By Matt Hanson
Acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Michael Cristofer’s script is very open about portraying Emile Griffith’s sexuality.
Man in the Ring by Michael Cristofer. Directed by Michael Greif. Staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for The Arts, Boston, MA through December 22.
In the early sixties, Emile Griffith became the world champion boxer in the middleweight, junior middleweight, and welterweight classes. Hailing from the Virgin Islands, his story has all the trappings of America’s classic tropes: an ambitious immigrant comes to the states to make it and gets into much more than he bargained for, soaring high only to suffer a precipitous fall. It’s not rags-to-riches; it’s rags-to-riches and then back to rags again. The Huntington Theatre Company is presenting Michael Cristofer’s dramatization of Griffith’s story; I saw a preview performance.
When we first see Emile Griffith, he is a weary old man, lying alone in bed on a bare stage, quietly singing to himself. Luis, his adopted son and lifetime caregiver, informs him that he’s left his shoes in the fridge again, which Emile doesn’t particularly seem to care about. He’s far too preoccupied with the ghosts of the past, still haunting him quite vividly through his retired fighter’s haze. His once-legendary physique has withered with age, but Griffith remembers a great deal of his checkered early life.
Griffith’sl ife is vividly rendered by director Michael Greif’s cinematic staging. Characters appear and reappear at various points, their voices enriching the storyline. Griffith comes to New York City with “champagne dreams and lime juice money.” He gets a job at a hat factory and designs haberdashery. In a dramatic twist that wouldn’t be out of place in Dickens or a Frank Capra movie, he winds up becoming a boxer due to his boss noticing his naturally muscular frame and quick reflexes. Griffith eagerly enters into the world of professional fighting. But all the glamour and grit of life in the ring, with its unyielding code of masculinity, will eventually force him to pay a price he never anticipated.
Most of the play is told in a detailed flashback. After quickly rising through the ranks, his fights are portrayed though a series of titanic clashes punctuated by the roar of the crowds and the blaze of the ever-present cameras. The flashbulb bursts as his gloves pulverize opponent after opponent are almost aggressively bright, filling the stage: they suggest the force of his knockout punches as well as the blinding glare of his sudden fame. Caribbean-style chanting is heard from the corners of the stage, pushing our hero towards his goal of winning the championship belt. But once the fights are over and the lights go down, it turns out that he likes to get his kicks from random hookups in gay bars, a sexual preference that’s clearly unacceptable for a man in a thoroughly macho profession.
Acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Cristofer’s script is very open about portraying Griffith’s sexuality. Emile doesn’t seem particularly conflicted about his sexual tastes: we see him be pretty comfortable and open about his equally ardent interests in male and female partners. He reveals this part of his identity to his trainer, who admonishes him not to acknowledge it publicly, flatly stating that “in this world, a man is a man.” The young Emile pointedly asks him why his private life should be an issue for anyone, a statement naïve and righteous. He’s not shy about confessing this preference years before it was acceptable (at least openly) in mainstream circles. His frankness about it is refreshingly honest — too honest for the rest of the world.
This problem comes to a head when he faces Benny “The Kid” Paret, a Cuban fighter he knew from the neighborhood, in a fight that has gone down in infamy. At the weigh-in, Paret taunted Griffith by touching his buttocks and repeatedly calling him “maricon” — homophobic Spanish slang. This incensed Griffith and likely resulted in his relentless pounding of Paret late in the epic fight, pummeling him with dozens of uppercuts in less than a minute. Paret was already slumped up against the ropes. Norman Mailer later wrote that he had never seen any man hit another man that hard. No one had the presence of mind to call off the fight or push the fighters apart, with disastrous consequences. Griffith reclaimed the title of welterweight champion but Paret went into a coma, never regained consciousness, and died ten days later.
After this tragic, unexpected turning point, Griffith begins his decline. Shocked and haunted by Paret’s sudden death, his confidence and skill in the ring weakens. Irate as he was at Paret’s homophobic taunting, he certainly didn’t mean to kill him. Griffith suffered nightmares for decades afterwards, some of which are dramatized as literal visitations that loom by the side of his bed.
Haunted and guilt-ridden, Griffith was never again able to be the fighter he had once been in his prime. He became skittish about possibly endangering the lives of his future opponents. His fortunes take a long slide into incoherence and wretchedness — he arrogantly brushes off his hardworking mother, flaunts his wealth obnoxiously, and delves into ever-riskier sex. The world doesn’t care about his internal struggles in and out of the ring; when thugs catch him leaving a gay bar he is nearly beaten to death. Veteran actor John Douglas Thompson treats the elder Griffith’s guilt and confusion with an aptly weary stamina.
By the end of the play, Griffith’s rise and fall becomes an unexpectedly redemptive tale about self-forgiveness. The worst blows this professional fighter ever suffered were applied by his own conscience. The man becomes an example of how hard it can be to accept one’s sins and move on, forgiving oneself for one’s mistakes, and finding peace. When he meets Paret’s son, many years later, he confesses his decades-old grief and regret — and is gently forgiven and granted the mercy he craved. Was Griffith’ ruin self-inflicted? Or generated by the attitudes of an hypocritical society? As he once famously remarked: “I kill a man and most forgive me…I love a man and many say this makes me an evil person.” Mighty as he was in many ways, it’s a brutal irony that almost crushed Emile Griffith, and is sadly still with us.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.