This west coast actor and teacher names Odets’ 1938 play Rocket to the Moon as one of the five plays on his acting bucket list, supporting my conviction that Rocket is right up there with Awake and Sing! and the also-under-appreciated Paradise Lost. Just above it on the list is The Miracle Worker, by Odets’ former student and very close friend, William Gibson. By way of citation, here is the link to the article: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/aug/20/theater-my-acting-bucket-list-francis-gercke/
On 18 July 1906, Clifford Odets was born.
I want to make clear that I am not writing Odets’ biography because I think he was the greatest playwright in all the world, or because of his sometimes sensational life, or because he was briefly married to a movie star. I’m writing Odets’ life because he was a seminal artist, a breakthrough writer who could pack breathtaking poetry into a line of street talk. I’m writing this biography because my subject was a complex human being whose engine ran on talent. Like all men, he had foibles. They sometimes undermined his exemplary qualities. Clifford Odets lived during one of the most fraught and confusing times in human history, and his work reflected his times. “I will reveal America to itself by revealing myself to myself.” He truly strove to do this. He was relentlessly honest, recklessly generous. He strove and he struggled. He succeeded; he failed. As a father, he was tyrannical; he was also indelibly inspiring. He could be frightening, he could be tender.
Despite the success of Golden Boy the previous year, Broadway wunderkind Clifford Odets spent the evening of November 24, 1938 vomiting in the men’s room of the Belasco Theatre. It was opening night of his new play, Rocket to the Moon, an allegory with a quieter message than critics and audience had come to expect from the radical left-wing playwright. Years later, Arthur Miller would comment that Rocket to the Moon was Odets’ “one real success as a writer, and one with a central symbol that emits an integral power, not merely a rhetorical one, and does it naturally.” The play’s claustrophobic setting is that of a dentist’s waiting room at the height of an oppressive summer. At the play’s end, Ben Stark, the dentist, refers to it as his “prison-office.”
The subtle power of Rocket lies in its exposure of an inherent fallacy still driving us today. Two weeks after the play opened at the Belasco, Time magazine ran a cover photo of a beaming Odets, captioned, “Down with the General Fraud!” Odets defined the general fraud as “the American dream, the Cinderella formula, the success story … American men are its chief victims.” Though we would now include American women, Odets described an addiction that we still haven’t kicked: the fundamental belief that the sole measure of achievement and route to “success” is found in the chase for the almighty buck.
Odets’ 1938 play reflects a nation clutching to itself a last remnant of optimism worn threadbare by eight years of the Great Depression, a crisis abruptly deepened by a 13-month recession that began in May 1937. As the country began to ease out of this critical slump in June ’38, events in Europe and Asia became increasingly alarming. World War II had been initiated on the Pacific front the previous year. Spain’s democratically elected Republican government was on the brink of decimation by Franco’s fascist Nationalists in league with Mussolini, Hitler, and the Vatican. With sheer bluster, Nazi Germany finagled the annexation of Austria in March ‘38. On September 29, Great Britain, France and Italy signed the Munich Pact, gifting Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region to Hitler in the spirit of appeasement. Having no intention of honoring the terms of the agreement, Germany soon subsumed the rest of Czechoslovakia. The horrific high point of the Nazi year was Kristallnacht, the government sanctioned anti-Jewish pogrom that accelerated implementation of Hitler’s Final Solution. A month after Odets appeared on the cover of Time, that magazine named Adolf Hitler “Man of the Year.” Such is the backstory of the characters’ world in Rocket to the Moon. Life in 1938 was as full of fraud, terrorism and economic uncertainty as it is today.
In 1938 Odets was thirty-two, full of an idealism that never left him, and acutely sensitive to world events. He was embroiled in a rapidly disintegrating marriage to the actress Luise Rainer. With everything around him about to collapse, Odets found it difficult to focus on writing Rocket, desperately needed by the Group Theatre to open its new fall season. Odets had first gone out to Hollywood in 1936 to write for the studios in order to raise money for the Group. In the 1938 Time cover story, he declared that the Hollywood system was out “to emasculate me.” Similarly, at the top of Rocket, Belle Stark says to her acquiescent husband, Ben, “I want you to make up your own mind, or see that I’m right.” Belle’s modus operandi as a wife is a system that pulverizes her mate. “I wanted to do something, what was it?” Ben asks, having once again repressed an impulse. Ben will do anything to appease Belle. Ben is a good citizen of the country of marriage. Later in the play he has an affair that awakens in him a new sense of possibility, but he freezes when challenged to move on it.
Six and a half months before his death in 1963, Odets told an interviewer, “I would want to talk, in our country particularly, about the fulfillment of each individual human being. I would like to make a statement … about what in our American world develops … and what holds them back, what stymies them. We pick up the techniques … of conciliation, ingratiation, of selling [one]self. Such experience shrivels our souls.” It was a theme–a reality–that never ceased to perplex Odets. Rocket to the Moon is but an early exploration. Instead of acting on his own behalf, Ben Stark implodes. “What I don’t know would fill a book!” he declares. Does he remain entangled in the nexus of his wife’s bourgeois expectations, failing to pursue what he doesn’t know? We leave the theatre wondering why he tore up his ticket to the moon–his big chance–while we go home to our pile of bills and our static jobs. If we find ourselves perplexed, it is perhaps because the playwright was still pondering the issue 25 years later. It was the central issue not only of Rocket to the Moon, but of Clifford Odets’ life, and, perhaps, of our own.
 Arthur Miller, Timebends, 233).
 Time magazine, 5 Dec 1938, Vol. XXXII, No. 23. THEATRE sec., p. 44-7, entitled “White Hope.”
 Time magazine, 2 Jan ’39, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1.
 “Sum and Substance,” an interview by Herman Harvey with Clifford Odets, 2/3/63. [Cupertino, Calif.]: Citadel Video, ©1990. Viewed at UCLA Film &Television Archives, 9-22-14.
There is much misinformation about Odets flying around the web on the occasion of Luise Rainer’s death. Misinformation regarding this most controversial of playwrights proliferates–yet another reason to issue a new, comprehensive biography, a daunting project which I’ve undertaken. Margaret Brenman-Gibson’s exhaustive Clifford Odets, American Playwright, covers only through 1940. Odets died in 1963.
I’ve just commented on someone else’s blog, dedicated to Luise Rainer, that the play that Odets was working on the night he and Rainer were married (8 Jan 1937) was not Rocket to the Moon, as was stated in the posting, but either The Silent Partner, a labor play that the Group Theatre repeatedly rejected, or an unfinished project to which he had turned his attention, about the Soviet novelist Ilya Ehrenburg.
Please bring to my attention any errata you might spot, in addition to any queries you might have, or anything of interest regarding Odets and his time period (1906-1963). Thanks–I need all the help I can get!