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Ambition and Fame

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The concepts of ambition and fame are ones that have often troubled modern dramatists, especially those who have felt pulled by the former and restricted by the latter. Because ambition can be viewed both positively and negatively, dramas have reflected the consequences of both too little and too much ambition, as well as showing the damage caused by those ambitious for the wrong things. Ambition has been depicted by modern playwrights as striving for a variety of rewards beyond mere fame, including professional, competitive, pecuniary, or critical success. However, most agree that little is deemed worthwhile by society at large unless it brings in, or reflects the acquisition of, large amounts of money. This concentration on material success at the risk of demeaning the spirit is the aspect of fame and ambition that has most captivated modern dramatists.


Golden Boy by Clifford Odets and The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler are alike in that both consider the problems of ambition in men who each achieve greatness, but at a loss to themselves. They differ largely because of the central characters’ ethnicity, ability, and character, and how these influence their development. In many ways the story of Golden Boy is a deeply personal one for Odets. Like his character, Joe Bonaparte, Odets saw himself as an artistic, sensitive individual whose dual search for self-actualization and financial success held him in an unresolvable bind. Odets was torn between the commercial possibilities of screenwriting in Hollywood and the artistic fulfillment of playwriting; for Joe the conflict is between the fame and fortune of a boxing career, and the spiritual fulfillment he gains from playing his violin.


Based in part on the history of Jack Johnson, who became the first African American heavyweight champion in 1908, Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope is an epic presentation of the victory, exile, and defeat of Jack Jefferson,   told in nineteen short scenes that take place in eight countries across two continents in the years preceding World War I. Sackler mixes dialogue and direct address, as various characters act as a chorus, commenting on the action. The speech of Jack and other African Americans is rendered in black dialect of the period, but to ensure that this not be read as indicative of a lack of intelligence, what they say is as profound, and often as poetic, as anything we hear uttered by whites. Jack, especially, is capable of clever manipulation, as when he defuses the Salvation Army protest against his bar in Chicago, and prevents a riot. Race complicates matters throughout, but the play is also about the wages of success and individualism on a more universal level, showing the dangers and ultimate compromises into which people can be led by their desire to be the best, for whatever reason.


George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is a story of more limited ambition, but it is ambition nonetheless that inspires Henry Higgins to take Liza Doolittle on as a student, and ambition that leads Liza to agree. Because they are more limited in scale, they suffer less as a result, but the motivation behind their desires is still rooted in selfishness. Higgins dallies with the life and future of Liza on a mere whim, not realizing how what he does leaves her unfit for both her own society and his. The play is based on the Pygmalion myth, in which King Pygmalion sculpts a statue, Galatea, with which he falls in love, and whom the goddess Aphrodite brings to life out of pity on the king. Shaw uses this myth to explore the dangers and problems that arise when one human being tries to exert too much control over another. Higgins irrevocably changes the lives of Liza and her father, and does so without obtaining the clear consent of either of them beforehand.


Liza is not without ambition herself, for it is she who comes to Higgins because she wishes to rise in society from selling flowers on the street to working in a proper flower shop. She impresses Higgins by the sheer percentage of her earnings that she is willing to spend on this plan, and it is that spirit that prompts him to make his wager with Colonel Pickering, aside from giving him the opportunity to show off. But Higgins takes Liza beyond the level she had hoped to attain, to a point at which she is unsure how she can support herself, although she ultimately manages to adapt and find an independence she had never imagined possible. She achieves this final transformation, however, without the aid of Higgins. Her father, by contrast, contrary to his ambition, gains great wealth but feels destroyed as an individual.


In Golden Boy , boxing manager Tom Moody is looking for a successful fighter so he can afford to divorce his wife, marry his girlfriend Lorna, and revitalize his career. Joe Bonaparte, who breaks the hand of Moody’s current fighter while sparring, seems to fulfill that role. Joe desires wealth and success and has the ability to get it, but initially holds back. Moody and Joe discover that the problem lies in Joe’s real passion: music. He pulls his punches to save his hands. His father has long dreamed that Joe would become a concert vio  linist, though he will not force him to make this choice. Joe falls for Moody’s girlfriend, Lorna, and she for him, although she does not know how to let Moody down. Joe commits to fighting to win Lorna, but, ironically, that makes her go back to Moody. In his last fight before his crack at the title, Joe kills his opponent, which brings him to his senses. He realizes that he can no longer fight, but his hands are now too ruined to return to music, so he drives away with Lorna, who is delighted to see the old Joe back, to start a new life of anonymity, but happiness. As his manager and family celebrate his victory in the ring, they receive news that the pair just died in a car accident.


Golden Boy is a study of ambition, with its pitfalls and rewards. Besides the “golden boy” Joe Bonaparte, who has such an array of talents that he could be successful in fields as diverse as music and boxing, the rest of the characters all display different aspects of ambition. Tom Moody, mobster Eddie, and Siggie (Joe’s brother-in-law) each feed off the talent or hard work of others to get ahead. Out of purely selfish motives, Moody bullies Joe into committing everything to boxing, knowing that he could become rich as Joe’s manager and not from any regard for Joe. Indeed, as he realizes the growing affection between Joe and Lorna, he actively grows to hate the boxer. Eddie coerces Moody to let him buy into Joe for the profits, and helps get him hooked on the good life to keep him hungry for victory. Siggie’s ambition is more modest, but no less pecuniary. He had wanted his father-in-law to buy him and Joe a taxicab out of his hard-earned savings, so they could go into business for themselves, working a split shift to double their money. But Joe’s father refuses, knowing Joe is capable of much better.


Not all the characters are out for themselves. Lorna has a far more generous nature. She encourages Moody to have faith and keeps his spirits up when they flag. Despite her love for Joe, Lorna refuses to let Moody down out of respect for what he has done for her in the past. And there is also Joe’s brother, Frank, whose ambitions are more socially oriented. A union organizer, he gets beaten up like Joe, but in pursuit of something in which he sincerely believes—supporting a workers’ strike. As he explains, “I don’t get autos and custom-made suits. But I get what Joe don’t” (318). Frank fights to feel that he is part of something bigger than himself and to feel that what he does makes a difference. In many ways this is all Joe wanted all along, which we see in his admiration of his brother, but he allowed his ambition to get out of hand.


Mr. Bonaparte has worked hard all his life and wants to see his youngest child happy above all else. He knows Joe has ambition and wants to do something of which he can be proud, and he is willing to support Joe’s boxing efforts if they will really make him happy. He bought his son a $1,200 violin for his twenty-first birthday, but quietly puts it away rather than use it to persuade Joe to pursue a musical career at the expense of boxing success, even while he is repulsed by the violence of the boxing. Early on he insists, “What ever you got ina your nature to do isa not foolish” (250), and he is right. Joe’s true nature was to play music all along, as we see in the tender look on his face   when he holds a violin, and as he confesses to Lorna. He explains that he feels defined by music, but he cannot see how to translate that into the fame and fortune he craves: “You can’t get even with people by playing the fiddle” (264). He sells out for what he sees as a more certain path to riches, for which he pays dearly, with his life.


Joe played the violin for ten years, and won countless competitions and a scholarship to the Erickson Institute. But, he complains, “I don’t like myself, past, present and future. Do you know there are men who have wonderful things from life? Do you think they’re better than me? Do you think I like this feeling of no possessions?” (252). He wants to travel and change his life, and, backed by his fight team’s insistence that “the fist is mightier than the fiddle” (257), sees boxing rather than music as the means to this end. He has always felt ostracized by mainstream society because of his name, his intelligence, and his violin, but fighting allows him to be popular, especially once he decides to no longer pull his punches to save his hands. His initial self-doubt, and later arrogance, ensure that the audience never loses sight that this is a bad choice. Speaking about Joe to his father, Lorna suggests, “You could build a city with his ambition to be somebody” (295). But his father points out the destructive potential of such ambition, suggesting that it is more likely that the city will be burned down, which turns out to be a sad, but true, prophecy.


The Great White Hope opens with the media-named Great White Hope, Frank Brady, a white boxer and heavyweight champion, being persuaded to come out of retirement to fight African American boxer, Jack Jefferson, to prevent him from taking the title. Jack is keen to excel in the white man’s world, openly taunting his opposition with his ability and the white establishment with his white lover, Ellie Bachman. Easily beating Brady, he returns in triumph to Chicago where Ellie’s mother tries to get her daughter away from him, but Ellie refuses to leave. The establishment plots to bring him down using Ellie. He is arrested on charges of transporting her across state lines for immoral purposes. He escapes to Europe to avoid jail, but is unable to find regular income there: in England they will not allow him to fight, in France they are appalled at his brutality against Klossowski, in Germany they mock his race. His degradation culminates in Hungary, with him playing Uncle Tom in a disastrous performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin . Having found a new Great White Hope in the Kid, Jack has been offered a reduced sentence if he will return and throw the fight. He initially refuses, saying he will only fight to win, but after the deaths of his mother and Ellie, the latter by suicide after he brutally rejects her, he agrees, and after a vicious fight, allows the Kid to become the new champion.


