'Look on the World, Not on Yourself So Much'
from the NY Times today.
By ADAM COHEN
Published: May 7, 2006
In "Awake and Sing!" Clifford Odets's play about a Jewish family in the Depression-era Bronx, Ralph, a young man stuck in a low-wage, dead-end job, complains bitterly about the state of the world. "Boys like you could fix it someday," his grandfather replies. "Look on the world, not on yourself so much."
The grandfather, Jacob, is an idealist, who puts his faith in the music of Enrico Caruso and the politics of Karl Marx. He is also a stand-in for the playwright, who championed society's victims in boldly political plays like "Waiting for Lefty" and "Golden Boy." It is Jacob, of all of the squabbling family members, who quotes the verse from Isaiah that gives the play its title, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust."
"Awake and Sing!" which had its premiere in 1935, has been revived this season on Broadway, in a terrific production. There is much about it that could feel musty, starting with its radical politics, but the play nevertheless manages to speak powerfully to modern times. That is partly because the family drama still rings true, and the tragic plot twist in Act 3 remains poignant. But it is mainly because the play's central message about the need to engage with the world is precisely what America needs to hear right now.
"Awake and Sing!" came quick on the heels of Odets's first major success, "Waiting for Lefty," a play based on a 1934 New York City taxi strike that hovers somewhere between drama and agitprop. It was banned in several cities and helped land Odets on the cover of Time magazine. "Awake and Sing!" which was originally titled "I've Got the Blues," is a more humane play. It is the story of the Berger family, whose members share, as Odets notes in a stage direction, "a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions." The Bergers are real people, with dreams and souls, both of which are slowly being crushed.
It is this family, and particularly the strong-willed matriarch, Bessie, who are holding Ralph back. (Bessie, as Ralph notes, does not want to let his "sixteen bucks out of the house if she can help it.") "Awake and Sing!" is the story of how Ralph extricates himself to pursue his own life, and a better world. By the end of this alarm clock of a play, Ralph has awakened and is headed out the door, crowing that he is "twenty-two and kickin'."
The Great Depression lulled many people into passivity, but so, for different reasons, has the current political climate. Americans have endless reasons to be dissatisfied, from the grim situation in Iraq, to a growing lobbying scandal that is revealing just how tightly special interests control Congress, to a federal minimum wage that has not increased in nearly a decade. In a recent CBS poll, an incredible 71 percent of respondents said America was heading in the wrong direction.
What we are not seeing, or at least not yet, is a level of political engagement to match this dissatisfaction. In the 2004 presidential election, the most hard-fought in many years, more than one-third of the electorate, and more than one-half of those between 18 and 24, did not bother to vote. In last month's special election to fill the seat of Randy Cunningham, the disgraced former representative from California, turnout was just 36 percent.
There has been a wide array of explanations for why Americans are tuning out — even as they intensely cast their votes for the next "American Idol." Some blame the parties and the candidates. Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, argued in "Bowling Alone" that it was part of a more general turn away from civic involvement of all kinds.
There are, though, a growing number of voices that are telling people what Jacob told Ralph: "Look on the world, not on yourself so much." Web sites on both the left and right are particularly active, urging their readers to write to elected officials, make political contributions and work in campaigns. And Justice Stephen Breyer argues in a recent book that the Constitution should be interpreted to encourage Americans to be more engaged in running their government.
The Old World-inflected dialogue of "Awake and Sing!" often falls oddly on the modern ear, and its left-wing politics are more unalloyed than we are used to today. But the play has a timeless understanding of the importance of ordinary people waking up to the reality of their circumstances, and of the interests some people have in keeping them asleep.