Athol Fugard Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Athol Fugard’s plays satisfy a major criterion of good drama: the creation of vivid, lifelike characters. His characterization is immature in his early plays, No-Good Friday and Nongogo—with their black-ghetto gangsters, hustlers, musicians, whores, pimps, dreamers, and even a white priest—but these stereotypes foreshadow such fully developed characters in the 1960’s plays as the half brothers in The Blood Knot, the landlady in People Are Living There, the siblings in Hello and Goodbye, and the destitute couple Boesman and Lena, in the play of that title. In the 1970’s, Fugard created such powerful characters as the miscegenational lovers in Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, the urban and country blacks in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, the prisoners in The Island, and the isolated Anglo-Afrikaner couple and their “colored” friend in A Lesson from Aloes. In his later plays, Fugard presents two black waiters and a teenage schoolboy (“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys) and an elderly, reclusive sculptor, her young friend, and a local pastor (The Road to Mecca). Fugard’s characters, who seem so specific and concrete as to personify South Africa, are at the same time universal in their humanity.

Most of these characters do little or nothing except validate their existence through words that cry out to be heard. Their language ranges from the harshly naturalistic to the eloquently poetic; their rhythms are acutely South African, yet they cross linguistic barriers. Fugard’s Notebooks, 1960-1977 records the South African images from which his plays come: two brothers in a shack; a landlady who stays in her nightclothes for a whole day; a woman arriving with a suitcase and a man on crutches; a couple with their worldly possessions on their backs; six police photographs of two naked lovers; a self-confident black with a cigarette in one hand, a pipe in the other; two prisoners putting sand into wheelbarrows; and a lonely man studying an aloe plant. Program notes for “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys and The Road to Mecca provide images of ballroom dancing and a magical room of light and color. From such images, Fugard has crafted works of art as solid as steel, as fragile as china. Sturdy yet delicate, his plays wear well—the ultimate tribute to a master artist.

Fugard has long acknowledged his debt to Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett. In Camus, he found a kindred spirit for his worldview and his role as an artist; in Beckett, he found a dramaturgy of maximum import with minimum theatrical outlay. Confined to one room or space, two or three characters recollect, recriminate, role-play, and resign themselves to their existence in a world without meaning and with little hope for change. They delude themselves with false hopes and dreams, amuse themselves with games to pass the time; such nobility as they possess comes in the fleeting, lucid moments when they acknowledge their condition—and their dependence on each other. As does Camus, Fugard opts for a “courageous pessimism” born of the clear-sighted recognition of modern human beings’ plight—trapped in a world as capricious as Ariadne’s web and as mazelike as the Cretan Minotaur’s labyrinth.

In his 1957 Nobel address at the University of Uppsala, Camus said, “To create today is to live dangerously”; he continued, “The suffering of mankind is such a vast subject that it seems no one could touch it unless he was like Keats so sensitive . . . that he could have touched pain itself with his hands.” In an interview with Barrie Hough in 1977, prompted by The Guest, Fugard’s film about Eugène Marais, Fugard commented that “one of the major Marais statements was that all living, survival, is grounded on pain. . . . It’s really a theme that has gone through all my work; it’s the string that holds all the beads together to make a necklace.” Fugard has touched pain in his plays, as much as he has touched love and truth. He revels in the palpable, the tangible. In the realities of daily living—sore feet, tired bodies, arthritic hands, mounting stress, and cruel insults—Fugard reminds people that they are the sum of their pain. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but their interdependence is undeniable. Fugard forces us to recognize this interdependence preeminently in The Blood Knot, Boesman and Lena, The Island, A Lesson from Aloes, and “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys, the most representative of his plays, as well as in The Road to Mecca.

The Blood Knot and Boesman and Lena

The two plays that began and ended Fugard’s work in the 1960’s, The Blood Knot and Boesman and Lena, illustrate his talent for full-bodied characterization, as well as his progression toward structural sparseness and multileveled, resonant language. The half brothers of The Blood Knot, bound inextricably in a union of opposites, reveal themselves completely in a long play of seven scenes that builds to a harrowing climax. The Nomadic outcasts and mixed breeds, or “Coloreds,” Boesman and Lena, hover on the edge of life and death in what appears to be a cyclic pattern of eviction, of breaking and making camp, of Boesman’s beating Lena, and of Lena’s manic search for her identity, in two acts that are half as long as The Blood Knot. However, unlike Beckett’s tramps in En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954), whose essence is not to change, Fugard’s characters do change in the course of the play. Superficially, more happens in The Blood Knot’s shanty over a much longer period of time than the one cold evening under the stars of Boesman and Lena, but the latter’s reduction in plot and stage business results in a thematic and symbolic complexity that allows for greater character revelation as well as greater character development.

