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Why do birds sing so gay? Because they’re fools. Besides, what else are you going to do? If the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven, then why not choose happiness over misery? Beane has been in a minimalist hell of his own creation his whole life. He owns one cup, one spoon, one jacket, one hoody, and an overcoat. He lives in a one room apartment with one lamp (bare bulb), one table, and one toilet. He works in a toll booth all day and has hallucinations induced by solitary confinement at night. He also has one sister, Joan, and one brother-in-law, Harry, who are cynical and world-weary, which is to say they don’t have much imagination, curiosity, or joie de vivre. They are his clueless caretakers, the sort who invite him over for dinner then give him a psychology test from the back of a magazine to show they care.
In New York City it can seem like the audience is an accessory to theater. Plays with big name stars charge a king’s ransom to sit in the back row of a giant theater, and you had better bring your binoculars if you want to see that movie actor strut and fret his hour upon the stage. Every restaurant in Manhattan has a cast of waiter/actors ready to slip you a postcard with info on how to see a burlesque or magic show, a comedy club, an art installation, a theater festival, or a musical act in any genre that tickles your fancy. Usually when you get there the art is so high concept you want to scrub your brain with Kardashian reruns just to get back to normal. Did they create that work of “art” for you, or did you just pay $15 to bear witness to their artistic genius?
You don’t need the J. Geils Band to tell you that. But why does it seem that the Internet makes it so much more fun to hurt the ones you love and love the ones that hurt you? Maybe it’s the anonymous proximity, maybe it’s the dazzling newness of social tech, or maybe it’s the mind-blowing ubiquity of porn that killed romance for Dan, Alice, Anna, and Larry in Patrick Marber’s 1997 play Closer.
You may not guess it from the picture of the handsome man above, but Lefty is a leftist, a commie, a red — and not in the Texas “Red Meat” way. You might think of this guy as a Lefty for The Great Recession — cool, hip, possibly living in a palatial squat in Buffalo, refusing to use currency or pay for food.
And yet, it was not always thus.
The enduring strength of Clifford Odets’s play Waiting for Lefty is its focus on character rather than identity. That may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one that traces the success and failure of the labor movement in the USA from Odets’s time to ours. Odets’s characters are honest, working people who strive for a measure of human dignity and are systematically deprived of it by the Bosses, the Owners, and the unsympathetic, pampered, and callous Elites. Odets builds his characters through their struggles: they are dynamic, not static. But in the intervening three quarters of a century since this play was first produced “identity” as a pillar of capitalist ideology has dominated and marginalized character so thoroughly that the didactic purpose of this play, what Brecht would have called a lehrstück, is easy to miss. Waiting for Lefty is the greatest work of American agitprop theater because it attempts to dramatize how a person learns courage in an act of character building, rather than appealing to the audience’s fear and pity.