Clifford Odets, a leading playwright of the 1930s, was born in Philadelphia on July 18, 1906. He began his performing career as "The Rover Reciter" in local talent shows, on radio, and in local stock theatre companies. In 1929, he acted in small roles with the Theatre Guild, from whose auspices emerged the Group Theatre in 1931. Odets' first successful play was the one-act play Waiting for Lefty, which received its first theatrical production by the Group Theatre in March 1935. In 1936, Odets began working in Hollywood as a screenwriter on The Silent Partnerfor the Group. His 1937 play Golden Boy, also written for the Group, became his biggest commercial success. His last Broadway hit was The Country Girl in 1950. His last finished play, The Flowering Peach, was a finalist for the 1954 Pulitzer Prize. Odets died in Los Angeles on August 14, 1963. The Clifford Odets papers contain diaries, scripts, screenplays, personal and professional notes, research materials, clippings, photographs, and scrapbooks. In addition, the collection contains other writings by Odets such as poetry, short stories, articles, and paintings. Lastly, the collection holds Margaret Brenman-Gibson's biographical notes on Clifford Odets and his father, Louis J. Odets, for her book Clifford Odets - American Playwright: The Years from 1906-1940.
Biographical/historical: Clifford Odets--playwright, director, actor, and poet--was born in Philadelphia on July 18, 1906, the son of Russian and Romanian Jewish immigrants. When he was four, the family moved to the Bronx, where his father, Louis J. Odets, became a successful printer. In 1923, Odets dropped out of high school after two years and began to write poetry, short stories, and radio plays. He worked briefly in his father's printing and advertising company, but was determined to become an actor, despite his father's vehement disapproval.
In his early career, Odets played romantic leads with a Bronx acting company called The Drawing Room Players. At the same time, he was working for various radio stations in the Bronx and Manhattan as an announcer and radio playwright and was also working with various local stock companies. In 1926, the Odets family returned to Philadelphia for unclear reasons and Clifford joined Mae Desmond's Stock Company, based in West Philadelphia. In 1928 Odets was cast in several bit parts on Broadway and went on tour with the Theatre Guild, gradually garnering a few small speaking roles. In 1931 he became a founding member of the Group Theatre, comprised largely of people from the Guild. Odets was not highly regarded as an actor and the Group Theatre's directors once again assigned him minor roles. Out of frustration and boredon, he began writing plays.
Odets' plays of the 1930s vividly portray the urban working class during the Depression and he is considered the leading proletarian playwright of that period. He entered Waiting for Lefty, a one-act play about a taxi drivers' strike, in a contest sponsored by the New York Theatre League and won first prize. First produced at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in January of 1935 as part of a benefit for the magazine, Lefty became an overnight senstation and Odets an international celebrity. The Group produced it in on Broadway in February, alongside his anti-Nazi play Till the Day I Die. A month later, they produced Awake and Sing!, generally considered his masterpiece. A fourth play, Paradise Lost, was also produced at this end of this momentous year. That work features the Gordons, a middle-class family, battling against economic, social, and health problems.
Despite the critical success of his early plays, the Depression deeply affected the Group Theatre's finances. In February 1936, Odets made his first trip to Hollywood to work as a writer and, eventually, as a director. Odets shuttled between Hollywood and New York for a year and a half, earning $2,500 a week as a screenwriter, a substantial salary for the time.
Odets returned to New York in 1937 with a new play, Golden Boy, considered by some to be his best work. Golden Boy catapulted his career and made him famous. The play tragically illustrates the conflict between the pursuit of material success and artistic fulfillment by way of a young violinist who is torn between the spoils of professional boxing and the concert stage. Golden Boy was followed by Rocket to the Moon (1938) and Night Music (1940), which both moved away from overtly political themes. Other Odets plays are Clash by Night (1941, The Russian People (1942, adaptation), The Big Knife (1949), The Flowering Peach (1954), and two unproduced plays, The Silent Partner (1939) and The Law of Flight (circa 1935). His major Broadway success, The Country Girl, was produced in 1950.
In 1952, Odets was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of his leftist orientation, which included a brief membership in the Communist party circa 1935. Clifford Odets was married twice, first to the British actress Louise Rainer and then to actress Betty Grayson. Both marriages ended in divorce. Odets had two children, Nora and Walt, from his marriage to Betty Grayson.
At his death, Odets was living in Hollywood and working on a television series and drafts of several plays. He was also working on the book for the musical version of Golden Boy, which was completed by his friend, playwright William Gibson. Odets died on August 14, 1963 in Los Angeles.
Content: The papers of Clifford Odets consist of scripts, notes, correspondence, journals, photographs, research materials, scrapbooks, and clippings that document his career as a playwright. The papers are divided into different aspects of his work in order for the researcher to appreciate the development of his plays and other writings. The papers provide an overview of Odets' artistic and technical writing process.
The strength of this collection is in the abundant amount of his writings and notes, which exhibit Odets' creative writing techniques. These notes and written annotations in the scripts illuminate Odets' work habits and show his artistic progression. The papers illustrate Odets' change in writing style during the course of his career. Overall, the collection provides ample material for the researcher to gain an insight into Odets as a playwright and a person.