Golden Boy was Clifford Odets's most successful theatrical production. First published in 1937 in the United States, the play was a dramatic departure from Odets's previous plays—social dramas that had propelled the playwright to instant stardom. Unlike these early plays, which many later critics dismissed as propaganda pieces, Golden Boy focused more on personal issues. Odets has stated in interviews that he wrote the play as a deliberate attempt to create a hit. It was his intention to use the profits from the play's production to help support the Group Theatre, the famous theatre that had produced his first plays and where most of his friends still acted. The play was written after Odets returned from a screenwriting job in Hollywood, a position that drew criticism from those who had pinned their hopes on Odets as a social reformer. In fact, many critics have noted that the struggle that Joe Bonaparte, Odets's protagonist, faces in Golden Boy mirrors the struggle that Odets himself faced.
While Odets was torn between Hollywood and the New York theatre scene, Joe is torn between the high-pressure, big-money business of boxing and his dream of becoming a violinist. Joe's dilemma is complicated when he finds somebody who is willing to sponsor him as a boxer and risks injuring his hands—a fatal blow to his career as a violinist. Although Joe receives advice from his father, a lovable Italian man, the strongest influences in the play turn out to be his managers as well as Lorna, the girlfriend of one of his managers—with whom he falls in love. While there are no direct references to Hollywood, some critics have surmised that Odets's story was an attempt to snub Hollywood in his drama, something that he did more overtly with his 1949 play, The Big Knife. Golden Boy spawned a movie and a musical, both of which combined with the play to make a lasting impression. A current copy of the play is available in Waiting for Lefty and Other Plays, published by Grove Press in 1993.
Odets was born on July 18, 1906, in Philadelphia. Odets's father, Louis, was a printer who owned his own printing plant by the time Odets was twelve. Odets's father also eventually owned a lucrative advertising agency. When Odets quit high school in 1923 to pursue poetry and then acting, his father was infuriated. However, he eventually gave his permission for Odets to try to be an actor.
During the next seven years, Odets acted in a number of roles, but was not very successful, although in 1929 he was hired as an understudy for Spencer Tracy in Warren F. Lawrence's Conflict. Another member of the play's cast introduced Odets to the Theatre Guild, which in turn led him to the Group Theatre, which he joined in 1930. As a starving artist and a witness to the effects of the Great Depression, Odets, like others, searched for a solution to the country's ills. In 1934, Odets briefly joined the American Communist Party, although he left eight months later. In 1935, Odets and the Group Theatre produced the playwright's first play, Waiting for Lefty, a fiery one-act play that detailed the horrors ordinary union workers faced. The play, which used the 1934 New York City cab strike as its setting, advocated striking and its passion quickly won over critics and audiences, which made Odets a star overnight. Following this success, Odets and the Group Theatre produced another social drama, Awake and Sing! also in 1935.
However, after his next two plays, Till the Day I Die and Paradise Lost (both produced in 1935), failed to generate the same kind of success, Odets accepted a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Although he has publicly stated that this decision was a move to make more money to support the Group Theatre, it was viewed by many as a desertion from the social cause. In fact, in his next play Golden Boy (1937), the protagonist, Joe, must decide between art and material success, and many critics cited Odets's own struggle with this issue. Following Golden Boy, Odets wrote several more plays, most of which were not successful.
Although Odets was widely regarded in his early career as the greatest American playwright since Eugene O'Neill, Odets's works rarely earned the major awards that O'Neill's did. However, Odets was awarded a New Theatre League Award and the Yale Drama Prize in 1935, both for Waiting for Lefty. In addition, he received an Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1961. Odets died on August 14, 1963, in Los Angeles.
Act 1, Scene 1
Golden Boy opens in the Broadway office of fight manager, Tom Moody. Moody fights with his girlfriend, Lorna Moon, over the fact that Moody has not yet divorced his wife and married Lorna. A boy comes in and tells Moody that his fighter, Mr. Kaplan, has broken his hand and cannot fight his opponent, the Baltimore Chocolate Drop, that night. The boy, Joe Bonaparte, offers to fight instead. Moody laughs at the idea at first, but is desperate for another boxer, and so he agrees to it.
Act 1, Scene 2
Later that night, at the Bonaparte home, Joe's father, Mr. Bonaparte, sits at the table with his Jewish friend, Mr. Carp, and his son-in-law, Siggie. Mr. Bonaparte refuses to buy Siggie a taxicab, but later shows Mr. Carp the expensive violin that he plans on giving to Joe for his twenty-first birthday the next day. Frank Bonaparte, Mr. Bonaparte's oldest son and a labor organizer, sees an article in the paper that talks about Joe's fight. Joe comes in and says that he may take a break from music to fight some more and make some real money. He is ashamed of his poverty and sees fighting as the answer to his problems. As a result, Mr. Bonaparte holds back from giving Joe his birthday present.
Act 1, Scene 3
Two months later, Moody, his partner Roxy Gottlieb, Joe's trainer, Tokio, and Lorna sit in Moody's office, discussing the fact that Joe is holding back in the ring, a situation that is killing Joe's popularity as a boxer. Lorna leaves and Mr. Bonaparte comes in, revealing the fact that Joe is afraid to hurt his hands because it will destroy his chances at a music career. The men try to appeal to Joe to give up his dream of being a musician and to embrace boxing, but Joe is unsure. Later, Moody explains the situation to Lorna, who says she will coerce Joe into fighting.
Act 1, Scene 4
A few nights later, Joe and Lorna sit on a park bench, talking. Joe is defensive of his differences, including his crossed eyes, and wishes that he could use his music to get even with the people who have made fun of him in the past. Lorna seizes on this as a way to promote the fighting lifestyle, by saying he can take out his aggressions on other people. Joe tries to analyze Lorna and talk about her affair with Moody, but she is violently opposed to his questions. Joe talks about how he really wants a fast sports car, and Lorna says that if he fights he will get the money to buy one. Joe agrees to fight.
Act 1, Scene 5
One week later, Joe and Lorna are at the Bonaparte home. While Joe packs a suitcase for his Midwest fighting tour, Lorna drinks heavily, and talks to Siggie, Anna, and Mr. Bonaparte about her hurtful past. Mr. Bonaparte asks Lorna to watch out for Joe, and to help him find his true path in life. When Joe is leaving, Mr. Bonaparte tries to give him the violin that he bought for him. Joe briefly plays the instrument, but then tells his father to return it. Joe asks his father for his blessing on his boxing career, but Mr. Bonaparte refuses and tells him to be careful for his hands.
Act 2, Scene 1
Six months later, Moody, Roxy, Lorna, and Tokio watch Joe as he trains in the gym, and note that Joe is still occasionally distracted by memories of his music. Eddie Fuseli, a renowned gambler and gangster, comes in and says he wants to help manage Joe. Moody refuses at first, until they leave it up to Joe, who agrees to let Fuseli help manage him as long as Fuseli does not interfere in his personal life as the others have. Later, Moody worries that Joe is getting too hard to manage and encourages Lorna to seduce Joe away from fast cars and his old life.
Act 2, Scene 2
A few nights later, Joe and Lorna sit in the park again. Joe confesses his love for Lorna, and encourages her to leave Moody. Lorna says that she cannot
because Moody needs her and because she feels sorry for him. When Joe keeps pushing, asking her what she gets out of the relationship, she tells him how Moody rescued her from poverty. She says that she wants peace and quiet, not love, because she has been hurt by love before. However, Joe persists, and she confesses her love for him saying that she will break off her relationship with Moody.
Act 2, Scene 3
In Moody's office the next day, Lorna is restless, and they argue. Moody tells Lorna that his wife is granting him a divorce and that he can finally marry Lorna. Moody says that he does not like the way that Joe looks at Lorna, and they argue some more. Lorna suggests that she is going to leave him, but changes her mind when she sees that her leaving would destroy Moody. Joe and Fuseli walk into the office and catch Moody and Lorna kissing. Joe argues with Moody and Fuseli threatens Moody to leave Joe alone. Joe says that Lorna loves him, but Lorna professes her love for Moody. Joe and Fuseli leave and Lorna confesses to Tom that she loves Joe.
Act 2, Scene 4
Six weeks later in the dressing room before the Lombardo fight, Mr. Bonaparte and a number of others come and go, distracting Joe. Fuseli helps to clear out the room and leaves Joe alone with Tokio, who preps Joe for the fight. Although Joe is frustrated from the visits at first, he eventually starts shadow boxing, full of energy. Joe leaves to fight Lombardo, just as Pepper White, another boxer, comes back from winning his fight. Mr. Bonaparte comes back into the dressing room and sees Pepper's deformed knuckles. He realizes that if Joe continues, his hands will be useless for anything except fighting. Joe comes in from his fight and reveals that he has broken his hand—signaling his total conversion into a fighter.
Act 3, Scene 1
Six months later Joe is in Moody's office with Moody, Roxy, Tokio and two sports writers, one of whom is turned off by Joe's cocky attitude. The other writer congratulates Moody on his engagement to Lorna, which is news to Joe. When Joe is alone, Lorna comes in and they soon start to argue. She accuses him of turning into a killer like Fuseli. Lorna leaves and Fuseli comes in. The two are dressed almost alike, another sign that Joe has succumbed to a materialistic lifestyle. Joe tries to leave his boxing career, but changes his mind when Fuseli threatens him.
Act 3, Scene 2
The next day, Lorna waits in Joe's dressing room while he is fighting the Chocolate Drop. Fuseli comes in and tells her to leave town, since she is distracting Joe. Joe comes in from his fight and stops Fuseli from drawing his gun on Lorna. Joe soon finds out that his win against the Chocolate Drop has killed the boxer. Although Joe's management focuses on the fact that it was a clean fight and Joe does not have to worry about being prosecuted, Joe is horrified that he has killed a man. Lorna decides to leave Moody. She and Joe flee the city in his sports car.
Act 3, Scene 3
At the Bonaparte home, Fuseli, Moody, Roxy, and Joe's family wait for Joe to arrive, while Joe's management celebrates Joe's win. They are not sympathetic to the death of the boxer, but are stunned when they find out from a phone call that their prized possession, Joe, has died in a car crash. Moody is especially distraught over the loss of Lorna. The play ends with Mr. Bonaparte preparing to go claim Joe's body and bring it home.
Anna is Joe's sister and Siggie's wife. Anna's marriage is filled with love and devotion, and she and her husband frequently get into spirited fights. Anna plays the maternal role for Joe, in place of their deceased mother. When Joe is leaving for his first fighting tour, Anna helps him pack and instructs him on what types of clothes he needs to buy in the city.
Barker is the manager of the Baltimore Chocolate Drop and is distraught when Joe kills his boxer.
Frank Bonaparte is Joe's older brother and a labor union representative for the Congress of Industrial Organizations. His role in fighting for what he believes in sharply contrasts with Joe's choice to fight for money.
Joe Bonaparte, known only as "Boy" in the first part of the first scene, is a talented violinist, who trades his musical dream for the chance to pursue a life of fame and fortune in boxing. In the beginning the fight promoter, Moody, loses his best fighter, Kaplan, on the day of a fight when Kaplan breaks his hand on Joe's elbow. Joe lobbies to take Kaplan's place, and is proud when he is not knocked out, although his family, particularly his father, is distraught when Joe says he is considering a fighting career. Joe continues to box, but he is torn between the violin and boxing, a fact that is evident in the ring—where he is noticeably pulling his punches to protect his hands. When Joe's father reveals this fact to Joe's managers, Moody and Roxy, and his trainer, Tokio, the three try to manipulate Joe into giving up his dreams of music. When this fails, Moody sends his girlfriend, Lorna Moon, to try to seduce Joe away from his old life. Joe, smitten with Lorna and craving the rich lifestyle of a boxer, reluctantly agrees. He rapidly improves his fighting technique, to the delight of his managers and the horror of his father.
However, since Joe alienates his family, he rarely sees his father. When he does see him, Mr. Bonaparte is a constant reminder of Joe's old life. Because of this, Eddie Fuseli, a gambler, gangster, and one of Joe's new managers, tells Mr. Bonaparte to leave Joe's dressing room before a fight. Nevertheless, when Joe breaks his hand during a fight, a sign that he is now committed to his boxing career, Mr. Bonaparte is there to see it. Joe's immersion into the world of boxing is swift after this, and it is not long before he has exchanged his shy, sensitive personality for a cocky attitude and a murderous hate. This hate is fueled both by his childhood— where he was picked on a lot for his flamboyant name and crossed eyes—and by his scorned love for Lorna Moon. Joe spends money on materialistic possessions like a sports car, and begins to dress like Fuseli. When he tries to leave the boxing life, Fuseli threatens him. However, after Joe accidentally kills the Baltimore Chocolate Drop in the ring, he realizes that he is not the man he used to be. Lorna, engaged to Moody but now claiming her love for Joe, says they can start life fresh, and she and Joe speed away into the night in his sports car. Both are killed in a car accident.
Mr. Bonaparte is Joe's Italian father, whom Joe alienates when he starts to get famous because of his boxing career. Mr. Bonaparte is a cheery old man who is hard to upset. He lives his life by values learned in his native Italy, which stress integrity and following one's nature. His distinctive Italian accent is a constant reminder of his origins. He believes that Joe is meant to be a great violinist, and encourages his son to follow this path. When the play starts, Mr. Bonaparte refuses to buy his son-inlaw a taxicab, but gladly spends twelve hundred dollars, on a new violin for Joe's birthday. When Mr. Bonaparte finds out that Joe is thinking of leaving his music career to fight, he holds off on giving Joe his present, although he eventually does. Joe, after playing the violin briefly, makes his decision to fight and gives the violin back to his father.
- Golden Boy was adapted as a film in 1939 by Columbia Pictures. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the film features William Holden as Joe Bonaparte and Barbara Stanwyck as Lorna Moon. It is available on video from Columbia Tristar Home Video.
- In 1964, Golden Boy was adapted as a Broadway musical, and ran for more than five hundred performances. The musical was produced by Hillard Elkins and starred Sammy Davis Jr.—an African-American actor—in the role of Joe Bonaparte, a racial change in Joe's character that altered the plot line of the original play significantly. The musical version of the play addressed several racial issues, including interracial relationships. In addition, the production featured one of the first racially integrated casts on Broadway and an African-American music conductor—George Rhodes. The book of the musical was written by Odets and William Gibson and was published by Samuel French in 1965, although it is currently out of print. The music was composed by Charles Strouse with lyrics by Lee Adams. An original cast recording was released on compact disc in 1999, and is available from Razor & Tie.
Joe's actions upset the normally unflappable Mr. Bonaparte, who refuses to give Joe his blessing to fight. Mr. Bonaparte asks Lorna Moon to watch out for Joe, and to give him an update on whether Joe is planning on giving up music totally. As Joe progresses in his boxing career, he alienates his entire family, including his father, who eventually comes to see one of Joe's boxing matches. He sadly gives Joe his blessing to fight. When Mr. Bonaparte sees the broken and deformed knuckles of another boxer in the dressing room, he realizes that if Joe's hands get hurt, he will never be able to go back to his music career. Shortly after that, Joe breaks a hand. When Joe kills the Baltimore Chocolate Drop, he is worried what his father will think. Although his father is sad for the dead boxer, he is even more distraught when he finds out Joe has died in a car accident. However, he pulls himself together to go claim his son's dead body and bring it home.
See Joe Bonaparte
Mr. Carp is Mr. Bonaparte's pessimistic friend, who often backs up his gloomy statements with quotes from the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Mr. Carp thinks all professional sports are pointless. His pessimism is sharply contrasted with Mr. Bonaparte's optimism. Joe gets some of his education by reading Mr. Carp's encyclopedia.
Drake is one of two sports writers whom Moody has Joe talk to the night before his fight with the Chocolate Drop. Unlike Lewis, the other sports writer, Drake is disgusted by Joe's cockiness.
Driscoll is the person who comes into the dressing room to examine Joe's gloves for tampering, after Joe kills the Chocolate Drop in his second fight with the boxer.
Eddie Fuseli is a notorious, homosexual Italian gangster, who is heavily involved in gambling, and who buys a piece of Joe's management. Although Joe's other managers, Tom Moody and Roxy Gottlieb, do not want to sell any of their share to Fuseli, they are intimidated by his violent reputation. Also, when Fuseli says to leave it up to Joe to decide who is going to manage him, Joe is indifferent, and Fuseli takes this as his cue to force his way into the partnership. When Fuseli first introduces himself to Joe, he invokes their shared Italian heritage and says that he wants to see Joe with the championship title. He says that he does not care about money, and just wants to help Joe out, which he can do with his good connections. However, the day before Joe is getting ready to fight the Chocolate Drop, Joe expresses his desire to leave the boxing life. At this point, Fuseli loses his tender demeanor with Joe and threatens him, saying that he owes a lot to Fuseli. In addition, in the same conversation, Joe watches as Fuseli calmly places thousands of dollars worth of bets on Joe, through different bookies, thus proving his desire for monetary gain. At this point, although Joe is having thoughts about leaving the boxing business, he has become too much a part of the materialistic side of it, to the point where he has started dressing like Fuseli. The gangster displays his violent side on several occasions, most notably when anybody tries to disrupt Joe's concentration before a fight.
Roxy Gottlieb is one of the partners who manages Joe. In the beginning, Roxy, like Moody and the others, does not believe that Joe will ever be a great fighter, but they are desperate and take Joe on anyway. When Moody, Roxy, and Tokio are trying to discreetly persuade Joe into giving up music for boxing, Roxy is the one who gives away the fact that they are trying to manipulate Joe. Although Roxy likes the money that Joe is bringing in, he along with Moody, is very disparaging about Joe whenever Joe does not do what they want. He is worried that Joe's purchase of a fast car is a dangerous risk, and this proves to be right when Joe dies in a car accident at the end of the play.
Lewis is one of two sports writers whom Moody has Joe talk to the night before his fight with the Chocolate Drop, and is one of the few who admires Joe's cockiness. Lewis is also the one who mentions Moody's upcoming wedding to Lorna, which is news to Joe.
Mickey is Pepper White's manager, who tries to discourage Pepper from pursuing his affair with a married woman.
Tom Moody is Joe's initial fight manager and the fiancé of Lorna Moon. Moody is a man in his forties who used to manage all of the great professional boxers. He is distraught when he hears from Joe the day of a fight that Moody's best boxer, Kaplan, has broken his hand while training with Joe. Moody is even more disturbed when Joe pressures him to let Joe fight in Kaplan's place, but is happy when Joe is not knocked out. However, after several fights, Moody realizes that Joe is holding back in the ring by pulling his punches. When Joe's father tells Moody that it is because Joe is a violinist and is afraid of hurting his hands, Moody is happy again, thinking that he can manipulate Joe into giving up his dream of being a musician. Like the other managers, Moody sees Joe as an object to be obtained and used. To this end, he instructs his girlfriend, Lorna Moon, to seduce Joe away from his old life and into the boxing life. This works, and Joe steadily devotes himself to boxing, in the process developing a cocky attitude. This does not sit well with Moody, who starts to wish Joe would lose a fight, even though it would cut into Moody's profits. At the same time, Moody is forced to give up some of his profits when Eddie Fuseli, a gambler and gangster, coerces Moody into selling a share of Joe's management.
Lorna's seductions work all too well on Joe, who falls in love with her. Although Lorna feels the same about Joe and says that she will tell Moody she is leaving him, she cannot do it at first. Moody is a desperate man and tells Lorna that he would be lost without her. Lorna is struck by this vulnerability and renounces her intention to leave Moody, although she later tells Moody that she loves Joe. Lorna's inability to leave Moody enrages Joe, and the love triangle creates much animosity between Joe and Moody. At one point, Moody is so sick of Joe that he offers to sell his entire management portion to Fuseli, although he does not end up doing this. The fight with the Baltimore Chocolate Drop is the night before Moody's planned wedding to Lorna, who dies with Joe in a car accident.
