Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes was first performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1978. In 1980, it was performed at the Yale Repertory Theater, starring James Earl Jones. Later that year, the play opened on Broadway, gaining an enthusiastic public and critical response. This play, as is the case with many of Fugard’s other works, focuses on the tensions that arose between whites and blacks living under the system of apartheid in South Africa. The plot of A Lesson from Aloes centers on a farewell dinner in 1963 given by a white Afrikaner for his good friend, a black activist who has given up the cause. During the course of the evening, the two friends confront issues of loyalty and betrayal and sanity and madness, as they struggle to make sense of their experience in an oppressive and divisive world and of the effect that experience has on human relationships.
Act 1, Scene 1
A Lesson From Aloes opens in the backyard of Piet and Gladys Bezuidenhout’s home in South Africa in 1963. Piet is seated in front of an aloe plant, reading aloud from a book on the subject, trying to identify his specific plant but not having any luck. Gladys sits nearby. After he tells her that if this is a new species, he will name it after her, he then begins a brief monologue on the importance of names, quoting from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to help prove his point.
Gladys claims that time is passing slowly that afternoon as they wait for their friend Steve and his family to come for dinner. Piet asks if everything is ready in the kitchen for them, and Gladys tells him it is. He tells her to relax then and enjoy the lovely autumn weather, but she is worried about getting sunburned. When Piet returns with her sun hat, she appears anxious and goes into the house to confirm that she put away her diary.
Piet again turns his attention to his aloe, insisting that he must not neglect it. He asks Gladys whether they have enough food, noting that Steve is bringing his wife and four children. Her response that food is “not going to be the problem” reveals her apprehension about their arrival. When Piet tries to calm her by reminding her that they are friends, Gladys claims that she is “out of practice” and is worried about coming up with conversation, noting that they have been the first visitors since she has been back from the mental hospital.
Piet turns his attention to his plant again and reasserts the importance of naming, explaining that a name is the first thing people give a newborn and someone met for a first time. He is frustrated that he cannot find the right name for his plant and then discusses its qualities, describing its ability to survive in harsh terrain. Piet suggests that there may be a lesson in the plant’s survival mechanisms for all of them, but Gladys refuses to identify herself with it and begins to get upset by their discussion. She claims that conversation with him always turns political, “a catalogue of South African disasters” because he “seem[s] to have a perverse need to dwell on what is cruel and ugly about this country.” She insists that she wants more out of life than just to survive. Although she is afraid of the country and the effect it can have on her, she is determined not to let it pass on its “violence” to her. In an effort to lighten the mood, Piet shifts the conversation to the upcoming dinner.
Act 1, Scene 2
As they get ready for the dinner, Gladys tell Piet that she feels isolated there while he is at work since no one is nearby. She notes that during the almost seven months that she has been back from the hospital, not one of their friends has come to visit. When she wonders whether they are avoiding her, Piet declares, “it’s a dangerous time and people are frightened,” citing all of the political and social unrest that has been occurring. Gladys insists that his explanation is too simple; she complains about people’s “lack of courage and faith,” alluding to the political activism in which they are no longer involved. Piet admits that he is frightened, too.
Later, Gladys proudly recalls every word from a quote by Thoreau about finding and following a purpose in life that Piet had recited to her on their first date. When he admits that he still believes in the sentiment, Gladys declares that she envies him that. She insists that she would be lost without her diary, which keeps her secrets. When she brings up the fact that her diaries were stolen from her, Piet tells her to try to forget, but she cannot. As she remembers the government officials coming into her room, she gets increasingly angry and agitated. Piet tries to reassure her that they will not come again, but she is not sure that she believes him.
When Gladys discovers that Piet still has the receipt the men gave him for the diaries, she demands that he rip it up so she can cancel those years. After Piet tears up the receipt, she calms down a bit, explaining how important the diaries were to her. But her hysteria returns when she thinks about how her trust in herself and in life has been shattered and declares that there is no safe place to hide her diary. She begins to attack Piet, blaming him for her “condition” but then pulls back and apologizes. When Piet offers to cancel the dinner, she tells him that she will be all right and that she does not want to hide anything anymore. The scene ends with her telling Pier, “I am trying,” suggesting that she is struggling to cope with her fragile emotional state.
Act 1, Scene 3
Piet declares that he owes Steve “more than anybody else in this world,” since his friend gave him a sense of...
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