Boesman and Lena

by Athol Fugard

Start Free Trial

The Similarities and Differences Between Boesman and Lena and Waiting for Godot

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

There is a moment in Athol Fugard's poetic drama Boesman and Lena when the desperate, road-weary Lena begs her traveling companion to please listen to her, and to help her remember all the filthy, ramshackle places they have been, and the order in which they visited them. "What difference does it make?’’ the angry Boesman challenges her, ‘‘To anything? You're here now!’’

Their debate—as much a matter of metaphysics as geography—is the central conflict in the play. Lena is on a quest to discover her identity, which has been stolen or masked by a dominant white society that systematically marginalizes and abuses its black and mixed-race citizens. Boesman, on the other hand, has built a shaky identity for himself, based on physical aggression and self-deception, and will do almost anything to avoid facing the truth of his existence. Although Fugard writes intimate, realistic dramas in the style of Anton Chekhov or Henrik Ibsen Boesman and Lena's dilemma—the search for personal meaning in a chaotic, sometimes violent world—is one found more often in the plays of an avant-garde movement of the 1950s and 1960s: the ‘‘Theatre of the Absurd.’’

Theatre scholar Martin Esslin first provided a name for this movement in his 1962 study The Theatre of the Absurd. In this book, Esslin describes similarities in the works of several post-World War II playwrights, most notably Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet Harold Pinter Edward Albee and Samuel Beckett. He examines some of the social and political influences of the twentieth century that he claims have caused playwrights to turn away from more "traditional'' forms of drama and accepted meanings, and turn instead toward plays that seem to lack structure and ask many more questions than they are prepared to answer. The Theatre of the Absurd, Esslin writes, is an expression of mankind's search ‘‘for a way in which they can, with dignity, confront a universe deprived of a generally accepted integrating principle, which has become disjointed, purposeless—absurd.’’

Because the universe lacks meaning, Absurdist plays often do not contain "plots." Instead, audiences are presented with a handful of characters in a situation that begins and ends in more or less the same place. Any attempts to improve this situation, or their lives in general, is doomed to fail, because the human condition itself is viewed as absurd. Characters in Absurdist plays often lack identities, and sometimes do not even have names. Language—the tool most people use to attach meaning to objects and ideas—proves difficult or useless in Absurdist dramas. Time and place—the setting of Absurdist plays—is often unknown, or unreal and unrecognizable.

The best known practitioner of The Theatre of the Absurd is Samuel Beckett whose 1953 ‘‘tragicomedy’’ Waiting for Godot first drew widespread international attention to the new style of drama. The "action" of Waiting for Godot is quite simple. Two tramps, Vladamir and Estragon, are waiting near a bare tree for the arrival of a man named Godot. They argue with each other, consider suicide, chew on carrots and chicken bones, meet up with another odd pair—a master and slave named Pozzo and Lucky who perform a strange routine for them—and are told by a young boy that Godot will not be arriving this day, but the next. When the play ends the tramps are sitting beneath the same tree, which now has sprouted a few leaves, still waiting for Godot. The play has not told a "story'' or drawn any conclusions from its characters' experiences. Rather, it has presented a meditation on the absurdity of life, and left its audience to pull from that its own lessons.

(This entire section contains 2389 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

is Samuel Beckett whose 1953 ‘‘tragicomedy’’ Waiting for Godot first drew widespread international attention to the new style of drama. The "action" of Waiting for Godot is quite simple. Two tramps, Vladamir and Estragon, are waiting near a bare tree for the arrival of a man named Godot. They argue with each other, consider suicide, chew on carrots and chicken bones, meet up with another odd pair—a master and slave named Pozzo and Lucky who perform a strange routine for them—and are told by a young boy that Godot will not be arriving this day, but the next. When the play ends the tramps are sitting beneath the same tree, which now has sprouted a few leaves, still waiting for Godot. The play has not told a "story'' or drawn any conclusions from its characters' experiences. Rather, it has presented a meditation on the absurdity of life, and left its audience to pull from that its own lessons.

There is no doubt Beckett and The Theatre of the Absurd had a considerable influence on Fugard in the early part of his career. He began working in earnest as a dramatist, director, and performer just as Beckett was beginning to achieve international recognition for plays like Waiting for Godot, Endgame, and Krapp's Last Tape. In 1962 Fugard was called upon to direct a black production of Godot for the Rehearsal Room in Johannesburg. He recorded the experience in his diary, which was later published in Athol Fugard: Notebooks 1960-1977: ‘‘In terms of 'satisfactions,' of humility, of feeling that one had made contact with the rare moment of truth in theatre, this production of Godot is as important to me as The Blood Knot,’’ Fugard admitted. "Yes—above all else—truth—and truth at the level where it is Beauty.’’