Lorna Moon is Tom Moody's fiancée, although she is in love with Joe. When Joe first introduces himself to Moody and tries to get Moody to let him fight for him, Lorna encourages Joe to keep pressuring Moody. Although Lorna is very perceptive, Moody and his partners are very chauvinistic to her, often kicking her out of the office when she tries to give her opinion. However, once Moody realizes that Joe is struggling with his decision to give up the violin, Moody appeals to Lorna to use her feminine charms to seduce Joe away from his home life and musical dreams. Although Lorna starts out trying to do just this, she eventually falls in love with Joe. However, when she sees what her leaving would do to Moody, she fails to acknowledge her love for Joe, a fact that inspires hate in Joe, which he uses to win in the boxing ring. Lorna has come from a bad home life, where her father beat her mother repeatedly and her mother committed suicide. As a result, Lorna drinks heavily on many occasions. When she meets Moody, he helps pull her out of poverty, a fact that influences her decision to scorn Joe and stay with Moody.
However, Lorna is torn by her decision, and confesses her love for Joe to Moody, after Joe is not around to hear it. This fact does not impede Moody's engagement to Lorna, an event that further enrages Joe. From this point on, most conversations between Joe and Lorna are heated, and Lorna is the one who tells Joe that he is turning into a killer, which turns out to be a prophetic line when Joe kills the Chocolate Drop. Fuseli sees the effect that Lorna is having on Joe and tries to keep her away from him. In the end, however, Lorna is the only one who understands the pain that Joe is going through after killing a man. They leave together in Joe's car and drive into the night, intending to leave their respective lives behind. However, Lorna and Joe are killed in a car accident in the process.
Siggie is Joe's brother-in-law and Anna's husband. Although he pleads with his father-in-law, Mr. Bonaparte, to buy him a taxicab, Mr. Bonaparte will not. Siggie is frustrated because he wants to open his own taxicab business instead of driving a cab for a company, where he will never make enough money to get ahead in life. He has a passionate relationship with his wife Anna, and the two although sometimes combative, are very loving.
Tokio is Joe's trainer, and is one of the few people outside of Joe's family who shows genuine concern for Joe's feelings. When Moody and Roxy are trying to get down on Joe for pulling his punches, Tokio defends Joe, saying that he is developing into a great boxer. Tokio uses soothing language in the dressing room to calm Joe down, and is generally the most relaxed out of all of the men involved in the handling of Joe. As such, Joe claims that Tokio is one of the only people who understands him.
Pepper White is a boxer who tries to pick a fight with Joe in their shared dressing room. Pepper is eight years older than Joe—old for a boxer—and is not very smart. This fact is evidenced by the argument that erupts with his manager when he thinks the twelve hundred dollars the manager has promised him is lower than the thousand dollars he usually collects for a fight. Pepper shows Mr. Bonaparte his busted knuckles, and Mr. Bonaparte realizes that if Joe continues boxing, his hands will be useless for music. Pepper is having an affair with a married woman.
The Arts versus Materialism
When the play starts out, Joe is a talented musician whose dream is to play beautiful violin music. To this end, Joe's father, Mr. Bonaparte, secretly buys a very expensive violin for his son's birthday. Mr. Bonaparte's friend, Mr. Carp, plays the pessimist asking: "could a boy make a living playing this instrument in our competitive civilization today?" Mr. Bonaparte's response illustrates the idea that art and financial success do not always go hand in hand: "Don't expect for Joe to be a millionaire. He don't need it, to be millionaire." However, Joe has other plans. When he announces to his family that he is going to fight, he says it is for money: "I'm good—I went out to earn some money and I earned! I had a professional fight tonight— maybe I'll have some more." But the decision is not this easy for Joe. Although he does become a boxer, he holds back during his first several fights, afraid to hurt his hands and forever lose music as a possible career. When Mr. Bonaparte goes to visit Joe's managers to find out how he is doing, Roxy tells him of their intentions: "We want to make your boy famous—a millionaire, but he won't let us—won't cooperate." This phrase, "a millionaire," echoes Mr. Bonaparte's earlier comment to Mr. Carp.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- The Great Depression is the most devastating economic collapse that has hit the United States thus far, although the current downturn has been compared to it in some ways. Research the various economic theories that attempt to explain both the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the recent stock market drop that helped lead the country into recession. Explain either the similarities or the differences between the two economic collapses, using your research and any necessary visuals such as charts and graphs to support your claims.
- Research the history of unions, and identify the very first independent labor union that was formed in America. Write a biography about one of the people who helped to start this union, and describe this union's initial mission statement or goals.
- Research the life of Joe Louis, the famous boxer from the 1930s. Compare Louis's life story with the life story of Joe Bonaparte in the story. Using examples from the story and from Louis's life, explain how Odets might have used Louis as a model for Bonaparte.
- As part of the New Deal, President Roosevelt helped find or create work for actors, musicians, writers, and other artists, each of which had a separate program devoted to their needs. Research these programs, and pick one that interests you. List the artists and works that came out of this movement, and discuss how they either did or did not make a lasting impression on the arts and on society.
- In the play, Joe demonstrates a talent for both boxing and music, which some critics say is unrealistic. Find a famous athlete from history who possessed both an athletic and an artistic skill. Discuss how this person used both of his or her skills.
Once the managers find out from Mr. Bonaparte that Joe is afraid to break his hands for fear of not playing the violin again, they step up pressure on him and Lorna tries to talk Joe into fighting. Joe, seduced in part by the idea of fast cars and other material possessions, decides to fight. However, when Joe asks his father for his blessing to fight, Mr. Bonaparte does not give it and says "Be careful fora your hands!" Yet in the end, Joe's hands are injured. In the fourth scene of the second act, Joe is in the dressing room with his father after a fight. "Better cut it off," Joe tells his trainer, indicating that his hand is broken. Joe is proud of his broken hand, which signals his total conversion into the fighting life, and says, "Hallelujah!! It's the beginning of the world!" With a broken hand, Joe will no longer have the dexterity in his fingers necessary to play the violin.
Although Joe accepts this fact with glee, later he regrets his decision. He tries to leave the boxing world before his last fight, but Fuseli stops him with a threat. However, after he kills the Baltimore Chocolate Drop in the ring, Joe realizes that he has strayed far from his original artistic intentions. In the dressing room after the fight, Joe tells Lorna: "Lorna, I see what I did. I murdered myself, too!" Although Lorna suggests that he give up the fighting business and "go back to your music," Joe is distraught: "But my hands are ruined. I'll never play again!" Lorna and Joe try to escape in his fast car, but the car, a symbol of the materialism that killed the artistic boy inside him, now literally kills Joe and Lorna when they get in a car accident. There is no going back on Joe's decision to abandon his music career.
The play is saturated with violence. In addition to the obvious references during the preparation for the boxing matches, and the deaths of both Joe and the Chocolate Drop, Odets includes several other episodes of violence. In the third scene of the first act, Roxy notes that Joe has been pulling his punches in the ring, and that the crowd does not like him as a result. Says Roxy: "He's a clever boy, that Bonaparte, and speedy—but he's first-class lousy in the shipping department!" The crowd likes to see brutality, not technique or fancy footwork, and when Joe does not deliver this to them, they do not like him. However, later in the play, after Joe has transformed himself into a brutal boxer, the stage directions note during his fight that "The roar of THE CROWD mounts up and calls for a kill."
In addition to the boxing crowds, violence is expressed in other ways. Siggie and his wife, Anna, beat each other; Frank, Joe's brother, gets injured in a labor strike; and Fuseli, a notorious gangster, threatens violence often, as when he warns Moody not to pick on Joe: "It would be funny if your arms got broke." Later in the play, Joe tells Fuseli that "You use me like a gun!" another reference to Fuseli's violent tendencies. When Fuseli thinks Lorna is distracting Joe and making him lose a fight, he tries to kick her out of Joe's dressing room. When she does not move quick enough, the stage directions note the following: "Completely enraged and out of control, EDDIE half brings his gun out from under his left armpit." If Joe had not stopped him, he might have killed Lorna.
Besides money and possessions, Joe also chooses to fight out of shame. He is ashamed about being poor, but his shame goes deeper than that. Joe is cross-eyed, a fact that he is embarrassed about and one which other characters mention constantly. When Moody does not want to let Joe fight in the beginning, he says: "You're brash, you're fresh, you're callow—and you're cock-eyed! In fact, you're an insult to my whole nature!" When Moody later laughs at Joe because of his eyes, Joe tells him "I don't like it…. I don't want you to do it," and grabs Moody as if he is going to hit him. Joe's cross-eyed condition is immediately plastered in the headlines of the newspapers after his fight, as Frank notes: "Flash: Chocolate Drop fails to K.O. new cock-eyed wonder." This undue attention to Joe's eyes has plagued him since he was a kid, as he notes to Lorna: "People have hurt my feelings for years. I never forget." Joe's eyes are not the only thing that have made him feel ashamed over the years. As he notes to Lorna, "Even my name was special— Bonaparte." This flamboyant name plagues Joe, because it reminds people of the famous French dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. Several people make fun of this name including Drake, one of the newspaper reporters, who says: "Bonaparte, I'll watch for Waterloo with more than interest!" a reference to the famous battle that Napoleon lost.
Odets earned his fame through the social dramas of his early career which openly advocated that the masses fight for their rights by participating in strikes or other protests. Although later plays like Golden Boy are not as overt in their references, some critics still consider these plays social dramas, in part because they share the same spirit as the earlier plays. For example, in Golden Boy, Joe is afraid of poverty, a common social problem during the 1930s, the depression years when the play takes place. When Joe is explaining his reasons for wanting to fight, he tells his father: "Do you think I like this feeling of no possessions?" Joe sees boxing as a much more promising way to get out of the poverty in which he and his family live, and as a result is willing to sacrifice his dream of music. This tragic decision underscores the plight of the working class, which often has no choice but to follow money and not dreams.
The play has other references to social issues, such as the problems between labor unions and industry management. Frank, Joe's brother, is an organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), who must leave often to help settle disputes between striking workers and their management. As Frank notes when he is first introduced, "There's hell down there in tex-tiles," referring to a strike that is happening in a textile company in the South. In the last scene of the play, the stage directions note that Frank sits with "a bandage around his head. "Later in the scene, after Fuseli mentions it, Siggie, Frank's brother-in-law, tells Fuseli that "They gave it to him in a strike." The "They" is most likely referring to hired thugs, police, or the National Guard, all groups that were called in to break up strikes, with violence, if necessary. Odets's use of these images and dialogue is a clear indication that he is trying to send a social message about the labor problems in his time.
