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Harley Schlanger

Panel 5

Drama as History

Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife and Trumanism

by Harley Schlanger

Conference Program
Lyndon LaRouche Keynote
Helga Zepp-LaRouche Keynote II
Robert Beltran Conference Workshop
Related Pages

This speech by Harley Schlanger was delivered at Panel 5 of the Schiller Institute/ICLC President’s Day Conference, February 15, 2004. Also participating in this presentation was actor-in and director of a Los Angeles, Ca. performance of the ‘The Big Knife,’ Robert Beltran.

In his keynote address to the conference yesterday, Lyndon LaRouche warned that we face the most profound crisis in the history of civilization, and we've discussed this over the two days: the deepening global depression, the spread of war, the danger that this will continue to spread under the Cheney doctrine, and also we've talked about a new Dark Age, something that LaRouche has been discussing for many, many years. And which, for many years, we have also discussed in the organizing.

And, I think, too often, it has become a catch-phrase, or a slogan, as opposed to really understanding what we mean by a dark age, a new Dark Age. What LaRouche said yesterday, very strongly, is that what humanity faces today, is something much worse than what we faced in the 1930s, with the Depression and fascism.

Now, there are still some people who don't get that point. They say, “Isn't Lyn exaggerating? I don't really see that.” I would call to their attention events that we here on the West Coast know very clearly from last year. We had an event which occurred last year, which was the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. We discussed with Lyn how to bring home the horror of the Recall election, in which a bad actor, a product of steroids and special effects, was about to become the governor of the largest and wealthiest state in the country, which, in the past anyway, proclaimed itself to be the sixth-largest economy in the world, if it were a nation.

How did Schwarzenegger become governor of California? This should tell you something about the cultural crisis we face today. What have we become? And what have the voters of this country become, and what will we tolerate? The idea of man seeking pleasure, a pleasure-seeking society, a post-industrial economy, an entertainment culture: Isn't this exactly what preceded the takeover of Hitler in Nazi Germany?

What we saw in the 1920s, nihilism, pessimism, the philosophy of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Nazi philosophers, who promoted the idea of man as a beast. This: the cabaret society of Berlin in the 1920s. And yet, what do we have today, in 2004? What characterizes our popular culture today? Janet Jackson's famous moment at the Super Bowl. And, if you look closely at that, how is that different from Cabaret? I would say, it's worse in many ways.

So we are in a tragedy, we face a dark age. And we've come to a moment, a punctum saliens, a moment of decision, as in Classical tragedy, where we are all on the stage of history—or, as Lyn has been saying, we're on the floor of the Roman Colosseum, and either we make the right decision now, or we face one of the darkest tragedies in history.

What Is Tragedy?

Now, LaRouche recently, in the “Tariffs and Trade” paper,1 took up this question. He asks, “What is tragedy? It is the failure to meet the challenge of the future; it is the failure to bring forth today, that which the small mind deems a seemingly 'impractical action,' but an action on which the possibility of existence of an acceptable tomorrow depends.”

If we are to survive today, we require two “seemingly impractical” events. The first is to elect Lyndon LaRouche President of the United States. Which is, seemingly, impractical. But second, as part of that same process, especially through the work that is being done by the LaRouche Youth Movement, we want to launch a renaissance in the United States, and worldwide, which would sweep away today's all-powerful culture of fast food, fast sex, fast money; the culture of decadence in which all of us have grown up.

Now, we got a glimmer into that over the last two days with the two youth panels—the potential for a renaissance in the United States, one which includes scientific discoveries and breakthroughs, by looking at the time of the American Revolution, the precedents for the American Revolution, and the antecedents, rather, of Leibniz, Franklin, Gauss, the work in science.

We see the same thing in the cultural side: Germany's Weimar Classical period, built upon the work of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven; as well as the literary dramatic side, Shakespeare, Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing, and Schiller. Now, there's an interesting question, if we look at this 250-year cycle, the one which we have come to the end of: The United States did emerge as the one alternative to an otherwise unbroken era of oligarchical domination, an era of men as beasts, men as animals. The United States demonstrated, through the work of Hamilton, Franklin, Washington, courageous leaders such as Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, that a republic will work, a republic can function. The question, then, is, what about the culture that is necessary to sustain a republic? Why have we had no cultural renaissance in the United States?