The South African author's admiration of his Irish counterpart's work went well beyond a single play and a lone production. That same year, Fugard read his way through all of Beckett's work, and reported that ‘‘Beckett's greatness doesn't intimidate me. I don't know how it works—but he makes me want to work. Everything of his that I have read has done this—I suppose it's because I really understand, emotionally, and this cannot but give me power and energy and faith.’’

Fugard's empathy and understanding of Beckett found its way into several of his plays, especially Boesman and Lena. In many ways the play is similar to Beckett's masterwork, Waiting for Godot, and it contains nearly all of the most prominent characteristics of Absurdist theatre—a circular plot structure, characters who lack identities, difficult use of language, and absurd attempts to improve the human condition. Still, though Fugard adopted many of the techniques and attitudes of Beckett and his characters, his brand of "Absurdist" theatre is noticeably different, and distinctly South African.

Like Beckett's tramps in Waiting for Godot, Fugard's downtrodden vagabonds in Boesman and Lena are insecure about their identities and place in the world, and desperately searching for something to provide them with a sense of purpose and meaning. For Vladamir and Estragon, hope lies in the eventual arrival of Godot, but waiting day after day is meaningless and sometimes fills them with despair. Boesman and Lena, on the other hand, are not waiting; they are walking. Pushed from one shantytown to the next so often that Lena has lost track of where they have been, their search for meaning is not voluntary. Instead, it has been forced on them by the white men who keep knocking down their homes. As Craig McLuckie suggests in "Power, Self, and Other: the Absurd in Boesman and Lena," "It is the walking, not the temporary stops in the towns, that is most important. The absurdity of their condition is found in this incessant, pointless, repetitive cycle of walks. The play could have been called Walking for Godot to emphasize the importance and, paradoxically, the meaninglessness of the action.’’

Continually running up against chaos and meaninglessness, however, does not deter Lena from seeking greater clarity from the world around her, even though her attempts often fail. Vladamir and Estragon try to find meaning for their lives in arguments about the Bible, contemplation of death, and ridiculous banter. They make no progress, and find themselves as lost at the end of Waiting for Godot as they were when the play began. Similarly, Lena seeks to prove her existence by putting together a history of the towns she and Boesman have visited, by singing or dancing, and by talking continuously in the hope that someone will respond and connect with her in a meaningful way. Boesman, however, does not share her need for the human touch. One telling exchange goes like this:

LENA. Don't be like that tonight, man. This is a lonely place. Just us two. Talk to me.

BOESMAN. I've got nothing left to say to you. Talk to yourself.

LENA. I'll go mad.

Lena needs the reassurance, not only of hearing her own voice, but of hearing the voice of another human being in response, in order to comfort her and bring some sense of belonging and order to her chaotic world. For this reason, the appearance of "Outa,'' the old man, is vitally important to her. For Lena, Outa represents a new audience—the opportunity to start her stories all over again and get fresh responses and feedback. Of course, it is no small coincidence that Outa speaks only Xhosa and cannot understand what Lena is telling him or respond to her constant questions and pleadings. Fugard, like the Absurdists, recognizes that even language, ultimately, cannot adequately deliver us from the meaninglessness of life. It is ironic, but appropriate, that Lena has found someone to confide in, to rescue her from the pointless brutality of Boesman and white society, only to discover that he is even more helpless and closer to death than she is.

The subject of death, though not always directly discussed, is one of the motivating themes behind The Theatre of the Absurd. One of the reasons, Absurdists contend, that modern society finds life chaotic and death difficult to contemplate is that people have lost touch with religion, ritual, and any kind of faith that connects them to the universe as a whole. Esslin observes:

For God is dead, above all, to the masses who live from day to day and have lost all contact with the basic facts—and mysteries—of the human condition with which, in former times, they were kept in touch through the living ritual of their religion, which made them parts of a real community and not just atoms in an atomized society. The Theatre of the Absurd forms part of the unceasing endeavor of the true artists of our time to breach this dead wall of complacency and automatism and to re-establish an awareness of man's situation when confronted with the ultimate reality of his condition.

To Beckett's tramps in Waiting for Godot death and suffering are no more or less important than eating lunch or actually finding Godot. They jest at scars, casually joking about hanging themselves, crucifixion, and the existence of God and Christ. Pain and death are more serious and immediate concerns to Boesman and Lena, however, since they must combat them every day. Still, they are resigned to their fates. Lena accepts the beatings and bruises Boesman offers her—even encourages them—as a means of actually feeling her existence. Boesman recognizes that, at the end of their struggle for survival, their reward will be simple enough. "One day your turn. One day mine,’’ he observes. ‘‘Two more holes somewhere. The earth will get [sick] when they push us in. And then it's finished. The end of Boesman and Lena.’’

