Rocket to the Moon
Rocket to the MoonINTRODUCTION
Clifford Odets's Rocket to the Moon was first produced for the stage by the Group Theatre in New York in 1938. The play was the second Odets play produced by the Group Theatre after Odets's return from a brief hiatus in Hollywood where he worked as a scriptwriter. Like its predecessor, Golden Boy, the play signaled a move on the part of Odets away from the more overtly political drama of his earlier plays towards a drama more focused on interpersonal relationships and the pressures of life on the individual.
Set entirely in the waiting room of a dentist's office in New York City, the play focuses on the relationships between its central characters. In the play, dialogue is more important than action. The play takes place between June and August, and the oppressive heat of a stifling New York summer serves as the backdrop to the play's events. The play focuses on the mid-life crisis of a dentist, Ben Stark, who attempts to escape the confines of his life by having an affair with his secretary, Cleo. In the play, Odets develops many of the themes familiar to his audience from his earlier (and more overtly political) plays: economic pressures, the ability of the individual to rise above his circumstances, and the effects of personal responsibility on ambition. The play can also be seen as a meditation on the effects of marriage and personal relationships on the development of artistic talent.
Playwright Clifford Odets was born on July 18, 1906, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Louis and Pearl Odets, who were Jewish immigrants of Russian and Austrian descent. While Odets was a young boy, his family moved repeatedly between Philadelphia and New York before settling in the Bronx when he was six years old. By the time Odets entered high school, his father had become a successful printer who owned his own print company in New York. Odets senior wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. However, as a youth, Odets performed poorly in school but was a voracious reader and an ardent moviegoer. Despite his poor academic record, as a student at the Morris High School, Odets was an active member of the drama club. In 1923, at the age of seventeen, Odets dropped out of high school to pursue a career in acting. Odets's desire to pursue a career on the stage conflicted with his father's ideas of success and would be a source of conflict from which Odets would draw heavily during his later career as a playwright.
Although he managed to secure a number of minor parts, Odets was unable to find much success as an actor. In 1931, however, Odets's luck changed when he was cast in a minor role in the first production of Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg's newly formed Group Theatre, The House of Connelly' by Paul Green. Odets's relationship with the Group Theatre would eventually result in the 1935 production of his own Waiting for Lefty, the play that established Odets as a playwright of note. Odets was to be associated with the Group Theatre until its demise in 1941.
However, despite the critical and commercial success of Waiting for Lefty, Odets would never really achieve the success his early plays suggested he would. Although Odets wrote over twenty plays between 1935 and 1954, his career apparently failed to achieve the promise hinted at in his early plays.
In 1936, Odets accepted a job writing scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and moved to Hollywood. There, he met and married the actress Luise Rainer on January 8, 1937. Odets's stay in Hollywood lasted only two years. He eventually returned to New York where he wrote Rocket to the Moon in 1938. The marriage suffered from the distance, and the couple divorced in May 1940.
Rocket to the Moon (1938) marked a shift in Odets's focus from the overtly political drama of his
early career to a more introspective and personal focus on interpersonal relationships, and his own roots as a second-generation Jewish immigrant. Despite its moderate success, Rocket to the Moon signaled the beginning of the end of the Group Theatre. In 1941, Odets returned to Hollywood and, while he wrote a large number of screenplays, his output for the stage declined markedly. He produced only three more plays before his death of cancer in 1963, at the age of 57. The last of these plays, The Flowering Peach, which was produced in 1954, was slated to receive the Pulitzer Prize. That award, however, was given to Tennessee Williams Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The first act of Rocket to the Moon opens with an argument between Ben Stark and his wife, Belle. Stark wishes to develop his dental practice by moving his offices to a more affluent part of town and specializing in orthodontics. His father-in-law, a retired businessman, has offered to provide Stark with money for the move. However Belle—who hates her father—wants Stark to refuse his offer. While Belle sees her desire for Stark to stay where he is as a practical one, Stark believes that his wife is trying to limit his aspirations. Despite these misgivings, Stark gives in to Belle and agrees not to move.
Stark's colleague, Dr. Cooper, enters during this conversation to get a drink of water from the cooler. His presence reminds Belle that Cooper, who rents his office from Stark, owes four month's rent. Belle views Stark's refusal to press Cooper for the money as weakness, and criticizes him for it. Belle tells Stark that she has been feeling depressed all morning and reminds him that it is the anniversary of the death of their son, who died during childbirth. At this point the play's central female character, Stark's secretary Cleo, enters and is immediately criticized by Stark (who is trying to mollify his wife) for taking a two-hour lunch break. When Dr. Cooper re-enters the waiting room, Belle demands that he pay Stark the money he is owed and accuses Cooper of drunkenness. Cooper tells Belle that he cannot even afford to pay the medical bills for his son, who recently broke his arm. Belle looks on Cooper more sympathetically and tells him to take another month before paying off his debts.
As Belle leaves the office, her father, Prince, enters. Prince sees Cleo and asks her who she is. This question prompts a long conversation between the two during which Cleo tells Prince that she does not like Belle. Prince is clearly attracted to Cleo and makes a number of attempts to impress her. Prince comes across as an energetic, playful, and intelligent man. Stark returns to the room and watches the two silently for a moment before Prince notices that he has returned. Stark tells Prince that he is rejecting his offer of financial help. Prince blames Belle for this decision, and the two men talk at great length about the effects of marriage on a man. Prince describes his own feelings about marriage, telling Stark that if he had been single he might have become a great actor. After describing his own position, Prince criticizes Stark for letting Belle run his life and tells him that he should have an affair with Cleo. Stark laughs at Prince, but his mood abruptly changes to one of melancholy as the older man leaves.
As Stark is contemplating the conversation with his father-in-law, Frenchy enters and the two begin a conversation that starts out where Stark's conversation with Prince had left off. Stark tells Frenchy that he has slept through his marriage. Frenchy, who is a bachelor, cannot really comprehend Stark's concerns and is glad when Dr. Cooper enters the room and joins the conversation. Cooper tells Stark that Belle confronted him about his debts. Stark confirms that he is not going to throw Cooper out despite Belle's wishes. As their conversation winds down, Cleo comes back from her errand and Cooper leaves. Stark and Cleo are left alone and Stark, prompted by his conversation with Prince, begins to see her in a different light.
Act 2, Scene 1
Act 2 takes place about a month after act 1. The first scene opens with Stark leafing through a volume of Shakespeare and reminiscing about his youth. Cleo is very solicitous of Stark, bringing him a glass of water and giving him matches to re-light his pipe. Frenchy, also in the room, notices this and makes some pointed remarks about the effect of the heat on people's sex lives. Cleo takes offence at Frenchy's remarks, and the two begin to argue while Stark looks on. Once Frenchy leaves, Cleo and Stark discuss Stark's marriage to Belle, and Cleo questions Belle's treatment of Stark. Cleo tells Stark that she does not really need her job because her parents are wealthy. The two discuss one of Stark's patients, Willy Wax, a choreographer whom Cleo wishes to meet. Stark and Cleo's conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Belle and the later entrance of Prince, who is late for a dental appointment with Stark. Prince asks Cleo and Stark how their affair is going. After Cleo denies they are having one, Prince asks her out on a date. Stark expresses his jealousy and accuses Cleo of lying about her friends and her parents. Cleo admits that she has been lying and tells Stark that she loves him. Immediately after Cleo's declaration of love, Cooper interrupts their conversation. Cooper is distraught about his life and tells Stark that he is going to sell his blood to make enough money to pay him back. The scene ends with Cleo confessing her love for Stark and the two embracing passionately.
Act 2, Scene 2
Scene 2 begins with an argument between Cleo and Stark about Cleo's decision to accept Willy Wax's invitation to lunch. As they argue, Prince calls on the phone and asks Cleo out on a date (which she refuses). Frenchy enters and warns Cleo not to toy with Stark's affections. Cleo leaves for lunch with Wax, after an argument with Stark about the nature of their affair. Cleo is upset that Stark wants to keep their affair a secret and never takes her out in public. While Cleo is at lunch with Wax, Belle enters the office and argues with Stark. She demands that Stark fire Cleo and hire her, Belle, instead. When Stark refuses to fire Cleo, Belle accuses him of conducting an affair with Cleo and locks herself in his dental office. While Stark is trying to persuade her to come out, Cooper enters and gives Stark a check for thirty dollars, which he has earned by selling his blood. Belle leaves in disgust, telling Stark that he is an actor. Cooper leaves shortly thereafter, and Cleo returns from her lunch, followed by Willy Wax. Wax tells Stark that Cleo must be in love with him. The scene ends with Cleo and Stark in a passionate embrace.
Act 3 begins with Belle and Stark arguing about their marriage. Belle accuses Stark of having an affair with Cleo. After Stark admits his infidelity, Belle tries to get him to admit that he does not love Cleo and that this was an affair of convenience. Belle tells Stark that if he commits himself to their marriage, she will change her ways. Stark cannot choose between Cleo and Belle. Belle tells him that she is going to leave him. Once Belle leaves, Frenchy enters. After a long conversation about love and marriage, he tries to help Stark sort out his problems. The entrance of Prince interrupts Frenchy's efforts. Prince tells Stark that he intends to ask Cleo to marry him. The two men argue, furious with each other. Cleo returns, and she and Stark discuss their affair and profess their love for each other. Stark wants Cleo to understand the situation he is in and asks her to have patience with him. At this moment, Prince asks Cleo to marry him, telling her that he can provide her with security. Stark realizes that he cannot give Cleo what she needs and ends their affair. Cleo refuses Prince's marriage offer and tells both men that she has gained a degree of maturity while working for Stark and can now go out into the world. Once Cleo leaves, Stark and Prince reconcile their differences. Stark tells Prince that he has also gained a new perspective on life. Prince leaves after asking Stark to return to his wife. The act ends with the exit of Stark.
Dr. Phil Cooper
Dr. Cooper is a dentist who rents an office in Ben Stark's building. Dr. Cooper is the most pathetic character in the play and seems to be the man most affected by the socio-economic climate of the mid-1930s. He is a veteran of World War I, but he has been severely affected by the depression. Dr. Cooper feels that he has been abandoned and forgotten by his country, even though he served in the military during the war. He is financially unsuccessful and cannot afford to pay his rent or support his family. His young son recently broke his arm, and Cooper cannot afford to pay the doctor's bills. His financial straits are so bad he is forced to sell his blood in order to pay the rent on his office. Dr. Cooper serves, in many ways, as a cautionary character for Ben Stark.
Frenchy is a chiropodist who rents office space from Ben Stark. Unlike the play's other principle characters, he is happy with his lot as a single man and sees no need to embark on a romantic relationship. Frenchy believes that relationships impede a man's progress. He is also sympathetic to the effects of modern life on women, arguing that a wife is shortchanged in marriage. Of all the characters in the play, Frenchy seems to be the most secure. He is often humorous and has an ironic outlook. However, Frenchy is the character that holds Cleo in the lowest regard. He is frequently rude to her and picks on her incessantly. Frenchy is also capable of being serious and forthright. When Ben Stark is at his lowest point, it is Frenchy who attempts to help him work through his problems.
