The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
The title characters of Boesman and Lena are South African “coloreds” (this word is in quotation marks because it is a governmental racial designation that is offensive to many of those classified as such). As the first act opens, they have been dispossessed of their home by the white authorities, and they are walking along the mudflats of a river in South Africa. They carry all of their possessions in bundles; Boesman carries his on his back, while Lena carries hers on her head. They are middle-aged, and their dress and demeanor indicate that they have led a life of hardship and poverty.
The conflict between the two is almost immediately apparent. As Lena makes observations and asks Boesman questions about the condition of their lives, he tersely tells her to stop talking. Boesman does not want to think about the whys and wherefores of their lives, but Lena wants to know why their lives are as they are and asks him such questions as why he stopped at the mudflats and in what order they lived in certain locations. She wants to remember the past; Boesman, on the other hand, angrily states that life consists only of what is happening at the present moment.
Lena also desperately wants someone to share her quest for finding out how and why her life came to be in such a condition; she wants a witness to her quest and her life, both past and present. The major aspect of the conflict between Boesman and Lena is that he refuses to play...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Athol Fugard realizes the themes of Boesman and Lena in a variety of ways. The empty set onto which Boesman and Lena wander conveys a feeling of a wide, desolate landscape. This landscape is an appropriate setting for Lena’s questioning of her life and her feelings of being cut off from humanity. In addition, the contrast between the two characters is immediately imparted. Boesman carries his belongings on his back, indicating his physicality, while Lena carries all of her belongings on her head, reflective of her intellectual side.
Another dramatic device Fugard utilizes is the old African man who speaks Xhosa while Lena can only communicate to him in English or Afrikaans, neither of which he understands. The futility of their dialogue underscores Lena’s desperation for companionship and a connection to humanity beyond the cruelty of Boesman. Interestingly, Fugard provides no stage direction for how the old African’s remarks, which Fugard translates into English, are to be conveyed to the audience. It is important for the audience to realize that the old man and Lena are communicating at cross-purposes and that the old man is dying. One means could be a film projector. This aspect of the play—communicating the old man’s words to the audience—is one of the greatest imaginative challenges in staging the play.
It is significant, too, that in the first act the long monologues belong to Lena and the short replies to Boesman,...
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South Africa is a land inhabited by many cultures, including Dutch, German, and English white settlers; black Africans from many different tribes across the continent; mixed-race people known as "coloreds''; and Asian people from India Pakistan, and elsewhere. Since the eighteenth century, white colonists have been drawn to the southern tip of the African continent for the abundance of resources it has to offer, particularly coal, uranium, diamonds, and gold. From the time they first started to appear in South Africa, the white minority population sought ways to control the black majority.
After decades of creating ‘‘pass laws’’ and various segregation legislation, the ruling white class, through the National Party, instituted a policy of apartheid, or "separateness," in 1948. The apartheid laws classified people according to four major groups—Whites, Blacks (‘‘Bantus’’), Coloreds (people of mixed descent), and Asians (mainly Indians and Pakistanis). The laws determined where each group could live and work and what type of education they could receive, and kept the groups separate from each other, particularly from the ruling white class.
When Fugard wrote Boesman and Lena in 1969, all black African unions and political organizations, including the popular African National Congress (ANC), had been banned. Blacks in the country were assigned to Bantustans, or homelands, often in the...
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The setting of a play includes such things as the time period in which it occurs, the location of the action, and important characteristics of the culture in which the characters live. Boesman and Lena takes place in the early 1960s in South Africa, when the apartheid movement had a strong grip on the people of that diverse country. Although South Africa at the time was inhabited by many cultures, including Dutch, German, and English white settlers; black Africans representing many different tribes from across the continent; mixed-race people known as ‘‘coloureds’’; and Asian people from India Pakistan, and elsewhere, the ruling white class made it very difficult for these other groups to survive and prosper. Strict, oppressive laws governed where these people could attend school, live, and work, and who they could associate with and marry.
Although the landscape of South Africa is marvelously varied and beautiful, containing forests, mountains, enormous grasslands and plateaus, farmland, and deserts, Fugard chose to set Boesman and Lena on a bleak patch of earth that his characters were more familiar with: the mudflats of the Swartkops River outside the city of Port Elizabeth. Here, on the filthy, stinking banks of the river at low tide, Boesman, Lena, and other poor coloureds and blacks were able to scavenge for shrimp and small fish and collect the trash of the whites that floated along the water and...
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Compare and Contrast
1969: After 69 blacks were killed in Sharpeville in 1960 when police opened fire on a crowd of anti-apartheid demonstrators, all black African political organizations, including the African National Congress (ANC) and other opposition groups, are banned.
Today: In the 1990s, white South African President F. W. de Klerk helped dismantle apartheid policies and restore representative power to black African unions and political organizations.
1969: About a million blacks are arrested each year for violation of the ‘‘Pass Laws,’’ a rigid system of rules governing where blacks can live and work, and requiring all black South African citizens to carry with them at all times a ''reference book'' which lists their personal information and employment history.
