The Great White Hope
Play, 1971
American playwright ( 1929 - 1982 )
Other Names Used: Sackler, Howard Oliver;
Drama for Students. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 15. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2002. p25-47.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
Full Text: 
Page 25

The Great White Hope

HOWARD SACKLER 1967

The Great White Hope won three of the most important awards on Broadway—the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and a Tony—a phenomenal achievement in the history of twentieth-century theatre. The play is based on the life of black boxer Jack Johnson. When white American fighters refused to compete with Johnson, he traveled to Australia and defeated Tommy Burns in 1908, becoming the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World. Sackler’s work explores with deep consideration the consequences of Johnson’s achievement in a climate of deep racial unrest.

Curiously, Sackler’s original work was meant to be a musical, more lighthearted than tragic. He eventually abandoned his plans and completed the play in 1967. The Great White Hope opened in December of that year at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Although the work is fictional, many of the events of the play, such as Jack’s arrest, actually happened to Johnson at some point in his life. Thematically, the play also explores, with depth, perceptiveness, and brutal honesty, the nature of racism and racial conflict in American society. The voices of Sackler’s characters, black and white, offer a colorful collage of insights. In examining the motivations of these characters, the audience gains exposure to a wide range of perspectives and, by extension, a much greater understanding of the issues surrounding them.

Page 26  |  Top of Article

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Howard Sackler was born on December 19,1929, in New York City, although he spent much of his early childhood in Florida. He attended Brooklyn College, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1950. He began his writing career as a poet under the guidance of W. H. Auden. In addition to his poetry, Sackler wrote a verse drama in the tradition of T. S. Eliot, a one-act play titled “Uriel Acosta.” In addition to these achievements, Sackler also wrote the screenplays “Desert Padre” (1950), “Fear and Desire” (1953), and “Killer’s Kiss” (1955) for director Stanley Kubrick. All of these accomplishments were realized before he reached the age of twenty-five.

Sackler also founded and became production director for Caedmon Records, a production company engineering the recording of over two hundred well-known plays, read by England’s most respectable actors and actresses. The list of actors and actresses includes Paul Scolfield, Sir Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Margaret Leighton, Dame Edith Evans, Claire Bloom, Albert Finney, Julie Harris, and Jessica Tandy.

His work at Caedmon Records took him away from the business of writing. It would not be until 1961 that Sackler would decide to put pen to paper and write A Few Enquiries, a collection of four one-act plays, as well as screenplays. Among these titles are “The Nine O’Clock Mail” (1965) and “Mr. Welk and Jersey Jim” (1970).

His major achievement would come in the form of The Great White Hope. Sackler was intrigued by the story of Jack Johnson, the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World. Initially, his vision was to create a musical version of the play, but the author soon abandoned the idea in favor of drama. The great success of this play came with the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the Antoinette Perry Award in 1969. Sackler also received other grants and awards as a writer, including a Rockefeller Foundation grant (1953), a Littauer Foundation grant (1954), the Maxwell Anderson Award (1954), and the Sergel Award (1959).

Throughout the remainder of his career, Sackler continued to work at Caedmon, while also continuing to direct for the stage, film, and television. Sackler died at his home in Ibiza, Spain, in 1982, leaving several plays unfinished, including “Klondike,” based on the Alaskan gold rush. While his unfinished plays have never been produced, other works, like The Great White Hope, continue to appear in England as well as America.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act 1, Scene 1

The play opens on Brady’s farm in Parchmont, Ohio. There is a discussion between Brady, identified as “the heavyweight champion;” Fred, his manager; Cap’n Dan, “a champion of earlier days;” Smitty, “a famous sportswriter”; and several members of the press including photographers. Goldie, Jack Jefferson’s manager, is also present. The group, with the exception of Goldie, is encouraging Brady to re-enter the ring in reaction to the recent performance of black athlete Jack Jefferson, who is a serious boxing contender. Cap’n Dan pitches to Brady, “You’re the White Hope, Mr. Brady!” He shares his fears with the heavyweight, asking how he can let the whole country down, how he can live with a reputation that “he wouldn’t stick a fist out to teach a loudmouth nigger, stayed home and let him be Champion of the World.”

The scene ends with a flurry of negotiations after Brady agrees to fight Jefferson. The terms are 80−20 in favor of the promoter, the location is Reno, as suggested by Cap’n Dan, who believes it is necessary to avoid big towns and the likelihood of having “every nigger and his brother jamming in there.” Goldie departs for the train, leaving Brady to pose for photos with members of the press.

Act 1, Scene 2

The action shifts to a small gym in San Francisco, California, where Jefferson is shadowboxing in the presence of his trainer, Tick, as Eleanor Bachman watches. Jack and Tick are working on a strategy for the upcoming fight when Goldie arrives.

Jack relays to Goldie that he met Eleanor on a boat from Australia and that Eleanor is from Tacoma, Washington. When Goldie asks Eleanor to leave because the press is coming, Jack says, “she stay where she is.” Goldie knows he can protect Jack from some adversaries, “guys who want to put dope in your food there, a guy who wants to watch the fight behind a rifle.” He is not prepared to deal with the racist backlash of those unsympathetic to Jack’s involvement with a woman outside his race.

Page 27  |  Top of Article

Act 1, Scene 3

Outside the arena in Reno, the day before the fight, Jack calls out to his “homefolks” and moves to their group in the back of the room. When a member of this group of black men tells him they are rooting for him because they believe that his victory will instill in them a sense of pride, Jack responds, “Well, country boy, if you ain’t there already, all the boxin’ and nigger-prayin in the world ain’t gonna get you there.”

In a personal moment, Cap’n Dan shares with the audience his fears about a possible victory for Jack. He confides that, unlike being the world’s best engineer or the world’s biggest genius, to Cap’n Dan, the possibility of Jack becoming the heavyweight champion makes the world seem “darker, and different, like it’s shrinking, it’s all huddled down somehow.”

Act 1, Scene 4

Jack is hosting the Grand Opening of the Café de Champion in Chicago and has decided to use the event to openly announce his engagement to Ellie. He is suddenly confronted by the Women’s League for Temperance, whose members are protesting the opening. Jack’s reaction to the crowd is to offer them chairs and refreshments outside of the cafe, an act that serves to disperse the crowd. The conflict is diminished by the arrival of Mrs. Bachman, Ellie’s mother, who has come with an attorney to entice Ellie to leave the festivities.

Act 1, Scene 5

Cameron, district attorney for the city of Chicago, is meeting with several civic leaders and Smitty, a detective, among others, to discuss the incident outside the cafe, during which Clara, Jack’s common-law wife, fired a shot at her “husband.” As a group, they determine that Jack “personifies all that should be suppressed by law” and agree to work towards such lawful “suppression.” Smitty and Cameron then proceed to interview Ellie, hoping she will say something to incriminate Jack. She repeatedly declares her love for the prizefighter. When their harassment causes Ellie’s hostile departure, Cameron admits defeat, exclaiming “Nothing! Seduction, enticement, coercion, abduction, not one good berry on the bush!”

Act 1, Scene 6

Jack is arrested after he is discovered vacationing with Ellie in a cabin in Beau Rivage, Wisconsin. Federal marshals burst into the cabin with lanterns to discover the two romantically snuggled up in bed. Jack’s crime is that he drove Ellie over the Wisconsin state line and “proceeded to have relations with her,” apparently “illegal under the Mann Act.”

Act 1, Scene 7

After his arrest, Jack visits his mother while he’s out on bond. His punishment is a $20,000 fine and three years in Joliet prison. Jack tells Mrs. Jefferson that he plans to disguise himself as one of the Detroit Blue Jays, members of a Negro League who assist him in his escape out of the country. He answers his mother’s objections, saying, “Ah got my turn to be Champeen of the world an Ah takin my turn! Ah stayin whut Ah am, wherever Ah has to do it! The world ain’t curled up into no forty-eight states here!”

Act 2, Scene 1

The scene is London in the home office of several city officials. Jack’s status as an alien is being questioned after an arrest for “using obscene language” and another for “causing a crowd to collect,” among other offenses substantiated by Inspector Wainright and several other individuals present. At the completion of the meeting, Sir William, the individual overseeing the meeting, trivializes the charges. Despite Sir William’s position, Jack chooses to abandon the proceedings in disgust.

Act 2, Scenes 2-3

Jack’s arrival in France is celebrated, and the action quickly moves to Vel d’Hiver arena in Paris. His competition is, according to Jack, a “fifth-rate” fighter in contrast to his past experiences. Smitty appears next to Ellie as she watches the fight. The sportswriter engages Ellie with a series of probing questions about her life plans with Jack. Noticing Ellie’s increasing agitation, Smitty remarks, “Living like this... has to burn you out... you’re not as tough as he is, you know, you can’t just go on.” Jack’s bloodstained appearance and shouts of “assassin” from angry spectators suddenly interrupt their conversation. The scene ends with Jack, Tick, and Ellie’s hasty departure from the arena.

Act 2, Scene 4

Fred, Pop Weaver, a promoter, and Cap’n Dan are previewing film footage of what they believe to be the next “Great White Hope.” They hope to strike a deal with Jack. Their plans are to drop Jack’s prison sentence if he agrees to fix the fight. At first, Page 28  |  Top of Articlethere is some resistance from Pop and Fred; both object to the illegal activity. To Cap’n Dan, Jack’s freedom is a small price to pay for a “white” victory, something that eventually all can agree on. The success of blacks in American society, that is, Jack, is threatening to men like Mr. Dixon, who enters into the discussion claiming, “we cannot allow the image of this man to go on impressing and exciting these people [blacks].”

Act 2, Scene 5

In his search for work, Jack is unsuccessful in Germany. According to Ragosy, Jack “will not divert” or get any attention unless he fights. Goldie offers up information concerning a possible fight in Chicago, stating that “Fred’s got this kid” who wants to fight Jack. The profits involve “10 G’s guaranteed” and a reduced prison sentence of six months for Jack. When Jack objects, Goldie, seeing the futility of the situation, tells Jack he will be returning to the States.

Act 2, Scene 6

The scene shifts to Cabaret Ragosy in Budapest. It appears that Ragosy finally has convinced Jack, Ellie, and Tick to act in a dramatic performance based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. They must stop the show after the crowd becomes more hostile, booing them off the stage.

