Clifford Odets: Writing Around Jewishness
Phillips, Mary Elizabeth
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Playwright Clifford Odets was a second-generation Jewish American. He is commonly regarded as a sell-out to Hollywood who never fulfilled his artistic promise. This dissertation argues that societal pressure to assimilate was a major factor contributing to his problematic career. The context in which Odets developed as an artist was conflict-laden. He grew up in a mixed Bronx neighbourhood amidst an exchange of racial epithets. The Yiddishkeit homes of relatives and friends nourished him, and his father's interdict against Yiddish customs in the family home caused an inner rift within the boy. This binary affected Odets¿ personal relationships and, progressively, his work. He wrote his first full-length play, depicting the Depression struggles of a Bronx Jewish family, in a distinct Jewish idiom. Insecure about 'writing Jewish,' he then attempted to write his way toward centrality. Play- and screenwriting served as performative exercises in the creation of an assimilated persona. Odets spent the greater portion of his professional life in Hollywood, though he always considered himself primarily as a New York playwright. His Group Theatre training resulted in an unconventional working method that informed his plays as well as his finest screenwriting and directorial work in Hollywood. Odets' controversial testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 reflected a characteristic lack of decisiveness. He felt he had defied the Committee despite naming former colleagues as Communist Party members. Others judged him more harshly. Odets sought resolution in once again writing in an ethnic mode. But his last finished play, The Flowering Peach, is overlaid with stock Yiddishisms. The process by which it came to fruition was fraught with discord. On his deathbed he expressed profound regret for not having been 'more of a Jew.' The American assimilation process had exacted the fee of authenticity.