Athol Fugard Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although Athol Fugard has written in a variety of literary forms, he is known primarily for his plays. Tsotsi, a long-lost novel written between 1959 and 1960 and abandoned until its publication in 1980, displays characterization, graphic language, and sardonic humor that foreshadow much in Fugard’s later drama. Of Fugard’s screenplays—The Occupation (1964), Boesman and Lena (1973), The Guest (1977), and Marigolds in August (1982)—the last three, under the superb direction of Ross Devenish, have been filmed and released. A post-apartheid version of Boesman and Lena starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett was released in 2000. Fugard also wrote Mille Miglia (1968), a television script for the British Broadcasting Corporation, which explores in flashback the relationship between race drivers Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson, who won the last Italian one-thousand-mile race in 1955, and their preparations for the race.

Fugard’s Notebooks, 1960-1977 (1983) testify to the breadth of the influences on him and his influence on others. The notebook entries reflect his political engagement as well as his practical concerns as a dramatist. His Cousins: A Memoir (1994) relates the playwright’s early-life experiences with two influential relatives: his older cousins Johnnie and Garth. Johnnie’s love of music and performance and Garth’s adventurous wanderlust were important elements in shaping Fugard’s personality.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Athol Fugard—playwright, director, and actor—is South Africa’s most widely produced dramatist abroad. His plays, though rooted in one nation, have earned international acclaim. Fugard meticulously details life in a remote corner of the globe yet raises compelling issues of general interest. Using social realism, linear plot development, and naturalistic language graced by metaphor and symbol, Fugard has forged an impressive body of work for the theater, ranging from full-length plays to improvisational exercises. Theatrically sparse, with small casts and little, if any, reliance on elaborate sets, costumes, or props, Fugard’s plays have been read easily on radio and adapted frequently for television and film. On December 4, 1984, Fugard received the Commonwealth Award for Distinction in Dramatic Arts, an award which he shared with Stephen Sondheim.

Fugard’s distinction as a playwright is inseparable from his contributions to and influences on South African theater, as well as on the Yale Repertory Theatre. He has radically affected both the practice and purpose of serious drama in his native land. His interpretation of his world, his use of “poor theater” for its maximum effect, and his dedication to his actors, both black and white, have earned for him a critical respect accorded few modern playwrights. Early in his career, he chose to be a witness against what he called a “conspiracy of silence” about South Africa’s apartheid legislation. Fugard considers theater to be no more—and no less—than a civilizing influence, one that may sensitize, provoke, or anger. He deplores the label “political playwright.” He believes that if a playwright tells a story, a good one, the larger implications will take care of themselves. Because they are set in South Africa, Fugard’s plays cannot ignore apartheid, but Fugard’s plays are not...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Did Athol Fugard’s parentage and early experiences amount to an ideal preparation for his writing?

In what ways did South African apartheid pervert justice more thoroughly than did the plight of African Americans in the United States between Reconstruction and the 1960’s?

Comment on the significance of the title The Blood Knot.

How did Samuel Beckett’s plays influence Fugard’s Boesman and Lena?

Explain why sparse stage settings contribute to the universality of Fugard’s plays.

Explain how Fugard reshapes the historical events that underlie “Master Harold” . . . and the Boys.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Benson, Mary. Athol Fugard and Barney Simon: Bare Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre. Randburg, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1997. Benson relates her friendship with South Africa’s two major playwrights and provides extraordinary insights into their lives and works

Benson, Mary. “Keeping an Appointment with the Future: The Theatre of Athol Fugard.” Theatre Quarterly 7, no. 28 (1977): 77-86. A personal biography regarding Fugard’s wife and daughter, his early career struggles, and his aesthetic debts to Jerzy Grotowski, Albert Camus, and others. Benson’s interview is followed by some acting comments by and about Fugard. The entire issue is devoted to South African theater.

Fugard, Athol. “Athol Fugard’s South Africa: The Playwright Reveals Himself to a Fellow Writer.” Interview by André Brink. World Press Review 37 (July, 1990): 36-39. Excerpted from the Cape Town periodical Leadership. Brink discusses Fugard’s “commitment to the search for meaning” in a warm interview following the opening of My Children! My Africa! Fugard states that he regrets the time he must spend away from Africa, where his energies belong.

Gray, Stephen. Southern African Literature: An Introduction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A strong discussion of Boesman and Lena,...

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