Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1984
Act 1, Scene 1
A Lesson From Aloes opens in the backyard of Piet and Gladys Bezuidenhout’s home in South Africa in 1963. Piet is seated in front of an aloe plant, reading aloud from a book on the subject, trying to identify his specific plant but not having any luck. Gladys sits nearby. After he tells her that if this is a new species, he will name it after her, he then begins a brief monologue on the importance of names, quoting from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to help prove his point.
Gladys claims that time is passing slowly that afternoon as they wait for their friend Steve and his family to come for dinner. Piet asks if everything is ready in the kitchen for them, and Gladys tells him it is. He tells her to relax then and enjoy the lovely autumn weather, but she is worried about getting sunburned. When Piet returns with her sun hat, she appears anxious and goes into the house to confirm that she put away her diary.
Piet again turns his attention to his aloe, insisting that he must not neglect it. He asks Gladys whether they have enough food, noting that Steve is bringing his wife and four children. Her response that food is “not going to be the problem” reveals her apprehension about their arrival. When Piet tries to calm her by reminding her that they are friends, Gladys claims that she is “out of practice” and is worried about coming up with conversation, noting that they have been the first visitors since she has been back from the mental hospital.
Piet turns his attention to his plant again and reasserts the importance of naming, explaining that a name is the first thing people give a newborn and someone met for a first time. He is frustrated that he cannot find the right name for his plant and then discusses its qualities, describing its ability to survive in harsh terrain. Piet suggests that there may be a lesson in the plant’s survival mechanisms for all of them, but Gladys refuses to identify herself with it and begins to get upset by their discussion. She claims that conversation with him always turns political, “a catalogue of South African disasters” because he “seem[s] to have a perverse need to dwell on what is cruel and ugly about this country.” She insists that she wants more out of life than just to survive. Although she is afraid of the country and the effect it can have on her, she is determined not to let it pass on its “violence” to her. In an effort to lighten the mood, Piet shifts the conversation to the upcoming dinner.
Act 1, Scene 2
As they get ready for the dinner, Gladys tell Piet that she feels isolated there while he is at work since no one is nearby. She notes that during the almost seven months that she has been back from the hospital, not one of their friends has come to visit. When she wonders whether they are avoiding her, Piet declares, “it’s a dangerous time and people are frightened,” citing all of the political and social unrest that has been occurring. Gladys insists that his explanation is too simple; she complains about people’s “lack of courage and faith,” alluding to the political activism in which they are no longer involved. Piet admits that he is frightened, too.
Later, Gladys proudly recalls every word from a quote by Thoreau about finding and following a purpose in life that Piet had recited to her on their first date. When he admits that he still believes in the sentiment, Gladys declares that she envies him that. She insists that she would be lost without her diary, which keeps her secrets. When she brings up the fact that her diaries were stolen from her, Piet tells her to try to forget, but she cannot. As she remembers the government officials coming into her room, she gets increasingly angry and agitated. Piet tries to reassure her that they will not come again, but she is not sure that she believes him.
When Gladys discovers that Piet still has the receipt the men gave him for the diaries, she demands that he rip it up so she can cancel those years. After Piet tears up the receipt, she calms down a bit, explaining how important the diaries were to her. But her hysteria returns when she thinks about how her trust in herself and in life has been shattered and declares that there is no safe place to hide her diary. She begins to attack Piet, blaming him for her “condition” but then pulls back and apologizes. When Piet offers to cancel the dinner, she tells him that she will be all right and that she does not want to hide anything anymore. The scene ends with her telling Pier, “I am trying,” suggesting that she is struggling to cope with her fragile emotional state.
Act 1, Scene 3
Piet declares that he owes Steve “more than anybody else in this world,” since his friend gave him a sense of purpose. He explains that when he worked as a bus driver, he had no interest in politics. On the morning of a bus boycott, he was reassigned into the “Coloured area” where he saw people “full of defiance” over the penny increase the government demanded for bus fares. He wondered why they made such an issue over a penny, but then started listening to a man who was handing out pamphlets and speaking to a crowd on a street corner. Steve was that man, and he was soon arrested by the police, but the next day he was back on the corner.