Critics have often commented on Odets's command of language. In most of his plays, characters speak in realistic, distinct ways. This play is no different. The most distinctive use of language is the Italian accent and halted speech of Joe's father, Mr. Bonaparte. From the moment Joe's father is introduced, the stage directions indicate that he "talks with an Italian accent." In addition to this, his speech is often shortened from that used in normal English, such as when he says, "I don't go in taxicab business." Normally, somebody speaking English would say, "I don't want to go into the taxicab business." Mr. Bonaparte also tends to add extra letters onto some of his words, and uses word constructions in different ways. For example, in another example from the same scene, Mr. Bonaparte says "I don't expects for Joe to drive taxi." Once again, the extra "s" on the end of the word "expect," coupled with the use of the word, "for," in an awkward way, gives Joe's father a distinctive, foreign style of speech, even without the accent. While others in the play outside of Joe's family make fun of Mr. Bonaparte's speech, his language is important. It serves as a vivid reminder of the old world values of Italy, which contrast sharply with the capitalistic values of America. In addition to Mr. Bonaparte, Odets manipulates language in other ways, such as the gangster-style street talk of Fuseli.
In the play, Odets makes use of some very overt foreshadowing techniques which plant clues that tip the reader off to what may happen in the future. The foreshadowing shows up most clearly in two deaths— Joe and the Baltimore Chocolate Drop. In the very first scene, Moody talks to Lorna about "Cy Webster who got himself killed in a big, red Stutz." The reference to the dead boxer on its own may not let the reader know that Joe is going to die, but it is backed up by several other references. In the fourth scene of the first act, Joe goes on at length to Lorna about how he wants a fast car, saying that: "Those cars are poison in my blood," and "Gee, I like to stroke that gas!" In addition to this, there are several other references to fast cars, speeding, and the danger that is involved, most of which are said by Joe's managers. Says Moody: "But you and your speeding worries me!" As a result of these and other references, Joe's death by an automobile accident in his fast car should come as no surprise since the thought of that ending has been built up in the reader's mind from the beginning of the play.
The other major death in the play, the death of the Chocolate Drop in the boxing ring, is also foreshadowed, although not as overtly as Joe's death. The play itself builds on its violence, getting increasingly more brutal as it goes on. This is an indication that the ultimate example of violence, killing, may be coming. However, Fuseli also offers a direct reference to murder in the fourth scene of the second act, when he tells Joe to: "Go out there and kill Lombardo! Send him out to Woodlawn! Tear his skull off!" These references to death and burial foreshadow the eventual death of the Chocolate Drop, whom Joe kills at the end of the play.
The Great Depression
Although the exact causes of the Great Depression are still debated, most historians agree that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 helped to usher in this huge economic downturn. However, as the country began to sink financially, President Herbert Hoover, along with many others, thought that the crisis was temporary. Unfortunately, the situation only got worse. This fact, coupled with Hoover's unyielding stance in not providing federal public aid to individuals, meant that an increasing number of individuals and families were losing their jobs. Starvation became a real issue, and crowds of men would gather around the backs of restaurants, fighting over food scraps in the garbage. The suicide rate steadily rose, and millions of families left their homes to try to find work. In many cases these migrant families would set up shelters on vacant lots in other cities and towns; groups of these shelters came to be known as Hoovervilles.
Boxing in the 1930s
Many people sought relief from the horrors of everyday life in the depression through escapist activities like going to the movies or sporting events, when they could afford them. In such depressed times, sports franchises had to come up with increasingly more sensational events to get people to watch their matches. This was especially true with boxing which at the time was second in popularity only to baseball. In 1935, Joe Louis, a young African-American boxer who had stormed through the amateur ranks, signed a large contract—signaling a new era of wealth for boxers. Louis energized the professional boxing scene as he fought his way to become the world heavyweight champion in 1937. Louis, also known as the Brown Bomber, had real crowd appeal, and his fights helped to sell many tickets. In 1938, in a symbolic match against Max Schmeling of Germany—a member of the Nazi Party—Louis won in front of eighty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1930s: The Great Depression begins shortly after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and continues throughout the 1930s, shattering the financial lives of many Americans.
Today: America is experiencing a recession, which many believe is caused by the crashing of overinflated stocks, mainly in Internet-related businesses. Many Americans lose their retirement or other savings after their investments in these stocks are lost or depleted.
- 1930s: Roosevelt's New Deal programs are meant as a temporary means of assistance to get American citizens back on their feet. While Roosevelt believes in helping individuals through federal aid, he places his focus on aid that keeps people working, so that people can regain their self-sufficiency.
Today: Welfare programs, one of the legacies of the New Deal, have largely been abandoned. Many people who have come to depend on welfare benefits are forced to enter the workforce.
- 1930s: During the Depression years, many people try to temporarily forget the miseries of their daily reality by attending movies, sporting events, and other forms of escapist entertainment.
Today: Reality television shows like CBS's phenomenally successful Survivor, spawn a huge revolution in television programming.
Roosevelt and the New Deal
While people tried to escape their problems through movies and sporting events, however, the nation's economy continued to plummet. By 1933, the country was faced with an unusually high unemployment rate of nearly twenty-five percent. On March 4, 1933, with the inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American people had new hope. Roosevelt, who had campaigned and won on the promise to help build America's economy and get people jobs, had a big job to do, and he wasted no time. In his first three months of office, dubbed the Hundred Days by the newspapers, Roosevelt worked with Congress to pass an unprecedented amount of legislation. This legislation was designed to help shore up and rebuild the nation's weakened economy and work force. The wealth of programs that resulted from this legislation was collectively known as the New Deal.
Roosevelt and the Labor Issue
One of the areas that Roosevelt had a particular interest in was labor, and several of his early legislative acts addressed the problems of both putting people to work and making sure they were treated fairly. Through the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), Roosevelt guaranteed collective bargaining for employees, which led to the establishment of unions in many industries. Although unions had been around in the past, they were often controlled by business and therefore not always committed to representing workers' rights. As part of the NIRA, Roosevelt established the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which tried to stabilize prices and wages. However, in 1935 the NIRA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the NRA was disbanded. When this happened, the NRA safeguards, particularly minimum wages and maximum hours for workers, were largely ignored by businesses once again.
These two issues, wages and hours, took center stage in the labor movement in the 1930s. Labor unions, which had been steadily increasing in political and bargaining power throughout the decade, began to clash more frequently with industry. Many new union members were recent immigrants, who had already seen discrimination both in their workplace and in society, so they were primed for a fight. However, the unions themselves were experiencing some division. In 1934 and 1935, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a controlling body for many of the older unions—which were organized by skill or craft—was forced to recognize many of the newer unions—which were organized by industry or workplace. As a result, the AFL set up the Committee for Industrial Organization to address the needs of these industry workers. However, the Committee chose to split off on its own and form a new organization, eventually known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the play, Joe's brother, Frank, is a union organizer for the CIO.
Still, despite this division between AFL and CIO, the major conflict was between the unions and industry management. In the mid-1930s, this conflict often took the form of strikes, where workers would refuse to work until their demands were met. These workers would often march around the outside of their company, holding up picket signs. A common retaliation from the company was to hire temporary replacement workers, known as scabs, to help keep the company running. As a result, the most effective strike was the sit-down strike, in which workers would take over a company and barricade themselves inside, preventing scabs from coming in to replace them. Although these strikes— ultimately ruled unconstitutional—often led to violence between the strikers, industry management, hired thugs, police, and even the National Guard, they were extremely effective at getting management to settle contracts. In 1938, as part of the second wave of reform programs known as the Second New Deal, Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established federal guidelines for the two hot issues—minimum wages and maximum hours.
The Onset of World War II
Debate still rages today on how much Roosevelt's sweeping reforms actually helped to end the depression. Most historians agree that, while these programs did help put some people back to work and shore up the economy—as well as establish many important agencies—it was the onset of World War II in Europe in 1939 that caused the economy to boom once again. As the massive wartime production effort swept through America, many of the unemployed found jobs once again, and the Great Depression was over.
Odets's earliest politically charged plays like Waiting for Lefty (1935) and Awake and Sing! (1935), performed by the now famous Group Theatre, propelled Odets to overnight stardom. These two plays were well received by most critics for the gritty portrayal of what life was like for Americans during the Great Depression. In fact, many critics had high hopes for Odets's career as a social playwright.
Golden Boy signaled the start of the next phase of Odets's career, where he wrote plays that focused less on social criticism and more on psychology and personal relationships. Michael J. Mendelsohn, in his 1969 book, Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist, notes this change, stating that: "In thus directing attention toward his central character, Odets considerably narrows his earlier focus." Golden Boy received mixed reviews from the critics when it
debuted on Broadway in 1937. In his 1937 review in the Nation, critic Joseph Wood Krutch notes that: "There are moments when 'Golden Boy' seems near to greatness; there are others when it trembles on the edge of merely strident melodrama." Likewise, in her 1938 review in Theatre Arts Monthly, Edith J. R. Isaacs notes of Odets that: "He has, moreover, that gift of rhythmic speech which is the mark of the more-than-one play author," but says further that this is a gift that "Odets has not yet quite under control."
Much of the criticism of the play centered around Odets's personal life. Golden Boy was the first play that Odets wrote after returning from a Hollywood screenwriting job. Critics made much of Odets's decision to leave the New York theatre scene for Hollywood, which many saw as going against his earlier stance of protesting large, corporate organizations such as movie studios. However, Odets's move was financial, not political. He hoped to be able to support the Group Theatre—the independent theatre company that had produced his earlier plays—through his Hollywood salary. In fact, in "How a Playwright Triumphs," a 1966 Harper's Magazine article by Odets that was adapted from a 1961 interview, the playwright notes that this was particularly the case for Golden Boy, a fact that disturbed Odets. Says the playwright: "it seemed to me to be really immoral to write a play for money."
Because of this, critics have associated the main theme of Golden Boy—the struggle to choose between art and materialism—with Odets's own struggles as an artist. In 1963, Catharine Hughes notes in her Commonweal article that, "As much as the Joe Bonaparte of that play, he was constantly seeking to reconcile two worlds." And in 1970, Allan Lewis writes in his American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre: "Odets seemed troubled by success and his desertion of a cause. Golden Boy is his own story, raising the question of whether art and commerce mix."
