Sinking Into Success: Playwright Clifford Odets

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Previews for The Big Knife begin on March 22nd. It opens April 16th. Click here for more information.


By 1940 the playwright Clifford Odets already had a Broadway hit (Awake and Sing!), a Hollywood screen credit (The General Died at Dawn) and his face on the cover of Time Magazine. In February of that year he wrote a note to himself in his journal: “Do you know I’m beginning to think you are a very ordinary fellow. You are vain, dishonest, morally lax, you are proud, you are lazy and self-indulgent. Aren’t you really sinking deeper every week into the feather bed of a successful career? Read this again in a week. In another week, again.”

At 19 Odets was in Greenwich Village trying to make it as an actor. After playing bit parts in the Theater Guild he fell under the spell of Harold Clurman and the legendary Lee Strasberg, soon joining the Group Theater. It was there that he was inspired to write his own plays. In 1935 Odets’ rousing, one-act labor drama Waiting for Lefty became an instant hit.

That same year Awake and Sing! hit Broadway, and Hollywood came calling in earnest.  The conflicted Odets wrestled with his commitment to New York theater and progressive politics, and decided to go west.

After years of working on screenplays in Hollywood, Odets wrote the play The Big Knife in 1949 – taking Hollywood as his subject and creating a memorably-villainous studio head. Odets wrote the scathing play at the height of McCarthyism during which he, and the star of The Big Knife John Garfield, were eventually called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Later Odets’ screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success depicted another despicable villain in the notorious J.J. Hunsecker.

Odets died in 1963, torn to the very end.


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