'Awake and Sing!' is very much a play of the Great Depression. The play is set in a New York home, over-crowded with people all looking for a break. Life is bleak and unhappy for all. The home belongs to the Bergers, an overworked mother, a dream stricken father, an ambitious son, a wise grandfather and a daughter, Hennie, who has accidentally gotten herself in a family way. The son, Ralph, is something of the hero of the play. He wants a chance to succeed but he can't figure out how to do it. Other characters also board at the house, all of them interesting. The characters are one of the strong points of the play.
All of them are unhappy and their unhappiness is made worse by the regular visits of a rich uncle who subtlety rubs his wealth in their faces. He can't understand why they can't make it. What's worse, they don't understand it either. The grandfather, Jacob, wistfully hopes that the fine things happening in Russia will provide some clues on how to get society on track.
The climax comes when Jacob sacrifices himself to get some insurance money into Ralph's hands. If Ralph takes it, he can become self sufficient. But it may cost him his family as there is plenty of resentment from his mother about this kind of nest egg. She worked hard and sacrificed her life for her family and thinks it only just that a windfall should come to her as well. In the end, Ralph decides that the only way he can make himself an honorable life is to let the money go and confidently make his own fortune in life.
It's an interesting play and I can easily see why people would go to see it. It's thought provoking and well written. It debuted in 1935 at a time when society really did seem broken and people were looking for answers. I'd recommend it.
However, I can't just casually dismiss the Marxism of the piece, especially the fond words for the communists in Russia. If I were to find a newspaper article or play from 1935 that praised the Nazis in Germany, I could understand that the writer didn't know what horrors were ahead. Fair enough. In retrospect though, we'd assess a very heavy penalty to that piece. Same rules should apply here. A couple of years before this play was being put on in America, the Soviets starved about 4 million people in Ukraine. We should hardly be wistful about such an awful government.
Next up, we take a step back to 'Accidental Death of an Anarchist' by Daniel Fo. The play is from 1970 and I know virtually nothing about it yet. It's #96 on the list and this will finally fill that gap.