Skip navigation

A Note from the Dramaturg

“Black Monday: Stocks Sink As Gloom Seizes Wall Street. Prolonged Economic Turmoil”

AP Headline (2008)

“Be prepared for the worst… repeating the Great Depression”

– Forbes (2009)

The next financial crisis is coming; we made it worse

– New Republic (2009)

The economy is still at the brink

– Wall Street Journal (2010)

We have, of late, been saturated by messages of economic doom and tales of families ruined.  The pervasive story of the last few years is that of the middle class family evicted from their home, left jobless and hopeless.  The most frightening reporting compares the current economic situation with the Great Depression: a time when dire economic conditions across the globe forced families out of a life of optimism to face a future dominated by financial destitution.  The Roaring Twenties saw the end of the War to End All Wars, exciting innovations in technology and entertainment, financial booms, and expanded rights and roles for women.  But in 1928, everything changed.  Boundless opportunity was replaced by feelings of helplessness and grim predestination.  A world characterized by freedom felt suddenly choiceless.  It is not a surprise that all of this sounds uncomfortably familiar.

Clifford Odets wrote his eulogy to the American Dream in the winter of 1932-33.  Set in 1933, Awake and Sing! was originally titled I Got the Blues. The entire world shared this dark sentiment; the stock market had crashed just four years earlier.  President Hoover had initiated relief efforts with the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which FDR would extend and expand into the more famous WPA in 1935.  The Berger family, Clifford Odets, and people across the globe were shocked to wake up one morning and realize that capitalism, industry, and the pursuit of profit would not guarantee a better world.  The internationally dominant, all-powerful, capitalistic system was suddenly in ruin.  Perhaps four years ago an explanation of this bleak economic climate would have been needed, a historical overview of middle class struggle necessary, but the hopelessness of the Great Depression is all too familiar in 2010.

Like many of us, Clifford Odets was faced with a world that seemed suddenly false.  Work hard, save your money, make good investments, and your returns will be lucrative, your retirement comfortable, and your future golden.  Faced with the collapse of the economy, Odets asked the all-too-familiar questions: “Now what?  How do I make a life out of these ruins?  Where’s the future?  What’s life for?”  On the cusp of these answers, we find Awake and Sing!

But this play is not simply about the economy.  It isn’t about capitalism or communism or socialism.  It isn’t about politics.  It is about family.  The Bergers’ world is so restricted by economic ideologies and political theories that each family member feels as if they have lost the power to choose the trajectories of their lives.  Family members come to be valued only by the money they bring in.  Every relationship in this play revolves around a balance sheet and is progressively frayed as a result.  Money is constantly on every character’s lips, every bill chases every dollar, and the strain is apparent in every word, gesture, and glance.  In the year that passes between Acts 1 and 2 there is a tightening of belts all around.  Moe Axelrod, pensioned at $90 per month, is reduced to $70 (about $3400 today) and is forced to crowd in with the Bergers, who need the extra income as much as Moe needs reduced expenses.  In 1934 breadlines stretch for blocks and thousands are living on the charity of their friends, family, and government.  The world feels trapped inside a never-ending cycle of paycheck-to-paycheck existence.  It is in this environment that patriarch Jacob Berger proclaims, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust….”

Jacob came to America in hopes of finding a better life for himself and his family; now embittered by the suffering surrounding him, he sounds a wake-up call to all those he feels were seduced by the American Dream.  He is angry at the economic forces that promised so much success, at the political powers that had offered so much hope.  It is a cry heard just as loudly today as by the Bergers in 1933.  But as politically charged as much of his rhetoric is, and as socially antagonistic as Odets seems to make him, what Jacob really means to offer is much simpler.  He offers choice.  Spurred on by Jacob’s clarion call, Odets allows Ralph, Hennie, and Moe, the three characters young enough to still believe in possibility, the briefest breath of freedom.  Just for a moment Jacob’s grandchildren realize that they can each make a choice.  Free from the oppressive economic cycle, free from the darkness of destructive habits, free from the naiveté of childhood; they can choose.  For the first time in their lives they realize that they can sculpt the shape of their future.
The beauty of Odets’ masterpiece is that, while Ralph and Hennie make different choices, they both emerge from the death grip of The Great Depression triumphant.  They choose to act.  Their eyes are open and they are awake.

It is no wonder that Odets took “the Blues” out of the title: he heard them sing.

Ralph opens the show with this question: “Where’s advancement down in the place?”  Odets offers a handful of very different answers to that question, each with consequences.  For some, facing the trials of economy and family, the future is bleak.  For some the darkness of the present will forever perpetuate the darkness of the future.  And for others death is the thing to look forward to, the only “advance”.  But for Odets the future is about freedom; freedom to choose your own path, to revolt against the cycles of the past, to remake the world.  Jacob counsels: “Do what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution.”

Today we are all surrounded by fear of an uncertain future.  Predictions of economic ruin and a destitute future are constantly ringing in our ears.  Yet we all have choices.  What are yours?

“Awake and sing in triumph, ye that dwell in dust; for thy dew is the dew of the morning” – Isaiah 26:19 (DBY)

Coleman Crenshaw


%d bloggers like this: