Places Discussed

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Bonaparte home

Bonaparte home. New York City home of young boxer Joe Bonaparte and his family. The furnishings of its combination dining-living room suggest a world of culture and the arts. Its plaster busts of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig von Beethoven and piles of newspapers reflect the family’s interest in music and the arts. Mr. Bonaparte has bought Joe an expensive violin; Joe is initially drawn to the violin, but eventually he chooses to leave it with his father when he chooses boxing over music. At the end of the play Joe’s father hears about his son’s accidental death and talks about bringing him home.

Park bench

Park bench. Set used only by Joe and his mistress, Lorna. The bench is associated with their developing romantic interest in each other and with Joe’s discussion about boxing versus music.

Moody’s office

Moody’s office. Office of Joe’s boxing manager, Tom Moody. Its meager furnishings are appropriate because Tom is almost broke and needs a successful fighter to stay financially secure. It is the place where Joe gets his start in the ring, where plans are made for his future, where his relationship with Lorna begins to sour.


Gymnasium. Facility in which Joe trains. While he works out there, the mobster Eddie Fuseli argues with Moody about Fuseli’s owning “part” of Joe, and Tom encourages Lorna to become friendly with Joe to protect Tom’s interest in him. Here, the emphasis is not on sports; it is on the dark underside of the boxing business.

Dressing room

Dressing room. Dressing room at the arena in which Joe boxes with the Chocolate Drop King, where all the play’s characters gather at the end of act 2. Mr. Bonaparte, whom Joe describes as his “conscience,” watches as he reveals that he has broken his hand, rendering him unable to play the violin. For Joe, it is “the beginning of the world.” However, it is also the end; in the next dressing-room scene Joe discovers that he has killed his opponent. In his desire to escape from his actions, he speeds away with Lorna in a car and dies in an accident that is foreshadowed by his preoccupation with speed and a remark that his violin case looks like a coffin.

Historical Context

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The Great Depression
Although the exact causes of the Great Depression are still debated, most historians agree that the Stock Market Crash of 1929 helped to usher in this huge economic downturn. However, as the country began to sink financially, President Herbert Hoover, along with many others, thought that the crisis was temporary. Unfortunately, the situation only got worse. This fact, coupled with Hoover’s unyielding stance in not providing federal public aid to individuals, meant that an increasing number of individuals and families were losing their jobs. Starvation became a real issue, and crowds of men would gather around the backs of restaurants, fighting over food scraps in the garbage. The suicide rate steadily rose, and millions of families left their homes to try to find work. In many cases these migrant families would set up shelters on vacant lots in other cities and towns; groups of these shelters came to be known as Hoovervilles.

Boxing in the 1930s
Many people sought relief from the horrors of everyday life in the depression through escapist activities like going to the movies or sporting events, when they could afford them. In such depressed times, sports franchises had to come up with increasingly more sensational events to get people to watch their matches. This was especially true...

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with boxing which at the time was second in popularity only to baseball. In 1935, Joe Louis, a young African-American boxer who had stormed through the amateur ranks, signed a large contract—signaling a new era of wealth for boxers. Louis energized the professional boxing scene as he fought his way to become the world heavyweight champion in 1937. Louis, also known as the Brown Bomber, had real crowd appeal, and his fights helped to sell many tickets. In 1938, in a symbolic match against Max Schmeling of Germany—a member of the Nazi Party—Louis won in front of eighty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium.

Roosevelt and the New Deal
While people tried to escape their problems through movies and sporting events, however, the nation’s economy continued to plummet. By 1933, the country was faced with an unusually high unemployment rate of nearly twenty-five percent. On March 4, 1933, with the inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American people had new hope. Roosevelt, who had campaigned and won on the promise to help build America’s economy and get people jobs, had a big job to do, and he wasted no time. In his first three months of office, dubbed the Hundred Days by the newspapers, Roosevelt worked with Congress to pass an unprecedented amount of legislation. This legislation was designed to help shore up and rebuild the nation’s weakened economy and work force. The wealth of programs that resulted from this legislation was collectively known as the New Deal.

Roosevelt and the Labor Issue
One of the areas that Roosevelt had a particular interest in was labor, and several of his early legislative acts addressed the problems of both putting people to work and making sure they were treated fairly. Through the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), Roosevelt guaranteed collective bargaining for employees, which led to the establishment of unions in many industries. Although unions had been around in the past, they were often controlled by business and therefore not always committed to representing workers’ rights. As part of the NIRA, Roosevelt established the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which tried to stabilize prices and wages. However, in 1935 the NIRA was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the NRA was disbanded. When this happened, the NRA safeguards, particularly minimum wages and maximum hours for workers, were largely ignored by businesses once again.

Labor Unrest
These two issues, wages and hours, took center stage in the labor movement in the 1930s. Labor unions, which had been steadily increasing in political and bargaining power throughout the decade, began to clash more frequently with industry. Many new union members were recent immigrants, who had already seen discrimination both in their workplace and in society, so they were primed for a fight. However, the unions themselves were experiencing some division. In 1934 and 1935, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a controlling body for many of the older unions—which were organized by skill or craft—was forced to recognize many of the newer unions—which were organized by industry or workplace. As a result, the AFL set up the Committee for Industrial Organization to address the needs of these industry workers. However, the Committee chose to split off on its own and form a new organization, eventually known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the play, Joe’s brother, Frank, is a union organizer for the CIO.

Still, despite this division between AFL and CIO, the major conflict was between the unions and industry management. In the mid-1930s, this con- flict often took the form of strikes, where workers would refuse to work until their demands were met. These workers would often march around the outside of their company, holding up picket signs. A common retaliation from the company was to hire temporary replacement workers, known as scabs, to help keep the company running. As a result, the most effective strike was the sit-down strike, in which workers would take over a company and barricade themselves inside, preventing scabs from coming in to replace them. Although these strikes— ultimately ruled unconstitutional—often led to violence between the strikers, industry management, hired thugs, police, and even the National Guard, they were extremely effective at getting management to settle contracts. In 1938, as part of the second wave of reform programs known as the Second New Deal, Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established federal guidelines for the two hot issues—minimum wages and maximum hours.

The Onset of World War II
Debate still rages today on how much Roosevelt’s sweeping reforms actually helped to end the depression. Most historians agree that, while these programs did help put some people back to work and shore up the economy—as well as establish many important agencies—it was the onset of World War II in Europe in 1939 that caused the economy to boom once again. As the massive wartime production effort swept through America, many of the unemployed found jobs once again, and the Great Depression was over.

Literary Style

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Social Drama
Odets earned his fame through the social dramas of his early career which openly advocated that the masses fight for their rights by participating in strikes or other protests. Although later plays like Golden Boy are not as overt in their references, some critics still consider these plays social dramas, in part because they share the same spirit as the earlier plays. For example, in Golden Boy, Joe is afraid of poverty, a common social problem during the 1930s, the depression years when the play takes place. When Joe is explaining his reasons for wanting to fight, he tells his father: ‘‘Do you think I like this feeling of no possessions?’’ Joe sees boxing as a much more promising way to get out of the poverty in which he and his family live, and as a result is willing to sacrifice his dream of music. This tragic decision underscores the plight of the working class, which often has no choice but to follow money and not dreams.

The play has other references to social issues, such as the problems between labor unions and industry management. Frank, Joe’s brother, is an organizer for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), who must leave often to help settle disputes between striking workers and their management. As Frank notes when he is first introduced, ‘‘There’s hell down there in tex-tiles,’’ referring to a strike that is happening in a textile company in the South. In the last scene of the play, the stage directions note that Frank sits with ‘‘a bandage around his head. ‘‘Later in the scene, after Fuseli mentions it, Siggie, Frank’s brother-in-law, tells Fuseli that ‘‘They gave it to him in a strike.’’ The ‘‘They’’ is most likely referring to hired thugs, police, or the National Guard, all groups that were called in to break up strikes, with violence, if necessary. Odets’s use of these images and dialogue is a clear indication that he is trying to send a social message about the labor problems in his time.

Critics have often commented on Odets’s command of language. In most of his plays, characters speak in realistic, distinct ways. This play is no different. The most distinctive use of language is the Italian accent and halted speech of Joe’s father, Mr. Bonaparte. From the moment Joe’s father is introduced, the stage directions indicate that he ‘‘talks with an Italian accent.’’ In addition to this, his speech is often shortened from that used in normal English, such as when he says, ‘‘I don’t go in taxicab business.’’ Normally, somebody speaking English would say, ‘‘I don’t want to go into the taxicab business.’’ Mr. Bonaparte also tends to add extra letters onto some of his words, and uses word constructions in different ways. For example, in another example from the same scene, Mr. Bonaparte says ‘‘I don’t expects for Joe to drive taxi.’’ Once again, the extra ‘‘s’’ on the end of the word ‘‘expect,’’ coupled with the use of the word, ‘‘for,’’ in an awkward way, gives Joe’s father a distinctive, foreign style of speech, even without the accent. While others in the play outside of Joe’s family make fun of Mr. Bonaparte’s speech, his language is important. It serves as a vivid reminder of the old world values of Italy, which contrast sharply with the capitalistic values of America. In addition to Mr. Bonaparte, Odets manipulates language in other ways, such as the gangster-style street talk of Fuseli.