In both plays, two characters diametrically opposite in temperament and goals explode in words and acts when confined in a small space. Such conflicts are the heart of Fugard’s drama, beginning with The Blood Knot. Morris, the light-skinned brother, suffers from agoraphobia—fear of open spaces—after wandering ten years trying to pass for white, while Zach, the dark-skinned brother, has suffered from claustrophobia ever since Morris returned to minister to him by ordering his life. In his notebook entry on the brothers, Fugard said, “Morris, if anything, hates himself. Zach hates the world that has decided his blackness must be punished. . . . Morris is the better equipped mentally for this last fight—also, weakened by thought and sympathy. Zach has the physical strength and impetus of hate. Zach wins.” The tyrannical alarm clock that regulates the brothers’ lives rings just in time to keep Zach’s violence at bay. When Zach asks Morris for an explanation of why their game of black-white domination has gone awry, Morris responds, “I’ll keep the clock winded, don’t worry. One thing I’m certain is sure, it’s a good thing we got the game. It will pass the time. Because we got a lot left, you know! Almost a whole life . . . stretching ahead. . . . I’m not too worried at all. . . . I mean, other men get by without a future. In fact, I think there’s quite a lot of people getting by without futures these days.”

Condemned at birth to have no future, the brothers reconstructed a brief childhood reprieve in which they took an imaginary, wild, car ride—stopped only by a flock of butterflies—chased donkeys in the veld, climbed trees, teased girls, stole fruit, and caught birds. In contrast, the humor of their adult games is sardonic and menacing, their laughter double-edged. They are two particular South African brothers, yet avatars of Cain and Abel.

Like Morris and Zach, Boesman and Lena are locked in an intimate love-hate relationship as mates—one they have fallen into years before the play opens, and one that Lena chooses to reassert as the play ends, in spite of her open rebellion throughout. Motifs that recall The Blood Knot’s birds, donkeys, and aimless walking recur in the later play, while staccato, contrapuntal speeches are interleaved with poetic monologues in both. Lena’s frenzied songs and dances on the mud flats parallel the brothers’ childhood games, but the violence talked about in The Blood Knot actually happens in Boesman and Lena. Lena’s bruises are real, and the old African whom she befriends dies before dawn. He literally becomes the white man’s refuse that Boesman has said he and Lena are, and because they cannot dispose of him, they must resume walking. Though she threatens to remain behind, Lena prepares to follow Boesman; in response, he tells her the correct sequence of their journeys, which she had so desperately tried to get straight throughout the play—as if that knowledge would explain how she got where she is. “It doesn’t explain anything,” she says, but her parting shot, “I’m alive, Boesman. There’s daylights left in me,” is believable because she has demonstrated repeatedly her will to live.

Suicide is out of the question for Boesman and Lena. As absurd as their existence is, they endure it; they even tried to perpetuate it, but only one of Lena’s babies was born alive, and it lived only six months. In recounting her past to the old African, who cannot understand her language any more than Boesman and Lena can understand his, Lena defines pain: “Pain? Yes! . . . One night it was longer than a small piece of candle and then as big as darkness. Somewhere else a donkey looked at it. . . . Pain is a candle entjie [end] and a donkey’s face.” Such metaphoric language typifies Fugard, as it does Beckett. Moreover, both have been accused of writing plays of despair or bitter comedy. Fugard defends Beckett against such charges, as many critics defend Fugard. Fugard finds Beckett’s humor, combined with his love and compassion for humanity’s “absurd and bruised carnality,” positive and life-affirming; describing Beckett’s humor to his wife, Fugard once said, “Smile, and then wipe the blood off your mouth.” Boesman and Lena is Fugard’s most pessimistic play, in mood and theme, but it is not morbid or maudlin; it is his most profound response to the world as he sees it, a world in which endurance and survival alone may be the only card human beings hold in a stacked deck.

The Island

In The Island, collaborative and improvisational in origin, Fugard experimented with the theories of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, as he did in the unpublished Friday’s Bread on Monday, in 1970, and Orestes, whose 1971 performance is described only in a letter. The Island is a tribute to actors’ theater, but once written, it has stood on its own merits as a strong play for actors other than John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Fugard’s original performers and collaborators. It reads as well as it plays. Unified structurally and centrally focused, it demonstrates Fugard’s mastery of the one-act form. Its companion piece, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, another virtuoso play for actors, comes closer to a stream-of-consciousness novella than to a drama built on the classical unities of time, space, and action that Fugard observes in Boesman and Lena and his three subsequent critical successes. Yet Fugard has always practiced what he calls “actors’ theater.”

As early as 1962, Fugard defined the pure theater experience: “the actor and the stage, the actor on the stage. Around him is space, to be filled and defined by movement and gesture; around him is also a silence to be filled with meaning. . . .” The actor, space, and silence—Fugard continued exploring these dramatic requisites after a reading of Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre (1969) that validated the use of the actor as a creator, not simply as an interpreter. The Island could not have been written without Kani and Ntshona’s experiences as South African blacks or without what they and...

(The entire section is 5029 words.)