Authors: Howard Sackler

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright, screenwriter, director, and record producer

Author Works


Uriel Acosta, pr. 1954

The Yellow Loves, wr. 1959, pr. 1960

A Few Enquiries, wr. 1959, pr. 1965 (4 one-acts: Sarah, The Nine O’Clock Mail, Mr. Welk and Jersey Jim, Skippy)

Mr. Welk and Jersey Jim, pr. 1960 (one act)

The Pastime of Monsieur Robert, pr. 1966

The Great White Hope, pr. 1967

Semmelweiss, pr. 1977

Goodbye Fidel, pr. 1980


Desert Padre, 1950

Fear and Desire, 1953

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1961

The Great White Hope, 1970

Bugsy, 1973

Gray Lady Down, 1978 (with James Whittacker and Frank P. Rosenberg)

Jaws II, 1978 (with Carl Gottlieb and Dorothy Tristan)

Saint Jack, 1979 (with Paul Theroux and Peter Bogdanovich)


Want My Shepherd, 1954


Born on December 19, 1929, in the Bronx, Howard Sackler attended Brooklyn College, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1950. A natural writer, Sackler wrote in verse, publishing in respected poetry journals such as Hudson Review and Poetry; his early work was gathered in Want My Shepherd and published by Caedmon in 1954. He earned Rockefeller Foundation and Littauer Foundation grants for work in his early twenties. 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 (1632-1677), Sackler looked at the life of the French poet Tristan Corbière (1845-1875) in The Yellow Loves. 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 screenplay writing. 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.{$I[AN]9810001597}{$I[A]Sackler, Howard}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Sackler, Howard}{$I[tim]1929;Sackler, Howard}

Howard Sackler, right, with James Earl Jones

(Courtesy of New York Public Library)

All of 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 boxing 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 as Jefferson’s white mistress. Partly because of his busy screenwriting career and partly because of his insistence on 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. At his death, from pulmonary thrombosis, in Ibiza, Spain, 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.

BibliographyFunke, Lewis. “Howard Sackler.” In Playwrights Talk About Writing: Twelve Interviews with Lewis Funke. Chicago: Dramatic Publishing, 1975. Sackler’s interview is prefaced with a summary of his professional accomplishments and a brief biography. He discusses his working habits, sources of inspiration, and the relationship between his work as a director and his work as a writer. He interprets The Great White Hope and The Pastime of Monsieur Robert, distinguishing these dramas from history, and offers opinions on drama in general.Gill, Brendan. “Passing Losses On.” Review of Goodbye Fidel, by Howard Sackler. The New Yorker 46 (May 5, 1980): 109-110. Goodbye Fidel, a play about upper-class Cubans who deal with changes in their lives between 1958 and 1962, suggests the richness of a novel with its large cast and historical subject. Sackler’s attempt, however, to parallel the quarrels between the lovers Natalia and James Sinclair with political events is not convincing. The play closed four days after it opened.Kroll, Jack. “The Champ.” Review of The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler. Newsweek, December 25, 1967, 73. Both strengths and weaknesses were found in the epic quality of The Great White Hope performed at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Although the play is too long, too ambitious, and somewhat unfocused, some episodes attained real power through Edwin Sherin’s direction and James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander’s performances. It is the most successful use of sports in drama since Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy (pr., pb. 1937).Novick, Julius. “Tragic Cakewalk.” Review of The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler. The Nation 206 (January 15, 1968): 93-94. The choice of the Arena Stage to produce The Great White Hope fulfilled the conviction of the theater’s founder, Zelda Fichandler, that drama must appeal to a broad spectrum of people through the presentation of plays that deal with current social problems. In this play, Sackler realizes the significance of his historical subject and presents it in powerful human terms.Pressley, Nelson. “The Good Fight.” American Theatre 17, no. 8 (October, 2000): 28-32. Pressley uses the occasion of the Arena Stage’s revival of The Great White Hope to analyze the drama and both productions, as well as the significance of Sackler’s play.Trousdale, Marion. “Ritual Theatre: The Great White Hope.” Western Humanities Review 23 (1969): 295-303. The performances of The Great White Hope at the Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.) and in New York were profoundly different. Those at the Arena Stage were characterized by ritualistic qualities, achieving Aristotle’s definition of drama–the imitation of an action by means of an action. By contrast, the New York production reduced the play to a simple antiracist message.Weber, Bruce. “A Washington Company Revisits a Shining Moment from a Decidedly Different Era.” Review of The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler. The New York Times, September 14, 2000, p. E1. Weber presents a favorable review of the Arena Stage’s revival of The Great White Hope.
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