Athol Fugard

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Athol Fugard World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2877

The society of South Africa under apartheid was unique; it seems necessary to describe some features of that society before analyzing Fugard’s work. These features include the country’s system, now dismantled in law if not in memory, of classification and separation by race.

South African whites include Afrikaaners, who were descendants of the Dutch settlers, and other Caucasians, most of whom had English backgrounds. In terms of economic status, these people cover a broad spectrum. There are also Indians, some Asians, and those of mixed racial backgrounds, who are called “coloured.” At the bottom of the social scale are the indigenous Africans.

The native Africans were strictly segregated to undesirable living quarters, usually slums on the outskirts of urban areas, frequently at some distance from employment. Furthermore, native Africans had at all times to carry identification cards that specified the most intimate particulars of their lives. Except for the employer-employee relationship, native Africans were supposed to have no contact with whites. For the most part, audiences at sporting events and the theater were either all white or all black. A small percentage of native Africans were literate; however, a few gained enough education to work as scribes, civil servants, actors, or even teachers, but most did heavy manual or menial work.

Finally, the criminal justice system was harsh, inhumane, and corrupt. For example, those in power allowed the roving gangs of African hoodlums, called “tsotsis,” to prey on their own people with impunity, while arresting any nonwhite who failed to present a proper passcard when asked to do so by a policeman.

Fugard’s work deals with all these conditions without (except for My Children! My Africa!) becoming overtly political. He accomplishes this by maintaining an aesthetic distance and by creating characters who, although sometimes symbolic, are always compelling as human beings involved in dramatic conflict.

In Notebooks, 1960-1977, Fugard discusses frankly his admiration for Samuel Beckett’s plays and Albert Camus’s novels, and acknowledges the influence of both men on his work. He asserts also that consciousness is a thin beach, and that the unconscious is the sea where his ideas originate. For example, his traumatic childhood experiences and his love-hate relationship with his alcoholic, crippled father led him to write “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. The guilt he felt when as a young boy he spit in the face of an African became the source for the climax in that play.

An entry from 1963 in Notebooks 1960-1977 explains clearly Fugard’s approach to writing his plays. He notices a young man aimlessly loitering near a bar in a white slum, Valley Road. His drunkenness suggests his need to shut out reality, so the playwright creates that reality. He gives him a name, Johnnie Smit; he visualizes the two rooms of the shack where Johnnie cares for his blind, crippled father; and he brings in Johnnie’s sister, Hester, who has returned home after an absence of fifteen years.

Tired of her life as a prostitute, Hester has a single aim: to claim her share of the compensation money paid her father by the South African Railways after his accident. She believes the cash is hidden in some boxes in the old man’s room, and she forces Johnnie to lug out box after box, which she rummages through, strewing their worthless contents around with mounting frustration, as her brother warns her not to awaken the invalid in the next room.

Some of the items in the boxes, such as her dead mother’s clothes, birth and wedding certificates, old photographs, and a box of men’s shoes—left ones only—bring back memories of a bleak childhood with many family fights and little cash.

While Hester is searching the boxes, Johnnie is trying out his father’s crutches. Finally the last box is opened, and as Hester threatens to confront their father, Johnnie must tell her the truth. Johannes Cornelius Smit has died and there is no money.

At this point the furious Hester beats her unresisting brother to the floor, where he remains as she leaves to return to her life as “a woman in a room.” After her exit, Johnnie crawls to the crutches, stands on them, and assumes the persona of his father. The play is given the title Hello and Goodbye.

This play is very representative of Fugard’s style. All of his plays have only two or three characters; they are all set in South Africa and played out against the backdrop of that society; the dialogue is crisp and realistic, if occasionally somewhat poetic; and his characters are all three-dimensional, neither heroes nor villains, but frequently victims.

One of Fugard’s best plays, Boesman and Lena, ran for a year in New York and received rave reviews. The coloured characters frequently speak Afrikaans, so a three-page glossary is a requirement. With talented actors, such as James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, who first played the roles, there was no need for translation.

Boesman and Lena is the story of a nomadic coloured couple who have been together for many years. Time after time their makeshift shelter has been destroyed; they compare themselves to human rubbish—an apt description. Boesman takes out his disgust with life by abusing Lena; she defies him by inviting an old black to share their fire and food. All she wants is someone to talk to, even though the old African can only understand and repeat one word—Lena. When they realize that the black has died, Boesman starts to pack up. Were the authorities to find them with a dead man, there might be questions. Lena thinks she will not go this time, but the sight of Boesman trying to carry all of their poor possessions alone moves her, and she follows him into the darkness, carrying her share of the “white man’s junk.”

