Clifford Odets has been called the quintessential playwright of the 1930’s. His early plays dealt with social issues, illustrating the plight of the urban working class struggling to survive and achieve a semblance of dignity during the harsh days of the Depression. In such plays as Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing!, Till the Day I Die, and Paradise Lost (all first produced in 1935), Odets condoned Marxism, condemned fascism, and called for sweeping social change in the world by vividly dramatizing the concerns of various ethnic families. However, even in these earlier plays Odets was primarily concerned with the struggle of the individual to achieve self-respect and to be true to himself. In his later plays, Odets focused increasingly on the oppressive forces within an organization or institution, and ultimately within the individual, that would prevent a man from achieving dignity.
In Golden Boy (pr., pb. 1937), Odets’s most successful play, the young Joe Bonaparte struggles to deny his true self, represented by his musical talents, as he succumbs to the glamour and prestige he achieves as a prizefighter. Odets populates the world of prizefighting with money-hungry promoters and manipulative gangsters. Odets shines a similarly harsh critical light on Hollywood in The Big Knife, while in The Country Girl (pr. 1950) he exposes the soul-destroying world of Broadway theater. The settings of the plays change, but the underlying theme is the same: The path to self-respect and dignity is difficult, filled with temptations and the possibility of corruption.