The Road to Mecca Essay - Critical Essays

Athol Fugard

Critical Context

Although The Road to Mecca is less overtly concerned with the turbulent history of South Africa than most of Fugard’s earlier plays, it is no less personal than his autobiographical drama “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys (pr., pb. 1982). The road of the artist and the personal sacrifices it entails are well known to the playwright, who has had many of his plays banned in his own country. Miss Helen’s refusal to bend to society’s wishes or to abandon work that her neighbors find unsettling has direct parallels in Fugard’s own life, for his wrenching dramatic attacks on apartheid have angered many of his fellow countrymen.

If The Road to Mecca is allegorically about Fugard’s life, it is also specifically about the life of the woman who inspired it: Helen Martins, an eccentric woman whose unusual sculptures intrigued Fugard during a visit to New Bethesda. The circumstances of the play, if not the precise incidents that make up its plot, were suggested by Martins’s life and work and by her friendship with a young social worker. As Fugard explains in “A Note on Miss Helen,” his foreword to the play,as a writer I couldn’t help responding to this very eccentric character in this strange little community—a community which was in a sense hostile to her life and her work because it was a deviation from what the townspeople considered to be the way a life should be lived. . . .

Viewed from a broader perspective, however, The Road to Mecca can be placed within the context of Fugard’s earlier, more directly political works. Although the examinations of apartheid seen in such plays as The Blood Knot (pr. 1961, pb. 1963), Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (pr., pb. 1972), and “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys are not present here, the play’s story of the deep human need for freedom and the dangers to the spirit when that need is ignored or crushed certainly is a commentary on South Africa’s repressive social system. It is a mark of Fugard’s skill as a playwright that he has found in the life of a “very eccentric character” both a personal artistic statement and a moving testament to the essential, transforming power of freedom.