Mr. Prince is Belle Stark's father, a retired but successful businessman. Mr. Prince continually encourages Ben Stark to go further in his life. He offers to provide Ben with the money he will need to expand his dental practice and encourages him to have an affair. Mr. Prince seems to have more energy and vitality than any of the other male characters in the play. He is learned, well read, and has a sense of humor. Like Ben Stark, Mr. Prince makes repeated references to Shakespeare. For example, he calls himself an American King Lear. Despite his outward appearance of happiness and wit, Prince is in many ways a bitter man. He believes that his wife held him back in life and that he could have been a great actor if he had not been married and had the responsibilities of a family. A widower, Mr. Prince is in love with Cleo and wants her to marry him. Despite Prince's relative wealth and vitality, however, Cleo sees that he is only interested in her as a trophy and refuses his offer. Prince is able to quickly shrug off Cleo's rejection of him and immediately returns to his old ways, forgiving Ben and establishing that, for him, nothing will have changed.
Cleo Singer is Ben's young secretary and is the most important and complex female character in the play. Cleo is youthful and vital and stands in contrast to the middle-aged characters. Cleo is in love with Ben and wants him to commit to their relationship by leaving Belle and marrying her. As the object of affection for almost all the men in the play, Cleo must contend with Belle's jealousy, as well as numerous advances from Wax and Mr. Prince, both of whom Cleo rejects as unworthy of her affections. The men in the play repeatedly objectify Cleo. She is seen as something that can be used up and discarded and almost all of the men seem both beguiled by, and frightened of, her youth and beauty. Cleo begins the play as an insecure and flighty woman who lies about her life and seems unable to carry out the basics of her job successfully. As the play progresses, however, Cleo appears to be the only character who really develops and grows. This is why, at the end of the play, she is the only one who can actually leave. All in all, however, Cleo is a relatively ambiguous character. Like Ben Stark, she lacks enough substance to be a compelling central focus of the play. Her ability to leave the confines of her affair with Stark, and the confines of her job at his dental practice, seemingly comes from nowhere. Despite this ambiguity, Cleo is an important and interesting character.
Belle is Ben Stark's wife. She bears the brunt of his disillusionment with his life. Belle hates her father and persuades Ben to refuse his offer of financial help. Belle believes that her father effectively killed her mother by treating her badly. Indeed, many of Belle's actions seem to stem from her desire not to endure the same fate as her own mother. Despite Ben's desire to expand his practice, Belle wants him to curb his ambitions and be content with what he has. She is, however, frustrated with her marriage to Ben, alternately blaming herself and Ben for the failure of their relationship. Her jealousy of Cleo leads her to demand (unsuccessfully) that Ben fire his secretary and employ her instead. Because Belle is unable to bear children after the death of their son during childbirth, Belle represents for Ben everything he has failed to achieve and Ben's inability to find happiness. While Belle is a largely unsympathetic character, there are indications that she should not be seen solely in this way. If one views Belle's actions from the perspective of Frenchy, for example, she appears to be as trapped by circumstances as her husband.
Dr. Ben Stark
Ben Stark is a moderately successful dentist who owns the building in which all of the action of the play takes place. Unhappy with his life, Ben wishes to develop his dental practice by specializing as an orthodontist, but his wife dissuades him from doing so. Ben is bored and frustrated with both his home and professional life. Ben is in love with his secretary, Cleo, and embarks on a tentative affair with her as a way of escaping the ennui of his day-to-day life. However, Ben is ultimately unwilling to commit to a relationship with Cleo because he cannot choose between the possibilities she offers him and the security of his marriage. Unable to leave his wife or take the steps necessary to develop his dental practice, Ben Stark seems trapped between his ambitions and the comforts and securities of his current life. Caught between these competing imperatives, Ben represents the perils of middle-class life in which desire and expectations often overwhelm happiness and contentment. At the end of the play, Ben claims to have gained a degree of insight as a result of his affair with Cleo and the decisions he has been forced to make. What Ben decides to settle for, however, is the security of his current position. Because of this, Ben Stark is an ambivalent hero. While he is the central character, he is largely an ineffectual one. He seems unable to make decisions for himself and cannot even keep a pot of flowers alive. Ben is unable to expand the horizons of his life beyond a nostalgic longing for his youth—when everything was still ahead of him and no decisions about his life had yet been made. He reads and quotes from Shakespeare on a number of occasions and seems to want to retreat into the prior life the English playwright signifies for him.
Willy Wax is a choreographer and one of Ben Stark's patients. Wax is enamored of Cleo and repeatedly tries to get her to join him for lunch. Wax is the least sympathetic character in the entire play. Indeed, he appears to be the type of man who often lures young, impressionable women into his office. He is portrayed as a shallow, egotistical man who is only interested in himself and who attempts to parlay his modicum of fame into an affair with Cleo. When Cleo refuses his sexual advances, he accuses her of being old-fashioned and refuses to have anything more to do with her.
Marriage and Career Aspirations
The major conflict of the play stems from Ben Stark's desire to leave his general dental practice and to specialize as an orthodontist. Stark's wife, Belle, persuades him to forego his dream and to be content with his mediocre but dependable general practice. While Stark agrees to Belle's demands at the very beginning of the play, the ramifications of this decision are felt throughout it. Although Stark capitulates to Belle's wishes, he feels confined and stifled by his present position. As a way to escape this feeling, Stark carries out a brief affair with his secretary, Cleo. Stark's attempt to deal with his professional disappointments through an extramarital affair highlights one of the central themes of the play—the effects of marriage on a man's career aspirations. In a conversation about the effects of marriage, Stark's father-in-law, Prince, tells him that Belle's mother had "a housewife's conception of life" and that her limited view eroded his own ambitions, "drip, drip, the matrimonial waters go, and a man wears away." Prince believes that Belle is having a similar effect on Stark. "You graduated first in your class," he tells him, "you played tennis, you were full of life and plans. Look, you don't even resent me now." Odets insists repeatedly that this winnowing away of ambition is the fault of the woman in a marriage. Stark tells Frenchy, for example, "a man would be an idealist to want a honeymoon all his life." Frenchy replies, "No, he'd be a woman. A man can't be both lover and banker, enchanter and provider. But the girls want those combined talents." Therefore, the pressures on a man—both in marriage and in business—seem to leave him trapped between competing expectations. Frenchy avoids these twinned pressures altogether by eschewing romantic relationships and living alone. While Frenchy rejects romantic relationships, he is also the only male character who shows any consideration for the woman's position. "In this day of stresses I don't see much normal life, myself included," he tells Stark. Frenchy alone seems to understand that the economic pressure to provide for a family often makes a man shortchange his wife. "The woman's not a wife," he says, "She's the dependent of a salesman who can't make sales and is ashamed to tell her so, of a federal project worker or a Cooper, a dentist … the free exercise of love, I figure, gets harder every day." These comments introduce one of the play's other central themes, the economic pressures of the Great Depression.
Economics and the Great Depression
While Rocket to the Moon may be less explicitly political than Odets's earlier plays, the effects of the economic pressures brought about by the Great Depression and the increasingly consumer-oriented nature of the American economy are central to the play. The influence of the Great Depression on the characters in the play can be seen most clearly in Cooper. A veteran of World War I, Cooper struggles to make ends meet because his dental practice is failing, and the economic demands of supporting a family exceed his income. By making Cooper a veteran, Odets is commenting on the contrast between the optimism of the post-war years and the realities facing many Americans after the crash of 1929. The depression is referred to explicitly on a number of occasions. For example, Frenchy reminds Stark that he is providing discounts to W.P.A. workers. Moreover, as Frenchy's earlier remark that a woman is less a wife than the dependent of a salesman or a federal project worker makes clear, the Great Depression had a profoundly negative effect on the securities traditionally assumed to go along with marriage.
Artistic Aspirations and Constraints
While he was working on the play, Odets was experiencing his own relationship troubles; his marriage was shortly to come to an end. Because of this, a number of critics have suggested that the play is as much about the constraints placed on artistic aspirations by marriage and other pressures as it is about the themes discussed above. This claim is perhaps best exemplified in Prince's statement to Stark that if he had not been married he could have been "one of the greatest actors in the world." Instead, he is "an old man who missed his boat," a man who has "disappeared in the corner, with the dust, under the rug." Indeed, many of the play's characters have artistic aspirations: Cleo wants to be a dancer, Willy Wax is a choreographer, and Stark retreats into Shakespeare on a number of occasions. Given the weight of examples such as these, there can be little doubt that, however much it was motivated by his own personal life, Odets clearly uses the theme of artistic exploration as a metaphor for the debilitating effects of marriage on a man's ambitions.
All of the action of Rocket to the Moon takes place in the waiting room in Ben Stark's dental office. Because of this single location, the focus of the play becomes the dialogue between the characters and their entries and exits from the stage. In the final moments of the play, Stark refers to this room as a prison-office. Mirroring the themes of many of the conversations between the characters, the confines of the single room help invoke the feeling that the characters, and Stark in particular, are trapped in their circumstances.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- All three acts of the play take place in the same location—the waiting room of Stark's dental practice. Because of this, the forward progress of the play relies heavily on the entrance and exit of characters and on the ways in which they interact in that confined space. How would you direct the end of act 3 when Stark, Prince, and Cleo have their final conversation? How would you pace the character's dialogue and what decisions would you make about their movement both entering and exiting the stage?
- The historical period in which Rocket to the Moon takes place is the Great Depression of the 1930s. This was a period of great social, political, and economic upheaval in the United States. Research the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929. What were some of the causes of the crash and the Great Depression that followed? How did the country get out of the Great Depression? What have been some of the lasting effects of governmental policies from the period?
- Clifford Odets was briefly a member of the Communist Party in the early 1930s. Because of his involvement with communism, Odets—like many other prominent American celebrities—had to testify in front of Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Commission in the 1950s. Conduct research into the HUAC hearings and McCarthyism. What other noted celebrities were called to appear in front of the commission? What accounted for the rising fear of communism in America in the 1950s?
- Rocket to the Moon is an example of social realism. Unlike in tragedy, farce, comedy, or romance, the play's dialogue, characters, and events are intended to be as realistic as possible. Explore how Odets manages to produce realistic characters and to deal with common themes through an examination of the dialogue in the play. What aspects of the character's interactions help provide a sense of realism? Do the themes Odets addresses in this play—the function of marriage, economic pressures, artistic aspirations, and others—resonate for readers in the early 2000s? How could you update the play to make it more relevant for an audience now?
Because the action of the play consists of the interactions between characters and their entrance and exit from Stark's waiting room, almost all of the imagery of the play is embodied in the character's dialogue and is developed through the repetition of thematic elements. The one significant exception to this is the repeated focus on the Hotel Algiers seen through the window of the waiting room. In the first act, Prince tells Stark that he once knew a bookie that used the hotel as an office. The hotel signifies a different type of life and the temptations that Stark overcomes at the close of the play. Another central image in the play is of Cleo as a consumable object. Frenchy refers to her as "Juicy Fruit," for instance, and Cleo tells Wax that "No man can take a bite out of me, like an apple and throw it away."
Rocket to the Moon is a work of dramatic realism. Its central subject concerns the everyday lives of its protagonists, and the setting and dialogue of the play focus on realistic subjects. The play attempts to reproduce the everyday speech of New Yorkers. The moments when Stark or Prince quote from Shakespeare, for example, contrast sharply with the rest of the dialogue.
