Awake and Sing!: Clifford Odets and the Political Theatre of the Depression

“[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!

Clifford Odets (1906-1963) playwright, AWAKE AND SING!.

Clifford Odets (1906-1963) playwright, AWAKE AND SING!.



Dorothea Lange’s photograph, “Migrant Mother” taken in 1936 in California.

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. (

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.

A family gathered around a radio.

A family gathered around a radio.

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!
JACOB: Suicides?
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
bankrupt manufacturer.
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

Unemployed men lined up outside a soup kitchen in Chicago, 1931.

Unemployed men lined up outside a soup kitchen in Chicago, 1931.


Spring 1936, opening night at the Federal Theater Project “Negro Unit” production of MACBETH, set in Haiti and directed by Orson Welles. “At 6:30 p.m., 10,000 people stood as close as they could come to the Lafayette Theatre on Seventh Avenue near 131st Street, jamming the avenue for 10 blocks and halting northbound traffic for more than an hour.”

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.


Stephen Sondheim: The Mind Behind the Madman


Stephen Sondheim (March 22, 1930-Present) is widely considered the greatest living musical theatre composer to date. He composed music and wrote lyrics for 18 musicals through his lifetime, in addition to writing lyrics for three other musicals (including WEST SIDE STORY.)

Here’s a clip from a documentary following the production of a tribute concert performed for charity around 1973, six years before he would write SWEENEY TODD. Here’s a great feature from 60 minutes about growing up, his relationship with Oscar Hammerstein II (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame), writing, and his prolific career.

For those of you curious to see what the acting process is like, here’s a clip of Sondheim coaching two young British acting students in a scene from SWEENEY TODD. This clip is just a few minutes of work–imagine what a six week rehearsal process is like!

Feel free to look into some more of his work! There’s a wide variety of videos of his musicals available to watch for free online:

His kabuki-style musical history of the Americanization of Japan, PACIFIC OVERTURES (1976)

A tale of mismatched relationships in 19th Century Sweden, written completely in 3/4 time, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973).

Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical imagining of the story behind George Seurat’s masterpiece “A Sunday on the Isle of La Grande Jatte” spanning into the 20th Century, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (1984).

Lastly, his breakout musical about the struggles of love and marriage, COMPANY (1970). (This one’s a playlist!)

Sweeney Todd in Context



Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Stephen Sondheim

It is 1846, London, England. Victoria is Queen of England and Benjamin Barker, a barber, now calling himself Sweeney Todd, has just returned from Australia where he had been unfairly transported* for 15 years by a corrupt Judge who lusted after his wife.


Inquiring about an apartment above a pie shop in Fleet Street, he meets Mrs. Lovett, the pie-shop owner. She remembers the barber, Benjamin Barker, and has saved Barker’s razors, the tools of his trade during his absence. Mrs. Lovett informs Sweeney that his beloved wife poisoned herself, but Sweeney’s daughter has become the ward of the Judge who sentenced Sweeney Todd in the first place. Sweeney sets his eye on revenge.


The play takes place during the Industrial Revolution, a period of unprecedented prosperity, yet society struggled with its negative consequences. Living conditions in the world of the play closely represent the reality for most of London’s population during Victorian times.  The piles of people who had come from the farms to find new jobs in the city found filthy, stinking streets heaped with human waste, rotting animals and garbage; the air was dark and polluted with smoke from coal burning factories; the streets and residences were overcrowded; housing was unplanned, constructed cheaply and deteriorated into slums; and crime – murder and robbery were at an all-time high.  In the musical, Mrs. Lovett cannot afford fresh and tasty ingredients to make her pies and her pie-shop is failing. Though highly regarded in his trade, Sweeney is so eaten-up by the injustice done to him and the immorality perhaps caused by this grim place, that he and Mrs. Lovett decide to go into business together: Sweeney slits the throats of his customers and Mrs. Lovett processes the corpses and bakes them into hot-selling pies.

The Tale of Sweeney Todd may be fictional legend, but it shows the true desperation a person can experience after being victimized by others. It exposes a society where some people have power, money and the ability to live well and others who don’t and how this can impact moral decisions.


This musical is unique in that it is a thriller and one of the first musicals in operatic style.   Stephen Sondheim, the composer and lyricist, has won more Broadway Tony Awards than any other composer. Early in his career, Mr. Sondheim wrote lyrics for West Side Story. Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is considered an American Musical Masterpiece.

* During the late 18th and 19th centuries, convicts were shipped (transported) to Australia by the British government. One of the primary reasons for the British settlement of Australia was the establishment of a penal colony to alleviate pressure on England’s overburdened correctional facilities. Over the 80 year span of this practice, more than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia. Citation: Wikipedia [1]



Hello all!

Welcome to the WordPress site for the Boston Live Theater Project. We are 28 high school students, seven teachers, and four mentors on a journey through the 2014-15 season to explore some of the city’s best theater.

On this blog you’ll find:

  • Information about plays and playwrights
  • Reviews and write-ups of productions
  • Continuing conversations about plays we’ve seen
  • Links sparked by issues relevant to the plays on our roster
  • Updates on our theater excursions throughout the year

When we meet at orientation on Thursday, October 2 I’ll add you all as blog authors. You’ll be able to create your own posts and respond to the posts of others. Remember, this is a public blog, so please keep your language to its highest standard.

In the meantime, as the air gets chillier and the night gets longer, you can curl up with a certain madman and get to know him a little better . . .