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- Fugard’s passport was revoked for several years because of his play The Blood Knot, which dissects the hypocrisy behind South Africa’s racial laws.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.”
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...
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