If Brady does not fight Jack, and he is reluctant to take him on because he is now retired though primarily because of Jack’s color, then Jack can claim the championship belt, used as an icon denoting superiority throughout the play. This is why Cap’n Dan, a former heavyweight champion, and others, insist   that Brady fight “to teach a loudmouth nigger” (18) a lesson. They honestly believe that when Jack beats Brady, “it’s the biggest calamity to hit this country” (36). The federal agent, Dixon, who is devoted to helping bring Jack down, is determined that “We cannot allow the image of this man to go on impressing and exciting these people” (82). Although the threat of Black Power is more endemic to the time when the play was written rather than when it was set, white America’s irrational fear of a race they had for so long subjugated underscores the whole play.


For the fight against Brady, the white establishment, in control throughout the play, insists on using Cap’n Dan as the referee, and having the prize money an unfair split of 80/20, expecting Brady to take the larger share. The fight is set for July 4th, to make it seem like a political contest for American independence (implying that only whites are truly American), and placed in Reno, a predominantly white city, to restrict the number of African Americans who can attend to support Jack. Jack accepts these conditions because he so badly wants to be the champion. He needs to prove himself against the white establishment, even when, or because, they have all the power, money, and political and media clout. By winning the heavyweight title, even if only for a short time, he does best them, which is why they are so determined to bring him down, by any means available. The charges they bring against him are bogus, based as they are on the statutes to catch prostitutes, not real couples, although few accept an interracial relationship.


Jack’s pride—as fierce as his ability—is instrumental in his downfall, since it makes him a greater target. His mother tells us, “Tried to learn him like you gotta learn a cullud boy, dassn’t, dassn’t, dassn’t, that ain’t for you! Roll right off him” (59). Jack smiles as he fights to show how easy he finds it, taunting his opponents, even letting them hit him, just to further display his confidence. Ironically, in being forced by financial necessity to play Uncle Tom, he accepts a role he has spent his life avoiding. Alongside his pride, Jack also has great talent, integrity, and energy, all of which the establishment eventually grinds out of him. Jack does not want to be an African American hero; he fights for himself, to satisfy his own sense of self and ambition. Although many African Americans support him and take pride in his victories, he tells them to find pride in themselves and their own actions, not his.


There are also many African Americans who dislike Jack as intensely as whites do, seeing his cocky manner as reflecting badly on the African American community, and his affair with Ellie only feeding the stereotype of the black man who lusts after white women. Given his lascivious reputation, they are reluctant for him to be seen as an icon of their community, for he can only do them a public disservice with such an negative image: “For a Negro today, the opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory should appear to be worth infinitely more than the opportunity of spending that dollar in the emulation of Mr. Jack Jefferson” (45). Others, such as Scipio, who preach separatism, go further, sug-  gesting that Jack has become a white puppet who lives by white standards in a white world, and should be ridiculed for this rather than lionized.


The forced entry of the officers into their Wisconsin hideaway represents the continuous intrusion of the establishment into Jack and Ellie’s lives. They are no longer allowed any privacy, because of Jack’s fame and the controversial reality of their interracial relationship. The reporter, Smitty, is forever following them, trying to break them up, or dig up some dirt he can publish to discredit them. Jack’s love for Ellie may seem ambiguous: does he use her, as he uses his fighting, to challenge and provoke those in power? He turns on her viciously toward the end, which leads to her suicide, but he pays his penance by agreeing to throw the fight. He turns on her largely out of embarrassment at the level to which he has brought her, where he must sell off his boxing gloves to raise cash and cannot make love to her. She has challenged him by declaring that he is no longer his own man: the establishment has eliminated every option except those they offer him in their efforts to reclaim the belt. She may be right, but it is a truth he cannot accept, which is why he drives her away.


