Published in the New Theatre with the subtitle "A Play in Six Scenes, Based on the New York City Taxi Strike of February 1934", the play is in fact only loosely related to that specific event. Odets himself said "But it is just something I kind of made up...I didn't know anything about a taxicab strike...I have never been near a strike in my life." Instead of trying to create a historical account, Odets used the strike as a way to attack what he saw as the larger issue: that in the middle of the Great Depression the capitalist structures of the time had remained unaltered.
Performed on a bare stage, actors planted in the audience reacted to key moments or speeches. The characters often directly addressed the audience, in an effort to break the fourth wall and incite the viewer to action. In each scene the other characters continued to be dimly present in a circle around the current characters, illustrating their effect on the events of the events unfolding before them. Odets claimed that he took this form from minstrel shows, but critics suggest it is more likely that Odets was inspired by agitprop productions which were gaining popularity in the early 1930s.
Those involved with and in attendance of the initial production of Waiting for Lefty agree that it had a dramatic impact on the audience. Harold Clurman, co-founder of the Group Theatre said of the performance:
The first scene of "[Waiting for] Lefty" had not played two minutes when a shock of delighted recognition struck the audience like a tidal wave. Deep laughter, hot assent, a kind of joyous fervor seemed to sweep the audience toward the stage. The actors no longer performed, they were being carried along as if by an exultancy of communication such as I had never witnessed in the theater before. Audience and actors had become one ...
While the energy of the performance greatly stimulated the audience, the archetypal characters and the obvious socialist leanings were a source of criticism for many writers, including Joseph Wood Krutch who wrote:
The villains are mere caricatures and even the very human heros occasionally freeze into stained-glass attitudes, as, for example, a certain lady secretary in one of the flashbacks does when she suddenly stops in her tracks to pay tribute to "The Communist Manifesto" and to urge its perusal upon all and sundry. No one, however, expects subtleties from a soap-box, and the interesting fact is that Mr. Odets has invented a form which turns out to be a very effective dramatic equivalent of soap-box oratory.
Following the initial run, both the play and Odets' popularity greatly increased, with hundreds of theatre groups requesting the rights to perform the piece. The play resonated with both the general public and the artistic community, and its simple staging allowed it to become a popular production for union halls and small theatres across the country. Such was Odets' fame that his next play, Awake and Sing!, was billed as a piece by the author of Waiting for Lefty, even though it had been written first.
The play was shown for the first time in London for over thirty years at the White Bear Theatre in February and March 2013.