Helga Zepp-LaRouche gave us part of that story in her presentation this afternoon on the Congress of Vienna2: the deliberate deployment of what were essentially fascist police-state tactics, to destroy the potential among the young to reap the benefits of the great work of the Weimar period of Schiller, Beethoven, and others. A deployment to impose an anti-human culture of pessimism on the population.

But what about the United States? What's the problem here?

We had the great fortune on the West Coast this last year, to be in a sense in the middle of a production of a play by Robert Beltran called The Big Knife, by an American playwright, Clifford Odets.

For me, Odets was a name I knew, but I couldn't place, and I knew none of his plays. But through working with Robert Beltran, and having the chance to meet with some of the actors, and to participate in some limited way in a discussion around the play, and then the discussion with Lyndon LaRouche, when Lyn was here last September, and he and Robert had a very productive session, and then they continued indirect discussion back and forth—we got a new insight, something that, yes, it can happen, even among Boomers—you can develop new insights! And it was a new insight, into “Trumanism.”

But, not just into Trumanism. And not just into the tragedy of the life of Clifford Odets, which I'll be covering in a few moments. Because the play The Big Knife is somewhat autobiographical, but it's also metaphorical; that The Big Knife is also a Classical tragedy, which combines those elements which are essential to Classical tragedy.

One is the question of historical specificity, which is really the true issue of drama as history. And Lyn wrote about this most recently again in his paper on the journal Maritornes, where he said, “I have recently and repeatedly expressed my delight at the news of the then-coming production of that Clifford Odets play, The Big Knife. This delight was prompted by my recognition of the great value of that play for providing younger generations of today an insight into the causes of the widespread moral failure, by omission or otherwise, since about 1946, of most representatives of their parents' and grandparents' generations.”3

He continues: “This was a valuable experience, because the experience of that play helps us now to make something of importance clear to today's Generation X, and 18-to-25-year-old young adults. That play, and similar work, point attention to the source of that corruption, generated during the Truman years, which was passed down over subsequent successive generations by the young adults of that former time, to produce the horror which threatens the world of the young adult of today.”

And he continues: “The beauty of Odets' theme in that play is that it expresses a typically Classical artistic approach, one of exemplary historical specificity toward understanding an awful downward turning point in the 1944-52 history of our United States. This drama thus expresses the same principle of prescience, which is to be found as the controlling principle of composition in Plato's critical view of the Classical Greek tragedy of his time, and the plays of Shakespeare and Schiller.”

Prescience in Classical Tragedy

Now, this question of prescience with Odets: Odets was on the scene in 1947-48, at the beginning of Trumanism. And in this play, he wrote with precision of the tragedy which was only then unfolding, as he was writing the play. And this raised to me an interesting question.

First, where did Odets come from? And I don't mean Philadelphia, which is where he's from, which is interesting in itself—although he spent many of his early formative years in the Bronx (and, by the way, he dropped out of school at age 16). But the question: What produced Odets? Where did Odets come from? How did we have this playwright, who I think you'll see from the discussion tonight, was a great American dramatist? How did he come about, and why don't we know of him?

Well, he came from another seemingly impractical movement. That is, something which was launched by Moses Mendelssohn, in the middle of the 18th Century in Germany, a lifelong campaign by Moses Mendelssohn, to emancipate the Jews of Germany, and by so doing, to emancipate Germany itself. And it was Moses Mendelssohn's work, along with his close collaborator, Gotthold Lessing, that created, or laid the basis, for the work of Schiller. And Mendelssohn and Lessing served as a bridge between Leibniz and Gauss, partly through a collaborator of Lessing's named Abraham Kästner.

But, the issue for Mendelssohn and Lessing was always the nature of man: that man is not a beast; that man has a distinct difference from the animal kingdom, and that society must be organized around that difference, the difference of the creative potential of each human being. And so, even for the Jews of Germany, who at that time were not citizens, who had no rights, who lived largely confined in ghettos—both physical ghettos, and also their own mental ghettos—Mendelssohn approached them with an optimism, going to the most downtrodden population to uplift them.

His movement first went to the Jews of Germany, and it was to bring to the Jews of Germany, German culture and the German language, as a way of breaking them out of the self-imposed ghetto, which was the tradition of the Jews in the European diaspora. And second, in connection with this, was the recognition of the validity of the scientific and cultural discoveries of the world outside the ghetto to enrich the Jewish population. Not to give up the 2,000-year history, or the 4,000-year history, but to enrich it, through contact with the developments in their time.

