Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1762
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 breakneck 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.’’
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—specifi- cally 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. Poquette has a bachelor’s degree in English and specializes in writing about literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4089
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, selfserving 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 wellto- 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 selfloathing, 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 selfdelusion.
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1709
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 sure- A scene from a stage production of Golden Boy, written by Clifford Odets ness, 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.
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