Act 2, Scene 7

In the train station in Belgrade, Jack, Ellie, and Tick meet up with Smitty, who relays to them that Jack’s mother is ill. He then offers Jack the chance to fight in the States, which Jack immediately refuses. When Smitty responds, asking, “What is it,” is it that he wants to “stay the champ and keep the belt a bit longer,” Jack replies, “Champ don mean piss-all ta me man. Ah bin it, all dat champ jive been beat clear outta me.”

Act 3, Scene 1

The scene is a funeral procession on a street in Chicago, given for Jack’s mother. Tensions in the crowd heighten as Clara soulfully speaks of the dead woman’s tribulations. When Goldie expresses his sympathy, Clara responds, “you an dat white b------an de whole pack a ya—come on ovah to de box here, sugah, see how good y’all nail de lid down.” Her statements provoke the crowd’s anger towards Goldie, and there is great confusion as violence erupts and fists and billy clubs fly.

Act 3, Scene 2

Back in Pop’s office in New York, Pop, Smitty, and Cap’n Dan are heatedly discussing Jack Jefferson. The group speculates on how best they can defame Jack, and they come up with an idea to manipulate his future, to bribe his trainers to abandon him, and to bribe officials so there are no exhibition matches or competitions open to Jack. The goal is to entice Jack to return to the States to fight their most promising young fighter, their “Great White Hope.” Says Cap’n Dan, “we’re gonna squeeze that dinge so... hard soon a fix is gonna look like a hayride to him!”

Act 3, Scene 3

Jack has switched training locations to a disused barn in Juarez, Mexico. “Well, you kin work wid da heavy ones, time bein. Bettah fo ya, anyhow,” replies Tick, when Jack says he’s going to sell his boxing gloves for cash. Everyone involved in Jack’s training must catch the train, leaving Ellie and Jack alone to talk.

“Jack, it’s slow poison here, there’s nothing else to wait for, just more of it, you’ve had enough—please, you’re being paralyzed,” pleads a discouraged Ellie. Jack responds that it is Ellie who is dragging him down and that, for him, refusing to give in is a matter of self-respect. Angrily responding to a lack of support, Jack asks Ellie to “get out.” Ellie begs him to reconsider only to be met with a hurl of insults. He blames Ellie for his failure, stating, “evvy time you pushes up dat pinch-up face in fronna me, Ah sees where it done got me.”

Ellie exits, and Jack finds himself in the company of Goldie, El Jefe, Dixon, and another government agent. The agent answers Jack’s protests, stating, “it is perfectly legal” to “request cooperation of the parties in charge” in Mexico in an effort to apprehend him. At that moment, Jack learns of Ellie’s suicide, her body presented to him “mudsmeared and dripping.” When Goldie asks Jack how he can help, Jack cries, “Set dat... fight up!”

Act 3, Scene 4

Jack’s black supporters spiritedly rally around him in the streets somewhere in the United States.

Act 3, Scene 5

The final scene of the play takes place at Oriente race track, Havana. Jack has been sparring Page 29  |  Top of Articlein the ring with a young white fighter for ten rounds. To the wonderment of Pop and Smitty, Jack refuses to go down, even after Smitty says he has “given the high sign two rounds ago.” Ultimately, Jack is defeated in the final round. When he is repeatedly asked why he has lost the fight, Jack replies, “Ah ain’t got dem reallies from de Year One... An if you got’m, step right down and say em,” resigning to a state of racial inferiority.

CHARACTERS

Eleanor Bachman

Eleanor (Ellie) is Jack’s white girlfriend and love interest. After meeting Jack on a boat returning from Australia, she follows Jack to San Francisco rather than returning to her home in Tacoma, Washington. She is good-natured and supportive but not a bit naive about interracial relations. Ellie is aware of the challenges Jack faces as a black man and is fiercely protective of him. Volunteering to be interviewed by Cameron, Ellie tells him her reasons for participating, saying, “I wanted to head off any notions you have of getting at him through me.”

Contrary to the opinions of those opposing her relationship with Jack, Ellie truly loves him and has no desire other than to be with him. She suffers the scrutiny and judgment of others, only to face disbelief and disrespect rather than support and acceptance. At one point during her interview with Cameron, she is driven to tears, pleading, “why can’t they leave us alone, what’s the difference?”

Mrs. Bachman

Mrs. Bachman’s objective is to get her daughter out of arm’s reach of Jack. Although she appears infrequently during the course of the play, she surfaces to deliver an important dramatic monologue. Her speech is revealing—it helps the audience to understand her motivations concerning Ellie as well as those of other characters in the play. Her fear, her ingrained loathing for what she calls blackness, is described by association, “the black hole and the black pit, what’s burned or stained or cursed or hideous, poison and spite and the waste from your body and the horrors crawling up into your mind.”

Sidebar: HideShow

MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

  • The Great White Hope was made into a movie in 1970 by Twentieth Century Fox.

Brady

Brady is the former Heavyweight Champion of the World and a possible contender chosen to win the title back from Jack.

Cameron

The district attorney for Chicago, Cameron is behind the efforts of Cap’n Dan and others, but for professional reasons rather than personal ones. He indicates this in a conversation about Jack, stating, “You know... if a good White Hope showed up and beat him it would take the edge off this.” It would certainly take the edge off Cameron, who recognizes that revoking the fighter’s privileges or charging him with a dozen misdemeanors would not help because “they want [Jack’s] head on a plate.”

Clara

Clara is a former lover of Jack’s who has surfaced in his life to rekindle their relationship. Although she claims to be his common-law wife and that Jack is dishonoring her, Jack has a different story to tell. Clara does not deny Jack’s accusations—that she left him for a pimp named Willie or that she sold off his clothes, ring, and silver brushes. She is determined to win Jack back, which can be witnessed in her saying, “you ain’t closing up the book so easy, Daddy.”

Clara cannot be silenced. The mistrust and jealousy she harbors for Ellie has become a personal crusade against her. To Clara, Jack is at Ellie’s disposal. Ellie maintains Jack in her life simply for the purpose of her own amusement. Clara’s anger towards Ellie is really a vehicle for social commentary. Ellie is, as Clara sees it, the force behind her oppression, merely on the basis of her color. Clara believes Ellie to be a catalyst for Jack’s arrest and Mrs. Jefferson’s death.

Page 30  |  Top of Article

Cap’n Dan

He is described simply as a champion of earlier days. Cap’n Dan is the main force behind the group of white fighters, sportswriters, and promoters who would like to see Jack lose his title. He expends a great deal of energy and effort to make his dream a reality. For Cap’n Dan, Jack’s victory is a threat not only to his social status and his reputation as a fighter but also to his white lifestyle. He sees Jack, and black citizens in general, as inferior. Jack’s status as champion is more than a victory; it is an affront, an attack on his core belief system. Says Cap’n Dan:

I hold up his hand, and suddenly a nigger is Champion of the world. Now you’ll say, Oh, that’s only your title in sports—no, it’s more. Admit it. And more than if one got to be world’s best engineer, or smartest politician, or number one opera singer, or world’s biggest genius at making things from peanuts.

Jack’s victory has a profound effect on Cap’n Dan precisely because he feels a sense not only of superiority but of entitlement as a white individual. The idea that a black man attained the same success and status as Cap’n Dan is a threat to him. He has, in a sense, failed to live up to the white standard he has imposed on himself and to a belief system that says he is better than any black male, regardless of talent or ability.

Dixon

Offering his expertise as a federal agent, Dixon provides professional support in assisting the district attorney of Chicago in his apprehension of Jack. He suggests the use of the Mann Act, which leads to Jack’s successful arrest.

Dixon also has a personal interest in seeing Jack brought to justice after he flees the country. In a meeting with Cap’n Dan and others, he states “When a man beats us out like this, we—the law, that is—suffer in prestige, and that’s pretty serious.” And like Cap’n Dan, Dixon believes that he cannot “allow the image of this man” to impress and excite “millions of ignorant Negroes, rapidly massing together.”

Ellie

See Eleanor Bachman

Goldie

He serves as Jack’s manager as well as his friend. Goldie is aware of the challenges Jack faces as a black fighter and is very supportive and protective of Jack. When negotiating the terms for Jack’s fight with a promoter, Goldie is quick to point out the inequity of the situation, saying, “my Jackie would fight for a nickel, tomorrow. But it wouldn’t look nice for you to take advantage, so you’ll offer me low as you can get away with and I’ll say OK.”

Goldie is also a father figure to Jack. When he finds out that Jack is seeing a white woman, he says in dismay, “Last night in my head it’s like a voice—Dumbbell, go home quick, somethin’s goin on with him!” This statement is followed by a stern lecture not only about the dangers of being a black man dating a white woman but also about those inherent in just being a black heavyweight champion. The audience comes to see Goldie not only as a manager but as a family member and friend when he chooses to support Jack in his flight from justice and then participates in Mrs. Jefferson’s funeral on Jack’s behalf.

Jack Jefferson

Jack is more than a heavyweight fighter; he is a top-notch athlete, fiercely devoted to his sport. Jack is also unwilling to succumb to the demands society places upon him, both as a black man and as a black athlete. Despite Goldie’s repeated warnings that dating a white woman would hurt his career, Jack insists on announcing his engagement to Ellie publicly, at the grand opening of a café in Chicago.

His fighting ability is also challenged strictly on the basis of his color. Cap’n Dan and others insist Jack defend his title on their terms, hoping he will eventually lose. Jack, however, does not feel an obligation to Cap’n Dan, nor does he give in to the harassment and enormous pressure put on him by white society. Jack refutes any pressure or suggestion from the group, stating, “Ah got my turn to be Champeen of the World an Ah takin my turn! Ah stayin whut Ah am, wherever Ah has to do it!”

This defiance is characteristic of Jack’s behavior throughout the work. He repeatedly insists on maintaining personal autonomy and self-respect among whites and blacks alike, even if it means risking incarceration or his own life. Jack will go to any extreme to preserve his identity, becoming a fugitive on the move for almost the entire play.

