Notebooks, 1960-1977

by Athol Fugard
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724

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.

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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 it. Morality demands that people of conscience who have the ability to influence others take a stand on apartheid, and Fugard, much to his credit, has done so, at great cost to himself and to his family. His notes record not only the destructive effects of apartheid but also the battle he waged against his own complacency and moral drift. Renouncing the safe approach to theater, Fugard finds that he must put principle before safety.

Notebooks, 1960-1977

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1976

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 change a man or woman? No. That is what life does.

These conversations with himself often lead to the kind of bons mots which could grace a book concerning writers on their craft or a playwright’s handbook. “These periods,” he writes, “between the finish of one play and the real start of the next one—these false starts, playing around with and examining ideas—are finally very important in their quiet and unobtrusive way. What they amount to, I suppose, is the equivalent of the training sessions and exercises of an athlete—keeping him fit for the next effort.” Fugard chastises himself for talking about a work-in-progress: “I must guard against this and make silence an inflexible rule when working on an idea. Talk always dissipates.” He later notes: “I don’t think I live negatively—the impulse to write is a vigorous, affirmative one, but it never has its origin in the need for answers.”

Throughout the notebooks Fugard reveals, in only a few words, the principles that define his dramaturgy: “I am very conscious of the ’Image’ in playwriting. My new play was generated by one such image: ’Milly is unnerved at finding herself still in her nightclothes from the previous night.’” Virtually all of his plays have developed from exactly such a concrete particular rather than from an idea, a theme, or a detailed storyline. Fugard also anticipates the actual structure (and weakness) of some of his plays when he writes about The Blood Knot (1961): “We all know that our story only gets under way after interval.” Having articulated to himself certain principles of his craft and structure, Fugard, however, soon distrusts them: “Dissatisfied and suspicious of what I feel is a ’stock’ pattern, a ’formula’ which I seem to have used in all my plays so far, i.e. growing desperation leading to emotional crisis leading to the leap.”

These notebooks contain the seeds of most of Fugard’s plays and, in a few cases, running commentaries on his struggle to get them right. Sometimes he does not, and he simply abandons the project—such as Man Without Scenery—or returns to it repeatedly despite several false starts, as with A Lesson from Aloes, as if determined to will a play into being.

The notebooks will surely be the source of thousands of footnotes in future dissertations and critical studies, but Fugard is not absorbed only with himself and his own writing. A dozen or so entries contain succinct critiques of what he has recently read or seen on stage. Most of these date to 1962 and 1963 at the beginning of his career when, perhaps, he was both impressionable and anxious to compare the quality of his writing with that of others. For example, Fugard finds the final statement of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun comfortable: “The audience will leave feeling good and this makes me enormously suspicious. Not because making an audience uncomfortable is my aim, but because a man dreaming, or wanting, is the most painfully beautiful thing I know.” John Donne, however, is deeply admired: “Sincerity, discipline, at times harsh, even brutal—all that is opposed to the morass of sentiment. Excellent instruction.” T. S. Eliot fails to appreciate fully the role of poetry in drama: “Beckett is a greater poet in the ’theatre’ that he (Eliot) has been or ever will be. Eliot goes on and on about blank-verse as if the poetic imagination in playwriting must drag this ball and chain. That is surely one of Beckett’s greatest discoveries—that we can free the poetic imagination of this dead weight.”

Samuel Beckett is highly revered. After reading Malone Dies, Fugard notes:Hard to describe what this book, like his Godot, Krapp and Endgame, did to me. Moved? Horrified? Depressed? Elated? Yes, and excited. I wanted to start writing again the moment I put it down. Beckett’s greatness doesn’t intimidate me. I don’t know how it works—but he makes me want to work. Everything of his that I have read has done this—I suppose it’s because I really understand, emotionally, and this cannot but give me power and energy and faith.

A second major influence is Albert Camus, the writer most frequently mentioned in the notebooks. Fugard may have made a personal connection with the man—another writer of European nationality transplanted to Africa, nurtured by the sun beside the sea—but most of all he responds to the writing:Resumed reading Camus’s Carnets. I would be happy to spend the next ten years deepening my understanding and appreciation of this man—and rereading and again rereading everything he has written. Camus sounds out and charts the very oceans of experience, feeling and thought, on which I find myself sailing at this moment. His importance to me is monumental. Reading Camus is like finding, and for the first time, a man speaking my own language.

The notebooks of both Fugard and Camus also speak the same language as they focus upon man’s search for intelligibility and consciousness.

Fugard’s notebooks have been edited by Mary Benson so modestly that nowhere does she explain why previously published entries have been reworded, how decisions were made on what to cut and trim, and why fully half of the book is devoted to the first five of the eighteen years covered. The handful of notes at the back are helpful but leave one hungering for more. Indeed, the entire book does this, and we can eagerly await volume 2 as well as, some day, the complete text. Although Fugard stopped making entries in the late 1970’s because he thought a self-conscious tone had crept into the notebooks, he has since returned to them.

The sensibility of Athol Fugard revealed in his notebooks is not essentially different from that implied in his plays. The discontinuous and eclectic nature of a notebook allows the reader to focus, however, primarily, on the sheer quality of the writing. Because there is so little mention here of the racial politics of South Africa, one presumes that it is simply a given element of Fugard’s life as, indeed, it is in his plays—not the subject of the plays but a means to explore the universal struggle of all men for dignity, meaning, and community.

It is obvious from his plays that Athol Fugard has mastered stagecraft, that he knows how to create wonderfully palpable characters, and that he embraces mankind even while revealing the evil of man to man (that is, the malevolence within all people). What the discrete entries of the notebooks reveal is, simply, the sheer beauty of Fugard’s language, images, and perceptions, as well as his ability to penetrate the onion layers that often cloak the essence of a person, a place, a received idea. Regardless of one’s knowledge of Fugard’s plays, or even one’s interest in them, the notebooks are a fine book of and about writing.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 86

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.

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