It is almost impossible to discuss the work of Clifford Odets without spending some time focusing on his relationship to the Group Theatre, of which he was an original member, and on the broader genre of American political theatre that arose during the Great Depression. The Group Theatre was, as Gerald Weales suggests in his essay "The Group Theatre and its Plays," "a community of artists" and "the most successful failure in the history of American theatre." The Group Theatre lasted as an organization for ten years spanning the decade of the 1930s. During that time they produced seven of Odets's plays. Founded by George Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the group also started or significantly directed the careers of actors, such as John Garfield, and directors, such as Elia Kazan, who would later go on to direct some of the most important films in the history of Hollywood cinema. The group leaned decidedly to the left, and a number of its members were also members of the Communist Party during the 1930s. Indeed, Odets and Kazan would discuss this fact at length when they both appeared before Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Commission in the 1950s.
Odets made a name for himself as a playwright with two plays produced by the Group Theatre in 1935, Awake and Sing! and Waiting for Lefty. Both of these plays can be considered works of agitprop (agitation-propaganda), a type of progressive, politically serious drama produced in America after the stock market crash of 1929. Waiting for Lefty, written while Odets was a member of the Communist Party, was the most successful of these plays. It eventually played in over one hundred cities in 1935 and was performed throughout the 1930s. On its opening night in New York, the audience responded to the play by rushing the stage to congratulate the actors after the final curtain. Given that the play is about a conflict between striking New York cab drivers and a corrupt union boss, its reception was hardly surprising. As Christopher J. Herr points out in Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre,"in 1934 alone, almost 2,000 strikes had broken out across the country, including violent conflicts in Toledo, Minneapolis, Harlan County, Kentucky, and San Francisco." Michael Denning notes, in the Introduction to The Cultural Front, that the national textile strike of 1934, involving over 400,000 workers, "became the largest strike in a single industry in American history." Odets had found a set of themes that spoke to the millions of unemployed, under-employed, and disenfranchised citizens of America feeling the lasting and debilitating effects of the crash of 1929 and the depression that followed.
That Odets had struck a cord with the American public is perhaps proved most effectively by the fact that Waiting for Lefty was, according to Wendy Smith (quoted in Michael Denning's The Cultural Front), the "most widely banned" play in America. Given the social and economic conditions under which Odets and the majority of Americans were living, it is no surprise that he found his greatest early success with dramas about the socioeconomic conditions of the 1930s. Precipitated by the stock market crash of October 1929, the Great Depression affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Unemployment rates skyrocketed and farms and homes were repossessed by banks and lending companies.
The initial critical reception to Rocket to the Moon was mixed. While many critics believed that Odets was attempting to develop his understanding of social and interpersonal relationships, many found his efforts to be lacking. For example, in his New York Herald-Tribune review, Richard Watts Jr. begins by claiming, "Mr. Odets continues to be the most exciting and the most exasperating of the younger American dramatists." Watts ends his review by calling the play a "baffling combination of brilliance and confusion." Like many critics, Watts believes that the play's first act is brilliant but that, in the second half, the play loses its focus and "begins to languish."
Rocket to the Moon (along with Golden Boy) is commonly understood to mark a shift in Odets's dramatic work from a politically aware playwright of the American left to one more focused on inter-personal relations. This claim is a persistent theme in contemporary reviews of the play. This opinion of the trajectory of Odets's work is one that continued long after his death. In his 1989 book Clifford Odets, Gabriel Miller sees Rocket to the Moon as purely a romantic drama. Miller suggests, "Odets was torn between the desire to write about the sociopolitical situation and the increasing pressure of his personal troubles."
As Odets's reputation gained in stature in the late 1990s, a number of critics argued that fewer political plays, such as Rocket to the Moon, are connected to Odets's earlier work than contemporary reviewers might have thought. Christopher J. Herr, for example, argues in Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre, that, while the play "continue[s] his retreat from overtly political drama into a more generalized examination of American life," the connections between it and plays such as Waiting for Lefty are many. The characters, Herr argues, are still driven by economic imperatives (much as the characters in Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing!). Herr points out that the play is explicitly set against the backdrop of the Great Depression.
Piano is a Marion Brittain Fellow in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. In this essay, Piano considers how the character Cleo Singer embodies the competing impulses of personal and economic pressure in the play.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1930s: Most women are expected to be housewives and, if they do choose to work, are limited to jobs as secretaries, assistants, nurses, or teachers.
Today: Many women hold powerful and important positions in major companies. However, women still earn proportionally less than their male counterparts.
- 1930s: Space travel only exists in the realm of fantasy and there is no federal space agency.
Today: Since 1961, over four hundred people have visited outer space and NASA is making plans to send astronauts on a mission to Mars.
- 1930s: Three million American workers are members of unions.
Today: The AFL-CIO alone has over thirteen million members from sixty-one different unions.
Rocket to the Moon is generally understood to mark Clifford Odets's move from explicitly political subject matter, dealing with the social and economic conditions affecting Americans during the Great Depression, towards a drama more interested in interpersonal relationships and, more specifically, the subject of love. While there is undeniable evidence to support this claim, it is arguably overstated. Indeed, while plays such as Rocket to the Moon and Odets's previous play, Golden Boy, certainly focus on the personal rather than the political, a focus on the economic and social conditions that affect the lives of Odets's protagonists is never far beneath the surface. As such, Odets's later plays should be understood to be drawing from the same well and embodying many of the same concerns as his earlier works. Christopher J. Herr, for example, states in his book Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre that, despite the less overtly political nature of these later plays, "the economic imperatives that
drive the characters remain strong." A number of critics have suggested that, in the later plays such as Rocket to the Moon, Odets was trying to deal with broader social and economic issues and events in his personal life, such as his divorce from the actress Luise Rainer. Gabriel Miller, for example, suggests that during the late 1930s, as the world was on the verge of World War II, "Odets was torn between the desire to write about the sociopolitical situation and the increasing pressure of his personal troubles."
In Rocket to the Moon, these economic imperatives are paramount, and Odets successfully interweaves the personal motives of his central characters with a nuanced understanding of the effects of the Great Depression and the economic conditions of the 1930s on their desires, needs, and aspirations. These considerations can be seen both in the relationships between Ben Stark, the central protagonist of the play, and his male co-workers, and in the relationship between Stark and Cleo Singer, his secretary. If Rocket to the Moon should indeed be seen as a highly personal play in which the socio-economic conditions of the Great Depression serve as a backdrop to the interpersonal relations that compel its plot, then attention must be paid to the interrelationship between these two drives. Nowhere are these potentially contradictory impulses more apparent than in the character of Cleo Singer.
From the very beginning of the play, issues of economics are highly evident. The play begins with an argument between Stark and his wife, Belle, about Stark's desire to expand his dental practice by moving his offices to a more affluent area of town and to specialize as an orthodontist. For a mixture of personal and financial reasons, Belle does not want Stark to give up the security of his comfortable and moderately successful practice. Much of the remaining action of the play—particularly Stark's affair with Cleo—can be understood to stem from Belle's successful attempt to persuade Stark to remain where he is. Frustrated with his lot in life, Stark embarks on an affair with Cleo because she signifies the possibility of change that Stark has been denied in his professional life. As Gabriel Miller suggests, Cleo "inhabit[s] a world beyond the Depression-decimated experience of the other characters" who live in a "world of loneliness, pain, separation, and exile." While characters such as Frenchy and Cooper symbolize potentially moribund futures for Stark, Cleo offers the possibility of escape. She is, as Prince suggests, the "rocket to the moon" that will free Stark from his quotidian troubles and reinvigorate him. However, Cleo is an ambiguous outlet for Stark's frustrations, both because of the ways in which Stark understands her and because she has her own desires and ambitions.
In as much as Cleo embodies a symbol of escape for Stark, she is repeatedly imagined as an item available for consumption; the interpretation of Cleo as edible, expendable, or consumable is one of the most consistent patterns in the play. Indeed, each of the central male characters likens her to a commodity on at least one occasion. The idea that Cleo is a commodity available for consumption by the play's male characters is expressed almost immediately when, in her first conversation with Prince, Cleo says that she wants to be a dancer and that she has appeared on stage in a number of shows. As Cleo desires to use her own body as a commodity by becoming a dancer, each of the male characters refers to her at some point during the play in relation to food, something to be consumed and discarded. Moments later, Cleo seems to reject the position that her aspiration to be a dancer seems to establish, telling Prince that she does not "have to stand in Macy's window." In this reference to the famous New York department store, Cleo's status in the play as an item of consumption is concretely established for the first time. Despite her assertions to Prince in which she rejects the position as a consumable object, however, Cleo is repeatedly understood to be such by the play's male characters. From the very beginning of the play, Cleo Singer symbolizes the collation of the personal and the economic, and her personal value is equated—often ambiguously—to an economics of consumption in which the inter-personal and the socioeconomic worlds of the play are brought together.
Cleo's youth and vitality stand in marked contrast to the vituperated natures of each of the play's male characters and to the barren nature of Stark's wife, Belle. Stark is undergoing a mid-life crisis, Prince is an old man, Frenchy is incapable of sustaining a romantic relationship, and Cooper has been turned into a shell of a man consumed by failure. Belle cannot bear children, is seen as a drain on Stark's vitality, and has sapped him of his professional aspirations. Cleo, on the other hand, has a "jingling body" and, as Wax tells her, is "fresh and alive." Quoting Shakespeare, Stark tells her that she is "green and fresh in this old world," explicitly contrasting her youth to the aridity of the lives of the men she is surrounded by. Prince calls Cleo a "girl like candy," comparing her youth to a food most commonly associated with children, something sweet but lacking in nutritional value. References such as these that equate Cleo to food and perishable consumables are not the only ways in which Cleo is symbolized as a source of life in the play. Cleo also brings Stark glasses of water from the water cooler and waters the geraniums he is unable to keep alive by himself.
While Cleo stands in contrast to the male characters—young and full of vitality—her youthful charms are also understood to be temporary. As Herr suggests, the association of Cleo with "the natural abundance of fruit" is "ambivalent at best." By associating her youthfulness with fruit, a commodity with a finite shelf life, Odets is revealing the limitation in these virtues as much as he is holding them up as possible routes of escape for men such as Stark and Prince. This, indeed, is the opinion of Cleo's virtues held by Frenchy, who tells her, when he is warning her not to ruin Stark's life, that he "knows the difference between love and pound cake." Cleo's appeal, Frenchy believes, is one that will fade as she ages and the luster of her youthful vitality wears away. Of all the characters in the play, Frenchy is the most hostile to Cleo's presence and speaks of her most often in negative terms. For example, he tells her that he gave her the job as receptionist in "a moment of aberration" because she pushed her "jingling body in [his] face." Later in the play he calls her "Juicy Fruit" and likens her to a spider weaving a web. For Frenchy, then, Cleo's charms should not be trusted. Frenchy sees Cleo as a distraction from the real business of men's lives.
The inherent ambivalence of the imagery associated with Cleo is further complicated by the fact that she stands at the close of the play as the only character who is able to escape the dentist's office. Of the play's central characters, Cleo alone is able to see a life for herself beyond the horizons of Stark's waiting room. "I'm a girl," she tells Stark and Prince at the close of the play, "and I want to be a woman." She has learned that the options presented to her by both Stark and Prince—to wait in vain for Stark to leave his wife or to enter a loveless marriage of convenience with Prince—will take more out of her than she will gain in return. As the focus of the play shifts from Stark to Cleo (as it does in the third act), she rejects the way she has been used by the men and insists that she is more than a commodity to be eaten up and spat out. "No man can take a bite out of me, like an apple and throw it away," she tells Wax after their failed date, and this sentiment applies equally to Stark and Prince. Moreover, this statement echoes the claim she makes to Prince at the beginning of the play that she does not have to "stand in Macy's window."
Source: Doreen Piano, Critical Essay on Rocket to the Moon, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay excerpt, Brenman-Gibson explores how Rocket to the Moon marks a "shift from the emotional currency of economics and politics to that of psychology," and traces how emotional themes in Odets's own life influenced the play.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the creative process is not finally consummated until the artist's experience—given form on paper, on canvas, or in stone—has reached an audience. Most particularly, the dramatist, that most topical of artists, must feel that he has succeeded in obliterating boundaries and established a union with the group assembled to watch his play. Proceeding from this assumption, the position of Rocket to the Moon in 1938—in Odets' personal history as well as in the history of American drama—is pivotal. While, to be sure, even in so manifestly agitational a play as his early and slight strike play, Waiting for Lefty, Odets' characters and dialogue are already characteristically vivacious, electric, and original, the shift from the emotional currency of economics and politics to that of psychology first becomes evident in Rocket to the Moon. This cogwheeling of an artist's personal themes with those of his society determines (aside from the size of his gift) his success or failure in his lifetime. It is not unusual that there is a lag in either direction.
The manifest spine of the play Rocket is no longer politically messianic: unlike Odets' early plays, addressed to the oppressed international proletariat, pleading with them to "awake and sing" in economic liberation; the appeal is, rather, for creative liberation. Odets told director Harold Clurman it was about "love and marriage." On the one hand, this shift clearly reflects Odets' own struggles with the crisis of intimacy. But that is not all. The cogwheeling turn of history was changing his audience: those who in 1935 had looked for ultimate salvation in the theory of Marx, the activities of the "working class," and the model of the Soviet Union were becoming progressively cynical and wary. The peaceloving Russian comrades—hitherto embraced by idealistic Americans as apostles of the realization of individual potential and dignity—had lately made a pact of mutual defense with "imperialist" France, and, worse, had begun the systematic extermination of their own domestic enemies. The barbarous Moscow trials of these "enemies" were leaving an increasingly bitter taste, straining the loyalty of even the most devoted of American fellow travelers. In short, there no longer existed so credulous an audience as the one that had risen in joyous unison at the close of Waiting for Lefty to shout, "Strike!"
The major critics dimly understood Odets' shift away from the manifestly political as a "landmark in his growth." Those writing for the communist press—missing entirely the point of the play: a plea for the liberation of creativity—mourned that he had given over his "magnificent flair for character study and dialogue" to such bourgeois concerns as "love and marriage." Of the first-line critics, only the sagacious Joseph Wood Krutch, writing for The Nation, understood the nature of Odets' evolution as a playwright and the resultant shifts within himself, and, accordingly, the nature of his transactions with an equally changing audience: "The tendency still persists to make of Clifford Odets and his plays a political issue. That, I think, is a pity from any point of view now that the facts are becoming increasingly clear. Whatever his opinions may have been or, for that matter, may still be, those opinions are shared by many, while Mr. Odets reveals a gift for characterization and a gift for incisive dialogue unapproached by any of his Marxian fellows and hardly equaled by any other American playwright." Another central point made by Krutch was that Odets—and correspondingly his audience—had gradually shifted from the manifestly political to the psychological arena.
Keeping in mind as scaffolding Erikson's new perspectives on the dream as well as his fourfold complementarity (that is, the writer's history and his present stage of life plus the present state of his society and its history), I proceed to our play specimen.
Odets' first jottings for Rocket to the Moon, made in 1937 when he was thirty-one, outline a play whose sensory quality and affective atmosphere are immediately reflected in its wasteland setting: in sharp contrast to the play's title, the space is tightly, even suffocatingly, bounded. People and flowers alike thirst, are dead, constricted, manifestly allowing little room for locomotion, "play," or growth. With fewer characters than ever before, he gives these again neutral "American" names of indeterminate national origins.
His earliest scribbled notes indicate Odets' conscious intention to create as the protagonist of Rocket to the Moon, a frightened, ineffectual, submerged little dentist named Ben Stark, a man in a "mid-life crisis," torn between his controlling, sterile wife and his juicy, aspiring secretary, and bitterly disappointed in his creative aspirations. Initially, it appeared the central action of the play would be his. The fourth, and perhaps the richest character is his wife's father, Judah Prince, a man of the world, determined to "have love" before he dies. A man who prides himself on knowing "how to talk to a headwaiter," he is the dentist's rival for the girl. The idea for this play had come to him, Odets said, when he was sitting in a dentist's chair looking at the equipment and the water cooler, and wondering what kinds of emotional life were concealed behind the numb routines of this office and behind the constricted face of the meek little dentist himself. Early notes, written by Odets at a time when he began to be in conscious conflict over his marriage, indicate the central theme would be "about love and marriage in America."
By way of this specimen play analysis, I will provide data which illustrate the two major hypotheses: first, that play always deals at some level with the playwright's view, conscious and unconscious, of the nature of the creative process itself, and secondly, that the playwright's distribution of himself (of his identity elements), constitute the cast of characters, their conflicts and resolutions reflecting the playwright's effort via Form to bring these dualities into harmony, restoring wholeness where there was conflict.
Over a year had elapsed after his first notes for Rocket, at the end of which time Odets' own efforts at a faithful intimacy were reaching a bitter climax in the crumbling of his marriage. In response to his coldly detached reply to her telegraphed announcement from Hollywood that she was pregnant, his wife had aborted their first and only child. Odets had fled with the company of Golden Boy from New York to London, and in the fall of 1938, now thirty-two, he drove alone to Canada, carrying with him, in addition to the few notes written the year before the "dentist play," the manuscript of his labor play, as well as the play about the Cuban revolution. It is evident his necessity is to work, preferably on material manifestly tied to the ongoing historic upheavals. In his "General Notes," from 1938, he had written: "The invasion of Prague, from news dispatches. Crowds of thousands stood, weeping silently, and then spontaneously broke into their national anthem! A policeman outside the city hall tried desperately to direct traffic but was too blinded by his tears. Many of the Czechs covered their faces with their hands and turned away at the first sight of the German troops. Well, can a writer write in the face of these things? Yes, he must write in the face of these things!"
It troubled him, however, that a formal vessel by means of which he might explicitly unite these large and somber historic events to his own emotional urgencies continued to elude him. Finally, he stopped work on the manifestly "social-historical" plays—all of which took as their theme the beginning of the end of the American Dream—and concentrated instead on what appeared to be the strictly "personal" struggles of three ordinary and lonely people, with Ben Stark, the passive, submerged dentist, trying to find sufficient courage to "take life by the throat" by having an affair with his childlike, attractive, and aspiring secretary, Cleo Singer. It is implied that his stifled growth—his generativity—will thereby be given new impetus and he will escape the feeling he has "blown it."
In the playwright's original outline, written only a few weeks after his wedding, and during the first of many separations, the dentist's secretary succeeds in detaching Stark from his wife. After a year of intense emotional negotiation, Odets' own marriage all but finished, he found as he was rewriting this play that the character, Cleo, had begun to take center stage away from Ben and to evolve as the "identity element" by now familiar to me from his earliest juvenile writing: the aspiring, unformed, even damaged, artist, or—as he liked to call her—"the moral idealist," whose growth is in steady jeopardy of becoming fraudulent, or crippled by a premature restriction of options, manipulated by the seductive and worldly American businessman whose own innocence and idealism, like that of America, has long since disappeared.
The dentist, Stark, a "second-class professional," is a man who reads Shakespeare, but who would—according to Odets' notes—be frightened even to get a passport and who "plays it safe" in his own work. He is in competition for this girl Cleo (that is, for the identity element we can call Odets' Muse) with his father-in-law, who decisively proclaims, with no trace of his son-in-law's shame and doubt, "I want what I want!" This is the polarity between that aspect of Odets' identity structure which (like his mother's) is deadened by a fearful, proper, and obsessional paralysis, and his insistence on a full, joyful, and maximal experience of life which would "exclude nothing," and which he thought would therefore be "disobedient" and "evil."
Advising the meek Ben Stark he is an iceberg, half-dead, who excludes so much from awareness and action that there is no "play" in him, the older man recommends to the younger that he regain elbow room, leeway, and, thus, vitality before it's too late: "You'll be dead soon enough." Judah Prince concludes with an extraordinarily bold, locomotive proposal which in 1938 was synonymous with saying, "Undertake the visionary, the impossible." He says to the only half-alive dentist, "Explode, take a rocket to the moon!" supplying here the title for the play eagerly awaited by director Harold Clurman and then-actor, Elia Kazan.
The other pole of Odets' conflict is jotted in a "production note" in the margin: "Motto: 'You don't easily give up a home if you have been an orphan."' This caution issues from a person terrified to make a great leap lest he fall into an abyss.
So delighted were the Group Theatre actors that Odets had finally brought his new play that they swallowed their disappointment that he had completed only two acts. All agreed the three major characters were among his best and most mature yet. Director Clurman found himself, however, unsettled by what appeared from these two acts to be a significant shift away from the original plan of the play about a constricted man who stops "playing it safe" and who bursts his bonds by a union with a liberating young anima, the girl Cleo. "Awakened" by his love for this girl, Odets had said, he would undergo a ravaging depth of experience which, despite the girl's childish self-absorption, would increase his stature as a man and propel the growth hitherto blocked. As Clurman now listened to Odets read his first two acts, it appeared to him that subtly, the play's center—without sufficient psychological justification in Odets' development of her character—had shifted to the girl Cleo and that the play's focus had radically changed from that of a man torn between two women to a girl freeing herself from two men.
Moreover, with a new prominence for the worldly Prince (a man who recommends himself as someone who "don't look foolish before authority"), quite a different triangle had been created, with the aspiring girl instead of the frightened dentist at its apex. The play's theme had originally centered on the question of whether the timid and dependently vulnerable man could break through the enveloping, dead wasteland of his static and submerged existence by an explosive and creative thrust (a "rocket to the moon") toward a fresh, young (amorphously talented), girl in quest of both love and of self-expression. It had been conceived as the man's play, and the struggle was to be his. Now, the theme appeared to have moved from him to the girl even as Odets had moved from his failed struggle for intimacy with his wife to the broader issues of his own creativity or generativity: Carrying the responsibility for the recent destruction of his first unborn biological child, he deeply feared that his stagnation would extend to his "brain-children" as well. The character, Cleo, his Muse, now bore the burden of reestablishing his generativity. It was disquietingly clear to director Clurman that something significant in Odets' emotional life had intervened between the first outline of this play and the present two acts, throwing out of kilter the formal dramatic structure. He devoutly hoped the still unwritten third act would dispel his fear that the character, Cleo, had run away with the play, confusing its formal structure sufficiently to sabotage both its aesthetic unity and its commercial success.
An interesting question for study here is: how had an experienced playwright of great skill begun with one play and ended with another?
For over a year, Odets had been seriously blocked in his work, had had a dismaying sense of loss of emotional connection to his wife and of creative connection to the growing crisis in the immediate events of world history. He sensed only dimly that the deeper connection in his current work to the unfolding of history lay in its reflection of an increasingly urgent conflict between the values of salesmanship and an innocent creativity. His notes suggest he was seeing both his wife and his father as "the enemy," while finding it increasingly difficult to identify "the enemy" as a simple, political-economic order with which he could do battle as he had in the past. The references in Rocket to the villainy of the economic system are perfunctory and hollow.