Mrs. Jefferson

Jack’s ailing mother is a troubled, God-fearing woman who deeply loves her son, despite his shortcomings. She also feels a sense of responsibility for what is happening to her son, pleading, “Lawd Page 31  |  Top of Articlefogive me not beatin on him young enough or hurtin him bad enough to learn him after, cause ah seen this day comin.” Mrs. Jefferson does not blame Ellie for Jack’s troubles, nor does she question Ellie’s affections for her son. When Clara attacks Ellie, Mrs. Jefferson defends her, replying, “could be she do love him, Clara.” More important, her death serves to heighten racial tensions among the black characters of the play who blame Jack’s arrest for her death.

Pastor

The audience is introduced to the activities of the pastor as he interacts with Mrs. Jefferson. He is a mediator attempting to soothe tense, racially charged moments with church rhetoric. He provides opportunities for social commentary from Scipio, Clara, and others. When the pastor tries to calm the angry crowd during Mrs. Jefferson’s funeral, Scipio responds sarcastically, “Dass right, chillun, suffer nice an easy—school em on it, boss!” Scipio’s comments eventually insight a riot. For Scipio and others, the church represents another part of white culture that has been imposed on blacks to subdue them.

Ragosy

Ragosy is the Hungarian impresario who encourages Jack to give up any ideas he may have of fighting in Germany to join his Cabaret. The engagement is short-lived, however, when Jack and Ellie’s performance ends abruptly after a disastrous reception.

Scipio

A street philosopher, Scipio appears during several moments in the course of the play to illuminate or explain the nature of the white institutionalization he and others of his race have been subjected to. His perspectives amplify the sentiments of those African Americans who are no longer content to “just get along,” to be passive as well as complacent in the context of a society controlled by whites.

Smitty

The famous sportswriter seems always to be lurking in the shadows of Jack’s life. At the opening of the play, he is a witness to the fight between Jack and Clara and is one of the first people to learn of Jack and Ellie’s relationship. He is also behind the scenes, privy to the efforts of Cap’n Dan and others to dethrone Jack as World Heavyweight Champion.

At every turn in the play, Smitty is present, asking questions of Ellie, Jack, Cap’n Dan, and others. His probing interviews also function to give the audience a different perspective into the motivations of many of the characters. At a railway station in Belgrade, Smitty attempts to advise Jack, urging him to surrender and return to the United States to defend his title. He tells Jack that he’d “rather have [the fight] straight,” if he “weren’t so good.” This comment betrays Smitty’s true feelings, and as the play wears on, the audience discovers that Smitty is not just an ambitious journalist, but an informant for Cap’n Dan.

Tick

Loyal to Jack as his trainer, Tick never really leaves his side throughout the play. He is a silent man. More than a trainer, he is a steady, trustworthy, and supportive companion to Jack.

Pop Weaver

The promoter from New York behind the Havana fight, Pop Weaver works with allies Cap’n Dan and Fred to plan Jack’s defeat by introducing some young raw white talent. When he learns the fight will be fixed, he is quick to offer up his objections. Eventually, he agrees to go along with the plans stating, “We’ll balance it out on the one after this. Everything back on the gold standard, right?”

THEMES

Racism and Racial Conflict

The Great White Hope is a title reflective of the racism and racial conflict present throughout the work. There is an air of superiority, a notion among several white characters in the novel that they are better than their black neighbors. The rights and privileges of black members of such a society are defined by white interpretation. Cap’n Dan feels that Jack’s status as a boxer is wrong and should be corrected. He says at the outset of the play that Jack has no right to think he can be a champion. This notion is reflected in Cap’n Dan’s statement when he asks Smitty:

How’re you going to like it when the whole . . . country says Brady let us down, he wouldn’t stick a fist out to teach a loudmouth nigger, stayed home and let him be Champion of the World?

Blacks themselves also define their place in step with white perceptions. A black man, only

Page 32  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow

TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • Compare the structure of Sackler’s play to a Shakespearean play of your choosing. In what ways do both works mirror or match each other structurally? Thematically?
  • Study the life story of Jack Johnson. Take note of any differences between Sackler’s work of fiction and the reality of the events that touched Johnson’s life. Does the author’s representation at all compromise the play?
  • Consider Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in light of the white characters in the play. How do the feelings of characters like Mrs. Bachman and Cap’n Dan compare with the overall mood of Conrad’s work?
  • Choose a historical figure, event, or aspect of the play and investigate the significance of it. Explain how that figure, event, or aspect had an impact on society during the time in which the play takes place, as well as the author’s time.

identified as “Negro,” comments on the threat Jack poses to the community, stating, “For the 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 emulation of Mr. Jack Jefferson.”

Racial conflict is an outgrowth of these prevailing white attitudes represented throughout the work. In one scene, Clara uses Mrs. Jefferson’s funeral as a forum for protest. She singles out Goldie to express her outrage at whites. When the preacher condones her behavior, one of the participants exclaims, “Shame on me, shame on alla us, for BEIN de oppressed, an bein it, an bein it!” This comment and others move the crowd to engage in a violent struggle, black against white.

Black Identity

The spirit of those behind Jack in his quest for victory is guided by their need to foster some sense of identity. Sackler captures this spirit in the voices of his black characters, using them to comment on the cultural oppression of black America for the sake of white ideals. Such ideals have meant involuntary conformity, assuming a position of inferiority, and a loss of cultural identity for black Americans.

Some characters see championing the white culture as a means of earning their respect. To Jack’s black supporters, his victory represents not only a triumph for the entire black race but also a chance for them to redeem themselves as individuals.

Jack has a different response to the question of black identity. He sees a characteristically undesirable mentality, a “cullud” mentality, among his supporters. Jack demonstrates this idea when he expresses to the group that he doesn’t have to earn or prove his need for self-respect because he already has it. When a young man states, “Ah be proud to be a cullud man tomorrow,” Jack replies, “Well, country boy, if you ain’t there already, all the boxin and nigger-prayin in the world ain’t gonna get you there.” He refutes the belief that his victory represents one for his race, further maintaining that such beliefs constitute “cullud” thinking, beliefs that ultimately limit, rather than foster, achievement. If one thinks “cullud,” then all one will ever do is live inside the box, that is, be “cullud.”

Scipio sympathizes with Jack’s views on identity, perhaps more profoundly, stating in his monologue that it’s “time again to make us a big new wise proud dark man’s world.” He sees freedom from oppression in regaining self-respect, as well as self-love, by celebrating his own heritage. “Learn brothers, learn! Ee-gyp!! Tambuctoo!! Ethiopya!! Red’n goldin cities older den Jeruslem.”

Interracial Relationships

The issue of interracial relations is a prominent theme within the context of the play. Time and time again, blacks and whites alike challenge Jack and Ellie’s relationship. The controversy begins immediately when Jack is asked to hide his white girlfriend from the unsympathetic eyes of the press. Ignoring Goldie’s requests, Jack asks:

Whut Ah s’pose to do! Stash her in a iddy biddy hole someplace in niggertown an go sneakin over there twelve o’clock at night, carry her roun with me inside a box like a pet bunny rabbit or somethin?

Ellie has to endure the intense scrutiny of others concerning her relationship with Jack. In the Page 33  |  Top of ArticleChicago district attorney’s office, her feelings for Jack are repeatedly questioned during an increasingly probing, intensely personal interview. Cameron insists at several points with Ellie that she is lonely, unhappy somehow, in an attempt to explain what he infers is an “unnatural” relationship. He has an agenda. Like other characters, he cannot accept Ellie’s affection for Jack—to him, her feelings aren’t just impossible; they aren’t right. Cameron’s ideas only mirror the sentiments of other characters in the play whose belief systems are challenged by Jack and Ellie’s relationship.

When Jack goes to jail for taking Ellie across the Wisconsin state line, Clara is quick to offer her opinion. She blames the situation on Ellie and is ready to “smoke her out.” What Clara recognizes is Jack’s liability in the affair. When Ellie and Jack are caught together, it is Jack who suffers the arrest rather than his white girlfriend. She questions Ellie’s claim to love Jack when her presence repeatedly compromises his life.

Free Will and Determinism

The catalyst for Jack’s troubles is his demand for autonomy and self-respect as a black man in a racially unjust environment. His insistence on crossing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable to realize personal achievement is a futile endeavor in the context of the racist society of which he is a part. While Jack is struggling to achieve his own personal goals as an athlete, the white power structure is trying to tear him down. Specifically, there are whites that would like to see him lose his title less for an appreciation of boxing than for their own supremacist satisfactions. Goldie is the first to warn Jack he’s in over his head in dating a white woman, stating, “a white girl, Jack, what, do I have to spell it on the wall for you, you wanna drive them crazy, you don’t wanna hear what happens.”

Instead of earning the respect of his contemporaries for being a great athlete, he is pursued by them as if his talents are criminal. About to be arrested, Jack questions the credibility of being apprehended outside of his own country. The agent is quick to answer, offering, “It is perfectly legal once we’ve ascertained where a wanted man is, to request cooperation of the parties in charge there.” The reality of Jack’s life is that no matter where he travels to escape the limitations imposed on him by white society, whether Canada or Europe, he can never truly realize freedom and autonomy as a black man.

STYLE

Foreshadowing

Elements in the plot that create expectation or help to explain later developments are represented in dramatic monologue. These moments occur in boldface within the text of the play, functioning either as part of a larger dialogue or within a dramatic monologue. When the press discovers that Ellie is dating Jack, for example, Goldie turns to the audience mid-dialogue and says, “if it gets out, God knows what could happen.” The warning to the audience proves true later in the play, when Jack is arrested for taking Ellie on a weekend getaway.

Mrs. Bachman’s dramatic monologue also foreshadows the tragic events of the play’s climax. White, pained, and haggard, she appears to the audience later in the play to express her sorrow over her daughter’s involvement with Jack. She sends the audience a warning, stating, “I know what Black means... wait until it is your every other thought, like it is theirs, like it is mine. Wait until it touches your own flesh and blood.” Her monologue is prophetic because her daughter Ellie’s involvement with Jack ultimately causes Ellie to kill herself. To Mrs. Bachman, the very idea of what it means to be touched by “blackness” brings up all kinds of horrifying associations.

