The Road to Mecca

by Athol Fugard

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The Road to Mecca Summary

The Road to Mecca is a play by Athold Fugard that dramatizes the life of Helen Martins, an elderly South African woman who refuses to go to a nursing home, instead building her personal "Mecca" in her yard.

  • Helen Martins realizes that her neighbors expect her to move into a nursing home. Helen refuses to go.

  • Helen has been depressed since her husband's death and has repudiated the Christian values of her community.

  • Helen has been building her own personal Mecca in her yard in a search for spiritual fulfillment. After her Mecca is finished, it is implied that Helen commits suicide.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698

Act 1

Set in the South African village of New Bethesda in 1974, during apartheid, Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca is based on the life and work of artist Helen Martins. Act 1 begins when a young schoolteacher named Elsa Barlow arrives unexpectedly at the home of her friend Miss Helen. Elsa has made a twelve hour drive from Cape Town to New Bethesda after receiving a letter of distress from Miss Helen that suggested she was in need of help. 

Once a conventional married woman, Miss Helen, now in her late sixties, is an artistic recluse who has spent the fifteen years since her husband’s death building an eclectic sculpture garden in her backyard—complete with statues of wise men, camels, owls, and mermaids—all facing east, toward Mecca. The inside of Miss Helen’s house has also been decorated: ceilings and floors covered in different patterns, walls full of mirrors, and candles stacked everywhere create an element of light and fantasy for her own, personal Mecca. The two women became friends years earlier, when the glow coming from Miss Helen’s candlelit house intrigued Elsa so much that she felt compelled to go inside and meet the artist.

Elsa expresses her opinion that New Bethesda is behind the times and naively provincial compared to Cape Town. The two chat, and Miss Helen shares local gossip. Elsa mentions that during her drive to New Bethesda she saw an African woman walking with her baby on the side of the road. She gave the woman a lift, money, and food, then left her to continue her journey on foot. 

Aging into her late sixties, Miss Helen struggles to come to terms with getting older and faces increasing pressure from her neighbors. In her conversation with Elsa, Miss Helen explains that the community is uncomfortable with her bizarre and reclusive lifestyle and wants her to move into a nursing home. They argue about the letter Miss Helen sent and a recent accident with the candles in Miss Helen’s house—evident from the burn marks on her hands and parts of home. At the end of act 1, Marius Byleveld, the local Calvinist pastor, arrives at Miss Helen’s door.

Act 2

Marius has brought some food for Miss Helen, and he is clearly solicitous of her comfort. Marius has also brought with him the necessary paperwork for Miss Helen to sign and confirm her move into the retirement home. Elsa confronts Marius about his plan to move Miss Helen away from her own house and artistic environment. Miss Helen explains to him the steps she plans to take to remain independent and in her own home. She reveals that she feels judged by the pious community and argues that the Mecca she has created at home is a type of spiritual discovery. In response, Marius points out Miss Helen’s culpability for her alienation from the community, blaming her eccentric art projects and unconventional spirituality. 

Marius thinks of Miss Helen as a "confused" old woman, which infuriates Elsa. Elsa insists that Miss Helen isn't "harmless" and "that's why [they] can't leave her alone." Marius argues that Miss Helen turned her back on the community so that she could create what he calls "nightmares" in the yard. Miss Helen has Elsa light the candles in her house so that Marius can see the beauty and complexity of the Mecca she has created. When Marius leaves, it's clear that he admires Miss Helen for her independent faith and artistry; though he is entrenched in his conservative beliefs, his affection for Miss Helen remains.

Miss Helen and Elsa continue talking. Elsa reveals that the relationship she was in has ended in a pregnancy and an abortion. She was shocked to find out that the man she was seeing was married and that he had returned to his wife. The encounter with the African woman and her baby on the side of the road earlier triggered her emotions surrounding the abortion, and Elsa cries regretfully about her situation.

In the end, Miss Helen drinks tea laced with Valium, and it is suggested that she may be taking her own life.

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