Now that his marriage was coming to an end, it must have appeared to him that, despite his loneliness and shame at this failure, he had a second chance, a fresh start in his primary—his most "real"—self-identity as an honest artist, if not as a husband or father. His anima (Cleo) says, "It's getting late to play at life: I want to live it … something has to feel real."
It is as if Odets falls back to an earlier stage in his development and hopes this time for a firmer resolution at least of his work identity and for a renewal of his generativity as playwright. He will find the "real reality" in his brain-children, a safer fatherhood, he felt, than of a flesh-and-blood baby.
In Rocket to the moon, for the first time in his life, Odets was writing a play which does not culminate in some kind of crippling or catastrophe: injury to his creative "hands," suicide, or death. A key tragedy of his childhood, it will be recalled, was the "abandonment" of him by his mother in favor of his crippled sister. It is this personal sense of disinheritance which had cogwheeled with the collective sense of disinheritance in the Depression era. Rocket is a desperate turn to a psychological instead of an economic deliverance. It is an adumbration of the reach in American cultural history—three decades later—toward self-actualizing (inner) values. In Golden Boy, written by Odets the year before, Joe Bonaparte, who has irrevocably lost himself as a violinist by crippling his hands in a prizefight, cries out in a climactic, locomotor defiance of gravity, "We're off the earth!" and—while the "money-men" are dividing shares of him—the speeding automobile incinerates Joe and his girl in Babylon, Long Island. It is the paradigm of the price paid for the machines and the worldly values inherent in the American dream.
Here, while there recurs the image of an escape from the constricting pull of a "Mother Earth," it is in a rocket, a machine even more powerful than an automobile and this time with the intrepid thrust of a confident citizen of a virile, technological world-power. The emotional tone of the rocket image is not suicidal but freely adventurous and open; of a man still on an explosive American frontier. With the impulsive surge of personal liberation from the constrictions of immigrant terror, the image is of a twentieth-century American conquistador planting his flag in unmapped territory (the feminine moon). Wholly different from the apocalyptic locomotor image which closes Golden Boy, or even from that of a businesslike astronaut, a "rocket to the moon" is filled with hope, initiative, and even a promise of a peak experience of freedom.
I wish there were space to discuss Rocket to the Moon "beat by beat." Only by following each of its dramatic moves in microscopic detail is it possible to see the specificity with which the data support the two working hypotheses I propose. I will try here to state the essentials.
With a pace and a focus of intent rare in dramatic literature, Odets manages in the first distilled "beat" of the very first scene to get into the heart of the play's conflict and its apparent theme: there is an immediate confrontation between the frightened, isolated dentist, Ben Stark and his scolding wife, Belle. Their conflict commences in a sensory web of heat and claustrophobic imprisonment. He wants to "specialize," to grow, and she, like Odets' father, gives practical reasons against it, reasons which stifle his growth. By a most economic exchange, the playwright ends the first round, with the controlling wife, Belle, the victor. Indeed, she has won even before the play opens and when she concludes the opening beat with, "Any day now I'm expecting to have to powder and diaper you," she has established herself as the parent, the boss, the obstacle in the path of the aspiring Ben Stark's creative growth. As the play opens the conflict between these two—husband and wife—appears to be its theme.
The connective tissue of the play, as in a musical fugue, derives from fragments of this announced theme: Belle says her husband must not simply agree to do as she says; he must also "see that I am right," play it safe, and not try to expand his practice and creative work. He, who was once a "pioneer with Gladstone in orthodontia" (in making straight and whole that which is crooked) has already lowered his creative sights to tooth pulling and to cultivating petunias in a flower box, and his income to one-tenth of what "men with half my brains and talent are making." "If he had to go get a passport, it would become a terrific event in his life." The fact that he is a dentist, not a doctor, is already a comedown in the "good prototypes" of Jewish middle-class life. But Belle does not approve his creative collaboration with Gladstone in dentistry, any more than did Odets' father approve of Harry Kemp or his wife Luise Rainer approve his association with Clurman in the Group Theatre. Even Ben's last-ditch attempts to nurture (to generate) his sadly drooping little flowers which his secretary calls his "orphan babies" are immediately revealed in the first few minutes as fumbling and inept:
STARK: I wanted to do something … what was it? nor a drink … Oh, the flowers! (He fills a paper cup, puts his pipe between his teeth and tries without success, one hand full to fill a second cup.)
BELLE: Try one at a time, dear.
STARK: (Coolly) One at a time is a good idea. (At the window, right, he pours the water on a window box of drooping petunias. As he turns for more water he faces Belle who has brought him a second cupful.) Thanks.
BELLE: (Smiling) Anyday now I'm expecting to have to powder and diaper you.
In these few lines between the initial major player and counterplayer, the husband and wife, there stands a distilled illustration of the way a playwright juggles and adjusts the conflicts and the "moves" of his internal "gallery of characters"—that is, of his own identity elements and fragment—to the external masks of the people in his past and present worlds.
In this short exchange much is reflected: Odets' conviction at that time that his wife—like his father—chronically wished to criticize, denigrate, and control him and his work (Ben's petunias), as well as to convert, reform, and direct him. There are reflected other paradigms as well. Odets has condensed in the dentist's relation to his controlling, depressed wife not only his own responses to his father's tyranny, but also to the mood of his melancholy mother and the steady (internalized) combat between his parents. Were it not for the fact of Odets' own struggle between his longing to surrender, abdicating all autonomy, initiative, and responsibility (as he had long ago sat obediently for hours on his little chair, waiting), and his impulse to "explode," there would be no conflict and no play. In his production notes, Odets wrote of Stark, "He is a man who suffers because he can't make important decisions easily … fears scenes and fights…. If he feels it is a matter of principle, he can stand up, otherwise, he may cave in…. Principle is a shield where the self can be forgotten."
Ben Stark's physical ineptitude, his indecisiveness, an expression of Odets' own sense of incompetence, like his mother's, takes its contemporary external shape, however, from Clurman's clumsiness in practical undertakings. It was a steady source of banter in the Group Theatre that Clurman—like Ben Stark—could scarcely open a package of cigarettes, was unable to use a can-opener, and would say "Hello" without picking up the telephone receiver. Odets often said, "Gadg Kazan is Harold's muscle and his legs."
Odets, himself, consciously thought of Ben Stark's meek obedience to his wife's disdainful will ("You win, you win," he says to her wearily) as simply a literal copy of Clurman's compliance with the powerful Stella Adler. Not so. These characters are all configurations and subconfigurations of identity elements with Odets' own self, organized long before he met Clurman or Stella Adler. Such are the complexities of joining an inner gallery of characters with the playwright's actual contemporaries from whom he is said to have "taken" his cast of characters.
This is a good example of how misleading it is to make a one-to-one biographic correlation between the playwright as protagonist, and the people in his life as "supporting cast." To be sure, those in the playwright's life space, most especially members of a family, or even of a gifted acting company like the Group Theatre, call out his own internal "gallery," providing the masks for the characters who people his play. It is no accident, for example, that actor Morris Carnovsky always played the "spiritual" parts in Odets' plays, while Kazan was usually cast, as Odets put it, as the "original getahead boy." Odets regularly used each of the Group Theatre members as a mask for his own warring identity elements and fragments, and was actually helped to create whole persons (lovingly and fully) by reason of the independent existence of these excellent actors.
As the play moves on through this first act, with the playwright keeping the polyphonic conflicts alive while offering expository material, minor characters, crackling dialogue, and lovely jokes, we see reverberations not only of Odets' struggles with his wife and of his grief about their aborted child, but also of his own earlier trail of dead or aborted children, creative as well as biological. This is a play in which the people steadily reveal themselves. Belle Prince Stark, ironically calling herself "your terrible wife," as Odets' wife, in fact, often had—says, in Luise Rainer's actual words, "You have to love me all the time … a woman wants to live with a man, not next to him," adding she has been "blue all morning," thinking of their dead baby.
Throughout this first act of Rocket to the Moon, it is evident that the playwright initially intended the central question to be: Will this frightened individual summon the courage to break his bondage and fulfill his life by a love affair or will he play it safe, abdicate his growth, and be like the enslaved immigrant who continues to the end (in the words of Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman) to "passionately hate his life and likewise fear his death?"
After the initial victory in the first scene of the wife (Belle) over the husband (Ben), the girl (Cleo) enters, and the play appears ready again to move forward. We are forewarned, however, of the increasing imbalance in the play's structure by the fact that the protagonist (Ben Stark) is, from the beginning, the least interesting character. He is the quiet observer, the static center, and, if the playwright had maintained him as the central character, the play would never have moved forward. Moreover, we have seen early hints that the new triangle is building, with the two men competing for the girl. While it is difficult to care what will happen between Ben and the sexy, stockingless Cleo Singer, dressed in "angel-skin satin," the interchange between the passionate old man and this girl is from the outset arresting, enlivening, and involving. Clearly it is in their relationship that the playwright sees the formidable threat to the American artist: in the struggle between worldly and creative values. To the extent that it was difficult for the audience to see Cleo as a symbol of creativity, to that extent was the play a failure.
Obviously unsuited to her job and as inefficient in it as Odets in his youth had been in all of his, Cleo is like him, an insecure name-dropper and fabricator; she lies that her mother was an opera singer (her surname) in Europe and that "I come from a well-to-do family … I really don't need this job." Later, Ben says to her, "Everyone tells little fables, Cleo. Sometimes to themselves, sometimes to others. Life is so full of brutal facts … we all try to soften them by making believe." Cleo, the storyteller—the artist—becomes now (psychologically) the central identity element in the play, though not yet the central character in its formal structure. The fables she tells are the effort to make life bearable by "making believe." Precisely this is the work of a playwright: to make himself and other people believe in a reality he creates. Manifestly, however, at this early stage of the game, Cleo appears to be no more than a shallow rival to the oppressive Belle Prince Stark who is simultaneously patrolling many beats, strengthening her hand not only against the girl in this first triangle but on all those who are making her husband's office "inefficient." She is calling everyone to heel and trying to hold her barren fort in a status-quo position. As she leaves the office, we are introduced to the play's third major character, Mr. Judah Prince. Odets describes him in terms clearly recognizable as belonging to his father, L. J. Odets, yet with more affection and empathy than usual. Consciously, he thought he had modeled this character after Stella Adler's father, tragedian Jacob Adler, attorney Max Steuer, and the Yiddish actor, Tomashevsky: "He is near sixty, wears an old panama hat, a fine Palm Beach suit of twenty years ago and a malacca cane. There is about him the dignity and elegant portliness of a Jewish actor, a sort of aristocratic air. He is an extremely self-confident man with a strong sense of humor which, however, is often veiled. He is very alive in the eyes and mouth, the rest of him relaxed and heavy."
His daughter no longer speaks to him because of the dreadful life he had given her dead mother, a punitive silence to be meted out much later by Odets to his own father. "I am the American King Lear," says Mr. Prince, whose dreams of self-realization—like the secret aspiration of the senior Odets to be a writer—have come to nothing: "In our youth we collect materials to build a bridge to the moon," Stark comments, "but in our old age we use the materials to build a shack."