On the surface, Boesman's assessment sounds bleak, and even Fugard himself, who has not suffered like his characters, can seem fatalistic. In ‘‘Athol Fugard at Forty,’’ an interview with Peter Wilhelm, the playwright called man's central dilemma "the fact that life dies. The span can literally be measured...I know nothing about hereafters. I've not been able to escape being fascinated, depressed, appalled, challenged by the fact that one life is so much, and that is your chance to do it. And the passing of those seconds...well man, it's death knocking at the door. Seconds for me is literally the knock at the door.’’

For all his talk about death and the brevity of life, however, one of the most distinguishing characteristics that separates Fugard from Beckett and the Absurdists is his hope for the future. Both Waiting for Godot and Boesman and Lena end more or less where they began. Vladamir and Estragon are still beneath the same tree, which has sprouted a few leaves, Waiting for Godot. Boesman and Lena, unable to rest for even a single night, have once again shouldered their belongings and are trudging off down the road. While Beckett generates an odd mixture of ridiculousness, wistfulness, and despondency, however, Fugard manages to draw hope and even happiness from the well of desolate despair. Beckett's characters were never real to begin with. They inhabit a world that doesn't exist, and find it easy to mock the world we live in. Boesman and Lena, however, are only too real to Fugard. He has seen people like them suffering in South Africa nearly every day of his life, and to treat them with the casual disregard Beckett shows his comic tramps would be unthinkable. Because they are real, and a part of his world, there must be some hope for their future.

The American playwright Arthur Miller once famously remarked in an essay titled "Tragedy and the Common Man’’ that tragedy suggests more optimism than pessimism in its author, and that the final result of tragedies should be the "reinforcement of the onlooker's brightest opinions of the human animal.’’ Miller was defending his depiction of Willie Loman as a hopeful tragic hero in Death of a Salesman (1949), but the same argument can be been made for the characters and events in Boesman and Lena. These two weary travelers are poor, downtrodden, and the victims of South Africa's racially divided society. They live on the edges of affluent white cities in trashy tin "pondoks" created from the refuse of the ruling class. Still, they have a dignity and sense of mission, and small victories may add up to large ones.

At the end of Waiting for Godot Vladamir asks "Shall we go?'' to which Estragon responds,"Yes, let's go.’’ They remain seated beneath the tree, immobilized, with no place to go. At the end of Boesman and Lena Boesman finally gives in and tells Lena the order of the towns they have visited. She realizes then that their history does not help her understand their present or their future, but she is happy she has left a mark. ‘‘Somebody saw a little bit,’’ she tells Boesman, ‘‘Dog and a dead man.’’ It's a start. And what's more, she reports, ‘‘I'm alive, Boesman. There's daylights left in me.’’

The society Fugard and his characters inhabit may be violent. It may be chaotic and enough to drive a sane person mad, but they refuse to let the absurdity of their situation beat them in the end. As Mel Gussow remarked in a review of Boesman and Lena for the New York Times, "For all its apparent bleakness, the drama is an uplifting endorsement of the indomitability of mankind.’’

Source: Lane A. Glenn, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000.
Lane A. Glenn has a Ph.D. specializing in theater history and literature.

Power, Self, and Other: the Absurd in Boesman and Lena

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

As the substantive body of criticism about Samuel Beckett's theatre attests, it is difficult not to impose a variety of contexts onto his work. Athol Fugard's theatre, alternatively, restricts and focuses one's perceptions so that it is difficult to see more than a single context. More simply put, an audience reads its world into Waiting for Godot, while it reads another world out of Boesman and Lena. The authors' respective uses of absurdity have led to this state of affairs.

Boesman and Lena is as explicit a title as Waiting for Godot. In the latter title, as numerous others have pointed out, unidentified individuals are waiting for God. Control of the individual's fate is placed outside his/her hands into those of a deity; human responsibility is diminished. Others have offered less useful biographical interpretations: Godot is named after a French cyclist, or is the French slang word for boot. While offering an additional dimension to the punning that Beckett indulges in, these latter correlations are not particularly useful for those seeking to explicate the play. Beckett has insisted that the meaning of the title is unimportant. Flippancy, mischievousness, or authorial right may be invoked to explain or support Beckett's position, but the play is an act of communication, a dramatic utterance, which begins with a statement of import. The gerund "waiting" in Beckett's title alerts the reader/audience to the fact that if the communicative act is to mean anything, if grammar means anything, the state of waiting is both subject and action of Beckett's play. What does it mean to wait; what is it like to wait? The prepositional phrase that completes the title specifies whom (or what) one is waiting for. It clarifies the subject and the act.

