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In Which Aristotle is Right . . . Again

August 22, 2011

I have a really hard time with modern tragedies. This is mostly because most of them are not tragedies at all; simply stories with sad endings. To paraphrase Aristotle, in order to bring about the pity and fear the playwright is after, tragedies need two things: a sympathetic protagonist and a story that moves inexorably towards its tragic end. It’s the inexorable part that’s especially important here and it’s the inexorable part that modern tragedies, like Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope, get wrong.

It’s nearly 1940 and Jack Jefferson is the first black man to become Heavyweight Champion of the World. But, with all the racism in the air, the boxing establishment is seeking a “great white hope” to unbelt him. Problem is, Jefferson keeps dropping all their hopes in the boxing ring, one after another, easy-peasy. So they take another, more indirect route and manage to catch him in flagrante with a white woman and arrest him on a technicality. He and his girlfriend flee the country and spend much of the remainder of the play bouncing from country to country, barely scraping by until tragedy strikes and Jefferson finally cows to the establishment’s demands that he come back to the States and defend his title.

This summary certainly sets the reader up to empathize with Jefferson–there’s no arguing: he got an extremely raw deal–but Sackler somehow manages to destroy all our empathy with his attempts at making Jefferson a relatable character with his own personal array of foibles and faults. Unfortunately, Sackler goes a bit overboard as he piles on the faults and the general unlikability of his protagonist to the point where the tragedy moves from inexorable to easily avoidable. While not as wholly frustrating as the completely avoidable massacre that was The Lost Word: Jurrassic Park, it still sucks most of the enjoyment out of the play. Next time, listen to Aristotle.

NB: I should probably stop writing about Aristotle, but he keeps showing up unbidden. It’s that whole classical education thing. Did me in for life.

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