Waiting for Lefty

Waiting for Lefty Themes

The power of unions

The major premise of "Waiting for Lefty" is that unions and collective bargaining are the only ways for workers to balance the power against big businesses. Without unions, big business can continually drive down wages and create bitter competition among its employees. Several times in "Waiting for Lefty," a character feels he cannot do anything on his own; while this is refuted in other instances (such as with Miller and Dr. Benjamin), the central idea is that there is strength in numbers. Odets argues that the working class can seize power if they have the will to do so and that they do not have to wait for the god-like Lefty to save them, as Edna's domestic "strike" threat to Joe proves. Unions can become a virtual family for the men, as one proves when he exposes his traitorous brother as a corporate spy. Moreover, unions can preserve the dignity of work by allowing the men to work for themselves and not for the company. Likewise, unions preclude government intervention and allow the people who best know how to do their work do so unhindered (which Barnes laments does not occur within the hospital).

The corruption of big business

The industrialist Fayette baldly (and proudly) voices Odets's disdain for the soulless attitude of capitalism: "If big business went sentimental over human life there wouldn't be big business of any sort!" Big business is portrayed as a heartless machine that gradually squeezes the life out of its workers for its own gain. As in much Depression-era literature, big business is represented by nearly anonymous figures (such as Fayette) in order to remove whatever sympathy it might receive from the audience. Big business in the play also uses violence to stifle a workers' revolt (the gunman) and spies both on its workers (Clayton) and on its own employees (Fayette tries to get Miller to spy on his superior). Big business also hides its selfish agenda behind patriotism; Fatt claims the union must stand behind the President by not striking, and Fayette urges Miller to create the poisonous gas to protect his country in war.

Communism and class consciousness

Odets, a member of the American Communist Party since 1934, viewed America in the Great Depression as ripe to embrace Communism's main principle of power returned to the worker. Throughout "Waiting for Lefty," he shows the effects of what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in "The Communist Manifesto" call "class-consciousness." Several characters grow aware of themselves as the oppressed class in relation to the powerful ruling class, and when this consciousness becomes too burdensome, they see no other option but a revolution of sorts and, in effect, Communism. Edna is the first character who speaks about her new awareness, and she borrows some language from "The Communist Manifesto." Sid and Florence, on the other hand, are similarly aware of their poverty, but they delude themselves with fantasies to prevent the awareness from reaching the heights of class consciousness. While many of the taxi drivers are afraid to be labeled "red" (slang for a Communist) at the beginning of the play, Communism becomes the only viable solution by the end of play: Dr. Benjamin, whose class consciousness is awakened when he is fired from the hospital, converts to radical politics and even contemplates working within Russia's socialist system, while Agate stirs the men into a Communist frenzy with its direct rhetoric ("WORKERS OF THE WORLD," he shouts) and even a Communist salute.

Ethnicity and xenophobia

In the Great Depression, minorities were often scapegoated for the nation's problems. Hinted at in the play is that workers come from a variety of backgrounds and must unite across these differences for a common purpose. Moreover, the U.S. was still smarting from the toll of WWI, and had adopted a foreign policy of extreme isolationism. Such a policy made many citizens xenophobic (fearful of foreigners). To underline this point, big business is shown as utterly racist and xenophobic; Fayette wants contact with other races only if he can make them work for low wages or if he can destroy them in war. Ultimately, Odets points out that money is a far more important signifier of identity than race. While Benjamin is fired from the hospital because he is Jewish, the wealthy Jews on the hospital's board do not protect him; they still care more about the financial bottom line. Both Miller and Sid identify more with "foreigners" than with the corrupt, wealthy Americans.

Proletariat vernacular

Odets and his Group Theatre believed that theater was ignoring the working class, so to write about them with authenticity Odets had to employ the working class's words. The dialogue of the taxi drivers and their significant others is inflected with an often ungrammatical vernacular that approaches lyricism. While the dialogue at times feels dated and sentimental, one cannot deny that the characters always speak with earnestness, and Odets skillfully blends their political speeches with intensely emotional ones.

Breaking down of theatrical boundaries

Odets uses avant-garde techniques that his Group Theatre deemed necessary to uncover the artificiality of theater. By exposing the artifice behind drama, they felt they could approach reality with more authenticity. In "Waiting for Lefty," the taxi drivers never leave the stage (they sometimes even sat with the audience); the vignettes occur simply with blackouts, and the drivers always remain dimly visible in the background, sometimes even chiming in with other scenes. The audience is reminded of the underlying conflict of the play, and the stage and theater always bear the markings of a union hall.