There is frequently physical violence in Fugard’s plays. Characters become frustrated and misdirect their aggression, exploding, taking out their feelings on other, weaker victims. For example, in the one play which is openly political, My Children! My Africa!, Mr. M., the protagonist, is an older black teacher, who preaches peaceful coexistence with the ruling white society. A mob of young students, furious with this approach, consider Mr. M. a traitor to their cause and kill him. The play is meant to illustrate the desperation that can so easily lead to violence. The play’s somewhat didactic approach is less effective than most of Fugard’s work, which makes the point more subtly.

The Blood Knot

First produced: 1961 (first published, 1963)

Type of work: Play

Two colored half brothers, one very light, the other very dark, realize their inextricable connection.

This play, first produced in Johannesburg, may be considered seminal in that it defines clearly the society of South Africa under apartheid, a society that Fugard loathed.

Morris, who can pass for white, and his half brother, Zachariah, most definitely an African, share a one-room shack in the nonwhite slum of Korsten, near Port Elizabeth.

Zachariah is completely illiterate and a little slow-witted, but he has a menial job as a gatekeeper. Morris acts as homemaker—cleaning their room, cooking the meals, mending Zachariah’s clothing, and preparing nightly footbaths for his brother.

In the year they have been together Morris has saved part of Zach’s pay each week with the goal of accumulating enough cash to buy a small farm far from the area so that they can live as independent human beings.

Zachariah, however, is more interested in the present than the future. He remembers a friend who used to help him squander each week’s pay on wine and women, and he is quite resentful of his brother’s somewhat puritanical attitude.

To placate Zachariah, Morris suggests a pen pal, to be found in a newspaper listing women interested in this kind of activity. Not entirely convinced that this will take the place of “having a woman,” Zach finally chooses Ethel Lange, and dictates a letter to Morris. She replies, enclosing a picture of herself that brings Morris to his senses. Zachariah has brought home a white newspaper, and has corresponded with a white woman whose brother is a policeman. She also writes that she will be coming to their area in June, and Morris panics. He wants to burn all the letters and forget the whole thing, but Zachariah convinces him to meet Ethel, passing as a white man, and insists on using all the money they have saved to buy the appropriate clothing for the occasion. The next letter from Ethel is a farewell note; she is being married and her fiancé does not want her to continue the pen pal correspondence.

This plot is the skeleton that Fugard fleshes out. Fugard emphasizes the blood knot that has brought Morris back to his half brother after years of separation. They remember having the same mother; they recall fleeting glimpses of early childhood when the light-skinned child was favored over his brother; they act out an imaginary scene in which Morris, dressed in the white man’s finery, mistreats the African gatekeeper. They even pretend to chase away an old black woman, who represents both their birth mother and Mother Africa.

Throughout their playacting they vent their frustrations. Morris intimates that he has tried to “pass” but failed; Zachariah shows his deep-seated envy of Morris. At one time, after Morris has gone through the imaginary gate, it is “locked,” and when he cannot “escape,” the two men almost come to blows. In the end, Morris winds up his old alarm clock, the one he has used throughout the play to remind him of tasks such as fixing Zachariah’s footbath, preparing supper, or going to sleep. Morris says: “You see, we’re tied together, Zach. It’s what they call the blood knot . . . the bond between brothers.”

The Road to Mecca

First produced: 1984 (first published, 1985)

Type of work: Play

An elderly recluse thwarts the attempts of her Calvinist neighbors to send her to an old people’s home.

This play is based on the facts of the life and work of Helen Martins of New Bethseda, South Africa. In Fugard’s foreword he describes the isolated bleakness of the area, which is offset by Mrs. Martins, who has filled her yard with heathen statues and sculptures, all facing toward Mecca.

Helen receives an unexpected visit from her much younger friend, Elsa Barlow, who has driven eight hundred miles from Cape Town in response to a letter that seemed to her a cry for help. Helen’s depression has two causes: First, she realizes that her age is catching up with her, and second, she resents the pressure she feels to leave her Mecca and go into an old people’s home.

A third character, the Calvinist pastor, Marius Byleveld, comes to Helen’s house, expecting that she has decided to sign the form that will finalize her move to the old people’s home; however, she resists and decides to continue living as she has.

Elsa has some serious problems of her own, which she does not reveal until the end of the play. She speaks only of the African woman carrying a baby to whom she had given a lift, food, and money, a woman she left trudging patiently to some unknown destination. The stage setting for this play is pivotal to understanding the theme. Helen’s house is described as “an extraordinary room . . . the walls—mirrors on all of them—are all of different colors, while on the ceiling and floor are solid, multicolored geometric patterns . . . the final effect is not bizarre but rather one of light and extravagant fantasy.”

