Boesman and Lena

by Athol Fugard

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The Play

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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 and witness.

Though neither Lena nor the old African understands the other, each speaks as if genuine communication were occurring. The old man explains that he is dying and that while looking for his relatives he lost his way. Lena tells him of her past and present experiences. The lack of real communication is revealed as the old man says that he is dying, for Lena interprets his words as small talk and continues to respond as her illusion dictates. Her utter desperation for a companion is betrayed when the old man gets up to leave and she throws herself at him in order to stop him.

When Boesman returns, he is physically abusive to the old man, shoving him to the ground and taking away the blanket Lena had given to him (she is away gathering wood for a fire). The act ends when Lena returns...

(This entire section contains 1074 words.)

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and sits by the old man rather than with Boesman, sharing her tea and bread with the man. Boesman watches the two, leaving his food untouched, as Lena shows some independence from him by her relationship, such as it is, with an outsider.

The second act is dedicated more to Boesman’s thoughts and actions than to Lena’s. As act 2 begins, Lena and the old man are still together, and Boesman, under the influence of wine, watches. As Boesman and Lena exchange contentious words, it is Boesman who now recalls the past. He relives their dispossession from the land and recollects his feeling of amusement as other people tried to save their possessions from the oncoming bulldozers. Nonwhite people are pushed around by the whites, Boesman says, because whites consider them mere garbage, not human beings.

Lena notes that Boesman still will not tell her how and why they arrived at their present situation and asks him more questions. She wants to know, for example, why he has been so cruel to her and why he hit her for allegedly dropping bottles that he now confesses he broke. This accusation triggers a rare moment of introspection on Boesman’s part. The indications are that he hits her out of frustration and anger at himself, as he hits his hand with his fist as he tries to answer her. His frustration is evident as he states his belief that life is meaningless: “Our life is dumb.”

Lena desperately wants a witness for Boesman’s moment of introspection, but the two discover that the old African has died during their confrontation. Boesman fears that he may be blamed for the man’s death, and in a case of role reversal, he wants Lena to bear witness to the truth. He panics, while she stays calm and taunts him about how he will explain the situation to the police. Boesman loses control and beats the corpse, giving Lena the chance to taunt him further: Now it will certainly appear to the authorities as if he has killed the man. Boesman then quickly packs their belongings and asks Lena if she is coming with him; she refuses. Then, as Boesman finishes loading their packages, she decides to go with him.

As they load, Boesman answers Lena’s initial questions regarding how they got to where they are. Though he has answered a question she had felt to be of the utmost importance, she now realizes that knowing the order of their travels does not really explain anything to her. Still, as the play ends, Lena is somewhat satisfied, for she at last has had a witness (the old African), and, as she tells Boesman, “I’m alive. . . . There’s daylights left in me.” The play ends with the two continuing their travels.

Dramatic Devices

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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

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South Africa is a land inhabited by many cultures, including Dutch, German, and English white settlers; black Africans from many different tribes across the continent; mixed-race people known as "coloreds''; and Asian people from India Pakistan, and elsewhere. Since the eighteenth century, white colonists have been drawn to the southern tip of the African continent for the abundance of resources it has to offer, particularly coal, uranium, diamonds, and gold. From the time they first started to appear in South Africa, the white minority population sought ways to control the black majority.

After decades of creating ‘‘pass laws’’ and various segregation legislation, the ruling white class, through the National Party, instituted a policy of apartheid, or "separateness," in 1948. The apartheid laws classified people according to four major groups—Whites, Blacks (‘‘Bantus’’), Coloreds (people of mixed descent), and Asians (mainly Indians and Pakistanis). The laws determined where each group could live and work and what type of education they could receive, and kept the groups separate from each other, particularly from the ruling white class.

When Fugard wrote Boesman and Lena in 1969, all black African unions and political organizations, including the popular African National Congress (ANC), had been banned. Blacks in the country were assigned to Bantustans, or homelands, often in the deserts and arid wastelands outside of white cities, and without regard for their true origins. They were restricted from traveling outside of their Bantustans, except to work for whites in very limited capacities and for short periods of time. The minority white population controlled more than 80 percent of the land, all of the government, and the vast majority of natural resources, including the workable farmland.

