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Sackler, Howard 1929–

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Sackler is an American dramatist and screenwriter whose best-known play, The Great White Hope, explores race relations in a dramatization of the tragic but flamboyant career of America's first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. Sackler won the Pulitzer Prize, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and a Tony Award for this play. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

Julius Novick

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Mr. Sackler has written a great sprawling chronicle in twenty scenes, laid between San Francisco and Budapest, as "Jack Jefferson" wanders the earth looking for a place where he can live in peace with his heavyweight title and his white mistress. Aristotle named "spectacle" as one of the parts of tragedy, and The Great White Hope is spectacular: it features a cakewalk, a prayer meeting, a voodoo ceremony, a funeral, and crowd scenes of all sorts. (p. 93)

Sackler's play is by no means one entire and perfect chrysolite. For one thing, it is far, far too long; I do not object to three-and-a-half-hour plays on principle, but this one repeats itself too many times. Furthermore, some of the important characters are unrealized in the writing; the champion's mistress, especially, is far too gracious, too faithful, and generally too perfect to be altogether persuasive. Even Jack Jefferson himself, until he is undermined by the persecutions he suffers, is somewhat too good to be true. For a wide array of additional reasons, a number of scenes fail to come off; the script "needs," as they say, "work."

But The Great White Hope matters very much all the same, just as it stands, because Sackler has gotten hold of a vitally significant piece of history, has realized just why it is significant, and has put that significance, in vivid human terms, on the stage. Jack Johnson/Jefferson, as Sackler depicts him, is not a well-behaved, serious-minded Negro like Booker T. Washington or Sidney Poitier; he mocks at white society, and he sleeps with a white woman. And this, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, is unendurable; America, Sackler suggests, absolutely cannot stand a "bad nigger."

For a while I sat watching the play and fighting its implications. I had it in mind to accuse Sackler of catering to the absurd, ugly and dangerous kind of Negro paranoia…. The play is by no means a calm and balanced assessment of the situation, but it seems clear to me that what Sackler implies is at least basically true; ours is still a racist society. But whatever conclusion we come to, the play demands of us, in urgently dramatic terms, that we examine the whole question and our stake in it. (pp. 93-4)

Julius Novick, "Tragic Cakewalk," in The Nation (copyright 1968 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 206, No. 3, January 15, 1968, pp. 93-4.

Richard Gilman

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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. (p. 36)

In taking hold of [the events of Johnson's career as a fighter] 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….

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 sufficiently "literary" but simply with Sackler's 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. (p. 38)

Richard Gilman, "Not Quite Heavyweight," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1968 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 159, No. 17, October 26, 1968, pp. 36, 38-9.

John Simon

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[The Great White Hope] generates considerable excitement. Generating excitement is not nearly so good as generating art, but, in these lean times, may have to do. How nice if Sackler, who had the good sense to use Shakespeare and Brecht as his models, had come up with something worthy of them; unfortunately, the writing is only hard-working, competent but overambitious middlebrow stuff…. (p. 707)

Nevertheless, the play has energy and variety. It knows when to hurtle and when to sashay forward, there is humor in it, and it does generate a growing sense of entrapment and doom. The Negro speech patterns are accurate and flavorous, and the protagonist, for one, does emerge a full and appealing human being. The other parts, even when they are no more than stereotypes, are at least swirlingly animated stereotypes…. Sackler has at any rate sketched in a historical play conceived in the grand style; some credit is due for the very boldness of his concept. (p. 709)

John Simon, "Chronicles: 'The Great White Hope'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1969 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXI, No. 4, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 707-10.

Robert Kotlowitz

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Sackler has written a play [The Great White Hope] of caterwauling theatricality, in which all the surface techniques are distracting enough to nearly obscure the fact that almost nothing at all seems to be happening inside any of the characters. (p. 108)

And with it all goes an uncomfortable, nagging feeling that we have seen it before, nearly a quarter of a century ago, that it reminds us too much, in fact, of Native Son, that Jack Jefferson is Richard Wright's agonized hero, Bigger Thomas, swollen to celebrity size. But while Native Son was the direct, hot expression of uncontrollable black anger, The Great White Hope, written by a white man, seems in some of its aspects an act of nearly appalling self-hatred. It is populated by a huge cast of black angels (with one exception) and malevolent whites (with two exceptions), which allows us, the (mainly white) audience, to make a perfect cop-out: we can't identify with those whites onstage, it's not us up there, it's a race of other, vile Americans, whose guilt, however, we are perfectly willing to shoulder for the evening.

The Great White Hope has an enormous impact on audiences; and it is this impact, not the play itself, that is what people talk about…. (pp. 108-09)

Robert Kotlowitz, "Victims: Two Films and a Play," in Harper's (copyright © 1968 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the January, 1969 issue by special permission), Vol. 238, No. 1424, January, 1969, pp. 107-09.∗

Martin Gottfried

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[The Great White Hope] was writing in the classic sense: rich verbal writing—verse, in fact, though few noticed that (which was as it should be if the verse is working and reading right). But it was also a production concept, a play of times, places, sounds, music, movement and shapes as well as of language, metaphor and humor.

