blvd. Call 713-524-6706 or visit
“When I started to write ‘Awake and Sing!’ I didn’t have a mission in life; I wasn’t going to change society. When I came to rewriting it I was going to change the world -– or help it.” Clifford Odets 1
The year was 1935. As the second wave of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation was introduced into the Congress, the nation was beginning to move out from under the deadening weight of the Great Depression. The repossession of homes and farms had slowed, and the failure of banks had been reversed, while the number of unemployed, which had peaked officially at 10 million in 1933 -– a 25% unemployment rate -– had begun to drop, as legislation from the first hundred days following FDR’s inauguration in March 1933 had produced the beginnings of a recovery.
Pictured L-R are Jacob (Steve Garfinkel), his granddaughter Hennie (Natalie Arneson) and his daughter Bessie (Luisa Amaral-Smith).
Yet, it was still a fragile recovery, as the Depression had been deep, following the speculative excesses of the Roaring Twenties, and there was a concerted battle being waged by the entrenched, powerful leaders of the conglomerates of business and finance, against expanding the New Deal legislation. Though industrial production was up 22% by May 1935, compared with May 1933, the official unemployment rate remained high, at 20%.
It was in the depths of the Depression, in 1931, that a revolution in the American theater was launched, by a group of actors and writers, who had come together to form “The Group Theatre.” In the words of one of its initiators, Harold Clurman, the purpose of its founding had been “to build a theatre: develop actors, playwrights, scene-designers, directors. We were seeking a conscious audience to follow the program of a theatre that would grow with the years and make a permanent contribution to our social cultural life....” 2
Though the initial efforts of The Group Theatre had fallen short of that goal, Clurman and his colleagues believed that, in the progressive ideals and the sense of combative optimism unleashed by the election of FDR, there was now a new opportunity to inspire the population to move beyond the mindless materialism of the 1920s, and the hopeless pessimism, which had followed in the wake of the Crash of 1929 and the devastation of the Great Depression. This new potential took shape in 1935, with the performance of two plays, written by one of their members, Clifford Odets, a failed actor who had taken up writing. In the first months of 1935, the Group’s production of “Waiting for Lefty,” and “Awake and Sing!”, reignited the hopes of many American intellectuals, that the end of the Depression might see the beginning of an America Cultural Renaissance.
The Role of the Theater
Clurman, who was a close friend of Odets and, for a time, his roommate, identified the spontaneous outburst of wild enthusiasm at the premiere of “Waiting for Lefty,” on January 5, 1935, as a sign that the goal of the Group could now be realized. He wrote that this play struck a chord which resonated in theater-goers at “Lefty,” who were looking for a rallying cry for their generation.
This play, he continued, “was the birth cry of the thirties. Our youth had found its voice. It was a call to join the good fight for a greater measure of life in a world free of economic fear, falsehood, and craven servitude to stupidity and greed. ‘Strike’ was Lefty’s lyric message, not alone for a few extra pennies of wages or shorter hours of work, strike for greater dignity, strike for a bolder humanity, strike for the full stature of man.” 3
Less than seven weeks after the premiere of “Lefty”, Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” opened, on February 19, 1935. With these two plays, Clurman writes that Odets was introducing “a new kind of theatre dialogue. It was composed of lofty moral feeling, anger, and the feverish argot of the big city. It bespoke a warm heart, an outraged spirit, and a rough tongue.” There was in Odets, he concluded, “a fervor that derived from the hope and expectation of change and the desire for it.” 4
This was the voice that Clurman, Lee Strasburg, and Cheryl Crawford had intended when they founded The Group Theatre. The success of these two plays reached far beyond the narrow confines of the theater in New York. Their success was instrumental in the decision to include funding in the Works Progress Administration -- which was part of the second phase of the New Deal, passed in 1935 -- for artists, actors and writers!
Odets Reborn in Main Street Theater Production
This was the voice that theatergoers heard on May 7, with the opening of “Awake and Sing!” at the Main Street Theater (MST) in Houston. The production, directed beautifully by Cheryl L. Kaplan, brings out both the “warm heart” and the “rough tongue” referred to by Clurman, as the inherent contradictions of the characters in the play are allowed to unfold brilliantly on the stage.
This is a difficult play, on several levels. There is a subsuming bleakness which is imposed by the realities of the Depression. This is reinforced by a sensation of claustrophobia, which is both physical, resulting from the cramped living quarters, from which there is no escape during the play; and from the stifling subjective circumstances, related to the dysfunctional nature of the Berger family.
Pictured are Moe (Jamie Geiger, kneeling) and Hennie (Natalie Arneson, standing).
Yet, there is also a hopeful thread throughout the drama, that escape from the smothering environment may be possible. This comes from the optimism which emanates from the grandfather of the house, Jacob. He combines a strange mix of Jewish messianic hope, socialism, and love of classical culture, represented by the great opera singer, Caruso. This idealism infuriates his daughter, Bessie, who is trying to maintain a tight leash on the family, and aggravates his son Morty, a sweatshop owner, who revels in being “practical,” citing this as the reason for his “success.” Ultimately, ironically, it is through Jacob’s sacrifice, his suicide, that a way out of the claustrophobia emerges, first, through its effect on the amoral Moe Axelrod, and then, through Moe’s effect on Jacob’s grandson, Ralph.
It is through this counterpoint, between Jacob’s hopes for a revolutionary transformation, and Bessie’s desire for a little financial success for her son (which would, of course, spill over to benefit the rest of the household), that Odets draws the audience in, as they observe, close up, what he identifies as the theme of the play. He wrote, in a kind of forward, “All of the characters in ‘Awake and Sing!’ share a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions.”
