The Great White Hope

by Howard Sackler

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Sackler's Use of Contrasts

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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.

‘‘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 reactions of the audience, sharing with them...

(This entire section contains 1395 words.)

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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?

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.

Overview of the Initial Productions of The Great White Hope

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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 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 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 diffi- culties 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 sequence 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 ‘‘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 sayin 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 Hope?’’ ‘‘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 wellversed 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 of 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.

Not Quite Heavyweight

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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 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 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 suffi- ciently ‘‘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 clichés 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 selfcongratulation 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.


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