In the play, Odets makes use of some very overt foreshadowing techniques which plant clues that tip the reader off to what may happen in the future. The foreshadowing shows up most clearly in two deaths— Joe and the Baltimore Chocolate Drop. In the very first scene, Moody talks to Lorna about ‘‘Cy Webster who got himself killed in a big, red Stutz.’’ The reference to the dead boxer on its own may not let the reader know that Joe is going to die, but it is backed up by several other references. In the fourth scene of the first act, Joe goes on at length to Lorna about how he wants a fast car, saying that: ‘‘Those cars are poison in my blood,’’ and ‘‘Gee, I like to stroke that gas!’’ In addition to this, there are several other references to fast cars, speeding, and the danger that is involved, most of which are said by Joe’s managers. Says Moody: ‘‘But you and your speeding worries me!’’ As a result of these and other references, Joe’s death by an automobile accident in his fast car should come as no surprise since the thought of that ending has been built up in the reader’s mind from the beginning of the play.

The other major death in the play, the death of the Chocolate Drop in the boxing ring, is also foreshadowed, although not as overtly as Joe’s death. The play itself builds on its violence, getting increasingly more brutal as it goes on. This is an indication that the ultimate example of violence, killing, may be coming. However, Fuseli also offers a direct reference to murder in the fourth scene of the second act, when he tells Joe to: ‘‘Go out there and kill Lombardo! Send him out to Woodlawn! Tear his skull off!’’ These references to death and burial foreshadow the eventual death of the Chocolate Drop, whom Joe kills at the end of the play.

Compare and Contrast

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1930s: The Great Depression begins shortly after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, and continues throughout the 1930s, shattering the financial lives of many Americans.

Today: America is experiencing a recession, which many believe is caused by the crashing of overinflated stocks, mainly in Internet-related businesses. Many Americans lose their retirement or other savings after their investments in these stocks are lost or depleted.

1930s: Roosevelt’s New Deal programs are meant as a temporary means of assistance to get American citizens back on their feet. While Roosevelt believes in helping individuals through federal aid, he places his focus on aid that keeps people working, so that people can regain their selfsufficiency.

Today: Welfare programs, one of the legacies of the New Deal, have largely been abandoned. Many people who have come to depend on welfare benefits are forced to enter the workforce.

1930s: During the Depression years, many people try to temporarily forget the miseries of their daily reality by attending movies, sporting events, and other forms of escapist entertainment.

Today: Reality television shows like CBS’s phenomenally successful Survivor, spawn a huge revolution in television programming.

Media Adaptations

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Golden Boy was adapted as a film in 1939 by Columbia Pictures. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, the film features William Holden as Joe Bonaparte and Barbara Stanwyck as Lorna Moon. It is available on video from Columbia Tristar Home Video.

In 1964, Golden Boy was adapted as a Broadway musical, and ran for more than five hundred performances. The musical was produced by Hillard Elkins and starred Sammy Davis Jr.—an African-American actor—in the role of Joe Bonaparte, a racial change in Joe’s character that altered the plot line of the original play signifi- cantly. The musical version of the play addressed several racial issues, including interracial relationships. In addition, the production featured one of the first racially integrated casts on Broadway and an African-American music conductor—George Rhodes. The book of the musical was written by Odets and William Gibson and was published by Samuel French in 1965, although it is currently out of print. The music was composed by Charles Strouse with lyrics by Lee Adams. An original cast recording was released on compact disc in 1999, and is available from Razor & Tie.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Demastes, William W., ‘‘Clifford Odets (1906–1963),’’ in American Playwrights, 1880–1945, Greenwood Press, 1995, p. 318.

Hughes, Catharine, ‘‘Odets: The Price of Success,’’ in Commonweal, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 21, September 20, 1963, pp. 558–60.

Isaacs, Edith J. R., ‘‘When Good Men Get Together,’’ in Theatre Arts Monthly, Vol. XXII, No. 1, January 1938, pp. 11–13.

