The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Great White Hope opens at the Ohio farm of Frank Brady, the former heavyweight champion who is now being hailed as the Great White Hope—the fighter who will regain the title from the mocking black champion Jack Jefferson. After Brady is convinced by his manager Fred, Cap’n Dan, and Smitty to “stick a fist out to teach a loudmouth nigger” a lesson, Jack’s manager, Goldie, agrees to hold the fight in Reno, Nevada, on July 4.

In a gymnasium in San Francisco, Jack shadowboxes and brags that he will destroy Brady, as he is watched by his trainer, Tick, and his white lover, Ellie Bachman, who will be the cause of his ensuing troubles. Although Goldie warns him about her, Jack refuses to hide their love, even after the reporters taunt them, and after Clara, who claims to be his common-law wife, attacks Ellie. At the Reno arena, Jack soundly defeats Brady and gains possession of his championship belt. At the end of this scene, Cap’n Dan explains that it is dangerous to have a black champion and vows to find another Great White Hope.

Scene 4 presents Jack’s triumphal return to Chicago, where he is greeted by his well-wishers, who beat drums and cheer him and Ellie. The gaiety is threatened, however, by the arrival of the Salvation Army, which protests the immoral activities at Jack’s Café de Champion. After Jack suavely prevents a potential riot, Mrs. Bachman enters with her lawyer, Donnelly, and demands to talk with Ellie, who refuses to see them. Donnelly warns Jack to send Ellie home, and the beating drums now begin to sound ominous.

Smitty, Donnelly, and Dixon, a shadowy federal agent, meet with Cameron, Chicago District Attorney, to discuss how to destroy Jack. When Ellie arrives, she is cross-examined about her sexual relationship with Jack. After she leaves, they agree to arrest Jack for transporting her across a state line for sexual purposes. Their plan is fulfilled at a small cabin in Wisconsin, where policemen break in to arrest Jack. Their forced entry represents the continuing intrusion of the establishment into the lovers’ lives, which...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Great White Hope is a sprawling play of nineteen rapid scenes that occur in eight countries and over two continents. Despite the range and speed of the scenes and the large cast, Howard Sackler infuses Jeffersons’s tragic cycle of victory, exile, and defeat with unity through the use of parallel scenes, choral characters, and visual motifs such as the heavyweight championship belt.

Sackler employs parallelism effectively in the repetition of crowd scenes in which Jack is at first applauded and then attacked and forced to escape. In Paris, when Jack savagely beats Klossowski, the cheering crowd turns ugly, and Jack and Ellie are forced to flee. Similarly, in Budapest the crowd, initially favorable to his performance as Uncle Tom, hoots Jack off the stage. These unpredictable crowds represent public opinion, a many-headed beast controlled by the forces that defeat Jack.

Another unifying device is the appearance throughout the play of five choral figures who provide different perspectives on Jack’s complex personality. Cap’n Dan appears twice in a symmetrical fashion. After the third scene in act 1, when Jack beats Brady, Cap’n Dan vows to find a Great White Hope to defeat him, and at the end of the third scene in the last act he announces that everyone eagerly anticipates the Kid’s victory. Cap’n Dan’s prophecy joins with Clara’s choral condemnation of Jack at the end of the preceding scene to lead inevitably to the destiny enacted at the Oriente Racetrack in Havana.

Sackler also uses the unifying visual device of the championship belt, which is emblematic of the theme and conflict of the play. In the first scene, Brady poses with the belt, which he promises to prevent Jack from winning. At Jack’s victory celebration, however, Tick holds up the “gold belt in its plush-lined case.” Finally, after the Kid defeats Jack, he wears the belt draped around his neck as he is carried by the crowd. The belt has passed from Brady to Jack and then to the Kid; it has served, along with the repetition of parallel scenes, to create structural unity in a series of diverse and rapid scenes.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion of the World
The Great White Hope is a work of fiction based on a historical figure, a...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Elements in the plot that create expectation or help to explain later developments are represented in dramatic...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

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...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Dreaming in Color, Living in Black and White: Our Own Stories of Growing Up Black in White America, by Laurel Holiday (2000), is a...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Gilman, Richard. Review in The New Republic 159 (October 26, 1968): 36-39.

Paulin, Diana R. Review of The Great White Hope. Theatre Journal 53 (October, 2001): 506-508.

Trousdale, Marion. “Ritual Theatre: The Great White Hope.” Western Humanities Review 23 (Autumn, 1969): 295-303.