Athol Fugard Fugard, Athol (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fugard, Athol 1932–

Fugard is a South African dramatist. His plays feature a small cast of characters whose minds he probes. Although Fugard depicts lives of desolation and ennui, he is most concerned with apartheid and its consequences. He collaborated with John Kani and Winston Ntshona on three of his most recent works, The Island, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, and Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Mary Benson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"My job," Athol Fugard has said, "is to witness as truthfully as I can the nameless and destitute of one little corner of the world." Packed into those words is a loving, fierce, unremitting confrontation with the outrageousness of the existence of the nameless many who inhabit that corner: the Eastern Cape region of South Africa…. The characters in his plays reverberate with life…. Poverty, pain, dumb dreams are their lot yet—battered, bruised, with their violence and mockery directed against each other—they are alive. Forced to face the facts of their wretchedness, outraged they yet survive. And because Fugard writes as close as he can get to the bone—"meat is something that must rot or be cut away before the hard white truth is exposed"—essentially local characters from the littered slums around the industrial center of Port Elizabeth become universal; his language, often stemming from crude Afrikaner earthiness, is harsh, lyrical, comic. (p. 55)

He formulated the 'pure theatre experience' back in 1961: "The actor and the stage, the actor on the stage. Around him is space, to be filled and defined by movement; around him is also a silence to be filled with meaning, using words and sounds, and at moments when all else fails him, including my words, the silence itself." Now he adds that "this means an existentialist standpoint in theatre: space and silence equals nothingness; the actor's confrontation with our being and...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[It was during a period in Europe in 1960 that] I began to keep a notebook. It became a daily ritual to record anything that happened to me which seemed of significance—sensual fragments, incidents, quotations, speculations. Writing now, I find in them the content of all that I can possibly say about my work. (p. viii)

I began working seriously on Hello and Goodbye towards the end of 1963. My notebooks have [an] extensive record of both the genesis of this play and my problems in writing it.


From time to time I keep remembering, and still see occasionally on the streets, one face from my youth. That of a man who, for as long as I can remember, could be seen at night standing motionless against the wall on the corner of Jetty and Main Streets. Large unsmiling eyes, heavy lids. Bitter mouth. Must have seen him a hundred times, yet I have no recollection of any expression other than this one of morbid withdrawal. (p. xii)


Last night before sleep found myself thinking about Johnnie—the local street-corner derelict I made a few notes about some months back. I remembered a thought I had about a sister and suddenly I saw very clearly the germinal situation of a play. (p. xiii)


Almost certain now that the next play is going to be about Johnnie and Hester Smit. Central images becoming increasingly obsessional. How many themes does a writer really have? How few can he have? This play—the idea is in one sense a fusion of elements in The Blood Knot and People Are Living There. If I can realize my intentions though, it should be closer to the former in style and structure—tense and tight. Main problem remains whether to have only two characters, or whether the father should also be seen.


Certain now that there will only be two characters—Johnnie and Hester. At one level this worries me a little because it means the inevitable comparison with The Blood Knot. Once I get past this fear though and concern myself only with what is real, it seems so pointless to even consider 'adding' another character. In Hester and Johnnie I find a complete expression of the complex of ideas and images that have generated this play. (p. xiv)


Thinking and making notes almost continuously now about the Valley play. Difficulty in the mechanics of the climax, when Hester 'loses hope' and 'learns she must die'. Suspicious of what I feel is a stock pattern or formula in my resolution of the climactic moment, i.e. growing desperation, leading to emotional crisis, leading to the leap.

Thinking about it for a moment I realize that I am wrong to see this as a formula common to all my other plays. The Blood Knot doesn't have it. Far from leaping, Morrie and Zach wake up heavy and hopeless, almost prostrate on the earth.

Yes, that is it! What I am searching for in the new play is the moment when Hester 'wakes up'. Three experiences: Loss of hope, knowledge of death, and finally the only certainty, the flesh … 'truths the hand can touch'.

What could be more obvious than that I should be drawn to, overwhelmed by Camus. Wasn't I trying to do that to Morrie and Zach at the end of The Blood Knot—two men who were going to try to live without hope, without appeal. In effect Morrie is trying to say, in that final beat of the play: Now we Know. (pp. xiv-xv)


Hester gives me a chance for the ruthless honesty I so admire in Faulkner. Also Camus' 'Courageous Pessimism'. Isn't Hester the closest I've yet come to the bone? Even in Milly (People Are Living There) there is still too much 'meat'—something that must rot or be cut away before the hard, white truth is exposed. (p....

