Part of the interest of hanging out in the pages of Partisan Review for me is the way in which various of our characters open up other fields and groups– in this instance, networks of artists and playwrights in New York City’s intimate and serious world of performance.
The final pages of vol. 1, issue 2, Partisan Review 1938, include Mary McCarthy’s second ‘Theater Chroncle,’ a review of the most recent Clifford Odets play, Golden Boy, playing at the Belasco Theater (w.44th Street)
Clifford Odets was part of the theatre world that employed what was known as ‘method acting’; that is, the Stanislavski “system” of acting that requires actors to locate the feelings and motivations of the characters who they play. Stanislavsky was a renowned Russian drama teacher, character actor, and dramaturge. He was a hero of the Soviet, and had been given the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Red Banner, and was the first to be named the People’s Artist of the USSR. In 1923, Stanislavsky took his Moscow Art Theatre to New York and began the US tradition of his drama techniques.
Many of the twentieth century’s greatest actors were trained by the NYC apprentices of Stanislavski — Lee Strasberg started the Group Theatre in 1931, and gathered around him directors and writers and students including Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb, Harold Clurman, and had great successes with plays by Odets, beginning with Waiting for Lefty (January 1935), a play about a taxi strike, in which ‘plants’ in the audience stood up and held ‘meetings.’ It was a perfect start for Odets, who was a communist party fellow-traveller,though only a member in 1934-35, and he became a hero of agitational theater. A month later, in February 1935, Awake and Sing! was staged; in this play Odets takes a serious look at the inner conflicts of a Jewish family in the Bronx. The play was a hit.
Enter Miss McCarthy. “The salient feature of Golden Boy…which is supposed to be about an Italian boy…is that it is not about an Italian boy at all, but about that same talkative, histrionic Jewish family [that Odets had created in Awake and Sing!]. With a hint of her own anxiety about Jews, McCarthy makes out that Odets has lost his way, and has fallen into the habit (as others have done before him) of repeating a success by writing it again and again. In the process, she argues that Odets is joining what Dwight McDonald will call masscult, a kind of dumbed-down high-culture-become- low-culture, which offers routinised and banal version of real thought and creativity. So, she compares Odet’s story of a violinist who chooses money over art to the gangster films of the period:
“Mr. Odets has taken a collection of types out of any underworld film, and on them he has grafted the half-ludicrous, half-touching cultural aspirations, the malapropisms, the pride in material possessions,the inarticulate longing for sunny life, that make up the Odets formula of frustration.”McCarthy then goes on to say that Odet’s has ‘stuffed’ the play with ‘familiar Jewish low-comedy jokes and ancient wheezes out of vaudeville.’
It is hard not to bridle against McCarthy when she writes as if she were ‘we,’ and ‘they’ are the crooks and the vulgar — her invitation to stand with her above “the stale luridity of characters and plot,” is perversely appealing.
She does make a crucial point about the premise of the play. If the violinist had become just that, a fine musician, instead of trading in his vocation for the boxing ring, he would have been able to earn his living by art. If he couldn’t have supported himself by the violin, he probably wasn’t very good, anyway. He would be better off as a prizefighter!
read it here:
Next: A book about Thomas Benton, reviewed by Meyer Schapiro.