Athol Fugard

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 207

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.

Achievements

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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 agitprop. Critics and actors alike commend Fugard’s craft, especially his attention to what he calls “carnal reality” and his ability to develop resonant images that merit repeated readings or performances.

Fugard’s plays—and his actors—have been honored often. The New York Times voted The Blood Knot Best Play of the 1964 season. Fugard was elected Man of the Year in the Arts in South Africa in 1969. Boesman and Lena received an Obie Award for Distinguished Foreign Play from the Village Voice in 1971. Janet Suzman won the London Evening Standard Award for Best Actress in 1973 for her portrayal of Hester Smit in Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, devised by Fugard with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, was chosen Play of the Year in 1974 by the London Theatre Critics. Kani and Ntshona went on to share Tony Awards for Best Acting in the 1974-1975 New York season for The Island, another Fugard play devised with their help. In 1975, Fugard was commissioned by the Edinburgh Festival to write a new play, Dimetos, and in 1980 the Actors Theatre of Louisville (Kentucky) commissioned an improvisational work, The Drummer. (These works, along with Mille Miglia, a 1968 British Broadcasting Corporation television play, are not set in South Africa.) A Lesson from Aloes was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best New Play of the 1980-1981 season, while “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys won both the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Play of 1982, as well as a Tony Award for Zakes Mokae as Outstanding Featured Actor and the Evening Standard Award for Best Play of 1983. The play also won South Africa’s largest cash award for theater: the AA Mutual Life/Vita Award for Best New South African Play, 1983-1984. In 1986, Fugard was also the recipient of the Drama League Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and Helen Hayes Award for Direction followed in 1988 and 1990, respectively.

Fugard has been given honorary doctorates by three South African universities: the University of Natal, Durban, in 1981; Rhodes University, Grahamstown, 1983; and the University of Cape Town, in 1984. Yale University in 1983 and Georgetown University in 1984 also honored Fugard with doctorates.

Fugard is also a gifted director who exhibited a wide range of his interests through the plays he chose to direct at The Rehearsal Room in Johannesburg in the late 1950’s and to stage with the Serpent Players in New Brighton from 1963 to 1973, including Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (pr. 1960) in Johannesburg and Niccolò Machiavelli’s La mandragola (pr. c. 1519; The Mandrake, 1911), Sophocles’ Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729), and August Strindberg ’s Fadren (pr., pb. 1887; The Father, 1899) in New Brighton. Fugard’s talents as an actor have enabled him to perform in many of his own plays when they were first staged.

Discussion Topics

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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.

Bibliography

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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, “seen by more South African audiences than any other South African play,” in its stage or film versions. Gray interprets the play as a “rewording of the myth” of Hottentot Eve: “The play is ultimately more about the strains of the marriage bond between her and her husband than the colour problem which aggravates it.”

Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985. A full study of the playwright’s life, work, and philosophies. Contains introductory material on South Africa and a concluding chapter on influences, crosscurrents, language, style, and critical reputation. Appendices offer the full text of The Drummer, an essay on Dimetos, and a production chronology. Bibliography and index.

Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. New York: Grove Press, 1985. A general survey and appreciation of Fugard’s work to “MASTER HAROLD” and the Boys. Walder says Fugard’s plays speak “not only of the South African dimension of man’s inhumanity to man, but also of the secret pain we all inflict upon each other in the private recesses of our closest relationships.”

Wertheim, Albert. The Dramatic Art of Athol Fugard: From South Africa to the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Wertheim explores Fugard’s life and work in such great detail as to make this a vital resource.

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