And, this had a profound effect in Germany which goes beyond the scope of this discussion. But it also had a profound effect for the Jews in Eastern Europe. It was a little different being Jewish in Russia or Poland than in Germany. Largely, because Poland and Russia at the time were much more backward, difficult countries to live in. And rather than develop this emancipation movement in the Russian or Polish language, a decision was made by a handful of writers, the most famous of whom is Sholom Aleichem, but there are two others—I.L. Peretz and Moses Abramovitz, who are well worth reading—who decided to develop a literate language, turn Yiddish, which was the language of the home, the mother tongue (largely because it was the language that the mother used to tongue-lash the children), but to develop a literary language, consciously, modelled on what Dante did for Italian with the Comedia, and what Cervantes did for Spanish with Don Quixote. And to introduce with it a culture of hope, and most importantly, a culture of change. To take on the axioms of oppression, the axioms of self-slavery, with humor, with irony, with paradox, to give them the potentials of the modern world, and help them break the chains of ancient tradition.

The Creation of the Yiddish Theater

Now, simultaneously with the development of a literate language, was the creation of the Yiddish theater. This began in 1876, in Romania, and quickly spread to Russia. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. He had been the Tsar liberator, the collaborator with Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War, who had given a measure of independence and freedom to Russian Jews. But after he was killed, in the midst of the ferment of the beginning of the revolutionary movements in Russia, his successor enacted anti-Jewish laws. There were pogroms.

Then, in 1883, there was an order forbidding the Yiddish theater from continuing. So, between 1880 and 1910, between one-third and one-half of the Jews of Eastern Europe emigrated, most of them coming to the United States, and a large number of them coming into New York, New York City. And so the Yiddish theater was transplanted from Eastern Europe and Russia to the Bowery and New York City, which was a little bit different than the Bowery you might know if you are a Baby Boomer who travelled in New York in the '50s and '60s.

But there were two tendencies in the Yiddish theater. One was a Vaudeville tendency—slapstick, or if you went to the Catskills, you would probably call it “slapschtick.” It was melodramas, family stories, attempts to give people a little bit of lightness and humor in their life. But gradually, and importantly, there is the development of serious tragedy. And this was centered around a figure, a towering figure, the towering figure in the Yiddish theater, a man named Jacob Adler.

The plays were done in Yiddish. Occasionally, they changed them, for example, there was a “King Lear” done, a Jewish “King Lear,” the Yiddish “Kenig Lear,” in which, at the end, the king, who is really a Jewish businessman, gives his belongings to his children, moves to Palestine, things don't work out in Palestine, he comes back blind and poor, and he comes to the children, and said, “Kinder, I forgive you,” and so everyone leaves the theater happy.

But they did serious tragedy and drama, as in the case of Hamlet. One of Jacob Adler's most famous roles, was that of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice.

Adler was born in Odessa, Russia; in 1883, he came to London, and in 1889, he came to New York. And here's what he said about the change and the development in the Yiddish theater. “To live forever with jest and song was hardly my idea. The time had to come when our theater would touch on the deeper side of life, when plays of a more serious kind would have a place on our stage. And this task of deepening our theater, or, so to speak, 'tragecizing' it, fell in large measure, to me.” He became known in London for his playing of Karl Moor in The Robbers, of Schiller, which to the day of his death was his favorite play. He played repeatedly, Nathan the Wise, of Lessing; he played Shylock, he played Iago, and he played Hamlet.

Now, he wrote about this principle of emancipation, the Haskalah, as it was called in Hebrew. He said, “If the world would not break the wall of the ghetto down from the outside, the Jews must break it down from the inside. Education, secular education, was the tool that would break the wall. Free, no longer isolated, the Jew would take his place in science, in art, in political action, in every great endeavor of the time.”

Adler was a profound advocate of the works of Schiller. He writes of the “heroic epic of Schiller, which would endure on our stage, the Yiddish stage, for some 25 years. Which began in London with his masterpiece, 'The Robbers.' Whatever the reason,” Adler wrote, “the great Schiller seems to have as many patriots among us Jews as in his own German public. I do not know why this is so. I believe it must go back to the time of Moses Mendelssohn and his Enlightenment.”

