The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1414

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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 exuberant, and when Morrie suggests again that they burn all the letters, Zach reminds him that when they were children, Morrie was the one who was given new toys and games. Morrie accepts the pen pal as Zach’s “game,” and the focus shifts as the men share childhood memories, rediscovering the common experience of their earlier years. They remember different details about their mother, and an agitated Morrie gropes for some mutual memory, finally succeeding in winning Zach’s collaboration in the revival of an old game in which they used to pretend to be driving an old car deserted near their home. Their imaginations returning to a happier time, Zach “drives” as Morrie describes the passing scenery. “This is our youth,” Morrie exults, but the adult world intrudes again; as the first scene ends, Morrie is reminded that in their new game they have no control over the direction or the rules.

Scene 2 opens with the arrival of another letter, this one announcing that Ethel plans to visit during the June holidays. Morrie explains in somber detail the seriousness of violating racial restrictions, and Zach is forced to face the conditions of a black man in South Africa yet again. He expresses some envy that Morrie can “pass” as white, something Morrie attempted during his years away from Zach, and suggests he meet Ethel. Morrie is tempted but is horrified when Zach suggests they use the money saved for their hypothetical farm to outfit Morrie properly. Struggling between desire and principle, Morrie is overwhelmed by Zach’s insistence and agrees to become a “gentleman.”

Act 3 opens with Morrie lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling. A knock on the door startles him, since Zach should be at work still, but Zach has taken some time off and bursts in with the new outfit. As Morrie gradually puts on the clothes, his latent desires to rise above the limitations of his background lead him further and further into the “role” of the white gentleman. As a kind of jest, Zach prods him into a “white” attitude, presenting himself as a symbol of inferiority and goading Morrie until he abruptly calls Zach “swartgat” (Afrikaans slang for “black-arse”). Even Zach is surprised by the authenticity of Morrie’s tone, and Morrie admits that he had begun to adopt this posture while he was passing, saying he had to return to Korsten to save his soul.

Scene 2 is a brief, dreamlike interlude in which Zach awakens and puts on the outfit. In a plaintive monologue, he addresses his mother, asking her to recognize him even in Morrie’s guise and then asks whether she loved his “white” brother more. Unanswered, Zach implores his mother to accept him and his love for her, offering her his gift of beauty—a beauty which he insists is more than “skin deep.”

As scene 3 begins, the room is untidy for the first time, and when Zach arrives, Morrie does not react. Zach demands his footbath but quickly realizes the extent of Morrie’s discouragement. He tries to cheer Morrie with the news of another letter, but Morrie is not interested. Finally, he opens the letter and learns that Ethel has decided to marry a man from her hometown. This news cheers Morrie but discourages Zach. To help, Morrie agrees to put on the suit again, since Zach tells him, “It made me feel good.” When Morrie is dressed, they begin to replay the dangerous game of “white gentleman” and “black menial.” Morrie mixes some compassion into his depiction, but Zach is relentless in instructing him how to remove it.

Morrie achieves a temporary release when he becomes able to look past and through any black person while he imagines enjoying some park scenery, but the spirit of their mother intervenes in a recollected vision, and he finds that he cannot subdue his sense of the black man’s presence. Suddenly frightened, he imagines himself threatened by all black people, and as Zach moves toward him menacingly, also caught up in their “game,” the alarm clock rings and the tension is broken. The two men prepare for bed. Reflecting on how they got “carried away,” Morrie tells Zach that the game is important because “it will pass the time.” As they move toward silence and darkness, Zach, sensing that they have reached a crucial understanding, asks, “What is it, Morrie? The two of us . . . you know . . . in here?” Morrie tells him what he must have felt but could not say. “Home,” Morrie says. Then, when Zach wonders about alternatives to their destiny, Morrie defines it further: “It’s what they call the blood knot . . . the bond between brothers.” He is moving toward his bed at the curtain.

Dramatic Devices

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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 becomes recharged as the men regain their bearings. Fugard achieves his desired effect—the psychic elevation of the driving scene or the numbing depression of the scene in which Morrie describes the effects of South African “justice”—primarily through language, without heavy reliance on props or effects.

Because Fugard does not use many specific props, each one has a special importance. The washbasin is both an emblem of Morrie’s concern for Zach and a measure of the very moderate physical comforts available to the men. The alarm clock regulates the men’s lives as an extension of Morrie’s will to organize; after a while, it also becomes a signal for the audience to anticipate. When the expected response to the alarm is not forthcoming, a new element of tension is automatically introduced. The money that Morrie has hidden in a pot is a focus of interest, and its importance for Morrie makes Zachariah’s almost casual handling of the treasure particularly powerful, as Morrie’s displeasure guides the response of the audience. The suit that Zachariah buys with the money becomes first a symbol of labor, then a larger symbol of privilege. When Morrie puts it on, the contrast between his previously shabby garments and its almost excessive elegance is especially poignant, and when Zachariah tries the suit on later, the obvious failure of the clothes to fit in terms of size, style, and cultural expectation is almost heartbreakingly sad.

Fugard has commented on the “verbal density, ’weight’ of the B[lood]K[not]’s texture,” and as is often the case in his plays, the most dramatic moments are the product of linguistic brilliance. The climax of the play—the moment when Morrie fully realizes the demeaning duplicity of trying to be white and Zachariah expresses without inhibition his fierce hatred of the treatment a black man suffers in South Africa—is reached through a pulsating, rapid dialogue in which Morrie and Zachariah feed each other cues and responses through many minutes of mounting excitement. Their partnership here is dramatic evidence of their ability to understand at last that they are connected by “the bond between brothers” which is the blood knot.


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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.


Critical Essays