A Wonderful “Awake and Sing” at Olney Theatre

This is the season for iconic Jewish plays on stage throughout the Washington DC area.  In how many cities can you see, Yentl, Fiddler on the Roof, and Awake and Sing all in a one month window? (Our Yentl closes Sunday with two final performances after taking Friday and Saturday off for Yom Kippur — and Fiddler began rehearsals this week, with our own Yentl , Shayna Blass, in the Arena Stage cast!) Still, in Fiddler and Awake and Sing, we’re talking about standard bearers for the American theater writ-large.  The Jewish experience, we can all agree, has been accepted to speak for the larger American experience—or certainly a part of it, right?  These works works aren’t confined to a ghetto of specialized, ethnic programming.

Rick Foucheux as Jacob and Alex Mandell as Ralph Berger in Olney Theatre Center’s production of AWAKE AND SING! (Photo by Stan Barouh)

Rick Foucheux as Jacob and Alex Mandell as Ralph Berger in Olney Theatre Center’s production of AWAKE AND SING! (Photo by Stan Barouh)

And yet, at last night’s talk-back at Olney Theatre, the final question (coming from someone very close to our theater company, no less) was posed in a candid way: “Isn’t this more of a New York story, and much less an American story?” There was some push-back from director Serge Seiden on stage, joining about 3/4ths of the cast.  It provided an opportunity for us to contemplate; can the singular, ethnic experience be meant to represent the larger nation’s experience?  Our questioner didn’t see his own California family in Odets’ New York Jews.  He felt an outsider to what was happening on stage.  We’ve all heard stories (courtesy of Alisa Solomon’s remarkable cultural history of Fiddler on The Roof, “Wonder of Wonders”) of how Fiddler has played just as convincingly in Japan as it has in Manhattan (“Tradition” rings resoundingly in the Far East, as do the threats to that cultural tradition.) But if you don’t recognize yourself, or your family, on stage, does that confine the universality and applicability of the portrait?

The great service of Seiden’s Olney Theatre production seems to be the way it speaks so powerfully, emotionally, and convincingly to three different generations at the same time.  How alive those young people felt last night! At least to me.  Odets language, electric for its time, popped off the stage so vividly and musically, shiny and new once again.  And the political divisions in the house-hold, with calls for strike from the elder statesman Jacob meeting up with calls for striking back at the rib cages of the agitating workers by big businessman brother Uncle Morty brought home that truism; that the most political entity remains the family, teeming, diverse and dynamic.

There’s so much to say about this show, and I hope we read some detailed comments over this holiday weekend.  We’ve been reading about The Group Theatre.  We’ve just read Odets’ Waiting For Lefty which sets the stage for this fuller, richer full-length treatment.  And I entreat everyone to check out the Olney Theatre blogsite for this production; a potpourri of great background context and information that helps give veracity and depth to the vivid production.

One point I do want to share — in encouraging our entire Theater J community to go out and see this great local production of Awake and Sing — is to mentally bookmark this play’s most dramatic event — the suicidal despair of Jacob Berger (played so beautifully by our dear friend—and most recent Dr. Frued in Seiden’s production of Freud’s Last Session, Rick Foucheux), a despair emerging from political disappointment and a self-incriminating realization that he’s as much to blame for the weakness of the movement—and the political weakness within his own struggling family.  This is a despair we’re going to experience early in Tony Kushner’s new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide To Capitalism and Socialism With a Key To The Scriptures.  In so many ways, Kushner has written an homage to the family plays of Odets, and Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.  But I never realized, until last night, how Kushner’s septuagenarian, Gus Marcantonio, is a direct descendant of Odets’ Jacob. They are similarly cut characters on a trajectory of ideological downfall.  Different from Gus, Jacob is a failed revolutionary who talked big “but instead drank a glass tea.” He talked about revolution but didn’t do enough about it. Gus, we’ll find out, is quite different; he’s an Italian-American retired longshoreman and lifetime member of the Communist Party USA, on the frontlines of the worker’s revolution, American-style. And he sees in his own battles won and in his own negotiated victories for the Guaranteed Income, for example, the seeds to his own movement’s undoing, in the midst of a larger attack from the forces of Capitalism challenging his Socialist values.

I simply had not paid attention to the ways that Awake and Sing sets up Kushner’s play so movingly. We start rehearsals for it in 10 days.
I-HO_final_illustration

Meanwhile, Awake and Sing runs out in Olney through October 19 (only two more weeks!).

42 thoughts on “A Wonderful “Awake and Sing” at Olney Theatre

  1. I think the idea of whether or not this is more of a New York play rather than a truly American work is an interesting one to explore. I agree with the questioner, who believes the play would not be the same if it were set in his home state of California, to an extent. After all, if the play were set in Michigan, I am sure the work would change slightly. This is the very nature of a geographical setting though. When a play’s location is shifted, light will be shed on different issues prevalent to the area, varying accents may be adopted, and language and activities familiar to that community will be used (e.g., names of neighborhoods, favorite activities). What makes “Awake and Sing!” truly American for me is the several issues it brings up. For instance, the political undertones interwoven throughout the whole of the play were items that many Americans at the time, regardless of what state you lived in, were thinking about. In addition to this, the emerging idea of individualism, as displayed in Ralph’s intense desire to leave the house with Blanche to make something of himself, as opposed to a more collectivist culture was one that was making its way to the forefront of American life, I believe. One final point to bring up on this issue: as mentioned in the talk-back by director Serge Seiden, at the time the play was originally written and produced, New York life was seen by much of the country and world as the equivalency of “American life.” It is not to disrespect any other state, it was just the general sentiment. So, having the play set in New York probably seemed like just one more reason people back then believed the work to be such an American play.

    One issue I would like to discuss, which deviates from the beginning of this blog posting, is the choice Ralph makes at the end of the play. I am grappling with the question of whether or not he made the right one. He tells his sister, Henny, to follow her dreams with Moe and ultimately says that he will let their mother have the insurance money that Jakob left him. I can understand that this is a very noble act on his part, but wouldn’t Jakob have wanted him to have the money for himself? After all, Jakob kept telling Ralph that Ralph needed to leave and not miss an opportunity to make something of himself in the world. Jakob did not want Ralph to end up like him wishing that he would have went out and taken the world on by storm. Ralph tells Henny how he is a young man still and that he will be fine without the money, but I just believe that the late Jakob (at the this point in the play) would have wanted him to take the money and run, no matter how difficult of a financial worry Bessie Berger had for the family. If anyone has any thoughts or feedback to offer on Ralph’s decision, it would be highly appreciated.

    All in all, this was a terrific and thought-provoking play. I applaud all those who were involved for a well job done!

