Boesman and Lena

by Athol Fugard

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Themes and Meanings

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Boesman and Lena has several important themes, one of which echoes the classical Greek saying that an unexamined life is not worth living. This statement is especially relevant to Boesman, who continually dismisses Lena’s questions regarding why their lives are as they are and how they came to their present condition. Boesman dismisses these questions angrily and derisively, showing his resolve not to examine his life too closely. He is determined throughout most of the play to accept without question their situation as dispossessed people. This determination is the source of his conflict with Lena. In opposition to Boesman, Lena wants to believe that their lives are not meaningless and isolated, but valuable and witnessed by others. This desire for a witness reveals Lena’s need for a human community outside of Boesman, who does not fulfill her need. It also explains Lena’s illusion of talking with the old African, although they do not speak the same language or understand each other. To Boesman, on the other hand, the man is merely an old Kaffir and he wishes to continue in isolation.

Boesman and Lena also displays, as Athol Fugard himself acknowledges, the influence of the French existentialist Albert Camus. Camus’s works deal with the precariousness of human existence, the apparent meaninglessness of life, and how people react to this threat of meaninglessness. These themes are all found in Boesman and Lena, in the opposing ways in which each faces their continual dispossession and deprivation. The theme of abuse of another person is central to the play; Boesman emotionally and physically abuses Lena. Boesman’s reason for being so abusive is complex. Initially, it seems that Lena thwarts Boesman’s desire to avoid thinking about the condition of their lives. By the end of the play, one sees that Boesman is angry at himself for his powerlessness and angry at the whites who put him in such a situation. He chooses, then, a safe target in Lena, who is physically defenseless and emotionally undermined by him.

Another important factor is that the play is both about the conflict between Boesman and Lena and about the South African situation, with the latter theme subtly presented in the references to other nonwhite people being dispossessed of their homes. This theme constitutes the social protest aspect of the play. It raises the larger social issue of South Africa’s policies concerning the land during this period. These policies sanctioned removal of nonwhites from certain locations so that whites could use the land (slum clearance is the reason mentioned in the play). Thus, the play’s subject is larger than the interpersonal conflict between the two title characters.

The quest for, and acceptance of, the truth constitutes another important theme. To a degree, even Boesman finally accepts some truths that he had avoided—for example, his real bitterness at the white power structure and his anger at the people who scramble to obey it. The theme of facing the truth, however, applies especially to Lena. In the face of Boesman’s derision, she continues to question and to try to examine her life. She wants to know the meaning behind the impoverished and chaotic reality with which she is faced. Thus, Lena’s carrying her bundle—her life—on her head is symbolic: She carries her life on her head because she reflects on her life in her head. She is not a mindless automaton in the face of cruelty and deprivation. Thus, in a sense, the play is hopeful, though it may seem overwhelmingly bleak, for Lena succeeds in continuing her quest for meaning and for a link to humanity.

(This entire section contains 610 words.)

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In a world in which every movement is monitored, controlled, and regulated, and every small privilege is hard-won and precious, any kind of freedom is a valuable commodity. Because of apartheid and its strict laws governing the separation and rights of races in South Africa at the time of the play, this is the world occupied by the characters in Boesman and Lena. The blacks and coloureds of South Africa are told where they can live, work, and travel. Freedom of any kind is not an inalienable right, and complete liberty simply doesn't exist. In its absence, the oppressed minorities of this society have to find their own sense of freedom wherever and whenever they can, even if that means accepting abuse and injustice, and convincing themselves they have found liberation.

Boesman claims to be happy that the white man came with his bulldozers and knocked down his shabby little pondok (hut). Where once he had to crawl inside and huddle, cramped, over his food, now he could stand up straight beneath the sky. "Freedom!" Boesman crows, ‘‘That's what the white man gave us.. .When we picked up our things and started to walk I wanted to sing. It was Freedom!’’ At least momentarily, Boesman felt liberated. He had no place to live and only the belongings on his back, so the world was open to whatever he might choose to do and wherever he might choose to go. Boesman's freedom, however, was quickly limited by necessity. He had to find another place to shelter himself, and almost immediately he fell into old, familiar habits. He picked up a piece of scrap metal along the roadside to use as a roof for their next pondok, and in that simple act he once again fell into the white man's trap and gave away his freedom. ‘‘Another pondok.’’ Boesman mourns, ‘‘It's no use baas. Boesman's done it again. Bring your bulldozer tomorrow and push it over!’’

