Howard Sackler

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Born on December 19, 1929, in the Bronx, Howard Sackler attended Brooklyn College, earning the bachelor of arts degree in 1950. A natural writer, Sackler wrote verse, publishing in respected poetry journals such as The Hudson Review and Poetry; his early work was gathered in Want My Shepherd and published by Caedmon in 1954. Combining his interest in the theater with his verse writing, Sackler wrote Uriel Acosta, for which he received the Maxwell Anderson Award in 1954. His tendency was always to look to historical settings for his plays; after his success with Uriel Acosta, about a Portuguese Jew in the generation before Baruch Spinoza, Sackler looked at the life of the French poet Tristan Corbière. The play, his first in prose, won the Sergel Award in 1959 and marked the beginning of his interest in nineteenth century health practices, which was to find its best voice in Semmelweiss. While building his playwriting career, Sackler founded Caedmon Records, which provided his livelihood as he built a reputation for screenwriting. Another career, in directing, took him to the New School for Social Research, where readings of several poetic plays augmented his growing number of recordings of William Shakespeare’s plays at Caedmon, with such notable voices as those of Paul Scofield, Albert Finney, and Dame Edith Evans. Sackler’s next venture into live theater came with A Few Enquiries, four one-act plays separate in setting and characters but joined in their thematic investigation of human contact and the need of the individual to find his place in a larger community. His mature work continued this investigation in more elaborate forms.

All Sackler’s experiences came together in 1967, with The Great White Hope, the meticulously researched and carefully structured epic dramatization of the life of Jack Jefferson (based on the career of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson). The play earned for Sackler international recognition when it received the Pulitzer Prize , the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Tony Award in 1969. By 1970, Sackler had turned his work into a highly successful screenplay, starring the actors who had appeared in the stage version: James Earl Jones as Jack Jefferson, and Jane Alexander, who had played Ellie Bachman, Jefferson’s white mistress. Partly because of his busy screenwriting career and partly because of his insistence on very careful research into each of his historical plays, it was not until 1977 that Sackler offered his next stage work, Semmelweiss, which opened in Buffalo, New York, but did not reach Broadway. Sackler’s last Broadway play, Goodbye Fidel, which opened in 1980, closed quickly after unfavorable reviews. The New Yorker praised it, however, saying, “So many roles and settings give the play a welcomely old-fashioned air of amplitude, even of extravagance; we sense that the playwright has shared the novelist’s luxurious privilege of inventing an abundance of characters and then letting them wander wherever they will.” At his death, from pulmonary thrombosis, in Ibiza, Spain, on October 14, 1982, Sackler was near the finish of yet another major historical play, “Klondike,” about the Alaskan Gold Rush. Sackler’s papers are in the archives of the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin.

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