Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786

When Boesman and Lena premiered at the Rhodes University Little Theatre on July 10, 1969, Fugard was concerned that he and his cast might run into trouble with South Africa's Censorship Board, the harshest critics he was likely to face. Fugard and other artists had been facing censorship of books, articles, movies, and plays for several years, as the white South African government attempted to control rising opposition to the policies of apartheid. Surprisingly, however, there was no interference, and Fugard was permitted to present Boesman and Lena not only to the ‘‘whites only’’ audiences in Cape Town and Johannesburg, but also to the African, Indian, and mixed-race or "coloured" audiences in the outlying townships.

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The play, with an all-white cast playing to a predominantly white audience at its world premiere at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, immediately won enthusiastic support for Fugard and his work. The opening night audience cheered the cast onstage (which consisted of Fugard himself as Boesman, Yvonne Bryceland as Lena, and Glynn Day in blackface makeup as Outa) through eight curtain calls. A review in the Cape Argus in Cape Town reported that Boesman and Lena "has been acclaimed by critics here as a stunning revelation and as a grim and powerful play with a sustained flow of wit and joy shining off its surface of misery and desolation.’’ Jean Branford, a reviewer for the Cape Argus, was particularly impressed by Fugard's blending of the English, Afrikaans and Xhosa dialects in the play. ‘‘The language,’’ Branford wrote, ‘‘is a vivid and faithful rendering of the mixed dialect of certain coloured people, richly earthy, and humorous and moving by turns.’’

In "The Poetry of Poverty,'' a Guardian Weekly book review of Fugard's Three Port Elizabeth Plays which includes Boesman and Lena, Dan Jacobson also emphasized the importance of language in Fugard's plays. Jacobson believed the speech of Fugard's characters ‘‘developed out of cultural confusion and disinheritance, out of the historical violence which has thrust together haphazardly a variety of racial groups." He admired the messages Fugard was able to convey through his use of language, and noted, "Without being false to them, or to their mode of speech, he manages to create a poetry of poverty and dislocation that tells the South African reader more about himself and his country than he may wish to admit.''

More important than the poetry of Fugard's language, however, is the poignancy of his message. Boesman and Lena has been revived many times since it first appeared in 1969. It has been translated into French, Dutch, and other languages, broadcast on the radio, and filmed twice, in 1973 and 1997. Reviewers of all of the play's major productions have consistently praised Fugard for his ability to make powerful political statements and capture some of the best and worst qualities of humanity in intimate portrayals of personal tragedies.

In a review of Boesman and Lena for the New York Times in 1977, Mel Gussow wrote, ‘‘[Fugard's] plays are timeless, a truth that becomes increasingly evident as they are revived and enter the international repertory. He is one of the few...

(The entire section contains 786 words.)

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