Every birthday I ever had I sat around. Now'sa time for standing. Poppa, I have to tell you – I don't like myself, past, present and future. Do you know there are men who have wonderful things from life? … You don't know what it means to sit around here and watch the months go ticking by! Do you think that's a life for a boy my age? Tomorrow's my birthday! I change my life! [Golden Boy]
I was in my early 20s when I saw my first Clifford Odets: just a bit older than Joe Bonaparte, the angry young hero of Golden Boy. I fell a little in love with Joe – how could I not? He's a prototype Jimmy Dean, a jazz-age juvenile delinquent. “You could build a city with his ambition to be somebody,” says the girl who silently adores him. “No,” replies his father, morosely: “burn down.”
Golden Boy is film noir transposed to the stage, populated by gangsters and philosophising Italians, girls who feel dead inside and men clinging to their last shred of hope. At the heart of it is Joe, the poor, bullied son of an immigrant, desperate to achieve something amid the arrogant skyscrapers and exhibitionist cars of New York. He's a musician, but “music is the great cheer-up in the language of all countries”, as Mr Bonaparte puts it, and so has become symptomatic for Joe of the spiritual weakness he senses in himself but can't articulate and doesn't know how to redress. “If music shot bullets I'd like it better,” he tells Lorna, his only solace. “Artists and people like that are freaks today. The world moves fast and they sit around like forgotten dopes.”
In the memorably ambitious fringe production I saw, Golden Boy was gut-wrenching to watch: Joe makes a string of wrong choices, glories in them, and in the most violent of circumstances discovers the magnitude of his mistakes. “I've been running around in circles,” he says, in a stunned moment of regret. The people who “conquer the world” are the ones who can stand tall and say: “I have myself; I am what I want to be!” His realisation leads to that moment that, I'm learning, eventually comes in all of Odets' 1930s/Group Theatre plays, when Odets' own romantic-idealist-socialist manifesto is voiced in a passionate blaze:
Somewhere there must be happy boys and girls who can teach us the way of life! We'll find some city where poverty's no shame – where music is no crime! – where there's no war in the streets – where a man is glad to be himself, to live and make his woman herself!
Outbursts like this look so sentimental on the page, but that's romantic, idealistic socialism for you: set against the impersonal, mechanistic, pragmatic brutality of capitalism it has a tendency to appear somewhat wan. Not to me, though: Odets envisages life as I want to live it, seeks a world I want my children to enter in the future. And his dreams aren't necessarily the stuff of fairy tales, something made clear in Rocket to the Moon. Look at the character names: Belle, Stark, Prince. Rocket, it struck me when watching it at the National recently, is a deliberate, feminist deconstruction of fairy-tale promises. In Odets' fable, Belle marries not a beast but a man called Stark, stark reality, and they could be happy together, if he only had more courage, the self-belief that Joe Bonaparte looks for. And his self-moulding heroine, Cleo Singer (once again, the centrality of art to Odets' vision), rejects the advances of Mr Prince, with his peacock armour and hollow promises of wealth and ease, in a fervent declaration:
If there's roads, I'll take them. I'll go up all those roads till I find what I want. I want a love that uses me, that needs me. Don't you think there's a world of joyful men and women? Must all men live afraid to laugh and sing? Can't we sing at work and love our work? It's getting late to play at life; I want to live it.
Love, love, love. No one can do anything alone. The American Dream is for the pioneer, the lonely hunter, the self-aggrandizing man. Odets rejects that: he argues that men and women must work together; that men cannot truly be themselves, cannot hope to realise their fullest potential, without women; that the strongest society has its foundations not in money but the bonds of love. There is a wonderful moment in Rocket when Frenchy wonders whether capitalism, the selfishness it engenders, the disparity it demands, makes that kind of love impossible:
Love is a beginning, a jumping-off place. It's like what heat is at the forge – makes the metal easy to handle and shape. But love and the grace to use it! To develop, expand it, variate it! … Who can do that today? … the free exercise of love, I figure, gets harder every day.
Rocket is unflinching in its examination of the difficulties of marriage: for all his idealism, Odets expects nothing to be easy. His portrait of a marriage in Awake and Sing! is excoriating: Bessie, nerves frayed, snapping constantly at everyone around her, undermining them, leeching their spirits; Myron shrivelled and ineffectual, offering no support to his wife, no guidance to his children; the two of them shrivelled not so much by poverty but by Bessie's insidious, destructive desire to keep up with the neighbours and maintain a facade of conventional respectability. We never see Cleo's mother in Rocket to the Moon, but I bet she's just like Bessie:
My mother's always trying to hold me back, not to have all the experiences I can. Those people think you can live on good advice. Don't you think life is to live all you can and experience everything? Isn't that the only way you can develop to be a real human being?
It takes a death for Bessie's children to find the courage to seize at life, to allow themselves not to feel guilty about going up their own roads; just as it takes a death for Joe to learn what he really wanted from the world. And this, maybe, is what I love most about Odets: his plays show you broken people in moments of shattering (but potentially transforming) self-discovery, so you can learn their lessons, change your life, without breaking too. Reading through the Methuen collected edition recently (not Paradise Lost, though: I'm patiently saving that thrill of discovery for when it must and shall be staged), one speech shone out at me. It's old Jacob, Bessie's beleaguered, kindly father in Awake and Sing!, taking the youth of Depression-strangled America by the scruff of the neck and giving them a shake:
Look on this failure and see for seventy years he talked, with good ideas, but only in the head. … This is why I tell you – DO! Do what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution.
I'm tattooing those words on my own heart, so I never, ever forget.