Document Type


Date of Award



Odets, Clifford, Criticism and interpretation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

Sheldon N. Grebstein

Second Advisor

Charles A. Carpenter

Third Advisor

Melvin Seiden


This recent critical estimate of Odets represents what is perhaps the standard view: "Although his work transcends the social problems of the 1930's and yields characters of wider psychological and social validity, Odets’ plays, particularly the early ones, reflect an attachment to his times which precludes true universality. " My intention in this study is precisely to correct what I believe to be a mistaken and simplistic view....

Though he has always been recognized as an influential playwright—who made contributions to the development of such later writers as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayevsky, William Gibson and Lorraine Hansberry—his plays are nevertheless regarded as museum pieces. His critical standing among literary scholars has been touched by condescension and distorted by biographical and political factors which detract from his genuine literary achievements. Despite much recent "rescue work" by authors I shall later cite, the charges persist that he was in several respects a failure: that he was a brilliant flash-in-the-pan who "sold out" to Hollywood; that he lost his sense of purpose when the Marxian dialectic became meaningless to him; that his plays are often flawed by naiveté, crudeness, and sentimentality.

There is some truth in all of these assertions, but I think they obscure larger and more significant truths. Odets is the paradigmatic spokesman for the Jewish middle class in the Thirties in drama. Further, he became a poetic playwright and myth-maker for middle-class ethics and aspirations and the dilemmas they produce. Despite their flaws, his best plays achieve a depth and complexity, especially in their idiomatic and idiosyncratic use of language, that lift them out of the category of social realism into the realm of evocative parables and allegories in dramatic form, indeed, constructs which I will later describe as "poetic."

While I cannot claim that these insights are original, they have not been demonstrated in any systematic way elsewhere, nor have their implications been fully explored. I propose to examine Odets‘ plays as a unified body of work without following indirect sequence the chronological order in which they were written. Surprisingly, to my knowledge no such attempt has been made before. In doing so, I shall draw upon the pioneering work of several scholars who have done much to defend the reputation of a playwright I would rank with O'Neill, Miller, Williams, and Albee as one of the five best this country has produced.