Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1068
On the surface, the plot of Boesman and Lena seems quite simple. In the course of a single evening, two lonely, weathered, beaten down South African "coloureds" (people of mixed race) wander across the bleak mudflats of the Swartkops River near Port Elizabeth, seeking a safe place to settle themselves. They encounter an old black man, briefly take him in, then push onward when he unexpectedly dies in their squalid camp. The real action of the play, however, lies underneath the surface, where Fugard explores a complex mosaic of human emotions, racial politics, and universal questions about existence and the meaning of life in a violent, chaotic world.
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The play begins near the end of a long day for Boesman and Lena. Early in the morning, while sleeping in their makeshift "pondok," or hut, in a shantytown outside Korsten, they are awakened by white men with bulldozers who have come to knock down their poor settlement and drive them farther away from white civilization nearby. The couple, along with all of the other blacks and coloureds in the segregated settlement, are forced to pick up their few belongings and scatter into the countryside, once more in search of a place to live.
After a long, forced march, when they can walk no more, they arrive at a desolate spot on the banks of the Swartkops River outside Port Elizabeth. There, they drop their burdens and begin to set up camp for the night. Immediately, the strange, abusive relationship they share surfaces. Fugard indicates that the hardship of their lives now obscures their ages, but that Boesman and Lena are probably in their fifties. Seemingly, they have spent many of those years together looking out for one another, while at the same time taking out their anger and frustration on each other.
Lena launches the first attack by complaining about the march Boesman has led. ‘‘Why did you walk so hard? In a hurry to get here?’’ she rails. "This piece of world is rotten. Put down your foot and you're in it up to your knee."
Lena is right. The landscape of the play symbolically mirrors the characters' inner feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and desolation, as well as the outer political turmoil of the country. The muddy, bleak banks of the Swartkops River, with their sickly vegetation and low-tide stench, are a geographical metaphor for the poverty-stricken, wasted lives of black and coloured South Africans suffering the cruel punishments of apartheid.
For his part, Boesman claims to want merely some peace and quiet while he again tries to build a life and a living for them. Lena's constant talking and complaining, he says, is all nonsense and is driving him mad. In response, Boesman is sometimes simply silent. At other times he ridicules Lena for her ignorance or her emotions, threatens her, and sometimes beats her. Through it all, however, they remain together because there is no one else for them.
While Boesman busies himself with building a shelter out of old corrugated iron and scraps, Lena tries to piece together the many journeys they have taken that have brought them back to this place on the Swartkops. She reels off the names of shantytowns, makeshift villages, and segregated townships they have been forced out of over the years—Redhouse, Veeplaas, Korsten, Bethelsdorp, Mission Vale, Kleinskool. It is essential to her that she remembers her past. Putting these towns in order might provide some structure to the chaos of her life. In finding the towns in her mind she may also be able to find herself. But they all run together in her head, and Boesman is no help at all. He mocks her for her ignorance and threatens to beat her again.
The plot of the play, and Boesman's and Lena's relationship, turns in another direction when she spots a man sitting in the darkness across the mudflats. Despite Boesman's objections, Lena invites the stranger to join them at their campfire, in the hope that he may be someone she can talk to who will not abuse her the way that Boesman does. As it turns out, the stranger is simply an old, poor black man who doesn't even speak English or Afrikaans, but mutters in Xhosa, a tribal language of South Africa.
Lena is disappointed, but partly out of defiance toward the belligerent Boesman and partly out of loneliness and a need to connect to another human being, she takes the old man in and tries to communicate with him. She calls him "Outa," a respectful name that means "Old Father," and shares her precious bottle of water with him. Disgusted, Boesman stalks off into the darkness to forage for wood and scraps, leaving Lena alone with her new companion.
It is the chance Lena has been waiting for—someone new to talk to who will not mock her or beat her, but will listen attentively, even though he doesn't understand most of what she is saying. In a rush of words and emotions Lena tells the old man all about herself and as much of her past as she can recall. She remembers a dog that followed her around and kept her company for a while. She left the dog behind when the white men chased her away that morning. She tells Outa all about Boesman's abuse, and the way they collect bottles to make enough money to eat. She explains that she has had many children, but only one survived at birth, then died six months later. Throughout her rambling monologue, the old man just sits near their small fire and mumbles.
Boesman's return to the camp a little while later presents a challenge. He demands that Lena run the old man off so the two of them can share their wine and go to bed together on the filthy old mattress in their lean-to hut. Lena, however, wants Outa to stay. Boesman forces her to make a choice—wine, a warm bed, and a bit of a roof over her head, or sobriety and a muttering old stranger outside in the chilly night air. Defiant and fed up with the way he treats her, Lena rejects Boesman and opts for Outa's company. The act ends with Lena and her new friend sharing her bread and bitter tea on the ground near the fire, while Boesman glowers at them from inside his dirty pondok.