Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

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 Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Stanwyck, and William Holden in the 1939 film adaptation of Golden Boy, directed by Rouben Mamoulian 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 firebrand 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.

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