  2. When I first read the script to “Awake and Sing,” I found it very difficult to understand what the characters were saying. I was really hoping that hearing the actors speak out loud would give me a better understanding for what was going on – and, thankfully, it did. For example, while reading one of the first scenes where Hennie’s parents find out that she is pregnant, it took me a really long time to figure out what was actually happening. All it really says in the script is that “(Bessie is watching her with slow progressive understanding)” and that Bessie tells her husband “Myron, your fine Beauty’s in trouble.” It took me awhile to understand what Bessie meant when she asked, “Who’s the man?” and that a pregnancy would probably be their only reason for trying to marry her off so suddenly.
    I think having read the script to this play before seeing it live was really beneficial to me because I already had a general idea for what was going on, so this allowed me to pick up on the little things that I missed from solely reading the play. The way that the characters phrase their sentences bothered me a lot when I read the script. They say things like “to him it don’t matter nothing his family sits with tears pouring out the eyes” as opposed to something like: “it wouldn’t even matter to you if your family sat here with tears pouring out of their eyes.” Luckily, this language didn’t really bother me during the performance as it did when trying to read it. The way that the actors used certain inflections, different tones, and pauses in speech helped me decipher what it was they were trying to say. The characters’ speech and intentions were also made clearer through the way that they physically interacted with each other on stage. For example, the characters of Moe and Hennie portrayed a lot of tension in their relationship and had much more physical contact on stage than the script made it seem.
    I agree with the person from California that this play seemed like more of a New York play than a more general American one. Director Serge Seiden disagreed, arguing that back in this time New York was much “bigger” and more influential compared to the other states. Seiden and other actors on stage, however, also agreed that plays are typically written to very specific, local communities. I personally did not feel like I related to this family very much, but I think this is due to generational factors as opposed to where I am from. I do not know very much about the history of the Great Depression or the efforts of the Communist Party during the 1930s, so this prevented me from completely understanding all the political/historical references and from sympathizing more with the characters and their struggles.

    • Genevieve,
      I completely agree that seeing the play was a totally different experience than reading it. The way the actors portrayed the subtext made things I wasn’t so sure of, like when we find out that Hennie is pregnant, very clear. The older dialects and the way people used to speak in the 30’s was a little difficult to pick up on and I think I still missed some things during the play, but I did enjoy the look into a different time and the authenticity of this performance. I think that this play was a good representation of America during the depression, even though it is based in New York.

  3. Awake and Sing as performed by the Olney Theatre was an engaging play with wonderful actors whose delightful portrayal of their characters made the production a joy to watch. Jacob (the grandfather) was a gripping character that Rick Foucheux did justice. He was by far the most interesting character and the most misunderstood (except by Ralph). In a way, Jacob fit the archetype of who we see in other productions as the drunk, or the loon, or the jester who have the ability to speak the truth. Their diminished mental capacity or lack of credibility give them a license to say things others dare not utter.

    Jacob was a great character because though he had a strength and vigor to him, he was also vulnerable, vividly displayed when Bessie destroyed his beloved records. His suicide surprised me, but I was not very heartbroken.

    The in medias res start of the play perplexed me. I understand the confusion I felt was purposeful in that it mirrored the messiness of the Berger family, however, it made it difficult for me to grasp the characters as individuals and understand their relationships to each other. By the end of the play, I actually did not feel invested in any character. Even though Jacob was my favorite, when he died, I did not feel sorrow. I just took it as another plot point, moving the play in a new direction. I was left longing to know more about significant relationships unexplored such as that one of Hennie and Ralph or Hennie and Jacob.

    The end of the play felt abrupt. Though it was great to see Hennie essentially achieving her dream, we are left to wonder what of Bessie’s reaction to her decision and would it impact her relationship with Ralph? Ralph seems to have an epiphany at the end, truly embracing his grandfather’s words of wisdom, however, we only hear talk of how he can put those words into action.

    Though I can appreciate the play’s significance when it debuted, and though the Olney Theater crafted a wonderful play, the play itself did not move me. I recognize the themes it touches upon are timeless such as family pressure/expectations, pre-marital sex, economic woes, political differences in a family, following ones dreams, and intergenerational misunderstandings. Ultimately, I felt overloaded by the array of relationships and themes and the way the play jumped from one to another at a quick pace.

    • Juan, I really liked a couple of elements that you brought out in your initial post. The first was the confusion that you felt at times during the play. This resonated with me as it did at times feel purposefully confusing. I think your suggestion that this was perhaps meant to mirror (consciously or unconsciously) the messiness of the Berger family. This made think about a couple of things, mostly revolving around the different family dynamics we’ve seen in our plays so far. Yentl offered some thoughts through the experiences of an orphan in a very close community, while in a play like Belleville, family is shown as both positive in the case of the landlord and his wife, and negative in the influence it has on Abby. Ultimately, I think it’s hard to tell if the portrayal of family in Awake and Sing! was positive or negative. Mostly, it did just seem messy.

  4. To state the obvious, America is an incredibly diverse country. The American experience is tied to location; my childhood in the rural south differs drastically from that of an LA native. Each experience is still American though, since we all share in some form of that identity. I think that’s the beauty of American art, that it can be so diverse and still speak to some part of your self, no matter where your from. So yes, this was a play about New York, but it was also a play about the American dream and how that plays out, a play about the family experience, a play about generational and political divides. What’s more American than conflict?

    What I found most striking about the play was that I identified (whatever that means) so strongly with it. By all accounts, this was a play about people and a time completely different from my own, but throughout the evening I was continuously struck by how familiar it all seemed. Political struggles in the family, conflict between generations, resentment stemming from a sense of duty or entitlement; these are all topics we still struggle with today, as Americans and as people.

    If I’m being honest, the Jewish aspect to the play wasn’t apparent to me at all. It felt very secondary to the story, in a way that it doesn’t for Yentl or Fiddler on the Roof. I’m not quite sure if this is a criticism of the show or not. The way we’ve talked about makes me think that the Jewish experience should have been more obvious, and perhaps I just missed all the signals. But to me, it felt very generic, not in a bad way, as if the Bergers could have been any family.

    I don’t think you can claim that a singular, ethnic experience can be held up as the American experience. Instead, you can present it as a facet of the experience of living and working in America. There’s no one way to describe the American experience. There’s just too many factors involved in creating each individual one that you can only hope to represent an aspect of it.

    • I completely agree with your very last paragraph! I think that it is impossible to tie one experience into a genuine account for all of the American experience. My childhood was vastly different than the experience portrayed on the stage. Sure, there slight bits and pieces that I could identify with, such as the arguing and politics within the family, but outside of this I am not really sure it can account for my experience. I thought that it was a great play overall that represented struggle and a fight to break out of your parents grasp to live your life fully; if anything I think that is how it could relate to all of America. I am not sure if this was the plan when writing this play, to represent maturing into a man to break free from your childish ways of needing your mother 24/7, but that is how I interpreted the experience relating to all of America if that is even a possible thing to do.

    • Hi Mairead,
      I liked reading your thoughts on whether or not this play was an American story vs more of a New York story. In my comment I talked about how I didn’t really connect very much with the family, which I think is mostly due to the period in time. However, after reading your comment, I now realize that the general themes in this play are very relatable. Even though the success of the Communist Party lasted only until around the 1940s, we still see political disagreements between and within American families on current major issues. I also thought it was interesting that you mentioned how the Jewish aspect of this play was not overwhelming, or even very noticeable at all. I also didn’t really notice anything about the family that made them recognizably Jewish. I think this is interesting because one of the cast members mentioned that “Awake and Sing” was the first Broadway play that focused on the story of a Jewish family, so you’d think that the director would want to make this aspect more apparent.

