Waiting for Lefty at ATA's Sargent Theater

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.

In 1935 the average cost of a new car was $625 – just over a third of a person’s yearly wages. A gallon of gas was ten cents, bread was 8 cents, and a pound of hamburger meat was 11 cents. 1935 wasn’t the nadir of the Great Depression, however; the employment the situation was actually getting better overall in 1935, with unemployment falling from its peak at just under 25% to an average of 15% until the mobilization for World War II created full employment again. Harry Fatt, the secretary of the Taxi workers’ union tells the union members at this meeting that striking now would be ludicrous. “You have a man on your side, up there in the White House!” he says, referring to FDR. “Things are getting better, why would you risk it all on a strike?”

Though Waiting for Lefty is based on the New York City taxi driver strike of 1934, the situations it dramatizes are especially topical today, when “official” unemployment is at 9.9%, and industrial giants show blatant disregard for their workers, the environment, and even truth, as BP’s blockade of reporters on the Gulf spill demonstrates. What’s more, after seventy-five years of McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, the failure of the Soviet Union, and the late 20th century triumph of Freemarket Fundamentalism, there are palpable historical ironies layered onto this play that make it more interesting, if possible, than it’s original setting.

Reesa Graham and Brandon Walker’s staging stays true to Odets’s Brechtian conception of the play. The audience walks into the theater with all the lights up. Several actors sit on the stage and a few are in the house. The rest of the audience members are imagined as members of the union who are listening to debate over whether or not we should strike. Harry Fatt, played with verve by Tyler Moss, is a typically corrupt union boss who wants to dissuade the workers from going on strike. Other characters step up to speak, and in flashback reveries without blackouts or set changes, they tell their stories of personal triumph over corporate evil: the man who finds the gumption to stand up for himself, his family, and a living wage; the chemist who refuses to take a big pay raise in exchange for working on weapons grade chemicals and spying for his cigar chomping boss; the doctor who is being fired because he’s Jewish and works in the charity ward. Finally, a worker stands up and admonishes the other union members to be courageous and join him in a chorus of “Strike! Strike! Strike!” as the lights go down.

True to Marxist teaching, Odets dramatizes the development of working class identity as each character goes through a painful re-education on the facts of life from the perspective of a worker. In almost every case a character sees himself as an individual above the ideological fray between workers and capitalists, until each one of them has a crisis of conscience and decides to embrace collective proletarian consciousness. During the Great Depression communist theorists were certain that capitalism had finally collapsed under the weight of its overweening greed, and the world would be united by workers of all professions — including doctors and lawyers — who would realize that no matter what work you do, you’re still a worker. Odets makes the point most forcefully when Dr. Benjamin is fired because healing patients — not making money — is his top priority. But Dr. Benjamin’s confession that he’s been thinking of moving to the Stalin’s Soviet Union makes the contemporary American viewer cringe.  After the discovery of Stalin’s oppression and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s revelations about life in the gulag, it’s hard not to wonder at the characters’ enthusiasm for the Soviet system, communism, and the impulse to give up our individuality for collectivity.

By way of contrast, in the twenty-first century “Socialist” often means someone who thinks the job of government is to govern, as in pave the roads, run the schools, and keep public order. Radical individualism is the ideological order of the day, from Tea Partiers to anarchist Freegan drop outs, putting us securely back in the mindset of the 1880s. If there is a “Left” in this country it is the Latte Left (heirs to Limousine Liberals), the great unwashed middle class, who collectively think that personalizing the apps on your iPhone is an act of freedom. Even the Freegans only want the freedom to be left alone by “society.” There is no longer an understanding of why we have to give up our individuality if we are to secure collective justice in the workplace, in government, and in society.

Unfortunately, another 21st century irony brought out in this play is the failure of art to be vehicle for creating and sustaining class consciousness. Brook Atkinson wrote in his contemporary review of the play, ““like many other individuals and organizations, the Group Theatre [Odets’s company] is most stimulating when it is not competing with the entertainment business on Broadway, which is not interested in the studio craft of acting nor in the drama of social revolution” (NYT February, 1935). Implied in Atkinson’s observation is a simple truth: in a “marketplace” of ideas, revolution is just one more product on the shelves. Popular culture for all its gloriously vapid, lowest common denominator,  mentally corrosive, instantly visceral thrills not only stood the challenge of “serious” political theater — pop culture also colonized it. Are the authorities going to shut down a new, racially subversive play by Suzan-Lori Parks? Don’t bet on it. Did Spike Lee just shill for Absolute Vodka while pretending to “keep it real” and Do the Right Thing? Yes he did. These days “edgy” means “marketable commodity.” Class, race, and gender have been thoroughly evacuated of their political efficacy, and are now just one more identity, no more or less important or valuable than any other. Now Our Man in the White House isn’t a white man, but Secretary Fatt’s principle is the same. Liberalism, in which everyone is an individual and no one has the right to draw on collective identity at the expense of the individual, has thoroughly defeated class consciousness — in art as well as politics.

But we should take Walker’s attempt to revive this classic seriously. If art does have the power to teach, it will do so by underlining ironies of our self-deception. If we want to make a real change in the world we will have to create theater that the cops want to shut down; we will have challenge the equation of identity with politics (the Palin-esque idea that because you look like me, you must have my interests at heart); in short, we will have to say with Brecht that our theater outrages the audience to make them get on their feet and shout “No! That’s not right! We must make a change!”

Waiting for Lefty

June 9 – 26

ATA’s Sargent Theater

314 W. 54th Street