Boesman and Lena is simply the names of two characters in a play inhabited by three. Obviously the lack of identification of the third individual gives these two more importance than the unnamed African. More specifically, Lena's song illustrates that "Boesman" is not merely a name, it is also a label and an identification of one's culture: ‘‘Boesman is 'n Boesman / Maar hy dra 'n Hotnot hoed / Boesman is a Bushman / But he wears a Hottentot's hat." "Bushman" is apolitical label, for the Afrikaners use it as a general term of abuse against the Africans and "coloureds." That Boesman wears a Hottentot's hat should not go unnoticed because a Bushman is considered less civilized, and so lower on the social scale, than a Hottentot. Boesman, therefore, can be said to spurn his identity and falsely attempt to assume another to (re)gain a sense of dignity, albeit in the discourse and practices prevalent in the white scale of values, not his own. Lena, on the other hand, seeks a definition of her being: the questions she poses Boesman in this regard link her to him, and he to her, as inextricably as does the simple coordinating conjunction of the title. Where Boesman seeks validation of his assumed identity through Lena, Lena craves a witness to her existence through Boesman.

An important final point on the titles is the remaining abstraction in Beckett's because neither spatial nor temporal concerns come into play. Fugard's title is more spatially specific, as the assessment of the name Boesman indicates. Lena's exclamation of ‘‘Mud! Swartkops!’’ fixes the location further—they are in the barren Swartkops region of the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Temporally, Boesman and Lena are at one stage in a long cycle of walks:

Redhouse to Missionvale...Missionvale to Bethelsdorp. Back again to Redhouse... Then to Kleinskool. Kleinskool to Veeplaas. Veeplaas to here. First time. After that, Redhouse...Bethelsdorp, Korsten, Veeplaas, back here the second time. Then Missionvale again, Veeplaas, Korsten, and then here, now.

It is the walking, not the temporary stops in the towns, that is most important. The absurdity of their condition is found in this incessant, pointless, repetitive cycle of walks. The play could have been called Walking for Godot to emphasize the importance and, paradoxically, the meaninglessness of the action. Any similarities between the two plays ends here, though, for Boesman and Lena know their "Godot'' and his purpose: "Blame the whiteman. Bulldozer!’’ The white, in his ‘‘slum clearance,’’ determines their existence with: ‘‘Vat jou goed en trek!’’ (Take your things and go!) It is an irony that those who commemorate the Great Trek away from the imposition of British rule insist that others undertake a trek away from Afrikaner rule (or, minimally, habitation). Where can they go? Boesman's catalogue of towns implies the same end—a return to the walking, for settlers have claimed all the land.

Fugard, like Beckett and Camus, seeks an answer to Camus' question of why these people do not commit suicide when faced with the absurdity and squalor imposed on their lives. In Boesman and Lena the answer to the question is forestalled by the lack of a complete and truthful consciousness of the self. Lena is preoccupied with uncovering her identity, which she believes is held in her past and in another's recognition of her. Boesman, contrarily, fears an encounter with his self because his false sense of identity might be brought into question.

Lena's arrival on stage immediately sets up their relationship and their identities. She follows Boesman onto the stage and asks "Here?'' Both the action and the question are a deferral of power to him. Like Lucky in relation to Pozzo in Godot, Lena exists as a slave to Boesman's position as master. And like Estragon in Godot, Lena lacks a sense of the chronology of their lives: ‘‘Haai! Was it this morning?’’ In questioning Boesman she gives him the authority to decide her history and identity, while Boesman's remark—that she should have been walking backward—reveals the ties of her sense of self to the past, to history. Boesman is happy to occupy the seat of power in this relationship because he does not have to reflect (look back) on his oppressed life. Instead, he has become the oppressor, white man reincarnated.

Boesman's position is a false one, for he, too, is determined. In the most general sense, the oppressive forces of the white government determine him. His plea that whites set him free from the burden of a squatter's life is a false front, as Lena attests:

Holds up a clenched fist in an imitation of Boesman.

That's how he talks to the world... Ja, so it goes. He walks in front. I walk behind. It used to be side by side, with jokes.

Lena is both bitter and ironic here. She is bitter because their equality (side-by-side) in the face of adversity is gone, as is their earlier happiness. The irony is evidenced by Boesman's bad faith, for his revolt against his condition is not one of solidarity, an acceptance and authentication of the condition; his "revolt'' is denial. He talks with anger and beats Lena black and blue, while acquiescing to the real, identified oppressor:

Whiteman's wasting his time trying to help us. Pushed it [their shanty] over this morning and here it is again... We're whiteman's rubbish. That's why he's so beneukt [fed up] with us. He can't get rid of his rubbish.

