Athol Fugard Fugard, Athol (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Athol Fugard's only novel [Tsotsi], which has been lying unpublished for 20 years, the protagonist is a murderer because he is a victim—victim of a régime and a philosophy which condemned him to the shanties of Sophiatown, and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.∗

Chris Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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.

Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tamar Jacoby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Asahina

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sheila Roberts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

George Kearns

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.∗

Clive Barnes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brendan Gill

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["'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...

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Robert Brustein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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