Tom Moody, a fight manager, and Lorna Moon, his mistress who wants to marry him, are having an argument about Tom’s wife, who will not give him a divorce. Tom, wanting money for the divorce, needs to find a winning fighter. While they are talking, Joe Bonaparte arrives to tell them that Moody’s fighter has broken his hand and cannot fight that night. Joe, whom nobody knows, persuades them to let him substitute, and he wins.
Joe, a musician, had always wanted a good violin, and his father had bought him one for his twenty-first birthday. When Joe returns home, his father, who has not been told of the fight, reads of it in the papers and is very much distressed. He tries to persuade Joe to give up fighting and continue his study of music, but Joe wants to fight. His father, hurt, does not give him the violin.
Joe fights well after that, but there is a serious conflict between the sensitive musician that he truly is and the brutal fighter he has to be. He holds back in the ring, fearing that he will ruin his hands for the violin. When Moody tries to persuade him that fame and money will be more important than music, he succeeds only in antagonizing Joe, who threatens to quit. Lorna agrees to try to persuade Joe to reconsider. Joe is basically a musician, but he has been ridiculed and hurt by people. Fighting is not a part of his nature, but he wants to fight back and music cannot do that for him. While he is explaining all this to Lorna, he has already decided to remain in the ring. When Joe is preparing for a fight tour, Mr. Bonaparte asks Lorna to help the young man find himself. When he tries to give Joe the violin, the boy refuses it. Then he asks for a blessing, which his father refuses to give.
Joe’s tour is a great success except for one fight. He did not fight well on that occasion because he saw a man with a violin and was reminded of his music and his own past. Moody realizes that Joe has to be prevented from having any contact with his family and his past.
The fight world changes Joe’s personality. He likes the money and the notoriety. He buys an expensive sports car, which he drives recklessly, and he becomes difficult to manage. Eddie Fuseli, a...
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The first of Odets’s plays since Waiting for Lefty not to employ the Yiddish American vernacular at which Odets was so adept, Golden Boy is also the first play he wrote after going to California to write film scripts. In this play, Joe Bonaparte, a poor youth from humble circumstances, is faced with the agonizing decision of whether to continue in boxing, which will bring him substantial material rewards but will compromise his wish to have a career as a violinist. At the time he wrote this play, Odets was facing a personal crisis not unlike Joe’s, but he sought to assuage his pain at leaving the Group Theatre by writing a play for them that might relieve some of the financial pressures that threatened to force the Group to disband.
In Awake and Sing!, Moe Axelrod, the cynic, speaks of “One thing to get another.” Making choices is what life is all about. Joe Bonaparte opts for the comfort and security that boxing will afford him. He enjoys the outward manifestations of his success, particularly his supercharged Duesenberg roadster, but, as Gerard Weales has observed, he suffers from “the disintegration brought on by success.” The very sensitivity that a good musician needs is antithetical to the qualities that good fighters need. It is too late for Joe to turn back. His hands are damaged beyond repair, and now he faces failure as a boxer. His end comes when he crashes his Duesenberg and dies from the impact.