    • I also did not find the Jewish aspect of the play to be very visible. Rather than understanding the family dynamic on stage as particularly Jewish, I understood it as simply “American”. As you discuss in your post, the conflicts that the Berger family faces can be seen as the kinds of conflicts experienced by many American families, perhaps especially for families of that time period. The more apparent aspect of the Berger family, in my opinion, was the ideological divide that existed between its older and younger generations. The older generation (with the exception of the grandfather) seemed to represent a more conservative force, hoping to maintain control over the younger generation, while the younger generation seemed to represent a more liberal, ideological force. This kind of divide (children trying to break free from the restrictions placed on them by their parents) exists in some form and degree in many families, Jewish or otherwise. And, in this way, I could identify to some extent with the struggles of the Berger children.

  5. To directly address the question posed above, Awake and Sing! did feel inherently urban with its New York setting; however, more than its geographical location, Awake and Sing! more distinctly referenced and felt temporarily placed in the post-World War I and pre-World War II context. The dramatic irony of the pre-World War II context entirely shaped my viewing of this play, focusing my attention on the hopeful nature of Ralph in contrast to what awaited the world not even four years later, after its initial 1935 production. Ralph’s transformation, from originally a boy soured on life to a young man eager to make his own path, epitomizes the “coming of age” tale and the embodiment of the resurgence of the “American Dream” among disenfranchised American youth. My perception of the play, then, felt anachronistic, and has led me to question whether reproductions of this play can mirror the original experience of its mid-1930s beginnings. This same logic applies to Waiting for Lefty’s script, which also incorporates the grievances of the working class, a population left frustrated in their post-war context, even though Waiting for Lefty felt more timeless than Awake and Sing!

    I also enjoyed the stage design and the “wall” that existed between the living room and the dining room, which was only generated through the actors’ interaction with the space. I only realized there was an implied wall when I noticed the actors never gazed across the wall space to look at each other, and the actors continually played with the curtain and hit the kitchen’s beam to emphasize the individual spaces of the living room and dining room. This separation of action between these two spaces, while not represented with a physical wall on stage, effectively distinguished the foreground and background action by creating two frames. In one specific scene at the end of Act 2, Ralph and Jacob console each other after the rest of the family humiliates Jacob and Ralph learns Blanche is leaving for “out west.” In Olney’s production, while Jacob and Ralph are seated in the living room, the dinner behind them is clearly displayed and audible. In the original script, the audio of the dinner in the background exists; however, the two settings of the dining room and the living room do not co-exist in the stage space. The incorporation of both spaces, then, served well to emphasize the foreground in contrast to the background, allowing for Ralph and Jacob’s relationship to grow closer while simultaneously distancing them from the rest of the characters.

    Overall, Jacob’s supposed craziness proved the most sanity of any character, the self-reflective commentary within the play (“it’s like a play on stage!” says Myron) reminded us it was just a play, and Ralph’s promise to be the early Holden Caulfield seems assured with what I anticipate to be his coming disillusionment with World War II. Thanks for a great production, Olney!

    • I was also struck by the use of space in Awake in Sing! I understand the practical reasons behind showing both spaces, but keeping them separate, but I have to wonder if there is a deeper meaning behind it. I think the contrast between the spaces is amplified when you consider what these spaces are used for.

      On the one hand, the dining room, used for family dinners and entertaining, and if you will, putting on a show. The dining room tends to be a space that is used sparingly and only to impress the outside viewer on how well a family has it together.

      Meanwhile, in the living room, the family shows its true colors. This is where the majority of conflicts actually happen, because everyone feels comfortable in this more casual space, hidden from the world.

      I think this dichotomy is especially obvious in seems such as the one you brought up, where the family is trying to go on with the show that they are a functional as everyone else, while other family members work through their hurt and confusion in the ‘hidden’ room.

  6. Considering this play was written in the 1930s, the actors conveyed precisely the tensions created by economic despair. From my perspective, I found the back and forth bickering a bit much, and at times difficult to follow the trail of characters speaking. In contrast, the other plays we have seen provided a smoother transition from character to character, as there have never been more than three characters on stage at any given moment that I can recall. I found the intensity of each character’s emotions relatable because anyone experiencing a significant financial decline will be stressed. Unfortunately, such stressors affect every member within the family unit, and not just bread winners.

    The actress portraying (Bessy) was very credible in her role as domineering mother, but understandably as her attempts to ensure her children settle well and are financially secure. I wondered where (Bessy’s) husband was, and why were she and her children living with her brother and father. Culturally, is it the responsibility of elder members within a Jewish family to provide for a female who is without a husband’s covering?

    Although I found Henney’s abandonment of her child disturbing; I wondered if she knew her child would be safe, even as she and her brother had their basic needs met despite her family’s dysfunction. The actors portraying Ralph and Henny were not merely demonstrating a “New York” problem with self identity, and the respectful manner by which to express one’s innermost feelings to a family hung up on traditions. I tend to believe the struggle to find one’s personal identity in a complex world is universal.

    I love that Ralph finds resolve in letting go of what his family’s ideals of where his “happiness” can be found, and his conclusions that money doesn’t solve everything. As I reflect on this moment in the play, I too realize that letting go of others expectations of who I am or what I should be, and how I will arrive at their perceptions of “greatness” for my life is unnerving and liberating simultaneously. Taking risks, which don’t involve harming one’s self or others intentionally, can be an enjoyable journey towards arriving at one’s highest potential; even though, failure is inevitable. Ralph’s “awakening” was the first moment in the play which made my heart “sing” harmoniously.

    • The comment about the sometimes confusing back and forth between the family members is interesting. On the one hand, I agree that it was sometimes hard to follow and incoherent, but on the other, wasn’t it more realistic? I know that in my family, large discussions or arguments are often not smooth and seamless, and that the differing opinions can seem frustrating. I thought the pace of the dialogue helped the audience to feel the frustrations that go along with family discussion. Even when a characters argument or point seemed logical and in the right, they were often overshadowed by the constant berating of other comments. It goes to show that conflicts are hard to solve, even when the answer seems simple. When someone’s passion and fervor comes out in conversation, the overall message can be skewed. Although frustrating at times as an audience member, the dialogue overall helped bring me closer to the family and allowed me to better understand the feelings of the characters.

    • Hi Ruth,

      Thank you for sharing your insight into the play, as well as explaining your feelings and thoughts that you had while viewing. As I mentioned in my own blog post, I grappled with Ralph’s decision at the end to forfeit the money Jacob left him to his mother, Bessie. On the one hand, it can be said that it was very noble of him; however, part of me believes that Jacob would have wanted Ralph to take the money and run and pursue his dreams. However, your comment on seeing it more as an epiphany that he does not need money to be happy and that he is still young and will achieve what he sets out to do gives me a changed perspective. And, after thinking it over some more, I believe the late Jacob would have approved of Ralph’s decision, whatever it may have been, because they did have such a close relationship. In the end, I think Jacob just wanted Ralph to have some peace of mind, and in some way, I believe Ralph achieved this by the play’s conclusion.

      Hennie’s decision to leave her baby behind and run off with Moe still leaves me uncomfortable. Yes, I think she should have been with Moe all along, but at least take the child with! No matter how safe the baby would be with Bessie, I think Hennie made a selfish choice that was blinded with passion and a “seize the moment” mentality. Not a fan of it.

      One last comment on your posting: Bessie’s husband in the play was Myron Berger, as played by Paul Morella. Although one might believe Bessie’s brother, Morty, lives with the Bergers based on how extremely well Bessie treats him, Bessie makes several comments on how little Morty is able to visit which is why the house must look pristine and everyone must do as Morty wants when he is there.

  7. The question of the American experience is a difficult one. In essence, America is a melting pot. It is a place where people from around the world came to start a new life. This mixture of cultures and ideas has been crucial to the shaping of our country, but has certainly posed its challenges. Because there are so many differing views, opinions, and experiences, Americans sometimes find it difficult to connect or get along with other fellow Americans. This was perfectly summed up when, during the after show talk back, a member of the audience from California expressed how he was unable to connect with Awake and Sing. He pointed out that it could be hard for people, such as himself, to connect to a play that was about a Jewish New York family. He wasn’t wrong to point out this issue, but I think he was examining this play too much on its surface. Of course not everyone can perfectly identify with this Jewish family (like me, I’m from a suburban Catholic family), but that isn’t what makes it an American story. The ideas and ideals that are behind the conflict and dialogue are the true focus of the story. For example, the struggle between the strong matriarchal figure and the children is certainly not an unknown experience to people. Additionally, the struggle between the differing ideologies of generations, the tension between workers and employers, and the agonizing pain of love, are all feelings that have been experienced throughout this country by all types of people. I don’t believe the critique of the bystander was necessarily uncalled for or uncommon, but truthfully, I just thought it was lazy. When viewing a play, musical, or any type of art, finding the commonalities that bring the work closer to home can sometimes be difficult. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a shared experience there, it just means you may have to look a little harder.

  8. Watching this play, I really felt transported to the 1930’s. I absolutely loved all of the details in the set, as well as the vintage fashions. I also loved the old hairdo’s and bright lipstick!

    I felt kind of frustrated by some elements of this play. The thing that bothered me the most was that Hennie very quickly made the decision to run away with Moe and leave her baby. Her brother even supported her in abandoning her child. It seemed like a pretty selfish move and I was kind of shocked by it. Perhaps this lack of commitment to her family could have come from her own upbringing in a family with a large amount of conflict and tension.

    Another character that frustrated me was Bessie. She was so controlling that it was hard to like her. Especially when she was discouraging her son from pursing the girl he was in love with. She valued status more than happiness, which seemed ironic because the depression was a time of hardship for everyone, and status was not necessarily very common.

    I found it pretty easy to relate to Ralph’s struggle of trying to have his own life and his own identity. He was torn between staying in his house and helping his family, and wanting to go out and create a better life for himself. He was completely at the whim of his mother, who was doing everything in her power to control every aspect of his life as she possibly could. While Bessie may have had his best interests at heart, ruling over her son’s life the way she did, like when she told his girlfriend on the phone that he wouldn’t be back, was detrimental to him.

    Another part of the play I really enjoyed was at the end when the father, Myron, comes into the living room while Hennie and Moe are making their plans to run away together. He appears so sweet and innocent, but I couldn’t be quite sure if he was oblivious or approving of their plan.

    • Carolyn-

      I’m glad you enjoyed the 1930’s set and makeup as much as I did, and I agree, it felt like we were being transported!

      I think the reason you stated for Hennie running away with Moe and leaving her baby behind is very valid. I was simply in disbelief that she abandoned her child that I was unable to think about her reasoning behind it. However, I think because she always felt pressured, especially by her mom, to do what her mom thought was right, she never really made any spontaneous decisions. To me, running away with Moe was an outlet to all the tension she was faced with at home, such as her relationship with Sam where she only really married him because of her pregnancy.

    • Carolyn, although I felt myself thinking the same way about Hennie leaving her baby and the strong – and unlikable – character of Bessie, I am curious how much of your distaste for these characters is based within the patriarchal structure of the play.

      Both of these women – Bessie and Hennie – are portrayed as emotionally ruthless and unstable. Bessie will not allow Ralph to marry whom he pleases and shatters all of Jacob’s records, while Hennie chastises her husband and is very self-centered, manifested in the final moments when she leaves her child behind to pursue a different life with Moe.

      These negative portrayals of these two women (the ONLY two women in the play) are strongly contrasted with the likable and possibly more relatable characters of Ralph, Jacob and Myron. As you mention above, Ralph is portrayed as a young man attempting to fulfill a greater purpose and Myron is the comic relief, dumb-yet-endearing father. Jacob, on the other hand, is the source of wisdom amidst his cloud of insanity.

      For me, these drastic contrasts speak more to the positioning of the characters within a patriarchal society. Post-World War I, women were still not respected or introduced into the war-time industrial machine as they become in World War II, leaving a tangible gap of inequality and lack of respect. With that said, I felt more compassion for the women characters in Awake and Sing!, especially at the end, when Hennie leaves her child. Would we have had the same reaction if a male character had abandoned the child instead? I have a feeling it would have been more widely accepted by the audience in the 1930s and today, yet it still seems that, even seeing it ourselves in the mid-2010’s, we hold a certain gender-based standard for Hennie’s behavior as a woman.

    • Carolyn,

      Your comment about Hennie abandoning her baby is representative of a common sentiment that I think a lot of the class felt. This response is geared toward your comment and the general sentiment:

      I’m going to be devil’s advocate here and support Hennie’s decision. First of all, she never wanted to have a baby. Nothing in this play makes me think that Hennie wanted to get pregnant or that she was happy about it. Leaving it would likely be a relief for her. And I don’t think she’s cruel for doing that, because she knows the baby will be in good care with her husband and mother. Most people who put their babies up for adoption do not have that kind of guarantee that their baby will be in good care.

      Though Hennie and Moe’s relationship doesn’t seem promising, I think she is doing the best thing for herself by going with him. She is 26 years old, living under the reign of her overbearing mother, and yearning for a different life. Even if things don’t work out with Moe, I think she just needs this exciting escape. And bringing a baby on a luxury vacation to Havana doesn’t sound like much of an escape to me.

  9. I thought that the play was interesting because it was set during a time where woman were not that powerful in respect to their ever day lives, but also when a man didn’t have much power either due to the Great Depression. However, I feel like this play did not adequately capture the struggle of the time. I mean sure there was moment where we see hints of the depression – with the bedroom in the living room and the whole family living under one roof – but outside of these I did not see this family being impacted. Correct me if I am wrong, but wasn’t this the reason the play was made? To reach out to Americans and be an “American Play” that could be set in any area and it relate to everyone? I am not sure if I could see that with this play.

    On a different note, I think that the personal journey to awaken was well-written. It seemed as if the whole male population in this household was asleep and never did anything for themselves. They never stood up for what they believed in and oftentimes were told when to say something, who to talk to, what to do, and when to do it. We see changes within generations, but we also see the negative side effects of waiting to “awake” and live. For example, Jacob was standing up for himself and living his life, to a certain extent by saying whatever he wanted, but because he was old everyone tossed it up to him being an old crazy man. The father never made one decision or stood up for himself and thus remained “asleep” whereas Ralph “awakened” and started to say things that he wanted. However, I think that the play did not do a good job of really “waking” Ralph up. He ended up staying in the house to live and work. Sure, he finally stood up for himself, but what did he do with it? If anything he only helped Hennie escape to live her life freely.

    I did not really see how this fit into the storyline. I felt like it was a fast wrap up that attempted to take the audience by surprise. It did, but not in a good way. It felt like a cop out. Kind of like “Hmmmm I am getting tired of writing let me just throw this in there to finish it up and add in one last surprise.” I didn’t really appreciate the ending as much as I appreciated everything else.

  10. Awake and Sing at the Olney Theater left me with a lot of questions. Reading the script in advance had been confusing due to ambiguities and time/place-specific expressions, but seeing the play performed still did not answer all my questions. I had a hard time telling what the actors were saying at times, either because of the outdated expressions or because I wanted them to annunciate more.
    On a larger scale though, the play left me wondering a lot of things about the basic plot. Why is a lower-class family (living in the Bronx, living on a very small part-time income) so convinced they can marry into money? Who do they think has money in this era of depression? Why is Ralph so distraught about being nowhere in life when he doesn’t seem to have any skills or passions?
    There are a certain amount of ambiguities in the play that are what make it interesting. Who is Hennie’s baby’s father and how can she run away from her baby? Did Jacob really fall off the roof or did he kill himself? These, I think, add interest to the play. But with so many other questions in my mind, it was really hard to follow.
    It was also hard to enjoy a play with a character like Bessie in it. This is a similar problem that I had with Belleville. There are certain realities in life that I simply just don’t need any more of when I’m in my leisure time in the fictional world. Though there are people out there who just like to be difficult and fight in life, it was frustrating to have to watch it in the theater. Perhaps if I had understood Bessie’s motivations better, her character would’ve been more tolerable. But I felt that her expectations for her family were completely unrealistic, unfounded, and completely insensitive.

    • I also did not enjoy Bessie’s critical outlook. I felt that her circumstances did not warrant her intolerable attitude and behavior towards her family. However, I think that her character helped me to understand some of the messages of the play better. In many ways she served to counteract the optimism and vigor of Jacob and Ralph. Her bitterness towards Ralph’s decisions makes his views seem all the more reasonable. In addition, she also helped me to understand the setting of the play. She, more than any other character, expressed the stressful and chaotic tone surrounding the economic and political problems in New York. Her character helped me to visualize the tense atmosphere that Jacob and Ralph were struggling to fix.

  11. One of my favorite moments in the Olney Theater’s production of Awake and Sing! came at the very end of the play. In the play’s final scene, the characters in the play are faced with some monumental decisions. Hennie is faced with the fairly straight-forward decision of whether or not to abandon her daughter and husband. Ralph is faced with a less easily defined choice relating to how he is going to interpret his grandfather’s death and the extent to which he will allow that interpretation to dictate his future actions. While Hennie makes the entirely unconscionable decision to abandon both child and husband, Ralph, I think, makes the more admirable decision to synthesize the political beliefs of his grandfather with his own sentiments regarding work and opportunity. Ultimately, I thought Ralph’s decision to remain in his family home and allow his mother a say in the use of the money are symbolic of his growing up over the course of the play. He morphs from a frustrated young man to a mature adult. Similarly, his decision to engage with his current job and abandon dreams of stardom (or at least subsistence) as a singer are all symbolic of his emotional growth. It is less clear to me how his resigned attitude towards his fiancé fits into that growth, but I chose to see it as another sign of personal growth. Outside of the grandfather, who slowly comes to accept the consequences of his own inaction, Ralph might be the only character who actually develops over the course of the play. I didn’t see a whole lot of development on the part of the mother or father, nor on the part of the insufferable uncle. Though Hennie may gain a clearer understanding of her own situation over the course of the play, her final lamentable decision indicates, to me, that she didn’t really grow up all that much anyway. In the end, I found the growth demonstrated by Ralph, and to a lesser extent, his grandfather, played an important role in the story of Awake and Sing! and contributed in no small way to my own enjoyment of the play.

  12. I found “Awake and Sing” to be representative of an American experience that would’ve related to most audience members at the time, regardless of location, the immigrant experience. To me, each family member represented a different reaction to being an immigrant or growing up as a child of immigrants in America.

    Jacob came to this country with his family and big dreams of revolution and, ultimately, happiness for him and his family. He fled prosecution and came to America with hope and thought the Russian Revolution would bring freedom and a better life for all. However, the flame of revolution died out and Jacob feels failure as political disappointment and responsibility for the weakness within his own family. Jacob constantly reminds himself of his failed dreams as he listens to his records that sing of a “big explorer that comes on a new world.” Many audience members who immigrated under similar circumstances could probably relate to the dream Jacob as watched fall apart.

    His children, Bessie and Morty, can be argued to associate their father’s revolutionary Marxists ideals with the immigrant identity and so, not wanting to be seen as outsiders in a country they’ve grown up in, they forcefully adopt capitalist ideals and become obsessed with material possessions. They view their American dream in terms of social class and financial success. The actress who played Bessie stated that she believes Bessie would not have been born in America, which explains why she is so obsessed with her family’s image and what their neighbors think of them at any given time. She does not want her or family to be thought less of than their American-born neighbors and wants them to appear of a higher standard to others (as seen by how Bessie talks down to the building janitor, Schlosser). Morty, being born in the country, cannot connect to his father’s ideals and becomes the polar opposite, boasting of his financial success and all of the expensive items he considers most important.

    Hennie and Ralph, being raised in American with parents who spent all or most of their life in the country view their American dream as happiness. They obviously connect the most to Jacob and understand that he simply wants them to take advantage of what life has to offer and to be happy, regardless of having a family or financial success.

    I see essences of these characters and their experiences in my mom’s family, who immigrated to America from the Philippines. I think “Awake and Sing” spoke deeply to audiences who were immigrating to the United States at the time which is why the play made it to Broadway and has been able to speak to audiences across the nation despite its heavy influences from its New York setting.

    • I can totally relate to the way you interpreted the show. Each character does show a different effect of immigration and an interpretation of the American Dream or the pursuit of happiness. It is really interesting though that I wasn’t able to see that during the show even though my parents are immigrants. But this interpretation really helps me understand Bessie as a character a lot more than I did before. Before I just thought that Bessie as a complex character had insecurities of her own who was obsessed with public image, but seeing Bessie as an immigrant’s child definitely helps me understand where her insecurities are coming from. Thank you!

  13. After the show during the discussion, the director mentioned of the original ending that would have made the play very morbid and tragic. I wonder how that would have changed for the whole show: the character development, objective of the play, flow of the play, and the impact of the play. How that would have all changed and I wonder how differently we would have perceived each character. By changing just the ending, like the director said, Odet would have created a totally different show and I wonder if he was satisfied with this ending because to me, the play ultimately was portraying a compromise. Everybody wins some and loses some – Hennie, Ralph, and Bessie. At the end, I was rather confused because in my head, the development took a drastic bent as it came close to the end through its abrupt transitions. (For example when Ralph has his abrupt introduction or the dad waking up and coming to the living room.)

    And maybe if the original script stuck around, the debate of whether the play was American or not would not have prevailed in our discussion. It would have resonated with a larger American population and would have been much more representative of the struggles of the 1930s. Then again I was appreciative of the play in the sense that it showed a different facet of the 1930s – that it wasn’t Grapes of Wrath. Maybe that was why it resonated with the audience today.

    Lastly, I was very moved by the matriarch of the house, Bessie as a character. Her ability to maneuver and navigate between playing the motherly figure and the controlling freak sometimes, between upholding and betraying her beliefs, between victimizing herself and taking a strong position for the family. All these qualities made Bessie such a grounded, central figure within the play.

    • Hi Andrea –

      I am fascinated by your comments regarding Bessie. I thought that she was such a powerful figure in this play, but she became so overlooked by the much larger issues surrounding the family. However, I think that many of the problems would have been avoided if it were not for Bessie. She controlled Hennie’s decisions regarding her future, and ultimately that led to her unhappiness with Sam and to her leaving with Moe for Cuba. Bessie dominated the family and the household, and her stranglehold led Hennie and Ralph to both seek out new people and new opportunities.

  14. Upon first entering the theatre, I knew I was going to enjoy watching Awake and Sing. I loved the old fashioned set and the costumes of the cast (I felt they did a great job of reproducing the time period). One thing I noticed during the beginning of the play was that Ralph was doing weird things on stage, such as throwing his food into his mouth or flipping into his bed. I wondered if this was just something he did for fun, or if it was a symbol of something, such as his need to be free of his parent’s control. I continued to be interested throughout the play and found the family dynamic very intriguing, but probably typical for the time period. Sam was one of my favorite characters because he never spoke too much, but when he did it was something strange because of his limited English. However, I did not want him and Hennie to end up together, because I truly wanted her to be happy, which she wasn’t with Sam. However, I still cannot believe that she ran away with Moe and didn’t take her baby with her.

    During the post-show discussion, I was surprised by the gentleman’s comment about Awake and Sing not being classified as an “American play”, mostly because it took place in New York City and could not be applied to people from other states, such as California. I disagree with his comment; just because a play does not take place in a specific region and therefore might not be an accurate representation of all American lifestyles at that time, there were still events and ideas from the play that are similar among various American lifestyles. For example, the view of women being only good for marriage, childbearing, and homemaking and the need for others to marry rich were common thoughts, especially during the Great Depression where money, for most families, was tight. Also, the concept of kids wanting different dreams than the ones their parents want for them is very typical, even within families in today’s society. Overall, I do believe that Awake and Sing is an “American play” because it addresses many common themes and issues seen in the American society.

    • Meaghan,

      When I heard that comment I also was surprised! I began to think about it and came to the conclusion that I also disagree. I thought that since the setting of the play was set in the Great Depression and they kept making references to F.D. Roosevelt that of course this play was American. The man’s comment was that this play wasn’t very relatable as a result of the setting was a bit confusing for me. As the child of Nigerian immigrants, I found aspects of the play that I could even relate to. For example, I also have an overly involved mother who has a very dominant presence in the family. I as well struggle to break down my family’s traditional ideals of what a woman should do and aspire to be. Although I couldn’t really relate to the Jewish New Yorker lifestyle, I would still consider this an American play.

  15. The question of “relatability” came up in interesting ways with regard to Awake and Sing. I can understand issues audience members had with the New York identity of the play, I do think the relationship to the Depression was mostly unique to a (relatively) well off family in New York. However, I found that I related to the generational differences of the play.

    The third generation, Henny and Ralph, were both full of dreams and ideas. The play opens with a monologue in which Ralph complains about his lack of financial independence and his stifled potential. Throughout the play the third generation fights with the second, the Bessie, Myron and Uncle Morty, for independence and progress. The first generation, Jacob, shares ideas of communism with Ralph and Henny. He spars with Uncle Morty, the personification of capitalism, over the death of the American dream. Ideas and dreams came from the youth and the old, with the middle aged shutting them down with talk of reality. Uncle Morty says to Bessie “be practical,” because that is their job as the bread-winners.

    The flow of ideas between generations was something I could very strongly identify with. At one point Ralph says he’s “take the world in two hands” and fix it, if only he was given the opportunity. He is brimming with ideas and potential, but he has no idea what to do with them. As college students and interns we are told that we have so much potential that will be the next world leaders. But Ralph’s struggle to figure out what to do with that potential is something I can understand completely. Further, as interns, especially interns in the government, we are encouraged to consider that new ideas have been tried and failed before proposing a thought. Just as Bessie and Morty dismiss the ideas of Ralph and Henny, I’ve experience adults dismissing ideas as the nubile thoughts of young college students, all while telling us how much potential we have.

    • Rosii,

      I think you’re right that we, like Ralph, struggle to take advantage of opportunities and figure out how to live up to our full potential. A lot was expected of him – to grow up, get a job, move out, find and appropriate wife, etc. But he struggled to reconcile what was expected of him with what his heart wanted. I think the idea of independence was closely related to this, in that, when Ralph or we as young adults seek to “live up to our potential,” we might have to sacrifice some of the things we depended on growing up. We can no longer always look to our parents for support when we have new ideas. Sometimes we just have to go for it.

  16. Thematically I think this story had a lot to do with love manifesting itself in different and unexpected ways in a society that seems to lack it. Jacob repeatedly goes back to this idea that in “society today, people don’t love, they hate.” On stage we saw this expressed in the family fighting and bickering. No one ever seemed to want to compromise; they always seemed to think it’s either their way or the highway. I want to take a look at two characters, Hennie and Bessie, and each of their character development in terms of love.

    Hennie definitely got the short end of the stick being forced into marrying Sam although she did not love him. We could just see the resentment written all over her face. However, when Sam goes home alone one night and Hennie calls after him, “I love you,” I did not know if those words were true. I did not know if she said them out of pity or if after all the challenges she’s gone through, if she was really starting to see him as a partner. The timing of this outburst was also right after Jacob’s death, which led me to believe she was starting to recognize the importance of the love Jacob said the family lacked. Ultimately, when she follows her heart and leaves with Moe, I’m quite happy for her. Even though she left her baby behind, at least she’s finally becoming independent and pursuing what will make her heart happy.

    Bessie reminded me a lot of immigrant parents we have in America today. At first I thought she was greedy because all she wanted for her daughter was to marry rich. And when she called the insurance man so soon after her father’s death, I thought for sure she valued status and wealth over her family. However, after she gave her speech detailing the challenges in her life and what she gave up to raise her children, my perception of her changed. I realized that she only desires the wealth so that her children can have a better life, and I can understand that.

    • I was glad that Hennie was leaving a marriage that she didn’t have any business being in in the first place. However, leaving her child behind was utterly selfish. Doing something that makes your heart happy is not a good enough reason to leave your child behind.

      Bessie also remind me a lot about contemporary immigrant parents in the United States. I think they all want the best for their children, but I think that sometimes what they perceive to be the best for their children turns out to be more stifling and limiting than what is actually best for them.