The four plays in [A Few Enquiries] are very much the same sort, written with the stage in mind…. (p. iii)

What makes these plays—and Sackler—so unusual is that they are classical and poetic while being modern in their treatment of reality and their sense of the stage. They are literary, yet production-oriented. In short, Sackler is an artist, speaking in a unique voice without trying to fit into one school of playwrighting or another. His plays aren't naturalistic, but neither are they abstract. They work in the spaces of surrealism, where reality can be heightened or lowered, and so they must be read that way.

Sarah I find a play of great mystery, perhaps the most intriguing of the four. It is set backstage at a Victorian ballet theatre. There are terribly few playwrights who are interested in period, and even fewer who are capable of it. Yet, the theatre should be a place of pictures, of strange places. (pp. iii-iv)

The period of Sarah and, of course, its ballet setting, gives it a sense of Degas and that is how it should look—like one of the painter's gas-lit, frightened young ballerinas. The spookiness of the play—recurring, gory stage accidents; the dead dancer's stunned mother who had some (implied) relationship with the company owner—this spookiness is what the play is about. Looking for other meanings will only take you away from it.

There are some peculiar words in this play. Archaic dance terms like "pas de lyres," "congé" and "caracoles" aren't just indications of Sackler's research (though he is a formidable researcher). They are settings for othertimeliness and you will find others throughout the plays. (p. iv)

I find The Nine O'Clock Mail the weakest of these four and interestingly enough, it is the only contemporary one (that is, about fairly young people in a fairly familiar setting—a suburban home). It is the weakest, I think, because it is the only one primarily structured to make a point, because the point is not worth the effort, being too coy and pop-psych, and because the climax is contrived.

Mr. Welk and Jersey Jim is something else again. Now here is neat playwriting, a song and dance about words, a vaudeville turn in one act and a tragic one at that….

Skippy is a mystery in three events. The events are the death of Harry's mother, the robbery of his store and the expiation of an old guilt. Its main thrust is the marital relationship that overcomes these events. (p. v)

Relationships run through all the plays: devoted, as in the Harry-Muriel marriage; suspended, as between Mrs. Webster and Mr. Bunn in Sarah; neurotic, as between Cynthia and Ted in The Nine O'Clock Mail; sadistic-masochistic, as between Mr. Welk and Jersey Jim. The plays have other things in common: the connection between love and vitality; fantasy; accidents that alter the course of a life; and ritualism.

The ritualism is striking. In Sarah, the young ballerina reenacts a death. In The Nine O'Clock Mail, a man cannot make love to his wife until he completes his obsessive mail ritual. In Mr. Welk and Jersey Jim, the rehearsal of a cross-examination becomes a macabre puppet performance for a half mad attorney and his victim-client. Finally, Skippy is about a man who needs one death to atone for another.

But it is Sackler's overall title, A Few Enquiries, that best ties the quartet together. The quote is from Hamlet (II, i), and is one most productions omit. It is Polonius speaking, asking Reynaldo to check in on Laertes in Paris. Like Polonius, Sackler's people are groping, with love and confusion, for contact—needing to know just what is going on with those they are close to and not being able to find out…. Upon these inquiries, Sackler himself is inquiring into the natures of these troubled lives—"how, and who; what means; and where they keep; what company, at what expense." At what expense—the question is crucial. What is given up for closeness?

To ask these questions, to make these inquiries, Sackler uses forms that are proportionate and diverse. Most consequentially—at least for the theatre—he uses the language with care, the structures with confidence, at a time when both language and structure are both suspect and rare. He is disciplined in a period of anarchy, writes for actors in a period of performers. He is his own man, as any artist must be. (pp. v-vi)

Martin Gottfried, in his introduction to A Few Enquiries by Howard Sackler (copyright © 1970 by Howard Sackler; reprinted by permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1970, pp. iii-vi.

Mel Gussow

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[In "Semmelweiss"] Howard Sackler has taken the life story of Ignaz Phillipp Semmelweiss …, the pioneer Hungarian physician, and transformed it into the spell-binding evening of theater.

On its very simplest level, Mr. Sackler's new play is a medical melodrama…. But given the playwright's talent …, "Semmelweiss" becomes something greater.

It is a classic story of conscience versus compromise, the individual combating convention. The play is not only about one courageous doctor, but also about all visionaries who have been brutalized for their ideas. Mr. Sackler's Semmelweiss is, in short, a legitimate hero and, finally, a martyr….

Mr. Sackler is, of course, the author of "The Great White Hope."… In "Semmelweiss," Mr. Sackler uses a related approach. This is not a historical pageant, but a theatricalized interpretation…. [The drama] is developed in a tightly meshed long skein of encounters. There are three unrelenting acts, and an enormous cast which becomes a chorus of antagonism. Like Mr. Sackler's Jack Johnson, Semmelweiss is alone in a dilemma that rises in urgency….

In the nine years since "The Great White Hope" it seemed that Mr. Sackler might be one of our many one-play American dramatists, who fail to equal their initial success. "Semmelweiss" makes it clear that Mr. Sackler is not only a playwright of stature, but an artist of maturity and vision…. It is a play that should endure.

Mel Gussow, "Masterly Drama in 'Semmelweiss'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1977, p. 15.

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