Today: The pass laws were abolished in 1986 when the dismantling of apartheid began, and all citizens of South Africa are now able to move about their country freely, living and working wherever they choose.
1969: Afrikaans and English are the only official languages of South Africa, even though they are spoken as first languages by only a small portion of the population.
Today: The 1994 constitution added nine languages to the list of officially recognized tongues in South Africa: Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho sa Leboa, Tswana, Sesotho, Tsonga, Venda, Ndebele,...
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Topics for Further Study
The setting for Boesman and Lena is extremely important to the plot and its characters. South Africa in 1969 was a country torn apart by the policies of apartheid, which demanded strict segregation of races. Blacks, whites, and "coloureds" were forced to live, work, and attend school and public functions separated from one another, causing a great deal of strife among the different racial groups in South Africa, until they were integrated in the 1980s. The United States has its own history of segregation, strife, and integration. Research America's racially divided past and compare it to South Africa's. What is the timeline for each? What practices did the two countries have in common? What finally led to integration in each country? What race-related problems do the two countries face today as a result of a segregated past?
Fugard has cited the Irish-born French playwright Samuel Beckett as a major influence on his writing. Read one of Beckett's major plays, perhaps Waiting for Godot or Endgame, and compare and contrast Beckett's style of "Absurdist" theater with Fugard's. Consider such things as setting, plot and character development, and how each author treats important themes in his work.
Because of its unique history of colonization by many different groups of European settlers,...
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Boesman and Lena was first adapted as a film in 1973. This South African production was directed by Ross Devenish and starred Yvonne Bryceland as Lena and Athol Fugard himself as Boesman.
A second film adaptation was produced in 1999. Directed by American John Berry, and starring Americans Danny Glover and Angela Bassett, this Boesman and Lena was filmed on location in Cape Town, and produced jointly by South African Primedia Pictures and Pathe Image, a French subsidiary of Pathe, France's oldest film company.
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What Do I Read Next?
Fugard has written nearly two dozen plays. All of them are set in his native South Africa, and many share some of the same qualities Boesman and Lena possesses: intimate, small-cast, poetic dramas set against the beauty of the South African countryside and the tragedy of its politics. Fugard's first big success, The Blood Knot (1961), is about two half-brothers, one black, the other nearly white but technically "coloured,'' and the effects of apartheid on their lives. In Master Harold...and the Boys (1982), a young white South African boy learns some lessons about family, love, and dignity from the two black servants in his parents' cafe. My Children! My Africa! (1989) explores the devastating effects of anti-apartheid demonstrations and township riots on a black teacher and two of his students, one black, the other white.
Fugard's Boesman and Lena takes some of its inspiration from the works of Absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett whose plays often explore the themes of loneliness, despair, and the search for order and meaning in a violent, chaotic world. Beckett's masterpiece is Waiting for Godot (1953), a tragicomic play about two tramps waiting for a mysterious man named Godot, who never arrives. Some of Beckett's other works include
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Branford, Jean. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Athol Fugard, edited by Stephen Gray. McGraw-Hill, 1982, p. 80.
Brockett, Oscar G. ‘‘The Theatre of Africa: South Africa,’’ in History of the Theatre, 8th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1998, pp. 658-65.
Cohen, Derek. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Canadian Drama, Spring, 1980, pp. 151-61.
Disch, Thomas M. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Nation, March 2, 1992.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Anchor Books, 1962, pp. 290-91.
Fugard, Athol. Boesman and Lena and Other Plays. Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. vii-xxv.
---. Notebooks 1960-1977, A. D. Donker, ed., 1983, pp. 65-7, 124.
Gussow, Mel. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Athol Fugard, edited by Stephen Gray. McGraw-Hill, 1982, p. 94.
Jacobson, Dan. ‘‘The Poetry of Poverty,’’ in Guardian Weekly, August 10, 1974, reprinted in Athol Fugard, edited by Stephen Gray. McGraw-Hill, 1982, p. 82.
McLuckie, Craig W. ‘‘Power, Self, and Other: the Absurd in Boesman and Lena,’’ in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993, p. 423.
Miller, Arthur. ‘‘Tragedy and the Common Man,’’ in New York Times, February...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Benson, Mary. Athol Fugard and Barry Simon: Bare-Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1999.
Fugard, Athol. Introduction to Boesman and Lena and Other Plays. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Fugard, Athol. Notebooks, 1960-1977. New York: Knopf, 1984.
Gray, Stephen, ed. Athol Fugard. London: Methuen, 1991.
Haupffleisch, Temple. Athol Fugard: A Source Guide. Johannesburg, South Africa: Donker, 1982.
King, Kimball, and Albert Ertheim. Athol Fugard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.
Seidenspinner, Margarete. Exploring the Labyrinth: Athol Fugard’s Approach to South African Drama. Essen, South Africa: Blaue Eule, 1986.
Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. New York: Twayne, 1984.
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