    • Hey Kim,

      I hadn’t thought enough of the connection between Bessie and the typical immigrant mother until i read and processed your comment. I appreciate you bringing that up because i can relate to that perspective much more than i can to the idea that she was a mother just seeking a better life for her children. I have an immigrant mother myself, and when i broke the news to her that i was abandoning our dreams of me becoming a pharmacist, she was broken and there were tears. She thought the medical field would be a sure way for me to gain stability, and this new talk about the humanities was not appealing to her. It sounded unrealistic, and according to her, she didn’t come all the way to America to have me give up a path to stability so easily and foolishly. She felt betrayed and unappreciated, but through it all, i had to remain reminded that her emotions were a product of her love for me, and her desire to see me at my stable best.

  17. As someone who has always grown up in a suburban neighborhood outside of small cities, Awake and Sing was a play that was initially difficult for me to fully grasp. This play was about a Jewish family in New York City during the Great Depression, which is a completely different context than I am used to. The plot was hard for me to jump into initially and the language (because of the New Yorker dialect) made it difficult for me to understand. Though by the end of the play I found myself more engaged and able to relate to the different characters. However, two characters that I struggled to understand were Bessie and Hennie.
    Typically I’m always supportive of strong-minded and smart female characters and protagonists in plays and stories. However, Bessie and Hennie were two characters whose behavior I couldn’t understand and that I didn’t approve of. In the beginning of the play, I was applauding Bessie for keeping the family together and dealing with the family’s issues especially during a hard time like the Great Depression. I also approved of Bessie because it really seemed as though if she didn’t make the decisions in the family, Myron wasn’t going to help her AT ALL. However, later on in the play we saw glimpses of her that were just downright ugly, such as the scene where she destroyed her father’s records or when she talked down to her father and sent him to his room, demeaning him. I found this very shocking because typically, one is supposed to respect their elders let alone their own father. Whenever those moments occurred when she was yelling at her father, I felt disheartened and saddened. It seemed as though her father was just trying to input his thoughts and beliefs (which were at times highly Communist) and he never got a chance to speak. After he committed suicide I was ashamed but not surprised when Bessie only sought out to get the check from the life insurance company. It seemed as though Bessie was really trying to be a good mother and keep the house together but I disapproved of her methods.
    As many other students have expressed, I too was very upset and confused by the ending of the play when Hennie ran off with Moe. To me, it appeared very selfish and irresponsible of her to abandon her child and her husband because she loved an abusive, angry and destructive man. To be honest, I did expect her to leave Sam (it was quite apparent she had no care for him) but I didn’t expect the decision to be made so quickly with really no hesitation. I probably would have approved if she had taken her child with her and left her husband, but the complete abandonment was something that I just couldn’t handle.

  18. Awake and Sing was a nuanced play that I could appreciate for its depth but it did not draw me in as I imagine it drew its first audiences in in the 1930s. A lot of the substance of it and the language flew over my head. However, I could relate to the family drama of an overbearing mother who feels like her thoughts and opinions are superior to everyone else’s, and a passionate young person who is unsure of which path to take in life. The mother was the most annoying character to me. She was harsh, and was often too quick to criticize and remind everyone of her sacrifices, and she was unwilling to see other’s sacrifices for her and the family. She forgets to acknowledge Ralphie’s sacrifices for the family. He mentions several times throughout the play that he has sacrificed his desires to get his teeth fixed and a specific pair of shoes so that the family can be able to pay for their bills. His mother was intolerant and hypocritical, and it was evident in the way she viewed Ralphie’s girlfriend as lesser, but was willing to dupe a man into marrying her daughter who had a child out of wedlock. She was truly my least favorite character in the play. I could; however, see that she was doing the best she could under the circumstances she was under, but she was still distasteful to me.

    I found it quite annoying as well that no one could stand up to her. Not her husband who always did as he was told. Ralphie and Hennie, thankfully, were able to follow their own paths by the end of the play. I was pleased to see Ralphie actually make up his mind about the attitude he was going to choose to adopt about life. He decided he was going to live life on his own terms, and he was going to do something bigger than himself. His mother’s dreams for him were too small, and I was glad when he finally chose to break free from those chains. I could relate because as a Nigerian immigrant, the ideal dream for me by my parents is to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, but I see something bigger (and more suitable) for myself. It took a lot of guts, but I have been able to break free of the limits I feel they had set for me and choose my own path, and it was great to see Ralphie do the same.

    I cared very little for Hennie. I’m not sure if I disliked her for her or if it was the effect of the actresses portrayal of her. I certainly cared very little for her decision to leave her baby behind. She could have taken that child with her, but then again I didn’t see much of a maternal instinct in her in the play.

    I thought the fact that the family was a Jewish family was pretty subtle. I didn’t quite catch that until Jacob starting reciting the Torah in Hebrew.

  19. I was struck by how complex Awake and Sing was. Coming into the performance, I was not expecting the play to develop the incredible relationships and social problems that it did. After reading Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, I did not think that Awake and Sing would come close to touching on the political events of the day. I left Olney Theatre extremely satisfied and still grappling with the story.

    Ralph’s struggle was one that people our age know all too well. He was stuck living with his family in New York City, unable to find meaningful work or even meaning in his life. He had fallen for a girl, but could not be with her. Part of what made Ralph’s story so interesting was how well it held up over 70+ years. His early-twenties struggles still resonate today, as many of my friends — and myself, for that matter — are struggling with the next steps in our lives. Many of us cannot find jobs, or will still be living with our parents after graduation. In such an unstable economic climate, Ralph’s plight was understandable; today, it’s worrisome that the same issues are facing us.

    After the intermission, I thought the story really picked up. I felt almost lost in the first act, as though the audience had just been dropped into the middle of one family’s struggles. However, the story took on a much more political and almost real tone after the break. Jake became even more brazen in his views, while the contrasts between Teddy Roosevelt and FDR became even more pronounced. Following such a politically radical show as Waiting for Lefty, this piece almost felt as though Odets was walking things back; it was almost as though he was writing this play in support of FDR and the New Deal, even after stoking powerful pro-labor sentiments in his last work.

  20. In my opinion, “Awake and Sing!” was full of relatable messages concerning the human experience, despite it focusing specifically on a 1930’s, New York Jewish family.

    One such way it did this was through its use of the theme of “sleep”. Throughout the production, various characters can be seen turning to sleep in order to escape from the problems of their daily lives. Indeed, the mother of the Berger family (Bessie), is often seen encouraging her children to sleep off their problems and trust that, the next morning, those problems will disappear. In order to maintain control over her family and ensure that no one acts in a way that is contrary to her own plans, Bessie dismisses her children’s problems and diffuses any further conflicts by pushing her children to sleep. In the morning, Bessie is there and waiting with her own plan for her children’s lives. Thus, the meaning of the show’s title becomes that much clearer after watching the performance: in order to truly address one’s problems and take control of one’s life, one must awake and tackle those problems head on. It can be easier to stay in a sleep-like state, not taking personal control over one’s life or perhaps only talking about potential solutions to one’s problems and never acting on them (like the character of Jacob). Thus, I found the ending of the show to be extremely powerful, as the two Berger children awake from the sleep they had been experiencing all of their lives, filled with energy and passion for life, and no longer crippled by the barriers and expectations placed on them by their family.

    Another theme that I found particularly interesting in “Awake and Sing!” was the frequent reminiscing of past, “better” times by the older characters. For example, the father of the Berger family, Myron, mentions in different ways throughout the show that “People ain’t the same anymore… the whole world’s changing”. This kind of reminiscing is not unique to the 1930’s setting of the play. Listening to grandparents or other older family members, I am quite used to hearing about ‘the good old days’, and how the days and people now are somewhat lacking in something that they weren’t in the past. And, as shown in the play, the older generation of the 1930’s seems to have possessed this same nostalgia. To me, this shared nostalgia is a testament to the way in which “the times” are (perhaps obviously) always changing, and that there will always be a generational divide between those who are accepting of these changes and those who are not. But again, it seems important that the younger generation not fall into the trap of “sleeping away” the difficulties they encounter in the face of these changes. The older generation, uncomfortable and unhappy with the changes occurring all around them, may encourage the younger generation to dismiss their problems or look to older, more conventional answers to solve them. “Awake and Sing!” is about the younger generation (whether that be in the 1930s or now) claiming the changes and newest conflicts as their own, and successfully finding unique ways to address them.

    • Dominic,
      Great insights! I found your thoughts on the theme of sleep and how it affects the characters very interesting. I simply saw the title as a reference to Jacob’s repeated use of the phrase “awake and sing” but your comments showed me how much deeper the title connects to play’s story and message. I very much agree with what you said about Ralph and Hennie almost awakening from a sleep they had been in all their lives and are ready to sing with a new found passion for life.

      In response to what you said about the shared nostalgia in the play, I do agree that there is definitely a divide between those who accept the change and those who against it but I think that in “Awake and Sing” the divide is a bit more complex than the old and young generation. There is definitely a divide between Bessie and Myron, who are rigid in their ways and are opposed to change, and Ralph and Hennie who are young and eager to embrace the changing tides in society but Jacob and Hennie’s husband, Sam, don’t necessarily fall into this divide. Jacob represents the oldest generation in the play and change is the very thing he hopes and prays for. He wants a revolution, he does not like how his children have grown up and wants his grandchildren to embrace life and the changing values so they can carry out the dreams he never was able to. Sam on the hand, who is a part of the younger generation, seems to hold the sense of ideals that Bessie does. He seems to convey that Hennie should remain at home, care for the baby, and be a good wife while he provides money and they would be a “happy” family. I think this attributes to the fact he has recently immigrated to America. He has the nostalgic idea of the American Dream and doesn’t want to embrace the change that Hennie and Ralph see for themselves.

  21. As a 21- year old who did not grow up in America, watching Awake and Sing from Olney theater was quite an explorative learning experience. At this play, the issues of relatability and context in theater struck me a bit more than they did in the previous plays. Neither myself, my parents, nor my grandparents had any direct connections to what i saw on the stage. I relied on my limited understanding of the time surrounding the Great Depression for understanding and for context. Needless to say, that was a rather challenging task. Many references flew right over my head, and i struggled to piece the story and the times together. This challenge present, i did, nevertheless pick up on the themes that transcend the history and this family alone.
    First, i tried to unpack my perception of what financial struggling looks like on a family. During the intermission, the folks around me engaged in a conversation about how there was little indication of financial issues in this family. Besides the tensions which i will later address, on the outside we see a family with a decent home, eating decent meals, and striving to maintain a certain lifestyle. That seemed pretty typical. Personally, i got a more immediate glimpse of their financial struggle when i realized that Ralph didn’t quite have a room to himself, and that a room was something he couldn’t get unless finances improved for the family. Furthermore, the idea of three generations living under one roof came as a point that could be interpreted as a dynamic resulting from financial struggle, or as a part of the dominant culture. I still haven’t figured out how best to categorize it in this particular case, but i still find it a valuable thought.
    While watching, I was brought to peeling off the many layers of tension that come from a life of economic struggle. The average person, whether in this or that time, has experienced some sort of financial want. With financial want or issues, at times comes a wave of tensions and other issues. With this family, having three different generations under one roof, trying to weather the economic hardships of the time, it was no different. Bessie, being the primary figure of the home was tension- breeding ground itself, as women at that time were not just allowed to take and use power. Seniority and respect for elders experienced this tension as well given that in this setting, the power lay not with whoever was oldest, but with whoever was providing more. The desires of a parent for his/ her children also came up as an area of tension with this family as we see Bessie turning to extreme ideas to help her children escape financial struggles. Most of the time, her desire to accomplish that clouded her vision of happiness for her children. She might have seen happiness as secondary to stability, and that in itself was a tension that was manifested in her relationship with her children, as they explored the ideas of happiness in a family that struggled with it.
    Lastly, the tensions were further manifested in the nature of communication in their home. Most of the time, the characters’ voices were at high tones and volumes, and action was being fed. I think the heightened communication is important to conveying the familial tensions caused by financial issues; however, it sped up the pace of the play a little too much for me. My idea of a time of financial struggles is that it feels as though its a never- ending web. It feels like the tensions continue to drag out, sometimes more subtle and other times more volcanic. I felt like i was constantly seeing volcanic eruptions in the family’s interactions, and that made it hard for me to reach the realness of the play.
    On the questioners comment: without a clear knowledge of what the typical American family of the time was like, i agree with that statement. My appreciation of the play is, however, not limited by this notion. In my opinion the idea of representation is more pragmatic than it is theoretic. It makes you think more of the diversity than of the similarity. In this play for example, the idea of representation makes you think more of how different families might have weathered the time, than it would make you struggle to find yourself and your family on stage. This ultimately actually goes back to the issue of relatability- its a personal thing!

  22. “Awake and Sing” surprised me with how universal and appealing its themes and commentary are even today. Almost 80 years after its original production, the play felt very important and relevant. After reading “Waiting for Lefty”, I expected “Awake and Sing” to be rich with similar political commentary on communism and the working class. While exciting and interesting, the commentary in “Waiting for Lefty” did not feel nearly as significant or applicable to my life.

    One of my favorite parts of both plays was the use of language to portray the changing political and social atmosphere in America during the Depression era. Harsh and sharp, the language Odets uses shows both the tough reality his characters face and the confusion and disorder that was creeping into their lives. The language helped to make the characters seem more tangible to me and, in doing so, helped draw me into their world.

    While Odets was successful with creating captivating characters and stories in both plays, I found myself far more immersed in the world of the family in “Awake and Sing”. While this may largely be due to the fact that I saw a live performance of “Awake and Sing” and only read “Waiting for Lefty”, the main reason why I felt so much more connected to the former was Ralph’s struggle for independence and success. Ralph’s frustration with creating financial independence for himself and finding his own path for success and prosperity in a nation burdened with economic and social problems follows a similar pattern to the lives of many young people entering the workforce and adulthood today. His rebelliousness and will to fight against the current order is as appealing and engaging as it was in its first production. I, among many others today, still feel the confusion and weight surrounding discovering oneself and entering adulthood. Ralph’s story is one that remains true for many audience members today, especially those that grew up in a similar, although less harsh, economic and social atmosphere.

  23. Pingback: Tony Kushner’s Latest Epic – And Recalling His First | The Theater J Blog

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