The Big Knife

A Conversation with Costume Designer, Catherine Zuber


Costume Designer Catherine Zuber shared some of her insights and experiences with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod.


Ted Sod: Would you tell us about yourself? Where were you born? When did you realize you wanted to design costumes?

Catherine Zuber: I was born in London. My family immigrated to New York when I was nine.  The excitement of being in New York was thrilling. All the details reverberated with the exotic. The architecture was different, the cars were different, the way of life and what people ate and wore were all new to me. I think those differences informed how I examine what makes a particular world what it is. In costuming a play or an opera, I love to do the research and get inside a specific time and place. I try to inhabit the lives of the characters that are telling the story.


After I went to art school and majored in photography, I moved to New Haven with a boyfriend who was going to Yale. While I was there, I discovered costume design. I applied to the Yale School of Drama and was accepted. It was an amazing environment to learn the craft of costume design. What I really love about theatre is the collaboration among the designers, the actors, the director, the writers, the musicians, the technical people and the stage managers; the way we all come together to create something, it’s very fulfilling and exciting. Other disciplines can be very solitary in their execution.


TS: Can we talk about your first response to the play The Big Knife?

CZ: The journey of Charlie Castle is a Faustian story.  Charlie Castle’s naturalism is appealing to Hollywood and it has made him very successful.  In the process of embracing this world, he loses his soul.

Costume sketches: Catherine Zuber


TS: Tell us about your research process on this show. Did you study period newspapers or magazines?

CZ: Yes. I have a personal collection of magazines from the time period: Harper’s, Vogue, and some sewing pamphlets from various pattern companies. Also, I often go to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), which is a great resource. They have a library with a great collection of publications from all different time periods. They have plates from various department stores with images of what was for sale in a given time period. You need to think about where the characters you are designing would have shopped for their clothes. Sometimes the character is somebody who would have ordered from a Sears catalogue, or they could be a person attends the Paris couture collections for  their wardrobe. You have to consider what a character is thinking when it comes to their clothing. What is particularly interesting about The Big Knife is that it is set in Hollywood. Image is, then as now, extremely important. Flamboyance contributes to the choices that are made. Photographic research of post-war California indicates how high-style casual clothing was becoming popular. There were amazing prints and colors. Color in film was becoming more prevalent. There were leisure clothes for men where the shirts are beautifully cut, but it is a casual look.

Marin Ireland and Bobby Cannavale. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Which designers influenced style at the time the play takes place?

CZ: Movie designers like Adrian had a huge influence on fashion. Hollywood costume design had a certain aesthetic that translated into what was then available in department stores. I think that, for the most part, fashions were dictated by what was happening in Paris. When you look at the late 1940s, Dior was starting to introduce the new look, which was such a departure visually from what was happening up until that point. Of course, during the war years with fabric shortages, a lot of design choices were influenced by the materials that were available. That’s why women’s dresses were quite short. After the war, there was a real interest in embracing color. Garments used more fabric and it was a very different look.

... Read More →

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, The Big Knife

No Comments

The Big Knife: Read, Watch, Drink


Immerse yourself in the world of The Big Knife with our recommended reading, watching and drinking lists!

What to Read

The Noir Forties: The American People from Victory to Cold War by Richard Lingeman

A vivid re-examination of America’s postwar period, that “age of anxiety” characterized by the dissipation of victory dreams, the onset of the Red Scare, and a nascent resistance to the growing Cold War consensus.

The Time is Ripe: The 1940 Journal of Clifford Odets by Clifford Odets

This one-year diary offers insight into Clifford Odets: his ego, his seriousness about art and politics, his appetites for women, conversation and food, his love of Beethoven and other classical music, his coping with his first flop on Broadway and his interactions with Hollywood.

What to Watch

Sweet Smell of Success

The film tells the story of powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker who uses his connections to ruin his sister's relationship with a man he deems inappropriate. Co-written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman.

Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco and Burt Lancaster as J. J. Hunsecker in the famous 21 Club Scene.

Out of the Past

A private eye escapes his past to run a gas station in a small town, but his past catches up with him. Now he must return to the big city world of danger, corruption, double crosses and duplicitous dames.

The Petrified Forest

A waitress, a hobo and a bank robber get mixed up at a lonely diner in the desert. Watch the trailer of the 1936 film that starred Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.

Angels with Dirty Faces

A priest tries to stop a gangster from corrupting a group of street kids.

James Cagney as "Rocky" Sullivan. Image from Warner Bros. Studio

The Roaring Twenties

Three men attempt to make a living in Prohibitionist America after returning home from fighting together in World War I.

The Maltese Falcon

A private detective takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar, and their quest for a priceless statuette. 

Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

Double Indemnity

An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator's suspicions.

Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray.

What to Drink

Studio Sidecar
Whiskey, triple sec, fresh lemon and lime

Movie-Land Mule
Vodka, ginger beer, fresh lime and mint

Castle Cocktail
Prosecco, brandy, sugar cube and spiced cherry bitters

These show cocktails and small plates are available before the show or by pre-ordering for intermission in American Airlines Theatre Penthouse Lounge and concessions bar in the ground floor lobby.

The Big Knife plays March 22 through June 2 at the American Airlines Theatre. For more information and tickets please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, The Big Knife


Playwright Biography, Clifford Odets



Clifford Odets was born in Philadelphia on July 18, 1906. His family moved to New York City when he was six, and Odets grew up in the Bronx. He dropped out of high school to work as an actor in small companies around the city. In 1931 he became a founding member of the Group Theatre, which became the most influential company in the history of American theatre.

The plays Odets wrote for the Group ensemble reflect his interest in Marxist principles. In 1934 he joined the Communist party, but left within a year in favor of a broader humanistic philosophy, a morality that emphasized the value of individual happiness.

Like many East Coast writers, Odets received offers from Hollywood. He went west in early 1936 to write his first screenplay. While there he met German actress Luise Rainer, whom he married in 1937. Both volatile in temperament, they separated twice within two turbulent years and divorced in 1940. Odets married actress Bette Grayson in 1943. The couple had two children, but the marriage ended in 1951. Grayson died suddenly in 1954 at age 32, leaving Odets as the children’s sole caretaker.

Because of his early and brief Communist affiliation and the perceived radicalism of his plays, Odets was under surveillance from the mid 1930s for what the government called “premature anti-fascism.” He never abandoned his support of progressive causes and was subpoenaed in 1952 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). He testified twice and reiterated names of former Group Theatre colleagues who had Communist ties. Elia Kazan, Odets’s fellow Group member, had named these same people in his testimony a month before. Odets adamantly upheld the Communist Party’s right to exist and gave evidence of positive as well as negative Communist activity. He felt he had defied the Committee as he gave them no new information. Negative reactions to his testimony confused him; he was surprised and hurt by criticism that came his way from both the political right and left. He was deeply traumatized, and his ability to work suffered as a result.

Odets died on August 14, 1963 of advanced colon cancer.

The Group Theatre employed an acting technique new to the United States, based on the teachings of the Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski’s “system” encouraged realism and naturalism by using actors’ personal experiences and truthful emotions. The system was further developed by Group director Lee Strasberg and became known as “The Method.”

Odets’s colleagues did not consider him to be a particularly good actor, and he grew frustrated with the insignificant roles in which he was cast. He began to write plays, adapting Strasberg’s technique to his writing process. Waiting for Lefty, his one-act play based on an actual taxi strike, was produced as the winning entry of a playwriting contest conducted by the left-wing New Theatre magazine. Those present on the opening night of January 5, 1935 responded with such passionate enthusiasm that Odets found himself instantly famous. The Group soon produced Waiting for Lefty itself along with another Odets one-act, the anti-fascist Till the Day I Die. Awake and Sing!, the first full-length play on Broadway to focus exclusively on the tribulations of a Jewish family, solidified Odets’s reputation. His next play, Paradise Lost, which continued his trend of expressing Depression era themes, was not well received.

Early in 1936 Odets accepted his first lucrative film assignment in order to keep Paradise Lost running and the Group afloat. This initiated a period of frequent travel between the coasts, during which Odets continued to write both plays and films. Golden Boy, written in 1937 expressly for commercial success, proved to be the Group’s greatest hit. Rocket to the Moon (1938) and Night Music (1940) followed, but neither was well received and the Group was forced to disband.

Odets returned to Hollywood, where he stayed from 1943 to mid-1948 writing screenplays. In 1944 he adapted and directed None but the Lonely Heart, which starred Cary Grant and garnered Ethel Barrymore an Oscar. Still, Odets’s increasing disgust with the emptiness of Hollywood led him to send his friend, director and critic Harold Clurman, an outline for the play that would become The Big Knife. They corresponded throughout 1947 and into the spring of 1948 about a possible collaboration.

Meanwhile, Odets did not stop his political activity in support of left-wing causes. In late 1947 HUAC intensified its investigation of the film industry, and Odets decided to move his young family back the New York. They arrived in June 1948. Odets spent an intense summer and early fall writing The Big Knife, which provides a harsh view of the world of Hollywood.

Odets had two more plays produced in New York, The Country Girl (1950) and The Flowering Peach (1954). The Country Girl was a commercial success, but The Flowering Peach was not. Odets felt forced to return to Hollywood in order to support himself and his children. He acted as a consultant and doctored scripts, and in 1957 he wrote the screenplay for Sweet Smell of Success, an exposé of the newspaper world. It has since become a cult classic film and the basis of a 2002 Broadway musical. He began work on a musical adaptation of Golden Boy and acted as script supervisor for NBC’s new dramatic anthology, “The Richard Boone Show.” He also contracted to write four of a proposed total of thirteen teleplays for the series, and two of his scripts were aired posthumously.


Odets marks a turning point in American theatre history. Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! have become classics of the American stage. Odets’s singular contribution is his lyrical treatment of urban speech. An “Odetsian line” transforms street talk into poetry. Odets is primarily remembered as a spokesman for the working man, despite the fact that he dropped his Marxist stance by the time he wrote Golden Boy, a mere two years after he first came to international attention. His influence can be traced through the works of Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, David Mamet, Tony Kushner, and countless others.


1935: Waiting for Lefty
1935: Awake and Sing!
1935: Till the Day I Die
1935: Paradise Lost
1937: Golden Boy
1938: Rocket to the Moon
1940: Night Music
1941: Clash By Night
1949: The Big Knife
1950: The Country Girl
1954: The Flowering Peach

Biography compiled with thanks to Beth Phillips.

Related Categories:
2012-2013 Season, The Big Knife

1 Comment