The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Piet is in the backyard of his house with an aloe plant that he is trying to identify from a field book, for names are important to him. Other potted aloes are set across the yard. His wife sits quietly nearby. Piet and Gladys have invited Steve Daniels and his family for supper, and because both are apprehensive about the impending visit, the waiting time is passing slowly. Gladys, to relieve her tension, goes into the bedroom of the house (visible to the audience) to get her sun hat and while there hides her diary under the mattress.

She returns and continues to discuss her worries about the expected visitors. Piet, trying to reassure her, sets the table and compliments her festive idea of the brass candlesticks. It shortly comes out that these will be the first visitors they have had since Gladys has been back. Where she has been is not fully revealed until act 2.

Piet returns to identifying his aloe. Gladys expresses her dislike of the plants, but Piet sees them as part of his Afrikaner heritage. To him they are hardy South African natives, surviving long droughts for brief flowerings. “Is that the price of survival in this country? Thorns and bitterness,” asks Gladys, who exclaims that conversations with Piet have become “a catalog of South African disasters. Is there nothing gentle in your world?” The aloes “are turgid with violence, like everything else in the country,” she says, a quality she refuses to let affect her. Piet nervously changes the subject by saying it is time to dress for the party.

Scene 2 takes place in the bedroom. Piet knocks and enters after Gladys has protectively retrieved her diary from under the mattress and put it on the dressing table in front of her. In the seven months since she has been back, not one of their friends has been around to see them. Gladys wonders if she is the reason, but Piet says people are simply frightened and have crawled into their own shells. He even admits to being frightened, which surprises Gladys, who remembers Piet’s strong sense of purpose to life.

Gladys would be lost without this diary for keeping all of her woman’s secrets and reminds Piet that she did lose all of her old diaries once, when the police came and took them. This is a painful memory for Gladys, who believes that that invasion of her privacy amounted to rape. Piet is...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Lesson from Aloes is a realistic play, though its plot demands a set that allows action to be played in the bedroom of the house while the backyard set remains in place and even occupied by other characters. All the devices common to realism, such as careful exposition, strict cause-and-effect motivation, a building of suspense, a sense of real time equal to stage time, natural dialogue, and convincing character interaction, are present. The play has been called Chekhovian, because of its similarities to plays written by Anton Chekhov, and while too much can be made of that description, it is accurate in the sense that everything the characters do is believable, and the overall effect is carefully achieved by a tapestry of accumulated detail instead of by a strictly linear plot, though at one level that is there, too. Nothing is ever obvious or superficial.

The first act presents a challenge that Fugard has met well in his writing, for on the surface, it is all waiting for Steve to arrive, while beneath the surface it is much more. The characters of Piet and Gladys are fleshed out, and other matters of exposition, such as the story of how Piet came to know Steve, are handled in a naturalistic manner. By the second act and Steve’s arrival, the ground has been skillfully prepared for the revelations and climaxes that follow.

For example, a masterful irony that is central to the play’s theme emerges from the fact that Steve is...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Colonization of South Africa
Dutch colonists were an early group of outsiders to settle in South Africa. Calling...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

The aloes in the play’s title become symbolic of the situation of each of the main characters in the sense...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

  • 1960s: The government of South Africa, in its second decade of the enforcement of apartheid, begins to crack down on...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Read Fugard’s Master Harold . . . and the Boys and compare its treatment of race relations in South Africa to those in A Lesson...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Ian Barry’s Living Apart: South Africa under Apartheid (1996) examines the history of the implementation of the racist policies...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Collins, Michael J., “The Sabotage of Love: Athol Fugard’s Recent Plays,” in World Literature...

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

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

Hauptfleisch, Temple. Athol Fugard: A Source Guide. Johannesburg: Donker, 1982.

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

Mshengu. “Political Theatre in South Africa and the Work of Athol Fugard.” Theatre Research International 7 (Autumn, 1982): 160-179.

Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truth the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985.

Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. New York: Twayne, 1985.