Commentary Magazine


History as Drama

The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler, is the sort of play for which all of us who battle for the theater's reputation should be grateful. It is neither a piece of slick frippery nor a dismal experiment in infantile super-theatrics; it is reasonably intelligent about a subject which can easily produce strident fits of absence of mind; it chronicles a flamboyant life that seems to have been lived so that it might now be set out upon the stage; it contains a performance by its star, James Earl Jones, that is of a high order; and, finally, it offers us a bit of history which has, in multiples of hundreds, come back to haunt all the sensible minds of our time.

However, perhaps because of the merits it did show, I sat through The Great White Hope in a very ungrateful mood. As I watched the scenes of the play unfold, as I saw the protagonist, Jack Jefferson, first black heavyweight champion of the world, being hounded by his white coevals as though they were out to exorcise a demon, as I watched this well-drafted decline and fall, I could not help but wish that something surprising would happen, that some force or attitude would find its way into the web of things which could not be patly deduced from the premise of a liberal consciousness mulling over our racial wounds; for if Sackler's play did not have all the complexities of the present to buttress and nourish it, The Great White Hope would come close to seeming little more than a tendentious national pageant in which good and evil parade in separate colors so that moral lessons can be easily taught.

An example of what I mean can be taken from the way Sackler treats history. In his play, Jefferson loves a white woman who, after enduring the agonies of their exile, commits suicide. This act crushes Jefferson's will to resist any longer the pressures from the white world to throw a title fight and thereby to sell the championship back to his enemies. All this is very neat, very easy to plot out, and, of course, fully magnetized to draw the filings of our sympathy straight away onto Jefferson.

Now in fact, Jack Johnson, whose life is the subject of the play, married three white women and upended a few dozen more. He was prodigal, haughty, wild, and dared the conventions of life as well as those of white American society. A playwright is certainly free to tinker with history in a way that will facilitate his conceptions, but I wonder why, in his turn, Sackler did not dare more, did not risk putting a life in his play that had the antics and clouds of the original.

Similarly, the white characters of the drama are almost a solid piece of subhuman surliness. I am, indeed, certain that most of Johnson's white fellow countrymen were the pious racists that Sackler presents them to be, but I question if an artist can allow himself to lean on such a neat generality. He cannot, certainly, if he hopes to astonish us in any way; he cannot, also, if he means to set down a confrontation that goes deeper than the emotional ethics of melodrama. Of course, Sackler may only have wished to give the easy assumptions of the day a good romp through a drama in which they would feel very much at home. Indeed, my own social pieties had a nice outing during the three acts of his play, and for this, I repeat, I am not grateful.

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What I am dissatisfied about in this play is simply that Sackler has allowed a certain smoothness, a certain facile resolution to creep into his work and turn an exciting conception into an easily digested indictment which we have all heard and bowed to again and again. He is an adroit dramatist and he can fashion sharp, searing episodes in which Jefferson mocks, lashes, and rages at his tormentors or tries to hold his mind and pride together while putting himself to degrading, music hall use—and yet, when all of the fury of the play fades away, one feels that, yes, this is how it all should be seen and judged; everything was correctly drawn and passions flowed at just the right moment. But when one leaves the theater and walks out into the history of the present, Sackler's work seems like a fairy tale compared with the madman's dream in which blacks and whites are now living, and one becomes almost nostalgic about those moments of pain and fury in The Great White Hope which presented such comfortable sanctuaries for righteous sentiment.

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Had the character of Jack Jefferson been allowed some speckling that was not a result of the racial vise that it was in, had it taken on throughout the play aspects other than that of a white atrocity, then one might obliterate history and think more loosely about Sackler's creation. But as he is written, Jefferson appears as a gigantic, indistinct piece of agony, a composite of black lamentation drained of all real human contradiction. James Earl Jones, in his performance, seems to sense this, for as impressive as his depiction is, it is really no more than a series of synthetized black styles strung together. Early in the play, when things are going well, he is the sharp, bad-mouthing stud who can put on the world; as his fortunes ebb, he gives us a catalogue of evil moods, moods that seem plucked from all the ghetto dramas in which the man can no longer hold his hustle together. Jones is, indeed, very good at this, and when he stands, at the end of a scene, his body stretched in anger to its tallest point, boxing the air instead of the opponent the world will not give him, he can make one recall just what it is that is dramatically distinctive about him—not that he is a Black Everyman but rather that he is a great boxer in search of a conflict.

The Great White Hope is a play which could have gone so far that it is especially galling to see it resting in its simple achievements. As for those who found it an overwhelming, blistering experience—well, would that we all could be so gently purged.