Now, it was not just Schiller, but also Shakespeare, as you saw from that handbill. He wrote that the Yiddish public would thrill to Shakespeare. “Then how could they not respond to the playwright who, they say, begins where Shakespeare leaves off? The great Schiller, the thinker, and historian, who was, God forbid, no plagiarist. But Shakespeare was his school, and he learned from him with a passion that still smokes on the pages.” So you get an idea of passion from Adler.

Adler died in 1925. And just as in the case of Sholom Aleichem nearly a decade earlier, there was a large funeral procession in New York City, and not just of Jews, but of all the population. One interesting play that Adler did—his performance of Shylock was so powerful—and he played Shylock, not as a monster, or a comic figure, but as a bitter, angry character bent on revenge, but nevertheless proud, in a way that showed that it was not just Shylock but all the Venetians who were corrupt: the principle of tragedy. Adler understood that. And Adler was playing Shylock in Yiddish theater, and people from uptown came down to see it. And they organized to have him perform on Broadway in the “Merchant of Venice,” in which it was in English, with the exception of Adler, who spoke his lines of Shylock in Yiddish. And the New York theater-going public loved it; it was the smash hit of 1903. So, as you can see when he died, it affected the whole city.

Jacob Adler had a profound effect on the theater in the United States, not just the Yiddish theater. Stella Adler, his daughter, became one of the great actresses and teachers, acting teachers in the United States, until she died at the age of 90. Stella Adler married a man named Harold Clurman, who I will tell you about in a moment, and Clurman was the founder of The Group Theatre, and was the mentor of Clifford Odets. So Odets is directly connected into the Adler tradition. In fact, the fourth person from the right is Jay, or Jake Adler, whom Odets described as “my adopted brother.” And there are scenes or stories in one of the Odets biographies, of how Odets, when he would go over to see the Adlers, Sarah Adler, the wife of Jacob, who herself was a great actress, would put some challah, a Jewish bread for the Sabbath, on the table, and Odets would devour the whole loaf. And so they said that Odets got everything he could from the Adler family.

Beyond the Yiddish Theater

Now, the question for Harold Clurman, the man who became the husband of Stella Adler, who first got interested in the theater when, at six years old, his father took him to see Adler playing Shylock, the older Adler—the question for Clurman, was: Could we move from the Yiddish theater to a national theater, as advocated by Schiller, in the piece, “Theater Considered as a Moral Institution”? In which Friedrich Schiller writes, “If we could witness the birth of our own national theater, then we would truly become a nation.” And as he closes that essay, he says, “and the goal of this is to become truly human.”

Clurman said this was his goal in launching The Group Theatre: to establish a national theater which would help the people of the United States to become truly human. Clurman wrote, in a New York Times essay about the founding of The Group Theatre, that his goal was spreading hope and love of life to combat despair, “and the way I have chosen to do it, is through the great art of theater.” But there was a paradox in the 1920s, that Clurman was very aware of: The United States, seemingly, was very wealthy, the way that the United States was again in the 1990s. So, with all of this wealth, why was there no culture?

I'd like Robert [Beltran] to read Clurman's discussion of this, in a book he wrote called The Fervent Years, which is about the founding of The Group Theatre. Robert.

Robert Beltran: “This was a fantastic world we were living in. Electric with energy, feverish with impulse, gigantic with invention. It was a world full of sharp curiosity, quick assimilation, enormous activity, mountain-high with reward. But it was a meaningless world, just the same, a downright silly world. It was terribly attractive: had the fairest flesh, the most resplendent contours, the most bedizoned dress imaginable. But it had no insides; it was empty. Or if it wasn't empty, its contents were in such a perpetual boil that nothing emerged from it except an eruption of brilliant particles that turned cold and dead when they hit the earth. Nothing tied the fast-moving forces together, no governing principle, no aim, no deep and final simplicity. The gyration and tremor made it all an overwhelming burden that no human spirit could survive. Everything had been rendered both too easy, and too difficult. One was rushed giddily through brightly bursting substance that had no real texture; it ended by making one tired, as if one had been struggling with a colossus. The American man was alone, and he made his woman, who clung to his neck as he twisted and whirled, equally lonesome and more hysterical. There was no quiet here. Man couldn't find himself. He was perpetually on the go to a place he didn't know for a pleasure he couldn't enjoy, for a purpose he didn't seek. Man no longer understood his own nature, his own dreams, even his own appetites. And despite the fact that he was constantly agitated, he was actually passive. He let everything be done to him. His consent was his habit, not his choice. He was dizzy with his own jitteriness. He could not rest, stop, or feel his own motion, for it had become identical with life. If the motion were to cease, it would be as if all were to cease. He was prepared for nothing else.... I'm sick of this dervish dance they've got us doing on steel springs and a General Electric motor. When it stops—as it must—there will be disillusion and devastation; everything will become as frightfully blank as today, everything is fiercely congested. Perhaps to rush out of line is to invite disaster. If so, let it come. If enough of us try to form another line, according to our own true nature, ours may become the right line, one which others might follow and walk on more peacefully and gracefully. We must help one another find our common ground; we must build our house on it, arrange it as a dwelling place for the whole family of a decent humanity. For life, though it be individual to the end, cannot be lived except in terms of people together, sure and strong in their togetherness.”