Boesman's cowed attitude reveals his inability and unwillingness to make the necessary connection between present conditions and origins. Their food, clothing, shelter, and selves may be considered rubbish by whites, but all rubbish is created: white society is the cause of their status. Boesman fails to take an independent or even a skeptical view of the white perspective that is privileged by raw power. If Boesman made these connections, he would realize that whites could as easily label him valuable (even in the cynical sense of taking the African's labors for white-owned corporations into account). A more humane attitude, trite as it sounds, is a beginning. Failing to connect the cause with the effect, Boesman allows his ignorance and the whites to colonize him.

Similarly, Boesman's utterance of ‘‘Dankie, baas’’ [Thank you, boss], is a reflection of his subservience, of his inability to escape a particular frame of mind. So he becomes an oppressor, bullying Lena into saying ‘‘Please, my bassie’’ [Please, my little boss], in an attempt to dispel his servility. Intellectual engagement with whites, or at least, given the raw power he faces, engagement within himself of the whites' false claim to power, would inhibit this type of intra-race brutality. The stage that Fugard sets is the bleakest: Lena's lack of belief in Boesman's position and his actions reveals her strength (qualified by her need for his ‘‘answers’’) but also causes him to wage psychological and physical warfare on her—just as the white oppressors, because of their false and degenerate humanity, are waging warfare on Africans.

Lena's response to the oppression is to seek human contact, warmth, a sense of community to stave off the madness that their absurd position entails. Boesman denies her these comforts and reaffirms his oppressive role, for the action his role involves helps him to stave off thoughts of the absurdity and the servility of his actions, as well as the related guilt: ‘‘Look at you! Listen to you! You're asking for a lot, Lena. Must I go mad as well?'' Thus Boesman continues to act in bad faith; he refuses to face his absurdity, to see his reflection in Lena. He is left, his consciousness unawakened, inhabiting despair. So, he will not go to Veeplaas: there are other people there, other reminders of his shame.

Although she is conscious of Boesman's faults, Lena remains inextricably tied to him, for she believes he holds the key to her past, and so her identity:

LENA: Do you really know, Boesman? Where and how?


LENA: Tell me. [He laughs.] Help me, Boesman!

BOESMAN: What? Find yourself?

Unable to extricate a sense of herself from Boesman, Lena pursues the problem alone, and produces a small identity—if she can be hit and bruised, then she exists. Moreover, if she is Lena, identified by her servile, oppressed relationship to him, then he is Boesman, the oppressor. She can affirm, therefore, that they are ‘‘Boesman and Lena’’ a microcosmic world that reflects the positions of groups (rather than individuals) in the larger world they inhabit. This consciousness of their roles, their relationship to one another, is an awareness of a small community, and of the position of the self within that community. We do not find such an explicit awareness in Beckett's characters.

Lena, dissatisfied with this minimal sense of self, seeks witnesses to her existence. The witnesses—‘‘Dog and a dead man’’—are as marginal as her Cartesian proof of existence. Similarly, when Boesman gives Lena an exact account of their past she realizes that ‘‘It doesn't explain anything’’; it is therefore absurd, meaningless. Lena consequently seeks the only path open to her, a sense of communal interest in her existence. She had instructed Boesman to "Try it the other way. Open your fist, put your hand on me. I'm here. I'm Lena.’’ It is a polemical statement directed both to the individual, who forms the foundation of the community, and to the varying communities of race present within South Africa. The message seems appropriate to South Africa, but the scene depicts two people of the same race; thus Fugard could be criticized on the basis that in the strict sense of South Africa's (thankfully now departed) Population Registration Act the races are separate, apartheid remains in place. This would seem an appropriate interpretation, given the lack of communication between black and "coloured" in the play. Yet, if one gives Fugard the benefit of the doubt, the use of "coloured'' people seems an artistically exacting touch—as people of "mixed'' blood, Boesman and Lena are of indeterminate race, neither black nor white—enabling the characters to represent all races. Whether such generosity in interpretation would "wash" with the people long identified by color/race is a different question. There is a clear political allegory in Lena's acceptance of the black man and the beating of him by Boesman, who takes the white role—"coloureds" must unite with blacks, not aspire to acceptance by whites, if they are to find their true place.

Without a true place for the duration of the play, Boesman and Lena walk. It is an apt metaphor, in all the circularity the act of walking takes on in the play, which justifies Dennis Walder's comment that

"Overwhelmed" by Camus' writings...Fugard follows him to the brink of despair, where, nevertheless, may be found ‘‘finally the only certainty, the flesh’’: living ‘‘without hope, without appeal,’’ without the traditional certainties of religion or history, we may be able to continue after all, relying on..."truths the hand can touch.''

