By Andy Piascik
Rarely has an American play met with the kind of government opposition that Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty faced in 1935. Mayors and police departments forbade the staging of the play in a number of cities and stopped performances mid-play in others. Audience and cast members were arrested for protesting police actions. Locally, the Bridgeport Sunday Herald rallied to the cause of the play after it was banned in New Haven and thus played an important and honorable role in defending free speech.
Clifford Odets was 28 years old and a member of the left-wing, New York-based Group Theatre ensemble when he wrote Waiting for Lefty. (1) It was the first of his plays to be staged when it opened in a Group production at the Civic Repertory Theater on West 14th Street in Manhattan on January 5, 1935. (2) Among those in the cast were Odets, Elia Kazan and Lee J. Cobb. (3)
Waiting for Lefty is often described as a play about a strike of New York taxicab drivers. While it is that, it’s more a penetrating look at the lives of a group of people who happen to be cab drivers as they cope with poverty and related personal, family and relationship problems at the low point of the Great Depression. The cabbies do discuss going on strike, and they also struggle with the risks involved, one of which is the fact that their union is controlled by racketeers violently opposed to any kind of independent labor action.
The drama in Waiting for Lefty was straight out of the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and thus resonated with audiences. In the months leading up to the play’s opening, there had been general strikes in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Toledo. Workers were organizing in great numbers and left-wing parties and organizations were stronger than in many years.
Waiting for Lefty’s run at the Civic was such a rousing success that it moved to Broadway in June, 1935. Because of great demand and in keeping with their philosophy of making plays easily accessible to the poor and working classes, Odets and the Group took the unusual step of approving productions throughout the country before the play’s Broadway premiere. In no time, labor unions and cultural organizations began staging Waiting for Lefty in dozens of cities and towns. Among them was a production by the New Haven John Reed Club’s Unity Players at Yale University’s University Theatre. (4)
In at least six cities including Philadelphia, Boston and Newark, city officials either shut productions down after performances had begun or forced cancellation of performances before they could be staged. In Newark, the play was stopped in mid-performance and a number of audience members who protested were arrested. The stated reason in some cases was that the play was “Communist propaganda” and “un-American.” In Boston, profanity — use of the word “God-damn” was specifically cited – was the pretext.
The production in New Haven, meanwhile, won the George Pierce Baker Cup for first prize in the Yale’s annual Drama Tournament on April 11th. In response to the wildly enthusiastic reception, the Unity Players booked space at Commercial High School for additional performances. Several days before the first scheduled show, however, the New Haven Board of Education rescinded the agreement and Police Chief Philip Smith declared that the play was not to be performed anywhere in the city on the grounds that it was “blasphemous and indecent.” He added that anyone attempting to do so would be arrested.
The Unity Players brought together the American Civil Liberties Union, community organizations, and students and faculty from Yale, among others, and formed the New Haven Anti-Censoring Committee. They held rallies and meetings demanding that the city allow the play to be staged but Smith did not budge. Then the Bridgeport Sunday Herald got involved.
Founded in 1805 and located at 200 Lafayette Boulevard, the Herald’s motto was “No Fear, No Favor – The People’s Paper.” The paper first reported on the controversy in New Haven on the front page of its April 14th edition. In that same issue, it ran a glowing review across three pages of the New York production of Waiting for Lefty by Leonardo Da Bence. In the April 21st edition, in response to the continuing ban in New Haven, the Herald’s editors printed the play in its entirety. Also included was a lengthy introduction that included criticisms of Chief Smith and that concluded that the Herald’s intention was to give “its readers an opportunity to judge for themselves.”
Though based in Bridgeport, the Herald had influence well beyond the city. It published editions and special sections for areas throughout the state including a New Haven edition that was available on newsstands in that city. (5) Among its criticisms of New Haven officials, the Herald noted that the city had granted space to an avowedly fascist organization for a meeting at a public school simultaneous to the banning of Waiting for Lefty.
In its edition of May 5th, the Herald reported the results of a poll of readers in which it stated that respondents in favor of the staging of Waiting for Lefty in New Haven outnumbered those who supported the ban by 10 to 1. The Herald regularly featured a Letters to the Editor section that often extended over several pages and one letter from Allen Touometoftosky began as follows: “Long live the militant, truthful Bridgeport HERALD! Long live ‘Waiting for Lefty!’”
With the groundswell of protest growing, Chief Smith and the City of New Haven finally relented. The Unity Players were allowed to reserve the Little Theatre on Lincoln Street several blocks from Yale and performances of Waiting for Lefty began there on the evening of May 9th. The play was received much as it was around the country by enthusiastic full houses, without incident or further police interference. (6)
While Waiting for Lefty has never been revived on Broadway, it remains popular in local theaters and union halls. It has played any number of times in Connecticut including a production by The Connecticut Repertory Theater that ran earlier this year in Storrs. When the play was most recently done in New Haven in 2012 by the New Haven Theater Company, some newspaper commentary recalled the controversy of 1935. (7)
The Bridgeport Herald, meanwhile, published until 1974. It is remembered with a degree of fondness by older Bridgeporters and was the subject as recently as 2015 of a panel at the Fairfield Museum and History Center. (8) It should also be remembered for the important role it played in a free speech fight 82 years ago.
Thanks to Danielle Reay of Yale University for research assistance
1.Clifford Odets (1906-63) was best-known for his plays Awake and Sing (1935) and Golden Boy (1937), in addition to Waiting for Lefty. He also wrote a number of Hollywood screenplays, most notably None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The lead character in the Coen brothers’ 1991 movie Barton Fink was inspired in part by Odets.
- Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940 (1990) by Wendy Smith is probably the best account of the story of the Group Theatre. The Group also had deep Connecticut ties; see, for example, my article The Hills of Connecticut: Where Theatre and Life Became One posted, among other places at http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/07/01/the-hills-of-connecticut-where-theatre-and-life-became-one/
3.Among the Group’s members were actors Phoebe Brand (1907-2004) and Morris Carnovsky (1897-1992), who married and lived for many years in Easton. Though neither appeared in Waiting for Lefty, both had distinguished theater and film careers interrupted by many years of being blacklisted because of their political affiliations. Carnovsky in particular was a long-time fixture on Broadway and at the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.
4.The John Reed Clubs were named after the American journalist and revolutionary John Reed (1887-1920) best known for his book Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed is the subject of the 1981 movie Reds.
5.Because of the involvement of the Bridgeport-based Herald in advocating for the showing of Waiting for Lefty, some accounts mistakenly refer to the controversy as having occurred in Bridgeport rather than New Haven.
6.Also featured during Waiting for Lefty’s run at the Little Theatre were modern dance performances by Miriam Blecher (1912-79) and Jane Dudley (1912-2001). Dudley in particular was a trailblazer of modern dance who featured themes of social protest in her work. She was for many years a leading force in the New Dance Group and a teacher at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance.
8.See, for example: http://scribblers.us/nhtj/?p=2675
The controversy surrounding Waiting for Lefty is covered in a number of books including Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (2009) by John Houchin; Banned Plays: Censorship Histories of 125 Stage Dramas (2004) by Dawn B. Sova; and Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (2002) edited by Derek Jones.