A Lesson from Aloes Essay - Essays and Criticism

Athol Fugard

Essays and Criticism

Athol Fugard Overview

As a white child growing up in segregated South Africa, Athol Fugard resisted the racist upbringing society offered him. Nevertheless, the boy who would become, in the words of Gillian MacKay of Maclean’s, “perhaps South Africa’s most renowned literary figure, and its most eloquent anti-apartheid crusader abroad” did not completely escape apartheid’s influence—he insisted that the family’s black servants call him Master Harold, and he even spat at one of them. Fugard told MacKay that the servant, an “extraordinary” man who had always treated him as a close friend, “grieved for the state” of Fugard’s soul and forgave him instead of beating him “to a pulp.”

Fugard never forgot this incident, which he transformed into a powerful scene in the play, “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys. He told Lloyd Richards of Paris Review that the event is like a deep stain which has “soaked into the fabric” of his life. In Fugard’s career as a playwright, director, and actor, he has forced himself and his audiences to consider their own “stains.” As Frank Rich remarked in a 1985 New York Times review of The Blood Knot, “Mr. Fugard doesn’t allow anyone, least of all himself, to escape without examining the ugliest capabilities of the soul.”

Despite Fugard’s insistence that he is not a political writer and that he speaks for no one but himself, his controversial works featuring black and white characters have found favor with critics of apartheid. According to Brendan Gill of the New Yorker, The Blood Knot, the play that made Fugard famous, “altered the history of twentieth-century theatre throughout the world” as well as the world’s “political history.” Not all critics of apartheid, however, have appreciated Fugard’s works. Some “see a white man being a spokesman for what has happened to black people and they are naturally intolerant,” Fugard explained to Paul Allen in New Statesman and Society.

Whether Fugard’s theatrical explorations of passion, violence, and guilt played a role in undermining apartheid or not, it is clear that he was involved in breaking physical and symbolic barriers to integration. He defied the apartheid system by founding the first enduring black theater company in South Africa, by collaborating with black writers, and by presenting black and white actors on stage together for integrated audiences. He insisted upon performing plays for local audiences in South Africa as well as for those in New York City and London; his plays carried messages that people around the world needed to hear. Even after the government took Fugard’s passport and banned his work, he refused to consider himself an exile or to renounce his country. Love, and not hate for South Africa, Fugard maintained, would help it break the chains of apartheid. “Wouldn’t it be ironic if South Africa could teach the world something about harmony?,” he asked MacKay.

Fugard is highly regarded by literary and theater critics. Stephen Gray of New Theatre Quarterly noted that the author has been called “the greatest active playwright in English.” His works are renowned for their multifaceted, marginalized characters, realistic yet lyrical dialogue, and carefully crafted, symbolic plots. Critics have also praised Fugard’s ability to write scenes which elicit emotion without declining into melodrama. Fugard has forged new paths in theater by directing and acting in many of his own plays and by writing and composing plays with the actors who perform in them.

Fugard credits his parents with shaping his insights about South African society. As a child, he developed close relationships with both his English-speaking South African father, Harold, and his mother, Elizabeth, the daughter of Dutch-speaking Afrikaners. Harold, a jazz musician and amputee who spent a great deal of time in bed, amused the boy with fantastic stories and confused him with his unabashed bigotry. Fugard’s mother Elizabeth supported the family by efficiently managing their tea room. In an interview with Jamaica Kincaid for Interview, Fugard described his mother as “an extraordinary woman” who could “barely read and write.” In Fugard’s words, she was “a monument of decency and principle and just anger” who encouraged Fugard to view South African society with a thoughtful and critical eye.

If Fugard learned the power of words from his father, and if he discovered how to question society from his mother, he gained an understanding of the complexity of human nature from both parents. Like Fugard’s characters, his parents were neither entirely good or evil. Nevertheless, as Fugard explained to Kincaid, “I think at a fairly early age I became suspicious of what the system was trying to do to me. . . . I became conscious of what attitudes it was trying to implant in me and what prejudices it was trying to pass on to me.” Fugard fed his intellectual appetite with conversations with his mother and daily trips to the local library. By the time he began college, he knew he wanted to be a writer. He accepted a scholarship at the University of Cape Town and studied philosophy, but he left school before graduating to journey around the Far East on a steamer ship.

At this time in his life, Fugard entertained notions of writing a great South African novel. Yet his first attempt at writing a novel, as he saw it, was a failure, and he destroyed it. After Fugard met and married Sheila Meiring, an out-of-work South African actress, he developed an interest in writing plays. The Cell and Klaas and the Devil were the first results of this ambition.

Not until after Fugard began to keep company with a community of black writers and actors near Johannesburg did he experience a revelation in his work. During this time, he witnessed the frustration of the black writers and learned the intricacies of a system which shrewdly and cruelly thwarted their efforts to live and work freely. The plays he penned at this time, No-Good Friday and Nongogo, were performed by Fugard and his black actor friends for private audiences.