Boesman and Lena, in spite of their age, and in spite of the darkness, still have ‘‘daylights left in [them].’’ So Lena's decision to rejoin Boesman is a conscious effort on her part to resolve their problems one way (annihilation) or the other (recognition of self and other and the inherent worth and value of each). The resolution ultimately rests with Boesman (the oppressor) and his ability to change.

Boesman and Lena is a response to the institutionally created absurdity inherent in the lives of Africans, "coloureds," and Indians under the policy of apartheid. Fugard thus seems to view absurdity as something specific to certain social or political contexts; at least this is the view that surfaces because the play is set in South Africa, and race predominates within that society and in Fugard's text. However, Fugard is a more universal thinker than such an interpretation suggests, as a careful reading of his notebooks reveals. Fugard, having set the play in the region he knows best, extrapolates from the situation under apartheid to more universal concerns about the relationship of human beings to each other. Post-apartheid productions of his play will confirm its continued worth and vitality. So, in Boesman and Lena, as in Albee's The Death of Bessie Smith,

The racial situation a potent image of man's self-inflicted absurdity. that lack of compassion which Albee [with Fugard] sees as a mark of contemporary society.

Absurdity, for Fugard, is therefore a part of life, an obstacle to be overcome by an equitable awareness of self and other, and the other's reciprocation of this awareness.

Both Beckett and Fugard follow Camus' path into the absurd. In his deliberate omission of spatial and temporal data, Beckett creates a stark world that becomes a universal metaphor for the absurd nature of existence in both the physical and metaphysical realms. Fugard, less rooted in the metaphysical, provides exact information on his characters' spatial locale and thus defines absurdity as a condition resulting from the human power structures that govern life, not as the condition of life itself.

Source: Craig W. McLuckie, "Power, Self, and Other: the Absurd in Boesman and Lena,’’ in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter, 1993, p. 423.

Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The greatness of Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena lies in its capacity to extend the range of its unnerving protest far beyond its South African context. The play, so utterly and undeniably South African in its language and setting, defines and describes something of the tragedy of civilization itself, and includes in its compass the conviction that the society in which it is set is a microcosm of that civilization in its most evil and vicious details. The world it exhibits is a place where suffering, poverty, and loneliness are normal. While only the poor and impotent are presented, the existence of the rich and powerful is definitively implied—their indifference is a dire sin.

The characters of the play, Boesman, Lena, and the strange moribund old man, are society's refuse. They embody the poverty and misery of their world and the concomitants of that wretchedness, a brutal internecine hatred which brings with it the grim awareness that their inheritance of pain and confusion have bound them to one another with hoops of steel. However much they crave escape and independence, the essence of their lives is one. Hatred and habit, like love, cement individuals together.

While the story of the play is relatively simple, its structure is curiously complex. All the impetus of the events of the brief yet seemingly incessant movement of the play derives its force from the tortured emotions of Lena. Having been evicted from their shanty town by white men with bulldozers, Boesman and Lena find themselves on the bleak, muddy plain of Swartkops when the play begins. They carry with them their pitiful worldly goods, including the few scraps of corrugated iron and wood which they throw together to provide shelter. Near hysteria, with weariness from the walk and pain from a beating Boesman had given her for breaking three returnable empty bottles, Lena rambles on in passionate confusion, alternating from moods of raucous mirth to outbursts of frantic rage. Her senses of time and place have become dislocated; the past is an amorphous pile of place-names and painful recollections.

In despair she begs Boesman to help her make sense and order out of the past by sorting out for her the sequence of places to which they have wandered over the years—to give names to the experiences of the past. Cruelly he taunts her by deliberately confusing the order she has diffidently made. The taunting grows increasingly vicious, verging precariously on violence when the old African appears on the scene, another wanderer into this dark and bitter place. There is morbid comedy in Boesman's immediate repulsion of the old man on grounds of his and Lena's racial superiority; he is black while they, Cape-Coloured, are brown. Lena, however, flies to him, entreating him to bear witness to her suffering. She bombards him with laments about her life with Boesman and her past tragedies which include a miscarriage out in the open in the dark, with nothing but a sad old donkey as her witness.

With her bottle of cheap wine, she purchases from Boesman permission for the lonely old soul to remain the night with them. The old man's speech is a mixture of Xhosa and guttural, garbled noises resembling language. He learns to say Lena's name after some childlike attempts; and yet throughout his speech Lena adamantly asserts that she can discern words of comfort and sympathy. She huddles under her blanket with him by the fire. Boesman refuses to allow a kaffer and his fleas in the shelter with him, and he returns alone into the hovel to get drunk. In loyal defiance Lena elects to remain out in the cold with her new companion.