Piet decided that he should hear what the man had to say and was surprised that the crowd welcomed him, which became, as he describes, “the most moving thing that has ever happened to me.” Piet quit work that day, and a week later, he was handing out pamphlets with Steve on the same corner. Even though the bus company got their penny raise, Piet saw the boycott as a success since it “had raised the political consciousness of the people.” Political activism like this, he was certain, could “make this a better world to live in.”
Piet then tells Gladys that Steve and his family are leaving for England and will not be able to come back. Although she is surprised, Gladys declares that they are very lucky to be leaving. She knows that she could never convince Piet to leave and becomes cynical about the fight against apartheid that Piet and Steve were both so committed to now that it seems to have failed. She admits that she could never become as devoted to their cause because some of their goals, such as overthrowing the government, frightened her.
When Piet argues that the movement’s slogans were not empty, that they, not their dreams, failed, Gladys notes that just one person, the informer, failed. Someone apparently told the police that Steve was going to break the order that banned him from meeting with his friends, and so he was arrested. Piet insists that he does not know the identity of the informer and tries to change the subject to the upcoming dinner, but Gladys presses the point, asking him if other people think that he is the informer. Piet admits that it appears that they do, but that Steve does not believe it was him. After Piet tells her how horrible it is to be considered an informer, Gladys asks, “it’s not true, is it?” Piet does not respond and turns away. Later, he announces that Steve and his family should be arriving soon.
Two hours later, Steve arrives without his family, claiming that one of his daughters is ill. Piet is thrilled that Steve has arrived, sure that “he wouldn’t have come if everything wasn’t all right.” When he and Steve toast the “good old days,” Piet recites the quotation he found for the occasion. Piet later declares that he has been thinking a lot about his days on the farm when he had to help bury the child of a family that had worked for him. The child died of a stomach ailment since there had been no clean water on the farm. On that day, Piet admits, “a sense of deep, personal failure overwhelmed me,” as the family waited for him to say a few words, and he was too overcome with emotion to speak. Three months later, he left the farm.
Gladys tells Steve that he is fortunate to get out of the country, and he asks her what England is like, thinking from her manners, that she has lived there. Gladys at first denies this, but then admits, “In a way I suppose I am from England,” referring to Fort England Clinic, the mental hospital where she received treatment. Steve then shows Piet an old snapshot of him and his father on the day the latter caught a big fish, “the biggest moment in the old man’s life.” Soon after, however, the family was kicked out of their home, which had been declared a white area, after losing all of their money trying to fight the relocation. Steve notes that it “finished” his father.
Steve wants Piet to admit that he understands why Steve is leaving, but Piet does not want to talk about the subject. Trying to justify his decision, Steve explains that he has not been allowed to work for four years and that he has to get his family out so that they can survive, insisting that he does not want to be a martyr to the cause. He asks Piet to name one thing they accomplished and to admit that they fought for a lost cause, but Piet cannot agree. Steve tells Piet to get out while he can and come to England with him.
When Gladys tells Steve that everyone thinks that Piet is the informer and asks Steve if he thinks so too, Piet tries unsuccessfully to stop her, which causes her to grow agitated. She declares that enough lies have been told and that Piet is the informer. After Piet refuses to defend himself, Steve tells about the mental torture he endured while incarcerated, and that eventually, he told them everything he knew about the group’s political activities, information, ironically, that the police already had. Steve then asks Piet if he is the informer, noting that Steve’s wife thinks that he is, but Piet still refuses to respond.
Gladys declares that she admires Piet’s faith in himself and admits that she lied about his being the informer. When Steve asks her why she lied, she becomes angry and argues that he is not the only victim of their country and rails against Piet for not protecting her from the police and from the doctors who gave her shock treatments. She becomes hysterical when she remembers the treatments, insisting that they “burned my brain as brown as yours, Steven.”
After Gladys escapes into the house, Piet explains how after the police took her diaries, she became paranoid and thought that he was one of them. Piet then tells Steve that he did not deny her charge because there would have been no point if Steve had believed it. After Steve leaves, Piet goes in to Gladys, who admits that she tried to wreck his friendship with Steve and that she wanted to destroy the goodness in Pier, just like the country has done to its people. She decides that she has to go back to the clinic but will “go quietly this time.” Piet gives her pills to help her sleep and goes into the backyard where he sits with his aloe.