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.