Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!— Where Dream and Disillusion Meet

042406 article heilpern Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!—  Where Dream and Disillusion MeetLincoln Center’s rediscovery of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! is a great opportunity to see the 1935 play that transformed American theater. But whether the drama about a Jewish family struggling in the Bronx to survive the Depression lives up to its myth as a lost masterpiece is open to question.

I’ve no doubt that the Group Theatre’s 1935 premiere of Awake and Sing! on Broadway at the Belasco—where the current revival has appropriately opened—was a sensation for very good reason. Odets’ thrilling, one-act agitprop play Waiting For Lefty, which exhorted the working class to rise up and strike for a better, decent life, might be the last time a political play actually had any effect on the country. Odets, still in his 20’s when he wrote Awake and Sing!, then gave voice for the first time onstage to the dispossessed and powerless Jews of America.

The Bronx setting of working-class immigrants in Awake and Sing! is where the Old World collides with the New. It is that bruised place of the heart where the American Dream and disillusion meet in the land of opportunity and abundance.

“Here without a dollar, you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year—this is life in America,” says Bessie Berger, the matriarch of the play, whose hard, uncompensated life has been crushed by the hammer of ambition and bitterness. Disappointed hopes are oxygen to her.

Her restless son Ralph, encouraged by his socialist grandfather, yearns to escape the airless domestic atmosphere. (“Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust”—Isaiah 26:19.) The first words of the play belong to Ralph: “All I want’s a chance to get to first base!”

“That’s all?” says his sister.

The social conscience of Odets reflected the conflicted soul of 30’s America and influenced Arthur Miller, though Miller largely denied it. More crucially for us, Odets described himself as a theater man—as opposed to a literary man—and his unaffected stage poetry, his direct pull on the emotions and unembarrassed open heart, were a profound influence on the young Tennessee Williams.

Awake and Sing! is full of Yiddish inflections and humor (“Boychick, wake up! Be something!”), but Williams didn’t see the possibilities in its specific language or political idealism. Rather, he was inspired by Odets’ humanity and the raw honesty of his characters.

For myself, however, Williams far surpassed the achievement of Awake and Sing!, and several claims that the play establishes Odets as among the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century are too extravagant. The historic importance of the Group Theatre plays of Odets is undeniable. But the production of Awake and Sing! at the Belasco confirms that time has long since caught up with the play. If only it were otherwise, I would be the first to awake and sing. But what was once perceived as a burning social document today uncomfortably hovers on the dangerous edge of sentimental melodrama.

Certainly a play that revolves round the revelation of an unwanted pregnancy, a marriage of convenience, a suicide, a disputed insurance policy and newly ardent runaway lovers is pushing its luck a bit. I was unprepared for Odets’ soft center.

The street talk of the two-bit gangster, Moe the Gimp, still zings: “Cut your throat, sweetheart. Save time.” But Bessie, the quintessential Jewish mother—though without warmth—belittles all in the usual way. “Second fiddle,” she says of her mouse of a son-in-law. “By me he don’t even play in the orchestra …. ” Or this exchange with her Marxist old dad, Jacob the barber: “You with your ideas—I’m a mother. I raise a family they should have respect.”

“Respect?” Jacob replies, spitting. “Respect! For the neighbor’s opinion! You insult me, Bessie!”

“Go in your room, Papa. Every job he ever had he lost because he’s got a big mouth. He opens his mouth and the whole Bronx could fall in.”

Awake and Sing! is too much Bicker and Complain. Its overstated message is, “You got money and money talks. But without the dollar who sleeps at night?” Its Bronx characters are by now familiar types—from the possessive, guilt-inducing mama (“I could die from shame … ”) to the successful but shallow Uncle Morty, the ignorant dress manufacturer, to the sermonizing and sentiment of the idealistic papa:

“For the love of an old man who sees in your young days his new life,” he advises his restless grandson. “For such love take the world in your two hands and make it like new. Go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills …. ”

Or this: “It’s enough for me now I should see your happiness. This is why I tell you—DO! Do what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution. But you should act. Not like me, a man who had golden opportunities but drank a glass of tea instead …. ”

In such ways, Odets’ reputed surges of inspiring lyricism struck me as prosaic, and though it was good to see Ben Gazzara onstage, he plays the idealistic paterfamilias with slow, ponderous gravity. There’s no fire in him. The distinguished Zoë Wanamaker’s Bessie ought to be far more bone-tired than she appears. Pablo Schreiber as the young hero Ralph is too shrill (and Ralph is a surprisingly underwritten role). I enjoyed Mark Ruffalo’s flash, peg-legged Moe Axelrod. But there’s no subtext in Bartlett Sher’s careful, clean production, there’s no danger or dust.

The stage picture of the poverty-stricken Bronx home in Awake and Sing! is nice and tidy (and pretty), and it receives a round of applause when the curtain goes up. True, the matriarch of the play is house-proud, but nobody has lived in this house. Michael Yeargan’s sets look like a comforting retro-30’s window display in Bloomingdale’s. The set is an act of bland nostalgia when hard, uncompromised reality is badly needed.

But then, the costumes by Catherine Zuber look new. The clothes these impoverished people wear have no frayed past. They have no history.

Was the Group Theatre ever like this? I cannot imagine so. When, in the final moments of this prestigious revival, Ralph decides at last to leave home, he addresses us in these moving words: “I’m twenty-two and kickin’! I’ll get along. Did Jake die for us to fight about nickels? No! ‘Awake and sing,’ he said. Right here he stood and said it. The night he died. I saw it like a thunderbolt! I saw he was dead and I was born! I swear to God, I’m one week old! I want the whole city to hear it—flesh, blood, arms. We got ’em. We’re glad we’re living.”

That, at least, is a remarkable speech—a direct, honest, authentic appeal to our emotions that conveys the unadorned, natural truth. It represents the best of Odets, and it achieves a true stage poetry. But what does the director Mr. Sher do? He adds music to accompany the words of Odets, like a Ken Burns PBS documentary. His words alone no longer suffice. Words won’t do it. We need music to reinforce their meaning.

But that’s not all. For extra effect, the director has snow fall. Snow is meant to make the last moments of Awake and Sing! even more evocative and moving. Pretty, pretty snow.

Poor old revolutionary social realism. Poor old Clifford Odets.