CLIFFORD ODETS: AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT The Years from 1906 to 1940 by Margaret Brenman-Gibson
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CLIFFORD ODETS: AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT The Years from 1906 to 1940

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Huge and hugely venturesome, this dense 784-page book is only the first volume of an intensely clinical psychoanalytic biography of troubled playwright Odets--by an analyst whose advisers on this epic project include dramatist-husband William Gibson (an Odets student) and Erik Erikson himself, author of the paradigmatic modern psycho-biographies. Why the vast length? Part of the explanation is that Odets left behind an awesome outpouring of colorful, revealing diaries and letters (to and from him)--and, though one often wishes that these documents had been published separately, Brenman-Gibson's lavish, sometimes excessive excerpting of them is understandable. But if completely welcome as an exuberant, impeccably researched source-book, this intelligent and conscientious study is less than fully successful in the two (interrelated) primary aims of grand-scale psycho-literary biography: the illumination of the creative process and the dramatization of a life's conflicts. Brenman-Gibson is weakest, most pedantic and strained, when taking on the 1930s Group Theatre plays themselves, often analyzing the life out of them (""Another minor character who functions psychologically as a negative identity-fragment in the play . . .""); her purely psychological approach (a not-always-compatible Freud/Erikson blend) tends to stress the plays' structural weaknesses rather than their strengths of dialogue and imagery; she tackles, but can't really focus on, Odets' problems in relating themes of personal conflict to parallel social ones; and, perhaps most crucially, the achievement itself is never quite made to seem worthy of the whole elaborate interpretive framework. As life history, the book does considerably better. ""The powerful taproot of his emotional life"" was Clifford's relationship with papa L. J. Odets (nÉ Gorodetsky)--a loud, know-it-all, anti-intellectual embodiment of the immigrant American Dream at its most purely commercial; ""emotionally impoverished"" Clifford, who felt abandoned by mother Pearl when a younger sister was born, would forever struggle with ""the impulse to truckle in the face of power,"" the wish to woo this disapproving father; and Brenman-Gibson fairly persuasively connects the family material to handsome young actor-writer Odets' problems with brother/father Harold Clurman, with critics, with women (alternately empathic and ""punitive""), with failure and success (Waiting for Lefty, Hollywood temptation, Golden Boy). Strangely, however, Odets' most intense adult relationship--a truly wretched one with film-star/wife Luise Rainer--isn't made much more understandable by all the psychology that has gone before. And, throughout, the interpretations, while usually plausible and well-reasoned (and rarely too technical for laymen), become a bit gnarled, without the consistency and coherence needed for truly forceful psychoanalytic writing. (Here, too, the sheer length is a problem--though a riveting deathbed prologue does provide some sense of where the story, as of now ended undramatically in 1940, is leading.) Still, with all these flaws, the overall thrust of Brenman-Gibson's work is unmistakable, effectively so: that Odets, so often labeled purely in terms of social protest, was working at least as much from deeply personal conflicts. And if the aggressively clinical approach is no more than sporadically commanding, it rarely (much to Brenman-Gibson's credit) robs the material itself--the gorgeous personalities, the show-biz excitements, the spirited Jewish-American ambiance--of its vividness. Only a half-success, then, but a mostly fascinating one of great ambition, remarkable scholarship, and high integrity.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum