The Road to Mecca

by Athol Fugard

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In Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca, how is conflict built up to create dramatic tension between Elsa and Helen? How are Elsa and Helen both round characters that develop during the play? Why is Elsa angry, sad, and hurting? What does artistic creation mean to Helen? Why does Helen need to be courageous?

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Since the first commenter did such a beautiful job of addressing the first part of your question, I will address the last part. A round character is a complex character, one that cannot easily be summed up in a sentence or two. Both Elsa and Helen are round characters. Elsa, on one hand, is supremely alive to Helen's inspiration and artistry, and she's built a friendship with this older woman because she was so impressed by Helen's spiritual freedom and unwillingness to have her role dictated to her by society after her husband's death. On the other hand, Elsa is, at times, mean and quite harsh when she speaks to Helen, even studying the older woman with "cruel detachment." She is kind enough to care about Miss Helen and drive twelve hours to spend one night with the her when Helen is in great pain, but she is unwilling to listen to Helen's explanation of why she lied about her accident. Elsa is, at once, kind and cruel, as well as a bit jaded. She is sad that her romantic relationship with a married man has ended, that she trusted and lost; she is angry at the world and herself because she is alone—especially because she terminated a pregnancy and now seems to regret it. At the same time, she seems to believe in the possibility of learning to love and to trust again. Her pessimism is tempered by optimism.

Helen is a round character because she, too, is complex. She seems, at times, especially in her conversation with Elsa, to be meek and somewhat submissive. However, she is also revealed to possess a great deal of strength in that she's chosen independence rather than social acceptance. She has chosen to pursue artistic creation as a way of inspiring and fulfilling herself rather than continue to attend religious services that felt, to her, like a "terrible, terrible lie." Helen cannot even bring herself to say "no" to Marius when he tries to force her into a home for old folks, but then she becomes more and more articulate when explaining to him the importance and purpose of her Mecca. She has been incredibly courageous in her decision to depart from social convention and instead do what makes her feel free. Ultimately, she chooses to be alone, even though Marius loves her, because it is really the only way to retain this freedom.

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As Athol Fugard's play The Road to Mecca progresses, the more we learn about the conflicts between Elsa and Helen. Plus, the more these conflicts develop, the more dramatic tension is developed.

One source of conflict between the two is that Elsa objects to the religious and racist influences Helen surrounds herself with, having lived all her life in New Bethesda, a village established by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1875. One religious influence Elsa objects to is the village's stance on drinking. A member of the village, Old Getruida, has decided to rise up against the village by opening up her own liquor store. She plans to use the profits to help fund the native Africans' project to build their own school. However, the pastor, Marius, has risen up against the idea and has even given a sermon warning against the "evils of alcohol and how it's ruining the health and lives of our Coloured folks" (p. 12). When Elsa protests against Helen's support of her pastor's view, Helen points out that the situation of their African friend and servant, Katrina, who suffers at the hands of an alcoholic husband, would only worsen. When their conversation continues into the domain of apartheid, Elsa shows just how much she objects to the village's religious and racist views by asking Helen the following:

Why do you always stand up and defend this bunch of bigots? Look at the way they've treated you? (p. 14)

The second and greatest source of conflict between the two is that Helen is beginning to submit to the village's notion that she should be put in an assisted living facility, whereas Elsa staunchly objects to the idea. Elsa sees Helen as being successful at living her life independently and that she still has a great deal of living to do because she still has a great deal of art to create. This conflict reaches its pinnacle when, out of frustration, while in Marius's presence, Elsa breaks down and yells to Helen to command her to sign the application form for the assisted living facility. At first, when she hears Marius explain about the accidental fire, she relents and begins to feel that Helen really should be in the assisted living facility; however, as Marius continues the argument, Elsa returns to her former belief that Helen needs to keep living a life that will allow her to freely express herself. The intensity of the conflict creates quite a lot of dramatic tension, not just between Elsa and Helen but between Elsa and Marius as well.

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