Clifford Odets was born on July 18, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was raised in the Bronx, New York, but dropped out
of high school to pursue acting. He helped found the Group Theatre in
1933, an influential left-wing theatre company that specialized in experimental
acting. After briefly trying acting, Odets decided to become the Group
Theatre’s first original playwright. In 1935, he wrote the play Awake and Sing! Although it was only his first play, it is often
considered his masterpiece.
Mainly due to misgivings from Group leader Lee Strasberg, Awake and Sing! was not produced right away. Odets’ first
play to actually be produced was the one-act play Waiting for Lefty (1935). That same year, he also wrote one of the first anti-Nazi played
produced in the United States, the one-act Till the Day I Die.
When his next play, Paradise Lost, flopped, Odets moved to Hollywood
to begin writing for the screen as well as the stage. While in Hollywood,
he wrote several unsuccessful films, then returned to Broadway and the
Group, recharged with engery for stage production. His next play, Golden
Boy (1937), became his biggest commercial success. When the Group
Theatre disbanded in 1942, Odets returned to Hollywood. Back in the
film industry, Odets tried once more at directing, filming his own script
of Richard Llewelyn's novel None But the Lonely Heart.
These plays, along with Odets’ other major Group
Theatre plays of the 1930s, are harsh criticisms of the capitalist class
in the Great Depression. In later years, Odets’ plays became more
reflective and autobiographical, although class consciousness was ever
in the background.
In 1953, Odets was investigated by Joseph McCarthy
and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
He disavowed his communist affiliations and cooperated by “naming
names”; as a result, he did not share the fate of many of his
colleagues who were blacklisted. Nevertheless, Odets became filled with
self-loathing, and found it very difficult to write. He only completed
one more play, The Flowering Peach (1954).
The Flowering Peach became the basis for the
1970 musical Two by Two. Golden Boy became the basis for a 1964
musical of the same name. His screenplay for the Sweet Smell of Success became the basis for the 2002 musical of the same name.
Odets died on August 18, 1963, at the age of 57, from
Sources: “Clifford Odets (1906 - 1963).” American
Jewish Historical Society, American
Jewish Desk Reference, (NY: Random
House, 1999). pg. 543,