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Clifford Odets

Lawrence Bush
July 17, 2017

Radical playwright and screenwriter Clifford Odets, whose Depression-era dramas Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! were cultural sensations that had enduring impact on his generation of writers, was born to Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia on this date in 1906. Raised in the Bronx, he dropped out of high school to pursue acting, and became a founding actor in Harold Clurman's influential Group Theater, which produced his 1935 masterwork, Awake and Sing! — described by Ellen Schiff as "the earliest quintessential Jewish play outside the Yiddish theater." Other Odets dramas on Broadway included Golden Boy, Rocket to the Moon, and Paradise Lost. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s and became a successful screenwriter and film director. In 1952, he was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and proved a cooperative witness, which spared him from being blacklisted but resulted in ostracism by his political and artistic circles -- and in a creatively crippling self-loathing. Odets died in 1963, at age 57.

"I tell you, the whole world is for men to possess. Heartbreak and terror are not the heritage of mankind. The world is beautiful. No fruit tree wears a lock and key. Men will sing at their work, men will love. Oh, darling, the world is in its morning. And no man fights alone. . . . Let's have air. Open the windows." —Clifford Odets, Paradise Lost

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.