Harley Schlanger: I think that shows some prescience also. The discussion in the '20s, that things are coming to an end. Now, Clurman said that his idea of theater is to demonstrate “the perfectability of man, or at least, the inevitability of the struggle against evil.” In 1931, he and two others, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg, founded The Group Theatre. I won't discuss The Group Theatre as a whole, because there were some problems with it. But they had an idea: If you've got people together who looked at acting and drama as a way of conveying a higher conception of man, and it was integrated with the audience, then perhaps, you could change the country.

Now, from the beginning, they had problems with The Group Theatre. The typical problems that Robert can tell you about in chapter and verse today. Problems with money. A concern for the box office. Will people like it? From the beginning, Odets said, “We must not cater to public opinion.

Now, I'll speak briefly about Odets, because Robert will be taking this up much more in his presentation. But Odets, in 1932, became close friends with Clurman. 1932 was the year of the real peak of the Hoover Depression. A very cold winter. Many people died on the streets of New York City. And Odets and Clurman walked those streets trying to soak in something from this, from the depression.

At that time, Odets was developing his philosophy. He said that what he believes in, is that it's a profound and universal human need to be part of something, to believe in something beyond one's fragile, mortal self. He was looking for that in the theater. He had written several plays, one-act plays. Short plays. Clurman, who was not prescient in this case, said of Odets, “Why are you trying to write, you're terrible. Give it up.” But Odets stuck with it, partly because he was not a very good actor by his own description.

The FDR Phase-Shift

In 1932, there was a shift: Franklin Roosevelt was elected. There was a change, there was hope. This is typified by a statement Roosevelt made to a college graduating class shortly after he was elected. He said, “We need the courage of the young. Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of re-making the world.” That was from Franklin Roosevelt. This inspired many of the younger people, and Odets at that time, said, he's going to write, even if people don't like it.

Now, he also wrote in that time on his philosophy, “We need convictions, not opinions.” And he quoted Heine to the effect that, why did they build Gothic cathedrals hundreds of years ago, while today, we produce ugly buildings and shacks? He said, “They had convictions, we have opinions.”

Nineteen-thirty-five was the crucial year for Odets. At the age of 29—and he had been a voracious reader; it's not clear yet, I haven't researched it enough to know how much he actually read of Schiller, but perhaps we'll have time later—he wrote an essay, an outline for a story, on natural law acting through a crane4 Sound familiar? But Odets, at the age of 29, emerged in 1935, as the playwright who was changing history. He had a one-act play called Waiting For Lefty, which has been denigrated by people who haven't read it as a piece of communist agit-prop. That it seems like it is just something to try and organize people to go out and strike, which in fact, is what it was, but that's not why he did it that way. In fact, here's Clurman's description of this play when it first opened. There had been a taxi strike in 1934, and Odets used it as a setting for this one-act play.

And Clurman writes, “The debut of 'Waiting For Lefty' became the birth-cry of the thirties. Our youth had found its voice. It was a call to join the good fight for a greater measure of life in a world free of economic fear, falsehood, and craven servitude to stupidity and greed. 'Strike!' was Lefty's lyric message. Not alone for a few extra pennies of wages, or for shorter hours of work, but 'Strike!' for the greater dignity, 'Strike!' for a bolder humanity, 'Strike!' for the full stature of man.”

