Waiting for Lefty
Play written by Clifford Odets
Essentially, politics is socializing with the goal of organizing. That certainly runs the gamut from the building the pyramids through waging war and on into bureaucracy. In some ways, it could not be more anathema to art, especially those forms created by individuals. Surely, politics is no less worthy a subject than any other, but art always starts with a point of view. For this reason, art always arrives after the boundaries of the discussion (the socializing, if you will) have already been defined. Art can certainly help organize (consider political posters), but they are evoking an emotional response in support of a political goal. Basically, here is what we believe and we should feel good about it. Yep- politics is about manipulation and art is another available tool.
Few dramatists have been as intertwined with politics as Odets. Generally, politics are of the moment and creating art that comments on current events leads to lost relevance as time passes. Universality is the solution. Shakespeare pointed the way, finding emotions and situations in historical events and well-known tales that could speak to common experience. We don’t “get” his political commentary any more than we get it from the Bible or Charles Dickens. We might hand wave at their place on the spectrum of social justice, but it doesn’t speak to us with anything near the original feeling of the creating artist.
So, it is strange to read Odets more than eight decades down the road and sense an unfortunate prescience. Truly, the first thing that struck me was his quality as a writer. For some reason, that always seems to fall by the wayside, but I have now revisited a number of artists that brought me youthful pleasure and been a bit disappointed. Odets could weave a dramatic story that I once again wanted to see through to the end.
Any look at historydemonstrates the weave of political strains as conservative and liberal ideas ebb and flow. The pattern includes long and short waves, localized and widespread. It does seem you can count on whatever appears popular now will lose favor soon enough before returning under a slightly different guise.
Odets was associated with communism and socialism, though the labels quickly became pejorative within his lifetime. He testified before HUAC during the witch hunts, naming names that he believed the committee already had. His earliest and best known plays raise numerous ideas about the plight of families struggling to make it within the bounds of American capitalism. Inevitably, he portrays tragedy met with stoicism.
Frankly, he comes across as sympathetic to those struggling to make ends meet or get ahead. He respects their intelligence enough to grant his characters the ability to wonder where their own best interests may lie as well as the best way forward for their community.
As I said, what goes around, comes around and we find ourselves living in a world where Odets feels relevant again. The blessing of his writing may be that he succeeds without pointing at specific solutions. I don’t recall Shakespeare having a lot of answers that didn’t involve death or a laugh, so I’m not going to start holding that against an artist.
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