Some critics even posed the idea that Odets's play, while on the surface a play about a young man's choice between music and boxing, was really an indictment of Hollywood. Says Gerald Peary in his article for the Winter 1986/1987 issue of Sight and Sound: "In Golden Boy, Odets, the insider, thumbed his nose at Hollywood." Peary says that Odets expected his readers to recognize Bonaparte's meteoric rise to the top as the structure of a formulaic Hollywood movie, but notes that the play had a twist. Says Peary: "Odets mocked Hollywood with the downbeat off-screen deaths of Joe and Lorna, as intentionally unmotivated as the most tacked-on studio ending." In his 1962 book, Clifford Odets, R. Baird Shuman, like many critics, notes that "the author's Hollywood experience shows itself in the pat plot and characterization of the play." Shuman also notes that many critics have questioned the very premise of the story, asking "whether it is believable that a man with the sensitive hands of a violinist, could, in reality, become a successful boxer."
Still, most critics had at least some good things to say about the work, which became Odets's biggest commercial success. In its first run, Golden Boy played for 250 performances. In addition, Odets sold the movie rights for the play to Hollywood for $75,000, a move that allowed him to continue to provide financial support to the Group Theatre, at least for a time. However, while revivals of the play have been popular with audiences, critics have continued to offer mixed criticism, and many have focused on Odets's earliest plays, labeling them as propaganda pieces. As William W. Demastes notes in the entry on Odets in his 1995 book, American Playwrights, 1880–1945: A Research and Production Sourcebook, the challenge is to look past this: "Current Odets scholarship needs to continue directing itself to seeing Odets as more than a fire-brand of the 1930s." There is some evidence that, in recent years, critics have followed Demastes's advice, and Odets has once again been praised as an important playwright.
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses Odets's use of violence and speed to set the stage for Joe's fateful end in Golden Boy.
In Odets's Golden Boy, Joe Bonaparte is a musician who decides to abandon his dream of music for fame and fortune in boxing. Even though Joe transforms himself into a killer, literally beating a man to death in the boxing ring, the sensitive, musical side of Joe cannot live with this fact. In the end, Joe's newfound lifestyle of speed and violence leads to his death as he tries to escape his life in the boxing business in a fast car and crashes as a result.
Odets's play is built to reflect and inspire this violent and speedy end to Joe's life. In fact, speed and violence act as twin turbines in the play. Once Joe has chosen to try the boxing life, these two forces propel him toward his fateful end. The play's structure itself reveals the emphasis on speed in the work. The play consists of twelve scenes total, with five in the first act, four in the second act, and three in the third act. With this decreasing number of scenes in the play, the pace of Golden Boy gets faster from act to act. The speed of the play is helped even further by the use of fade-outs, a type of transition between scenes or acts that works by fading the light until it is dark, as opposed to lowering the stage's curtain. The fade-out is a cinematic convention that creates a quicker transition between scenes or acts. Though the action only fades out for a short period of time, many of the scenes in the play jump forward in time by weeks or months when the light comes back on. This dizzying rush of time helps give the play its urgent quality.
Even Joe's decision to become a boxer is a quick one. Although he has been learning how to fight "These past two years, all over the city—in the gyms," Joe makes the decision to fight in Kaplan's place very quickly. When Kaplan is out with "a busted mitt" from hitting Joe's elbow, Joe immediately comes to see Moody. Both Joe and his family note the speed of this change. Says Joe, "Tomorrow's my birthday! I change my life!" Mr. Bonaparte, who is not used to moving this fast asks Joe: "Justa like that?" And his brother, Frank, asks him, "And what do you do with music?" Joe has trained his whole life to be a musician, so this drastic change appears sudden to his family.
From this point on, Joe's life is lived at break-neck speed. His decisions come fast and furious and the changes in Joe's character are equally quick. As the reader learns from the scene 3, which is two months later, Joe is having a problem with pulling his punches because he is afraid of hurting his hands. Because of this, Moody, Roxy, and Tokio try to convince him to give up the idea of being a musician and focus on boxing. When this does not work, Lorna says she will try, and has a long talk with Joe in the park. Although Joe is reluctant at first, he feels trapped by his desire for speed, the type created by large sports cars. He decides to give up his music career in part because "Those cars are poison in my blood." Says Joe, "When you sit in a car and speed you're looking down at the world. Speed, speed, everything is speed."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- In Golden Boy, Joe gives up his dreams of music to enter the brutal world of boxing. Today, violence in boxing sometimes extends outside the ring, as in the case of former heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson, now an ex-convict. In Blood Season: Mike Tyson and the World of Boxing (1996), Phil Berger, a former boxing correspondent for the New York Times, uses Tyson's violent story to examine the current state of boxing. Berger's book gives a candid look at the boxers, promoters, and businessmen who help the business thrive today.
- Following the recent reforms in the welfare system, millions were forced to get unskilled jobs. In an experiment to see whether or not women could survive on these low wages, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich left her middle-class life and put herself in their place. Her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, chronicles her attempts to get different lowpaying jobs, find places to live, and above all, survive.
- In William Golding's Lord of the Flies, originally published in 1954, a group of schoolboys stranded on a deserted island during World War II are forced to survive on their own, without the aid of adults or the conveniences of civilization. In the process, many of the boys revert back to their primal instincts, with violent and murderous consequences.
- In Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, originally published in 1959, an African-American family in urban Chicago struggles to pull itself out of poverty. Conflicts arise—from the family and from society—when the family makes plans to use the leftover money from their dead father's insurance policy to buy a house in a white suburb. Hansberry was the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway.
- Odets used the events of the 1934 New York City cab strike to stage his one-act play Waiting for Lefty (1935). In the play, the taxi drivers' union gathers in a meeting hall to discuss whether or not to strike, in the process sharing their stories of desperate poverty. A fast-moving play, it is also considered by many critics to be Odets's most angry production.
- In Odets's play The Big Knife (1949), Charlie Castle, a movie actor, desperately attempts to leave the corruption of Hollywood for his former life in the New York theater. However, Castle is a part of the Hollywood system, and he finds that it is not always easy to leave.
- Mr. Bonaparte's friend, Mr. Carp, is a pessimist who frequently quotes the ideas of German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer. Many of the philosopher's key ideas are contained in his two-volume collection, The World as Will and Idea, first published in Germany in 1819.
- In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), a depression-era family, the Joads, struggle to maintain their dignity in spite of crushing and desperate poverty. Although the Joads leave their home in the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to go to California, where they are told that life is better, their situation only gets worse. Steinbeck's novel of social protest captures the despair that many families in America felt during the Great Depression.
- First published in 1970, Studs Terkel's Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression chronicles the 1930s through the eyes of the people who lived it. Over the span of three decades, Terkel interviewed a wide cross-section of America to gather the firsthand accounts of the depression for his book. Interviewees include the young and old, politicians, gangsters, and sharecroppers.
Following his decision to not pull his punches, Joe's life speeds up considerably in the second act. He goes on a road trip to gain some necessary fighting experience, gets hooked up with a third person to manage him (Fuseli), pledges his love to Lorna and then is cruelly turned down by Lorna in front of Moody. Each successive event alienates Joe a little more from his true nature (and his family), and speeds up the play. The third act is even quicker as the play builds to its climax.
Violence also plays a huge role in the play. The play starts on a violent note, as Moody and Lorna are in the middle of an argument in Moody's office. The first line of the play is an exclamation from Moody: "Pack up your clothes and go! Go! Who the hell's stopping you?" From this first line, the audience can tell they are in for a heated scene, and the argumentative dialogue that follows quickly draws the audience into the play. While Lorna says, "I feel like a tramp and I don't like it," referring to the fact that she wants Moody to leave his wife for her, she nevertheless does not have the strength to leave Moody. This idea of wanting to leave but feeling trapped or unable to go is an important precursor to Joe's own feeling of entrapment by Moody and the others. Like Joe, Lorna is stuck in her dependency on Moody and the boxing business that supports them. The only alternative is to try life on her own—a scary thought during the depression.
From this fight, which eventually subsides into loving talk and caresses, the scene progresses to Joe's entrance, which is sudden and unannounced. Joe does not even knock, a fact that Moody notes and which annoys Moody. Moody's annoyance stimulates another argument, this time between Joe—who asks Moody to let him fight—and Moody, who is irate at the fact that Joe keeps using his first name. "And who the hell are you to call me Tom? Are we acquainted?" Moody, although cordial enough to Joe when he thinks he can use him, is nevertheless quick to threaten him at the end of the scene, when he says, "Call me Tom again and I'll break your neck!!"
Violence is a way of life for many of the characters in the play, especially those who pursue a life in the boxing business. Since the majority of actual boxing matches take place off screen, Odets focuses the violence on the industry itself—specifically the conflicts that happen among the many handlers who are in charge of a boxing star. As the play goes on and Joe gets more and more entrenched in the lifestyle, the amount of violence in his life increases. Joe's own violent streak has always been there, built up since his childhood, as he indicates when he tells Lorna that people "have hurt my feelings for years." Although he is a musician, violence appeals to him as a way of fighting back against his past, and he openly says, "If music shot bullets I'd like it better." Mr. Bonaparte notes in the fourth scene of the second act that Joe's "gotta wild wolf inside—eat him up!" And in the same scene, Joe lunges at Pepper White, a boxer who taunts him with the phrase, "Where'd you ever read about a cock-eye champ?" The resulting fight that breaks out among Joe, Pepper, and their two trainers is short, mainly because at that instant, Fuseli walks in. As Odets notes, "The fighting magically stops on the second. "
The character of Fuseli is an interesting person for his extreme display of anger and violence, which has a large effect on Joe. When he first comes into the gymnasium, Roxy notes how he met Fuseli: "I remember this Eddie Fuseli when he came back from the war with a gun. He's still got the gun and he still gives me goose pimples!" Fuseli is a very combative character, and one who becomes more so as the play continues on. When Joe and Moody get into a fight, Fuseli warns Moody, "You could get cut up in little pieces," among other threats. As Joe gets immersed more and more in the world of boxing, he tells Moody that "Eddie's the only one here who understands me." As the stage directions note later in the play when Fuseli walks into Moody's office, "He and Joe are dressed almost identically." Through the help of the gangster, and because of his own loss of identity, Joe has started dressing like Fuseli. Joe is no longer the sensitive musician. Lorna notes this in the same scene: "When did you look in the mirror last? Getting to be a killer! You're getting to be like Fuseli!"