This play was a phenomenon. But it was a one-act play, so it was paired with a second play he wrote that year, called Till the Day I Die, which—and this was 1935—it was an anti-Nazi play. Odets, later on, when he was being investigated for being a communist, said, “I made the mistake of being a premature anti-Nazi.” That is, anyone in the mid-'30s who was considered anti-Nazi, you must have been a communist. In fact, the New York Times was still praising Adolf Hitler in the mid-'30s.

He also wrote, that same year, two full plays that were presented by The Group Theatre. One, called Awake and Sing, another called Paradise Lost. So, he had four plays in one year, and at 29 years old, he was the new voice of a new, happier America looking for something to come out of the Depression, to change the nation, and hopefully, to bring about a new theater which could move the nation.

Paradise Lost is an interesting play. It's about a family, a small shopkeeper, who is losing everything, a family who is losing absolutely everything. And yet they are trying to get by. This play infuriated Bertolt Brecht, who is an antagonist of Schiller; Brecht was an opponent of Schiller's idea of the beautiful. But here is what he said about Odets' Paradise Lost. He said, “Do you wish us to feel sorry for them?,” referring to the people going through the Depression. The hero in that play was trying to keep his workers employed, even as they were losing money. Brecht, in fact, wrote a letter to a guy named V.J. Jerome, who was the dogmatic artistic director of the Communist Party of the United States. And he demanded that the Communist Party take up Odets' deviationism, his middle-class sentimentality.

So, you had Brecht, who at that time, by the way, was going to Hollywood. Thirty-five to '37, as Odets was emerging as a playwright, was the period when Hollywood was invaded by people such as Brecht, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and others who were trying to use Hollywood to create the culture we have today, brain-dead culture, with no conception of the dignity of man. But they had a lot of money. So many people from The Group Theatre, including Odets, decided to “check out” what was going on in Hollywood. And Clurman pleaded with the people in The Group Theatre to stay, and here's what he wrote to them:

“If you feel that you really are represented by what you write for pictures, then forget the theater, but if you feel there's something more, something beyond, something essentially different that you want to say, if you feel that not enough of your imagination, your invention, your thought, or your sentiments is being used in the pictures, then you must write for the theater. Carefully and patiently, since today, the theater needs the best you can give. If your need is as strong in you as it has proved to be in us, Hollywood will not tempt you. You will have to return to work ever more actively in the theaters of your own choice. But there is room today only for the determined.”

This was a very large battle going on. Now, Odets decided to stay in New York City and continue to write for the theater. 1938, he had a play, Golden Boy which was another smashing success. Odets had struck a nerve in the country: He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine. And the intellectuals, the discussion: Can there be an art that will change our nation? Can we come out of the Depression a better nation? And we see this whole debate continue, this discussion continued, in his 1940 journal, the journal that Robert drew on heavily for his work on The Big Knife: The Time Is Ripe.

'The Big Knife'

The post-war hopes—because after this '38-'39 period we had a war. And we came out of the war, and Odets and Clurman and others were making plans. But those plans were shattered with the death of Franklin Roosevelt. In The Big Knife, in the very first scene—and The Big Knife was written in 1947, 1948—the very first scene, a gossip columnist is trying to get the goods on Charlie Castle, a Hollywood actor, and the gossip columnist says, “The first time we met, all you'd talk about was FDR.” And Charlie responded, “I believed in FDR.” And here you see this question of historic specificity. This was a play, it was about Trumanism.

Now, let me just take a moment on Trumanism. Trumanism was centered around the fear of communism. And now that Roosevelt was dead, Churchill figured the time was ripe for an extension of the British Empire. And in Fulton, Missouri, with Harry Truman, in March of 1946, Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, supposedly for fear of communism. And one of these writers said, “We have the smallest Communist Party in the world, why do we pay so much attention to it?” But, in March 1947, Truman enacted something called Executive Order 9835, which established an Ashcroft-style Federal Employees Loyalty and Security program. You had to take a loyalty oath if you were a federal employee then. There were 3 million people investigated in '47 and '48 by the FBI and HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In 1947 also, the investigation spread to Hollywood, and 10 writers were sent to prison for refusing to answer the question before House hearings, “Are you, or have you ever been a communist?” In November of 1947, the studio chiefs met, and they acted to ban communists from the motion picture industry.

Now, I'd like Robert to read Clurman's reflection of this period. This was written in 1955, what you're about to hear. It's an epilogue to his book, The Fervent Years.

