By: Jennifer Grzybowski
To set the stage we see America in 1934, in the grasp of the aftermath from the Great Depression. The unemployment rate is soaring, and those employed still cannot possibly make enough money to support their families. “That year, strikes exploded into violent clashes with the Police, the National Guard, and even the Army in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Honea Path, South Carolina, and Woonsocket, Rhode Island, with many killed on both sides. The struggle for the rights of Labor was the central issue of the day” (Subversive Theatre Collective). It is no coincidence that a bright-eyed 28 year old Odet would write Waiting For Lefty in just three short days. Earlier that same year the New York City Cab Drivers’ strike had no doubt seeped into the mind of an impressionable writer. An analysis of the premier production of Waiting For Lefty reveals the strong impact history and government place on the theater, but moreover the power of political theatre done well.
January 5, 1935 a special one-night only performance was held at the Civic Repertory Theatre, presented by the notorious Group Theatre. The show was under the direction of Sanford Meisner with a cast of heavy hitters including Lee J. Cobb, Elia Kazan, and Odets. At the conclusion of the play, the audience was lively- to say the least. “Applause lasted for a record-breaking twenty-eight curtain calls. Working class members of the audience stormed on to the stage overjoyed. They hoisted Odets up on their shoulders and spent almost a full hour cheering, chanting, and celebrating. Members of the Longshoreman’s Union in attendance spontaneously declared themselves on strike — no specific demands, no plan of action, just an outright celebration of workers’ power!” (Subversive Theatre Collective). Clearly, the impact of the storytelling was in abundance.
Perhaps you could argue that directorial efforts make a production impactful. Others might debate the cast impact. However, a good script is always a good foundation. In any case, all three of these elements indisputably came together culminating in a successful production, which exemplified the effects of political theatre. As Rachel Shtier so eloquently states “Odets, who wrote the play for the renowned Group Theater, wanted to show the strength that can come from unity.” I believe Odets was extremely successful in this endeavor as his art clearly made an impact. He summoned the power of unity in artistic endeavors, and displayed this unity to the men and women who needed to see it most. Men cheered, chanted and ultimately declared themselves on strike. What more of a call to action could be achieved?
“Production History of Waiting For Lefty” Subversive Theatre Collective. Web. http://www.subversivetheatre.org/productions/lefty_phoenix/production_history.htm 5 December 2013.
Shtier, Rachel. “Championing Odets, Unfashionable as That Is.” The New York Times. 27 April 1997. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/27/theater/championing-odets-unfashionable-as-that-is.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm 28 November 2013.