Krutch, Joseph Wood, ‘‘Two Legends,’’ in the Nation, Vol. 145, No. 20, November 13, 1937, pp. 539–40.

Lewis, Allan, ‘‘The Survivors of the Depression—Hellman, Odets, Shaw,’’ in his American Plays and Playwrights of the Contemporary Theatre, rev. ed., Crown, 1970, pp. 99–115. Mendelsohn, Michael J., Clifford Odets: Humane Dramatist, Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1969, p. 44.

Odets, Clifford, Golden Boy, in Waiting for Lefty and Other Plays, Grove Press, 1993.

———, ‘‘How a Playwright Triumphs,’’ in Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 233, No. 1396, September 1966, pp. 64–70, 73–74.

Peary, Gerald, ‘‘Odets of Hollywood,’’ in Sight and Sound, Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter 1986–1987, pp. 59–63.

Shuman, R. Baird, Clifford Odets, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1962, pp. 80, 83.

Erem, Suzan, Labor Pains: Inside America’s New Union Movement, Monthly Review Press, 2001. In this book, Erem, a labor organizer, gives an insider’s view of the struggles that both organizers and union members face today. In addition to fighting for better wages and working conditions, Erem details the internal struggles that take place.

Horne, Gerald, Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930–1950: Moguls, Mobsters, Stars, Reds, & Trade Unionists, University of Texas Press, 2001. Horne examines the often overlooked story of the Hollywood studio strikes that made headlines in the 1940s. The book details the studios’ attempts to thwart the rise of independent unions, which the studios often discredited with Communist labels. However, this was just one aspect of a multifaceted affair, and Horne gives a thorough overview of all sides, using an abundance of historical documents to back up his assertions.

Kennedy, David M., Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929–1945, Oxford History of the United States series, Vol. 9, Oxford University Press, 2001. Kennedy, a Stanford University history professor, chronicles the years during the Great Depression and World War II, at times posing theses that directly contradict established views. This accessible, comprehensive study relies on an extensive number of both published accounts and primary sources to recreate this formative period in America’s history.

Morreale, Ben, and Robert Carola, Italian Americans: The Immigrant Experience, Immigrant Experience series, Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 2000. This book gives a thorough overview of how Italian Americans first came to America and what their experience has been like in the years since. The book also discusses how Italian Americans have helped to influence American culture, and features notable Italian-American entertainers, businessmen, and sports stars. The book is lavishly illustrated with more than two hundred color and black-and-white photographs that help bring the immigrant experience to life.

Ruiz, Vicki L., Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930–1950, University of New Mexico Press, 1987. This book gives the story of several women in southern California in the 1930s and 1940s, who banded together to establish effective labor unions in the seasonal canning industry. Eventually, these women were able to negotiate contracts with benefits like maternity leave, paid vacations, and company-provided day care.

Waldvogel, Merikay, Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking & the Great Depression, Rutledge Hill Press, 1990. Waldvogel explores quiltmaking during the depression, when groups of women would meet to quilt, discuss their hardships, and share tips for surviving. Despite the hardships discussed, however, the quilts of this era were vibrant and beautiful, embodying the hope that many had for better times. The book includes a number of photos of the quilts from this period.


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Brenman-Gibson, Margaret. Clifford Odets, American Playwright: The Years from 1906 to 1940. New York: Atheneum, 1981. This thorough psychoanalytical study of Odets discusses the origins and psychological significance of Golden Boy.

Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945. Clurman tells how Odets wrote Golden Boy to rescue the Group Theatre from insolvency. He offers worthwhile artistic insights into the play.

Miller, Gabriel, ed. Critical Essays on Clifford Odets. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. This useful collection contains essays on most of Odets’ plays, including Golden Boy, which is also referred to in many of the essays.

Shuman, R. Baird. Clifford Odets. New York: Twayne, 1962. Shuman devotes one nine-page section to Golden Boy and refers to the play frequently throughout his critical biography.

Strouse, Charles. “Golden Boy”: The Book of a Musical. New York: Bantam Books, 1966. The musical version of Golden Boy is presented in its entirety, accompanied by a revealing foreword by William Gibson, who completed the musical version after Odets’ death in 1963.

Weales, Gerald. Odets: The Playwright. New York: Methuen, 1985. A sensible starting point for beginners, this lucid, concise overview of Clifford Odets includes a six-page section devoted to Golden Boy, along with frequent other references to the play.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide