Athol Fugard 1932–
South African dramatist, novelist, and scriptwriter.
Fugard is South Africa's foremost dramatist. Most of his plays, from The Blood Knot, his first major production, to his most recent, "Master Harold" … and the Boys, deal with the consequences of apartheid. They transcend propagandistic protest by their depth of characterization and their sensitive exploration into the pain of racial injustice. Most critics feel that Fugard attains universality in his plays regardless of their specific South African settings.
Fugard is a multi-talented man of the theater having acted in and directed several of his own plays. Of his many efforts to make theater available to black Africans, the most important resulted in the formation of a nonwhite theater company, the Serpent Players. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island were written in collaboration with two of the black actors in this company, Winston Ntshona and John Kenil.
Fugard's only novel, Tsoti, written over twenty years ago, has recently been published. While some critics find the transformation of its young black protagonist from a hoodlum into a caring human being unconvincing, most agree that Fugard, a white South African, has once again demonstrated his amazing empathy for the plight of his black compatriots.
(See also CLC, Vols. 5, 9, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88, rev. ed.)
In Athol Fugard's only novel [Tsotsi], which has been lying unpublished for 20 years, the protagonist is a murderer because he is a victim—victim of a régime and a philosophy which condemned him to the shanties of Sophiatown, and then virtually orphaned him in a police raid when he was a child of ten.
Tsotsi leads a gang of four young black men. They mug and murder, chiefly for money but also for kicks…. One night, he meets a young black woman who hands him a shoebox and runs away. In the box he finds a tiny baby…. The baby has the odd effect of triggering off memories in Tsotsi's mind and arousing the youth's curiosity about his own past. As he remembers, he changes character, coming to realise that he can choose whether to kill or not, instead of merely choosing whom to kill. At the end of the book he tries to save the baby's life and loses his own.
Tsotsi is an ambitious novel about the ability of a human being to rise above his environment and aspire to the good life. Squalor and violence are vividly presented. Fugard's indignation and pity are evident. However, the transformation of Tsotsi's character does not carry complete conviction. Too often, the author seems to be forcing his own insights and opinions on to his protagonist. And the climax, when the young man's body is found and 'all agreed that his smile was beautiful, and strange for a tsotsi', is rather too good to be true. (p. 482)
John Mellors, "Dreadful Things" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1980; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), in The Listener, Vol. 103, No. 2657, April 10, 1980, pp. 482-83.∗
Marigolds in August is [a film] about black workers divided against themselves. The crippled Daan … works as a gardener in a white seaside village. He has been doing so for years, tending lawns, growing marigolds, but has little security—he hasn't the right papers.
Melton … is a farm boy, unemployed and facing eviction. With a child dead from malnutrition and a desperate wife, he arrives in the village in search of work—and is seen by Daan as a threat to his security.
The film begins with some evocative images. Daan, hobbling miles to work, is passed by a white South African on his pre-breakfast jog. The job-hunting Melton, reflected...
(This entire section contains 234 words.)
in the window of a bungalow, cannot even attract the attention of the bridge-playing white women inside. The essence of apartheid—apartness—is brilliantly caught.
But having constructed its dramatic dilemma in these clear, bold images, the film fails to resolve it with the same clarity. Along comes Paulus (Athol Fugard himself), a dropout from the white world, a bicycle-riding philosopher who points out the folly of the two black protagonists.
Images give way to words, actions become heavily symbolic, and the dramatic problem is solved theatrically, not cinematically. The beauty of the early scenes goes, and, for me, much of the interest of the film.
Chris Jones, "Fugard's Images of Apartheid," in Tribune (reprinted by permission of Tribune, London), Vol. 44, No. 29, July 18, 1980, p. 9.
The title of Athol Fugard's new play, "A Lesson from Aloes" …, is so apt that its four words serve as an accurate précis of the entire work and threaten to render some of its more didactic passages superfluous. We are early instructed that aloes are a kind of plant to be found growing on the South African veldt; prickly and not very pleasing to look at, they survive in a hostile climate, and the lesson they furnish is that even against high odds life can assert itself and prove well worth living. Fugard's aloes are at once a metaphor and a model: the three characters who make up the cast are themselves—so we are invited to perceive—a higher form of aloes; if they are allowed to take root, they may be able (in the words of Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech) not only to endure but to prevail. Piet Bezuidenhout is a native white South African…. The time is 1963, and Piet, who was once a strenuous adversary of apartheid, has retired from—has perhaps been forcibly retired from—the hurly-burly of political activity. Now he collects aloes and the play begins with his having just brought in from the veldt a specimen that he is unable to identify. Is it a new species, hitherto unknown to science, or is it only a species unknown to him? Is he himself—so Fugard's metaphor insists that we ask—perhaps a new specimen of man, created to outwit the hateful political climate of apartheid?
Occupying the same house as Piet but seemingly light-years away from him is Gladys, his wife, who is suffering from an obscure mental derangement…. On this particular evening, Piet and Gladys are awaiting a visit from an old friend and political ally, a black man named Steve Daniels. Newly discharged from prison, Steve is bringing his wife and children to an impromptu farewell dinner before setting out for England and a new life there….
Piet and Steve drink with an uneasy abandon, seeking to regain the camaraderie of a more violent day, while Gladys gloomily bides her time. Something has gone wrong among them, but Fugard is as calculatedly spare a writer as Pinter, and, like Pinter, he chooses to leave unfilled certain crucial gaps in our knowledge of his characters. The audience's nervous, incessant search for some means of bridging these gaps adds a notable degree of tension to the play. No action that we observe onstage is as important as the undescribed actions that have already taken place offstage; it is rather as if we were sitting through a "Hamlet" from which all reference to the murder of Hamlet's father had been omitted.
Suddenly, Gladys accuses Piet of being a government informer—the very informer who was responsible for sending Steve to prison. Steve is quick to join in the accusation…. Piet neither admits nor denies the evil of which he stands accused; with a mingling of pride and shame, he confesses only that he has nothing whatever to say. Forsaken by Steven and by his mad wife as well, Piet sits in the darkening garden as the play ends, staring at the scruffy little aloe that he has yet to identify. Surely he is a good man, but what is the use of goodness if it has left him totally alienated from his fellow-creatures? All he can be certain of is that he is alone, and the weight of that aloneness presses as heavily upon him as the weight of the earth itself.
"A Lesson from Aloes" is a play almost devoid of overt incident, and, as directed by Fugard, is so slow to reach a resolution that I sometimes felt the pins and needles of an unappeasable impatience. My temptation was to exclaim (as I often do with Melville) "Good God, man! Get on with your story!," and it was disappointing for me to discover at last how little story Fugard had had it in mind to tell. His intention had been to wring our hearts by whispers, and I had been mistakenly awaiting loud shouts and the beating of innumerable drums.
Brendan Gill, "Survivors" (© 1980 by Brendan Gill), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVI, No. 41, December 1, 1980, p. 153.
Very little happens on stage in A Lesson From Aloes….
The deep mistrust between the three characters is not created by the action of the play or in any way resolved at its end: much more terrifying, their bitterness and suspicion are simply revealed and then thinly covered over as the work draws to a close….
The people in A Lesson From Aloes are victims of South African repression. Yet the play is not a cry of outrage or protest. Fugard's pessimism leaves no room for leftist pieties….
The violence in A Lesson From Aloes is suppressed violence, not the violence of revolutionary politics or of a repressive state, but violence that the characters turn against themselves and that divides them from one another: Steve's suspicion of his once-trusted comrade and the bitter envy that passes between Piet and his wife. Fugard is less concerned with South African politics than with the poisoned relations that exist in a certain kind of political climate. It would be too easy to blame the regime for the fear and mistrust that overwhelm the three characters in A Lesson From Aloes….
Tsotsi is a somewhat heavy-handed parable about a young black hoodlum who turns away from his gang as he begins to sympathize with the suffering of the people he beats up and robs. His conversion is hard to believe and much of the prose sounds sentimental, but it reveals Fugard's early determination to look as closely and unflinchingly as possible at the violence and ugliness in the black township. In some passages, the setting is described in the emotional but generalized style that Alan Paton and James Agee use to describe poor people….
