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,...

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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.

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 living dramatists who can be talked about in terms of greatness.’’ Gussow suggested that there is a "classic purity and clarity’’ in Fugard's plays. ‘‘It is not only black against white, but man against woman, people against people,’’ the reviewer observed.

In a 1980 article for Canadian Drama, Derek Cohen praised Boesman and Lena as ‘‘possibly the finest of Fugard's plays.’’ Remarking on the playwright's ability to critique his society and draw national themes from intimate, interpersonal battles, Cohen reported that Boesman and Lena was a ‘‘drama of unrelieved and immitigable suffering’’ which becomes ‘‘more intense as the characters, impotent against the civilization of which they are outcasts, turn their fury against each other.’’

By the time the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City revived Boesman and Lena in 1992, African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and was about to win the Nobel Peace Prize, together with South African President F. W. de Klerk, for their dismantling of apartheid and efforts to unite blacks and whites in the long-troubled country. Still, the play retained its haunting resonance with American audiences. Thomas Disch, a reviewer for the Nation, wrote, ‘‘I know of no other play that depicts the horror of homelessness and vagrancy so tellingly, and surely the reason for this is that homelessness is not really Fugard's theme. The extremity of the situation in which Boesman and Lena find themselves is like Lear's heath or the desert with its single dead tree in Waiting for Godot. Boesman and Lena's straits are presented as emblematic of the human condition and hence not to be protested—only, if possible, endured.’’

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