An hour later, in the second act, Boesman emerges from the shelter and with cruel drunken violence continues his attack on Lena. He explodes in violent tirades against her and his life. A match for his frenzy, Lena responds with a mocking song and dance, at the conclusion of which Boesman announces with quiet hatred: "I dropped the empties." It dawns on the incredulous Lena that the beating she suffered was gratuitous. She begs Boesman to explain to her why he beats her. "What have I done. Boesman? It is my life. Hit your own," she cries in immense uncomprehending rage. He, (equally desperate, looking around dumbly) asks: "Show it to me! Where is it?" In the desperate haranguing that follows, he angrily tries to explain that the beatings he gives her are beatings he is giving himself. His hatred of life is manifested in his hatred of Lena. She is a loathsome emblem of his endurance, and in smashing and bruising her he is trying to crush his own life. His need of her resides in this crude perception of his life and his pain as another being. Their attention turns to the old man, their witness. Now they realize that quietly and alone he has died.

In his death the old man has become in relation to Boesman and Lena what they are to the white world. He is now their refuse, an additional burden to them. Boesman, recognizing this, vents his rage on the corpse, kicking and hitting it with impotent hatred. Triumphantly Lena watches the outburst, only to remind Boesman that now the inert body bears his fingerprints and marks. In a fury of panic he begins to pack up to leave. Lena slowly but inevitably helps him and they walk silently off into the darkness.

The development of the play depends upon the explosions of Lena's passions and their dangerous subsidences. The action begins and ends in a white heat of emotion which from time to time flames out. But the outbursts of concentrated rage are no more tortured or significant than those of seething calm when Lena is mumbling her griefs or recollecting the wrongs done to her. The sequence of rises and falls in moral and passional intensity have an ineluctably logical pattern. Lena's emotions determine the tone of each action. And it is evident from the first, as it is evident in the end, that the action is simply and purely continuous; that the events of the evening, terrible as they are, are unremarkable in the lives of the two tormented protagonists. Fugard deliberately locates the action in an unknown, dark place to which the two have come almost automatically; it is a place for which they feel bleak indifference. It has a name to be lumped loosely with the other names of other places where they have stopped in their eternal and eternally damned wanderings. The places where they have remained in the past have meaning for Lena only in so far as they have the power to remind her of her past and of her agonies; they remind her that she has lived a life and that that life has a definable, individual shape.

And yet while what happens in the course of the play seems, by virtue of its relentlessly resigned ending, to be 'normal' for Boesman and Lena, by other standards it is an event (or, rather, a series of events) charged with meaning. The living fact of Boesman and Lena is tragic in and of itself. The tragedy lies not so much in the dreadful antagonism that defines their relationship, and not so much in the fact that, in this evening of unremitting and increasing horrors, they recognize their hapless bondage to one another, but it lies simply in their being and their continuing. When they pack up and leave at the end of the play nothing has changed; Lena it is true pleads with Boesman to kill her the next time:

I'm alive, Boesman. There's daylights left in me. You still got a chance. Don't lose it. Next time you want to kill me, do it. Really do it. When you hit, hit those lights out. Don't be too late. Do it yourself...

But in the act of packing and leaving that desolate place with him she is simultaneously negating the import of the words, and one is left with the disquieting knowledge that the words have been uttered countless times before, and with the same heartfelt sincerity. It is precisely this conviction that informs the conclusion, passive and even static, as it seems, with tragic depth. The passionate debility of the ending crystallizes in as eloquent a fashion the same thoughts and emotional numbness as are conjured up from the depths of helplessness and moral enervation in the celebrated conclusion to Waiting for Godot.

Lena's tragedy is twofold. She is a non-white South African and she is a woman. This latter fact determines to a considerable measure the nature of her suffering. However much Boesman is made to suffer and cringe, however victimized he is by his place in this society, there is always someone lower and weaker than himself, and it is she who has to bear the brunt of his rage. Only she feels the effects of his frustration. For Boesman to attack his persecutors is certain defeat; his blows, therefore, have nowhere else to fall than on Lena's body. Her anguish is inevitably the greater. Not only has she her own burden of humiliation to bear, but she must bear the effects of Boesman's as well. This essentially female aspect of her suffering is contained in her description of the miscarriage. While Lena is humanized, made larger, by her experience, Boesman is brutalized by his sense of the wrong done to him and what he sees as Lena's failure.

Nee, God, Outa! What more must I say? What you asking me about? Pain? Yes! Don't kaffers know what that means? One night it was longer than a small piece of candle and then as big as darkness. Somewhere else a donkey looked at it. I crawled under the cart and they looked. Boesman was too far away to call. Just the sound of his axe as he chopped wood. I didn't even have rags! You asked me and now I've told you. Pain is a candle entjie and a donkey's face. What's that mean to you? You weren't there. Nobody was. Why do you ask me now? You're too late for that.

