On the surface, the plot of Boesman and Lena seems quite simple. In the course of a single evening, two lonely, weathered, beaten down South African "coloureds" (people of mixed race) wander across the bleak mudflats of the Swartkops River near Port Elizabeth, seeking a safe place to settle themselves. They encounter an old black man, briefly take him in, then push onward when he unexpectedly dies in their squalid camp. The real action of the play, however, lies underneath the surface, where Fugard explores a complex mosaic of human emotions, racial politics, and universal questions about existence and the meaning of life in a violent, chaotic world.
The play begins near the end of a long day for Boesman and Lena. Early in the morning, while sleeping in their makeshift "pondok," or hut, in a shantytown outside Korsten, they are awakened by white men with bulldozers who have come to knock down their poor settlement and drive them farther away from white civilization nearby. The couple, along with all of the other blacks and coloureds in the segregated settlement, are forced to pick up their few belongings and scatter into the countryside, once more in search of a place to live.
After a long, forced march, when they can walk no more, they arrive at a desolate spot on the banks of the Swartkops River outside Port Elizabeth. There, they drop their burdens and begin to set up camp for the night. Immediately, the strange, abusive relationship they share surfaces. Fugard indicates that the hardship of their lives now obscures their ages, but that Boesman and Lena are probably in their fifties. Seemingly, they have spent many of those years together looking out for one another, while at the same time taking out their anger and frustration on each other.
Lena launches the first attack by complaining about the march Boesman has led. ‘‘Why did you walk so hard? In a hurry to get here?’’ she rails. "This piece of world is rotten. Put down your foot and you're in it up to your knee."
Lena is right. The landscape of the play symbolically mirrors the characters' inner feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and desolation, as well as the outer political turmoil of the country. The muddy, bleak banks of the Swartkops River, with their sickly vegetation and low-tide stench, are a geographical metaphor for the poverty-stricken, wasted lives of black and coloured South Africans suffering the cruel punishments of apartheid.
For his part, Boesman claims to want merely some peace and quiet while he again tries to build a life and a living for them. Lena's constant...
(The entire section is 1068 words.)
An hour later, Boesman's wine is filling his head, and for entertainment he forces Lena to recall the morning's events in Korsten. In a rude, mocking voice and crude pantomime he imitates her distress when the white men came with their bulldozers to knock down their shanty town. To Lena, it was a travesty, another indignity heaped upon them by their white oppressors. Boesman, however, claims that watching his shabby hut fall actually made him happy and set him free. ‘‘Freedom! That's what the white man gave us,’’ Boesman cries. ‘‘When we picked up our things and started to walk I wanted to sing. It was Freedom!’’
With all of his newfound freedom, however, Boesman could still only return to the familiar and the mundane. With all of the world seemingly stretched out before him, he still picked up an old piece of scrap metal and built another pondok on the banks of the Swartkops, just like he had done many times before. In his disgust at this realization, Boesman retreats back into his shelter with his second bottle of wine.
Left alone with Outa again, Lena tries to cheer herself up by talking some more. She describes to the old man the feeling of traveling with all of your belongings on your back, the sweat that comes from hard work in the sun, and the comfort that can be found in a cheap bottle of liquor. Finally, in a desperate attempt to chase away the misery and frustration that is closing in all around her, she begins to clap and sing and dance, working herself into a sweat before crawling under a blanket with Outa again.
Disgusted at the sight, Boesman, who has been unable to find a way to hurt the white men who are his real oppressors, discovers another way to take his...
(The entire section is 706 words.)