Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1074
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 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...
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