Athol Fugard Biography

Athol Fugard—often called the "conscience of his country"—remains a controversial playwright in South Africa and throughout the world. An Afrikaner who chooses to write in English to reach as broad an audience as possible, Fugard began composing plays as a way of expressing his anger at apartheid. His criticism of the South African government’s racial policies made him many enemies, so he began producing his work, and living, in other countries. His plays are often held in small venues for the working classes—people who quite literally become part of the world of the play as they react to situations very similar to those in their own lives. Uncompromising and courageous, Fugard's work continues to be popular today.

Facts and Trivia

  • Fugard’s passport was revoked for several years because of his play The Blood Knot, which dissects the hypocrisy behind South Africa’s racial laws. He was further punished in 1962 after supporting a boycott against segregated theater audiences.
  • Fugard fought injustice on all sides. His play My Children! My Africa! attacked the African National Congress (ANC), an anti-apartheid organization, for boycotting African schools. He feared that the children would have to suffer for the ANC’s political stance.
  • Fugard studied philosophy at the University of Capetown from 1950 to 1953, but he dropped out to hitchhike around Africa. He also worked on a merchant ship for two years before he found his calling as a writer.
  • Fugard’s first novel, Tsotsi, was made into a movie in 2006, and it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
  • Fugard has a unique writing process and says, “Word processors, typewriters and ballpoints don’t work for me. I’m a sensualist writer who needs a fountain pen and paper.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2563

Early Life

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Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard was born on June 11, 1932, in Cape Province, South Africa, to Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter, who ran a boarding-house, and Harold David Fugard, a jazz pianist. Fugard remembers his father as a man of many contradictions: Although gentle by nature, the elder Fugard was “full of pointless, unthought-out prejudices”; while distant from his children, he shared with young Athol a love for horror films, pulp fiction, and comic books. Mrs. Fugard, on the other hand, was a capable woman who supported her family through her management first of the Jubilee Hotel and later of the St. George’s Park Tearoom. In contrast to her bigoted husband, Mrs. Fugard was color-blind, and her sense of the injustices perpetrated by her society made a lasting impression on Athol.

The most influential adult in Athol Fugard’s childhood was a black man named Sam Semela who worked first at the Jubilee Hotel and later at the St. George’s Park Tearoom. Although separated by age and skin color, Sam and Hally (as Athol Fugard was known in his childhood) became fast friends. To the rest of society they were young white master and black servant, but to each other they were companions. For a still undiscovered reason, ten-year-old Hally in a fit of anger one day spat in Sam’s face. Sam forgave him immediately, but feelings of shame haunted Fugard so strongly into adulthood that the incident became the focal point of “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the boys (1982).

On leaving elementary school, Fugard attended Port Elizabeth Technical College, concentrating on an automechanics course, and the University of Cape Town, where he majored in philosophy. A few months shy of his final examinations for a degree, Fugard dropped out of the university to hitchhike to Port Sudan, where he signed on as the only white seaman on the SS Graigaur. Aboard ship he began a novel that he later threw into the sea.

After only two years at sea, Fugard returned home to begin a career as a writer. Starting as a journalist in Port Elizabeth, he moved on to Cape Town, where he met and married Sheila Meiring, an actress who introduced him to the theater and to playwriting. His initial attempts to write for the stage resulted in The Cell (1957) and Klass and the Devil (1957) both of which Fugard would later discount. At the same time, he was becoming aware—through the work of John Osborne and William Faulkner—of the importance and literary worth of a writer’s regional identity and voice.

A move to Johannesburg proved crucial to Fugard’s development as a distinctly South African playwright. His first job in the Fordsburg Native Commissioner’s Court opened his eyes to the oppressive passbook system that limited a black person’s opportunities for both employment and decent housing; years later he would use the passbook system as the basis for Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972). Fugard’s second job, as stage manager for South Africa’s National Theatre Organization, introduced him to the practical aspects of theatrical production. The most important event of that year in Johannesburg was Fugard’s discovery of Sophiatown, the black ghetto just outside Johannesburg. The result was No-Good Friday (1958), a full-length play about the black youth in Sophiatown, a play that featured a nonprofessional cast of talented black actors, among them Zakes Mokae. Nongogo (1959) followed shortly thereafter, also with a talented amateur cast. Performed before small private audiences, neither play earned much critical notice.

In late 1959, the Fugards moved to England in search of experience in the English repertory theater. The move was not a success. Fugard approached various theaters with his two early plays and a new one, A Place for the Pigs (1959), and was rejected, most notably by the Royal Court Theatre, which would later become his London producer. Whenever he could scrape together the price of admission, he saw as many plays as he could, but his own experience in the London theater world remained that of the outsider; his only entrée into that world came through the briefly successful New Africa Group, formed to produce original South African plays. In 1960, disillusioned with their life in London and facing the imminent birth of their child, the Fugards returned to South Africa and settled in Port Elizabeth, where their daughter, Lisa, was born, and where Fugard completed a short novel, Tsotsi (1979), which would not be published for almost two decades.

Life’s Work

While in London, Fugard began keeping a journal in which he recorded his observations about people and life, reminiscences, quotations, scraps of dialogue, and descriptions. Fugard’s notebooks would prove to be the source of his most powerful ideas, and in 1960 he completed a play based on his first entry. The Blood Knot (1961)—Fugard’s breakthrough play—concerns a pair of half brothers, one of whom is sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, the other of whom is dark-skinned. With its graphic dissection of South Africa’s racial laws, The Blood Knot ignited controversy from the beginning, launched Fugard’s career as a playwright, and altered the course of South African theater, which was still producing only European plays. With The Blood Knot, Fugard found his style—poetic and colloquial language, a small cast, diametrically opposed characters—and his focus—the victims of apartheid. With Fugard and Mokae playing the half brothers Morrie and Zach, the play captivated audiences all over South Africa, and eventually a British producer mounted a London production, retaining Mokae but replacing Fugard with the better-known Ian Bannen. Despite favorable reviews, the play failed; once again rejected by the English theater, Fugard went home to South Africa.

In 1963, Fugard helped create the Serpent Players, an acting company of enthusiastic amateurs. Although repeatedly harassed by the police, the company performed for black audiences such plays as Bertolt Brecht’s Der Kaukasische Kreidekreis (1944-1945: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, 1948) and Die Antigone des Sophokles (1948). When two of the actors in Die Antigone des Sophokles were arrested and incarcerated in the Robben Island jail, one of them performed a prison version of Die Antigone des Sophokles. That performance later inspired The Island (1973), which Fugard wrote with John Kani and Winston Ntshona of the Serpent Players. Fugard’s next plays focused on South Africa’s poor white population. Hello and Goodbye (1965) dramatizes the strained relationship between a brother and sister who meet after years of separation; People Are Living There (1968) depicts a group of lonely, hopeless individuals who live in a run-down rooming house.

In 1964, a critically acclaimed and popularly successful Off-Broadway production of The Blood Knot established Fugard’s reputation in the American theater. His international fame, his work with black actors, and his powerful antiapartheid plays branded Fugard as a threat to the South African government, and in 1967 he was denied a South African passport. He had two choices: to leave his home forever or to stay in South Africa without the possibility of ever leaving. He stayed, and without theatrical stimuli and experience from elsewhere, was forced to rely on his own imagination and on the resources available in his native theater. The result was Boesman and Lena (1969), considered among Fugard’s finest plays. A two-character play like The Blood Knot, Boesman and Lena depicts a colored couple living outside both the black and white communities because they are neither one nor the other, bound by their marginality in a love-hate relationship that threatens to destroy them. First staged at Rhodes University in South Africa, the play received an American performance the next year. Lacking a passport, Fugard was unable to travel to New York to see the play. The next year, however, in response to a petition signed by some four thousand supporters, the South African government reissued him a passport, enabling him to attend the play’s English premiere at the Royal Court Theatre. He has been able to travel freely ever since.

The 1970’s introduced Fugard to the idea of theater as collaborative craft. Orestes: An Experiment in Theatre as Described in a Letter to an American Friend (1971), grew out of improvisations created by Fugard and his actors; as the title indicates, the play remains in the form of a letter. Two more collaborations followed. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island were created by Fugard with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who share the credit for authorship in the published versions. Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (1972), from the same period, was written by Fugard alone, but ideologically it belongs with the collaborative pieces in its treatment of apartheid as a pervasive fact of South African life.

Dimetos (1975), commissioned for the Edinburgh Festival, was inspired by a quote from Albert Camus, the writer most often mentioned in Fugard’s notebooks. Fugard’s only play not specifically set in South Africa, Dimetos was a transition work as Fugard moved from portrayals of obvious victims of apartheid to less visible victims, conscientious individuals trapped in the paranoia created by an oppressive government. A Lesson from Aloes (1978) portrays three broken lives: those of Piet, believed by his associates to be a government informer; his wife Gladys, recovering from a mental breakdown brought on by police confiscation of her private journals; and Steven Daniels, Piet’s colored friend, who is to be exiled for his political activity.