The intensity of [Fugard's] descriptions is greatly undermined by the writer's habit of stepping in to explain their significance: what he calls "the full meaning and miracle of sharing in another man's suffering." Fugard's story is told in a didactic voice that allows his characters little room to move. Tsotsi's problem was how "to affirm his existence in the face of … nullity," the narrator tells us, commenting on "these thoughts, or his equivalents of them." Here and there Fugard looks ironically at the slow-witted hoodlum who thinks he can get anything he wants—even an explanation of God and the "meaning" of his life—with a few simple direct questions and a little bullying. But more often Fugard fails to distinguish clearly enough between the young thug and the narrator, sacrificing the story to a rather wooden lesson in his own existentialist beliefs.
Fugard's preoccupation with the tangled intimacy between bully and victim reappears in his first major play, The Blood Knot…. It is his most winning work for the theater, and has some of the sardonic humor that has marked most of his writing since Tsotsi…. The hate and fear that passed between the characters in Tsotsi are transformed [in The Blood Knot] into a kind of changeable ambivalence—seemingly playful, but no less threatening. (p. 37)
The Blood Knot showed how much Fugard had learned from reading Beckett's spare dialogue and how he had absorbed Beckett's feeling for two characters isolated on an empty stage. But Fugard had not abandoned what he calls, with no apology, his "regional" art. For him even the starkest absurdity must be rooted in a specific place…. Like much of Fugard's other work, The Blood Knot has been foolishly criticized for not being more specific about political problems in South Africa. But the starkly metaphoric style of the play makes one see in the antagonism between black and white man a complicity between master and servant that has little to do with legal restrictions….
By the late Sixties Fugard had begun to retreat from the emphasis on the "absurd" one finds in Boesman and Lena and also from what he has called "the inquisition of blank paper"; he worked out plays not at his writing table but through improvisations with actors, which he later rewrote. What are perhaps his best-known plays, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island …, were devised in collaboration with two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Like many other members of Serpent Players, a group that Fugard had been directing since the early Sixties, they were untrained amateurs who worked during the day in menial factory jobs. They brought to Fugard's improvisation sessions their own direct concerns as black South Africans: for the passbook laws which provide the plot of Sizwe Bansi and the treatment of political prisoners on Robben Island. They used a hard sarcasm that was new to Fugard's work—a kind of ruthless banter that is never simple about politics and cuts even deeper than the humor of The Blood Knot….
[The Island is] savage in tone. When John learns that he will soon be released from prison, Winston goads him with a description of the freedom that awaits him. John is simply reluctant to ruin the pleasure by anticipating it. But for Winston the vision of John drinking among their friends is an almost unbearable torment…. In the last scene of the play, when the two men perform Antigone for the other prisoners on the island, their thinly veiled comment on the injustice of the South African regime comes as little more than a bitter ironic coda to Winston's devastating outburst.
There is something of this deliberately unresolved ambivalence in A Lesson From Aloes: Piet's political activity is at once honorable and futile….
[In this] new play, as before, Fugard's central concern is the snarled relation between two characters: the tenderness and loyalty that pass between Piet and Gladys, but also his feelings of guilt and her resentment of his strength. Piet is determined not to give in to the sense of futility that has troubled Gladys and Steve since they were humiliated by the police. (p. 38)
As long as the characters remain on stage together their efforts to be in touch with each other seem to match the threat of isolation and purposelessness—after all, without others around him, even Piet would have no sense of purpose. As long as they go on talking there is some hope that they may be able to sustain the illusion of their intimacy. But worse even than Gladys's perverse attempt to persuade Steve that it was Piet who betrayed him to the police is Piet's reply that he has "nothing to say" to the accusation. Piet has lost the will even to make a gesture to the other man. In the end, Steve goes home to continue packing and Gladys decides she must return to the asylum. Piet is left alone in the garden with his aloes. This resilient desert plant, which at times risks being an obvious symbol, now takes on yet another meaning. Throughout the evening, as Piet tends and boasts about the aloes, filling the awkward silences with talk about the varieties of the species, he seems at first funny, then pitiable, then courageous in his steadfast way. But his determined good humor will mean little if there is no one to listen. Fugard no longer sees much scope for heroes in South Africa.
A Lesson From Aloes takes place in a milieu very different from the ones in Fugard's earlier plays. The characters are not vagrants or hoods, but include an Afrikaner like himself and an English South African woman, all of them educated and politically aware. They face the real growing tension in South Africa and the question, which also troubles Fugard, of whether to leave the country. It is not Fugard's old preoccupation with the bitterness that can be part of intimacy and the courage of survivors but the texture of his work that has changed as he moves away from the symbolic style of his early plays. The new play is even bolder than the others in its direct use of South African experience. The author of Tsotsi is still determined to watch what is happening around him, no matter how ugly. (pp. 38-9)
Tamar Jacoby, "No Place for Heroes," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, February 19, 1981, pp. 37-9.
There is little sentimentality to be found in Athol Fugard's A Lesson From Aloes, a searing three-character drama that has been receiving rave reviews—to my mind underserved. (p. 102)
There can be no doubt that Fugard means us to be as deeply involved as he is with his characters' fates; for years he has been heroically exposing the cost of apartheid in human suffering. Yet it is not his sincerity but his art that I question; for all its deep wells of feeling, which Fugard is not afraid to tap unembarrassedly, A Lesson from Aloes is a confused and ultimately artificial drama.
Too much of the characters' behavior is ill-motivated. Why should the Special Branch's confiscation of her diaries drive Gladys to a mental hospital? How can she possibly compare the "violation" of her privacy to literal rape …? And why does Piet go into seclusion and allow his former comrades to blame him for Steve's arrest?
If he hadn't, of course, there would be no dramatic mainspring to propel us into Act II. Yet I can't help thinking that Fugard has simply fallen back on what might be called the Arthur Miller ploy. Just as John Proctor allowed himself to be executed in The Crucible for something he was not (a witch) because of his remorse over something he was (an adulterer), Piet permits the others to think him guilty of betrayal because he feels responsible for his wife's condition. But this is the kind of implausible behavior that occurs only on stage. Why should Piet accept Gladys' blame for the consequences of the raid, when he clearly was in no position to do anything about it—and when she must have been unstable in the first place to allow it to affect her so?
What all the furious denunciation and counter-denunciation in A Lesson From Aloes adds up to is little more than the familiar dramatic strategy of recriminations leading to revelations—a scheme that effectively bares a past obscured by the present, but does little to move the play into the future. Perhaps this was Fugard's intention, to show the absence of any future; the bitter irony of his setting such a hopeless situation in 1963, knowing full well that things have not improved in the intervening 17 years, is all too obvious.
Yet the clunky symbolism of the play seems to argue in the opposite direction. On the one hand, Gladys denounces Piet's aloes as "turgid with violence—like everything else in this country." "Is that the price of survival—thorns and bitterness?" she asks. Yet it is Piet who is surviving and persisting, after all; Gladys seems to be heading back to the institution at the end of the play, and Steve is off for England. Are we supposed to deplore or admire Piet's stolid enduring of his wife's abuse, his comrades' unjustified accusations, and even his best friend's suspicion—not to mention his continuing to live as an exile in his own home, a nation whose policies he abhors? (p. 103)
Robert Asahina, "Theatre Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 99-104.∗
What is particularly fascinating about Tsotsi for the student of Fugard's drama is the discovery of so many scenes, ideas and conversations that Fugard was later to use expanded and elaborated in his plays….
Tsotsi is evidence that had Fugard chosen a career as a novelist instead of being a playwright, he would have done important work. Here he develops at least three major characters and even more secondary ones. Tsotsi himself is a disturbing, haunting creation who remains in the reader's consciousness long after the book has been put down. The narrative strands … are cleverly interwoven…. The reader is moved by the depth of emotion with which Fugard constructs, piece by piece, the memories of childhood that return gradually to Tsotsi…. Tsotsi's unsuspected humanity and instinctive protectiveness have no tinge of that sudden, unconvincing character reversal dear to the pen of the amateur, and these scenes never degenerate into sentimentality.
But Fugard's greatest skill, it seems to me, is his use of language, his images, his rhythms and his ability to alter his style, pace and diction to suit the personality of each character. This is certainly a skill that was to prove useful to him in his development as a playwright. In Tsotsi it creates a rich, subtle, human world out of the poor, outward uniformity of the township.
Sheila Roberts, "South Africa: 'Tsotsi'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1981 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring, 1981, p. 366.
[Tsotsi] is an intense work set in a South African slum. The protagonist, a tsotsi ("thug" or "hoodlum")—he knows no other name—is a brutal leader of a small-time gang of murdering thieves; he has no past he can remember, no feelings, no conscience; his vision reaches no farther than the planning of each day's crime. Fugard attempts to convey the workings of this tsotsi's mind as it moves from a brutish, atemporal condition toward the beginnings of "human" instincts, sympathies and conscience…. Fugard can hypnotize with his sense of place, and the condemnation of policies that have created such a place is stronger for being left implied rather than lectured on. Yet his confining the action of the novel to six days presents me with something of the problem I have in reading classical French or Restoration tragedy—knowing that "unity of time" is a convention doesn't help. Fugard's attempt to bring his tsotsi from near-animal to man within so constricted a time seems unnecessarily artificial. For all its earnestness, Tsotsi is too realistic to work as fable, and too fabular to convince as psychology or tragedy. (pp. 309-10)
George Kearns, "Fiction Chronicle," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1981 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIV. No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 299-313.∗
[Master Harold … and the Boys] is a molotov-cocktail kind of a play. At first, as it almost creakingly gets going, it seems a homemade, almost ramshackle kind of play, but when it explodes, like an unexpected thunderclap, it doesn't make the rafters ring, it eaves them blackened.
And this intensely, but subtly political play, leaves the audience drained by the barely simulated intensity of its experience. It is a play that grabs you to its own heart with bands of steel.
It is a political play about South Africa. It is about the South African policy of apartheid—racial segregation—but it is about much more. To Fugard—South Africa's best-known artist—life is not a simplistic matter of black and white.
Thus, in the most general terms, Master Harold is a tragicomedy concerned with growing up and living together….
Eventually, the play's texture becomes thrillingly complex. We are watching the emotional death of a young boy, but although Fugard is anything but nihilistic, also, the emotional death of a nation. Yet Fugard interweaves his themes with consummate skill. And the play's delayed explosion—it is as if, to change the metaphor, the play shifted the gears of its intention midway—casts, by the end, an ashladen retrospective glow on the beginning.
Fugard has directed the play himself with the utmost certainty—knowing precisely the effects he needs, the lines he can waste, the tension he can spare. He has the nerve to wait longer than most directors would to wind up that tension, to change that gear. And when he does, all frozen hell crashes loose….
This is an exhilarating play. It sends you out into the world's cold air, shattered but uplifted, even cleansed. It is a triumph of playmaking, and unforgettable.
Clive Barnes. "'Master Harold' is Masterful Look at South African Life," in New York Post (reprinted by permission of the New York Post; © 1982, News Group Publications, Inc.), May 5, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXIII. No. 6, May 3-10, 1982, p. 307).
There may be two or three living playwrights in the world who can write as well as Athol Fugard, but I'm not sure that any of them has written a recent play that can match "'Master Harold' … and the Boys." Mr. Fugard's drama—lyrical in design, shattering in impact—is likely to be an enduring part of the theater long after most of this Broadway season has turned to dust.
"Master Harold" … may even outlast the society that spawned it—the racially divided South Africa of apartheid. Though Mr. Fugard's play is set there in 1950, it could take place nearly anywhere at any time. The word "apartheid" is never mentioned; the South African references are minimal. The question that Mr. Fugard raises—how can men of all kinds find the courage to love one another?—is dealt with at such a profound level that "Master Harold" sweeps quickly beyond the transitory specifics of any one nation….
What's more, the author deals with his issue without attitudinizing, without sentimentality, without lecturing the audience. "Master Harold" isn't another problem play in which people stand for ideological positions. By turns funny and tragic, it uncovers its moral imperatives by burrowing deeply into the small, intimately observed details of its three characters' lives.
We meet those characters on a rainy afternoon, as they josh and chat in a fading tea room. Two of them [Sam and Willie] … are black waiters who rehearse for a coming ballroom dancing contest while tidying up the restaurant…. Eventually they are joined by Hally … who is the son of the tea room's owner….
