In The Diaspora: Dispatch from the abyss

Clifford Odets's play belongs to a body of American Jewish literature created in the claustrophobia of despair.

By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
June 15, 2006 13:41

Midway through Awake And Sing!, Clifford Odets's portrait of a Jewish family in the Depression-era Bronx, one member of the Berger household speaks excitedly about a vaudeville show. The clan's patriarch, a grandfather with the biblical name Jacob and a devotion to Karl Marx, snorts in derision. "Someone tells a few jokes," he grumbles, "and people forget the streets are filled with starving beggars." Of every pungent line in the Broadway revival of Odets's drama, this one attests most powerfully to the significance of the production for American Jews. That significance has as much to do with the historical moment Awake And Sing! captures with fierce honesty as with the literary merits of the play itself. The current production has been trumpeted by such estimable critics as John Lahr of The New Yorker as the cause for restoring Odets to the pantheon of American theater, reversing the conventional view of him as a brilliant talent who sold out to Hollywood and never fulfilled his youthful promise before dying in 1963 at age 57. Indeed, 70 years after its Broadway debut, Awake And Sing! earlier this week won the Tony Award for best revival. At the risk of sounding churlish, and against my own hopes, I have to say that the production, for all of its fine performances and skillful staging, does not lift Odets to the company of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. Its proletarian realism does remind a viewer that Odets is the common ancestor to such politically engaged playwrights as Arthur Miller and Jon Robin Baitz. And yet Awake And Sing! lacks the epic intensity of Long Day's Journey Into Night or the poetic language of The Glass Menagerie, plays whose doomed families bear no small resemblance to the Bergers. THE GREAT value of this revival, at least to Jewish theatergoers, rests with its insistent lack of sentiment. When Jacob disparages the easy diversion of vaudeville, and specifically its Yiddish-language offshoot, he could just as accurately be reviling the nostalgic collective memory of Jewish immigration. The East Bronx, where the Bergers scuffle along, may not be quite as mythological as the Lower East Side, but like so many other slums of the Jewish masses it has been air-brushed over the decades into a kind of folkloric theme park. One need only read the monthly magazine Back In The Bronx, or look through the books and Web site it has spawned, to fathom the hold that this imagined past exerts on the safely acculturated and affluent Jews of the present day. Readers submit their dearest memories of candy stores, movie houses, cellar clubs, and so forth. Some were born late enough to remember the very real deprivations of the Depression years only as the prelude to all the upward mobility that would follow. Others, who came of age in hard times, have chosen the comfort of selective memory. Even some of the great bards of the Jewish Bronx, such as E.L. Doctorow and Kate Simon, wrote with the personal knowledge that the worst had passed. Awake And Sing!, in comparison, is a dispatch from the abyss, written in the early 1930s with no assurance whatsoever that mass misery would end. It belongs to a body of American Jewish literature created in the claustrophobia of despair, the literature of Anzia Yezierska and Henry Roth, the literature of the walls closing in. IN THE Bergers' Bronx, furniture piles up on the sidewalk, evidence of the latest eviction. The family makes its own rent only by taking on a gangster as a boarder and accepting the stinting charity of an allrightnik uncle, who has made it in the garment business. Pastrami is not an ethnic staple but a rare, expensive treat, saved for impressing an important visitor. For all his Marxist cant, grandfather Jacob is as ineffectual as the Talmud scholars of Yezierska's fiction; Old World anachronisms aimless in the New. He is reduced to giving nickel haircuts in the family's drab parlor. "Here without a dollar you don't look the world in the eye," says Bessie Berger, the embittered mother of the household. "Talk from now to next year, this is life in America." The poverty in Awake And Sing! does not ennoble, as American Jewish legend would have it. It just makes people poor. And with their material poverty comes a poverty of spirit, a stew of simmering resentments - about the husband who can find only part-time work, about the son who falls in love with an orphaned young woman, about the daughter who gets pregnant by the gangster and is pressed to marry the most clueless of greenhorns, tarred by Odets with the name Sam Feinschreiber. Escape comes only at a terrible cost. Bessie smashes the Enrico Caruso records that are Jacob's sole refuge. He, in turn, leaps to his death off the tenement roof, partly in the hope his death will be deemed an accident so his life insurance policy will pay for his grandson's liberation. At the play's final curtain, when the daughter leaves with her gangster lover, she and we in the audience know that she has purchased her freedom at the cost of abandoning her own child. No, this is not the Bronx of skelly games and Charlotte Russes at the sweet shop. This is the Bronx where jobless men died of heart attacks while picketing for work. This is the Bronx where families snuck out of apartments in "midnight moves" to avoid facing the landlord on rent day. Odets, writing Awake And Sing!, had little reason to think any of it would change. The British drama critic Benedict Nightingale, spending a Broadway season in the 1980s as a guest commentator for The New York Times, observed that in England all plays read like they were written by Marx and in America they read like they were all written by Freud. What he meant, in his puckish and knowing way, was that American drama, for that matter American literature, sees human struggle as an individual or familial affair rather than something inextricably bound up with the larger nature of society. Clifford Odets, as anyone going to the Belasco Theater these days will realize, shows that even a wise rule can sometimes prove wrong. The writer, whose column appears on alternate Wednesdays in the Post, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His most recent book is Letters To A Young Journalist.


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