Interview: Walt Odets

The son of playwright Clifford Odets tells John Nathan about the dark side of an American cultural icon, and his own father’s struggles against political persecution.

November 12, 2010
Walt Odets

Walt Odets

There are two plays by two of America's finest dramatists currently being staged in London. One of them, Arthur Miller's Broken Glass (at the Tricycle Theatre), is a very Jewish play by a writer whose work was not considered to be very Jewish at all. The other, Clifford Odets's The Country Girl, is a non-Jewish play by a writer whose work is generally thought to be very Jewish indeed. In either case, Jewishness, by its presence or its absence, defines them.

There was a reason for its absence in The Country Girl. Odets needed money and set about writing a drama that would appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

"It is his most non-Jewish work," reflects the playwright's son, Walt. "He wrote it at a time after he and my mother were divorced and when he was supporting two children."

Clifford, an intense, serious-minded, melancholic man, was the son of Russian immigrants. His father, Louis, ran a series of successful businesses and could never understand why a son of his would want to be something as flaky and poorly paid as a playwright. He did not change his view even after Clifford won acclaim for plays such as Waiting for Lefty and the Bronx-set, Depression-era Awake and Sing!, which features the febrile Jewish family, the Bergers. It was written in 1935 while Odets was a member of the influential Group Theatre collective, along with Lee Strasberg and Miller, among others.

The Country Girl - which in its latest production stars Martin Shaw as washed-up, alcoholic actor Frank Elgin and Jenny Seagrove as his long-suffering wife, Georgie - opened in 1950, by which time the writer had divorced for the second time and had Walt -who is now a 63-year-old pyschologist and author - to look after as well as his prematurely born, brain-damaged daughter, Nora.

"In The Country Girl you've got these male characters with Scottish and English names, and Georgie, the female lead is from Hartford, Connecticut, which is not a Jewish town," says Walt. But even with creating deliberately gentile characters, Odets used the soaring language that made such a mark with Awake and Sing!, and the rhythms he learned from his own immigrant family. In other words, he could not help but write

"In terms of a larger non-Jewish audience he doesn't have the kind of following that Eugene O'Neill has or Arthur Miller," admits Walt. "Arthur didn't write as a Jew." That is not the only difference between the two Jewish playwrights who dominated the American theatre scene in the mid-20th century. Both were hauled before Senator Joseph MaCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (Huac), investigating communist activity in Hollywood, but it was Odets who suffered more from the experience.

Arthur Miller with his then wife Marilyn Monroe in 1957.  He is said to have "treated Marilyn badly"

Arthur Miller with his then wife Marilyn Monroe in 1957. He is said to have "treated Marilyn badly"

The committee had accused him of being "active in communism", and, in fact, he had been a member of the Communist Party, but he resigned after a few months when he realised he was expected to promote communist doctrine in his plays.

Miller pleaded the Fifth Amendment, which allowed him to avoid answering the committee's questions. Odets chose not to, and named colleagues who had communist associations. For the rest of his life he was tormented by allegations that he had collaborated with MacCarthy's witchhunt. It was deeply unfair, says Walt.

"In the United States, the Fifth Amendment gives you the right not to testify against yourself about criminal activity you have engaged in. So by taking the Fifth you are positing that you have engaged in criminal activity."

Walt's point is that his father refused to play the committee's game and take the Fifth, which would imply he had something to hide. Also, at his hearing, he gave the members hell for their policy of persecution (a fact not completely revealed until the full testimony was made public decades later). And, says Walt, Odets was careful to only name names previously mentioned by, among others, the film director Elia Kazan.

Did Odets ever talk to Miller about this? His support might have been useful.

"I don't know," says Walt. "I grew up on the anti-Arthur Miller side of things in the States." Walt's father was very close to the Strasbergs. By the time Miller's marriage to Marilyn Monroe began to fail, the Strasbergs - by then the doyens of the Method acting technique - were much closer to Monroe than to Miller.

"The Strasberg version of the marriage was that Arthur treated Marilyn badly," says Walt. "So I grew up with bad feelings about Miller. I met Arthur a few times and he was a very hard, cold man. He was the kind of guy who doesn't like children or dogs. And for a child that is immediately perceptible."

"Someone once said to me about Arthur that he was the waspiest Jew he'd ever met. And I think that kind of comes through in the plays."

The plays and Miller's persona are not the only things that informed Walt's view. While Miller is widely held to be the liberal conscience of 20th-century American drama, for Walt that reputation sits uneasily with the way Miller dealth with his Down's Syndrome son, especially when compared to the way Odets treated his disabled daughter.

"Arthur put his son in a Connecticut state mental institution for 30 years and didn't visit him. My father insisted on my sister living with us, much to my detriment - and my father's, I might add. It was very difficult. When I was 12, I wanted to leave for a boarding school. He told me that he agreed it would be the best thing for me, but that he couldn't let me go away and leave him with Nora. 'I just can't let you do that', he said.

"It became a big problem between us. He was trying to balance it out. I just wish the balance had been different, although I do understand his point of view. I had a lot of empathy with him. But I couldn't stand to be with Nora anymore."

The Country Girl served its purpose. For a while its success allowed Odets to escape the Hollywood scriptwriting treadmill. Watching the play now holds particular pleasures for the son who was only 16 when his father died in 1963. "When I watch my father's work I can hear his voice," says Walt. "It's like visiting him. That part of it, I really enjoy."

'The Country Girl' is at the Apollo Theatre, London WC2 until February 26 2011.

Last updated: 10:04am, November 12 2010