The Great White Hope

by Howard Sackler

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Critical Context

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Tony Award, The Great White Hope is an epic presentation of Jack Jefferson’s tragedy, based on the history of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. Howard Sackler endows the play with tragic magnitude through the poetic use of the American vernacular tradition. As a poet, screenwriter, and director of William Shakespeare’s plays and T. S. Eliot’s verse dramas, Sackler is able to fuse poetry, history, and popular culture into a classical yet modern drama in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Maxwell Anderson.

Jack Jefferson, the center of this hybrid drama, is at war with society and within himself as a result of his refusal to accept the roles that white and black people wish to impose upon him. Jack plays these various roles with equal parts of bitter glee, malice, condescension, and sadness, but he ends crushed by these demands and his inability to forge a powerful identity. Jack’s tragedy is similar to that of the title characters in Sackler’s long one-act verse drama Uriel Acosta (pr. 1954) and Semmelweiss (pr. 1977). Acosta flees the Spanish Inquisition to live in the Amsterdam Jewish community, but he soon learns that his prophetic spirituality is at odds with its crass materialism. In Semmelweiss, which also has an epic structure, the nineteenth century physician Ignaz Semmelweiss discovers the principle of antisepsis, which can prevent the spread of germs in hospitals, but the narrow-minded establishment refuses to accept his ideas. Eventually, he is driven to suicide by their continued ridicule. Sackler builds the conflicts in these plays around historical characters who represent the tragic fate of outstanding individuals attacked by societies determined to crush them for their superiority.

The Great White Hope is also significant for its relationship to the turbulent political and social context of the late 1960’s, when the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War and African Americans continued their struggle for civil rights. Muhammad Ali, the black heavyweight champion who was stripped of his title for refusing to fight in the war, identified with Jack Jefferson’s plight, which also paralleled the situation of many young men who escaped the war by going into exile. Thus for literary, social, and political reasons, The Great White Hope represents a distinguished achievement in American drama.

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Critical Overview