Lorna's words resonate with Joe, and he is in a bad mood when Fuseli starts talking about his upcoming fight, saying that it is going to be good. "How do you know?" Joe asks. This sparks a heated conversation between Fuseli and Joe, in which Joe talks about wanting to do other things besides boxing. Fuseli threatens him, saying that "You're in this up to your neck. You owe me a lot— I don't like you to forget. You better be on your toes when you step in that ring tomorrow night." Joe realizes that if he tries to leave, Fuseli will kill him. This threat of violence pushes him into his last fight, with the Chocolate Drop and Joe wins it. He tries to be happy at first, and easily talks about the fight in the dressing room afterwards. Says Joe, "I gave him the fury of a lifetime in that final punch!"
However, Joe soon learns that this is more true than he realized—he has killed the Chocolate Drop with his "final punch." With this event, Joe drops the macho persona that he had developed as a boxer and goes back to being a sensitive artist who cares about his family's input. "What will my father say when he hears I murdered a man?" he asks Lorna. Unfortunately, there is nothing that Joe can do about this. He knows that he has passed a point of no return. His hands are busted and unfit for music, his morality has been stained, and he has no desire to fight anymore. The only option left is to flee, and he and Lorna do this in his sports car. However, the twin forces of speed and violence that have propelled Joe to the point of murder do not stop now. In their attempt to get away from the violence, the speed of the sports car kills Joe and Lorna.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Golden Boy, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
George L. Groman
In the following excerpt, Groman examines Odets's reflections on the various writers who were his inspiration.
Clifford Odets, for all of his adult life as a playwright and screenwriter, marveled at the gift of creativity, finding inspiration when that gift seemed within his grasp and enduring depression when it seemed beyond reach. His own experience operated as both a resource and an obstacle as he sought to resolve a number of personal crises—as a son whose father viewed his early acting and writing efforts with contempt, as a lover and husband whose stormy relationships ended in failure and bitterness, and as a creative artist whose need for privacy and discipline conflicted again and again with the temptations and demands of a public life and reputation. Yet whatever his own circumstances, Odets consistently sought fulfillment as a writer, viewing the creative act with reverence and continuing attention and finding in the efforts of others inspiration as well as validation for his own creative identity.
Even as a boy, Odets was drawn to writers of powerful imagination whose heroes struggled with questions of identity and self-realization through social action or artistic effort. As a teenager Odets read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, a book to which he would invariably return and comment on with great affection. Indeed, in his 1940 journal, he called Hugo "the rich love of my boyhood days" and went on to describe Les Misérables as "the most profound art experience I have ever had." The French author, as Odets noted, influenced him in ways that were to affect his later life as a writer and political activist: "Hugo … inspired me, made me aspire; I wanted to be a good and noble man, longed to do heroic deeds with my bare hands, thirsted to be kind to people, particularly the weak and humble and oppressed. From Hugo I had my first feeling of social consciousness. He did not make me a romantic, but he heightened in me that romanticism which I already had. I loved him and love him still, that mother (sic) of my literary heart."
For a boy entering adolescence, Hugo's clear division of right and wrong, his demarcation of heroes and villains, and the endless pursuits of the relentless Inspector Javert must have met the young Odets's need for suspense and adventure. More important, ultimately, was Hugo's gallery of characters who were capable of heroism and sacrifice— the saintly Bishop of Digne, whose every action is devoted to those in need; Fantine, who sells her hair and even her teeth, hoping to preserve the life of her daughter; the young radical and romantic Marius Pontmercy, who gives up an inheritance on political principle; and the hero of heroes, the solitary convict Jean Valjean, who benefits from the Bishop's generosity and repays him by pursuing a life of good works despite enormous personal sacrifice.
Odets was to continue his search for mentors of powerful and wide-ranging vision, and in the American writers [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Walt] Whitman he found new inspiration and direction. As he wrote to Harold Clurman in 1932, it was the business-oriented Louis Odets, the writer's father, who first encouraged him to consider Emerson seriously. Margaret Brenman-Gibson quotes from this letter, in which Odets recalls his father leaving in his room "two volumes of a peculiar edition of Emerson 'made for business men.' In a gaily mocking account of this … (Odets) says, 'The devils quote and underline on every page glorious trumpet sounding maxims about success. They make Emerson the first Bruce Barton of his country. But I am reading with a clear brain and no interest in success.' Emerson is 'certainly the wisest American."'
Reflecting further on Emerson's importance to him, Odets wrote in his 1932 journal, "I am glad that Emerson lived before I did. He has made life a richer thing for many (sic) of us. That is the function of all great men: that they reveal to us natural truths, ourselves and a realization of ourselves." Writing again in the same journal, he reflected on Emerson in a way that seemed to echo Hugo: "Emerson says somewhere that heroes are bred only in times of danger. I would add great artists are too bred in such times. Now I see the world is drifting into such times. I am waiting to see what heroes and artists will spring from the people."
Although Odets would come to share Emerson's belief that people are not fundamentally bad, he commented that few could or would rise to Emerson's call for "uncorrupted behavior." That he continued to brood over this loss of Emerson's faith in his fellow humans is amply demonstrated in his plays and elsewhere. Even near the end of his life, in a telecast interview, he would remember "what Emerson called 'uncorrupted behavior"' as a quality "with which all children are born … when nothing outside of yourself influences you, when you are in command of yourself with honor, without dishonesty, without lie, when you grasp and deal, and are permitted to deal, with exactly what's in front of you, in terms of your best human instincts."
To be sure, Odets could and did find many calls for "uncorrupted behavior" in Emerson's work and that of other writers but what he seems to have valued most in Emerson was his belief in the range of human potentialities despite the limitations of time, place, accident, or fate. It was Emerson who had emphasized in "Circles" that "there are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile," and in "Fate" that nature, rather than being limited to destructiveness, "solicits the pure in heart to draw on all its omnipotence." In "Circles" Emerson remarked that "the use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it." Such statements were meant to clear the way to new horizons and did so for Odets and countless others.
Like Hugo and Emerson, Walt Whitman assumed heroic proportions for Odets, who even kept a plaster cast of the poet in his room. In 1940 he bought first editions of November Boughs and Drum Taps, as well as a collection of Whitman's letters to his mother. In 1947, when Odets's only son was born, he named him Walt Whitman Odets.
If the large-scale models of Emerson and Whitman were encouraging, Odets nevertheless understood that American life might bring forth artists of quite different scope and temperament. In conversations with the composer Aaron Copland at Dover Furnace, the Group Theatre's summer retreat, Odets came to grips with this issue. He noted that "today the artists are not big, full, epic, and Aaron shows what I mean. They squeeze art out a thousandth of an inch at a time, and that is what their art, for the most part, lacks: bigness, vitality and health and swing and lust and charity …" Odets concludes by asserting, "there I go to Whitman again. Of course that's what we need, men of Whitman's size."
In another entry in the 1932 journal, Odets suggests that Whitman "roars in your ears all the time. When you swing your arms and the muscles flex, they are Whitman's muscles too." Elsewhere Odets celebrates not only the strength that may come with well-being but also the sexuality and autoeroticism that made Whitman famous and, in the nineteenth century, generally disreputable: "I think with love o (sic) Whitman's lines, something like, 'Oh the amplitude of the earth, and the coarseness (sic) and sexuality of it and the great goodness and clarity of it.' And I myself feel that way with love for people and the earth and women and dark nights and being together and close to naked women, naked as I am naked."
Eventually, Odets's excitement and passion would cool—a result of hard living, many personal and professional disappointments and, simply, aging. However, it may be that Whitman's imagery linked to a sense of purpose remained embedded in the playwright's consciousness, as suggested by a passage written a year before his death: "The whole fabric of my creative life I have built a room in which every corner there is a cobweb. They have mostly been swept away and I must begin again, spinning out of myself (italics mine) the dust and 'shroudness' of that room with its belaced and silent corners." The passage brings to mind Whitman's noiseless, patient spider involved in the act of creation, launching forth "filament, filament, filament, out of itself." Like the spider, the narrator's soul in the second verse of Whitman's poem (now personified) sends out "gossamer thread" to "catch somewhere," thereby hoping to end a pattern of isolation. If Odets, like the spider and soul of the poem, sought to reach out to others, he seemed also to be settling old scores here, undergoing a ritualistic purgation in a rather stifling atmosphere and, in doing so, readying himself for the task of creation, which Whitman's spider image so powerfully evokes.
Odet's search for heroic models extended to the musical world as well as to literature, and in the life and work of Ludwig van Beethoven he found a source of inspiration that was to last until his death. Odets listened to Beethoven's music frequently and intensively, wrote on Beethoven's importance as a creative artist and man of his time, and would sometimes self-consciously compare and contrast Beethoven's problems and solutions with his own. In his early attempts at fiction and drama, Odets used the maimed musician or composer as a central figure. Indeed, in his unproduced play Victory he carefully modeled the hero, Louis Brant, on Beethoven himself. In later years in Hollywood, Odets also planned a screenplay on the composer's life, but the project was never completed.
Beethoven's early poverty, his difficult social relationships (often with women), and his dedication to his art (despite hearing problems and eventual deafness) greatly moved Odets. And in looking at W. J. Turner's biography of the composer, which Odets read while writing Victory, he would find one acquaintance of Beethoven remarking of him "that he loved his art more than any woman" and "that he could not love any woman who did not know how to value his art." Later, as Beethoven's hearing problems increased in severity and further isolated him, the composer thought of suicide but desisted, "art alone" restraining his hand. At other times he wrote of seizing "fate by the throat" to reach his goals. Clearly, for Odets, Beethoven was a truly courageous man and artist despite his personal difficulties.
Odets, in commenting on Beethoven's music, found the Eroica Symphony "an awesome and terrible piece of work' and his fourth piano concerto a composition in which the "characters of the orchestra never for a moment stop their exuberant conversation." As for Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, he noted, one must "be virgin of heart and spirit to write it. Beethoven did not lose the innocence," though ordinary mortals give it up simply "to survive." Odets's descriptions, quoted here, underscore the intensity of his feelings about Beethoven and sometimes suggest Emersonian parallels. They also indicate the kind of close thematic connections between music and literature the writer would make in his plays and films.