Uprisings against the harsh rules of apartheid were increasingly common in the 1960s and 1970s. During the ‘‘Sharpeville Massacre’’ of March 21, 1960, police killed 69 blacks who were demonstrating against pass laws. In later riots, like the Soweto uprising in Johannesburg in 1976, schoolchildren protested the ‘‘Bantu education’’ they were offered by the white government and boycotted the schools when they were forced to study in the Afrikaans language, the language of the minority white leaders. The Soweto protests sparked similar demonstrations across the country, led mainly by South African youths, which led to the deaths of nearly 600 blacks at the hands of white police and soldiers.

Theater in South Africa
The many divisions of race and class in South Africa at the time of Boesman and Lena created a complex and occasionally hazardous environment for theatrical production. Although drama fared better than novels, television, and films, many of which were banned even before their release to the public, government authorities, determined to enforce the laws of apartheid and suppress political opposition, made it difficult for the art of theater to thrive.

The Republic of South Africa was formed in 1961, after the country broke away from the British Commonwealth. Rising international protest over South Africa's apartheid policies and its treatment of black and "coloured" citizens caused many countries to shun the new republic. By 1963, foreign playwrights refused to have their plays staged in South Africa. In 1965, laws were passed prohibiting mixed-race casts on stage and requiring audiences to be segregated into black, white, and "coloured" crowds with separate performances. By 1966 British Equity, the actors' union, would not allow its members to act in these segregated theaters under these conditions. As a consequence of these decisions, South Africa faced a shortage of new plays and hosted practically no touring companies.

While the government provided a small measure of subsidy for theater through a network of Performing Arts Councils, access to this public funding meant accepting harsh restrictions on what could be written and staged, where, and for whom. As a result, many white African playwrights, and practically all black authors, worked outside the subsidized theater where both the risks and the potential rewards were greater.

Some artists, such as Gibson Kente, created all-black touring groups that performed solely for all-black township audiences in a variety of spaces (since none of the townships had actual theaters). Kente mostly avoided obviously political subjects, but was actually jailed for a while in 1976 when How Long? (1973), a play of Kente's that criticized the pass laws, was turned into a film and attracted wider public attention. Other "alternative" companies, like the Space Theatre in Cape Town and the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, devised ways to work around the laws segregating theater and staged works by both black and white South Africans with mixed casts and occasionally mixed audiences.

The segregation laws separating casts and audiences were not repealed until 1977, by which time the renegade South African alternative theater had produced many notable playwrights and performers. John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Fatima Dike (the first black South African woman to have a play published), and Athol Fugard began their careers at the height of apartheid, and are often given credit for helping to raise national and international awareness of South Africa's problems and eventually to end racial segregation and restore the rights of the black majority.

Literary Style

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The setting of a play includes such things as the time period in which it occurs, the location of the action, and important characteristics of the culture in which the characters live. Boesman and Lena takes place in the early 1960s in South Africa, when the apartheid movement had a strong grip on the people of that diverse country. Although South Africa at the time was inhabited by many cultures, including Dutch, German, and English white settlers; black Africans representing many different tribes from across the continent; mixed-race people known as ‘‘coloureds’’; and Asian people from India Pakistan, and elsewhere, the ruling white class made it very difficult for these other groups to survive and prosper. Strict, oppressive laws governed where these people could attend school, live, and work, and who they could associate with and marry.

Although the landscape of South Africa is marvelously varied and beautiful, containing forests, mountains, enormous grasslands and plateaus, farmland, and deserts, Fugard chose to set Boesman and Lena on a bleak patch of earth that his characters were more familiar with: the mudflats of the Swartkops River outside the city of Port Elizabeth. Here, on the filthy, stinking banks of the river at low tide, Boesman, Lena, and other poor coloureds and blacks were able to scavenge for shrimp and small fish and collect the trash of the whites that floated along the water and collected on the shore.

Circular Structure
One of the hallmarks of plays that are labeled part of the "Theatre of the Absurd'' movement of the 1950s and 1960s is that they often contain a circular structure. They end more or less precisely where they began. Samuel Beckett's well-known absurdist tragicomedy Waiting for Godot (1953), for example, depicts two tramps waiting near a bare-branched tree for the arrival of a Monsieur Godot at the beginning of the play. By the end, after a series of odd comic and serious scenes filled with metaphysical questions about the absurdity of life, the unlikely pair of clowns remains near the same tree waiting for the same man, with little hope that anything will ever change. The lack of progress becomes a metaphor for the pointlessness of life.

