Waiting for Lefty (1935) by Clifford Odets

Study Guide:

Waiting for Lefty, unlike traditional plays, is overtly political. It is intended to provoke direct political action.

It was written in 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression. FDR had been elected to the Presidency in 1932, and he had passed the first wave of New Deal legislation, creating the 'alphabet soup' of federal agencies designed to put the country back to work. However, by 1935 conditions for most workers had not changed, and radical political movements were afoot. On the left, the American Communist Party was receiving more support than at any time in its existence. On the right, radical political movements as well questioned whether the American form of government would survive.

Waiting for Lefty is not designed to entertain middle class theatre-goers with a moving plot which unfolds the psychological complexity of its characters. It was written to be performed in union halls in New York City and around the country. It targets working class people, speaks to them in their own language, and urges them to confront directly the economic crisis in their lives. Odets creates the illusion that a real union meeting is underway. He plants angry hacks in the audience. On stage, the scenes themselves are played by union workers, not professional actors. The illusion is that they act out scenes from their lives to show the audience the real truth in their lives. It is rough theatre whose sole purpose is to agitate the audience and inspire them to take radical political action: strike, demonstrate and protest.

In each of the short sketches which compose the play, consider the technique that Odets uses to hit the workers hard, right in the solar plexus. Look for the moment in each scene when the light dawns on a particular character and he or she resolves to join up with Lefty.

Prologue: Harry Fatt's Union

  • What is Union Leader Harry Fatt's advice to the local taxicab drivers?
  • Why does he have an armed man on stage and thugs in the hall?
  • Where is Lefty, the local union leader?
  • How does Harry Fatt label anyone who disagrees with his advice? 

Sketch One: Joe and Edna (523-27)

  • What is the situation that Joe finds when he comes home having earned a buck sixty for his day?
  • Edna wants Joe to do something, anything. She reminds him that her father acted like a man back in 1919. What reasons does Joe use to argue against striking?
  • How does Edna finally convince him to go meet up with Lefty?

Sketch Two: Lab Assistant Episode (527-30)

  • What project is Fayette trying to recruit Miller into?
  • What memories make Miller hesitate?
  • What is the real reason why Fayette wants a young scientist like Miller on the project?
  • When does the light turn on for Miller?

Sketch Three: Young Hack and His Girl (530-34)

  • Why does Irv order his sister Flor to stop seeing her boyfriend, Sid?
  • What fantasies do Flor and Sid indulge in as they wonder what it would be like to have money?
  • What options do they really have?
  • Why does Sid refuse to join the Navy (like his brother Sam)?
  • When Flor offers to run a way with Sid and live with him, why does Sid refuse? (Compare to Maggie's decision.)

Sketch Four: Labor Spy Episode (534-36)

  • What ruse has Harry Fatt got cooked up to try to dissuade the taxi drivers form going on strike?
  • How does "Tom Clayton" get exposed?
  • Who finally turns him in?

Sketch Five: Young Actor (536-40)

  • What advice does the stenographer give the young actor about the theatre business?
  • What part is the producer trying to cast?
  • What does the stenographer tell the actor to do when he gets turned down for the part?

Sketch Six: Intern Episode (540-43)

  • Why is old Dr. Barnes fed up with his job?
  • Why has Dr. Benjamin been fired?
  • When does the light go on for Dr. Benjamin?
  • What advice does ole Doc Barnes give him?

Conclusion: Agate's Speech

  • What risk is Agate taking when he takes over the meeting?
  • What news finally inspires the taxi drivers to go on strike?

Consider again the techniques Odets is using to inspire (incite?) his audience to action?

Take a look at some commercials from the last Presidential Campaign. Consider the techniques that these writers used to persuade voters to take their side.