Athol Fugard Biography

Biography (20th-Century Biographies)

ph_0111204736-Fugard.jpg Athol Fugard Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Early Life

Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard was born on June 11, 1932, in Cape Province, South Africa, to Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter, who ran a boarding-house, and Harold David Fugard, a jazz pianist. Fugard remembers his father as a man of many contradictions: Although gentle by nature, the elder Fugard was “full of pointless, unthought-out prejudices”; while distant from his children, he shared with young Athol a love for horror films, pulp fiction, and comic books. Mrs. Fugard, on the other hand, was a capable woman who supported her family through her management first of the Jubilee Hotel and later of the St. George’s Park Tearoom. In contrast to her bigoted husband, Mrs. Fugard was color-blind, and her sense of the injustices perpetrated by her society made a lasting impression on Athol.

The most influential adult in Athol Fugard’s childhood was a black man named Sam Semela who worked first at the Jubilee Hotel and later at the St. George’s Park Tearoom. Although separated by age and skin color, Sam and Hally (as Athol Fugard was known in his childhood) became fast friends. To the rest of society they were young white master and black servant, but to each other they were companions. For a still undiscovered reason, ten-year-old Hally in a fit of anger one day spat in Sam’s face. Sam forgave him immediately, but feelings of shame haunted Fugard so strongly into adulthood that the incident became the focal point of “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the boys (1982).

On leaving elementary school, Fugard attended Port Elizabeth Technical College, concentrating on an automechanics course, and the University of Cape Town, where he majored in philosophy. A few months shy of his final examinations for a degree, Fugard dropped out of the university to hitchhike to Port Sudan, where he signed on as the only white seaman on the SS Graigaur. Aboard ship he began a novel that he later threw into the sea.

After only two years at sea, Fugard returned home to begin a career as a writer. Starting as a journalist in Port Elizabeth, he moved on to Cape Town, where he met and married Sheila Meiring, an actress who introduced him to the theater and to playwriting. His initial attempts to write for the stage resulted in The Cell (1957) and Klass and the Devil (1957) both of which Fugard would later discount. At the same time, he was becoming aware—through the work of John Osborne and William Faulkner—of the importance and literary worth of a writer’s regional identity and voice.

A move to Johannesburg proved crucial to Fugard’s development as a distinctly South African playwright. His first job in the Fordsburg Native Commissioner’s Court opened his eyes to the oppressive passbook system that limited a black person’s opportunities for both employment and decent housing; years later he would use the passbook system as the basis for Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972). Fugard’s second job, as stage manager for South Africa’s National Theatre Organization, introduced him to the practical aspects of theatrical production. The most important event of that year in Johannesburg was Fugard’s discovery of Sophiatown, the black ghetto just outside Johannesburg. The result was No-Good Friday (1958), a full-length play about the black youth in Sophiatown, a play that featured a nonprofessional cast of talented black actors, among them Zakes Mokae. Nongogo (1959) followed shortly thereafter, also with a talented amateur cast. Performed before small private audiences, neither play earned much critical notice.

In late 1959, the Fugards moved to England in search of experience in the English repertory theater. The move was not a success. Fugard approached various theaters with his two early plays and a new one, A Place for the Pigs (1959), and was rejected, most notably by the Royal Court Theatre, which would later become his London producer. Whenever he could scrape together the price of admission, he saw as many plays as he could, but his own experience in the London theater world remained that of the outsider; his only entrée into that world came through the briefly successful New Africa Group, formed to produce original South African plays. In 1960, disillusioned with their life in London and facing the imminent birth of their child, the Fugards returned to South Africa and settled in Port Elizabeth, where their daughter, Lisa, was born, and where Fugard completed a short novel, Tsotsi (1979), which would not be published for almost two decades.

Life’s Work

While in London, Fugard began keeping a journal in which he recorded his observations about people and life, reminiscences, quotations, scraps of dialogue, and descriptions. Fugard’s notebooks would prove to be the source of his most powerful ideas, and in 1960 he completed a play based on his first entry. The Blood Knot (1961)—Fugard’s breakthrough play—concerns a pair of half brothers, one of whom is sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, the other of whom is dark-skinned. With its graphic dissection of South Africa’s racial laws, The Blood Knot ignited controversy from the beginning, launched Fugard’s career as a playwright, and altered the course of South African theater, which was still producing only European plays. With The Blood Knot, Fugard found his style—poetic and colloquial language, a small cast, diametrically opposed characters—and his focus—the victims of apartheid. With Fugard and Mokae playing the half brothers Morrie and Zach, the play captivated audiences all over South Africa, and eventually a British producer mounted a London production, retaining Mokae but replacing Fugard with the better-known Ian Bannen. Despite favorable reviews, the play failed; once again rejected by the English theater, Fugard went home to South Africa.

In 1963, Fugard helped create the Serpent Players, an acting company of enthusiastic amateurs. Although repeatedly harassed by the police, the company performed for black audiences such plays as Bertolt Brecht’s Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (1944-1945: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948) and Die Antigone des Sophokles...

