Fugard began keeping a diary, his "notebooks" as he calls them, in 1959, and the origins of many of his plays can be found in his descriptions of people he has encountered, events he has witnessed, and observations he has made about the condition of his country over the years. In his notebooks, Fugard describes a number of encounters he had with poor black and "coloured'' (mixed-race) South Africans that influenced the creation of Boesman and Lena, but one in particular stands out above the rest in his mind. On a hot August day in 1965, Fugard and two friends were driving along a rural road when they saw an old woman trudging along with all of her worldly possessions tied up in a bundle on her head. They stopped and offered her a ride. She cried at their unexpected kindness, and during the fifteen-mile trip to a farm up the road, she told them about the death of her husband three days earlier and her nine missing children. If Fugard and his companions hadn't stopped to offer her a ride, she would have followed her plan to sleep in a stormwater drain that night and continue her long journey the next day.
In Athol Fugard: Notebooks 1960-1977, the author recorded his impression of the old woman. He writes, "In that cruel walk under the blazing sun, walking from all of her life that she didn't have on her head, facing the prospect of a bitter Karoo night in a drain-pipe, in this walk there was no defeat—there was pain, and great suffering, but no defeat.’’ It was ‘‘THE WALK,’’ as Fugard recorded it, that fired his imagination to write Boesman and Lena.
Like most of Fugard's dramatic work, Boesman and Lena is a small-cast play set in rural South Africa depicting the devastating effects of apartheid on the lives of the author's countrymen. The play, however, is not directly about politics. In his work, Fugard avoids large, scathing political indictments of the white South African government and its treatment of black and mixed-race citizens. Instead, he concentrates on the more immediate struggles of individuals—husbands, wives, parents, children, and strangers thrown together by the careless and cruel whims of a racially divided society. Through a handful of people, like Boesman and Lena, the playwright presents a tragic microcosm of South Africa as a whole.
This play about a "coloured" man and woman on a long, hard walk from one shantytown to another was received enthusiastically when it premiered at the Rhodes University Little Theatre in Grahamstown, South Africa on July 10, 1969. Fugard himself was in the cast, portraying Boesman, alongside Yvonne Bryceland as Lena, and Glynn Day, a white actor who portrayed Outa in blackface. Jean Bradford, reporting for the Cape Argus newspaper, wrote, "When the curtain rang down at the end of the play there was a moment of silence and then followed round after round of applause from the distinguished first-night audience. The cast took eight curtain calls.’’
Since that first successful performance, Boesman and Lena has appeared many times on stages and screens around the world. Well-known actors James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee, and Zakes Mokae performed in the Off-Broadway premiere in New York at the Circle-in-the-Square Theatre in June 1970. In 1971, Fugard was permitted to leave South Africa for a period of one year to direct the play in London at the Royal Court Theatre. Soon afterward, British filmmaker Ross Devenish convinced Fugard to allow him to turn Boesman and Lena into a movie. Devenish's film, starring Fugard and Bryceland from the original cast, was released in Great Britain and South Africa in 1973. Subsequently, the play has been translated into French, Dutch, and other languages, performed as a radio play, and filmed again in 1997 in a joint French/South African production starring American actors Danny Glover and Angela Bassett. For works including The Blood Knot (1961), Hello and Goodbye (1965), and Master Harold... and the Boys (1982), as well as Boesman and Lena, Fugard has earned praise as one of the greatest living playwrights in the English language, and recognition as one of the most outspoken and effective opponents of apartheid.