Waiting for Lefty

Waiting for Lefty Summary and Analysis of I. Joe and Edna

The taxi drivers, but especially Fatt, are dimly visible on stage as 30-year-old Edna joins Joe in their home (the scene is supposed to take place a week before the play's first scene). She tells him that their furniture was repossessed, even though they paid for three-quarters of the installments. They argue, and Joe makes excuses for their poverty. He gives her his day's wages while she laments the life that could have been. She urges him to act; she reminds him that her father went on strike with others during the war and won. Joe claims that strikes do not work, and that they lose money while they are on strike. She says that while his salary barely covers rent now, soon the owners will push down their wages even more. She says his boss is "making suckers" out of the workers, and out of their families. Joe tells her she'll wake the children, but she says she only wants to wake him up. She calls his union "rotten," since they don't tell the workers what their plans are. Joe says "they're racketeers. The guys at the top would shoot you for a nickel."

When Edna challenges Joe to stand up to them, and he backs down, she tells him she's going back to her old boy friend, since he earns a living. Joe doesn't believe her, but she says "maybe" she has already seen him, and insists she will go. The taxi drivers, still in the dark, whisper words like "She will." Enraged, Joe tells her to leave. They fight more, and Edna turns the subject to Joe's boss who, she says, is creating all these problems. When Joe again starts to say that one man can't make a difference, Edna interrupts him and encourages him to start a workers' union without the racketeers. Joe gets swept up in her passion and tells her he's going to find Lefty Costello. Edna cheers him on.

Back in the taxi driver's meeting, one of the men says that his fellow workers know better than he does, and that "We gotta walk out!"


When Edna tries to rally Joe to strike, he refers to their sleeping children: "You'll wake them up." She comes back with "I don't care, as long as I can maybe wake you up." Her turn of phrase is reminiscent of the rhetoric from Marx and Engels's "The Communist Manifesto," the Bible of Communism. In it, Marx and Engels maintain that class revolution comes when the proletariat (workers) develop a sense of class consciousness. In other words, they become aware of themselves as the oppressed class, and aware that, as Edna says, "the world is supposed to be for all of us." Edna herself has recently gained this class consciousness, largely because she now understands her oppressed relationship to Joe's boss: "I never saw him in my life, but he's putting ideas in my head a mile a minute." The primary purpose of "Waiting for Lefty" is to awaken this class consciousness in the audience through the unfolding class consciousness of the characters.

While some may criticize the play as dated left-wing propaganda, Odets should receive praise for his brilliant parallel in this scene between the worlds of finance and romance. Edna becomes a striking "worker" herself, albeit one in the home. First, she calls Joe's bluff about slapping her: "No you won't," she calmly replies, much as a confident group of employees might ignore their employer's threat of violence (remember Fatt's gunman looming over the opening scene). Then she threatens to leave Joe for another man--or, in economic terms, to go to another "employer." Odets shows how strikes can, indeed, work; Joe needs Edna like an employer needs an employee, and she can wield power if she has the will to do so.

But, as even she admits, one man generally cannot do anything alone; she insists on the necessity of communal action, citing her father's successful strike during the war. She also points out that the unions are "rotten" with corruption. She advocates a workers' union, not a "company" one headed by racketeers like Fatt who do not disclose their plans and, most likely, work for the owners (in the same way, Edna shows Joe how frustrating that set-up should be when she makes her first intimations to leave him: she refuses several times to tell him what she is doing, just as the union leaders refuse to tell the members what they are doing).

Joe's first instinct is to believe that he and Edna signed a "phoney" contract for the furniture. Even though it was a "regular" contract, as Edna explains, to Odets there is little distinction: legal contracts generally skew the power to the one who already has it, to the seller and not the buyer, to the employer and not the employee. There is a widespread distrust of the law in the play which naturally extends to government (remember how the men in the opening scene expressed their disdain for Roosevelt). Though Roosevelt was the most progressive President to date and the New Deal actively helped the poor in unprecedented ways, radical left-wingers like Odets remained skeptical about the effectiveness of government in helping the underclass. In "Waiting for Lefty," Odets pushes people to help themselves and not rely on government; even if they receive "regular," supposedly fair contracts from the government, they will still lose out in the end.

Odets deploys many of the new ideas from the avant-garde Group Theatre ensemble he joined. This is most notable in the breaking of boundaries on stage: the taxi drivers do not leave the stage during this scene, and even help Edna in convincing Joe to go on strike, and Fatt's cigar smoke is ever-present. The Group Theatre disliked the artificiality acting had acquired, and Odets seeks to smash this artificiality by exposing it; clearly these are actors, not real people, and the audience should make this distinction. However, the play acquires a greater sense of realism because of this exposure. The stage really does feel more like a small, badly-lit union hall, and since all the non-union hall vignettes play with the taxi drivers in the background (and, in some productions, in the audience), the audience remains aware of the fundamental conflict at stake in the union.