Here we look at how the social, cultural and historical factors of the 1920’s and 1930’s may have affected the writing, producing and performance of the play, ‘Waiting For Lefty’, by Clifford Odet. Social factors The play was written and performed in 1962. There are many social factors of the 1930’s that would have affected the writing, producing and performance of the play. E. g. the play was written at a time of great poverty in the Untied States. Odets would have seen and felt the great pain of the depression and the suffering it causes around him.
Many people were thrown out of their homes and their possessions were taken (Joe and Edna had all their furniture taken). Odets was also affected by the communist scares and accusations that were thrown around the 1920’s and 1930’s. He would have seen how people were too scared to strike in case of being called and tried as a ‘Red’ (Communist). Around the time Odets wrote the play there was also huge problems in Hollywood, with officials naming Hollywood directors and actors as Communists for making and acting in films that promoted a greater need for socialism.
Also in this decade there was a large influx of European immigrants attracted by the image of a better life in America. These immigrants were seen as a burden to society and were greeted with much hatred and anxiety. This perhaps explains the large amounts of colloquial racism that appears in the play, ‘the pllacks and nigers, they’re better drunk’. Such language however is deemed inappropriate in today’s society, but to Americans in the 20’s and 30’s it would have been seen as quite acceptable. Around this time there was also a scare of another war approaching in Europe.
This made people fearful and vigilant to Government operations. We see how the WW2 is brought into this play, when the lab assistant is asked to make poison gas to sell to Europe. Cultural There was also a great deal of cultural factors that would have affected this play. Going back to the depression, many Americans lived off and survived through the hard work of others and charity. This created a great deal of ‘community’ feelings among people. In effect this helped Americans to stick together and rally up whenever a cause worth fighting for occurred.
We see this in the play when the Workers Union calls on a Cab strike at the end of the play. Again the influx of immigrants from Europe meant that the culture of America was extremely diverse although the resentment of others often kept different peoples apart. In many Americans hearts still lived the famous ‘American Dream’. They were disturbed and torn by the poverty that surrounded them instead of the riches they were once promised. This helped to dishearten faith in the Government but more importantly the Institution the country was built on.
Odet must have felt that the country he once loved was falling apart due to government control and foolish propaganda schemes. This would have affected the producing and performance of the play, as the director would have wanted the actors to be able to relate to the peoples troubles so as to reveal the realism behind the plot. The actors would have also wanted the audience to be as disgusted with the poverty as they were so would have conveyed certain points as explicitly as they could.
E. g. make the rich characters appear fat and slobbish. Historical The main historical factor that would have affected Clifford Odet’s writing of the play would have probably been World War 1. Although the war had finished quite some years before, there would have still been evident, the loss and death caused by it. Many people were widowed or orphaned due to World War One so the tragedy of the event would have remained with the people who felt it. Odets would have seen the affects of war so therefore tried to deter people from it in his play.
Again the ‘Lab Assistant’ scene shows this. Looking back on the play it is hard to know whether Clifford Odet was using his play as a political instrument or merely as a tool to reflect back on the past. As many of the strikes in America were still active during the time he wrote the play, I presume that he was showing people the power they posses when they were together in a movement. I also believe that Odet’s intentions were to ridicule the proposal that because you questioned the state you were a ‘Red’.
I think that by using the term ‘Red’ as often as he could and to ever he could in the play Odet was trying to show that any loyal loving American could be pronounced a communist traitor to their nation. Conclusion It is my opinion that the play was meant as a political tool to try and get working class people to strike. At the end of each performance there would be actors concealed in the audience that would shout ‘strike’, as the characters on stage did.
With the audience believing that the actors in the audience were members of the public it would give them the confidence to also shout ‘Strike’. This would therefore build up moral among the working classes and solidify their causes, which could lead them to strike in the future. It is also my opinion that the play would have been received and performed quite differently in earlier performances, as it would be now. For instances the use of racist language would have been quite acceptable in 1960’s America, but is thought as extremely unreasonable in today’s society.
I very much doubt that the audience would have even noticed the use of racist language in the play as it was so commonly used back then. As a direct result, actors performing the play nowadays would probably emphasize such phrases as ‘Pollack’s and niggers’ so as to stir up emotions in the audience and to convey how racist some people back then were. From the position of a performer, I found it difficult to get into role as the characters in the play as their lives are so different to my own. Society as a whole has completely changed.
The majority of characters in the play are uneducated, living in absolute poverty and can see no light at the end of their dark tunnel. They would have also seen the devastation caused by war and would fear any prospect of a future one. In comparison with today’s society, which when confronted with a possible war in the Middle East only seems partially concerned or bothered by the prospect. It was for these reasons that I found it incredibly hard to relate to the lives of the 1920’s characters.