Athol Harold Lannigan Fugard was born June 11, 1932, in Middelburg, a small village in the semi-desert Karoo region of South Africa. His mother, Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter Fugard, was an Afrikaner who could trace her ancestry back to the earliest Dutch settlers of 1652. His father, Harold David Fugard, was a South African with English and Irish roots. At his grandmother's request, the boy who would one day become his country's most famous playwright was named Athol after a former British governor of South Africa, the Earl of Athlone.
When he was three years old, Fugard's family moved to Port Elizabeth, where the playwright has since spent most of his life. In his introduction to Boesman and Lena and Other Plays, published in 1978, Fugard describes his adopted hometown as "an almost featureless industrial port on the Indian Ocean...assaulted throughout the year by strong southwesterly and easterly winds.’’ Port Elizabeth, Fugard explains, is a city of hundreds of thousands of people—blacks, whites, Indians, Chinese and "coloured" (mixed race) citizens who represent every socioeconomic level. Growing up, Fugard witnessed almost daily the injustice of racial segregation under South Africa's cruel policy of apartheid. Despite its featurelessness, harsh weather, and culture clashes, however, Fugard proudly claims, ‘‘I cannot conceive of myself as separate from it,’’ and several of his plays are set in and around Port Elizabeth.
Fugard's father, a musician who led a number of jazz bands, had lost a leg in a childhood accident. Shortly after the family relocated, a lifetime of depression and physical ailments overtook him. In Port Elizabeth, the elder Fugard spent much of his time either drinking heavily or sick in bed. Elizabeth Fugard, meanwhile, operated the St. George's Park Tearoom. Fugard described his father in a 1982 interview for New Yorker magazine as a man ‘‘full of pointless, unthought-out prejudices.’’ His considered his mother, on the other hand, to be completely color-blind. At the Tearoom, she hired a number of black waiters, and one of them, Sam Semela, became Fugard's closest childhood friend and one of the greatest influences on his life and later career.
One night when his mother was away, Fugard received a call from the nearby Central Hotel. His father was passed out drunk on the floor of the hotel's bar. Young Athol asked Sam for his help, and the two went to the hotel to collect his father. The boy had to ask permission for Sam to enter the whites-only bar, and was humiliated as he walked out past the staring eyes of strangers with his drunken father on Sam's back. The incident, along with Sam's kind treatment of Fugard as an innocent white child in a world that abused its black citizens, became the basis for Fugard's 1982 play Master Harold...and the Boys.
Though Fugard read constantly and wrote occasionally as a boy, he did not become an artist early in life. After elementary school he studied automobile mechanics on a scholarship at Port Elizabeth Technical College, and later attended the University of Cape Town, majoring in philosophy and social anthropology. He dropped out of school before finishing his degree, hitchhiked the length of the African continent, and then, penniless, took a position onboard the S.S. Graigaur as an apprentice seaman. Two years later Fugard came ashore back home in Port Elizabeth, determined to become a writer. He worked for a while as a journalist, then met and married Sheila Meiring, an actress working in Cape Town.
Fugard and his new wife founded a theater company, the Circle Players, in 1957, then moved to Johannesburg in 1958, where he took a job as a clerk in the Fordsburg Native Commissioner's Court. In the Court, Fugard helped process blacks accused of violating South Africa's "Pass Laws" and witnessed first-hand the terrible atrocities of apartheid. Fugard lamented to the New Yorker, "It was just so awful and ugly. We literally disposed of people at the rate of one every two minutes. There was no question of defense—the evidence was rigged. It was like a sausage machine."
Abandoning his clerk's job, Fugard became a stage manager for South Africa's National Theatre Organization and began writing plays in earnest. His first real success was The Blood Knot (1961), a play about two South African half-brothers, one black, the other coloured but able to pass for white. Fugard himself starred in the production, something he has done almost continuously ever since.
The Blood Knot set the stage for nearly all of Fugard's later work. Most of his plays are intimate, personal portrayals of tragic events in the lives of two or three characters. Very often his plays contain mixed casts (black, white, and mixed-race characters), and they are all set against the difficult social and political environment of his native South Africa. Plays such as Hello and Goodbye (1965), Boesman and Lena (1969), Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (1972), A Lesson From Aloes (1978), Master Harold...and the Boys (1982), and My Children! My Africa! (1989) have won Fugard awards and worldwide recognition and have earned him respect as, in the words of Stephen Gray in New Theatre Quarterly, "the greatest active playwright in English.''
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