Dramatic Monologue

Many of the secondary characters give a speech to the audience during the course of the work. These monologues, in addition to foreshadowing upcoming events, provide the audience with insight into personal motivations for a character’s actions. Cap’n Dan’s motivations to defame Jack, while shortsighted, are not fueled by ill intent. In a dramatic monologue, he reveals his fear about Jack’s success, exclaiming, “I really have the feeling it’s the biggest calamity to hit this country since the San Francisco earthquake.” To him, Jack’s victory, if unchallenged, will cast a dark shadow across the world. Cap’n Dan fears the kind of change that will bring equality, a force he admits he can’t even understand.

Other monologues serve as insight into the motivations of those oppressed. Scipio’s role is a perfect example of dramatic monologue used to illuminate the black perspective. Addressing the woeful singing in response to Jack’s arrest, Scipio takes the moment to address the audience. In a moving monologue, he condones the spirit of passivity Page 34  |  Top of Articleplaguing the black man in America. Scipio states:

Oh mebbe you done school youself away frum White Jesus—but how long you evah turn you heart away frum white! How you lookin, how you movin, how you wishin an figgering—how white you wanna be, that whut Ah askin!”

Scipio’s speech offers a perspective not unlike Jack’s. Like Jack, he advocates that the black man regain his identity, find his self-respect by exploring his roots and taking pride in his heritage as a person of color. He makes a compelling point as well: “Five hundrid million of us not all together, not matchin up to em, dat what harmin us!”

Point of View

The work is operating in the third person omniscient point of view. This claim is substantiated particularly by the use of dramatic monologue that often provides insight into the motivations or feelings of many characters of the play, as opposed to being relevant only to those actions of the speaker. Not only does it predict a character’s movements, but this insight also draws the audience in, giving them a variety of perspectives from various characters of various races. Scipio’s monologue, for example, is a deeper exploration into Jack’s views of what it means to operate as a “cullud” rather than as an individual. Statements made by Jack, which came off as callous or harsh, now take on a nobler meaning in light of Scipio’s remarks.

Other insights change or transform perceptions of a character’s motivations completely. Clara, for example, is presented as someone spurned by love and driven simply by jealousy, after Jack rejects her for a white woman. During Clara’s monologue, she pleads to the audience, “drag him on down. Oh won’tya, fo me an mah momma an evvy black-ass woman he turn his back on, for evvy gal wid a man longside dreamin him a piece a what he got.” Clara’s dialogue is revealing. She is no longer simply a crazy, money-grubbing ex-girlfriend. The audience sees Clara’s deeper motivations. She is a victim, seeing herself as one of many black women rejected by men of her own race who seek to aspire to white values, men who voluntarily put the love and support of those black women behind them for the sake of personal gain.

Rising Action

The rising action is marked by the overseas travels of Ellie and Jack. The change in the tenor of the plot begins when Jack encounters some trouble in England and chooses to walk away from further conflict. This conflict only increases, however, as Jack and Ellie move from country to country, putting a strain on their already fraying relationship. Finally, at the moment before his arrest, Jack tells a pleading Ellie to leave him be.

The climax, or the turning point in the plot where the action is at its greatest intensity, occurs during Jack’s arrest. Up until this moment, he is resistant to offer himself to the authorities. When Ellie’s mud-smeared and dripping body is presented to Jack, he surrenders to the authorities, realizing, “what Ah done to ya, what you done, honey, honey, whut dey done to us.” This single event is a turning point in the play. Jack recognizes the futility of his actions, implicit or obvious in his willingness to fight in Havana.

Colloquialism/Colloquial Speech

Colloquial or informal speech patterns give life to the voices of black characters appearing throughout the work. Words such as “dat,” “cullud,” and “dere” are just a few examples of the use of colloquial language to differentiate characters by race.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion of the World

The Great White Hope is a work of fiction based on a historical figure, a black American prizefighter named John Arthur “Jack” Johnson. Not unlike Sackler’s fictional Jack Jefferson, Johnson aggravated white America by refusing to behave in a passive, submissive fashion expected of blacks at that time. In 1908, he traveled to Sidney, Australia, to fight and defeat Tommy Burns and became the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World. Public outrage and disbelief over the victory were catalysts for the match between former champ Jim Jeffries, “The Great White Hope,” and Johnson. On July 4, 1910, Johnson defeated Jeffries after fifteen rounds.

Johnson later married two white women in the years following the victory. He was also arrested in the company of his white fiancee in 1912 in accordance with the Mann Act. He escaped incarceration, fleeing to Canada and Europe, where he continued his career as a fighter. Havana led to a fixed fight with Jess Willard in exchange for Johnson’s freedom.

Page 35  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow

COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1902: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is published, a story about a dangerous riverboat journey into the heart of the Congo in search of a missing white fur trader.

    Today: A television show called Survivor airs for the first time, pitting teams of contestants against each other in perilous, jungle-like conditions for one million dollars in prize money.

  • 1908: Jack Johnson defeats Tommy Burns in fourteen rounds to become the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

    Today: Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, fights Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, daughter of Joe Frazier, in the boxing ring. After a seven-round slugfest, Ali is declared the winner.

  • 1965: Lyndon Baines Johnson passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect the right to vote of all citizens “without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude....”

    Today: Thousands of liberal voters in Dade County, Florida, cry foul to the use of hard-to-understand or faulty ballots during the U.S. presidential election, claiming their vote did not “count.”

  • 1965: The country goes through a wave of social reform as Lyndon Baines Johnson increases spending to create Medicare and Medicaid as well as the Higher Education Act, among other programs.

    Today: George Bush announces a large tax cut, distributing surplus revenue among all Americans in the form of a tax refund.

Although he did lose after twenty-six rounds, his charges were never dropped. An eventual surrender led to a year in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1920. After his release, Johnson worked for carnivals and as a vaudeville performer.

LBJ’s “Great Society”

The era leading up to the publication of Sackler’s work was a time characterized by great social conflict and upheaval. After John F. Kennedy’s death, a grieving nation was left to struggle with civil rights issues and the Vietnam War. Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the role of president of the United States, fully committed to JFK’s liberal program of social reform in an effort to meet such challenges.

Johnson had a vision of what he called a “Great Society,” and he was determined to realize this goal through liberal social policy. This vision led to several social programs, including the creation of Medicare in 1965, to assist citizens over sixty-five pay for medical treatment, as well as Medicaid, to help welfare recipients meet medical costs. Educational policy was also enacted in the creation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Higher Education Act. As a result of such policy, government funding was provided so that poorer students would realize an education reserved traditionally for the middle class. The “War on Poverty,” as Johnson called it, also resulted in additional social policy and the creation of community programs like the Job Corps, Project Head Start, and the Food Stamps program.

Racial Unrest

Racial and ethnic tensions blemished the character of American life during the 1960s. This tension was mirrored in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The legislation forbade segregation and discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, and theaters. Critical citizens, blacks and whites alike, believed morality could not be legislated. Optimistic citizens believed that such legislation was a step toward rectifying the inequities of the past based on the legacy of slavery.

White society did not realize or adopt a spirit of cooperation with their black neighbors. Urban areas Page 36  |  Top of Articlesuffered the sting of white flight, the mass exodus of whites to suburban areas. Urban blacks felt betrayed by such movement. This migration hurt the lifestyles of those blacks that had become dependent on white businesses to employ them, as well as to support their neighborhoods by providing goods and services at reasonable prices. The result of this flight amounted to greater urban decay and the rise of the inner cities or ghettos.

The enactment of the Civil Rights Act was not an end to violence perpetrated against blacks as a result of racial tension and unrest. After countless acts of terror perpetrated by white segregationists, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or SCLC, staged a march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, the state capital, on March 7, 1965. The marchers never made it to their destination but instead were attacked by police, succumbing either to the sting of tear gas or the blow of a billy club. James Reeb, a northern white minister active in the Civil Rights movement, was also murdered that Sunday evening by white segregationists. The day went down in history as “Bloody Sunday,” prompting LBJ to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected black America’s right to vote.

Vietnam

Johnson was determined to move forward with the Vietnam conflict. He proved this with the enactment of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The report of two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin provided the opportunity for Johnson to satisfy his desire to expand the war effort. In reality, only one destroyer, the Maddox, had actually been attacked in error as South Vietnamese attempted to seize the northern coast of Vietnam. At this point Johnson chose to gradually escalate the war effort with a vision of eventual occupation. This approach only served to prolong the conflict: however many troops LBJ sent, however much ground he managed to gain, was only lost to the Viet Cong, outsmarted by their political infiltration and military strategy.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Perhaps it is fitting that Howard Sackler achieved such high acclaim with the success of The Great White Hope. Critics were quite impressed when the young playwright produced his treatise on racial hatred, characterizing the plot as a rather fast-moving, yet smoothly flowing entity as it seamlessly transitions from one scene to the next. The work is crafted in the tradition of a great Shakespearean play, the text written in flowing verse, the main character firmly grounded, central to all of the action swirling around him. Every event in the play either directly or indirectly relates to Jack’s life. In Western Humanities Review, Marion Trousdale comments on this centrality, calling it “irreducibly dramatic.” States Trousdale, “[the play] did what Aristotle said a play should do, and what few playwrights know how to do—it imitated an action by means of an action.” Therefore, the critic adds, the play has a “histrionic heart.”

While many readily accept such glowing comparisons, John Simon, critic for the Hudson Review, has a different perspective on the play. He responds to Sackler’s work, stating, “How nice if Sackler, who had the good sense to use Shakespeare and Brecht as his models, had come up with something worthy of them.” He continues, claiming that Sackler’s writing is functional rather than fantastic, simply “overambitious middlebrow stuff.”

Sackler’s work also betrays a penchant or preference for the historical. His sense of history lies at the thematic core of most of the author’s works. Such structure lends itself to a certain dynamism, in setting, in characterization and dialog, as well as in mood, traits which are viewed as functioning to strengthen the work as a whole. Trousdale offers that the performers are also “noisy and loud and unabashedly theatrical,” which serves to strengthen the play, and are simply an “outward form of the ’invisible currents that rule our lives.”’ Structurally the play follows the classical model. But in consideration of dimension, space, and a certain dynamism inherent in the work, the play clearly takes on a modern feel.

Later works by Sackler, although not having as profound an impact on his career, mirror the poetry and sheer artistry to some degree that many have admired in The Great White Hope. More recent efforts, such as “Goodbye Fidel,” inspire the same feelings of passion and excitement as does his Pulitzer Prize-winner.

