After reading and watching a performance online of Waiting for Lefty plus researching about The Group Theatre I asked myself the same question that so many people did before me: did the play cause a revolution back in 1935 when it was making headlines after its premiere and rushing audiences to the theatre? It certainly caused a commotion because such “Strike” call directly at the spectators was unforeseen, but I could not find any related real protests that took place related to the play.
Perhaps the biggest protest was happening inside people’s heads when they were forced to face their situations and at least think about it, reflect upon the paths they had, the ways they could try to improve their situation or at least die trying. Although the play might have been based in a real taxi strike, it must have foreseen future strikes, too, serve as a model. Nevertheless for most people, retreating and keeping quiet was more reliable than risking everything even if that everything was so little, putting family aside. It was easier to blame the Great Depression than to take action.
Because Odets and his Group Theatre represented left-wing ideas, it is interesting how the US government was playing with the minds of the American citizens what allegiance to Communist views was concerned. In a way, it was not unlawful to think like a communist, but because of the mass hysteria known as “Red Scare” introduced by senator McCarthy, the population saw in the communists a threat (when not salvation). Waiting for Lefty was considered to many a sort of communist propagandist medium because calling for equality, better wages and improved working conditions was not something that a capitalist state like America was supposed to exercise, in spite of the quote from the Constitution: “All Men are created equal” (putting the negroes, Indians, women and illiterate white mob aside).
My point in this brief line of thought is: What is the true power of theatre? What brings audiences to explode? Is it perhaps anyone saying the write words (“strike”) in the right time (amidst the Great Depression with its indecent working conditions, when there was work at all)? In times when no television existed, theatre reigned absolute in terms of entertainment, social gathering and most importantly information exchange. But when times started changing, people started changing, too. Theatre became more expensive and step-by-step the image behind it became bourgeois-nized. Especially during the Depression the majority of the population could hardly make ends meet, simply survive with some left dignity, so there could not have been money left for entertainment. Unless the ticket price was for free, the mob, to which the play was reaching out, trying to move through merging them in the play, not always could pay 25 to 90 cents per head, when that could buy a bit of flour or some eggs. Those Rockefeller’s, Carnegie’s and Morgan’s types who could afford entertainment in the 1930s did not care for a change in the system (what they play was calling for), although it was of their won interest to be a step ahead and know what eventually could become a problem.
Apart from being a mirror of society (inside of outside of characters’ living rooms), theatre in Odets’ time was fierce and fresh and bold, but basically it did not help anybody financially. It was entertainment. America could only be grateful for their involvement in WWII because that would finally bring people’s thoughts to something else other than financial crisis, misery and finger pointing. America used the war to seal some life-saving financial deals as well. America took its chance and won, when the rest of the world was collapsing and people were dying.
In sum, Odets might have awakened a revolutionary spirit in most of the spectators through its fresh ‘living theatre’, but the population was not ready to explode after watching a performance and I wonder if it will ever be. It could be the trigger or that last drop of water in a full glass, no doubt, but from my own life experiences and some historical facts I learned that most people prefer to keep quiet than to speak up and be in trouble. A play will hardly change that.
It is a remarkable play anyway because even though the targeted audience – mistreated working force, not always could afford a dinner and a show (preferring the first one), they might have heard of it from others who watched it, who filled the theatres for what the play promised (possibility of change) and might have become inspired by the take-action spirit, even if that spirit was “alive and kicking” inside when it seemed to be dead from outside.
Luciana B. Veit