“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the boys, perhaps Fugard’s best play, grew out of his own pain. For years he had tried unsuccessfully to write a play about Sam Semela, but it took a chance conversation with a friend to trigger the memory of his spitting in his friend’s face. “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the boys, Fugard’s attempt to atone for an action that has grieved him all his life, is about Hally (Fugard uses his childhood name), who is torn between admiration of the black Sam, who has been his surrogate father, and his shame at being the son of a bigoted alcoholic. Hally’s confusion explodes finally in his demand that Sam call him “Master Harold” and culminates in his spitting in Sam’s face. “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the boys was a critical and popular success, earning a Tony Award for Zakes Mokae in the role of Sam.

The Road to Mecca (1984), like Fugard’s other plays, has a small cast and a single set and is based on the life of a real person. Fugard’s only play with all-white characters, The Road to Mecca is not blatantly political; like Fugard’s other plays, however, it deals with issues of individual freedom through its heroine, Helen Martins, who has created fanciful figures which she displays in her garden facing east. The townsfolk consider her crazy and her sculptures blasphemous; the local pastor wants to put her away in a nursing home. The play focuses on how Helen manages to fulfill herself despite the bigotry and repression rampant in her small community.

Summary

Athol Fugard has earned his title as “the conscience of his country” through his ability to translate social and political issues and concerns into living, breathing human beings who, like his audiences, love and hate and live and work. His plays are the expression of a man impelled to tell the truth no matter what the cost to himself; they reach far beyond the specific problems of a single society to encompass the nature and needs of the human race. With his uncompromising portrayals of the effects of racism and bigotry, Fugard has accomplished much of value: He has breathed new life into black drama, providing support and opportunity to black actors and playwrights; he has proved that political drama can be artistically and theatrically compelling; and he has given the South African theater international status and validity.

Fugard’s life is a reflection and extension of his plays, many of which are based on his own experiences. Contrary to the expectations of his admirers, he spoke out against the decision of international playwrights’ and writers’ groups to refuse permission for performance of their work in South Africa. Opposed to the boycott because he felt that South Africans needed to be educated through exposure to ideas from the rest of the world, he has attempted the education of his people through his drama, which portrays the painful realities of life in South Africa.

My Children, My Africa (pr. 1990), like Fugard’s other plays, is based on a disturbing real-life incident—the “necklacing” (placing a burning automobile tire around the neck) of a black schoolteacher by an angry mob that believes him to be a government informer. In the play, the horrible act of retribution leads in the end to the beginning of understanding between two students, one white, the other black. That Fugard believes strongly in the power of literature is evident in his plays, in which he shows the world that only through brotherhood can the human race be saved.

Bibliography

Benson, Mary. Athol Fugard and Barney Simon: Bare Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre. Randburg, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1997. Benson relates her friendship with South Africa’s two major playwrights and provides extraordinary insights into their lives and works

Benson, Mary. “Keeping an Appointment with the Future: The Theatre of Athol Fugard.” Theatre Quarterly 7, no. 28 (1977): 77-86. A personal biography regarding Fugard’s wife and daughter, his early career struggles, and his aesthetic debts to Jerzy Grotowski, Albert Camus, and others. Benson’s interview is followed by some acting comments by and about Fugard. The entire issue is devoted to South African theater.

Fugard, Athol. “Athol Fugard’s South Africa: The Playwright Reveals Himself to a Fellow Writer.” Interview by André Brink. World Press Review 37 (July, 1990): 36-39. Excerpted from the Cape Town periodical Leadership. Brink discusses Fugard’s “commitment to the search for meaning” in a warm interview following the opening of My Children! My Africa! Fugard states that he regrets the time he must spend away from Africa, where his energies belong.

Gray, Stephen. Southern African Literature: An Introduction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A strong discussion of Boesman and Lena, “seen by more South African audiences than any other South African play,” in its stage or film versions. Gray interprets the play as a “rewording of the myth” of Hottentot Eve: “The play is ultimately more about the strains of the marriage bond between her and her husband than the colour problem which aggravates it.”

Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985. A full study of the playwright’s life, work, and philosophies. Contains introductory material on South Africa and a concluding chapter on influences, crosscurrents, language, style, and critical reputation. Appendices offer the full text of The Drummer, an essay on Dimetos, and a production chronology. Bibliography and index.

Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. New York: Grove Press, 1985. A general survey and appreciation of Fugard’s work to “MASTER HAROLD” …and the Boys. Walder says Fugard’s plays speak “not only of the South African dimension of man’s inhumanity to man, but also of the secret pain we all inflict upon each other in the private recesses of our closest relationships.”

Wertheim, Albert. The Dramatic Art of Athol Fugard: From South Africa to the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Wertheim explores Fugard’s life and work in such great detail as to make this a vital resource.

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