Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646
Notebooks records Fugard’s pilgrimage from the choking despair about his life in fear-ridden South Africa that he displayed early in his career toward the cautious hope that is exemplified in the later notebook entries. As his inner frustrations and rage find their proper mode of expression, his pessimism eases and he matures in outlook. He also finds a voice which is all his own. Though in his later plays he continues to take cues from other dramatists, he does so only because he chooses to, not because of artistic immaturity and lack of control. Fugard’s progression from student of existentialist masters to master in his own right is superbly chronicled by these notebooks.
Involved in Fugard’s quest for honest theater of a political nature is his pursuit of religious certainty. On one hand, the Calvinism present in the Dutch Reformed Church, under whose considerable influence he grew up, helped shape his outlook upon life: God seems to stalk him, testing him, revealing his laws. On the other hand, the atheistic existentialism of Beckett, Camus, and Sartre excites his imagination and helps shape his art. While at times Fugard finds it necessary to disavow Christianity, his notes are filled with the simple phrasing of the New Testament and his battle with apartheid is based on Christian love of one’s neighbor. Christianity’s call for soul-searching and humility and its disdain for worldly goods have also heavily influenced Fugard.
Nevertheless, Fugard’s plays are most often compared with those of the existentialists, whose emphasis upon man finding his own way in an indifferent universe is mirrored by the struggles of Fugard’s characters.
The greatest plays from his early period—Boesman and Lena (1969), The Blood Knot, Hello and Goodbye (1965), and People Are Living There—are all concerned with people who pass their lives on a kind of tightrope stretched across the void. They need to receive warmth from others around them, yet too often they do not know how to elicit that warmth. Sometimes they gather courage and take the chance to communicate with others, only to find themselves repulsed and isolated.
Fugard himself has labeled the viewpoint that informs his kind of theater “courageous pessimism.” This attitude is reflected in a notebook entry in which Fugard grasps an essential truth of Camus: that in order to live authentically, one must periodically leave the human habitations which so define and restrict the individual and live in the open, in nature’s realm, where words such as “success” and “failure” do not have meaning.
The notebooks are not solely self-directed. Fugard tells the reader about people who are important to him: his wife, Sheila, who serves as lover, critic, and confidante; his parents; fellow artists such as film director John Schlesinger, writer Uys Krige, and the beloved Norman Ntshinga, persecuted actor, rebel, and director. In fact, some of Fugard’s most impassioned entries concern the fate of Ntshinga, one of the Serpent Players of Port Elizabeth, accused by the government of having aided and abetted the banned African National Congress. The injustice of Ntshinga’s rigged trial helps fuel Fugard’s hatred of the apartheid system, making even more resolute his determination to take his message about South African injustice to the world.
These notebooks are thus the work not only of a gifted playwright but also of a remarkably brave and determined human being who has placed truth in theater above all other considerations. As Fugard’s international reputation has grown over the years, so has his power; he can teach people outside South Africa about its evils. Yet Fugard is no propagandist, but rather an artist whose recording of speech, whose attention to the elements that make up human personality, and whose vigorous voice crying for change have produced some of the best theater created in the last half of the twentieth century.
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