Waiting for Lefty

Waiting for Lefty Summary and Analysis of II. Lab Assistant Episode

Fayette, an industrialist, talks in his office to Miller, a lab assistant. Miller is impressed by the office. Fayette tells him Miller he is receiving a raise for his loyalty, and that he'll be switched to a new laboratory tomorrow, where he'll work under an important chemist, Dr. Brenner. Miller is pleased. Fayette tells him he must remain within the building while he works on the project, which is to create poisonous gas for chemical warfare. Fayette tells him that the world is ready for war, and the U.S. needs to be ready.

Miller is somewhat distraught, as he lost several relatives in the last war, including his brother. As Fayette gives him further instructions, Miller reminisces about his brother. Fayette tells him he'll require a weekly confidential report on Dr. Brenner. Fayette promises higher raises, but Miller refuses to do any "spying." Fayette tells him his country needs him to do this, but Miller's mind is made up--he is willing to lose his job, as he would "Rather dig ditches first!" Outraged, Miller punches Fayette in the mouth.


Odets provides the most overt critique of the heartlessness of big business, and has a big businessman say it: "If big business went sentimental over human life there wouldn't be big business of any sort!" While this statement is self-explanatory, Odets again uses an interesting dramatic technique to magnify it. In Depression-era literature, big business is frequently portrayed through nearly anonymous figures; it is much easier for the author to convince his reader or audience that big business is evil if the representative is not given a human face. Fayette crassly hands out superficial condolences to Miller for his brother's death while planning his next move ("Yes, those things stick. How's your handwritingŠ?"), and he embodies all the stereotypes of a greedy businessman--a racist cigar-smoker who cares nothing for human life. Miller, on the other hand, is sketched with utter sentimentality, almost to a laughable point. However, Odets may have given Miller such earnestness to amplify his original point about big business: as sentimental as Miller is, Fayette is disingenuous.

Furthering these claims of anti-sentimentality, big business is also depicted as so distrusting that it must spy on its own corrupt partners. Miller refuses to spy on Dr. Brenner, who has undoubtedly forsaken his former idealism to create chemical warfare, because to do so would render him just as guilty. This notion of disunity within big business can also be viewed as a weakness which the solidarity of unions can exploit.

Fayette exhibits a disturbing sense of xenophobia (fear of foreigners). Still healing from the wounds of WWI and in the midst of an economic crisis, the U.S. in the 1930s was characterized by extreme isolationism; only a direct attack on Pearl Harbor could convince the country to enter WWII. Fayette exemplifies these attitudes, viewing foreigners or "ethnic" Americans only as potential workers or enemies. Miller, despite bearing true pain from the war in the form of his dead brother, sides with the outsiders. Through the portrayal of Fayette's xenophobia in such ugly terms, many theatergoers who might have harbored similar beliefs were converted to Miller's attitude, as he is the far more sympathetic figure (especially since many theatergoers would also have had dead relatives from the war).

Moreover, Odets shows how isolationism can lead to outright racism--note Fayette's claim that "The pollacks [Polish people] and the niggers, they're better drunk--keeps them out of mischief." This racism, in turn, destroys unions, since workers (as we have seen in Joe's speech and in Fayette's speech here) come from a multicultural melting pot. When Fayette says that ditch-digging is a "big job for foreigners," he ignores the simple idea that all Americans (except Native Americans) are "foreigners." When Miller strikes back that spying and creating poison gas is a job for Americans, what he is really differentiating between are not foreigners and Americans, but workers and owners, the oppressed and the powerful.

But Odets ends the episode on another moment of hope, as Miller rises up against big business and sacrifices himself for a greater cause. Fayette and Fatt are turning into the true outsiders in the play--their similar names and heartless attitudes are all that bond them, since they would probably not trust each other enough to collaborate. Though Miller is but a single man, his act of defiance brings him into the family of strikers, of "foreigners"; in a sense, he symbolically regains his lost brother.