Athol Fugard

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Athol Fugard Drama Analysis

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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...

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1977, prompted byThe 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 Fugard knew of the Serpent Players, who had been sent to Robben Island, South Africa’s hard-labor, maximum-security prison primarily as political prisoners; some returned to tell their stories. (Kani and Ntshona were never imprisoned on Robben Island, though they were arrested in 1976 before a performance of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and imprisoned briefly until an international actors’ protest secured their release.) Fugard credits Grotowski with giving him the courage to “write directly into . . . space and silence via the actor,” using the basic device of “challenge and response”; he also credits Brian Astbury, the founder of The Space in Cape Town, for his “vision and tenacity of purpose” in providing the venue for the “Statements” plays.

The Island, like The Blood Knot and Boesman and Lena, features two characters who are polar opposites in every sense. John and Winston (both the actors’ actual names and the names of the characters) wrestle with fundamental questions of identity and purpose. The play opens and closes with the two convicts miming the futile labor of putting sand into wheelbarrows, pushing a barrow to where the other has been digging, and emptying the sand into that hole; the piles of sand therefore remain the same. A whistle blows, and the prisoners mime being handcuffed together and shackled at the ankles before the whistle blows again to send them off on a torturous three-legged run. They do not run fast enough to avoid being beaten. Bruised and bleeding, they collapse in their cell before uttering a word. After they nurse their wounds and curse their sadistic warder, John gives a news broadcast and weather report: “Black domination was chased by White domination. . . . Conditions locally remain unchanged—thunderstorms with the possibility of cold showers and rain. Elsewhere, fine and warm!” Soon, John begins to rehearse Antigone for a prison show. Winston does not want to play a woman, and his reluctance to appear as such is comic until the very end, when his identification with Antigone becomes complete. Condemned to life in prison, he faces the audience and cries, “Brothers and Sisters of the Land! I go now to my last journey”; he tears off his wig and confronts them with, “I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs.” (John had been sentenced for burning his passbook in front of a police station.)

The Island is more, however, than an anguished cry of defiance. Like all of Fugard’s plays, it focuses on close human relationships; John and Winston are linked in a bond almost as indissoluble as that of Morris and Zach or Boesman and Lena—almost, because midway through the play, John discovers that he will be free in three months, while Winston must remain for life. Before receiving that news, they talked on an imaginary telephone to their friends in New Brighton, another funny game of the many that Fugard’s characters play; after John’s news, Winston re-creates John’s release and welcome home. Ultimately, Winston recovers from his agony and, like Antigone, comes to terms with his fate. The Island is as compelling as Fugard’s earlier plays because, once again, its particulars are transcended in a work of universal significance, a study of humanity’s inhumanity to humanity and people’s capacity to endure entrapment through a joy in embracing ideals—regardless of their consequences.

A Lesson from Aloes

In A Lesson from Aloes, isolation, neurosis, and exile are the cost that Fugard’s characters must pay for their fidelity to the ideals of love and friendship; there is little laughter here. The three characters are Fugard’s first attempt to portray his own kind: literate, well-meaning South Africans caught in their government’s crackdown on dissent in 1963, which led many to flee the country. Every Fugard play can be seen as an exploration of the effects of public policy on individual lives, but A Lesson from Aloes is Fugard’s most quietly anguished portrait of this phenomenon.

Aloes are thorny, spiky, succulents that survive without much water in very harsh environments. Piet Bezuidenhout, a middle-aged Afrikaner, once an active member of an antiapartheid group that was silenced by the police, grows aloes in his back garden. Identifying them by name is his chief pleasure, other than reciting English poetry. Piet’s English-speaking wife, back home after a stay in the Fort English mental home, and his “colored” friend and former comrade, Steve Daniels—preparing to leave South Africa on a one-way exit permit and just out of jail for breaking his banning order—are the other characters in this subtle but searing study of personal desolation. All three characters have internalized the shocks their world has given them.

The first act opens with Piet trying to identify a rare aloe; this leads to a revelation of the bitterness that mars his relationship with Gladys. For her part, Gladys cannot forget the police seizure of her personal diaries during a raid prompted by Piet’s political involvement; Piet broodingly wonders why his old friends suspect him of being an informer. Tension builds as Piet and Gladys await the arrival of the Daniels’ family for a farewell celebration. When Steve does arrive, in the second act—without his family and a bit drunk—the party fails miserably. Playing a very nasty game, Gladys tells Steve that Piet had informed on him, but then she withdraws the charge. Piet refuses, however, to say anything: “Hell, Steve, you know why. If you could have believed it, there was no point in denying it.” Apparently reconciled with Piet, Steve leaves. Gladys decides to return to the hospital, and Piet is left alone with his unidentified aloe. In spite of its explicit title and insistent metaphor, A Lesson from Aloes is not didactic. There are no clear-cut answers and few, if any, happy endings in Fugard’s plays. Like Piet, Fugard cultivates a private garden with unidentifiable species.

“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys

In “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys, Fugard returned to the humor associated with his earlier plays to underscore the point that personal choice and action define a life worth living. Set still further back in Fugard’s past than A Lesson from Aloes, and his most autobiographical play, “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys takes place in a Port Elizabeth tearoom one rainy afternoon in 1950. A long one-act play—too long perhaps—it opens with two black waiters, Sam and Willie, joking and practicing ballroom dancing for a contest two weeks away. Both men will compete if Willie can appease the partner whom he has recently beaten for not getting the quickstep right. Sam hits on an ingenious solution for Willie’s future practice sessions: “Give her a handicap. . . . Give her a ten-second start and then let Count Basie go. Then I put my money on her. Hot favorite in the Ballroom Stakes: Hilda Samuels ridden by Willie Malopo.” As Sam demonstrates his superior skills, Hally, the teenage son of the tearoom owner, enters and applauds. Hally’s long friendship with the waiters—especially with Sam—is soon apparent, but Hally is tense because of his father’s imminent release from the hospital. Hally loves but is ashamed of his crippled, bigoted, alcoholic father and looks to Sam as a role model instead. Fugard lovingly re-creates Hally’s camaraderie with the waiters; he focuses particularly on a kite that Sam made for Hally from scrap materials—a kite that miraculously flew. Nevertheless, Hally’s “second family” cannot stand up against the demons of his first. These malign forces are unleashed in the play’s climax, when Hally insists that the “boys” call him “Master Harold,” tells them a crude racial joke, and, when Sam responds, spits in his face. Sam almost literally turns the other cheek, but Hally is too wracked with guilt to apologize. He leaves, and the curtain falls on the two waiters dancing once again—after Willie has used what was to be his bus fare home to start up the jukebox.

A play about growing up and the real meaning of family as much as it is about racism, “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys is at once exhilarating, sobering, exuberant, and wrenching. Like all of Fugard’s plays, it relies on resonant language; here, the governing metaphor is that of life as a ballroom dance, which leads Sam to dream of a world without accidents or collisions if people and nations can only get the steps right. The game that Hally and Sam play to identify “men of magnitude” who have benefited all humankind leads to some provocative choices by Hally— Charles Darwin, Leo Tolstoy, Socrates, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche among others; Sam’s choices are Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, Jesus Christ, and Sir Alexander Fleming. Sam’s poor-looking kite becomes the most splendid thing Hally has ever seen aloft, and the bench to which Sam ties it when he has to return to work becomes the “Whites Only” bench of Sam’s final words to Hally: “If you’re not careful . . . Master Harold . . . you’re going to be sitting up there by yourself for a long time to come, and there won’t be a kite up in the sky. . . . I reckon there’s one thing you know. You don’t have to sit up there by yourself. You know what that bench means now, and you can leave it any time you choose. All you’ve got to do is stand up and walk away from it.” Avoiding sentimentality in a play that revels in sentiment is Fugard’s rare achievement here; “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys is a masterwork from a master craftsperson.

The Road to Mecca

Fugard’s experiments as a dramatist have been within the confines of social naturalism or realism. His modes are representational rather than expressionist or surreal; his plots are convincing; his language is often poetic but rarely abstruse, colloquial but rarely vulgar. In short, Fugard is not an innovator but a conservator: He emulates the best of his predecessors, but he translates their voices and techniques into his own uniquely South African vision. Over the years—a quarter of a century—he has become inimitable, and no more so than in The Road to Mecca. A three-character play, like “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys, The Road to Mecca is one of Fugard’s most daring experiments.

The play is set in the autumn of 1974, and all three of its characters are white: two proud Afrikaners who live in New Bethesda (a village in the Great Karoo) and an equally proud young English-speaking schoolteacher from Cape Town. The plot is essentially uncomplicated. The young woman, Elsa Barlow, drives eight hundred miles for an overnight visit with her old friend, Miss Helen—a reclusive sculptor whom the local pastor, Marius Byleveld, wants to put in a nursing home for her own security. In the first act, the two women slowly reestablish their long-standing friendship, but Marius arrives at the opening of the second act and begins to undermine Miss Helen’s confidence in her ability to cope and to create. Elsa briefly adopts Marius’s point of view when he tells her that Miss Helen almost set her house on fire earlier. Finally, in a moving reverie about the purpose of her Mecca, Miss Helen becomes courageous enough to dismiss Marius and assert her right to live with the danger of her creative impulses. Disheartened by his failure to convert Helen—and to make her love him—Marius leaves. The play ends with the women trusting each other once again.

Although this plot is fairly conventional, Fugard’s choice of characters, the importance of the set, and the focus on the self-realization of the artist mark this play as a genuine advance for Fugard, a widening of his range. Although women and their concerns crop up obliquely in other Fugard plays—especially in People Are Living There and Boesman and LenaThe Road to Mecca is Fugard’s first attempt to fill space with two women talking, arguing, and nurturing each other. It is also the first time Fugard has dramatized the necessary isolation of the artist. Fugard’s epigraph for The Road to Mecca is an Emily Dickinson poem: “The soul selects her own society/ Then shuts the door./ On her divine majority/ Obtrude no more.” An extended metaphor for the artist’s vision—its genesis and its consequences—The Road to Mecca may also be read as a parable about pain, the pain of loving and not being loved. Apartheid is only the subtext of the play, but Fugard’s initial title was “My English Name Is Patience.” These are the words of the young, barefoot Afrikaner woman whom Elsa befriends en route to Helen’s house. This absent character pervades The Road to Mecca from beginning to end—like so many of Fugard’s striking offstage presences, whose silences become virtually audible. What all of these silent characters share is a need for love.

Near the end of The Road to Mecca, candles flicker in mirrors and cast light on the walls—a stunning witness to Fugard’s belief that the “candle burns brighter because the night is dark” and an answer to his question, “Would the making of meaning be so moving without the eternal threat of chaos and nothingness?” Miss Helen’s laboriously crafted garden of statues—all manner of animals, camels, wise men, mermaids, and earth goddesses pointing East—did exist, at the home of the real Helen, Helen Niemand, in New Bethesda, South Africa. Created over a remarkable twenty years of Helen’s life, from age fifty to seventy, by a small, slight woman using broken bits of glass and hand-mixed cement, the statues are mute witnesses to her courage, integrity, and imagination. Thought mad by her myopic neighbors, she persevered alone. In her life and work, Fugard found the perfect fusion of symbol and referent, fiction and fact. All artists try to give meaning to matter, form to the formless, but only rarely does an artist give meaning to beauty, truth, love, and trust in so magical a form as The Road to Mecca.


The first play Fugard wrote after the fall of apartheid takes place one month before the fall. Ironically titled, Playland concerns a dramatic encounter between a black night watchman (Martinus) and a white South African (Gideon) at an itinerant carnival on New Years Eve, 1989. Gideon’s drunken bragging about killing blacks in a border war motivates Martinus’s confession to killing a white man who was trying to rape a servant, Martinus’s fiancé.

The difficulty of forgiveness is a major theme in Playland. Lurking beneath their stunning confessions are two angry, guilt-ridden characters both on the verge of violence and in search of expiation for their sins. In fact, Gideon’s fear and self-loathing almost provoke Martinus into retributive violence against him, culminating in Gideon’s exhortation, “Forgive me or kill me.” Also Martinus’s search to exorcise his own guilt is magnified because he would have to forgive the rapist that he killed as well as himself. The playland itself is an ironic symbol not of “play” but of escape from reality and denial of truth. Also the nonworking carnival ride, flickering lights, and Gideon’s broken car are all emblems of national disrepair. Like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to follow, Gideon and Martinus are microcosmic representations of two factions of a country that must listen to each other, rage, forgive, and choose to work together for the good of all, a reflection of Fugard’s optimism about his new country’s future.

My Life

My Life, Fugard’s next work, is more a performance piece than a scripted play. Fugard chose diary entries from five different South African young women and wove the threads into performance art. His intent was to share the varied and similar hopes, dreams, and perceptions of the younger generation. My Life celebrates racial diversity, uniformity of visions, and South Africa’s future.

Valley Song

Another play that blurs color lines is Valley Song. Here the main character is the Author, who speaks directly to the audience; even more unusual is that Fugard stipulates in the printed script that the same actor who plays the Author also play the role of a black farmer, Abraam Jonkers. This positive, forward-thinking play celebrates the limitless possibilities for South Africa’s youth. For Valley Song, Fugard returns to the setting of The Road to Mecca, the fertile valley of the Karoo, which is ripe for the rebirth of a country and its peoples. In Valley Song, the classic generation gap is typified by seventeen-year-old Veronica’s dreams of leaving the rural area for the big city while her seventy-year-old oupa (grandfather) is afraid of youthful rebellion and wants Veronica to continue to stay with him. The image of pumpkin seeds permeates the play—the celebration of nurtured growth. The play ends happily on a note of salvation, survival, and harmony.

The Captain’s Tiger

In The Captain’s Tiger, the young writer protagonist is running from a miserable childhood, trying to find his authorial voice while heading from Africa to Japan on a tramp steamer in 1952. The young author deals with his conflicted feelings for his mother by striving, in vain, to rewrite his mother’s painful life into the happier life she should have had. The Captain’s Tiger revealed a new post-apartheid Fugard who clearly feels free to explore more personal issues.

Sorrows and Rejoicings

The Off-Broadway production of Fugard’s Sorrows and Rejoicings opened in February, 2002. When the play begins, South African writer Dawid Olivier is already dead. In flashback we discover that Dawid had chosen the creative suicide of political exile to England when threatened with jail for his activist views. Present at the funeral are Dawid’s white British wife and angry eighteen-year-old daughter, his black former lover, and his own spirit. Fugard has said of this aptly titled play, “It is both a sorrowing for the pain of my country and the rejoicings of what it is becoming.”


Athol Fugard World Literature Analysis