Notebooks, 1960-1977 Analysis
by Athol Fugard

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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 lived well. Instead, conscience, as the notebooks prove, nagged at him and helped him create the Serpent Players, a group of mainly black South Africans meeting in the area known as Korsten. In Notebooks, 1960-1977, one discovers how this singular group of disciplined actors came together and created a vibrant theater that would be applauded in London and New York.

Fugard’s view of his world is always a subjective one, colored by his observations of drunks in black settlements, an arguing Afrikaner family, his own parents, two Coloured vagrants stumbling along looking for cast-off bottles to be redeemed for cash. Such simple observations are transformed by art; the familiar sight of moths futilely flying against an overhead lightbulb, for example, generates a startling and memorable image for The Blood Knot, where the moths became emblematic of the risk-taking behavior of the darkly complected brother Zach. The two ragged bottle-collectors, on the other hand, end up as his unforgettable and tragically linked couple Boesman and Lena, from the play of the same name, who search futilely for the meaning of life in a country that denies them meaning.

Direct observations alone, however, do not generate Fugard’s characters; he turns frequently to the writings of Albert Camus, Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht for ideas. In their works he discovers the kind of oppressed, anguished people he needs for characters in his plays.

As he seeks to understand the thoughts and inner motivations of others, both fictional and real, Fugard also seeks the meaning of his own existence, asking such elementary questions as “Am I a pessimist or an optimist?” and “Am I too much the white man to talk knowledgeably about the difficulties of black South Africa?” The reader of these notebooks discovers the thoughts of a man obsessed by the need to understand himself and his place in society—a man who writes his plays by drawing upon the inner tensions he discovers, giving his characters some of his own shattered dreams and living hopes.

The apartheid system does not allow Fugard the luxury of living in an imagined world. Rather, its cruelties force him—as they do any South African artist of integrity—to register the damage segregation inflicts and to react against...

(The entire section is 2,786 words.)