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.
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...
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