Since the death of her husband fifteen years before, Helen has been creating art and repudiating the “Christian values” of the village, causing both fear and resentment among her neighbors. As a representative of the narrow-minded villagers, Pastor Byleveld argues with Elsa, bringing out the theme of the play, which is conflict between the paternalistic Calvinist doctrine of the town and the somewhat hedonistic attitude held by both Elsa and Helen.

In her final attempt to explain her self-created “Mecca” to Byleveld, Helen reveals her need for freedom, her desire for light, her intense pleasure in her creations. She instructs Elsa to light all the candles, and in prose bordering on poetry she describes the ecstasy she feels when the darkness has been vanquished. She then returns the unsigned form to the pastor, who leaves, but not before revealing his repressed feelings for Helen when he says: “There is more light in you than in all your candles put together.”

At this point Elsa tells Helen the significance of the African woman and her baby. After Elsa’s lover chose to return to his estranged wife rather than face divorce, Elsa had an abortion. The sight of the indigent black woman walking, her infant on her back, down the road where there would be no Mecca had simply overwhelmed her. Only now, with Helen’s encouragement, can she cry.

At the end of the play, after Helen’s admission that she has completed her Mecca and must now learn to blow out the candles, Elsa gives her tea laced with Valium. The two women joke about “artificial sweeteners,” which may signify Helen’s suicide. The actual Mrs. Martins died in this way.

“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys

First produced: 1982 (first published, 1982)

Type of work: Play

A young high school boy makes some important discoveries about himself and his life.

As the play opens on a rainy afternoon in the St. George’s Park Tea Room, two black waiters, Sam and Willie, are cleaning up while discussing a forthcoming dance contest that they plan to enter. Willie is having some difficulty mastering certain steps; Sam, the more expert dancer, is instructing him. There is a light mood of camaraderie between them, as the third character, a seventeen-year-old white boy, Hally, enters.

This is his mother’s tearoom, and it is quickly established that Hally has known these two men since he was a young child, when they were servants in his parents’ boarding house. The relationship, especially with Sam, involves some easy bantering about those bygone days with Hally hiding in Sam’s room, cooperation on homework assignments, and an essay that Hally must write describing a cultural event. What is bothering Hally at the moment, however, is his family situation.

His crippled, alcoholic father has been in the hospital, and when his mother telephones the tearoom, Hally tries unsuccessfully to persuade her to leave him there. She refuses, and when the boy realizes that life with his father at home will resume that very night, he is furious and vents his anger and hatred with some violence. Sam tries to stem Hally’s vitriolic outpouring, but he succeeds only in diverting the boy’s wrath to himself. This culminates in Hally asserting his position as “Master Harold” and finally spitting in Sam’s face. At first, Sam’s reaction is great anger, but that quickly subsides as Willie reminds him that Hally is “just a child.”

In their reminiscences, Sam and Willie speak of a kite that Sam made for Hally, one made of tomato-box wood and brown paper, using flour and water for glue and old stockings for the tail, with scraps of string tied together so the boy could hold it. Hally had hoped no classmates would be up on the hill; he was sure that his kite would not fly—but it did. It flew high, dipped, and flew even higher. Then Sam left Hally because “he had work to do.”

After Hally’s hateful act against his friend, Sam tells him why he had made the kite. It was meant to comfort the child who had been publicly humiliated as he went home from the hotel bar, carrying his father’s crutches, and trailing after the big black man who carried the unconscious drunk on his back. Sam also explains that he could not sit with Hally to fly the kite because the bench had been marked: “whites only.” A resumption of the relationship between Sam and Hally seems impossible. Still, Sam talks of making and flying another kite and of Hally’s realizing that he need not sit on the bench alone. The boy leaves, and the play ends with Sam tutoring Willie in his dance steps.

There is a parallel between this play and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In that novel Jim, a black man, acts as Huck’s surrogate father; in the play Sam assumes the same role. Hally and Huck have alcoholic fathers who behave without concern for their sons; both children have ambiguous feelings toward the natural parent. Both also finally perceive the nature of unselfish love.

This play is possibly the most autobiographical of all Fugard’s work. His mother’s tearoom, his crippled, alcoholic father, and the experience of spitting in a black man’s face are all factual. With consummate skill the playwright dramatically weaves these strands into a powerful text that successfully illuminates both the South African experience and emotions common to all audiences.

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