As Odets struggled with form, so did the Old Master, but Beethoven triumphed again and again. As Odets put it, "every time he found a form for his content he simultaneously found that his content had progressed in depth and a new form was necessary—a very Tantalus of life! He, however, had the hardheadedness to see it through to the bitter end—he obviously died looking for a new form— and he died having pushed music to a level which before had never been attained nor has yet been equalled. Great unhappy man!"
Finally, in Beethoven, Odets found a paradigm for the quintessential Romantic—a superman for all season—one who is "amazed, impressed, delighted, and enraged by the caprices of life." As Odets noted further, "It is the romantic who cries out that he is out of harmony with life—by which he means that life is not in harmony with his vision of it, the way he saw it as a youth with moral and idealistic hunger to mix his hands in it and live fully and deeply. The classic art is to accept life, the romantic to reject it as it is and attempt to make it over as he wants it to be." The man and his method were for Odets a means of perception, a symbol of hope, and possibly a basis for social action and change.
When we turn to Odets's own work, however, we find a curious paradox. The heroic models have disappeared, and in their place the protagonists of his plays respond at a primal level to a brutal, self-serving world; either they are (or become) corrupt or they are overwhelmed by an environment over which they have little or no control. Indeed, the America that Odets lived in and responded to was far different from the private and idealized world about which he wrote with such intensity and even affection and that he later abandoned with such regret. In Waiting for Lefty, Odets's first-produced and perhaps most well-known play, there is a rousing call for strike action by the rank and file of a taxi union after much indecision and argument. However, Lefty, the guiding spirit of the union, has already been murdered by unknown assailants, and even the ringing call to action at the end of the play suggests martyrdom as well as the benefits of solidarity. As Agate, one of the rallying strikers, puts it, "HELLO AMERICA! HELLO. WE'E STORMBIRDS OF THE WORKING-CLASS. WORKERS OF THE WORLD … OUR BONES AND BLOOD! And when we die they'll know what we did to make a new world! Christ, cut us up to little pieces. We'll die for what is right! put fruit trees where our ashes are!" (My italics.)
In Awake, and Sing!, Odets's Depression-era play centered on an American-Jewish family in the Bronx, the Marxist Grandfather Jacob is ineffectual even in his own family and ends his life by suicide. His grandson Ralph Berger, who surrenders the insurance money Jacob had left him at his mother's insistence, will in all likelihood have little influence in times to come. As a number of critics have suggested, his optimism strikes a false note as he faces the future without a clear sense of purpose, training, or money. Indeed, as more than one character comes to understand, despite arguments to the contrary, life is "printed on dollar bills." The well-to-do Uncle Morty, a dress manufacturer, will continue to have the respect of Ralph's mother Bessie, he will continue to oppose strike action vigorously and probably successfully, and he will lead a personal life without personal responsibilities, sleeping with showroom models and seeking other creature comforts. Moe Axelrod, the World War One veteran and ex-bootlegger, has by the end of the play convinced Bessie's daughter Hennie to abandon her much-abused husband and infant to seek a life of pleasure with him. To be sure, arguments for social or family responsibility may be found in this often moving play, but the resolution nevertheless seems to suggest a definition of success devoid of commitment or love.
In Golden Boy, Joe Bonaparte, a violinist turned boxer, does become a hero for his time, defined by physical strength and a willingness to incapacitate or destroy his opponents in the prize ring. Although he has read the encyclopedia from cover to cover (perhaps fulfilling Ralph Berger's quest for learning) and "practiced his fiddle for ten years," the private world he has created is no longer sufficient for him. It cannot offer him the sense of power or perhaps the ability to dominate others for which he yearns. Indeed, he is seduced by the monied world that surrounds the prize arena and by the temptations offered by the gangster Eddie Fuseli, who seeks to remold the Golden Boy and turn him into a fighting machine—careless of others, indifferent to love, and irrevocably cut off from family ties and memories of the past. As the reborn Joe aggressively puts it, "When a bullet sings through the air it has no past—only a future—like me." Joe returns to his dressing room after what is to be his last fight, and his trainer, Tokio, notices that one eye is badly battered, symbolic of Joe's impairment of vision on a number of levels. The triumphant fighter learns that he has killed his opponent in the ring, and he must confront the implications of the disaster. In rejecting a personal integrity, he has betrayed his moral and spiritual center, and at the end of the play he dies, an apparent suicide. His personal tragedy is an awareness of the vacuity his life has become. He is trapped in a world that he himself has made, rejecting his father's simple but encompassing Old-World Italian version of what his personal struggle must lead to: fulfillment of a dream predicated on the yells of a mob over ten rounds, the quick buck, and tabloid headlines forgotten at a glance.
Both The Big Knife and The Country Girl are plays that show the failure of art and artists destroyed by a world that demands too much, too fast, too soon. In The Big Knife, Charlie Castle has given up a promising career in the theater and a somewhat vague belief in political and social action to become one of Hollywood's big stars. Like Joe Bonaparte or perhaps Odets himself, Charlie is plagued by the idea that he has betrayed his considerable talent in exchange for money and stardom. Early in the play, he argues that the theater is "a bleeding stump. Even stars have to wait years for a decent play." Now in the movie business, he cannot afford "acute attacks of integrity." In a succession of films, he reflects "the average in one way or another" or is at best "the warrior of the forlorn hope." As Hank Teagle, a family friend, puts it, "Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul. America is full of it."
Like Joe Bonaparte, Charlie understands only too well what he has become. He remarks that he has become an imitation of his old self, and young new actors now imitate—or parody—the imitation. However, it is Marion Castle, Charlie's estranged wife, who most emphatically reminds Charlie of his self-betrayal, warning that he acts against his own nature. She says to him, "Your passion of the heart has become a passion of the appetite. Despite your best intentions, you're a horror."
Indeed, Charlie has taken a downward path. He is on the way to becoming an alcoholic, he has been unfaithful to his wife, and he has avoided prosecution for an accident that occurred during an evening of drunken driving by allowing a studio employee to confess in his place and serve a prison term. Only when the studio management obliquely threatens to murder the woman companion turned blackmailer who was with him on the evening of the accident does Charlie assert himself by preventing a new crime. However, despite his one moment of decency, Charlie is lost. He has, over Marion's objections, signed a new contract with the studio moguls who have by turns enticed and threatened him. Too weak to face a loss of status, poverty, and the unstable life of the theater, perversely attracted by the life he has been leading, and yet filled with self-loathing, Charlie takes his own life. Marion, his wife, leaves with Hank Teagle, the writer who has been faithful to his principles and whom Charlie had called his Horatio. Indeed, it is Teagle who will tell Charlie's story to the world—the tale of a man who was certainly not a Hamlet in depth or breadth, one who could understand and even dream but who could not change himself or the world, which paradoxically offered him so much and so little.
In The Country Girl, a play better structured and developed than The Big Knife, Broadway director Bernie Dodd is ready to take a chance on a new play starring a has been, an older actor named Frank Elgin. Dodd is "in love with art" and tells Elgin's wife Georgie that although he could "make a fortune in films," he intends to continue in the theater, where important work can still be done. Elgin's brilliant performances in two mediocre plays, based on his intuitive understanding of character and situation, had long ago inspired Dodd and now lead him to believe that the old actor can excel again. However, there are real problems. Elgin is weak and self-indulgent, he is an alcoholic, he is a liar, he needs constant reassurance, and like Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, he needs desperately to be well liked. As the play develops, Bernie Dodd and Georgie struggle with each other and with Frank. Each of the three seeks personal fulfillment, but finally the play becomes the all-consuming and all-important issue. Frank Elgin does succeed (with the help of the two closest to him) in rising to his full stature as an actor. He vindicates Bernie's judgment and justifies (or necessitates) Georgie's remaining with him—after years of failure and disappointment.
In this play about theater life, Frank Elgin's transgressions are forgiven in the name of art and artistry. Bernie discovers that Frank has lied about his wife's past. He has told Bernie that Georgie was once Miss America (possibly to enhance his own prestige), that she is an alcoholic, and that she is a depressive who has attempted suicide. Georgie learns that Frank has lied about her (his lies are partially based on a play in which he once appeared) and observes that he has begun to drink again. When the producer (Phil Cook), Bernie Dodd, and others in the company find out, there is turmoil, but there are no lasting repercussions. Because of Bernie's belief in Frank Elgin's talent, the actor is to continue in the play. Frank himself is simply following an old pattern. He has for much of his adult life drunk steadily, taken pills, and lied to relieve the pressures on him. When his and Georgie's only child dies, when he loses much of his money in producing a play, and when he begins to fail as an actor, the old remedies are close at hand. The conflict between the easy indulgence of the moment and the stern realities of working in a creative but uncertain world— with its quick rewards and even quicker condemnations—leads to the kind of disintegration Odets so often sought to depict. In this play, as in The Big Knife, intuitive understanding, talent, and artistry bring some forms of self-fulfillment and recognition, but are by themselves no protection against weakness or personal loss. In The Big Knife, Charlie Castle finds suicide the only way out. Frank Elgin is successful at the end of The Country Girl, but one suspects that his future success will depend on the continued availability of the long-suffering wife who mothers him, on directors and producers who excuse his frequent lapses, on unending applause, and on total self-involvement and self-delusion.
Odets, then, in his work revealed his fascination with the world of art and his belief that art may enhance our understanding of the human condition, though it cannot alter the environment or our responses to it. The romantic vision that Odets pursued so intensely in a personal way might seem ennobling or heroic, but in a world of shrunken values and failed personal lives, it offers only a sense, a resonance, of what might have been. Indeed, the romantic stance—as Odets portrayed it in the America of his time—was collateral to be called in, leaving only a shell without substance. Despite the excitements of the conflict, Odets's vision of the truth was profoundly pessimistic. That he portrayed it as he did often showed courage as well as artistry.
Source: George L. Groman, "Clifford Odets and the Creative Imagination," in Critical Essays on Clifford Odets, edited by Gabriel Miller, G. K. Hall & Co., 1991, pp. 97–105.
In the following essay, Clurman explores the allegorical nature of Golden Boy.
Golden Boy has already been praised as a good show, common-sense entertainment, and effective melodrama. It has also been blamed for betraying Hollywood influence in its use of terse, typical situations, story motifs which resemble that of either popular fiction or movies, and possibly too in its use of an environment (the prize-fight world) that somehow seems unworthy of the serious purpose professed by its author. There has been, in addition, almost universal admiration for many separate scenes and long passages of brilliant dialogue.
