Boesman and Lena Essay - Critical Essays

Athol Fugard

Critical Context

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Boesman and Lena is a central play in Athol Fugard’s canon, for it presents his concerns for the nonwhite South African population. Indeed, most of Fugard’s plays have black characters. For example, the central relationship in “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys (pr., pb. 1982) is between Harold and his black servant, Sam. Some of Fugard’s early plays, such as The Island (pr. 1973) and The Blood Knot (pr. 1961), focus exclusively on nonwhite characters. His plays are consistent in their commitment to portraying and protesting the conditions that nonwhites faced in South Africa.

Boesman and Lena is representative of Fugard’s body of work because it demonstrates the influences of Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht. Beckett’s influence on the play is apparent in the basic plot—two central characters, alone in a desolate landscape, who are forced to deal with their baffling condition, a story line similar to that of Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). The desolation of Boesman and Lena’s situation, their conflict, and the arrival of a third person who cannot understand them are also reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. The Brechtian influence might seem more subtle, for Brecht wrote large-cast plays on sweeping themes. Both Brecht and Fugard, however, have written indictments of society. Boesman and Lena is a social protest play, for Fugard is presenting an implicit indictment of apartheid laws that made possible such removals and dispossessions as Boesman and Lena face. Fugard, therefore, combines in Boesman and Lena significant influences of writers with quite divergent approaches.

Boesman and Lena captures themes and character types that recur in Fugard’s works and evidences his belief that theater can serve as a civilizing influence on society. The inhumane conditions depicted in the play are faced in real life by many of his countrymen, even in post-apartheid South Africa. Fugard’s use of approaches and dramatic devices borrowed from other major modern writers and filtered through his own imagination has permitted him to develop a powerful idiom for drama of social protest. A focus on moral conscience and social critique resurfaced as important themes in Fugard’s plays from the 1990’s. Playland (pr., pb. 1992) and Valley Song (pr. 1995, pb. 1996), among others, focused on post-apartheid South Africa and the myriad dynamics that the new social structure imposed.