The charged excitement between the sensual, worldly old man and the aspiring young person (read, artist)—as so often in an Odets play—is immediate and unmistakable; as it was between the equivalent characters of Moe and Hennie in Awake and Sing! or gangster Eddie Fuseli and fighter-musician Joe Bonaparte in Golden Boy. Structurally, it is clear something new is starting here: The old man tells the girl he likes her honesty and that "everything that's healthy is personal." He adds (as Odets' father often said of himself and his son) that he and she are identical. She aspires to being a dancer and he, "without marriage" could have been, he thinks, "a great actor." He was also once, he tells her, an idealist. In all of this, the old man is clearly making a move toward the girl. Structurally, by dint of this move, the play has shifted ground: alongside the original triangle of husband, wife, and aspirant girl there stands now a new one: that of husband, aspirant girl, and father-in-law. Prince, like Odets' father, announces he has been made to "play safe" by his wife even as Belle (his daughter) now urges Ben, her husband to do. ("A housewife rules your destiny," says Prince to Stark, adding he had "disappeared in the corner with the dust, under the rug" and lives a dull life "where every day is Monday.")
Although Judah Prince boasts that he still earns money, he bitterly asks to whom shall he leave it all, "to Jascha Heifetz?" Addressing himself, and simultaneously his son-in-law, he asks, "Is this the life you dreamed?" The answer is no, he thinks, for both of them and the path to salvation is clear:
PRINCE: (Suddenly turning, hand on door knob, pointing his cane at Stark and lowering his voice to a near whisper) Iceberg, listen … why don't you come up and see the world, the sea gulls and the ships to Europe? (Coming back into the room) When did you look at another woman last? The year they put the buffalo nickel on the market? Why don't you suddenly ride away, an airplane, a boat! Take a rocket to the moon! Explode! What holds you back? You don't want to hurt Belle's feelings? You'll die soon enough….
STARK: I'll just have to laugh at that!
PRINCE: Laugh … but make a motto for yourself: "Out of the coffin by Labor Day!" Have an affair with—with—this girl … this Miss Cleo. She'll make you a living man again.
By making himself one flesh with an innocent, growing girl, Prince assures Ben he will be creatively activated by sex, a formula often alternated by Odets, in his own frenzied life, with sexual abstinence. It is as if (some of the time) he regarded the feminine aspect of himself as the source of his generativity which would be brought to life by sexual union. This element is in conflict with that of the worldly American businessman who, though magnetic, is ruthless, exploitative, senses-bound, self-centered, lonely and fundamentally out of touch with his own creativity, with the "play" in himself. By reason of his richness, this character, Judah Prince, threatens to "run away" with Rocket to the Moon, as does his equivalent character in so many of Odets' plays.
Act One closes with the inhibited Ben Stark looking out at the "Hotel Algiers," modeled after the seamy Columbus Circle Hotel of Odets's youth (a symbol to him of sexual vitality and forbidden freedom). At the windows of this teeming place, he used literally to peep at "real life," in order, he reasoned, to gather material for his plays.
As Cleo leaves, she reminds Ben of his dreary coffin of an existence: "Your wife expects you home at seven." It is not these routines Odets fears, rather it is that in the "real" intimacy of marriage he will disappear as an artist. ("A man falls asleep in marriage," says Ben.) Thus Odets, on some level, is convinced that a continuing intimacy with a woman threatens his creativity.
The second act of Rocket to the Moon opens in sharp contrast to the first: the girl, Cleo is offering Ben cool water to comfort him in the hellish heat of this summer. Unlike his wife, who wants him to play life safe, she does not deprive him, fight him, seek to reform, and ultimately to possess and control, him as though he were her lost baby. Indeed, Cleo expresses her own reassuring determination never to marry: "It's too sordid," she says.
By now, it is becoming apparent to Mr. Prince that his obsessive son-in-law—whose mentor for a fuller life he has tried to be—will not leave his wife, nor even seek to renew himself by having an affair—with Cleo. Accordingly, he makes his own dramatic "move," and, in a richly ornamented (indeed brilliant) scene of power and restraint, he is on the seductive attack. Like Odets himself, he is a "student of the human insect," flirting, teasing, and promising. He tells her she is "talking to a man with a body like silk" who "possesses the original teeth, every one" (he has no need for a dentist!), and "in all the multitudes of your acquaintanceship you won't find a man with younger ideas than your present speaker." True, he wears high-heeled shoes because "I don't like to be so small," but if she will put herself in his hands, he will help her to learn and to grow.
Just as in Awake and Sing!, where the powerful racketeer Moe Axelrod offers Havana on a silver platter to the girl Hennie, or in Golden Boy where gangster Eddie Fuseli promises fame and fortune to the violinist-fighter Joe, and the gangster Kewpie, a soft life to Libby in Paradise Lost, so now does Mr. Prince offer Cleo not only his money but his deep understanding of her needs ("My girl, I studied you like a scientist"). This same identity element would assume the form of the Hollywood film executive in Odets' later play, The Big Knife. The price, in each play, for material power (that is, attachment to the sense, not to money) is surrender of one's integrity and freedom.
Cleo, like an identity element of Odets himself, is naive, quick to take offense, frightened, fragile, and unsupported. She fears ridicule for her yearning to become a dancer (a clear echo of L. J. Odets' taunts to his son when he aspired to being an actor) and is convinced no one loves her: "Millions of people moving around the city and nobody cares if you live or die." She will, in revenge (as Odets had often, in fact, contemplated) "fall down on them all," from a high building.
It takes courage, says the girl, a courage she is not sure the dentist has, "to go out to things, to new experiences," to seek an expansion, an intensification of life: of one's consciousness and expression ("Don't you think," she says, "life is to live all you can and experience everything? Shouldn't a wife help a man do that? … your wife broke up your courage.") Cleo clearly speaks Odets' struggle to establish himself as the "center of awareness in a universe of experience," unfettered by arbitrary inner and outer restriction. It is an innocent expression of Erikson's description of the very nature of "I-ness."
A minor character cries, "Diphtheria gets more respect than me … why can't they fit me in, a man of my talents?" The nineteen-year-old Cleo replies, "Just because you're sad you can't make me sad. No one can. I have too much in me! … I have a throat to sing with, a heart to love with! Why don't you love me Dr. Stark?" Ben, like Odets, smiles when he can't meet a situation. As this first scene in Act Two ends, Cleo announces that not Stark "or any other man" deserves her. This statement turns the central theme of the play from an inhibited dentist's struggle over whether to have an affair, to the aspiration of a young, unfulfilled artist. Taking this initiative, her answer to the question "how should one live?"—boldly or timidly—is unmistakable:
CLEO: (Shyly) I'll call you Benny in a minute! (after a throb of hesitation) Ben! Benny! … (They are standing off from each other, poised on needles) Don't be afraid….
STARK: … No? …
CLEO: Love me…. Love me, Ben.
STARK: … Can't do that….
CLEO: (Moving forward a step) Put your arms up and around me.
STARK: Cleo…. (Now they move in on each other. Everything else gone, they are together in a full, fierce embrace, together in a swelter of heat, misunderstanding, loneliness, and simple sex.)
The initiative must come from the girl; had Odets left it to the paralyzed identity element represented by the character of Stark, nothing would happen. Cleo, like Odets, always afraid of repudiation, is for the moment confirmed, and Ben Stark is breaking his long sleep to give rein to his impulse, with this girl. Perhaps, he dreams, it will restore his "power for accomplishment" lost through "un-happy marriage." A man who "don't get much personal satisfaction out of his work … is a lost man."
Another minor character who functions psychologically as a negative identity fragment in the play "glistens with arrogance." He, too, is trying to seduce Cleo, whose "jingling body" is a magnet. She is impressed by this man whose very name suggests a smooth, shiny surface: Willy Wax. "A man who gets his name in the paper so often," she says, "must be important to some people." Willy Wax is a caricature of the sexual predator who is at the same time a Spurious Artist. This is Odets' unconscious fear of what he could become were he to accede to the worst of his father within himself. Group Theatre actor Sanford Meisner, cast in this part, recalled him with utter distaste, a man "with no redeeming feature." "Movies," says Wax, "started me off on my path of painless perversion." Director Clurman told the cast about this character, "He plays with his talents. His adjustment is a constant perversion of himself," and Odets has added in the margin of the production notes, "He likes to astound and impress … actually he is worn out, alienated." Not yet thirty-three, Odets' terrified vision of his future lay tucked into this distasteful minor character.
It is not accidental that the play's motion has been taken from the middle-aged, imprisoned dentist, Ben, and given to the nineteen-year-old anima, Cleo. Odets finds himself at this time in a new edition of his central—essentially unresolved—adolescent identity crisis: whether to play life safe and to become the kind of stereotyped householder his father wanted him to be, obediently writing advertising copy for the Odets Company, and rearing a family; or in the style of a priest (or a romantic artist) giving first priority, before everything else, to the creation and communication of his vision of life. This was, of course, not a conscious, voluntary decision when he was nineteen, nor is it now at thirty-two. Art deals not in a deliberate choice among a number of possibilities, only in necessities. The "necessity" in this play is reflected first in the creation of the submerged dentist as the central character. He is a man who has abandoned his creativity. But, it emerges, Odets could not emotionally "afford" to open up this static man and risk a violent confrontation with the powerful Mr. Prince.
In the discussion which followed the original presentation of this material, playwright Arthur Miller said:
… There is a terror underneath (this play), which stopped it from being written … my own feeling about the play (is that) there is a phantomlike quality about it, which was one of the things that always drew me to Odets. I could never understand how he was equated with realism, naturalism, or even social drama, after Waiting for Lefty. I think he is dealing with phantoms…. In this play, he is raising conflicts which he never engages in. There is a projection of myself into this, but that's the way it is… This play is a measurement—not in a moral sense, but in another sense—of values, life values … and it seems to me that the showdown, the climax, the unveiling which he is always promising, will have to engage a real knockdown fight, between the dentist and that old man…. Now there is a conceivable end to his play where the Life Force escapes all of them, and they are left in effect with no Force. Cleo, ridiculed, with her make believe and lying, a fairly pathetic creature, walks out and with her walks out (ironically enough) all their lives, because she somehow embodied their aspirations. There is a fear which is probably very complicated, of just the conflict he proposed … which is a very common thing in playwrights.
Miller continued: "It would involve some disaster which is too great a price to pay, and consequently the conflict is aborted before it got started. Of course, he can let her [Cleo] be free because her struggle is not a menace to him, that's a free-flowing thing—he can create enough distance towards it to allow it to happen. But these other two—he has too much of an investment in, and they would really knock him to pieces if he would allow them to come to blows, and there would be nothing left of him. [Italics mine.] That's the kind of terror that casts a pall over the vividness." The biographic data of Odets' life support Miller's impression of an overload of anxiety attached to the unconscious aspects of Odets' conflict among the identity elements, experienced as the "corrupt" materialist (Prince), the innocent "idealist" (Cleo), and the obsessively blocked intellectual (Stark).
Faced with this emotional dilemma, Odets tried thus in midstream to find a safe structural solution by placing the heart of the play into the hands of the identity element, Artist, trapped in a family where they laugh at her wish to be a dancer. Here, he runs no risk of an unmanageable confrontation. However, it is precisely in this shift of focus that the play's structure becomes confused, and for most critics (representing most audiences), difficult to follow. The playwright does not quite succeed in persuading his audience that Cleo is the identity element representing their unconscious longing for creative fulfillment. The audience has not been sufficiently prepared for so large a responsibility to be put on the shoulder of a stockingless girl who wears "angel-skin satin."
With the Aspiring Artist Cleo at the center of the action, she is wooed by all the men in the play: Odets' Muse is torn between the sybarite Mr. Prince (Artist Manqué), the safe Ben—who has sacrificed creativity for security—and the Corrupt Artist Willy Wax who warns her she is "living in the city of the dreadful night" wherein a "man is coarse or he doesn't survive." As for Cleo, "… even her breasts stand at attention. Alas, she is not yet wise in the ways of the world."
When the dentist's controlling wife—who counsels security—suddenly appears in his office, Ben is touched—Odets had often been by his own wife—by her loneliness and by her efforts to stir his jealousy. But her offer to replace Cleo as his assistant is an intolerable invasion, exactly like Odets' experience of his wife's efforts "to help" him in his work and to make a mutual career of their marriage. ("A man's office is his castle," says the dentist.)
His compassion and his tolerance come to an end as she states her suspicions. Finally he blazes out: "Will you stop that stuff for a change! It's about time you began to realize there are two ends to a rope. I have needs, too! This one-way street has to end! I'm not going to stay under water like an iceberg the rest of my life. You've got me licked—I must admit it. All right, I'm sleeping, I don't love you enough. But what do you give? What do you know about my needs?"
Now, in a duplication of many such dialogues Odets had had with his wife, Ben continues: "It's like we're enemies. We're like two exposed nerves! … These scenes go on … we're always worried. We're two machines counting up the petty cash. Something about me cheats you—I'm not the man to help you be the best woman it's in you to be." The internal subconfiguration here is the struggle between the passive, deadened, and demobilized identity element of Ben Stark—which oppressed Odets' mother and does now him—and his Muse, Cleo Singer, the "radium girl" who gives off heat, light, and creative energy. The inner war is between the playwright's wish to be a "safe" householder and an adventurous Creator.
The second act closes with the dentist making a declaration of love to Cleo; he is now desperately jealous of both his rivals: the urbane Prince as well as the Spurious Artist, Willy Wax. He says, "You're more important to me than anything I know Cleo, dear," and her closing plea is, "Don't let me be alone in the world, Ben … don't let me be alone." The girl is using all power at her disposal to force the relationship with the dentist into an overt sexual affair. Here again these externalized relationships mirror the internal struggle.
If this exchange is understood solely on its manifest level—as it was by the critics in 1938—it is baffling what it is that has moved the dentist to the conviction that this storytelling, naive child who is steadily "making believe" has become "more important than anything I know" in Ben's life. If, however, we assume the identity element of the innocent Cleo to be Odets' anima, the Aspiring Artist, rather than simply the "jingling body" of a lovely girl, his capitulation to her makes sense. The confusion of these two levels of meaning has issued in many baffled discussions in drama textbooks.
The third act opens with the dentist and his wife silent, "each one revolving in his own tight little world." She is ready in her desperation to "forget" his affair with the girl if he will agree "it was only a thing of the moment." Impulsively ("anything to blot out this pale ghost before him") he cries, "Yes, yes!" but immediately finds himself twisting and saying, "It can't be settled in a minute, Belle…. I have a responsibility." He cannot agree to his wife's scream, "Your first responsibility's to me! You hear that?" Again, unless we seek a meaning beyond the manifest level, Ben's statement is baffling.
The key to this mysterious exchange lies in the word "responsibility." On the surface, it makes no sense that a man uses this word to his wife to describe his duty to a nineteen-year-old paramour. If, however, we ask what is the latent meaning—the underlying structure—of the word "responsibility" here, it begins to hang together. If refers to Odets' allegiance to his own talent ("Talent must be respected," he said). Their heated exchange sums up the position of an artist battling for his creative life. The struggle is only manifestly with his wife's demand that he give up the girl.
Unaware that his underlying dilemmas in the play issue in part from his own current struggles with intimacy and generativity, Odets has his protagonist, the dentist (who is almost forty and yet "feels like a boy"), ponder what people get out of life "anyway" when he asks Frenchy, a bachelor chiropodist, if he does not want marriage and children. In their ensuing dialogue on the nature of love and the difficulty of discovering it "in this day of stresses," this "nervous time," Frenchy declares happy marriages are rare "like the dodo bird" and sternly advises his friend to be practical, "leave the morals out…. Never mind the shame and guilt":
FRENCHY: (With extreme seriousness) Love? Depends on what you mean by love. Love, for most people, is a curious sensation below the equator….
STARCK: You're that good, you think?
FRENCHY: (correcting him): That bad, Doc! She'll have to be the good one. This is why: Love is a beginning, a jumping-off place. It's like what heat is at the forge—makes metal easy to handle and shape. But love and the grace to use it! To develop, expand it, variate it!—Oh, dearie me, that's the problem, as the poet said!
Frenchy now offers a definition of love singularly close to Erikson's view of the developmental achievement of intimacy:
FRENCHY: Who can do that today? Who's got the time and place for "love and the grace to use it"? Is it something apart, love? A good book you go to in a spare hour? An entertainment? Christ, no! it's a synthesis of good and bad, economics, work, play, all contacts … it's not a Sunday suit for special occasions. That's why Broadway songs are phony, Doc!—Love is no solution of life! Au contraire, as the Frenchman says—the opposite. You have to bring a whole balanced normal life to love if you want it to go!
What Odets called his "slow exhaustion, this shame" over his failed marriage and his fear of precisely the kind of intimacy he has just described is promptly retracted in Frenchy's next words, which would be a pleasure to any member of a contemporary women's liberation front:
FRENCHY: In this day of stresses I don't see much normal life, myself included. The woman's not a wife. She's the dependent of a salesman who can't make sales and is ashamed to tell her so….
Odets thus tries to understand his marital failure, his isolation, and the nature of his creative struggles in terms of the "stresses of the time." He is, of course, both right and wrong.
As the cynical chiropodist leaves this scene with the injunction that the dentist must choose between the girl and his wife—reviving the manifest conflict which opened the play—the latent meaning is once again underscored: the playwright must choose between his own development as an artist and the demands of a "normal, married life." His (partly unconscious) dilemma lies in whether he is wedded to the "real" world of relationships with other living humans or to a constructed world, peopled by the characters into whom he breathes life, who are, of course, the distribution of himself. It is a world he hopes to control. When Belle, his wife, pushes him to make this choice, it is more on the basis of a moral obligation than a mutually nurturant relationship. Moreover, real children, unlike brainchildren, "break too easy," he says, and become (in Bacon's words) "hostages to fortune."
At this point, the other major threat to Odets' creativity reappears: Carrying an umbrella with a "fancily carved dog's head of ivory" for a handle ("A quiet dog always bites," he says, smiling smoothly), Mr. Prince, calling himself "King Midas," confidently announces his intention to marry "Miss Cleo." Having dreamed the "secret of the world," namely, that "It is not good for Man to live alone," he is determined to capture his prize by offering her "maturity and experience in everything—love, what to eat, where, what to wear, and where to buy it—an eye turned out to the world!" Translation: The identity element which is flooded with desire for sensual and material fulfillment and power competes now with creative aspiration: the eye turned in.
When the dentist says, "And you dare to think you'll buy that girl? You're a damned smiling villain!," Judah Prince replies with a remarkable and passionate speech which signaled the by-now bewildered critics that the play's theme was "man's search for love":
PRINCE: Listen, a man in the fullness of his life speaks to you. I didn't come here to make you unhappy. I came here to make myself happy! You don't like it—I can understand that. Circumstances insulted me enough in my life. But your insults I don't need! And I don't apologize to no man because I try to take happiness by the throat! Remember, Dr. Benny, I want what I want! There are seven fundamental words in life, and one of these is love, and I didn't have it! And another one is love, and I don't have it! And the third of these is love, and I shall have it! (Beating the furniture with his umbrella.) De Corpso you think! I'm dead and buried you think! I'll sit in the long winter night with a shawl on my shoulders? Now you see my face, Dr. Benny. Now you know your father-in-law, that damned smiling villain! I'll fight you to the last ditch—you'll get mowed down like a train. I want that girl. I'll wait downstairs. When she returns I'll come right up, in five minutes. I'll test your sanity!—You, you Nobel prize winner! (He stops, exhausted, wipes his face with a large silk handkerchief, does the same to the umbrella head and then slowly exits).
The identity element embodied in Mr. Prince is not simply the negative aspect of Odets' partial identification with his salesman father. Indeed, when this many-faceted character protests he will have love, it is Odets' own passionate statement that he cannot live a life without human intimacy. ("I love your needs!" Prince says to Cleo.) But this longing for intimacy wars with his wish to be a self-sufficient artist responsible only for what he generates on the stage, and not for a flesh-and-blood wife or their children. Just as Prince is more interesting than Ben Stark precisely because he harbors many strong polarities, so is Rocket to the Moon a more interesting play than the "political" Waiting for Lefty, where one end of a conflict is ploughed under, leaving a cast of simple characters in a simple play, all on one note.
There occurs now a short interlude between the dentist and the Spurious Artist, Willy Wax. The latter, just come from his own unsuccessful attempt to seduce the girl, says, "Your little Neon light spluttered right in my face," adding she is old-fashioned and "belongs somewhere in the last century." This is Odets speaking not so much of a sexpot as of the virtues of integrity and of creative conscience. Ben Stark pleads with Wax, here representing artistic prostitution, not to corrupt the aspiring girl, to "keep away from her," as she is "young, extremely naive…. You might warp her for life…. She's a mere mechanism to you." This sentence expresses Odets' steady fear that his own identity fragment (Spurious Artist) could seduce him into an abdication of his gift, and into the film industry. Cleo, however, turns in a fury on this would-be seducer, Wax, saying, "Mr. Wax, we don't want you around this office. You make love very small and dirty. I understand your type very well now. No man can take a bite out of me, like an apple and throw it away. Now go away, and we won't miss you."
When she turns back to the helpless dentist, a man as "mixed up as the 20th Century," she finds him evasive, collapsed, on the point of tears, and unable to leave either his wife or the "prison office" of his life. He can say to her only, "Help me." Only the small voice of that fragment of himself represented by the chiropodist, Frenchy, asks the opposite question, "What can I do for the girl, Cleo? What will she be in ten years with my help?"
The indomitable old man makes one last strong bid for the girl. She, in turn, asks the dentist if he will leave his barren wife, and he—consumed with fear and guilt—can say nothing at all. He is chained and sterile. The dentist's "decision" occurs by default; it is helplessly passive, not active. With the character of Stark having clearly gone beyond his emotional depth, and unable to handle the "mistake" of his intimacy with the girl, he is inarticulate. When Cleo asks, "What do you say, Ben?" Odets writes, "Stark (lost): Nothing…. I can't say……. nothing."
Here is a good example of the reflection in the play's overburdened structure of the playwright's inner fractures. Given the premises of the opening of the play (a man who will be forced to a choice between a wife and a mistress), the closing climax should be Ben choosing between Belle and Cleo. But, as we have seen, there slowly emerged on this initial triangle a superimposed one, among Ben, Prince, and Cleo, and the play took on the fuzziness of a double exposure, with the playwright emotionally unable fully to loose the players and counterplayers into the struggle in either triangle. Thus, with Ben (the character originally at the play's center) immobilized, it falls to the characters of Cleo and Prince to propel the play to its end. Prince says of Stark, "He won't leave her. That needs courage, strength, and he's not strong."
