Athol Fugard World Literature Analysis
The society of South Africa under apartheid was unique; it seems necessary to describe some features of that society before analyzing Fugard’s work. These features include the country’s system, now dismantled in law if not in memory, of classification and separation by race.
South African whites include Afrikaaners, who were descendants of the Dutch settlers, and other Caucasians, most of whom had English backgrounds. In terms of economic status, these people cover a broad spectrum. There are also Indians, some Asians, and those of mixed racial backgrounds, who are called “coloured.” At the bottom of the social scale are the indigenous Africans.
The native Africans were strictly segregated to undesirable living quarters, usually slums on the outskirts of urban areas, frequently at some distance from employment. Furthermore, native Africans had at all times to carry identification cards that specified the most intimate particulars of their lives. Except for the employer-employee relationship, native Africans were supposed to have no contact with whites. For the most part, audiences at sporting events and the theater were either all white or all black. A small percentage of native Africans were literate; however, a few gained enough education to work as scribes, civil servants, actors, or even teachers, but most did heavy manual or menial work.
Finally, the criminal justice system was harsh, inhumane, and corrupt. For example, those in power allowed the roving gangs of African hoodlums, called “tsotsis,” to prey on their own people with impunity, while arresting any nonwhite who failed to present a proper passcard when asked to do so by a policeman.
Fugard’s work deals with all these conditions without (except for My Children! My Africa!) becoming overtly political. He accomplishes this by maintaining an aesthetic distance and by creating characters who, although sometimes symbolic, are always compelling as human beings involved in dramatic conflict.
In Notebooks, 1960-1977, Fugard discusses frankly his admiration for Samuel Beckett’s plays and Albert Camus’s novels, and acknowledges the influence of both men on his work. He asserts also that consciousness is a thin beach, and that the unconscious is the sea where his ideas originate. For example, his traumatic childhood experiences and his love-hate relationship with his alcoholic, crippled father led him to write “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. The guilt he felt when as a young boy he spit in the face of an African became the source for the climax in that play.
An entry from 1963 in Notebooks 1960-1977 explains clearly Fugard’s approach to writing his plays. He notices a young man aimlessly loitering near a bar in a white slum, Valley Road. His drunkenness suggests his need to shut out reality, so the playwright creates that reality. He gives him a name, Johnnie Smit; he visualizes the two rooms of the shack where Johnnie cares for his blind, crippled father; and he brings in Johnnie’s sister, Hester, who has returned home after an absence of fifteen years.
Tired of her life as a prostitute, Hester has a single aim: to claim her share of the compensation money paid her father by the South African Railways after his accident. She believes the cash is hidden in some boxes in the old man’s room, and she forces Johnnie to lug out box after box, which she rummages through, strewing their worthless contents around with mounting frustration, as her brother warns her not to awaken the invalid in the next room.
Some of the items in the boxes, such as her dead mother’s clothes, birth and wedding certificates, old photographs, and a box of men’s shoes—left ones only—bring back memories of a bleak childhood with many family fights and little cash.
While Hester is searching the boxes, Johnnie is trying out his father’s crutches. Finally the last box is opened, and as Hester threatens to confront their father, Johnnie must tell her the truth. Johannes Cornelius Smit has died and there is no money.
At this point the furious Hester beats her unresisting brother to the floor, where he remains as she leaves to return to her life as “a woman in a room.” After her exit, Johnnie crawls to the crutches, stands on them, and assumes the persona of his father. The play is given the title Hello and Goodbye.
This play is very representative of Fugard’s style. All of his plays have only two or three characters; they are all set in South Africa and played out against the backdrop of that society; the dialogue is crisp and realistic, if occasionally somewhat poetic; and his characters are all three-dimensional, neither heroes nor villains, but frequently victims.
One of Fugard’s best plays, Boesman and Lena, ran for a year in New York and received rave reviews. The coloured characters frequently speak Afrikaans, so a three-page glossary is a requirement. With talented actors, such as James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, who first played the roles, there was no need for translation.
Boesman and Lena is the story of a nomadic coloured couple who have been together for many years. Time after time their makeshift shelter has been destroyed; they compare themselves to human rubbish—an apt description. Boesman takes out his disgust with life by abusing Lena; she defies him by inviting an old black to share their fire and food. All she wants is someone to talk to, even though the old African can only understand and repeat one word—Lena. When they realize that the black has died, Boesman starts to pack up. Were the authorities to find them with a dead man, there might be questions. Lena thinks she will not go this time, but the sight of Boesman trying to carry all of their poor possessions alone moves her, and she follows him into the darkness, carrying her share of the “white man’s junk.”
There is frequently physical violence in Fugard’s plays. Characters become frustrated and misdirect their aggression, exploding, taking out their feelings on other, weaker victims. For example, in the one play which is openly political, My Children! My Africa!, Mr. M., the protagonist, is an older black teacher, who preaches peaceful coexistence with the ruling white society. A mob of young students, furious with this approach, consider Mr. M. a traitor to their cause and kill him. The play is meant to illustrate the desperation that can so easily lead to violence. The play’s somewhat didactic approach is less effective than most of Fugard’s work, which makes the point more subtly.
The Blood Knot
First produced: 1961 (first published, 1963)
Type of work: Play
Two colored half brothers, one very light, the other very dark, realize their inextricable connection.
This play, first produced in Johannesburg, may be considered seminal in that it defines clearly the society of South Africa...
(The entire section is 2877 words.)