The quality that Howard Sackler brought to his historical subjects is not a simpleminded romanticism but rather an underlying universality of emotions that connects the past with his audience’s immediate responses. These plays are more than well-researched panoramas of a time gone by; the point of Sackler’s portraits is that these times are never gone, that the anguish and the joys one feels have been present in every history.
No better example of everything Sackler tried to do in his work is available than the first play in the four-play collection, A Few Enquiries, entitled Sarah. A coroner, his assistant, some witnesses, and the mother of the victim of a tragic accident are gathered backstage in a ballet theater to reenact the circumstances of the awful event: A promising young ballerina perished when her costume caught fire from the gaslights during a performance. The businesslike voice of the coroner, the subdued retelling of the witnesses, the monosyllabic responses of the mother—all make a music of their own, to which the understudy dances, acting out the tragic events, to the very moment of the stagehand’s feeble attempts to extinguish the flaming dress with his hands (now bandaged), a slow pantomime observed clinically by some and with emotion by others. The final cries of anguish by the mother of Sarah, the victim, echoing in the bare theater, bring the incident out of the mid-Victorian past (it was based on a real incident) into the dramatic present. The effect is emblematic of Sackler’s writing gifts, which came to maturity in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Great White Hope.
The Great White Hope
The episodic treatment (nineteen scenes in three acts) of Jack Jefferson’s career gives The Great White Hope the epic scope necessary to depict not only the character but also his era and his world. On one level, the play is a portrait of the times, when America was adolescent in its attitudes toward racial prejudice, civil rights, and the free enterprise system at work in the sports industry. The crowd scenes, effectively designed, focus the action where it belongs, not on the prizefights themselves (all occurring offstage) but on those waiting for the results of their wagers. Jefferson is the kind of gladiator who is envied to destruction, not because of his...
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