Waiting for Lefty
Waiting for Lefty Revisited by Odets
In his play “Waiting for Lefty” Clifford Odets attempts to stir up the weary American public of the 1930s by providing examples of everyday people who, with some coaxing, rise above the capitalist mess they’ve inherited and take control of their destinies. In his work, Odets paints the common man as honest, sacrificial, and exploited, while big business and the government are portrayed as the proletariat’s enemies, anonymous corporations of rich men intent on shattering dreams. Odets makes his point clear: in order to survive in the cutthroat world of Depression-era America, one must band with others, make necessary sacrifices, and live for oneself, not for a paycheck or in a deluded fantasy-state.The play’s centerpiece, the gradual movement towards a strike for a group of taxi drivers, begins with an anti-striker, aptly named Fatt both for his physical and fiscal qualities, delivering a speech railing against the notion of a strike. Using unity as a means to coerce the dissatisfied workers into sedation, he proclaims, “I’m against the strike. Because we gotta stand behind the man [FDR] who’s standin’ behind us!” (5) As Fatt and a man branded a communist by Fatt debate the strike, Odets plunges into a short episode about a taxi driver and his wife, intended to relate to the common man as much as possible in its simple names, vernacular, and emotions. Joe’s reluctance to strike for more money, based mostly on fear of being blacklisted, is criticized harshly by wife Edna: “They’ll push you down to three and four a week before you know it. Then you’ll say, “That’s somethin’ too!…I know this – your boss is making suckers outa you boys every minute.” (9-10) Joe remains unconvinced until Odets has Edna pull a subtle maneuver; she threatens a strike of her own. Reminding Joe of the possibility of her leaving him for an ex-boyfriend, she says, “Listen, boy friend, if you think I won’t do this it just means you can’t see straight…I’d leave you like a shot!” (11) Her audacity prevails as Joe is swayed over to the strikers’ side. The strike-within-the-family context elucidates for the common man the power the workers, when unified, wield over the employer.Odet’s critiques big business’ lack of sympathy in the second episode, which stars Fayette, a corrupt industrialist, and Miller, a naïve, idealistic young lab assistant. When Miller expresses concern over the industrialist’s proposal of a new poison gas, Fayette replies, “If big business went sentimental over human life there wouldn’t be big business of any sort!” Later, as Miller wistfully describes his brother who died in WWI, Fayette superficially condoles, “Yes, those things stick. How’s your handwriting, Miller, fairly legible?” (15) The common man’s idealism wins out in the end, however, after Fayette asks that Miller spy on his superiors; says an irate Miller, “Sure hard feelings!…Nothing suave or sophisticated about me…Enough to want to bust you and all your kind square in the mouth!” (17) The punch he lands on Fayette is a call to the workers of the U.S. to stand up for themselves and to risk their jobs for the preservation of their values. This feature is repeated in the “Labor Spy Episode,” as a man in the crowd chooses union over fraternal loyalty and betrays his brother, a strike-breaker: “The Clancy family tree is bearing nuts!” (25) he shouts, joyously shaming his name but keeping the union intact.Odets explores escapism and sorrow in the story of Florence and Sid. To mask their unglamorous lives they flirt with dreams of Hollywood and royalty. Lines such as “SID: If this was the movies I’d bring a big bunch of roses…Fifty or sixty dozen” and “FLORENCE: …velvet panels are coming back again…Every princess in the Balkans is wearing [a dress] like this” (19) powerfully capture the pathetic existence of a youth that dreams of more. Their state of abjection is summed up by Sid: “If we went off together I could maybe look the world straight in the face, spit in its eye like a man should do. Goddamnit, it’s trying to be a man on the earth.” (20) The overwhelming sense of isolation and impotence he feels is brought to a boiling point when he and Florence breakdown (22) as they become increasingly aware of their rutted existence. Their wretchedness becomes an Odetsian admonition to resist escapism and surrender.Odets returns to the taxi strike at the end with Communist connotations: “AGATE: WE’RE STORMBIRDS OF THE WORKING-CLASS. WORKERS OF THE WORLD.” (31) With a resounding chorus of “STRIKE,” (36) Odets has placed a challenge for blue-collar America to rise past individual fears, place faith in mass demonstration, and possibly adopt a Communist revolution.