In terms of the characters' development, Boesman and Lena does not end exactly where it began. Boesman may have learned to value and respect Lena's companionship just a little more than he did before, and Lena, through Outa's death, discovers a slightly more hopeful way to view her existence. Still, in terms of the play's plot, their lives at the end continue along the same exact journey they were on when the play began. They arrived on the mudflats of the Swartkops running from the oppression of whites and trying desperately to find a place to settle down. When the curtain closes, they are departing in the same mode, running from the death of Outa and the questions of the white authorities and back into the same circle of shabby shantytowns they have visited countless times before.

Literary Heritage
South Africa is inhabited by a broad range of cultures including Dutch, German, and English white settlers; black Africans from many different tribes across the continent; "coloreds" (people of mixed descent); and Asian people (mainly people from India and Pakistan). White colonists were first attracted to the South African coast in the eighteenth century for its abundant resources. Since their arrival, the white minority population has sought to control the black majority population of the region.

When Fugard wrote his play Boesman and Lena in 1969, all major black African political organizations had been banned, and blacks in the country were segregated and assigned to Bantustans (‘‘homelands’’), restricted from travelling outside these areas (except to work for whites in very limited circumstances). The minority white population by this time controlled over eighty percent of the land, all the government, and the vast majority of natural resources, though black African uprisings against white control were frequent throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The state of the arts, in particular the theater, were hazardous during this time. Although stage dramas were often less censored than were novels, television, and movies (which were often banned before their public release), the laws regarding apartheid made theater production increasingly difficult. Rising international protest against South Africa's apartheid policies caused many countries and playwrights to shun South Africa. At the same time (1965), new apartheid laws were passed prohibiting mixed-race casts and segregating audiences by race. By 1966, British Equity would not allow its performers to act in these conditions. As a consequence, South Africa faced a dearth of plays, performers, and touring companies. While the South African government did provide limited funding for the arts, access to these funds required adherence to the strict apartheid policies governing public performances; because of these restrictions, many artists worked outside subsidized theater.

Some artists, such as Gibson Kent, created all-black touring groups and performed only for black audiences. Other companies (e.g., the Space Theatre and the Market Theatre) devised ways of circumventing the apartheid laws and created works with mixed-race casts and occasionally mixed audiences. The segregation laws regarding casts and audiences were not repealed until 1977, during which time several notable playwrights, performers, and writers (including Fugard) had emerged against the turbulent political background. These performers are often credited with helping to raise national and international awareness of South Africa's apartheid policies.

Athol Fugard, who began (and continued) his writing career while South Africa's apartheid policies were in place, was considered by the South African government to be a ‘‘political risk.’’ He was often censored and occasionally prevented from traveling to and from his home country. Today, Fugard is recognized in both his own country and internationally as one of the greatest living playwrights in the English language, and is credited with helping to dismantle the unjust system of apartheid through his drama. Fugard's works are characterized by his personal portrayals of tragic events in the lives of two or three characters, often utilizing casts of mixed-race characters set against difficult political, social and economic backgrounds of South Africa. His dramas depict the devastating effects of apartheid, and represent a microcosm of South Africa as a whole.

Compare and Contrast

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1969: After 69 blacks were killed in Sharpeville in 1960 when police opened fire on a crowd of anti-apartheid demonstrators, all black African political organizations, including the African National Congress (ANC) and other opposition groups, are banned.

Today: In the 1990s, white South African President F. W. de Klerk helped dismantle apartheid policies and restore representative power to black African unions and political organizations.

1969: About a million blacks are arrested each year for violation of the ‘‘Pass Laws,’’ a rigid system of rules governing where blacks can live and work, and requiring all black South African citizens to carry with them at all times a ''reference book'' which lists their personal information and employment history.

Today: The pass laws were abolished in 1986 when the dismantling of apartheid began, and all citizens of South Africa are now able to move about their country freely, living and working wherever they choose.

1969: Afrikaans and English are the only official languages of South Africa, even though they are spoken as first languages by only a small portion of the population.

Today: The 1994 constitution added nine languages to the list of officially recognized tongues in South Africa: Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho sa Leboa, Tswana, Sesotho, Tsonga, Venda, Ndebele, and siSwati. Together with English and Afrikaans, these languages represent 98 percent of the people in South Africa.

1969: Education for blacks and coloureds in South Africa is significantly inferior to that provided for whites. Black students have fewer classrooms, fewer textbooks, and fewer teachers. Few schools have any kind of science laboratories, and per-student spending on blacks is less than 25% that allocated to white students.

Today: Fourteen separate education departments have been merged into one nondiscriminatory educational system. The government's goal is to provide ten years of mandatory, state-sponsored education for all children, but South Africa still faces a monumental shortage of teachers, textbooks, and classroom facilities and is trying desperately to fund massive educational reforms.