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Where Howard Sackler somewhat ingenuously accepts the popular historical fashions, Robert Shaw, the author of The Man in the Glass Booth, has caught hold of a subtler twist to another dark instant in our recent past. His subject is the Jew and the concentration camp, and his hero, a millionaire named Goldman, is a man who stands trial in an Israeli court for crimes against the Jewish people.

The twist is, of course, that Goldman is in fact a Jew who allows and even arranges for himself to be mistaken for his cousin who had been an SS officer in the camps and who was responsible for the murder of hundreds of inmates. Goldman's reasons for this pretense are by no means simple, but as the trial unfolds and his masquerade is detected, it turns out that he was a prisoner in a camp himself and had been under the very authority of the cousin he is impersonating. It is over this fact that he is now engaged in some sort of penance, but it is never particularly clear just what has prompted this odd manner of expiation. As a Jew, does he feel guilty for having permitted himself to have lived through such degradation? Does he despise his people for their apparent docile acceptance of annihilation? Does he want finally to put a Nazi on trial who will at last frankly declare that he was exhilarated by his license to slaughter and was in love with the Fuehrer who ordered it? Does he want to place victim and assailant in the same booth so that they may be judged as necessary to each other, a common lump of human imperfection in the eyes of God? All of these possibilities are raised in the last minutes of Shaw's play, and if they are not frankly answered, the fact remains that Goldman does feel guilty about something, for as his drama ends, he strips off the SS uniform he has worn throughout the trial and locks himself back into the booth. There, in prison garb, his head bowed, he sits awaiting judgment, not as a Nazi but, one supposes, as a Jew in particular and as all humanity in general.

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Now to be charitable to all of this, I don't think that Shaw had in mind just a simple conceit, a much diluted interpretation of the Arendt controversy of a few years ago. He has tried, I believe, to spin out a drama that would cover more than the narrow notions of guilt so many writers have already brought to this subject. It is unfortunate, however, that, like those who were far less ambitious and imaginative, Shaw is simply overwhelmed by his theme. There are too many shadows, too many labyrinthine alternatives, too many entire philosophies at work in the memories of those camps for The Man in the Glass Booth to encompass. It is like watching an animal in a maze scurrying about, frantically trying to find the right bell to ring, when Shaw begins touching point after point of possibility at the play's conclusion. And in the end, this is all he proves he can do: touch but not grasp all the complicated demons he has let loose in a fancy far too small to contain them.

This is unfortunate, for, until the play moves beyond its capacity, it has a compelling, sinister interest about it. The first act especially, which takes place in Goldman's business suite, is electric with innuendo as Donald Pleasence cavorts about his pleasure dome while keeping up a monologue on football, women, and the Pope's exoneration of the Jews from the crime of deicide. Long before he takes out a pistol or anxiously questions his hirelings as to the identity of a delivery boy, one curiously understands that he is someone whom the furies are after, and Donald Pleasence's performance of a man dancing just ahead of a terrible recollection, trying to gulp down every second of immediate pleasure, is masterly. Watching him scuttle back and forth across the stage, one senses a fierce emanation of will on his part to hold Goldman together, to offer him to us as a totality of contradictions before he scatters apart altogether later in the evening. In this case, the actor's problem is perfectly fitted to his role, for Goldman, too, is trying to keep all his fragments together, and it is this felt but inexplicable effort that makes him a fascinating creature to watch as he rearranges paintings by old masters in his room and rambles on ironically about his Jewishness.

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As directed by Harold Pinter, all this takes place in an atmosphere that is more than real, a little out-sized and beyond the logic of ordinary discourse. In his sealed penthouse, Goldman seems to be detached from the world, floating in an ether which is difficult to breathe although it is of his own making. Pinter's talent at dramatic insinuation, at shadow playing with meaning, works very well through this part of the play. Once, however, Goldman is pulled back to earth, once all the terrene paraphernalia of the trial and the specifics of history begin to close in on him, Pleasence's performance starts to drift too far away from the ordinariness of the rest of the production until it seems strident, mannered, and, ultimately, irrelevant. Once Goldman's secrets are let out, the mystery that kept one's attention dissolves into annoying psychological oddities, for Shaw, at the moment when he should begin the effort to make Goldman equal to the past that has produced him, settles instead for simple pathology puffed up with a few thin, ad hoc philosophical speculations.

Like The Great White Hope, Shaw's play gets much of its power from the history it assumes is filtering through our minds with each event on stage. And again like The Great White Hope, this extra immediacy is paid for by history finally demanding an accounting of her own and then proving that she has been had in a poor bargain. There are times when Clio takes revenge on those who use her too carelessly, and both Sackler and Shaw, although gifted, have presumed too much on her good will.

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