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Richard Eder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Athol Fugard's plays about the knife-edge life of blacks and coloreds in South Africa furnish some of the strongest and most moving stage literature being written in the English language.

"The Island," "Boesman and Lena," and "Sizwe Banzi" bob their human cockleshells just upstream from a giant whirlpool. The jaunty resilience of their characters has a tragic significance in the face of the racial and social rigors that will crush them.

These works are masterpieces, but Mr. Fugard, like any playwright, had to learn his trade…. ["Nongogo"] has some interest, but the main part of that may lie in the demonstration that a large talent can stumble quite a lot before it finds its way.

"Nongogo" … has found its theme: fearsome surroundings breed hope, and then destroy it. But the play is awkward and thin. It is unable to communicate very much about its characters, or make them much more than the servants of a noticeably ticking plot.

"Nongogo" means prostitute, and that was Queenie's trade before she set up her shabeen, or unlicensed bar, in one of Johannesburg's black shanty towns….

Queenie and Johnny are both vulnerable through their past. Johnny has spent a year in a mining camp where he was abused sexually. When Sam drops hints about Queenie's previous career, and she confirms them, Johnny is shattered. Their venture collapses. He is determined to pull himself...

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Edith Oliver

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If ever there was a born dramatist, it is the South African Athol Fugard…. ["Nongogo"], one of his earliest, was written and performed in South Africa in the late fifties…. Mr. Fugard appears to have found his subject and, to a large extent, his talent immediately. Himself a white man, he has written play after play about the various races—singly and in combination—imprisoned in his racist country, but in doing so he has never stooped to propaganda or case history….

The small touches in the play and the excitement they generate—the whipping of the bright cloths on and off the table, for example—more than make up for its occasional awkwardness. If the plot seems melodramatic and arbitrary, and its hopeless ending forced, it is because the playwright has not yet learned to conceal his hand, but he has learned—or is on his way to learning—everything else of importance. The characters, their feelings, and the lines they speak (when the lines are not too openly expository) are admirably done, and there is enough suspense and wonder to keep things on the boil.

Edith Oliver, "The Theatre: 'Nongogo'," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIV, No. 43, December 11, 1978, p. 57.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fugard has not only become South Africa's leading dramatist, he has also, as much as any man, made the world conscious of the horrors of apartheid. But good as some of Fugard's later work is, this piece of juvenilia [Nongogo] is creaky, predictable, unconvincingly simplistic, and afflicted with a particularly awkward dramatic failing: overacceleration…. As in ancient newsreels, where people seem to move in a funny little quickstep, the plot skips ahead from expected twist to unsurprising reversal. What, in more experienced hands, could have had the measured pace of the inevitable, displays only the tugging of a nervous puppeteer. (pp. 88, 90)

John Simon, "Futile Fandango," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1978 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 11, No. 51, December 18, 1978, pp. 88, 90.∗

Terry Curtis Fox

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Athol Fugard is a political tragedian, a very rare kind of writer indeed. His characters—sometimes consciously, more often not—revolt against the social order, but they are neither beaten back by it nor do they defeat it. They destroy each other instead. The idea of personal growth, of change, of effective individual action is banished by the very nature of South Africa. Fugard does not cry for the beloved country—he describes with painful detail a nation in which daily activities are turned into recurrent horrors by constant oppression.

Fugard wrote Nongogo 20 years ago, but the play's themes remain current in his work. This is not a failure of the writer to evolve, but the continued presence of apartheid. It is one thing to tell a story of personal distruction. It is another to have to tell it over and over and over again, because the world of oppression never lightens. Then the outcome of all human intercourse becomes tragic. Nothing in any one of Fugard's plays is nearly so horrific as the fact that he has been writing about the same thing for over a generation. What is astonishing is that Fugard can continue to write at all. (p. 126)

Terry Curtis Fox, "20 Years Ago Is Now," in The Village Voice (copyright © 1978; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIII, No. 51, December 18, 1978, pp. 126, 128.∗