Waiting for Lefty

Waiting for Lefty Study Guide

After working as an actor for several years in New York City's avant-garde, left-wing Group Theatre repertory company, Clifford Odets produced his first play, "Waiting for Lefty," in 1935. To call it a smash hit would be an understatement. Its first production stands out in theatrical memory for its rare and complete convergence between the performers and the audience. Swept up in the fervor of the performance at the Civic Repertory Theater on Manhattan's 14th Street, the audience cheered on and participated in the actors' lines, especially the concluding call to "STRIKE!" The actors, led by star and future film director legend Elia Kazan, broke down in tears, so moved were they by the audience's reaction.

While a universal call for power restored to the working class, "Waiting for Lefty" is very much of its time. America was in the midst of the Great Depression in 1935 and saw no light near the end of the tunnel. The national unemployment rate reached a peak of 25% in 1933, and since everyone needed work, employers were able to reduce wages drastically. As depicted in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath," the workers were forced to fight for the meager earnings, which dropped even more because of the intense competition. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democrat who won the Presidency from incumbent Herbert Hoover in 1932, came to the rescue with his populist "New Deal." His social and economic programs were some of the most progressive and sweeping reforms of the 20th-century, such as his federal insurance of banks (to prevent panics of massive withdrawals leading to bankruptcy and hyper-inflation) and the passage of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act, which boosted industrial wages and promoted workers' unions.

Indeed, the major solution to the problem of fruitless competition was unionization and collective bargaining: workers in specific trades would bond together and receive, among other benefits, standardized wages and greater job security. Their weapon was the threat to cease work. While organizations such as the American Federation of Labor rose to prominence during World War I, in a country founded upon the legend of the self-made man and fearful of communal action, unions were frequently criticized as Communist practices designed to overthrow the American way of capitalism. Moreover, strikes frequently failed if there were not total cooperation, and there was always a ready supply of "scabs," or replacement workers, willing to take over the strikers' jobs. Odets used a taxi drivers' strike in 1934 as inspiration for the play's underlying conflict.

A member of the American Communist Party from 1934, Odets borrows liberally from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's "The Communist Manifesto," the foundational treatise on Communism. His distrust of big business and his romanticization of the worker stems directly from Marx and Engels, and several lines in the play originate from their manifesto, as well. Odets also critiques the isolationist policy of the U.S. at the time; the country learned its lesson from massive loss of life and money in WWI and had decided to stay away from the international arena in the 30s. Unfortunately, Odets's few predictions in the play about war and the dangers of isolationism would come true in just a few short years. At least WWII helped bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression, but "Waiting for Lefty" remains to this day a salient work on the ill effects of capitalism, and on the ways the common man can combat them.