Defecting doctors

Dalrymple likes to use his BMJ column to introduce readers to once-popular, forgotten books and Waiting for Lefty would seem to qualify (subscription required):
For twenty years before the world started to wait for Godot, it had waited for Lefty. The US playwright Clifford Odets (1906-63) wrote his play Waiting for Lefty in 1935, at the height of the great depression. Then, as now, there appeared to be no light at the end of the economic tunnel. Lefty is a union organiser who, like Godot, never arrives.
The short play, which was initially a huge success, is composed of six scenes depicting the travails of people in times of hardship. One scene is set in a hospital, and features the characters of Dr Barnes, the medical director, and Dr Benjamin, a young surgeon.
Dr Benjamin then confides that he had a dream: “To really begin believing something? Not to say, ‘What a world!’ but to say, ‘Change the world!’ I wanted to go to Russia. Last week I was thinking about it—the wonderful opportunity to do good in their socialized medicine . . . ”
He decides, however, to stay in the United States, although it means driving a taxi to stay alive. The scene ends with Dr Benjamin exclaiming: “Fight! Maybe get killed, but goddam! We’ll go ahead!” Then he stands and gives the clenched fist communist salute.
Some Americans followed Dr Benjamin’s impulse to emigrate to the Soviet Union, and were rewarded there by the most terrible misery. Odets, like many an intellectual of his time, managed entirely to miss the famine, the terror, and the everyday tyranny of Soviet life, even though information about it was freely available. He himself took a different path—to Hollywood. There his plays and films became less overtly political, prompting one critic to ask, “Odets, where is thy sting?”

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