The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As The Blood Knot begins, a man is lying on a bed in a one-room shack. The walls of the structure are made of corrugated iron, salvaged wood, and used cardboard and fabric. The room is barely furnished but is neat and relatively clean. Aside from a few books and an alarm clock on a shelf, there are no decorations— nothing but the necessities of survival. The man looks at the clock but does not move until the alarm goes off. Then he rises briskly, and with obvious purpose resets the clock, lights an oil stove, and places a kettle of water on it. After putting a towel and washbasin on the floor, he goes to the door and looks out. He continues to glance through the door and through the single window until he sees someone. Then he prepares the footbath for a man who walks in and places his feet in the bath without exchanging more than a nod and a grunt with him. After the man has settled his feet into the basin, he begins a casual conversation about the temperature of the water, and it becomes clear that the men know each other quite well.

Zachariah, who has just returned from his unpleasant and demeaning job, resists Morrie’s efforts to interest him in a project that Morrie has been planning. Zach continues to grumble, complaining that before Morrie moved in a year ago he had led a pleasant life, drinking with neighborhood friends who have since stopped calling. Morrie realizes that Zach is not in the mood to discuss their plans to buy a farm in the African interior and changes the subject to women. This energizes Zach, who becomes fully animated as Morrie reveals his plan to write to a woman who has advertised for a pen pal. Skeptical at first, Zach is gradually drawn in and, with Morrie’s prompting, composes a very basic letter to Ethel Lange. Morrie is completely caught up in the writing of the letter, as happy trying to find the right words as Zach is at the prospect of communicating with a woman.

When the letter is completed, the men say a brief prayer in which Zach asks God to bring back his old carousing companions. Morrie asks Zach earnestly if he is helping him, explaining that he feels bad about the time he was away. Zach asks why he returned. Morrie vaguely responds that he “was passing this way.” Zach asks why he stayed, and Morrie reveals for the first time the nature of their relationship: “We are brothers, remember.” When Zach does not reply, Morrie shifts into a reverie about their childhood and his return. As act 1 concludes, Morrie tries on Zach’s coat, which he has been mending, and confesses the pain he felt upon seeing Zach again after their years apart.

Act 2 opens with Morrie counting the money they have saved for their farm project. He hides the money in a pot as the alarm rings and prepares the footbath. A few days have passed, and when Zach arrives, he has a reply from Ethel Lange. Morrie is much more excited than Zach: He is unable to interest Zach until they discover that Ethel has included a picture with the letter. Zach feels released from his illiteracy and grows expansive, his fantasies beginning to flourish, but Morrie suddenly realizes that the picture is of a white woman and suggests they burn the letter. Zach, however, is even more intrigued, and when Morrie tries to tell him the consequences of pursuing the project, he asks if Morrie is interested in Ethel at all. Morrie seems ambivalent and agrees to write another letter.

Zach throws out phrases, feeling...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

As he was preparing another play for production, Athol Fugard expressed the hope that it would be as “tense and tight” as The Blood Knot and added that he would “like to plot it with as many twists and turns, as many surprises and ’moments’ as I had in The Blood Knot.” The tension to which he refers is drawn from the relationship he has established between the two brothers; the tightness of the plot comes from the close confinement of the play’s only set and from the pattern of escalating involvement that binds the two characters closer together as the play progresses. The shack where Morrie and Zachariah live is relatively nondescript, but the motion of the characters around and among its worn, threadbare furnishings makes it steadily more prominent until every foot of space, every meager item, has taken on a certain grim familiarity. By the third act, the audience may feel that it has been in the room almost as long as Zachariah and Morrie—anxious to leave but with no more prospect of escape than the two brothers have.

The sense of enclosure ensures that modulations in mood are especially noticeable and heavy with meaning. Thus, when the advertisements placed by women seeking pen pals are read, the introduction of a different voice within the room has a startling immediacy; as a consequence, the air of expectancy that each new letter arouses is communicated to the audience, which is able to anticipate the news it brings. Similarly, whenever there is a shift in tone, the atmosphere...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Benson, Mary. “Keeping an Appointment with the Future: The Theater of Athol Fugard.” Theater Quarterly 7 (1977): 77-87.

Bragg, Melvyn. “Athol Fugard, Playwright: A Conversation with Melvyn Bragg.” The Listener, December 5, 1974, 734.

Fugard, Athol. “Fugard on Fugard.” Yale Theater 1 (Winter, 1973): 41-54.

Fugard, Athol. Notebooks, 1960-1977. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Gussow, Mel. “Witness.” The New Yorker 57 (December 18, 1982): 47-94.

Kavanagh, Robert. Theater and Cultural Struggle in South Africa. London: Zed Books, 1985.

King, Kimball, and Albert Ertheim. Athol Fugard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truth the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985.

Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. New York: Twayne, 1985.