Boesman can recall the event only with disgust and scorn. His voice full of reproach he spews out his hatred of life and Lena in one protracted metaphor of loathing:

Sies wereld!

All there is to say. That's our word. After that our life is dumb. Like your moer. All that came out of it was silence. There should have been noise. You pushed out silence. And Boesman buried it. Took the spade the next morning and pushed our hope back into the dirt. Deep holes! When I filled them up I said it again: Sies.

There is a ghastly irony in Boesman's reference to their "hope," an irony which he is unable to perceive but which the tonal quality of hopelessness throughout dramatically underscores.

In the way that Lena is defined and takes her motive force from pain and suffering, Boesman is motivated by a profound and violent shame. As she, the weaker of the two, is compelled to turn inwards her past experiences in reflective passion, so he turns outwards his shame, venting it in rages of self-pity and savage acts of destruction. Not unlike Dostoesvky's underfloor man, Boesman is a hugely detestable character for whom it is impossible not to have sympathy. Notwithstanding his brutality, his gratuitous cruelty, his carping ugly nature, the fact of his having lived a life overwhelmed by suffering and indignity gives him an undeniable emotional and moral stature and hence authority. The tragedy of Boesman's life is the enforced necessity of acceptance. He is compelled to permit whatever violations of his person and his dignity are inflicted upon them. The life he has been allowed as a poor black man makes him impotent against the ravages of the powerful. The image of the bulldozers of that morning have been burned into his brain; they constitute a symbol of the sheer power that dominates the lives of the downtrodden, who are helpless in the face of such power. They are thus forced to confront the unalterable alternatives of either accepting that power as their master or of fighting it and dying in the struggle. There is no other way, and no compromise. Boesman's rage is most searing in the speech in which he describes his feelings of exhilaration as he watched the bulldozers at work. A note of deep self-loathing permeates the passage. It begins with a description of the inhabitants, who, submissively, "like baboons," sit watching the destruction of their homes and become by Boesman's frenetic metaphorical leap, freed human beings:

It was bioscope, man! And I watched it. Beginning to end, the way it happened. I saw it. Me.

The women and children sitting there with their snot and tears. The pondoks falling. The men standing, looking, as the yellow donner pushed them over and then staring at the pieces when they were the only things left standing. I saw all that! The whiteman stopped the bulldozer and smoked a cigarette. I saw that too...

He wasn't just burning pondoks. They alone can't stink like that. Or burn like that.

There was something else in that fire, something rotten. Us!

...then I went back to the place where our pondok had been. It was gone! You understand that? Gone! I wanted to call you and show you. There where we crawled in and out like baboons, where we used to sit like them and eat, our head between our knees, our fingers in the pot, away so that the others wouldn't see our food... I could stand there! There was room for me to stand straight.

You know what that is. Listen now. I'm going to use a word Freedom! Ja, I've heard them talk it. Freedom! That's what the whiteman gave us... When we picked up our things and started to walk I wanted to sing. It was Freedom!

To which no more eloquent response is conceivable than Lena's barbed observation: "We had to go somewhere. Couldn't walk around Korsten carrying your Freedom for ever."

It is perhaps in this tirade of Boesman's that the thought becomes most bitter. Far from being a purifying or liberating fire in which the pondoks were burnt, it was a fire that stank, and its stench only served the ironic purpose of reminding Boesman of the humanity he loathes, the humanity of the poor and their obstinate perpetuity. Boesman comes to fathom life through sensuous experience. He says to Lena: "When you poop it makes more sense. You know why? It stinks. Your words are just noises." And it is by hitting her that he can feel the shape of his own existence, for which there is hardly a more appropriate metaphor than an old, defeated hag to whom he is eternally tied.

The quality of defeat which the characters of the play come to represent suffuses the action with a deep and pure pessimism, a darkness of spirit unlike anything else that Fugard has written. Even TheBlood Knot, that bleak and terrible work, has its glimmers of hope and its rare moments of beauty through poetic conjuration. Here, in Boesman and Lena, the poetry is a poetry of darkness. The author has created a world without even the relief of illusion or emphemerality. All memory is pain and suffering, the past a jumble of poverty and humiliation. The present is only the front of that past. And, even worse, the future is a spectre of easeless death. As Boesman remarks: "One day your turn. One day mine. Two more holes somewhere. The earth will get naar when they push us in. And then it's finished. The end of Boesman and Lena." The sense of having lived a shamed, hateful, and useless life is nowhere more evident than in Boesman's assertion that the starved earth will only turn sick when they are buried.

Source: Derek Cohen, ‘‘Athol Fugard's Boesman and Lena,’’ in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XII, No. 3, April, 1978, pp. 78-83.


Critical Overview