“I just went the whole hog, man.” This is the key to the fate of the great Negro boxer, Jack Johnson, whose history is the subject of an extraordinary new play, The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler. This work is completely open, within the reach of the largest or the smallest audience; it is dramatically and artistically powerful and moving. From the moment James Earl Jones, as Johnson, is first seen at the punching bag—young, confident, with an exuberant, explosive consciousness of his own possibility—to the pitiful and terrifying end when he staggers on, having thrown the world championship, his eyeballs bleeding, his cheeks maimed, swollen, accusing, his mouth a gap of blood, followed by the victor, “the white hope,” beaten to a pulp, ruined, barely alive, carried on the shoulders of some screaming maniacs: from the beginning to the end has taken four hours and twenty-five scenes. This obstinate exhaustiveness has, out of the most literal and indeed the most hackneyed material, created something of genuine symbolic force. A truly American drama, one of them at least, had been hidden all along in that exploited, drained fight world, a world whose authenticity is itself no longer capable of being uncovered, since true history and stage and film history are one. It was Howard Sackler’s inspiration to have acknowledged this, to have consciously—and that is the art of it—been content to leave it all there, corrupted, sentimentalized, full of the shabbiest folklore.
The play is described as being loosely based on the life and times of Jack Johnson, but the correspondences between the incidents on the stage and the events of Johnson’s life are more to the point. When Johnson managed, by the sheer insistence of his gifts as a boxer and the great dare of simply being himself, to win the world heavyweight title in 1908, he created in the minds of white men a huge discomfort and shame. Their search for a “great white hope” to regain the title was an eager, even a bitter, reality. The fact of having the title was one of the dramas of Johnson’s life: the other was his “association” with white girls. As he says at one point in the play, “Everybody know I gone off cullud women.” He married two white women in real life, but in the play there is only one, his mistress Ellie Bachman. Her presence is a scandal and so perhaps is the club Johnson opens in Chicago, the “Cafe de Champion.” Anti-vice groups pursue him and, as in real life, he is falsely charged and convicted on the Mann act, even though Ellie would not testify against him, nor did the girl in the real trial—she married him instead. The thought of incarceration at this very beginning of his career and at the peak of his life is too much, and he jumps bail and goes into exile abroad.
The towering, humorous, high-living Johnson in London and Paris, in knickers drinking beer in Germany, looking for bouts, doing exhibitions, being a celebrity: all of this is done as a series of vaudeville skits, but more or less realistically, and all relating to the tragic downhill of Johnson’s life as an exile from everything, his work and his life. Desperation and penury and loss of power are the real meaning of these wild skits: in one of them, in Budapest, Johnson, his mistress, and his trainer actually do a night club act from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a scene that is funny and sad in a uniquely moving way. (I don’t know whether such a degradation actually took place, but it is no more farfetched than the actual Johnson on his throne in Hubert’s Museum on 42nd Street.) The hope of retaking the title for the white race persists and Johnson is offered an amnesty from his jail sentence and the right to return home if he will throw his title in a match with an inferior white fighter. He refuses at first, but he and Ellie are reduced to a state of misery and after a quarrel in Mexico she commits suicide. Johnson, desolate, surrenders the title, saying with horrible irony, “He beat me, dassal. Ah juss din have it—.” That is the end of the play, all of it soaked in the blood and mutilation of both the black and the white fighter. In real life it turned out that, although Johnson surrendered the championship to Jess Willard in 1915, he was not to have a pardon. He finally went to Leavenworth, according to John Lardner’s book White Hopes and Other Tigers, and served all but a few days of his original sentence.
JOHNSON HIMSELF was larger than life, and in thinking about the play one keeps in mind the splendor of James Earl Jones in the role. Nevertheless, the role is written, a sustained and creative achievement. The vibrant center of the action, the boxer, is surrounded by figures from popular art—it is a tragedy played out in the midst of heightened figures of American mythology. Irish promoters, Jewish fight managers (“I should feel so good as Jack does!”), Negro preachers, praying, loving black mothers, the howling mob, the sound of gongs, the count for the knockout, the crowd going wild, the sportswriters, the hangers-on, the gold belt, the “champeen”—and the miserable, destitute end. The problem Sackler faced was how to make genuine theater out of a scene that is false theater.
He has taken a dozen risks, not with the new but with the trite. He does not try to discover what the boxing world was really like, or to see it as some violent prefiguration of the present; by having Johnson’s tragedy take place in the midst of the most banal, folkloric stereo-types (written without banality, however) he brings out the almost supernatural elements of Johnson’s history, the genuinely, accidentally symbolic core of it. Sermons and funerals, the Turkey Trot, religious reformers, sports figures as fixed in their attributes as religious images—these are the world of the boxer; they are no doubt still acting out the ritual of their function, helplessly. Sackler includes another figure, this one a bit less realistic, a sort of Marcus Garvey surrealist prophet, wearing a cape and an old hat with a red band, and speaking in a sinister voice of parable and foreboding. His message is contemporary but not soiled with that explicitness so often to be endured in the theater. “How much white you up to? How much you done took on? How white you wanna be?” he asks with contempt. And later, “White man keep pullin de teeth outa you head, an preacher here givin you de laughin-gas….”
There are some things in the play I am not certain about. The boxer’s faithful mistress is too dignified, quiet, and loyal and in that way perhaps a violation of the folkloric authenticity. Perhaps? The love affair is sentimental, and yet a profound sensuality saves it from being a propaganda match. At the beginning Ellie is rather middle-western, Dreiserian, with just that faint hint of an endurance that kills as it saves. There is, also, in the suffering of the doomed lovers, their hotel rooms, their stark removal from domesticity, a suggestion of Back Street, and the seedy declines of fortune in old films. The actual ending, however, is strikingly bitter, the lower depths: Ugly, bitten by bed bugs, wasted, dirty, Ellie sees herself at last as a “nigger.”
Sackler’s unexpected success in making something newly living from the moribund materials of popular art is a challenge to dramatic criticism. The play is extremely puzzling in its bulky simplicity, in the somehow sweet acceptance of the grossest artistic deformations of our immediate past. A longing to see the reality of American experience on the stage attends, whether they know it or not, every entrance into a theater. Perhaps we had given up too soon on the hope that this experience could be rendered for itself. It had seemed that only the spare and the abstract of European art could yield up the fat essence. In this play I think the newness and truth comes from the conscious intelligence, writing not for us, but out of a saturation in us and in American life.
February 1, 1968