Production History of
WAITING FOR LEFTY
THE TIMES . . .
WAITING FOR LEFTY was the second play the then
28-year-old Clifford Odets had ever written (he had completed AWAKE AND
SING a few months before), but it was his first to ever be
performed. He wrote the play in just three days in 1934 basing it very
directly on an actual New York City cabdrivers' strike that had taken place
earlier that same year.
America was in the depths of the Great
Depression. One in every four workers was unemployed. Those who
were lucky enough to be employed
eeked by on meager pay. 1934 was filled with some of the most harrowing
America had ever known up to that time. That year, strikes
exploded into violent clashes with the Police, the National Guard, and even
the Army in Minneapolis, San Francisco, Honea Path, South Carolina, and
Woonsocket, Rhode Island, with many killed on both sides.
The struggle for the rights of Labor was the central
issue of the day and WAITING FOR LEFTY was very consciously written to
speak to this issue in a way that no play had ever done before.
THE FIRST PERFORMANCE.
WAITING FOR LEFTY made its world debut on
January 5, 1935 as a one-night-only performance at the Civic Repertory Theatre
on Fourteenth Street. The event was presented by the notoriously daring
Group Theatre (of which Odets had been a member since 1931) as a fund-raiser
for the New Theater Magazine. The play was directed by Sanford Meisner
with a cast that featured now legendary names like Lee J. Cobb (who went on to
star in such films as ON THE WATERFRONT and TWELVE ANGRY MEN)
and Elia Kazan (Director of films like ON THE WATERFRONT, A
STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and A FACE IN THE CROWD), as well as Odets
Odets, Cobb, and Kazan -- all three of whom were
members of the Communist Party at that time -- delivered many of the play's
most radical speeches (ironically, all three of these men would later renounce
their radical pasts and name names for the House on Un-American Activities
The audience was immediately entranced by WAITING
FOR LEFTY. Group Theatre member Harold Clurman would later write
that within minutes of the curtain going up on the play's opening scene: “Line
after line brought applause, whistles, bravos, and heartfelt shouts of kinship.”
Odets himself recalled: “You saw for the first
time theatre as a cultural force. There was such an at-oneness with
audience and actors that the actors didn’t know whether they were acting and
the audience didn’t know whether they were sitting and watching it, or had
changed positions.” He continued, “I found myself up on my feet
shouting ‘Bravo!’ . . . I forgot I wrote the play, forgot I was in the
play. . . . The proscenium arch disappeared.”
Kazan, after a career in which he directed
several of Broadway's greatest triumphs (such as A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,
DEATH OF A SALESMAN, and THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, to name only a
few), would look back on that first performance of WAITING FOR LEFTY
and say: “It was the most overwhelming reception I’ve ever heard in the
When the play was over, the audience went
wild. Applause lasted for a record-breaking twenty-eight curtain
calls. Working class members of the audience stormed on to the stage
overjoyed. They hoisted Odets up on their shoulders and spent almost a
full hour cheering, chanting, and celebrating. Members of the
Longshoreman's Union in attendance spontaneously declared themselves on strike
-- no specific demands, no plan of action, just an outright celebration of
THE FIRST PRODUCTION . . .
After such a jubilant reception, the Group Theatre
was quick to arrange for a full production of WAITING FOR LEFTY which
opened -- with cast and crew unchanged -- at the Longacre Theatre (named for
its location on Longacre Square, which was soon to be renamed "Times
Square") on March 26, 1935 and ran for four months. It was
remounted at the Belasco Theatre in September.
This production was extraordinarily successful
drawing the attention of newspapers, magazines, labor activists, politicians,
and working people everywhere. Still just 28 years old, Clifford Odets
enjoyed a meteoric rise to national prominence. Time Magazine placed his
picture on the cover. The New Yorker Magazine dubbed him: "Revolution's
No. 1 Boy."
AND SO IT SPREAD . . .
WAITING FOR LEFTY was soon being performed
by theaters across the Country. The Communist Party organized an
all-Black rendition of the play in Harlem in 1936. Unions and pro-Labor
organizations routinely held performances and staged readings of the play as
part of Labor-related events and strike-support activity.
As Odets put it, the play quickly became “a kind
of light machine gun that you wheeled in to use whenever there was any kind of
Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, WAITING
FOR LEFTY was one of the most produced plays in America.
LEGACY TODAY . . .
Today, WAITING FOR LEFTY is respected as
one of the defining works of its Era and its original production is seen as
one of the critical moments in the development of Realism in the American
Theatre. The play is remembered in the same breath as masterpieces like
THE GRAPES OF WRATH as an incomparable artistic testament to the plight of
the Great Depression and the struggles of working people everywhere.
For any artist who wishes to speak out on the issues
of their day, WAITING FOR LEFTY stands out as a powerful beacon of what
is possible -- the standard by which all other political theatre must measure
We at Subversive Theatre are proud to do our small
part to help keep this play's revolutionary tradition alive and well on into
the Twenty-First Century!