Bravura Performances From MST Cast Members
The real challenge for a production of this play is to bring out the contradictory qualities embedded in the characters, while avoiding stereotypes. For example, Bessie, the matriarch of the Berger family, can be shrill, calculating, controlling, and downright nasty at times. Yet, she cannot be one-dimensional. Given that her husband, Myron, is a prototypical nebbish, she did have to be both the mother and father of the family, as she said. Luisa Amaral-Smith gave an excellent, multi-faceted portrayal of Bessie. Her interactions with Myron, well played by George Brock, were believable –- especially for anyone with such a nebbish in their family!
Steve Garfinkel did an admirable job in his portrayal of Jacob. Odets’ characterization is likewise very complex: Jacob is “aware of justice, of dignity,” but he is an impotent idealist, “with no power to turn ideal into action.” As such, he is a failure, who recognizes that the society has, thus far, rejected his ideals, as have his children. Like many grandfathers, he therefore transfers his hopes to his grandson, advising Ralph not to be like him. In describing himself to Ralph, he said of his life, “For seventy years he talked with good ideas, but only in his head...a man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea.” Ralph must not make the same mistake, he insisted, telling him he must do “what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution.” Garfinkel presented lines like these with the conviction of one who knew that better times were ahead, though he, sadly, would not live to see them.
Another performance which stood out was that of Jamie Geiger as Moe Axelrod. Moe is also full of contradictions: a hardened, cynical wiseguy, having lost a leg in the World War, with vague connections to criminal rackets, yet the person most tuned in to the ideals espoused by Jacob. His cynicism is biting, his yearning to burst out of the confines of the family is ultimately decisive, and his passion for Hennie is simultaneously rough and tender. Geiger brought an ardent intensity to Moe, making him compelling, credible, and even likable.
Natalie Arneson brought Hennie to life. Hennie must not be a forgotten figure, a mere victim of Bessie’s conniving and her own bad decisions. There must be enough substance to her to explain Moe’s desire for her, and Arneson provided that. Likewise, Uncle Morty is an important figure in the play. He represents what Odets despises, the pragmatist who cavorts with dress models, lives in a penthouse with a Japanese butler to serve him, and offers favors, when it makes him look good. Jack Young played him well, giving a crackle to his dialogue, and bringing out the anger effectively when his scheming is exposed. Josh Morrison’s Sam was empathetic, his love for Hennie as real as the impossibility that he could keep her.
Ralph is another crucial figure (there are few throwaway characters in Odets’ plays!), who undergoes a maturation from his first appearance as a naïve boy in love, afraid of his mother’s reaction to his choice, to his decision at the end to stay with the family, while preserving his goal to “get to first base.” He declares that he will fulfill Jacob’s dreams: “My days won’t be for nothing....Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No! ‘Awake and sing,’ he said. Right here he stood and said it. The night he died, I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born.” Charles Swan does an excellent job with the ambiguities embodied in Ralph, right up to the very end, when time is momentarily suspended, and the audience is left unsure whether he will really succeed in escaping Bessie’s control, to live his dreams.
Pictured L-R are Hennie (Natalie Arneson) and her mother Bessie (Luisa Amaral-Smith).
This ambiguous ending is Odets’ way of fulfilling the mission of The Group Theatre. As Clurman details in his wonderful “biography” of The Group, it was their goal to engage the audience in the play, to recruit the audience to their crusade to create a better society. At the conclusion of “Lefty,” the audience joined the union members in chanting “Strike.” With “Awake,” as the lights fade on Ralph, the question posed is not just what will Ralph do, but what will you, the members of the audience do, will you do what’s in your heart?
The MST production of “Awake” thus leaves the audience vaguely uneasy when the lights come on. And that is exactly what Odets, and his colleagues at The Group, intended. With the economic uncertainty of our present time, perhaps the disquieting ending will provoke reflection, on what we, the members of the audience today in Houston, Texas, must do to improve our world.
A brief note on the use of the New York Yiddish dialect by cast members: This was a brave, and absolutely essential decision, and was carried out well, with an attention to detail, under the direction of dialect coach Carolyn Johnson. From Jacob’s thicker accent, redolent with old world enunciations, to the less pronounced accents of the succeeding generations, this was necessary for authenticity. It is not just that Odets was writing about first and second generation Jewish families in America. Odets, and most of the actors associated with The Group, had come out of the Yiddish theater, which, though now mostly forgotten, was extremely influential in developing the world of the theater in New York City, and later in the development of the film industry. Though the Yiddish accents may be jarring at first to the ears, it is hard to imagine Bessie speaking with a flat mid-western twang, or a Texas drawl! 5
The production continues in Houston until June 7.
1. Clifford Odets, 1961, quoted in Margaret Brenman-Gibson, “Clifford Odets: American Playwright” (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2002), p. 240.
2. Harold Clurman, “The Fervent Years: The Group Theatre & the ’30s” (New York, Da Capo Press, 1983), p. 63. This book is a must read for anyone with an interest in the development of theater in America.
3. Ibid., p. 148.
4. Ibid., p. 150.
5. The importance of the Yiddish theater in the creation of The Group Theatre, and for Odets, is the subject of an article by this author titled “Drama as History: Clifford Odets’ ‘The Big Knife’ and Trumanism,” published in Fidelio magazine (Spring-Summer 2004).