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Athol Fugard Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard (pronounced fewgard) was born June 11, 1932, in Middelburg, a town in the Great Karoo, a semidesert region of Cape Province, South Africa. The son of an Anglo-Irish father and an Afrikaner mother, Fugard is an ethnic hybrid. English is his first language, but because of his mother’s dominant personality, Afrikaner culture profoundly affected him. Fugard simultaneously honors and excoriates his Afrikaner roots. The two major abstractions of Fugard’s work—love and truth—he saw fleshed out as he grew up in Port Elizabeth, a multiracial, industrial, windswept town on the eastern Cape to which his family moved when he was three.

Fugard’s father lost a leg in a shipboard accident as a child, and in spite of successfully leading a series of jazz bands, he retired early, when Fugard was young, to a life of unemployment and alcoholism. Fugard’s ambivalent feelings about his father color much of his work, especially Hello and Goodbye and “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. His mother supported the family, first by running a boardinghouse, the Jubilee Hotel, and then by operating the St. George’s Park Tea Room, the scene of “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. Early in life, Fugard thus learned about failed expectations, a major theme in his work, and about hard times.

As a schoolboy, Fugard, then known as Hally, shunned his peers and spent his free time with his mother’s waiters, Sam Semela and Willie Malopo. (These men appear in “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys under their real names.) Sam, in particular, though middle-aged, became Fugard’s friend and the most influential adult in his life. Fugard looked up to Sam as a man in the fullest sense of that word; while Sam taught Fugard about being a man, Fugard shared his schoolroom experiences and books with him. For some inexplicable reason, one day Fugard insulted Sam; he did not expiate his guilt for this act until he wrote “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. In real life, Sam Semela forgave Fugard almost immediately, and they remained friends until Sam died in 1983, shortly before the play in his honor opened in Johannesburg.

Fugard studied philosophy at the University of Cape Town from 1950 to 1953, but he quit immediately before his final examinations to hitchhike up Africa with a poet friend, deciding that the academic life was not for him. From 1953 to 1955, he traveled around the world on a merchant ship on which he was the only white crew member. He was married in 1956 to Sheila Meiring, who introduced him to the theater. When they moved to Johannesburg in 1958, Fugard was employed for three months as a clerk in the Fordsburg Native Commissioner’s Court; then he began working with amateur black actors in Sophiatown, then Johannesburg’s black ghetto. He also worked as a stage manager for the National Theatre Organization before he and his wife went to England and Europe in 1959.

The Fugards returned to South Africa in 1960, and the initial production of The Blood Knot in 1961 and its six-month tour around South Africa were crucial to Fugard’s development as a playwright. In 1962, Fugard instigated a boycott of South Africa’s segregated theaters by British playwrights, but by 1967 he had decided that even in such compromising circumstances, voices were preferable to silence. Fugard visited the United States briefly in 1964 and returned to England in 1966; both trips involved productions of The Blood Knot. His government withdrew his passport from 1967 to 1971. From 1963 to 1974, he directed and produced European plays as well as collaborating on indigenous South African material with the New Brighton actors known as the Serpent Players; many of these actors were arrested between 1965 and 1967. Since 1977, Fugard’s reputation has been such that he divides his time between South Africa and the rest of the globe: the United States, Europe, Asia, and India. The United...

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Athol Fugard Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard (FYEW-gard) spent his first three years in the village of Middelburg, where his parents owned a small general store. His crippled father was an English-speaking South African, his mother an Afrikaans-speaking descendant of Dutch pioneers who had settled the area during the seventeenth century.

In 1935, the family moved to Port Elizabeth, where Mrs. Fugard opened a tearoom which provided most of the family income. Her husband was not only physically handicapped but also an alcoholic.

When he had finished high school, Fugard went to Port Elizabeth Technical College, where he learned motor mechanics, and then obtained a scholarship to the University of Cape Town to study philosophy and social...

(The entire section is 945 words.)

Athol Fugard Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Athol Harold Lannigan Fugard (FYEW-gard) was the product of two distinct traditions: the Afrikaner tradition of his mother’s family and the British tradition of his father’s. Born in 1932 in Middelburg, Cape Province, on the Karoo, Fugard was the son of two impoverished squatters. Fugard’s mother gave him encouragement throughout his early periods of rebellion and unrest, which, though painful, were important for his artistic development.

Fugard’s early life was spent primarily in the city of Port Elizabeth. At various times he was a student at Cape Town University, studied mechanics, hitchhiked toward North Africa, and served as a member of a Malay ship’s crew, where he lost whatever residual racial...

(The entire section is 952 words.)

Athol Fugard Biography (Drama for Students)

Harold Athol Fugard was born June 11, 1932, in Middleburg, Cape Province, South Africa (and later raised in Port Elizabeth, South Africa), to...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Athol Fugard Biography (Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Athol Fugard Published by Gale Cengage

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,...

(The entire section is 850 words.)