Waiting For Lefty Summary

Clifford Odets

Waiting For Lefty

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Waiting For Lefty Summary

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Waiting for Lefty is a 1935 play by Clifford Odets. The play, which focuses on a group of taxi drivers planning a labor strike, was the first of Odets’ works to be performed on the stage. It was produced by the Group Theatre, a New York City-based company. The play was a major critical success in the early 1930s, running for 168 performances on Broadway, and was quickly adapted for smaller theaters across the country. The play premiered in England in 1938.

In the prologue to this five act play, a group of cab drivers are at a union meeting where the union leader, Harry Fatt, tries to discourage them from going on strike. He tells them that under the new President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, strikes are no longer necessary. When the men ask about the whereabouts of Lefty Costello, Fatt replies that the members of the elected committee are present. Joe, a worker, complains about the tendency of union leaders to call everyone who disagrees with them a Communist, or “red,” and says that he is not a “red” because he is a war veteran. He also says that his wife urged him to go on strike and that he believes it is necessary.

The first act, “Joe and Edna,” shows the conversation that Joe had with Edna, his wife, before the union meeting. Edna tells Joe that their furniture has been repossessed even though they made three-quarters of the payments. Joe says that his current wages barely cover rent, and that his bosses want to lower them even more. Edna urges Joe to go on strike, saying that her father did it during the war and won. Joe is reluctant, arguing that striking rarely works and will cost them money. Edna calls Joe’s union “rotten.” Joe agrees, saying that the union leaders are mostly racketeers who want to profit from workers. Edna says that Joe should form his own workers’ union without the leaders. She threatens to leave him for her old boyfriend if he doesn’t stand up for himself. Joe agrees to do something about his situation, and tells her he will go look for Lefty.

In the second act, “Lab Assistant Episode,” a lab assistant named Miller is given a promotion and a raise by his boss, Fayette, as a reward for his loyalty. Fayette tells Miller he will be working for a renowned chemist named Dr. Brenner, developing poisonous gas to be used in chemical warfare. He tells Miller that he wants a weekly report on Dr. Brenner’s activities. Miller objects to this new job because he lost his brother and several other relatives in the first world war. He tells Fayette that he refuses to help with the war effort. Fayette urges him to take the job because his country needs him, but Miller gets angry and punches him in the mouth, saying he would rather “dig ditches” first.

In the third act, “The Young Hack and his Girl,” a young woman named Florence is arguing with her brother, Irv, over her boyfriend, Sid. Irv is concerned because Sid is a poorly paid taxi driver who struggles to make a living. Florence says she works hard to take care of their sick mother, and that she needs something more out of life, which Sid provides. Irv leaves, and Sid comes in. Florence tells Sid that she had been thinking about him. Sid tells her that his brother joined the navy that morning, and reassures her that he will stay with her. He laments his poor position in life and says that the capitalists who run the country exploit workers like him because they know that if they give in a little, the workers would take over. He criticizes his brother’s decision to join the navy, and expresses his fear that Florence no longer wants to marry him. He puts on a record player and they dance to the music, temporarily forgetting their troubles.

The fourth act, “Labor Spy Episode,” takes place back at the union meeting. Fatt tells the cab drivers that strikes such as the one in Philadelphia usually turn out badly for the workers involved, and introduces a man named Tom Clayton to talk to the men. Clayton says that he would be with the workers if he thought their strike had a chance of winning, but based on his own experiences with them, he does not believe that the strike would be successful. A man in the crowd begins shouting at Clayton to sit down. Before Fatt and his guards can silence him, the man runs up on stage and exposes Clayton as a “company spy” who tries to break up unions and discourage workers from striking. He says that Clayton’s real name is Clancy. When Clayton denies it, the man insists that he knows this because he is Clayton’s brother. He tells Clayton to leave, and he does.

The last act, “Interne,” starts in a hospital where two doctors, Dr. Barnes and Dr. Benjamin, are talking. Benjamin is upset that a less competent doctor will be operating on one of his patients instead of him because of the patient’s social class. Dr. Barnes tells him the hospital will be closing its charity ward because it is losing money, and that it will also fire some of its staff members, including Benjamin. He implies that the reason for Benjamin’s dismissal is because he is Jewish. Barnes receives a phone call telling him that the patient who underwent the operation is dead. At this news, Benjamin throws down his operating gloves. He says he is tempted to go work in Russia because of the country’s socialist government, but has decided to stay in America. He says that because he is losing his job, he will likely have to find work as a taxi driver in order to continue his studies.

The act continues at the union meeting, where a man with a glass eye named Agate gets up on stage to speak to the cab drivers. He insults Fatt and says that he is proud of his working-class background. Fatt and his guards try to detain Agate, but he fights them off with the help of the other workers. He says that if the union bosses are going to call them “reds” for wanting to strike, then they should adopt the Communist salute as well. He then performs the salute, and incites the crowd to “unite and fight.” He tells them not to bother waiting for Lefty, who may never come. At that point, a man runs into the meeting and tells the crowd that Lefty was shot dead and his body has just been found. At Agate’s urging, the men start chanting “Strike!”

The main themes of the play are social class, exploitation, injustice, and fighting the status quo. Many characters in the play are caught between choosing the safe and expedient route and standing up for their principles. The play, which takes place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, also has an important historical context. Poverty, worker exploitation, and growing discrepancies between the rich and poor were major issues of public concern during this period of time, as was the fear of Communism due to the Red Scare of the 1920s and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.