Jack is ahead of his time in his rebellion against the white establishment. He resists roles placed on him by whites and African Americans, and although forced to play certain stereotypical roles, he does so with a bombast that satirizes them and makes them his own. Yet they are still used against him, for his challenge to a white-dominated society cannot be allowed to succeed. We are prepared for his tragic downfall by various visual motifs, such as the repeated crowd scenes where initial support turns to antagonism. Public opinion is ever unpredictable, but when it is virtually owned by the opposition, Jack stands little chance of a fair hearing. For beating Jack at the close, and defeating not only the man but the challenge for which he stood, the Kid is carried aloft with the belt of victory, resembling " the lifelike wooden saints in Catholic processions " (133).


Pygmalion opens with Henry Higgins, a professional phonetician who helps people change the way they speak so they can pass in high society, impressing a crowd with his ability to locate where individuals come from by their accents. He boasts how he could teach a cockney flower girl to speak like a duchess. The next day that flower girl, Liza Doolittle, comes to his residence to pay for speech lessons so she can get a job as a clerk in a flower shop. Colonel Pickering, Higgins’s friend and colleague, wagers Higgins that he cannot pass Liza off as a duchess at the Ambassador’s garden party, and the housekeeper takes her out to clean her up. Liza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, arrives to extort money from Higgins, and although Higgins is a match for his manipulation, Doolittle makes off with five pounds, impressing Higgins with his audacity.


Training goes well, and Higgins takes Liza to visit his mother as a test. While there, they have unexpected visitors, the Eynsford Hills, including Freddy, who falls for Liza. They are fooled by her appearance and demeanor, as are the   people at the garden party. While Higgins and Pickering celebrate, Liza gets angry, realizing they do not care about her future, and runs off to Higgins’s mother. The next day they go to find her, meeting Doolittle, who complains that his life has been ruined because Higgins told an eccentric millionaire about him, and the millionaire has given Doolittle a regular income. Higgins asks Liza to return, and she refuses, declaring her intention to become a teacher of phonetics, possibly marry Freddy, and leave Higgins for good. Higgins feels sure she will return.


Although many performed versions of this play, including the popular musical adaption it spawned, My Fair Lady (1956), all depict Liza and Higgins united by the close, Shaw himself insisted that they do not get together. He wrote an afterword in which he denounces sentimental interpretations of his play, and explains that Higgins must remain an inveterate bachelor, while Liza marries the penniless Freddy, and, after financial difficulties, opens a flower shop with funds provided by Pickering.


The fact is, Higgins is too self-involved to be a suitable husband for anyone. His reshaping of Liza, as he corrects her accent and grammar, dresses her in beautiful clothes, and moves her into polite society, is simply a power game, by which he displays the power inherent in class status, money, and gender. Because he is upper class, wealthy, and male, Higgins believes he has complete control over Liza, which is why he cannot accept her rebellion at the close. It is a power he wields without conscience, as he refuses to even consider Liza’s position and how what he does may affect her life. His housekeeper, mother, and even Pickering, ask him what will happen to Liza after his experiment is through, and each is cast off with a flippant answer because Higgins cannot understand why this would be a concern. Even Pickering, another privileged male, although more sympathetic, does not really understand the effects of their “game,” and is bemused by Liza’s response after the garden party.


Liza realizes that her previous life as a flower girl has been destroyed, and runs to Mrs. Higgins in confusion. She does not have the class or wealth to back up her new voice and appearance, so could never truly thrive in Higgins’s world. She can only marry Freddy because he is penniless. However, she reaches a new understanding, realizing she can become independent by teaching what she has been taught. Thus, her whole vision of herself changes, and this is a more profound transformation than sprucing up her accent and putting on a pretty dress. With this comes the strength that allows her to become entirely independent of Higgins, resist any romance with him, and firmly leave at the close. Liza ends up changed both internally and externally, unlike Higgins, who remains totally static.


Liza’s father is less lucky than she. An interesting subversion, as the man whose ambition is to be utterly unambitious but who is compelled into becoming the opposite of what he wishes to be, he is a man content with poverty and life as a garbage collector. He extorts only enough money for a drunken spree, refusing more when it is offered because he does not want to be tempted to save and thus take the first step toward middle-class respectability and its inherent responsibilities. Higgins thoughtlessly sends a joking letter to an American millionaire, who subsequently bequeaths Doolittle a yearly allowance if he will lecture on the morality he abhors. He feels compelled to accept the stipend, and his life is no longer impoverished, but neither is it as free and simple as it once was. Forced to become middle class, he must now embrace restrictive middle-class morality and marry his wife.

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