The black servants are the boy's second family: they have been employed by his parents since Hally was in short trousers. But, for all the easy camaraderie and tender memories that unite master and servants, there's a slight distance in their relationship, too….
The drama is catalyzed by a series of phone calls Hally receives from his real-life family offstage. Hally's father, we learn, is a drunk, a cripple and a racist; his mother is his long-suffering victim. Hally is caught between them, and, as old wounds are ripped open, the bitterness of his entire childhood comes raging to the surface. The boy is soon awash in tearful self-pity and, in the absence of his real father, takes out his anger on his surrogate father, Sam. What follows is an unstoppable, almost unwatchable outpouring of ugliness, in which Hally humiliates the black man he loves by insisting that he call him "Master Harold," by mocking their years of shared secrets, by spitting in his face.
Mr. Fugard's point is simple enough: Before we can practice compassion—before we can, as Sam says, "dance life like champions"—we must learn to respect ourselves. It is Hally's self-hatred that leads him to strike at the black man and his crippled Dad and, in this sense, the boy is typical of anyone who attacks the defenseless to bolster his own self-esteem.
But "Master Harold" unlike many works that deal with the genesis of hatred, forces us to identify with the character who inflicts the cruelty. We like Hally so much in the play's early stages, and empathize with his familiar sorrow so keenly later on, that it's impossible to pull back once he lashes out. And because we can't sever ourselves from Hally, we're forced to confront our own capacity for cruelty—and to see all too clearly just who it is we really hurt when we give in to it.
Mr. Fugard can achieve this effect because he has the guts to face his own shame: Hally, a fledgling artist who believes in social reform, is too richly drawn not to be a ruthlessly honest portrait of the playwright as a young man. But if Mr. Fugard's relentless conscience gives "Master Harold" its remarkable moral center, his brilliance as an artist gives the play its classic esthetic simplicity. (p. 305)
The author doesn't provide [a] … happy ending, of course—it's not his to confer. But if "Master Harold" finally lifts us all the way from pain to hope, it's because Mr. Fugard insists that that ending can be—must be—ours to write. (p. 306)
Frank Rich, "Stage: 'Master Harold', Fugard's Drama on Origin of Hate," in The New York Times (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 5, 1982 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXXIII, No. 6, May 3-10, 1982, pp. 305-06).
Except for the overexplicit title, all is well with Athol Fugard's "Master Harold" … and the boys. Fugard has now perfected his way of writing plays about the tragedy of apartheid; he avoids the spectacular horrors and concentrates instead on the subtle corrosion and corruption, on the crumbling of the spirit for which the cure would be heroic action that may not be forthcoming, and which the blacks try to assuage with the salve of dreams, the whites with the cautery of oppression. For Fugard, the ultimate evil is the weakness, the cowardice, that is one of the constituents of so much human nature. When, rarely, unalloyed nobility does occur, its chances of prevailing are slim. Yet it exists, and its mere existence is reason enough for not wiping the name of mankind off the slate. The play springs two wonders on us: It is devastating without being depressing, and it is pungently specific without any loss in universality….
"Master" Harold has a tricky, touchy relationship with Sam and Willie, the two black employees…. Not only are the relations between the white boy and the black men who helped him grow up an intricate network of generosities and withholdings, of frustrations and humiliations (not entirely one-sided, though the boy is selfish and the men are a trifle, just a trifle, too good), but even the interaction between Sam and Willie has its curious yet credible complexities. The psychological sharpness, dramatic scope, and existential suggestivity that Fugard wrests from humble but never trite ingredients are a precious, precarious compensation for the ills of being. The author cannot legislate justice for South Africa or the rest of the world, but his plays are among the few small, doughty justifications for carrying on….
