“[Odets had] an appetite for the broken and run-down, together with a bursting love for the beauty immanent in people, a burning belief in the day when this beauty would actually shape the external world. These two apparently contradictory impulses kept him in a perpetual boil that to the indifferent eye might look like either a stiff passivity or a hectic fever.”– Harold Clurman, founder of the Group Theatre and director of the original production of Awake and Sing!
THE GREAT DEPRESSION (1929-1939)
The Great Depression (1929-39) was the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialized world. In the United States, the Great Depression began soon after the stock market crash of October 1929, which sent Wall Street into a panic and wiped out millions of investors. Over the next several years, consumer spending and investment dropped, causing steep declines in industrial output and rising levels of unemployment as failing companies laid off workers. By 1933, when the Great Depression reached its nadir, some 13 to 15 million Americans were unemployed and nearly half of the country’s banks had failed. Though the relief and reform measures put into place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped lessen the worst effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the economy would not fully turn around until after 1939, when World War II kicked American industry into high gear. (History.com)
In Awake and Sing!, Ralph and his father, Myron, are among the millions of American workers who manage to stave off unemployment but see their hours cut back as a result of economic challenges.
Throughout the Depression, however, the ideals of the prosperous 1920s remained, and films made at this time perpetuated images of a consumer-driven society. An American mythology around “making something of yourself” developed, while reliance on soup kitchens and the charity of family members was closer to reality.
In Act II, Scene 1 of Awake and Sing!, an exchange between Moe, Jacob, and Morty details the shock of losing everything and the despair of not being able to earn a living wage:
MOE: Still jumping off the high buildings like flies—the big
shots who lost all their cocoanuts. Pfft!
MOE: Plenty can’t take it—good in the break, but can’t take
the whip in the stretch.
MORTY: I saw it happen Monday in my building. My hair
stood up how they shoveled him together—like a pancake—a
MOE: No brains.
MORTY: Enough … all over the sidewalk.
JACOB: If someone said five-ten years ago I couldn’t make for
myself a living, I wouldn’t believe.
Clifford Odets wrote Awake and Sing! in 1935, six years deep into the Depression. In the play, the character of Jacob takes a Marxist view of what has caused the recent economic turmoil. Karl Marx stated that the very nature of free-market capitalism promotes unbalanced acquisition of wealth. When the majority of wealth is accumulated in a limited number of hands, Marx believed, a crisis results, creating a chaotic pattern of economic boom followed by economic bust. The struggle of the poor then eventually leads to class conflict
THE GROUP THEATRE AND THE FEDERAL THEATRE PROJECT
The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a component of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, was established in April 1935 with the goal of providing socially useful work for the unemployed. WPA work assignments included construction of public buildings
(including schools and hospitals), recreational centers, and highways, as well as developing conservational facilities and nature sanctuaries. The WPA also included four arts-based initiatives: The Federal Writer’s Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Theatre Project. These initiatives employed thousands of artists and provided funding for new works by performance ensembles around the country, including projects by members of the Group Theatre in New York City.
The Group Theatre, founded in 1931, had already been in existence for four years before the Federal Theatre Project began. Founders Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg sought to create a theatre that would reflect, and perhaps even change, the
values, struggles, and events of their time. They recruited 28 actors to join them to form a permanent ensemble. Over the course of ten years, the Group Theatre developed 40 original productions while emphasizing a highly collaborative, personal approach. They
felt that if the actors had trusting, personal relationships off-stage, that their onstage relationships would be more believable as a whole. The Group Theatre also emphasized an approach to acting developed by Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski.
Stanislavski stressed the importance of analyzing a character’s inner psychology to create believable emotions in their onstage performances. Group Theatre member Lee Strasberg applied Stanislavski’s theories to develop his own style, which would come to be referred to as “method acting.” Strasberg’s method emphasized emotional recall—an actor must draw on his or her own memory of experiencing emotions similar to those that his or her character experiences in the play, and then recreate them onstage (Huntington Theatre Co.)
The above is excerpted from the Huntington Theatre Company’s curriculum guide for AWAKE AND SING!. For the full guide, click here.
Another great resource is the 1999 film “Cradle Will Rock” about the Federal Theatre Project’s musical of the same name.