What has not been discussed very fully, however, is the total significance of these diverse elements, the meaning that their configuration within one framework might have. And it is this meaning, both in relation to the American scene and to Clifford Odets' work and progress within it, that might be most valuable to examine.
An early draft of Golden Boy bore the designation "a modern allegory." An allegory, I take it, is an extremely simple but boldly outlined tale in which a series of images is used to suggest a meaning of a more general, and usually a moral, nature. The good allegory will hold one's interest by the sheer directness or vividness of its story, the suggested meaning of which may occur to us only in retrospect, or which may be so organically imbedded in the structure of the story that in absorbing the story details we are almost automatically and spontaneously aware of their meaning. The allegory, in other words, deals in symbols that are so pointed and unmistakable that they transform themselves easily into the truth that their author hopes to express.
Whether or not Clifford Odets has chosen the happiest symbols in Golden Boy it is a fact that his intention was to convey such a truth, and to convey it in terms that would not only avoid preachment, but entertain us by the mere raciness of its presentation.
The story of this play is not so much the story of a prize-fighter as the picture of a great fight—a fight in which we are all involved, whatever our profession or craft. What the golden boy of this allegory is fighting for is a place in the world as an individual; what he wants is to free his ego from the scorn that attaches to "nobodies" in a society in which every activity is viewed in the light of a competition. He wants success not simply for the soft life—automobiles, etc.—which he talks about, but because the acclaim that goes with it promises him acceptance by the world, peace with it, safety from becoming the victim that it makes of the poor, the alien, the unnoticed minorities. To achieve this success, he must exploit an accidental attribute of his make-up, a mere skill, and abandon the development of his real self.
It so happens that Odets thought of embodying this fight for achievement in terms of the fight business. For it is obvious on reflection that though the use of the prize-fight world is central to the play's plot, in the playwright's larger intention it may be considered almost incidental…. Further than that, to dramatize the conflict between what a man might be and what he becomes, the author has conceived a youth who is essentially an artist in a modest, unspectacular way. The hero is a violinist; and the fiddle in this allegory is employed as the symbolic antithesis of the fighting game.
The play tells the story then of an artist, or even more generally of a sensitive human being, growing up in a world where personal achievement is measured in terms of that kind of sensational success that our newspapers, our mania for publicity slogans, indeed our whole large-scale production psychology make into almost the only kind of success we can recognize. To tell this story two worlds are mirrored in the swiftest, barest terms: the artists' world with its humble pleasures, its small but basic contentments, and the business world with its fundamental uncertainty, hysteria, indifference to and impatience with human problems as such, its inevitable ruthlessness, its ultimate killer tendencies.
The home scenes with their funny lines, their petty "philosophical" disputes between the two old cronies, their healthy naïveté and even their vulgarity are not haphazardly designed to show off the author's faculty for salty speech or clever characterization. They are part of a pattern to illustrate both the sweet human earthiness that the hero leaves for the hard world where success is made, and the slight shabbiness which makes the hero look upon his background as an almost shameful world— futile, unglamorous, lamentably unaware of the advantages it is missing.
What happens to the boy when he makes the compromise with his true nature? Odets' allegory proceeds to show that the boy becomes a commodity, something that can be bought and sold, maneuvered, that he who begins by trying to beat the competitive world by playing its game becomes himself a thing possessed. Odets' hero is literally taken over by a whole ring of exploiters: agents, managers, merchants and middlemen of every description, including the criminal racketeer. And it is most characteristic of the situation that while the hero tries to use these people for his own ends he despises them, while they who are to a large extent dependent on him resent the intrusion of any of his personal problems into their business considerations.
Beyond this, the activity involved in performing his new task—fighting his way to "fame and fortune"—finally incapacitates him from ever doing his true work or going back to his old and real self. In realistic terms, he breaks his hands in a fight so that he no longer can hope to play the violin which once meant so much to him. And when he has become a fighter a certain coarseness develops in him, a certain despair. He is denatured to the point of becoming a killer, figuratively and, thanks to a ring accident, literally. In the interim, he has fallen in love, hoping, by a romantic attachment to a woman equally lost in the hurly-burly of the success world, to solve his inner dilemma. But he is a defeated man. He has nothing to live by now. Both worlds are closed to him, and he must die.
It is necessary to repeat the bare features of the story to show the particular scheme, at once ideological and narrative, that gives the play its basic form. If we analyze it even further we shall find that the choice and placement of almost every character fit into this scheme. Take, for example, the momentary presence of the older brother Frank, the C.I.O. organizer. What is his significance here? His wounded head, his quiet retort "I fight," his sureness,
are all minute indications that there is nothing abhorrent to the author in the thought of physical struggle as such, but that for people like his hero to have a world in which they might ultimately feel at home in being what they are and to have honor in such a world as well, it is necessary for the Franks to exist and fight. Our hero fights as a lone ego; Frank fights, as he says, together with and for millions of others. Frank is a free man; our hero is destroyed.
If there is any Hollywood influence in this play beyond the mere quick action and stock figures employed, it must be in the fact that in an important sense Hollywood and what it represents have provided the play with its inner theme, its true subject matter. So many artists today stand in relation to Hollywood as our hero in relation to his double career. From this point of view Golden Boy might be regarded as Clifford Odets' most subjective play.
Yet with this deeply and subtly subjective material, Odets has attempted to write his most objective play—a play that would stand on its own feet, so to speak, as a good show, a fast-moving story, a popular money-making piece. He has tried, in short, to bridge the gap between his own inner problems and the need he feels, like his hero and all of us in the audience, to make "fame and fortune." In his own work, he has tried to reconcile the fiddle and the fist; he has tried to yield himself a positive result out of a contradiction that kills his hero. He has done this by making the whole thing into a morality which would instruct and read us all a lesson (himself and his audience) even while it amused.
The strength and weakness of the play lie in this fusion of elements, admirable in intention, more varied in effect than in any of his former plays, but still imperfect as a whole. The strength of the present play is shown by its definite audience impact in the theatre; its imperfection comes from a certain lack of concreteness in details of plot and character—an objective flaw due to his mere nodding acquaintance with most of the play's locale, and from an insistence on certain character touches that mislead rather than clarify, such as the reference to the hero's eyes—a subjective flaw due to a reliance on a personal interpretation where a social one is required.
It must be pointed out in conclusion that the technical problem for a playwright—the problem of making himself completely articulate as well as sound—increases with the depth and richness of his material. The content of Clifford Odets' talent is greater than that of any young playwright in America today, and the line of his development must necessarily be arduous and complex. In certain instances, pat advice is more flattering to the critic than helpful to the writer. With Clifford Odets, we should simply be grateful for each of the endeavors that mark his progress. Golden Boy a step ahead in the career of one of the few American playwrights who can be discussed as an artist.
Source: Harold Clurman, "Golden Boy," in Six Plays of Clifford Odets, Modern Library, 1939, pp. 429–33.
Demastes, William W., "Clifford Odets (1906–1963)," in American Playwrights, 1880–1945, Greenwood Press, 1995, p. 318.
Hughes, Catharine, "Odets: The Price of Success," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 21, September 20, 1963, pp. 558–60.
Isaacs, Edith J. R., "When Good Men Get Together," in Theatre Arts Monthly, Vol. XXII, No. 1, January 1938, pp. 11–13.
Krutch, Joseph Wood, "Two Legends," in the Nation, Vol. 145, No. 20, November 13, 1937, pp. 539–40.
Lewis, Allan, "The Survivors of the Depression—Hellman, Odets, Shaw," in his American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre, rev. ed., Crown, 1970, pp. 99–115.
Mendelsohn, Michael J., Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969, p. 44.
Odets, Clifford, Golden Boy, in Waiting for Lefty and Other Plays, Grove Press, 1993.
——, "How a Playwright Triumphs," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 233, No. 1396, September 1966, pp. 64–70, 73–74.
Peary, Gerald, "Odets of Hollywood," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter 1986–1987, pp. 59–63.
Shuman, R. Baird, Clifford Odets, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962, pp. 80, 83.
Erem, Suzan, Labor Pains: Inside America's New Union Movement, Monthly Review Press, 2001.
In this book, Erem, a labor organizer, gives an insider's view of the struggles that both organizers and union members face today. In addition to fighting for better wages and working conditions, Erem details the internal struggles that take place.
Horne, Gerald, Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930–1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, & Trade Unionists, University of Texas Press, 2001.
Horne examines the often overlooked story of the Hollywood studio strikes that made headlines in the 1940s. The book details the studios' attempts to thwart the rise of independent unions, which the studios often discredited with Communist labels. However, this was just one aspect of a multifaceted affair, and Horne gives a thorough overview of all sides, using an abundance of historical documents to back up his assertions.
Kennedy, David M., Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945, Oxford History of the United States series, Vol. 9, Oxford University Press, 2001.
Kennedy, a Stanford University history professor, chronicles the years during the Great Depression and World War II, at times posing theses that directly contradict established views. This accessible, comprehensive study relies on an extensive number of both published accounts and primary sources to recreate this formative period in America's history.
Morreale, Ben, and Robert Carola, Italian Americans: The Immigrant Experience, Immigrant Experience series, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2000.
This book gives a thorough overview of how Italian Americans first came to America and what their experience has been like in the years since. The book also discusses how Italian Americans have helped to influence American culture, and features notable Italian-American entertainers, businessmen, and sports stars. The book is lavishly illustrated with more than two hundred color and black-and-white photographs that help bring the immigrant experience to life.
Ruiz, Vicki L., Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950, University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
This book gives the story of several women in southern California in the 1930s and 1940s, who banded together to establish effective labor unions in the seasonal canning industry. Eventually, these women were able to negotiate contracts with benefits like maternity leave, paid vacations, and company-provided day care.
Waldvogel, Merikay, Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking & the Great Depression, Rutledge Hill Press, 1990.
Waldvogel explores quiltmaking during the depression, when groups of women would meet to quilt, discuss their hardships, and share tips for surviving. Despite the hardships discussed, however, the quilts of this era were vibrant and beautiful, embodying the hope that many had for better times. The book includes a number of photos of the quilts from this period.