Recognizing this trap, Lena tries to escape with her newfound freedom still intact. ‘‘That's not a pondok, Boesman,’’ she cries. ‘‘It's a coffin. All of them. You bury my life in your pondoks. Not tonight.'' She chooses instead to stay outside, under the sky and next to the campfire, with the old black stranger she has befriended. It is this stranger, whom she calls Outa, who provides her with a different sense of freedom. After she tells him many details of her life and travels, and tries valiantly to feed him and keep him awake and talking, he dies in her arms. Outa's death teaches her about the one freedom she has that cannot be taken away before its time. ‘‘I'm alive, Boesman,’’ she observes at the end of the play. ‘‘There's daylights left in me.’’ Given the restrictions all around her, it is a meager freedom on which to rely, but it is all she has, and it gives her the strength to resume her journey.

Both Boesman and Lena are constantly in search of an identity, something that will help them make some sense of the world they inhabit and provide a measure of stability to their frantic, fragile lives. Lena begins the play trying to find some sort of identity in geography. By listing all of the places she and Boesman have traveled together, in order, she hopes to make some sense of her life. But she cannot remember if Mission Vale came before Redhouse or after Korsten, and doesn't know in which direction Coega and Veeplaas lie now that she is standing in Swartkops. Boesman is no help at all. He merely insults her or beats her. In his beatings, though, Lena finds another odd sort of identity. If she can be beaten by Boesman she must exist. ‘‘When I feel it,’’ she reasons, ‘‘I'll know. I'm Lena.’’ Lena also tries to affirm her being in the eyes of the old stranger they meet. Despite the fact that she cannot speak his language or understand what he is saying, Lena coaxes the old man into saying her name, and is thrilled when he manages to do it.

Despite his best efforts, Boesman usually finds his identity being defined by the white men who rule his world. It is they who have designated him part of the "coloured" class and decreed that he must live in the deserts, mudflats, and other uninhabitable parts of his country. When he finally feels a measure of freedom, after having his ramshackle home destroyed and being driven into the countryside, he immediately lapses into the role his society has handed him and starts scavenging for the white man's junk to build another pondok. In the end, both Boesman and Lena discover that, however their identities might change in relation to other people or the world around them, one of the only consistent measurements of their worth and who they are is their relationship with each other. They are Boesman and Lena, and they continue their travels together.

Race Relations
Beneath all of Fugard's plays, including Boesman and Lena, is the backdrop of apartheid, or "separateness," the policy of racial segregation followed by the South African government from 1948 until the early 1990s. The apartheid laws classified people according to four major groups—Whites, Blacks (‘‘Bantus’’), Coloureds (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.

These complicated race relations are an essential component of the plot and character development of Boesman and Lena. The title characters, who are both considered coloured, live their lives according to the rules of white society, and find themselves constantly on the move, forced out of one shantytown after another by the bulldozers and soldiers of the white government. Quite obviously, apartheid is a bigoted, unjust system, but its flaws are not the central issue related to race relations in the play. Rather, it is the effect apartheid has had on the minorities it persecutes, and their treatment of one another, that takes center stage.

Both Boesman and Lena feel helplessness and rage at their years of mistreatment by whites, and each deals with his or her emotions in different ways. When confronted and abused by whites, Lena often cries and begs for better treatment. Then, when alone, she seeks solace in a bottle of wine and complains incessantly to her traveling companion, Boesman. For his part, Boesman mocks her for her weakness and cruelly imitates her servility. This is his way of fighting back. Because he cannot mistreat the whites who mistreat him, he passes the abuse along to those who are even more defenseless than he is. In the process, he turns the evil of his white oppressors—interracial hatred—into a greater evil within his own downtrodden class. Because he cannot escape oppression, he chooses to become an oppressor himself. This cruel evolution of abuse is seen most vividly in Boesman's treatment of Outa, the old black man whom Lena invites into their campsite. Boesman angrily calls Outa a "kaffer," a derogatory term for blacks used in South Africa equivalent to the American slang word "nigger." He has no pity for this fellow abandoned soul. He refuses to share his meal and his shelter with the old man, and after he dies, Boesman beats out his frustrations on Outa's lifeless body.


Act Summaries