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Book Review : Clifford Odets: A Year in a Gifted Life

September 01, 1988|ELAINE KENDALL

The Time Is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets (Grove Press: $17.95; 512 pages, illustrated)

Readers left unsatiated by Margaret Brennan-Gibson's minutely detailed 1981 biography, "Clifford Odets: American Playwright," will find some of remaining gaps filled by the playwright's journal of this one crucial year in his life. By the time the diary begins, Odets is in his early 30s, his reputation made by his overtly proletarian dramas "Awake and Sing" and "Waiting for Lefty." "Golden Boy," the story of a young prizefighter who had once wanted to be a violinist but succumbed to the gaudy lure of the ring, had been a popular 1937 hit starring John Garfield.

Famous, prosperous, married to one of the most glamorous actresses of the period, Luise Rainer; juggling liaisons with Fay Wray and Frances Farmer, Odets was riding high. His newest play, "Night Music," was about to open in Boston on its way to Broadway. The innovative and politically intrepid Group Theater could be counted upon to produce his controversial work with some of the most gifted actors and directors in the country; people with a unique sensitivity to Odets' fierce and passionate vision.

As Gibson says in his introduction, in 1940, "culture" and "theater" were virtually synonymous. "Find any drama section . . . of the New York Times . . . and its front page is nothing but theater. . . . No movies, radio or, of course, television, are inside, and pop music gets a mention somewhere in the back. Mass entertainment is not culture--theater is." If you couldn't be a playwright in Elizabethan London, prewar New York was the next best thing.

Culturally Deprived

The brash young man who emerges from these pages has every reason to be pleased with himself. Coming from what would now be called a culturally deprived background, Odets had dropped out of high school to become an actor, soon moving on to writing plays based upon his own experience and tailored to actors who shared and understood it. He's busy educating himself by reading the 19th-Century European novelists and assiduously going to concerts and museums. Though his plays were profoundly critical of American materialism, Odets guiltily relished luxury, sleeping till afternoon, driving a Cadillac, frequenting chic nightclubs, and dropping famous names with obvious glee.

Though his judgments on art, music and literature now sound both naive and fatuous, Odets was struggling to place himself in a broader context. If his snide allusions to "the lower middle class" often seem at odds with his professed sympathy for the working man, we should remind ourselves that for a '30s radical, the true enemy was the bourgeoisie.

While Odets is obviously impressed with the eminent writers and musicians he's meeting, he can be as harsh with them as with his hypochondriacal Aunt Esther, whose assorted aches and pains he considers "prime indulgences"; her way of demonstrating that she's risen above the silently suffering working class. After an alcoholic dinner with John O'Hara, arranged so the two men could "mutually come to some understanding of the problems which face young writers in America today," he concludes that O'Hara is "only a Katzenjammer kid with two prongs to his fork, women and booze, neither genuinely relished, I fear," said in the supercilious tone of a man convinced that he's found the secret of enjoying both . . . and simultaneously at that.

The year that began so auspiciously would end bleakly. The new Odets play, "Night Music," had opened to poor notices in Boston, proved resistant to improvement on the road, and closed after a truncated run in New York, excoriated by the critics. "Murder in the first degree," Odets called it, "the murder of talent, of aspiration, of sincerity, the brutal imperception and indifference to one of the few projects which promise to keep the theater alive. . . . Something will have to be done about these 'critics,' these lean dry men who know little or nothing about the theater despite their praise of the actors and production."

Financial Difficulties

The journal entries become increasingly sour as the marriage to Luise Rainer disintegrates and the once-thriving and supportive Group Theater dissolves in a tangle of financial difficulties and internecine quarreling. Despite his disdain for the tawdry values of Hollywood, Odets came West to salvage his fortunes, only to find screenwriting a far more demanding discipline than expected. There wouldn't be another success until "The Country Girl" in 1950, and in the long meantime, he would console himself as O'Hara had, with whiskey and womanizing, the diary growing more maudlin and self-centered with each successive disappointment.

Dreams are painstakingly recounted and interpreted, seductions reported and professional disappointments bitterly noted. Unfortunately, the early Odets plays, so full of energy and political vitality when they were written, seem leaden and simplistic today; the noble proletarian sentiments irrelevant to a set of disparate social problems unimaginable half a century ago.

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