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Clifford Odets Papers 1926-1963 at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Clifford Odets, playwright, actor, and poet was born in Philadelphia on July 18, 1906, the son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. When he was six, the family moved to the Bronx where his father, Louis Odets became a successful printer. However, despite his father's success, they eventually moved back to Philadelphia. Odets' father wanted him to join his advertising company, but Odets refused since he wanted to become an actor. In 1923, Odets dropped out of high school after two years and began to write poetry. His father was furious, but eventually accepted it and gave him his consent to pursue a career in the theater world.

Odets held minor jobs in his early years in the theater. He played bit parts with a neighborhood acting company called Drawing Room Players. He then began working for a radio station in the Bronx as an announcer and a radio playwright. After this, he acted with various stock companies. At the age of twenty he joined Mae Desmond's Stock Company. Two years later, in 1928 he joined the Theatre Guild. He played minor roles during his days in the Theatre Guild and later joined its offspring the Group Theatre. Odets' acting career was going nowhere and it was increasingly evident that he did not have the talent to become a successful actor. This marked the beginning of his career as a playwright.

Clifford Odets is known as the proletarian playwright of the 1930's because his plays reflect the lives of the working class during that period. In 1933, Odets wrote Awake and Sing, a story about the trials and tribulations of a Jewish family living in the Bronx. However, Odets could not find a producer for it. He then wrote Waiting for Lefty a one act play about the taxi drivers' struggle against low wages. This he entered in the New York Theatre League contest and won first prize. The Group Theatre produced it in 1935. In the same year the league produced his play Awake and Sing and began staging his anti-Nazi play entitled Till the Day I Die. Along with these three plays, a fourth play was produced entitled Paradise Lost. The play features a family, symbolic of the American middle class battling against economic and social problems.

Despite his personal success as a playwright for the Group Theatre, the depression caused major financial trouble for the organization, during the early thirties. In 1936, to help the League, Odets began working in Hollywood as a writer and producer. Odets stayed in Hollywood for a year and a half and earning $2,500 a week as a screenwriter.

After working in Hollywood, Odets returned to New York with a new play entitled Golden Boy, considered by many to be his best work. Golden Boy catapulted his career and made him famous. The play's theme is about the pursuit of American success and tells the story of a violinist who discovers that he can make more money using his boxing skills rather than his musical talent. With elements of romance, achievement, and tragedy, the story was a success. Odets wrote two plays Rocket to the Moon and Night Music, with Harold Clurman. Other plays that he wrote were Clash By Night, The Russian People, The Big Knife, The Flowering Peach, The Silent Partner, and The Law of Flight. His last Broadway success The Country Girl, was produced in 1950.

In 1952, Odets was questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities because of the leftist orientation of many of his plays and because he had been a member of the Communist party in 1935. Clifford Odets was married twice, first to the British actress Louise Rainer and then to actress Betty Grayson. Both marriages ended in divorce. Odets had two children, Nora and Walter from his marriage to Betty Grayson.

At his death, Odets was working on a television series and drafts of three plays. He had completed the book for the musical version of Golden Boy. He died August 14, 1963 in Los Angeles.

Scope and Content Note

The papers of Clifford Odets consist of scripts, notes, correspondence, journals, photographs, research materials, scrapbooks, and clippings that document his career as a playwright. The papers are divided into different aspects of his work in order for the researcher to appreciate the development of his plays and other writings. The papers provide an overview of Odets' artistic and technical writing process.

The strength of this collection is in the abundant amount of his writings and notes, which exhibit Odets' creative writing techniques. These notes and written annotations in the scripts illuminate Odets' work habits and show his artistic progression. The papers illustrate Odets' change in writing style during the course of his career. Overall, the collection provides ample material for the researcher to gain an insight into Odets as a playwright and a person.

Go to Inventory of the Clifford Odets Papers


The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
New York, New York
The Billy Rose Theatre Division. New York Public Library.
40 Lincoln Center Plaza
New York, NY 10023-7498
(212) 870-1639

Web : http://nypl.org/research/lpa/the/the.html

Source: ©2000 The New York Public Library All rights reserved.

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