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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1937

"Till the Day I Die" — An Appreciation of the Drama of Clifford Odets

page 10

"Till the Day I Die"

An Appreciation of the Drama of Clifford Odets

In an age when the effusiveness of dramatic reviews is invariably directly proportional to the size of the accompanying advertising bill, one becomes accustomed to the indiscriminate use of superlatives, but no financial consideration is necessary to secure for the Dramatic Club production of Odet's play, "Till the Day I Die," the tribute of a first-class effort.

The writer, a former V.U.C. student, was well prepared for what the mimeographed programme charitably referred to as "the limited facilities at our disposal." And limited indeed they were. From the ramshackle stage and grating loudspeaker system to the bare bones of the Gym. Hall, probably nothing could more have militated against the successful production of such a play as this one. But somehow, the spirit of the play and the actors and the intelligent sympathy of the student audience caused one to pass over the difficulties. What must have seemed agonisingly long curtained intervals to the producer did not seem so long to the front of the house. And even the anti-climax of the misfiring revolver on the first night failed to evoke a single diversion in the audience. Sufficient in itself is that, for a tribute to the dramatic skill of Odets and to the ability of the cast.

But if one forgot these shortcomings during the show, they should not be forgotten here. The conventional, self-satisfied attitude towards the superiority of New Zealand's educational system which is too often adopted by organs and men of public authority, cannot sound well in the ears of those who have seen the obstacles with which student amateur drama is confronted in each of the universities in this country. For even if amateur dramatics yields no dividends and gives no assistance to armament manufacture, a world which places education on almost as dizzy a pinnacle as these, might well endow Victoria College with the means of developing this most fruitful of arts, and in so doing, save the student body the indignity of begging for Building Funds . . . this without prejudice to the present Government which has shown that, given popular support, it can and will extend educational services.

Despite the fact that adequate theatrical facilities would have added enormously to the emotional value of the play, the bleak surroundings of the Gym. seemed to merge well with the theme for Odets' drama is nothing if not the product of struggle. The young dramatist, a Jew by nationality, has known from his own experience something of racial oppression and indifference, which coupled with his rather lowly middle-class birth, has meant for him a very real struggle for an education and for an outlet of his brilliant talents.

The talents which he possesses might well have led him to the mansions of the wealthy, into the exclusive circles of New York Society, but Odets has remained true to the people of his class. For his themes he has gone to the heart of the workers, to the striking taxi-drivers in his unforgettable "Waiting for Lefty," to the desperate suburban home of the impoverished professional worker for his "Paradise Lost," and to the nameless persecuted anti-fascists for his present "Till the Day I Die." For his inspiration he has drawn on his warm sympathy for the oppressed working class and his hatred for the wealthy and callously indifferent upper classes. And finally for his vehicle, he has gone to the Workers' Theatre which he found struggling and persecuted and which he has helped to build to quarter-million audiences and three-month Broadway seasons.

If Odets is to be conveniently ticketed, he might well be called the dramatist of the Depression. Spending his early twenties during the years 1930-1935, when the workers and middle-class professionals were suffering the cruellest deprivations of wage-cuts, unemployment, relief queues, and the like, there can be no doubt that the young dramatist was deeply affected by their sufferings and splendidly partisan in the many long and bitter struggles which the working-class waged against the moguls of American finance and industry. He became part of the workers' movement to emerge its premier playwright and dramatic propagandist.

In 1935 Odets along with members of the Group Theatre, an organisation allied to the two other working class theatre movements, produced a Sunday evening benefit performance page 11 for the New York taxi-strikers who had been victims of the hired thugs and gunmen of the employers. "Waiting for Lefty," itself a dramatisation of an incident during that strike, from that short forty-minute Sunday night season became a major stage sensation, sweeping through the States to Australia and New Zealand, and to the yet democratic remnants of the Continent. To the striking longshoremen of San Francisco, to the Detroit automobile workers fighting for union recognition, bands of strolling working-class actors took the story of "Lefty." No soft Pullman cars, no furs and frocks for Press photographers to dazzle the morning readers; the actors, rode, slept and acted in their denims and dungarees, "bummed" their transport from passing vehicles, slept their harder nights in county gaols . . . but they took triumphantly to the American working class its own answer to the "prosperity" ballyhoo of the "Golddiggers"—the drama of the rising working-class revolt.

"Lefty" was booked for Broadway—but forty minutes was too short for a main theatre. Five days remained before the opening night, and still no second attraction was found suitable in theme to succeed "Lefty" on the programme. In those five days and nights, Odets basing his story on a letter from a German concentration camp appearing in the worker's journal, "New Masses," wrote the second play for that programme. Hastily rehearsed, the programme went to the boards and 250,000 people passed the ticket-box before "Lefty" and "Till the Day I Die" closed its season at the Longacre Theatre.

So a new force has burst on to the American stage. "Distinction," "exciting," "dynamic," "not since Eugene O'Neill." . . . so the critics. One thing is certain. Odets has moulded a new drama, drastic in its social realism, which will give to the working-class movements of every English-speaking country at any rate, an impetus of which the consequences cannot yet be reckoned. He has given an effective answer to the well-bred snobbery of the upper social register which has denied the working-class any appreciation of art and culture. On the stage in place of the snivelling smut of nude parades and dancing beauties, he has put real live workaday people, and the stalls that were given over to the pearl studs and the tuxedos now have their complement of fellows in open shirts and slacks.

Clifford Odets has married Luise Rainer, the talented Viennese film star. Rumour has it that she too will throw in her lot with the workers' theatre. Who knows but that these two, together with the Millicent Greens. The hardy Hollywood core of supporters, James Cagney, Basil Rathbone. Frederick March, John Ford, to name a few only, may shortly dominate the film and give to us something of the feast which New York theatre has enjoyed these past two seasons.