Cleo makes a last stab at passing the initiative back to the evasive, lost Ben. His response is soft and defeated: "Listen, Cleo … think. What can I give you? All I can offer you is a second-hand life, dedicated to trifles and troubles…. and they go on forever. This isn't self-justification … but facts are stubborn things, Cleo; I've wrestled with myself for weeks. This is how it must end."
When Judah Prince asks Cleo what she'd have to lose by a union with him, she replies, "Every-thing that's me." The underlying meaning here is Odets' conviction that the core of his identity lay in resisting his father's bids to surrender to him and to his values (arising from power hunger and sense satisfaction), and to become instead an honest artmaker.
As in the closing of Odets' earlier play, Awake and Sing! (equally confusing to the critics), the powerful older man, identity element of Odets' father, moves in, making a real "pitch" for the girl: "And I offer you a vitalizing relationship: a father, counselor, lover, a friend!" In Awake and Sing! the "equivalent" girl Hennie—mother of an illegitimate child and subsequently married by a weak man called Sam Feinschreiber (fine writer)—succumbs and runs off with another old sybarite called Moe (roughly the equivalent of Judah Prince).
In Rocket to the Moon, however, the Aspiring Artist (Cleo) makes the final active statement of the play. Manifestly, she is "looking for love," but Prince sees beyond this: he tells her she will never get what she is looking for, namely a life with the purity of an aesthetic creation: "You want a life like Heiferz' music—up from the roots, perfect, clean, every note in place. But that, my girl, is music!"
In other words, says the playwright, only in that transcendent distillation of experience we call Art can there be found the precision, the intensity, the confident joy and serenity, and above all, the integrated and liberating wholeness she seeks.
When Prince says to her, "You'll go down the road alone—like Charlie Chaplin?" Cleo's response and Prince's rejoinder finally clinch the hypothesis that this girl represents for Odets the identity element, Aspiring Artist:
CLEO: Yes, if there's roads, I'll take them. I'll go up all those roads till I find what I want. I want a love that uses me, that needs me. Don't you think there's a world of joyful men and women? Must all men live afraid to laugh and sing? Can't we sing at work and love our work? It's getting late to play at life; I want to live it. Something has to feel real to me, more than both of you. You see? I don't ask for much…."
PRINCE: She's an artist. [Italics mine]
Whereas Odets' initial, conscious intention had been for the character of Ben to emerge with greater stature and confidence from the overwhelming experience of his love for this girl, it is now in fact Cleo who announces such growth: "Experience gives more confidence, you know. I have more confidence than when I came here. Button my coat, Ben." It is she who escapes the airless constriction of the dental office, not he. It is clear he will not return to "creative orthodontia," whereas her future is open-ended.
Prince says, "Yes, you love her. But not my iceberg boy, we have both disappeared."
In these two short sentences, there stands distilled a paradox filled with grief. On the one hand, the identity element I have called Aspiring Artist determinedly walks away, free alike from the vacillating, timid dentist lacking self-esteem, and from the sensual, worldly predator, both of whom have abandoned their creativity. Manifestly, Prince is saying both men have lost their chance for "love" ("… we have both disappeared"). Beneath the surface, however, Odets is saying that he stands now in mortal dread that if this Muse escapes him—as Cleo does in the play—he will be left only with the internal war between the elements of a weak, constricted, and guilt-ridden indecisiveness and a strong, aggressive, and commanding sensuality. In their actual lives, both Odets and his father consciously felt themselves to the end of their days to be artists manqués, from whom their creativity had somehow slipped away.
Stark, in a desperate postscript, eyes flooded with tears, says, "I insist this is a beginning. Do you hear?—I insist…. For years I sat here, taking things for granted, my wife, everything. Then just for an hour my life was in a spotlight…. I saw myself clearly, realized who and what I was. Isn't that a beginning? Isn't it? … And this is strange! … For the first time in years I don't feel guilty…. But I'll never take things for granted again. You see? Do you see, Poppa?"
The play closes with Stark "almost laughing," confessing his ignorance of life: "Sonofagun! What I don't know would fill a book!" The final image is of an empty room, lit only by the lights of a hotel (where real—forbidden—life is lived) the locale of so much of Odets' actual peeping and listening: "Prince exits heavily. Stark turns our the last light, then exits, closing the door behind him. The room is dark, except for red neon lights of the Hotel Algiers and a spill of light from the hall … Slow curtain."
This last stage direction distills Odets' sense of the playwright as "witness," the man who, like all artists, cannot help distancing himself and watching his life's experience—and transposing it by way of Form—even while he lives it.
In making art one is free from inhibition and masking of emotions and fear of encounter. One ranges freely, taking painlessly all sides. Inactive, incapacitated, passive, arid and sterile, aware but unable and helpless—in art one becomes freely a man of action and all is possible!
In this world, one may always be the hero—loved, pitied, magnanimous, stern, strong, successful against men, women and dragons; one may forgive and even pity others—it is something god-like and absolute that the artist becomes with the exercise of what is usually his only talent…."
Although there is evident strain and self-doubt in Ben Stark's triumphant announcement that his identity has been significantly illumined and integrated by the play's events ("… for an hour my life was in a spotlight…. ") it does affirm that aspect of Odets which takes nothing for granted (a creator). Ben declares, moreover, that "For the first time in years I don't feel guilty." While neither of these affirmations of enlightenment and freedom is persuasively buttressed in the play, we can decode the playwright's latent wish: he is saying (defensively) for the first time in any of his plays that he is determined not to surrender his creativity to the other pulls within him: the identity element of his Muse (Cleo) rejects not only the weak identity element which has fearfully abdicated created powers (Ben), but also those which have "sold out" to the vulgarizations of Art (Willy Wax) and to worldly fulfillment (Judah Prince). Moreover, he is here liberated from the guilt evident in all his work (even in an adolescent novel wherein the career of a promising young pianist is "cut short by an accident to his hand") and later in all his plays, wherein the moral idealists—after compromising themselves in their creativity—commit suicide, are murdered, or meet violent death.
Odets was always plagued by a lack of "aesthetic inevitability" in this play, and wondered if his wife had been correct that the seeker, Cleo, should after all surrender to the rich old sybarite, as Hennie had done in his Awake and Sing! Displacing his creative discontent, he would remain forever resentful on several counts: that director Clurman was so "full of ideas as to what my play was about" and had never raised the production money; that he had no leeway in which to rework the play, that he was always under emergency pressure to provide the Group Theatre with a brain-child which they would immediately gobble up; and finally, that he could not even protect his newborn progeny by directing the play himself. Almost three decades later, the memory of this time and his anger toward Clurman still fresh, he provided rich data illuminating the creative process:
He finally got to think that I was kind of like a cow who dropped a calf, didn't know anything about it. I think he still thinks that. He still thinks that when I write a play I have no idea what's in it. That I'm some kind of mad genius who just sort of drops a calf. Because this is what happened in the Group Theatre and I was very resentful of it. I dropped this calf and some people would rush up and grab it, wipe if off and take it away, and I would be left there bellowing. And while they were hustling this calf around you'd think that I had no relationship to it. I let them, too. I would let them do it, but with a great deal of resentment. I never would have let any private producer do anything of this sort. They'd go to work on it, and this one would be assisting Clurman. All the time I wanted to direct the play myself. But in order to direct the play I would have to have at least some decent distance between myself and the play. Well, that never happened. They had to have those veal chops on the table. For the next week or so everybody would go hungry. So in a certain way this gifted calf that I'm talking about, that I dropped, was also veal chops for everybody to eat.
It was Odets' conviction that Clurman, together with this "sturdy crutch" Elia Kazan and the Group business manager, "ran everything, had all the fun, all the excitement and I would just stand there on my legs, like a bellowing mother cow who couldn't locate that calf I just dropped."
If this playwright's image of himself as a "bellowing mother cow," unable to locate her newborn child—the metaphor of pregnancy and an anxious delivery—were an isolated instance, or peculiar to Odets, we could not make much of it. However, the image of creation as a birth followed by the eating of "the child" (or of the forbidden fruit) occurs over and over not only in Odets' writings, but in those of a variety of creators as well as in folk legends, myths, and holy scriptures.
This image appears to be one of the archetypes of the general argument I have been setting forth: this is the way a new "wholeness" emerges: by integrating the contrarieties, including feminine and masculine identity elements. Thus is a new organism created (be it a theory, a scripture, or a play), an organism that simultaneously "feeds" its originator and its audience.
This originator is not far from the image of a Lord of Creation who gives manifest, concrete form to the eternal, the boundless, who breathes life into an Adam and creates an Eve from a fragment of him, who in turn instigates the eating of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge or, as it is sometimes called, "The Tree of Life." That this player and counterplayer are then together banished from the innocent joy of trusting, unashamed celebrant children playing in Paradise, to the suffering toil of self-conscious Man—whose "plays" are now "works"—reflects a writer's witness to the vicissitudes, the joys, and the penalties of his own creativity.
Source: Margaret Brenman-Gibson, "Rocket to the Moon," in Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, edited by Gabriel Miller, G. K. Hall, 1991, pp. 196–218.
Clurman, Harold, The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties, Hill and Wang, 1945.
Denning, Michael, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century, Verso Books, 1998, pp. xiii–xx.
Herr, Christopher J., Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre, Praeger, 2003, pp. 27–102.
McElvaines, Robert S., The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941, Times Books, 1984.
Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman, Penguin USA, 1998.
Miller, Gabriel, Clifford Odets, Continuum, 1989, pp. 94–124.
——, Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, G. K. Hall, 1991.
Odets, Clifford, Rocket to the Moon, Random House, 1939.
——, Waiting for Lefty and other Plays, Grove Press, 1993.
Smith, Wendy, Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931–1940, Grove Press, 1992.
Watts, Richard, Jr., "Rocket to the Moon," in Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, edited by Gabriel Miller, G. K. Hall, 1991, pp. 25–26.
Weales, Gerald, "The Group Theatre and Its Plays," in American Theatre, Edward Arnold, 1967, pp. 67–86.
Cooperman, Robert, Clifford Odets: An Annotated Bibliography, 1935–1989, Meckler, 1990.
This book provides an exhaustive bibliography of work by and about Clifford Odets. The book is intended for both dramatists and scholars. The section on critical work includes criticism on Odets and general issues in American society during the years in which his plays were produced.
Demastes, William W., Clifford Odets: A Research and Production Source Book, Greenwood Press, 2001.
This book contains plot summaries and critical over-views for each of Odets's plays. The book also includes primary and secondary bibliographies of works by and about Odets.
Herr, Christopher J., Clifford Odets and American Political Theatre, Praeger, 2003.
This book explores the links between Odets's plays and the political theatre of the 1930s through the early 1950s. The book's chapters move chronologically through Odets's career. Herr also focuses on Odets's career as a Hollywood screenwriter.
Miller, Gabriel, Clifford Odets, Continuum, 1989.
In this book Miller divides Odets's plays thematically and traces the evolution of the playwright's thematic vision through his career.
——, Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, G. K. Hall, 1991.
This collection contains contemporary reviews of Odets's major plays and a number of critical essays on individual plays by a range of scholars. The book also contains three interviews conducted with Odets in the 1950s and 1960s.