Athol Fugard

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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

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"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 nothingness." (p. 57)

[No Good Friday and Nongogo, "The Family" trilogy, and People Are Living There are all plays] about survival—his favorite word. And in each play through a faceless catalyst the characters are precipitated into a confrontation with the facts of their lives, a sense of the here and now; This is my life. It is from the confrontation that outrage springs. Why this faceless character; Fugard says he doesn't fully understand, yet. (p. 58)

After Boesman and Lena, Fugard felt he was about to take a leap. This proved to be [Orestes]…. Some years ago he became impatient with the sequential logic of his play; music, poetry, painting had broken from such rigidity…. [He] continued to ask himself how he could escape. Meanwhile the writings of R. D. Laing led him to "a more direct access to inner space."… He fused a statement of the murder of Iphigenia by Clytemnestra and Orestes' revenge, with the act of protest of John Harris who, in 1964, placed a suitcase containing a bomb beside a bench in Johannesburg station concourse: a woman sitting on the bench was killed. Fugard, describing himself as "scribe"—"this was not being pretentious but accurate"—took the writer into the rehearsal room to be on a par with the actors…. He formed the mandate, fed challenges to them and, out of their responses, their own inner sources and identities, he shaped the play. Orestes, he emphasizes, did not come out of a vacuum; it tapped an energy in that society. (pp. 59-60)

Mary Benson, "Athol Fugard and 'One Little Corner of the World'," in yale/theatre (copyright © by Theater, formerly yale/theatre 1973), Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 55-63.


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[It was during a period in Europe...

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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. xv)


Strong sense of Hester's moral anarchy. Have abandoned the idea of Hester forgetting about the money while she searches through the boxes for something specific and special from her childhood, and which when found will trigger off a cathartic reliving of a moment in her youth. Instead, she still forgets the compensation from time to time, but is searching for something she herself cannot identify.

What does Hester want? To begin with, the compensation. But only to begin with, because she walks into that room unconscious of her life; 'in it' as she says at the end. But one level of her experience with the boxes and all that comes out of them is a growing alienation, a removal from her characteristic intense 'being myself'. At this level she is searching for something that will counter the absurdity spilling out of the boxes. (pp. xv-xvi)


Important step forward yesterday. Plotted the sequence that takes the play through to the last box and Hester's climax on discovering that the next room is empty, that her father is dead. Two major gains in my rough outline of the play. First, and specifically, I see the way to a full and complete expression of the absurdity that overwhelms Hester ('There is no God!'). Secondly, and more generally, I see a pattern, not just a plot, a chance to weave together all that Johnnie and Hester mean separately—the 'simultaneous' moment with all its complexity in design and depth that I achieved unconsciously in The Blood Knot and was not able to repeat in People Are Living There.


A question I cannot fully answer. (Yet? Ever?) What is it that draws Johnnie to the crutches? Any number of 'little' answers. Tantalized by the thought that there is one 'final' answer that still eludes my thinking? Do I need to know it? Because I feel the absolute reality of his fascination with his father's crutches, I see him so clearly drawing closer and closer to the moment when he goes onto them permanently.


To master the idiom—thought and speech—of a character. The problem is never 'what' Hester and Johnnie think, but 'how' they think it. A constant challenge in all the plays. (p. xvi)

[Concerning the play Boesman and Lena, the notebook includes the following entries.]


An essay on the translation of poetry—form and content of one language as opposed to another (English and Afrikaans here in S.A.)—prompts the thought that an important element in my own writing is this question of 'translating' from Afrikaans to English. Particularly conscious of it this time with Boesman and Lena. To begin with so much of it was in Afrikaans—some phrases are still and seem to defy translation into an English equivalent that will have the same texture or feel, e.g. nog 'n vrot ou huisie vir die vrot mens…. (pp. xix-xx)


First act down in the roughest of rough drafts, skeleton for the second. More difficulty than I expected in finding the substance to this man-woman relationship. Struggling for objectivity and distance. For example: Boesman's hatred and abuse of Lena. Easy enough to formulate this as an 'idea' but a struggle to reveal the full carnal reality of it in incident and dialogue.

Unrelieved squalor of their situation demands that I write this one very carefully…. Realised that the genesis of this play lies possibly in an image from over ten years ago—Coloured man and woman, burdened with all their belongings, whom I passed somewhere on the road near Laingsburg. It was sunset and they were miles from the nearest town. (p. xx)


To be careful that I do not pitch Boesman at a level of monotonous hatred and abuse. Not just the technical problem of variety of tone and tempo—the more basic issue that it is not as simple as Lena being the victim and Boesman the oppressor. Both are ultimately victims of a common, a shared predicament, and of each other. Which of course makes it some sort of love story. They are each other's fate.

So for Boesman as total a statement as for Lena. What is mutilated and why? The key I am sure is to reveal and dramatise his self-hatred as focused on Lena. What he really hates is himself. (p. xxii)


Strong and clear sense of the dynamics to the first act. Most important consequence is that Lena now has a drive, is 'moving' and not just sitting there in the mud floundering in her predicament. Reading Laing's Politics of Experience and Bird of Paradise has added new dimensions to my thinking about Boesman and Lena. Ontological insecurity: Lena in her demand that her life be witnessed. Not just a sense of injustice and abuse….


An example of [what I call the 'accident' in my writing] five minutes ago. Sorting out my ideas and images for the ending of Act One—Lena at the fire with Outa, sharing her mug of tea and piece of bread, kept hearing her say 'This mug …' 'This bread' 'My life …'. Suddenly, and apparently irrelevantly, remembered Lisa the other day reading a little book on the Catholic Mass. Suddenly there it was. Lena's Mass—the moment and its ingredients became sacramental, the whole a celebration of her life. (p. xxiii)

Like everyone else in this country, black and white, my horizons have shrunk [with the threat of censorship], and will continue to do so. Today's future barely includes tomorrow. [At times I see the situation deteriorating still further, to the point where even] the thought of a tomorrow will be a luxury. I'm trying to live and work in preparation for that eventuality. (p. xxv)

Athol Fugard, "Introduction" (copyright © 1973, 1974 by Athol Fugard; reprinted by permission of Viking Penguin Inc.), in his Three Port Elizabeth Plays, Viking Penguin, 1974, pp. vii-xxv.

Richard Eder

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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 out of the mud; but he cannot bear the idea that Queenie comes from the same mud. It is a vision that Mr. Fugard will continue to develop: society's degradation does not bring its victims together, it keeps them apart.

Queenie is the most real of the characters. Her sense of herself and where she wants to go makes her believable, and the crumbling of her dour defenses at a touch of hope makes her affecting. By contrast, Johnny is unreal. His warmth and hopefulness at the start crumble too suddenly and too completely; we have an explanation for it but explanations on a stage are like apologies in real life.

The three other characters—Sam, Blackie and a neighbor—are mere dabs of characterization, used only to drive the machinery. And once Johnny has learned about Queenie's past, the machinery pretty well stops. The last third of the play is little but speeches made in anger and pain.

Richard Eder, "'Nongogo', a Drama," in The New York Times (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 4, 1978, p. C15.

Edith Oliver

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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

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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

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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.∗


Athol Fugard World Literature Analysis


Fugard, Athol (Vol. 25)