In 1959 Fugard moved to England to write. His work received little attention there, and Fugard began to realize that he needed to be in South Africa to follow his muse. Upon his return home in 1961, Fugard wrote a second novel. Although he tried to destroy this work, a pair of graduate students later found the only surviving copy, and it was published in 1981. Critics have noticed the presence of many of the elements which would re-emerge in Fugard’s more famous plays in this novel, Tsotsi.

Tsotsi portrays the life of David, a young black man whose nickname, “Tsotsi,” means “hoodlum.” Tsotsi spends his time with his gang of thieving, murderous friends. He has no family and cannot remember his childhood. It is not until a woman he is about to attack gives him a box with a baby in it, and David gives the baby his name, that he begins to experience sympathy and compassion, and to recall his childhood. When David is about to kill a crippled old man he has been pursuing, he suddenly remembers how his mother was arrested and never came home, and how he began to rove with a pack of abandoned children. It is not long before he recalls the trauma that led to his violent life on the streets. Fugard does not allow David’s character to revel in his newly discovered emotions or to continue his search for God: at the novel’s end, David is crushed under a bulldozer in an attempt to save David, the baby.

Critics appreciate Tsotsi for the insight it provides into the lives of even minor characters. Fugard did not allow his readers to categorize characters as “good” or “bad”; instead, he forced readers to understand their complexity. In the New York Times Book Review, Ivan Gold called Tsotsi “a moving and untendentious book” which demonstrates Fugard’s ability to “uncannily insinuate himself into the skins of the oppressed majority and articulate its rage and misery and hope.” Although Barbara A. Bannon in Publishers Weekly commented that Tsotsi is “altogether different in tone” from some of his plays, she also observed that the “milieu is much the same as the one that has made Fugard . . . the literary conscience of South Africa.”

While Fugard generally works on one project at a time (typically writing with pens instead of word processors), he wrote Tsotsi and The Blood Knot simultaneously. The inspiration for The Blood Knot came when the author walked into a room and saw his brother asleep in bed one night. His brother had lived a difficult life, and his pain was apparent in his face and body. Realizing that there was nothing he could do to save his brother from suffering, Fugard experienced guilt. By writing The Blood Knot, Fugard recalled to Richards in Paris Review, he “was trying to examine a guilt more profound than racial guilt—the existential guilt that I feel when another person suffers, is victimized, and I can do nothing about it. South Africa afforded me the most perfect device for examining this guilt.”

The Blood Knot is the story of two brothers born to the same mother. Morris, who has light-skin, can “pass” for white; he confronts the truth about his identity when he returns home to live with his dark-skinned brother, Zachariah. Although the opening scene of the play finds Morris preparing a bath for hard-working Zachariah’s feet, it soon becomes clear that the brothers’ relationship is a tenuous one. The tension between the brothers is heightened when Zach’s white pen pal (a woman who thinks Zach is white) wants to meet him, and Morris must pretend to be the white man with whom she has been corresponding.

Morris’s attempts to look and sound white are painful for both brothers: To convincingly portray a white man, Morris must treat his black brother with the cruelty of a racist. In his role as a white man, Morris sits in the park and calls insults at his brother, who chases black children from the presence of his “white” brother. By the last scene, the “game” is out of control, and Zach tries to kill Morris. According to Robert M. Post in Ariel, the brothers in The Blood Knot “are typical victims of the system of apartheid and bigotry” and “personify the racial conflict of South Africa.”

Fugard had little support in producing the play; it was not until actor Zakes Mokae joined the project that the production emerged. As a result of this collaboration, the first production of The Blood Knot was controversial not only for its content, but also because it featured a black actor and a white actor on stage together. Fugard played the light-skinned brother who “passes” for a white man, while Mokae played the darker-skinned brother. The Blood Knot opened in front of a mixed-race, invitation-only audience in a run-down theatre. As Derek Cohen noted in Canadian Drama, this first production of The Blood Knot “sent shock waves” through South Africa. “Those who saw the initial performance knew instinctively that something of a revolution had taken place in the stodgily Angloid cultural world of South Africa,” he wrote. “Whites, faced boldly with some inescapable truths about what their repressive culture and history had wrought, were compelled to take notice.”

Responses to The Blood Knot varied. As Cohen notes, some Afrikaners believed that the play’s message was that blacks and whites could not live together in peace, and some black critics called the work racist. Many now accept the...

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The Importance of Language in A Lesson from Aloes

At the beginning of Athol Fugard’s play, A Lesson from Aloes, Piet Bezuidenhout, an Afrikaner living in South Africa with his wife,...

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Fugard and his Characters

“A man’s scenery is other men,” Fugard wrote in November 1966 (Notebooks 141), contemplating the final image of the Piet-Gladys-Steve...

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The Afrikaner Characters in A Lesson from Aloes

When A Lesson from Aloes premiered in Johannesburg, Fugard himself played the role of Steve Daniels. When it opened in New Haven,...

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