The Great White Hope

by Howard Sackler

Start Free Trial

The Play

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 can never be private, given Jack’s prominence and their interracial affair.

At the end of the first act, Jack arrives at his mother’s house in Chicago and sets in motion his plan to escape his three-year sentence by going to England. As he changes places with his look-alike Rudy Sims, a Detroit Bluejays baseball player, Clara is prevented from revealing the plan to the officials in the street.

Act 2 has Jack in exile, wandering throughout Europe in search of boxing matches but encountering instead poverty, bitterness, exploitation, and growing estrangement from Ellie. After he is forced to leave England when a group of morally outraged people prevent him from boxing, Jack goes to France, where he savagely beats Klossowski, an arrogant Polish heavyweight. As the crowd grows ugly at the sight of the slaughter, Ellie is in the dressing room being questioned by Smitty, who wants to undermine her life with Jack.

Scene 4 moves to the darkened New York office of promoter Pop Weaver, who, along with Fred and Cap’n Dan, watches a film of the Kid, the new Great White Hope. Dixon promises to reduce Jack’s sentence if he will agree to lose to the Kid. Like Cap’n Dan earlier, Dixon describes what it means to have a black champion who thwarts the establishment: “We cannot allow the image of this man to go on impressing and exciting these people.”

In Berlin, Jack declines further as he engages in a series of pathetic...

(This entire section contains 862 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

tests of strength with four drunken German officers, who treat him as a curiosity. Ellie tries to persuade Jack to accept an entertainment contract with a sleazy Hungarian showman, Ragosy. Although Jack mocks her efforts, he is forced by economic necessity to appear as Uncle Tom in an ill-fated performance ofUncle Tom’s Cabin in Budapest. Ironically, Jack is reduced to playing a role that he has steadfastly avoided in his own life. The second act ends as Jack refuses Smitty’s offer to throw the projected bout with the Kid.

The third act presents the culmination of Jack’s tragedy, as disruption, defeat, and death dominate his life. At the funeral of his mother, a riot breaks out when police attempt to repress the black preacher Scipio’s separatist speech. After the Kid’s backers meet again at Pop Weaver’s office to discuss regaining the championship, Clara enters, clutching a bloodstained garment and crying for vengeance against Jack.

She receives her wish when Jack, reduced to training in an unused barn in Juarez, Mexico, finally tells Ellie that she must leave him. Distraught, she commits suicide by throwing herself down a well. The sight of her body compels Jack to accept the fixed bout with the Kid. The play ends in Havana with Jack, after punishing his opponent for a number of rounds, being “knocked out.” The triumphant Great White Hope, with the championship belt around his neck, is carried aloft by his supporters like “the lifelike wooden saints in Catholic processions.”

Dramatic Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion of the WorldThe 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 fiancée 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 free- dom. 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 con- flict 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 suffered 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.

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.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 pasT sivity plaguing 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.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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-tounderstand 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.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide