The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The title characters of Boesman and Lena are South African “coloreds” (this word is in quotation marks because it is a governmental racial designation that is offensive to many of those classified as such). As the first act opens, they have been dispossessed of their home by the white authorities, and they are walking along the mudflats of a river in South Africa. They carry all of their possessions in bundles; Boesman carries his on his back, while Lena carries hers on her head. They are middle-aged, and their dress and demeanor indicate that they have led a life of hardship and poverty.

The conflict between the two is almost immediately apparent. As Lena makes observations and asks Boesman questions about the condition of their lives, he tersely tells her to stop talking. Boesman does not want to think about the whys and wherefores of their lives, but Lena wants to know why their lives are as they are and asks him such questions as why he stopped at the mudflats and in what order they lived in certain locations. She wants to remember the past; Boesman, on the other hand, angrily states that life consists only of what is happening at the present moment.

Lena also desperately wants someone to share her quest for finding out how and why her life came to be in such a condition; she wants a witness to her quest and her life, both past and present. The major aspect of the conflict between Boesman and Lena is that he refuses to play this role. He berates Lena for asking questions, laughs at her, and makes jokes about her questions. Still, she believes that she needs him to help her in her quest, because he is the sole witness to their many moves, the places they have lived, and how they arrived at their current desperate situation. Boesman, however, laughs derisively as he tells Lena that he is aware that she wants him to help her find herself. Boesman continues to dismiss Lena’s questions as nonsense.

When an old black man who only speaks Xhosa comes along, Lena quickly tries to communicate with him. They each talk—she in English, he in Xhosa—with neither understanding the other. However, Lena pretends, or has the illusion, that she is carrying on a dialogue with the man. Boesman angrily leaves the scene for most of this interaction, stating that the man will turn his and Lena’s resting place into a “Kaffir nest” (“Kaffir” is a South African word equivalent to “nigger”). In this part of the play, Fugard emphasizes that Boesman and Lena differentiate between “coloreds” and black Africans. Lena overlooks the man’s race in her need for a sympathetic companion...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Athol Fugard realizes the themes of Boesman and Lena in a variety of ways. The empty set onto which Boesman and Lena wander conveys a feeling of a wide, desolate landscape. This landscape is an appropriate setting for Lena’s questioning of her life and her feelings of being cut off from humanity. In addition, the contrast between the two characters is immediately imparted. Boesman carries his belongings on his back, indicating his physicality, while Lena carries all of her belongings on her head, reflective of her intellectual side.

Another dramatic device Fugard utilizes is the old African man who speaks Xhosa while Lena can only communicate to him in English or Afrikaans, neither of which he understands. The futility of their dialogue underscores Lena’s desperation for companionship and a connection to humanity beyond the cruelty of Boesman. Interestingly, Fugard provides no stage direction for how the old African’s remarks, which Fugard translates into English, are to be conveyed to the audience. It is important for the audience to realize that the old man and Lena are communicating at cross-purposes and that the old man is dying. One means could be a film projector. This aspect of the play—communicating the old man’s words to the audience—is one of the greatest imaginative challenges in staging the play.

It is significant, too, that in the first act the long monologues belong to Lena and the short replies to Boesman, while in the second act the reverse is true. This division is essential because the first act conveys Lena’s concerns with the meaning of her dispossession and her life, while the second act conveys Boesman’s reasons for being cruel to Lena and his views on existence. Thus, Fugard concentrates on one character in each act to detail their individual thoughts and concerns.

The nature of the characters’ long monologues is also interesting. Lena wants to know about and understand her life; her curiosity is evidenced by her constant statements and questions. Boesman, however, believes that people are mere garbage and that the present is the only time in which he exists, so that the past has no meaning or usefulness in explaining his and Lena’s situation. Therefore, Boesman’s and Lena’s monologues are central in defining the opposition in which they stand.

Historical Context

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

South Africa is a land inhabited by many cultures, including Dutch, German, and English white settlers;...

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Literary Style

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

The setting of a play includes such things as the time period in which it occurs, the location of the action,...

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Compare and Contrast

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

1969: After 69 blacks were killed in Sharpeville in 1960 when police opened fire on a crowd of anti-apartheid demonstrators,...

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Topics for Further Study

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

The setting for Boesman and Lena is extremely important to the plot and its characters. South Africa in 1969 was a country torn apart...

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Media Adaptations

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Boesman and Lena was first adapted as a film in 1973. This South African production was directed by Ross Devenish and starred Yvonne...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Fugard has written nearly two dozen plays. All of them are set in his native South Africa, and many share some of the same qualities Boesman and Lena possesses: intimate, small-cast, poetic dramas set against the beauty of the South African countryside and the tragedy of its politics. Fugard's first big success, The Blood Knot (1961), is about two half-brothers, one black, the other nearly white but technically "coloured,'' and the effects of apartheid on their lives. In Master Harold...and the Boys (1982), a young white South African boy learns some lessons about family, love, and dignity from the two black servants in his parents' cafe. My Children! My Africa! (1989)...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Literature of Developing Nations for Students)

Branford, Jean. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Athol Fugard, edited by Stephen Gray....

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Benson, Mary. Athol Fugard and Barry Simon: Bare-Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1999.

Fugard, Athol. Introduction to Boesman and Lena and Other Plays. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Fugard, Athol. Notebooks, 1960-1977. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Gray, Stephen, ed. Athol Fugard. London: Methuen, 1991.

Haupffleisch, Temple. Athol Fugard: A Source Guide. Johannesburg, South Africa: Donker, 1982.

King, Kimball, and...

(The entire section is 98 words.)