Robert Beltran: “The theatre was as much a business in 1925 and 1935 as it is today, and people then were not morally superior or aesthetically more refined than they are today. What is lacking now is a sense of purpose, of an ideal—something to be achieved over and above a smash hit, a fat salary, rave notices, more fulsome billing and more frequent mention in the columns. ...

“The answer to my queries you may think is that with the passing of the Roosevelt regime and the temper it reflected a sharp reaction set in, which made everything that smacked of a departure from the status quo more than a little suspect. There is considerable truth in this.

“The political constriction which began to make itself felt around 1947 and which mounted in frightening tempo to reach a sort of climax in 1953, made almost everybody disinclined to commit themselves to any opinion that suggested anything specific beyond 'loyalty.'... But what began as a kind of political terror inducing a political hush gradually deteriorated to cessation of all serious discussion of any kind whatsoever and to a large extent even of thinking. There was nothing left, it seemed, but for us to drop dead....

“What happened to most of us was that we came to desire nothing more than to be inconspicuous citizens, with no other thought than 'to get on,' no other idea than 'celebrity' or success—and in this area, one kind is as good as another.”

Harley Schlanger: Again, Clurman could have been speaking for Odets, because that practically comes out in the pages of The Big Knife, as you'll see in a moment.

So, this is when The Big Knife was written, in the midst of this Trumanism, in the midst of this anti-communist scare. And so, we see the tragedy of Clifford Odets, someone who is talented, someone humane, somewhat obsessive, someone who is working with Clurman, coming out of the Yiddish theater, out of the Mendelssohn-Schiller tradition to try to create a new tradition in the United States.

And this is what is the tragedy of Clifford Odets. Someone who saw his life, as we see in The Big Knife, as a metaphor of post-World War II America. He was trapped between the lure of the world of his senses, that is, Hollywood, and the hammer of the synarchists, Trumanism. This destroyed his sensibilities as an artist, his humanism was overwhelmed, and he was unable to live up to his ideal as an artist.

He Sacrificed Himself to Art

I want to finish by telling you briefly about this ideal that he had. It was an ideal that he got from his study, his intense, sometimes obsessive, study of Ludwig van Beethoven, whom he loved above all others. When he first met Clurman, and he was interviewing for a position in The Group Theatre, Clurman said, “Well, what is your idea of acting?” And Odets said, “Well, if you listen to much music, my idea of acting is like Beethoven quartets. That kind of polyphonic interweaving.”

He commented on Beethoven in his art, and on this, he said, “I'm too normal. I have to overcome being normal.” But he said of Beethoven, “He sacrificed completely the man to his art, so greatly, as no man before or since has done. All of his life and feeling and thought, swept before him to come through and be retained forever in his divine art. That is what Ludwig did. It was necessary that he serve her, Art, physically and spiritually at all times, and he did. Now I realize, poor Clifford Odets, the full implication of the saying, 'He sacrificed himself completely to his art.' ”

The Big Knife, which came out in 1948, which was written mostly in 1947, was really the last quality piece of Clifford Odets. Sixteen years later, 1963, on his death bed, dying from stomach cancer, not too far from here, Odets, in a moment of lucidity—and this is one of the last moments he had—sat up in bed and said, “I may fool all of you. You know, I may live. Then, perhaps, Clifford Odets will do something to redeem the last 16 wasted years.”

Now, our battle today is a battle to create a culture where “normal” will mean to become creative geniuses. “Normal” will mean to aspire to the highest that man can offer, as opposed to going along to get along. Or even preparing the crappy culture we have for those who want to go along to get along. This is why we must have a renaissance in Classical culture and, especially, in Classical drama. This is part of the battle in this 250-year period of history. It's a battle that we can win, and I think that we are seeing, with the work of the LaRouche Youth Movement, that we have a generation today, which will take up this battle.

Thank you.


1. Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., “On the Subject of Tariffs and Trade,” EIR, Feb. 13, 2004.

2. Helga Zepp-LaRouche, “Let's Have a Second American Revolution!” EIR, March 26, 2004.

3. Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., “The 'Maritornes': A Tavern of Fascist Prostitutes,” EIR, Jan. 9, 2004.

4. A reference to Friedrich Schiller's famous poem about divine justice, “The Cranes of Ibykus.”

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