1969: Playwright Athol Fugard is considered a political risk to the government of South Africa. He is subjected to censorship of his plays, limited in his ability to produce for mixed-race audiences, and occasionally prevented from leaving and returning to his country of birth.

Today: Fugard is recognized in his own country and abroad as one of the greatest living playwrights in the English language, and is credited with helping to dismantle the unjust system of apartheid through his insightful works of drama. He travels freely around the world as a writer, actor, and director.

Media Adaptations

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

A second film adaptation was produced in 1999. Directed by American John Berry, and starring Americans Danny Glover and Angela Bassett, this Boesman and Lena was filmed on location in Cape Town, and produced jointly by South African Primedia Pictures and Pathe Image, a French subsidiary of Pathe, France's oldest film company.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Branford, Jean. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Athol Fugard, edited by Stephen Gray. McGraw-Hill, 1982, p. 80.

Brockett, Oscar G. ‘‘The Theatre of Africa: South Africa,’’ in History of the Theatre, 8th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1998, pp. 658-65.

Cohen, Derek. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Canadian Drama, Spring, 1980, pp. 151-61.

Disch, Thomas M. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Nation, March 2, 1992.

Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Anchor Books, 1962, pp. 290-91.

Fugard, Athol. Boesman and Lena and Other Plays. Oxford University Press, 1974, pp. vii-xxv.

---. Notebooks 1960-1977, A. D. Donker, ed., 1983, pp. 65-7, 124.

Gussow, Mel. Review of Boesman and Lena, in Athol Fugard, edited by Stephen Gray. McGraw-Hill, 1982, p. 94.

Jacobson, Dan. ‘‘The Poetry of Poverty,’’ in Guardian Weekly, August 10, 1974, reprinted in Athol Fugard, edited by Stephen Gray. McGraw-Hill, 1982, p. 82.

McLuckie, Craig W. ‘‘Power, Self, and Other: the Absurd in Boesman and Lena,’’ in Twentieth Century Literature, Winter, 1993, p. 423.

Miller, Arthur. ‘‘Tragedy and the Common Man,’’ in New York Times, February 27, 1949, reprinted in Dramatic Theory and Criticism, edited by Bernard F. Dukore. Holt, Rinehart, 1974, p. 896.

Further Reading
Brockett, Oscar G. History of the Theatre, 8th ed. Allyn and Bacon, 1998. Brockett's History of the Theatre is a comprehensive volume, covering more than 2,000 years of worldwide theatrical tradition. Of special interest, however, is ‘‘The Theatre of Africa,’’ a new chapter the author added with the seventh edition of this highly respected theater sourcebook. In this chapter, Brockett covers the history and performance traditions of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Zaire, and countries all across the African continent, including the Republic of South Africa.

Fugard, Athol. Notebooks 1960-1977, A. D. Donker, ed., 1983. Athol Fugard began keeping notebooks of his thoughts and experiences in 1959 when he and his wife traveled to Europe. His first entries became the basis for his 1960 play The Blood Knot, and since then the brief sketches and ideas he has recorded in his notebooks have provided him with the characters, plots, and themes of his plays. This collection of Fugard's notebooks covers the first half of his career, from the creation of The Blood Knot through a production of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1977.

Gray, Stephen, ed. Athol Fugard. McGraw-Hill, 1982. This collection of scholarship about Athol Fugard is part of the ‘‘South African Literature Series’’ and contains a chronology of events in the playwright's life, reviews of his plays, critical essays, interviews with the author, and an extensive bibliography suggesting additional resources for study.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. Yale University Press, 1996. Thompson writes about the entire history of South Africa, from its earliest known inhabitants through the present day, with an emphasis on the black majority population.

Waldmeir, Patti. Anatomy of a Miracle: The End of Apartheid and the Birth of the New South Africa. Norton, 1997. Waldmeir is a journalist who became acquainted with Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, the two men primarily responsible for the dismantling of apartheid, and witnessed the events leading up to the integration of South African society and restoration of political power to that country's black majority. In Anatomy of a Miracle she uses interviews and eyewitness accounts to tell the story of the end of apartheid from the unrest of the early 1980s through Mandela's release from prison and inauguration as president in 1994.


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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 Albert Ertheim. Athol Fugard: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1997.

Seidenspinner, Margarete. Exploring the Labyrinth: Athol Fugard’s Approach to South African Drama. Essen, South Africa: Blaue Eule, 1986.

Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. New York: Twayne, 1984.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide