Awake and Sing. A play in three acts by Clifford Odets. New York premiere: Belasco Theatre, 19 February 1935. Scenic design: Boris Aronson; produced by The Group Theatre, Inc.; directed by Harold Clurman. With Art Smith (Myron), Stella Adler (Bessie), Morris Carnovsky (Jacob), Phoebe Brand (Hennie), Jules (John) Garfield (Ralph), Roman Bohnen (Schlosser), Luther Adler (Moe Axelrod), J.E. Bromberg (Uncle Morty) and Sanford Meisner (Sam). Closed 27 June 1935 (184 performances; an additional 24 performances were produced at the Belasco Theatre in September 1935 in repertory with Waiting for Lefty). Text: Waiting for Lefty and Other Plays, New York: Grove Press, 1993. Includes introduction by Harold Clurman and preface by Clifford Odets.
After Waiting for Lefty, Clifford Odets had planned to write a play about Beethoven; this was abandoned, and Awake and Sing, his first full-length play to reach Broadway, was the result. Set in a Bronx apartment, the play chronicles slightly over a year in the life of the Jewish working-class Berger family. It may also have been Odets’ most influential play, and certainly it is one of his most frequently revived (most recently at the Belasco Theater in 2006, produced by the Lincoln Center Theater and directed by Bartlett Sher). Its uneasy combination of political idealism and social realism in a domestic setting would affect the early plays of both Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
It also represents perhaps the height of the American melodramatic imagination in the theatre, which might be defined as a dramatic consciousness which values feeling over thought; collective empathy rather than individual distance; heightened (but not too heightened) language; a plot rich in event, character rich in eccentricity; and domestic crisis rather than cultural or social catastrophe. It also, in its way, optimistically celebrates the individual even as it maps his or her tortuous way through family and conformity. It does so through a “well-plotted” structure; that is, coincidence, chance and contrivance are so crafted and arranged as to masquerade as fate and destiny, though five minutes’ thought brings the tender structure crashing to the ground.
Awake and Sing is as stuffed with event as the furniture in the Berger apartment. A head-strong, fearful Bessie (one in a continuing line of American mother-monsters) presides over a household which includes her father, Jacob, a retired barber with anarchist leanings (he hangs portraits of Sacco and Vanzetti in his bedroom) (40); her put-upon husband Myron; daughter Hennie and son Ralph. Coming and going are Uncle Morty, Bessie’s successful businessman brother; Moe Axelrod, a one-legged WWI veteran who plays the horses; and Sam Feinschreiber, fresh-off-the-boat and eventually husband to Hennie. The plot details the efforts of the Berger children to strike out on their own, their plans foiled by both circumstance and Bessie’s authority, though by the end they quite unexpectedly succeed through a variety of plot machinations that include the probably accidental death of Jacob (who falls from the rooftop while walking the family dog, in an unlikely contrivance which is telegraphed from the first five minutes of the play ).
In Ted Merwin’s essay for the New York Times on the occasion of Odets’ 100th birthday in 2006, John Lahr is cited crediting Odets’ “lumpen lyricism” as “the first attempts to break the shackles of naturalism in American drama.” Leaving aside both O’Neill and Rice, this seems like a bold statement; looking at the dialogue itself, it’s just wrong; when a character wants to sound street-smart poetic, the tone is as scratchy as a 78rpm record, at least from a 70 year distance. It’s a few steps up from the stage Irish and Yiddish of Abie’s Irish Rose, but not that many steps; “I got a yen for her and I don’t mean a Chinee coin,” Moe Axelrod says in a line with a howlingly false ring, and I don’t mean the one he wants to put on Hennie’s finger (57).
Another quality of American melodrama is that the individual striving for self-fulfillment amidst the challenges of the culture and the family is always somehow victorious over the forces of evil (and this is a distinctly American conception of individualism; that of Europe is much more ambiguous); it is a trope that concludes Angels in America as well as Clifford Odets’ plays. This quality in plays of the post-1945 period is frequently at war with the tragic consciousness, and in plays like A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman this war takes many victims, leaving the melodramatic conception of the individual in American drama in considerable doubt.
The revival of interest in Odets’ plays dovetails with Marc Robinson’s conception of “sophisticated melodrama” as one of the most useful lenses through which to view American drama in The American Play, for Awake and Sing is rather sophisticated, especially at the end of the play when both Ralph and Hennie win their independence and set out on new lives, Ralph with a renewed sense of possibility within the culture and Moe and Hennie outside of it. There are costs: Ralph foregoes his share of Jacob’s insurance policy, and Hennie abandons her child to the care of her husband (who does not know he is not the father of the child). These are necessary and, to Odets’ credit, innovative breaks in the structure of the melodrama, but still serve melodrama’s intent to reward the individual. It sits uneasily, and in Hennie’s sudden abandonment of her son there is a fracture of the family contract. The melodrama can’t entirely contain this fracture, which remains a haunting echo after the curtain comes down. 
As I mentioned above, Odets would continue to affect the American drama over the next few decades, through Williams and Miller and Inge; it wouldn’t be until the work of Edward Albee in the 1960s and that of David Mamet and Sam Shepard in the 1970s that the mainstream American theatre would be free of his social-realist aesthetic. But before then there would be two plays by Eugene O’Neill, perhaps America’s sole tragic dramatist to that date (and even now), that would explode the melodramatic conception of the individual, the culture and the metaphysics that binds them; and the post-war American drama itself would open in 1946 with the Broadway premiere of The Iceman Cometh, which would premiere only a few months before Arthur Miller’s Ibsen-tinged All My Sons.
Further reading on Odets: John Lahr’s appreciation of Odets in the 17 April 2006 issue of The New Yorker; Brooks Atkinson’s review of the original production of Awake and Sing in the 20 February 1935 New York Times. The 1972 public television production, directed by Robert Hopkins and Norman Lloyd and featuring Walter Matthau in the role of Moe Axelrod, is available on DVD through the Superfluities Redux bookstore.
- In an interesting and perhaps instructive parallel, Katrin in Howard Barker’s The Europeans abandons her child as well, but not without considerable internal struggle — a struggle seemingly absent from Hennie. [↩]