CRITICISM

Laura Kryhoski

Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. In this essay, Kryhoski considers Sackler’s Page 37  |  Top of Articleuse of contrasts as well as his historical consideration of the work.

The Great White Hope is a story of contrasts, of black versus white, or the dark versus the light. Two of Sackler’s white characters, Cap’n Dan and Mrs. Bachman, use these contrasts in their own dramatic monologues to express their feelings about Jack Jefferson. Their feelings are a function of their own ignorance. For these characters, their ignorance serves as an impetus or as a reason for exercising racism. It is these voices, of both Cap’n Dan and Mrs. Bachman, that Sackler employs to illuminate belief systems fueling racism. Through both voices, the author is able to capture, with amazing historical accuracy, the current of prejudice running through white America at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Cap’n Dan describes Jack Jefferson in terms of darkness. In the beginning of the play, he reveals his feelings about Jack’s victory on a personal level, stating, “it feels like the world’s got a shadow over it.” He goes on to explain a “darker, different, shrinking,” world, that it’s “all huddled up somehow.” For Cap’n Dan the world, as he has come to understand it, is getting smaller and becoming increasingly unfamiliar to him. Further, he admits feelings of powerlessness, even to the point of intimidation, and these feelings are preventing him from any sort of protest or retaliation. He expresses these sentiments as if dark clouds are rolling in over his life, “You want to holler, what’s he doin up there, but you can’t because you know... that shadow’s on you, and you can feel that smile.” As curious a proposition as it seems, one man, Jack Jefferson, has the ability to turn Cap’n Dan’s life upside down.

His monologue betrays uneasiness rooted in a struggle to preserve identity. The darkness permeating Cap’n Dan’s psyche can be explained simply by the words “darker, different, shrinking.” A black fighter, for the first time in the history of the sport, has earned a title reserved only for white males. Cap’n Dan feels the world is “shrinking” or “all huddled-up somehow” he feels intimidated because he too is a former champion. The victory attacks his value system, one embracing a belief in white superiority. On a more personal level, Jack’s victory raises questions about Cap’n Dan’s own abilities. The world “shrinks” as black men intrude gradually on Cap’n Dan’s world, the world of the professional white boxer.


James Earl Jones, as Jack Jefferson, in a scene from the 1970 film adaptation of The Great White Hope, directed by Martin Ritt

James Earl Jones, as Jack Jefferson, in a scene from the 1970 film adaptation of The Great White Hope, directed by Martin Ritt

“I know what Black means,” exclaims Mrs. Bachman, and for dramatic effect Sackler stages a blackout before she appears to the audience. Stepping out into the light of the stage, she expresses great despair over her daughter’s choice of love interests. “Blackness” sets off something in Mrs. Bachman’s heart. She shares her negative, heartfelt associations with blackness: “pitch black, black as dirt, the black hole and the black pit, what’s burned or stained or cursed or hideous, poison and spite and waste from your body and the horrors crawling up into your mind.” Her feeling is that God, if responsible for a meeting of the races, black and white, used the opportunity as an expression of hate rather than one of love.

These descriptions form a rather curious collection of sentiments about what it means for Mrs. Bachman to be in the presence of someone “black”—this is what she “knows.” For her, black is unclean and filthy but, curiously, involves spite and waste from her own mind and body. It is as if in the meeting of the races, she has somehow been exposed to some horrible contaminant. More curiously, she concedes or surrenders to the possible

Page 38  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow

WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Dreaming in Color, Living in Black and White: Our Own Stories of Growing Up Black in White America, by Laurel Holiday (2000), is a collection of stories of young black Americans’ experiences in a racist society.
  • Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, by James S. Hirsch (2001), is the story of a black prizefighter who spends years in jail for a crime that he did not commit.
  • In W. E. B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919−1963 (2000), David Levering Lewis recounts the words and life of one of the most prominent leaders of the black community in the twentieth century.
  • Want My Sheperd: Poems is a collection of poetry published by Howard Sackler in 1954.

reactions of the audience, sharing with them an understanding that her thinking may be flawed. To say that she “knows what black means” outside of the context of her daughter’s involvement is to say that she is just as, if not more, concerned about how Jack’s presence in her life will impact herself as her daughter. Again, as with Cap’n Dan, Mrs. Bachman feels a sense of encroachment or intrusion upon her world, that somehow her life has been violated merely by Jack’s presence. One could also infer that her comments betray her real fears—she is quick to deny or submerge any feelings of guilt or remorse she has concerning the legacy of slavery and her responsibility to a disenfranchised black America.

Sackler draws on the feelings expressed by both Cap’n Dan and Mrs. Bachman to convey with historical accuracy the social climate of the early 1900s, the backdrop for his play. What characterizes America at that time, what has been characterized as a “key theme” during this time period, is the desire to live life against nature. Historian Dr. Alan Axelrod, in his Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twentieth Century History, expands on the idea, stating that the theme is identifiable “in the work of Freud (who sought to illuminate the dark places of the mind)” and also “in the electric light of Edison (who sought to illuminate dark places, period).” He also points to the influences of imperialists in Great Britain, who wished to bring the “light” of civilization to such “dark places” as Asia and Africa. Joseph Conrad’s novel, aptly titled Heart of Darkness, touched on the same theme. Published in 1902, the novel was the product of Conrad’s travels to the Congo, a target of imperialism for King Leopold II of Belgium. The protagonist or leading character of the story, Marlow, travels deep into the Congo (the heart of darkness) on a riverboat in search of a missing white trader, Kurtz—eventually becoming part of the darkness. Adopting the role of chieftain, Kurtz decorates the outside of his hut with the skulls of his adversaries.

Axelrod’s ideas are evidenced in the dialogue of the play. Cap’n Dan, for instance, believing Jack’s victory is a “calamity,” adds, “Oh, I don’t think all the darkies’ll go crazy, try to take us over, rape and all that.” The statement is riddled with negative associations directed towards blacks. In his off-handed comment, Cap’n Dan shares his impressions of black America. He characterizes blacks as being savage, uncivilized, and hard to control. During the course of the play these concerns of possible retaliatory acts of savagery are consistently raised by Cap’n Dan and other white males closely associated with his plan to upset Jack’s boxing career. Calling blacks “darkies” serves to reinforce the idea of the black fighter casting a dark shadow over Cap’n Dan’s life. The question for Cap’n Dan, then, becomes one of far greater significance—if it is possible for an uncivilized, savage individual to achieve what he has achieved, how valid or important is such a title?

Page 39  |  Top of Article

The use of dark and light is not only apparent in the dialogue of characters like Cap’n Dan and Mrs. Bachman, but such contrast is also used for dramatic purposes. Both characters appear after a blackout occurring during the play; both figures come into the light to reveal their inner feelings to the audience, truths driving the action of the work. Consequently, the substance of such heartfelt, personal monologues enlightens the audience. Clara also comes into the light to reveal what she believes to be true about the relationship between Jack and Ellie. Ceremoniously holding up an excrement- and blood-stained garment to the light, she cries out for justice in the death of Mrs. Jefferson, believing that Jack’s affair with Ellie has killed her, also hoping it will kill him.

Sackler’s play on contrasts is a natural consequence of the work’s subject matter. To experience Sackler’s play, even by today’s standards, involves facing the often jolting perspectives of America, black and white, to understand the shades of racial conflict present within the work. The conclusion Sackler reaches in The Great White Hope is perhaps best expressed by Joseph Conrad’s narrator Marlow, who believed that the “conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it.”

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on The Great White Hope, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Marion Trousdale

In the following review-essay, Trousdale provides an overview of the initial productions of The Great White Hope, examining the play’sprofound histrionic sensibility.”

The theatre’s name like its shape is as self-defining and as functional as the new apartment buildings surrounding it in Washington’s Southwest are meant to be. It calls itself Arena Stage, and it is octagonal without as within to provide seats for the spectators who, arena-fashion, both enclose and participate as audience in the performance that takes place below. It was here in winter 1967 under the direction of Edwin Sherin that Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope was first staged. The play later opened in New York, under the same director and with almost the same cast, where its success story by now is well-known. In their reviews of October, 1968, Life magazine and the New Yorker agreed that the play is spectacular and a hit: to Life its dramatic

Sidebar: HideShow

“TO EXPERIENCE SACKLER’S PLAY, EVEN BY TODAY’S STANDARDS, INVOLVES FACING THE OFTEN JOLTING PERSPECTIVES OF AMERICA, BLACK AND WHITE, TO UNDERSTAND THE SHADES OF RACIAL CONFLICT PRESENT WITHIN THE WORK.”

sensationalism is a virtue; its anonymous review remarked that the play is startingly contemporary, a “visceral interpretation” of “the tragic and gaudy life of the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson.” And as evidence Pete Hamill, New Yorker fashion, accompanied Muhammad Ali to the Alvin Theatre and watched him watch the play. “Hey,” Hamill says Ali said, “This play is about me! Take out the interracial love stuff and Jack Johnson is the original me!” The New Yorker’s, Edith Oliver does not deny the play’s contemporaneity; she calls it a highly effective tract. But she complains that the play’s “tumultuous, irresistible avalanche” of action that “hurls itself from the stage” is a kind of theatrical trompe d’oeil. Behind the “deafening and bedazzling blows in the face,” she remarks, lies a work of little literary merit, an “oddly insubstantial affair.”

Both reactions say more about the New York version than they do about the play as played at Arena Stage. In New York Sherin by reducing Sackler’s text has made the play more brash, more arrogant, more “militant;” like the stage on which it is performed it now has only one dimension, that of its “message,” and that message extends beyond the play’s hero, whom Sackler calls Jack Jefferson, to include not only Muhammad Ali but the play’s star as well, James Earl Jones. At the end of the ecstatic curtain calls he walks toward the audience and, pulling the blood-soaked rag from around his neck, drops it defiantly on a nude stage. Edith Oliver’s description is both damning and accurate: she calls the play a “sad, cautionary tale of a good black man betrayed by a handful of evil Negrohating white men,” and she remarks that because “the play’s heart is so evidently in the right place

Page 40  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow

“SACKLER PRESENTS HIS STORY BY A SERIES OF SCENES SUGGESTIVE OF BRECHT, AND THE DIFFICULTIES OF A BROADWAY PRODUCTION CAN BE SEEN EVEN FROM THE PROGRAM.”

and because we wish our hearts to be in the right place as well, we allow the play to take away our judgment along with our breath.” Such criticism, if true, must serve as last rites for anything that purports to be more than spectrally dramatic. Other things might have been said of the play in Washington; it ran for some three and a half hours and Clive Barnes, among others, found it a sprawling chronicle. But it was not a tract, nor do I think tract an accurate tag for Sackler’s text. The play is filled with a kind of ticker tape immediacy and hence popular in the worst sense of the word, and what is popular in it—its race message—has been exploited with box office success in New York. But as played at length in Washington’s Arena the action of the play was not didactic. Rather it was irreducibly dramatic. It did what Aristotle said a play should do, and what few playwrights know how to do—it imitated an action by means of an action. The play had, in short, an histrionic heart.