And Mr. Fugard directs with the same insight and control with which he writes. There is, despite the noble metaphor of life as ballroom dancing, a certain dearth of language here: These characters, almost by definition, cannot talk poetry, which only a few masters, such as Beckett, have been able to extract from rock-bottom prose. O'Neill, for instance, never quite could, yet it did not finally keep him from greatness. What Fugard offers is wave upon wave of comprehension, compassion, and achingly autobiographical honesty that create a poetry of their own. (p. 76)
John Simon, "Two Harolds and No Medea," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1982 by News Group Publications. Inc.: reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 15, No. 20, May 17, 1982, pp. 76, 79.∗
["'Master Harold' … and the Boys"] has been almost universally hailed as a masterpiece, perhaps in part because its subject is a meritorious one—the turpitude of South Africa's continued policy of apartheid and, on a deeper level, the heartbreak implicit in every failure of respect and affection that takes place between human beings of whatever color, gender, age, and social position. To my mind, the play has a tendentious neatness of design that we often see and distrust in an overly literary short story. Mr. Fugard's Harold is a schoolboy who, like young Stephen Dedalus, is going to grow up to be a writer; at present, he is a miserable loner with a drunken father, an inattentive mother, and but two friends in the world—the black "boys" of the title, who make up the staff of his mother's not very properous-seeming tearoom. The play is short, and could have been shorter: the opening dialogue between the two blacks, which has to do with a forthcoming dance contest (and which also provides the means for a pleasantly sentimental final curtain), covers more time than ground, though it is amusing enough, and the climax of the plot, which amounts to a truly shocking coup de théâtre, is so thoroughly prepared for that one anticipates it rather as if it were an automobile accident that one observes approaching and yet can do nothing to prevent. (pp. 110, 112)
Brendan Gill, "B.C. to A.D." (© 1982 by Brendan Gill), in The New Yorker, Vol. LVIII, No. 13, May 17, 1982, pp. 110, 112, 114-15.∗
[Athol Fugard's Master Harold … and the boys] like this South African playwright's other works, is distinguished more by his majestic spirit than by his artistic gifts. Fugard is not a dramatist of the first rank in a class with Beckett, Brecht, or even the late O'Neill—he makes no deep metaphysical probes, he fashions no striking poetic images, he doesn't change our way of looking at the world. His theatrical impulses are similar to those of Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Miller, Arnold Wesker—writers who put their craft at the service of an idea. Like them, Fugard is more interested in identifying social injustices and inequities than in transforming consciousness, which is to say that he is less a visionary poet than a man of great liberal conscience. Fugard's conscience, however, is a judicious instrument—scrupulous without being paralyzed, partial without being simplified. He avoids self-righteousness—the customary pitfall of such writing—by acknowledging that he may be implicated in his own indictments. If not the most inspired of contemporary playwrights, he certainly has the greatest heart, which makes him the most attractive character in his plays.
Fugard's compelling subject is the corrosive effect of apartheid on the spirit of South Africa; in Master Harold, he may have found his quintessential racial anecdote…. In the scorching concluding moments of the play. [Hally] insists that "the boys" call him "Master Harold," then tells a brutal racist joke and spits in Sam's face….
Sam tries to turn the occasion into a positive learning experience about how one becomes a man; Hally is too ashamed to accept instruction. Sam offers reconciliation; Hally equivocates. The two part with a shared sense of failure and a shared conviction that the dream of racial brotherhood has suffered a damaging, perhaps irreparable blow….
Fugard arranges his anecdote as if he were placing tiles in a mosaic. This sometimes creates an impression of contrivance—twice the phone rings, for example, with information that turns Hally vicious right after he has made fervent humanitarian affirmations. Then, perhaps because Sam's insights into the self-hatred motivating Hally's behavior are so cogent, you are left with a sense that everything has been said, that there is nothing more to be revealed, which robs the evening of ambiguity and suggestiveness. Still, there is no denying the explosive impact of that ending, and Fugard has directed a performance from the three players that is muscular and powerful. (p. 30)
The real spiritual beauty of the play comes from Fugard. Master Harold seems to be a much more personal statement than his other works; it also suggests that his obsession with the theme of racial injustice may be an expression of his own guilt, an act of expiation. Whatever the case, his writing continues to exude a sweetness and sanctity that more than compensates for what might be prosaic, rhetorical, or contrived about it. At this rate, Athol Fugard may become the first playwright in history to be a candidate for canonization. (pp. 30-1)
Robert Brustein, "Coming at History from Two Sides" (reprinted by permission of the author; © 1982 by Robert Brustein), in The New Republic, Vol. 186, No. 25, June 23, 1982, pp. 30-1.