Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Athol Fugard, whose best-known works emerged in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, is one of the world’s most prominent playwrights. His messages, often couched in the existential, despairing voice of a Samuel Beckett or a Jean-Paul Sartre, concern more than anything else the singular predicament of twentieth century Afrikaners and the black and “Coloured” peoples they fear, exploit, and hope to contain. An experimenter with theater having uncommon poise and courage and one who dares write politically explosive plays in a country known for its suppression of intellectuals and artists, Fugard has given the world a number of award-winning plays which have earned for him a reputation for candor and brilliance.

In his collection of notes written over a seventeen-year period beginning in 1960 with notes for his play The Blood Knot (1961), Fugard recorded both miraculous moments and everyday occurrences, as well as the inspirations that events gave him. One can see how some simple observations of life in his hometown of Port Elizabeth and environs became the raw materials essential in creating great plays such as Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972), The Blood Knot, People Are Living There (1968), and The Island (1973).

These jottings are not random or disconnected; they show not only how Fugard gradually developed his most important themes and motifs but also how his Christian conscience gave him no rest. South Africa’s racial situation made him a man without a country, for his skin color allowed him to lead a life of privilege denied to those with black or mulatto complexions. He could have easily written “safe” plays for the parochial and smug state-approved theater of Johannesburg and Cape Town and...

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Notebooks, 1960-1977

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

In December of 1960, at the end of a year in Europe, Athol and Sheila Fugard prepared to return to South Africa. The overseas visit had been, at best, a mixed success. Unable to secure a position in any of the British theaters, not even as a stagehand at the Royal Court, Fugard had been forced to take a job cleaning houses and scrubbing floors. He had, however, been exposed to the burst of theatrical activity around him, especially the work of the so-called angry young men. He had also written one play, A Kakamas Greek, for a company called New Africa Group that he helped found. It went unproduced because a better play was written by another company member. Fugard acted in this production on the Continent, which led to a directing job in the Netherlands for another play.

The sojourn overseas might have been an even greater creative disappointment if Fugard had not begun what he considers one of the most important writing exercises of his life, his notebooks: “It became a daily ritual to record anything that happened to me which seemed of significance—sensual fragments, incidents, quotations, speculations. Writing now, I find in them the content of all I can possibly say about my work.” Excerpts from these notebooks were first published in a South African newspaper in 1966. Other brief selections have previously appeared in literary and theatrical journals and, especially, in the introductions to Fugard’s plays.

Fugard states, “Though I never consciously used the notebooks as a playwright, everything is reflected there—my plays come from life and from encounters with actual people. But I found that as soon as I got deeply involved with writing a play, I either forgot the notebooks completely or had no need of them.” Fugard may not use the notebooks “consciously” as a playwright, but the record of past impressions and incidents has often served as a catalyst to his imagination or as a reminder of dramatic possibilities.

Although Fugard is never an impersonal writer—his last three plays, A Lesson from Aloes (1978), “MASTER HAROLD”and the Boys (1982), and The Road to Mecca (1984), are especially autobiographical—the notebooks reveal aspects of his life and personality that can only be inferred from his plays. From the notebooks, one also gets glimpses of Fugard’s relationship with his wife Sheila, and with their daughter, Lisa, born in 1961. The description of Sheila’s labor, for example, is an extraordinary set piece which deserves a permanent place in any collection on the experience of birth; it is especially remarkable in that it antedates by a decade the explosion of interest in natural childbirth and the father’s role.

Sometimes, the notebooks reveal Fugard through what they omit. There is, for example, no reference to the revocation of his passport and the fact that he could not leave South Africa from 1967 to 1971. Similarly, there are no complaints about money or hardship, except by implication. Fugard says nothing about the circumstances that forced him, Sheila, and Lisa to live with his mother for several years, but he does note: “Life in this flat has always been marked by a fight for privacy—a feeling that it is too small for the four of us.”

Most of all, the notebooks reveal the openness of Fugard’s senses to the life and the world around him and his ability to capture the essence of an observed character or overheard conversation with only a few strokes of his pen. He quotes his mother about his father: “His common knowledge was very wide. He had encyclopedes.” The malaprop suggests the difficulty she, as an Afrikaner, may have had with English, but it is also a hint at the roots of Fugard’s own relish of language. He tells another story about his mother and her advice that conditioning pills sold for dogs can also be helpful to humans: “But you must remember to order for the ’medium’ dog. You get them for small dogs, medium dogs, and big dogs—you know. Great Danes. Well, the medium dogs is the one for human beings.” When the anecdote was originally published, the big dogs were “Grey” Danes, perhaps another delicious malaprop rather than a typo to be fixed.

A dramatist is very much at work throughout the notebooks, but the dialogue here is with himself rather than the public. Fugard’s musings on the boycott against South Africa’s segregated theaters by British Equity reveals an aesthetic and moral debate within himself:The supposition seems to be that there is a didactic—a teaching-through-feeling element in art. What I do know is that art can give meaning, can render meaningful areas of experience, and most certainly also enhances. But, teach? Contradict? State the opposite to what you believe and then lead you to accept it? In other words, can art...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Caute, David. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (June 3, 1984), p. 42.

Coetzee, J. M. Review in The New Republic. CXC (April 9, 1984), p. 25.

Coghill, Sheila. Review in Library Journal. CIX (June 1, 1984), p. 1124.

Fugard, Athol. “Challenging the Silence: Athol Fugard Talks to Michael Coveney,” in Plays and Players. November, 1973, pp. 34-37.

Iyer, Pico. Review in Time. CXXIII (April 30, 1984), p. 76.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, February 15, 1984, p. 184.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 8, 1984, p. 3.

New Statesman. CVII, January 6, 1984, p. 24.

The New Yorker. LX, April 30, 1984, p. 120.

The Observer. March 18, 1984, p. 23.