Both the Washington success and the New York failure say a great deal about the nature of theatre. But of the two the Washington achievement is the more notable, if only for its suggestion of an idea of theatre that renders the American experience in a viable dramatic form. The quest for such a theatre, as for the “great American novel,” seems omnipresent; it is too much to say that Sackler has discovered it. But in The Great White Hope he has formed at least a partial mirror at the center of our culture, and at “the center of the life and awareness of the community.” The phrase is Francis Fergusson’s; he is describing what he calls the symbolic stage of the Elizabethans. As he notes such a mirror is rarely formed. More recently Peter Brook has joined in the conscious search, although he, like Fergusson, seems to feel that such a theatre is possible only in a more ceremonious age. The artist in an age in which tradition has vanished, he remarks, “imitates the outer form of ceremonies, pagan or baroque, adding his own trappings. Unfortunately the result is rarely convincing.” If Sackler has in his text managed in Brook’s words to “capture in his art the invisible currents that rule our lives,” then his achievement is worth examining in detail. It may tell us something about the nature of ritual and about the nature of that mirror a player holds up when he plays on a stage.

The plot is quite obviously the corruptible center of Sackler’s play. As Life indicates, his story loosely follows the life and times of Jack Johnson, called by Sackler Jack Jefferson, who in 1908 by defeating an Australian, became the first Negro heavyweight champion of the world. The phrase “white hope” came to mean any possible white fighter who might beat Johnson and carry on his shoulders the hopes of the white race. The play begins with the first white hope, Frank Brady, ignominiously defeated in the third scene. It ends with the second white hope, the Kid, who defeats Jefferson in a fair fight that was meant to be fixed. Thus Sackler has taken as his hero not only, in the play’s language, a dinge, but an initially successful dinge whose position as black champion wins him all of the culturally induced, cliche-ridden reactions, both black and white, to a black man’s making it in a white man’s world. At the beginning he is triumphant, at the end defeated. Therein lies the shape of the cautionary tale.

What keeps such a fable from being text for a sermon and makes of it instead an imitation of an action is in part its form, and it may well be that this particular form can not be made to work effectively on a traditional stage. Sackler presents his story by a series of scenes suggestive of Brecht, and the difficulties of a Broadway production can be seen even from the program. In Washington the three acts had respectively seven, eight, and five scenes, and a straight listing of place suggests the disembodied geographical sense of an airline official: Parchment, Ohio; San Francisco; Reno; Chicago; Beau Rivage, Wisconsin; then on to the Home Office in London, Le Havre, Paris, New York, Berlin, a cabaret in Budapest, a Belgrade railway station; then back once more to Chicago and on to New York and Juarez, Mexico, to end finally at the Oriente Racetrack in Havana where the hero loses his heavyweight championship to the all-American Kid. The word act, is, in fact, a misnomer. Theatrically the fabric of the play depends upon the uninterrupted Page 41  |  Top of Articlesequence of these scenes that occur in rapid, almost kaleidoscopic succession to create the play’s irrefutable surface of dramatic tension. Sackler’s virtuosity can be seen in the way in which they vary greatly one from the other in texture, in pace, in composition; but they are also highly stylized, having about them in some respects the sharply edged lines of burlesque. It is yet another indictment of the New York version that Edith Oliver should have remarked of Jane Alexander as Jefferson’s white mistress that “unlike most of the other characters... she has the advantage of being seen to alter radically,” and that the rest of the huge cast consisted of stereotypes, as though she were criticizing the reality-making apparatus of the play.

I give one extended example of the play’s composition from the middle of the first act: After Jefferson has beaten Brady, the first “white hope,” and celebrated by opening a Café de Champion on Wabash Avenue in Chicago, there is a scene set in the District Attorney’s office in which some of the establishment’s reactions to Jefferson both as champion and as Negro acting champion are dramatically realized. The scene begins with a group of the morally militant demanding the hero’s arrest for the flagrantly immoral act of sleeping with a white girl; it ends with the District Attorney himself diffidently leading this same white girl, Eleanor Bachman, into a frank avowal of amorous pleasure with Jefferson in the hope of trapping her into an admission of unnatural acts. The reflectors of the action in this instance include the so-called civic leaders, a distinguished looking “Uncle Tom,” a Federal agent, the District Attorney and the white girl herself; what they reflect are the personal and social nuances of a black man sleeping with a white girl. The scene is followed by a bed somewhere with the two lovers, one black and one white, talking of swimming and making love. Ellie imagines lying in the sun until she has become very dark and then appearing with Jefferson as a different woman whom no one would notice. But with that comic book sense of caricature of himself Jefferson tells her it wouldn’t work. “Evvybody know ah gone off cullud women,” he tells her. “Ah has, too,” he adds, ’“cept for ma momma,” and he sits up in bed, his black bare chest shining, and grins at her and then around at the audience with what a reporter earlier in the play has described as his big banjo smile. Jefferson is playing the music-hall Negro for his sweetheart, for the audience, and for himself and relishing every minute of it. The love-making ends abruptly as a group of “Keystone Cops” arrive to arrest the fighter under the Mann Act for illicit relations. The scene, as any scene must, advances the plot. But more interestingly it reflects from yet a different angle the same underlying action as the previous scene. Neither the meeting in the district attorney’s office nor the love-making is presented in realistic terms. Rather what is created by a seemingly haphazard cascade of vignettes is a highly structured pattern of dramatic action; it is this that keeps the play, at least in its shape, from being yet one more thinly masked polemic about race. It is possible, in fact, to say of the play’s structure what Fergusson said of Hamlet; he was attempting to determine what it meant to imitate an action, and he observed that in Hamlet “the moral and metaphysical scene of the drama is presented only as one character after another sees it and reflects it; and the action of the drama as a whole is presented only as each character in turn actualizes it in his story and according to his lights.”

Scenes, alone, of course, do not make a play, and Sackler’s episodic structure which has offended some critics might be seen only as tiresomely derivative were it not for what I can only inadequately term his profound ludic sense. Joan Littlewood once remarked that theatre ought to be like a circus or a fair which takes over a town and everybody comes and dances in the street. The Great White Hope is that kind of theatre. To watch it as played out in the heart of the audience at Arena was to participate in a kind of communal celebration that must have been commonplace in Elizabethan England but is rare on our stage. For some critics such a celebration can only mean a condemnation of the play, for it is in its way a condemnation of the ways and means that as a community we celebrate. The performers are noisy and loud and unabashedly theatrical like the cheer leaders at a local football game. But therein lies the play’s strength. It is the outward form of the “invisible currents that rule our lives” that Sackler has uncovered. He has discovered the emblematic nature of our rituals, such as they are, and his large cast celebrates them with an audience who participates in the performance. As they are public rites, not private, an audience is necessary. And so the audience becomes an integral part of the play.

The structural importance of obviously public ceremonies can be seen again from a list of scenes. On three different occasions newspaper reporters formally interview a famous boxer. The play’s ceremonies include as well a formal police arrest, an organized protest march, a prayer meeting, a funeral and three fights. These fights, the play’s essential Page 42  |  Top of Article“act,” are all seen from the wings where the onstage public’s participation in the ceremony of the match is the mirror by means of which the match is shown. The last one ends with a flagwaving crowd spilling out onto the stage where the blare of trumpets and the chalk-faced victor on their shoulders create the ironic ambiance for the jubilant, ragged formation of their victory parade. There are lesser rituals as well—the blackfaced minstrel amusing a white crowd before the first fight; the black betting scenes before the last; the training sessions; a business meeting in a sports promoter’s office—that invite by their style the word caricature. In a play that uses as vehicle public forms, neither slapstick nor melodrama are ever far from the surface, and the importance of this essential banality can be seen in the individual characters as well as in the public rites. It is not that the characters are stereotypes by default; rather they are stereotypes by design. It is as public performers in social pageants that they are important. The dramatic force of the play comes not from its realistic apprehension of psychological complexity but from the ways in which social cliches are used to reflect the complexity of that experience which they both structure and obscure. Both the cliches of character and the cliches of language by means of which American experience is known—both a kind of social posturing—become on stage ironic devices that reveal rather than conceal. And in this revelation, as in the celebration, the audience exists at the center of the play.

The use of verbal cliche as an ironic device can be seen most obviously in the kind of speech that Cap’n Dan makes in Pop Weaver’s office when they are trying to convince one of their party, Fred, of the necessity of fixing the fight. He remarks:

I don’t have to make anybody no speech here about how good I feel working something crooked! None of us like it—we wouldn’t be the men we are if we did, or be where we are! I know it’s lousy!

The italicized portion is spoken directly to the audience, and brings a laugh, as it was meant to do. The audience understands the language and is quite aware of the moral duplicity. They sit as judge. But more often Sackler manages a collusion of audience and actors in that kind of social posturing against which the force of the play moves. Dixon, the federal agent, for instance, at the end of this scene addresses the audience directly, remarking that they seem to be indignant at what has just taken place, and he advises them, “Give it some thought, next time you’re alone on the streets late at night.” Scipio, the juju man, preaches at the few of his kind whom he claims to see “out there”;“How much white you wanna be?” Clara, Jefferson’s commonlaw black wife, sees them as the enemy. “Who set him runnin,” she asks, “Who put de mark on him? Dem,” she says, at Arena, looking up, “dem, dem, dem.” By means of such direct address Sackler makes of his playing space literally an arena in which the spectators are the true center of the play’s contests. Like the spectators on stage who watch the fights, they are used as reflectors of the stage action. They both celebrate and, like the onstage performers, are judged. But the extent to which the play’s profound ludic sense is inseparable from its use of social myth can best be seen in Sackler’s handling of his hero. Jefferson, as the other characters in the play, defines himself by means of cultural cliches, but unlike the other characters he uses these cliches to show what he is not. In essence he stages his own rituals, and they are the basis more often than not of a kind of racial pun. When a reporter remarks that Jefferson’s only worry seems to be when in the fight to take Brady, Jefferson replies,

Yeah, an dat take some thinkin, man!
If Ah lets it go too long in dere,
juss sorta blockin an keepin him offa me,
then evvybody say, “Now ain’t dat one shif less
      nigger,
why dey always so lazy?” An if Ah chop him down
      quick,
third or fourth roun, all at once then dey holler,
“No, t’aint fair,
dat po ‘man up dere fightin a gorilla.’

The same kind of idiom structures the sequence in which he changes places with one of the Detroit Bluejays in order to jump bail. Mrs. Jefferson worries that he will be caught, but with great deliberateness he first removes his jacket to reveal a raspberry-colored shirt and then he stands by the window where the police will be able to see him. When his stand-in begins to peel off his jacket and jersey, Jefferson says wryly,

He look mighty fine, ole Rude here, don’ he!
Not pretty is me, but he near is big
an just a half shade blacker an—
Oh, mercy, he got dat shirt on too!

and as he puts on Rudy’s cap and jacket he adds, “You hear that say in how all niggers look alike!” When it suits his purpose he plays the white man’s “nigger” and the black man’s, but the key word is plays. “But you, Jack Jefferson,” one of the reporters says before the first fight, “Are you the Black Page 43  |  Top of ArticleHope?” “Well,” he replies laconically, “Ah’m black and Ah’m hopin.” It is the same thing that he says just before jumping bail. “Ah stayin whut Ah am, wherever Ah has to do it’.”

What he is ultimately defines the dramatic nature of Sackler’s play. In the most obvious sense he is an American pop hero. Plot drips off of him as it drips off of Raskolnikov, only the violence is American violence and it pours out like sweat from every pore. Like some roaring Western his story bounds from crisis to crisis with each more soulcrushing than the last. Apprehended while making love with his white girl, given the maximum penalty under the Mann Act, kept from fighting a decent match in England, in France, in Germany because he is a dinge, he is reduced to acting out Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a vaudeville troupe in Budapest and betrayed finally in Juarez, Mexico, by the local gun-toting chief who hands him over to the American authorities. As his trainer Tick remarks, he turns mean as a red hyenna and as stinking, and before his arrest he lashes out at Ellie with all of the rage of injustice behind him. In a scene that drives her to suicide he identifies her, now ugly with slum squalor, with his own “white” misery. It is melodrama purely and simply, the melodrama of Jack Armstrong, of Little Orphan Annie, of Helen Trent. But if it sometimes veers toward bathos, still the center holds. It holds because our rituals, aided by Elizabethan scene technique, ironically reflect the complexity of the situation they attempt to structure. Jefferson in the simplest terms is a black man who is wronged. But in his own terms he is a man who is black and who is wronged and wrongs in turn. The fragmented social images of his situation are presented as scene follows scene: in one a white man in blackface amuses a white crowd by pretending to read a sermon over the hopefully defeated Jefferson; in another a piously sedate Negro preacher prays with the hero’s mother; in a third the juju man preaches at the audience, “So all you black flies, you light down together an hum pretty please to white man’s Jesus.” Cap’n Dan near the end of the play says of Jefferson: “We’re gonna squeeze that dinge so goddam hard soon a fix is gonna look like a hayride to him,” damning the establishment. But his words echo the prayer of Jefferson’s black commonlaw wife: “Drag him on down. Oh won’tya, fo me an mah momma an evvy black-ass woman he turn his back on,” she says, “offa dat high horse an on down de whole long mud-track in fronna him... limpin an slippin an shrinkin an creepin an sinkin right in.” The cliches of our culture appear on stage as mimetic action and as mimetic action they reflect, to use Fergusson’s language, “from several angles and with extraordinary directness the moral and metaphysical scene of the play.”

It is this profound histrionic sensibility which makes The Great White Hope, even in its failures, an important play. It distinguishes it, in the first instance, from other recent plays which appear to use a similar technique. I am thinking particularly of the Peter Brook production of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade where again an almost bewildering variety of dramatic actions makes the play, in Brook’s words, dense in experience. But the word dramatic here is accurate only in its attention-creating sense. Weiss’s actions are dramatic, even melodramatic. The central action in which insane people act out a play has a Brueghelesque grotesqueness about it that can be both jangling and theatrically effective. Brook claims that Weiss forces us to “relate opposites and face contradictions. He leaves us raw.” Possibly. Certainly the play is well got-up by a playwright well-versed in the liberal dialogue and in contemporary theatre. As Brook points out Brecht, Beckett, Genet all play their part. Hence Roux can say at the end of Act I, “Woe to the man who is different,” and the Herald can announce to the audience that it is a play, “not actual history,” that “our end which might seem prearranged/could be delayed or even changed.” But this theatrical self-consciousness is not basically histrionic, and the result is dialectic rather than mimetic. Weiss searches for meaning. He does not imitate an action. Sackler, too, draws heavily upon culture, but it is the popular culture that for better or worse is in our bones. His sources are those artifacts on which we were weaned: comic books, soap operas, Westerns, the Saturday afternoon baseball games, the cheer leaders, the American Legion, Ovaltine. By means of these Sackler has found a way to take the violence that lies at the center of our culture and make it theatrically viable on stage. Brook in his explicit search for ritual has most recently staged Seneca’s Oedipus at the National Theatre in London. With an anonymous chorus beating gilded bongo boxes, a seven-foot phallus, and rock ’n roll revels he tries to artificially recreate that sense of ritual which he feels the theatre has lost. His production seems only to demonstrate what he himself says in The Empty Space: ritual cannot be artificially staged. But he is wrong in his belief that true rituals are no longer at our disposal. Rather, as Sackler seems to show, ritual as a pattern of feeling continues to structure our society and, once perceived, can still provide an authentic means Page 44  |  Top of Articleof dramatic action. As Fergusson suggests, it underlies the verbal. As a pattern of feeling ritual remains the primary source of theatre as a mimetic art.

The extent of the New York betrayal is most apparent in the last scene. Down and out as any depression bum, squeezed to his last self-assertive act under the threat of extradition and with the still dripping corpse of his drowned sweetheart stretched out on the table before him, Jefferson has agreed at last to the fixed match with the Kid, only to refuse to throw it once he is in the ring. In the last scene we see him re-enter to face the press, a blood-smeared hero, his mouth swollen to balloon proportions. They want to know why he was beaten, and in a mumbled roar he answers, “He beat me, dassall. Ah juss din have it.” It is the voice of Jack Jefferson, prize fighter, beaten at last on his own terms when his own terms are no longer enough. It is the voice as well of the first white hope and of Cap’n Dan and of the fight fans who just before have reported on the fight’s progress by a series of sportcaster-like commentaries from a ladder where one of them can see the fight off stage. “Christ, the nigger’s all over him, pile-driven, whalin at him” is followed by “The coon’s given ground,” “Smell him out Kid,” and finally, “The nigger can’t do it, he’s hitten but he’s outa juice! He’s punched out.” He is, of course, punched out. That’s what Jefferson himself says. And what saves him dramatically is that he says it not with that corrupting twang of self pity that Jones in New York has allowed into the play but with that histrionic sense of complexity that keeps him from seeing himself as the Black Hope. There is no literalness to this play and there is no “message.” Rather Sackler exploits all of the verbal and visual nuances the subject of black and white in America has to offer to hammer out its identity. Like his hero he refuses to simplify, and he makes that refusal dramatically feasible. In so doing he seems to have found again at least fragments of that mirror with which Hamlet’s players showed the very age and body of the time its form and pressure. Therein lies the great hope of this play.

Source: Marion Trousdale, “Ritual Theatre: The Great White Hope,” in Western Humanities Review, Vol 23, No. 14, Autumn 1969, pp. 295−303.

Richard Gilman

In the following review excerpt, Gilman praises The Great White Hope for, among other things, its energy and message, but feels that in the end the work lacks “final authority.”

Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope is so pertinently addressed to our present concerns, makes such intelligent use of so many stage resources, possesses such fine energy in places and offers so many superior moments that I wish I could embrace it wholeheartedly and not feel, as I do, that something central hasn’t been accomplished, something remains below the mark. The mark I have in mind is that line which nobody can or would want to fix with precision but that is there anyway, separating the plausible and welcome from the conclusive and inimitable. This play about the first Negro heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, is distinguished, in other words, by everything except final authority, unassailable rightness.

Sackler has taken a history and a legend and animated one while revising the other. I remember the legend from the time in my boyhood when I became interested in boxing: Johnson was a great fighter but a dissolute character who ostentatiously surrounded himself with white women, lived high, fell abjectly and imposed on the black race a profligate image it took Joe Louis’ clean, “inspiring” one 20 years later to cancel. A famous photograph stands out: Johnson in a huge polo coat, fedora tipped back, big cigar jutting out, his arms around two blond showgirl types, his black moon face glistening. I think it was taken on shipboard, which contributed to my thinking of Johnson as the oddest kind of man of the world. Jack Johnson did indeed like to live well, and may have overcome it in the kind of excessiveness sudden wealth can bring about, but the decisive truth—and it’s the informing one of Sackler’s play—was that he was significant, in his day and in our imaginations now, as a victim, a man whose reality was almost wholly shaped by external pressures. His flamboyance was at least partly a slap at the whites who bitterly resented his being champion, his wanderings were the outcome of his having been blacklisted in America, his predilection for white women must have had a large element of defiance in it. He stood at a point in our national experience when a black man was a dramatic and not a typical figure if he defied mores and broke stereotypes.

The play begins with Johnson (or Jack Jefferson, as he’s for some reason renamed; why not stay with the evocative archives?) challenging for the heavyweight title in 1908 (he is to win it later that year) and ends with his defeat in Havana by Jess Willard in 1915. During those seven years he is relentlessly ground down, squeezed into the tightest physical and moral corners. The fact that a black

Page 45  |  Top of Article


Joseph Marcell, as Tick, and Hugh Quarshie, as Jack Jefferson, in the 1987 theatrical production of The Great White Hope, performed at the Mermaid Theatre in London

Joseph Marcell, as Tick, and Hugh Quarshie, as Jack Jefferson, in the 1987 theatrical production of The Great White Hope, performed at the Mermaid Theatre in London

man has won the championship inspires an almost mystical horror in whites. “It feels like the world’s got a shadow across it,” an ex-champion who is instrumental in the machinations against Johnson says: “Everything’s—no joke intended—kind of darker, and different, like it’s shrinking, it’s all huddled down somehow, and you with it, you want to holler ’What’s he doin’ up there’.

He has made a public liaison with a white girl, and this is the first ground on which he is cut down. Arrested on a trumped-up charge of violating the Mann Act, Johnson is sentenced to three years in prison, but slips out, flees with the girl to Canada, then England. There bigots and prudes prevent him from fighting; he goes to France, then Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, finding it harder and harder to get matches, being reduced to exhibitions, then to nightclub appearances, turning more and more resentful, violent and determined to hold out.

Going to Mexico, he trains in a barn in Juarez for the fight he insists they have to give him. But “they” are implacable; what they offer him is a fight on one condition—that he throw it. For their search for a “white hope” has turned up nobody they can feel confident about against Johnson, even in his present slack shape. At last, nearly penniless, harassed from every side, his girl a suicide after a violent quarrel with him, Johnson agrees to the fix. The fight with Willard ends with the white hope’s ambiguous victory; the question remains whether or not Johnson actually threw the fight, though the play implies that at the last moment he refused and went down to a bloody defeat by a man he could in even reasonable shape have easily beaten.

In taking hold of these events Sackler moves throughout to establish a two-fold dramatic actuality: that of Johnson’s own beleaguered, far from simple being and that of American racial consciousness and bad dream, for which he is both instigator and innocent occasion. The material calls unmistakably for some sort of “epic” treatment, but Sackler’s choices aren’t fully assured or in coherence with each other. Wavering among Brecht, topical revue and a sort of historical pageantry for his main structural lines, he has also to try to make space and atmosphere for his protagonist’s private experiences. The failure quite to bring this off is responsible, I think, for the curious intermittent sagging of our interest, a curious thing because so much of the time we’re being vigorously and adroitly solicited

Page 46  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow

“SACKLER HAS TAKEN A HISTORY AND A LEGEND AND ANIMATED ONE WHILE REVISING THE OTHER.”

and because the raw stuff of the drama is so high in natural energy.

Separating the play’s three acts and twenty-odd scenes by blackouts, bridging them aurally with musical passages that are sometimes enormously effective—ominous drums and cymbals, violent brasses—and trying always to maintain a nervous, quick-footed, contemporary pace, the direction by Edward Sherin nevertheless frequently has an effect of occlusion: too much is being done to too much material, a superfluity of possibility from time to time stops us in our enthusiasm. One example of what I mean is this: a gnarled, Tiresias-like Negro appears sporadically to deliver prophetic, and anachronistic and barely relevant, tirades against black involvement with American values: “How much white you up to? How white you wanna be?” Another is this: the funeral of Johnson’s mother, a minor matter at best, becomes a full-scale independent production, full of “colorful” black rhythms and gestures; it seemed to me to be there for the sake of that picturesqueness and also for the purpose of getting-it-all-in. Finally, having the characters periodically address the audience (in which Sherin simply follows the text’s direction) is a Brechtian device that lacks Brecht’s intellectual and aesthetic reasons for using it.

Beyond this, there is the problem of Sackler’s language. A case could be made for its doing the job, for its adequacy and general appropriateness. Yet if this is true, and I think it is, if Sackler seldom over-writes (a line like this is rare: “Time again to make us a big new wise proud dark man’s world”) it remains true, too, that he’s done very little more than the job; he hasn’t lifted this splendid material into any kind of irrefutable new statement. The point has nothing to do with a failure to be sufficiently “literary” but simply with Sacklers inhibitions (as I see them) in the face of history, which seems to demand restraint, a colloquialism designed to protect its “human” quality by adhering to the cliches and inadequacies of actual speech. But history is only ransomed by speech other than its own, by amazing utterance, and Sackler’s gifts are clearly not for that.

... Any number of moments stay in memory: Johnson thigh-slappingly answering the questions of newsmen about his popularity among blacks:

“Man, ah ain’t runnin’ for Congress! Ah ain’t fightin’ for no race, ain’t redeemin’ nobody! My momma tole me Mr. Lincoln done that—ain’t that why you shot him?”

The champion reduced to playing Uncle Tom in a Hungarian nightclub, standing in mysterious silence and slowly taking off his grey frizzly wig while the audience covers him with execrations. Johnson mourning his dead lover: “Honey, baby, please, sugar, no!—whut Ah—whut Ah—whut Ah—baby, what Ah done to yo, whut you done, honey, honey, whut dey done to us...” The end of the Willard fight and of the play, Johnson standing with a towel swathing his puffed and bloody face and saying, “Come on Chillun, let em pass by” as the winner, even more terribly marked, is carried on men’s shoulders in a triumphal procession so painful, ironic and ill-begotten as to constitute the emblem of a disaster...

Moved directly by Johnson-Jefferson who is really there, really suffering and being shamefully whittled down, we lose sight of history—the present in preparation—which remains, for all the epic dramaturgy, outside the play’s hold on the inevitable, so that we have constantly to be reminded of it by hints and references to the present day—unsafe streets, black power, and so on.

What this means is that for Johnson to have been what he was, to have had happen to him what did, and for us to be what we are now are never reconciled or merged dramatically, which is what I meant at the beginning of this review by the play’s ultimate lack of impregnable authority. And this accounts, I think, for the reaction, which has made itself apparent, to The Great White Hope as a splendid liberal occasion, an opportunity for self-congratulation on the part of whites, a species of theatrical Nat Turner in which we look back and see how we done them wrong. The play is more than that, but it does contain the materials for its own misreading.

Source: Richard Gilman, “Not Quite Heavyweight,” in New Republic, Vol. 159, No. 17, October 26, 1968, pp. 36−39.

Page 47  |  Top of Article

SOURCES

Axelrod, Alan, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twentieth Century History, Alpha Books, 1999, pp. 377−94.

Contemporary Dramatists, 5th ed., St. James Press, 1993.

Crinkley, Richmond, in National Review, December 17, 1968, pp. 1282−83.

Hungerford, Robert W., “Howard Sackler,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Gale Research, 1981.

Kerr, Walter, in New York Times, October 13, 1968.

Sackler, Howard, The Great White Hope, Dial, 1968.

Simon, John, Hudson Review, Winter 1968−1969, pp. 707−10.

Trousdale, Marion, “Ritual Theatre: The Great White Hope,” in Western Humanities Review, Autumn 1969, pp. 295−303.

Wetzsteon, Ross, “Review of The Great White Hope,” in Village Voice, October 10, 1968, pp. 45−46.

FURTHER READING

Funke, Lewis, Playwrights Talk about Writing: 12 Interviews with Lewis Funke, Dramatic Publishing, 1975.

This collection contains an interview with Howard Sackler and other notable authors.

Gottfried, Martin, “Introduction,” in A Few Inquiries, Dial, 1970.

This prefaces A Few Inquiries and provides, through critical analysis, additional insight into the collection of plays.

Sackler, Howard, A Few Inquiries, Dial, 1970.

This is a collection of one-act plays by Sackler, including “Sarah,” “The Nine O’Clock Mail,” “Mr. Welk and Jersey Jim,” and “Skippy.”

Trousdale, Marion, “Ritual Theatre: The Great White Hope,” in Western Humanities Review, Autumn 1969, pp. 295−303.

This book is a thorough exploration into and examination of the structure and integrity of Sackler’s work.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"The Great White Hope." Drama for Students, edited by David M. Galens, vol. 15, Gale, 2002, pp. 25-47. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2694000013%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dpoul45153%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3Dc326f39b. Accessed 18 June 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2694000013

View other articles linked to these index terms:

Page locators that refer to this article are not hyper-linked.

  • Abandonment
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 25
      • 15: 27-28
  • American Midwest
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 26-27
      • 15: 33
      • 15: 35
  • American Northeast
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 39-41
      • 15: 44
  • American Northwest
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 39-40
  • Black Identity
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 32
  • Crime and Criminals
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 27-28
      • 15: 33-35
  • Dialogue
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 33-34
  • Drama
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 39-41
      • 15: 43-45
  • Europe
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 27-28
      • 15: 33-34
      • 15: 40-41
      • 15: 43
      • 15: 45
  • Evil
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 39
  • Free Will and Determinism
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 33
  • Hatred
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 27-28
      • 15: 36
  • Heroism
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 39-44
  • Hope
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 26-28
      • 15: 33-35
      • 15: 40-41
      • 15: 43-44
  • Humor
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 41-43
  • Interracial Relationships
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 32
  • Irony
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 42
  • Law and Order
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 27-28
      • 15: 33
      • 15: 35-36
  • Love and Passion
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 27
      • 15: 32-34
      • 15: 36
      • 15: 39-41
      • 15: 43-44
  • Monologue
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 32-34
      • 15: 37
      • 15: 39
  • Morals and Morality
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 39
      • 15: 41-43
  • North America
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 28
      • 15: 33-35
  • Perception
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 25
      • 15: 33-34
  • Plot
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 33-34
      • 15: 36
      • 15: 40-41
      • 15: 43
  • Politics
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 27-28
      • 15: 35-36
  • Race
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 25-29
      • 15: 31-46
  • Racism and Prejudice
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 25-26
      • 15: 31
      • 15: 33
      • 15: 35-36
  • Racism and Racial Conflict
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 31
  • Search For Knowledge
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 32
      • 15: 35
  • Sentimentality
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 42-43
  • Sin
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 40-41
      • 15: 43-44
  • Sports and the Sporting Life
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 25-26
      • 15: 28
      • 15: 31
      • 15: 33
      • 15: 35
      • 15: 41-43
  • Structure
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 33
      • 15: 36
      • 15: 41-43
  • Understanding
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 25
  • War, the Military, and Soldier Life
    • The Great White Hope
      • 15: 35-36