Background on the play from Wikipedia: “Awake and Sing!, produced in February 1935, is generally regarded as Odets’s masterpiece. It has been cited as ″the earliest quintessential Jewish play outside the Yiddish theatre.” The play concerns the Berger family, living in the Bronx under the shadow of economic collapse. Odets’s choice of opening the play in media res (“in the middle of things”), his dialogue style, and the fact that it was the first play on Broadway to focus entirely on a Jewish family, distinguish Awake and Sing! from other full-length plays of its time.”
Our member Iris Berke writes:
- Myron & Bessie Berger, meek husband & domineering wife, first generation immigrants in NY, trying to improve their lot & realize the elusive American dream;
- Jacob, Bessie’s father, who lives with them in their NY apt., peacekeeper, able to see everyone’s side of the story, clearly remembers how bad things were in the old country;
- Hennie Berger, their daughter, who aspires to better things in life, but gets pregnant & must marry the first man her mother can arrange for the purpose;
- Sam Feinschreiber, a recent immigrant, who genuinely loves Henny & their son;
- Ralph Berger, son, who definitely wants to escape & do better. He has a girlfriend, a poor orphan named Blanche, who lives with an unkind aunt & uncle. His mother, Bessie Berger, does everything possible to break up the romance (lying about whether Blanche called Ralph on the party-line phone, being rude to her on the phone, saying that she, Bessie, will die of being mistreated if Ralph doesn’t end the relationship, etc.);
- Schlosser, the German janitor of the apartment building, plays a minor role;
- Moe Axelrod, young, jaunty neighbor, who lost a leg in the war, has the hots for Hennie, may be the father of her child, but she spurns his advances and doubts the veracity of his promises of a prosperous & exciting future together, holding out for someone “better,” until very end of the play when she agrees to leave her husband & child & escape to the unknown, presumably better life, with Moe; and
- Uncle Morty, Bessie’s wealthy, but stingy unmarried brother, who visits for Sunday dinner, mistreats his employees, and represents an unappealing picture of what it takes to “arrive” and make it in America.
Major themes of the play told through a family vignette: immigrants struggling with poverty, in close quarters, unrealized American dream, sexual tension, generational roles & conflict. Each character represents more than his or her individual self. They have almost uniformly abandoned Jewish/good values/ethics, and function in the play as “archetypes” of:
1) the domineering wife & mother who emasculates her husband & infantalizes her children, inevitably driving the children away in anger (Bessie Berger),
2) the meek, submissive ever-loyal husband & father, who seeks peace at all costs and finds his own ways to escape the family conflict (Myron Berger),
3) the elder who has seen too much, is displeased with how his children live, can predict what will happen, and leaves his legacy to a beloved grandchild (Jacob),
4) the self-serving “slutty” daughter who doesn’t appreciate her honest, old-world value-following husband who married her pregnant & loves the child as if it were his own (Hennie Berger),
5) the “pure” immigrant who retains old-world values & ethics of honesty, hard-work, loyalty to family, and is portrayed as a fool for these qualities (Sam Feinschreiber),
6) the self-made man whose success has come at the sacrifice of having a family of his own, and at the expense of his low-paid, poorly treated employees (Uncle Morty),
7) the smooth-talking “evil” hustler who thinks he is destined for better things, and persuades Hennie to walk out on her husband, child & family for an unknown future, and
8) the repressed “good” son who finally reaches breaking point and also leaves the family’s suffocating apartment with the small inheritance his grandfather left him to go forth, “awake and sing” (Ralph).
We are left with little sympathy for most of the characters, their values or way of life, and hope they are not widely regarded as honest portrayals of Jewish people of that time in history. Sadly, if they are, Odets did little to combat negative perception of immigrant Jews in the 1930’s, and actually may have contributed to negative stereotyping.