The Road to Mecca

by Athol Fugard

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How are the journeys of Miss Helen, Elsa, and the African woman analyzed in The Road to Mecca?

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You can analyze the journeys of the three women by looking for visual indicators in the setting; for language indicators of change, motivation, progress or secrets; and for emotional or psychological reactions that aren't clearly explained or aren't clearly motivated. These areas of analysis—visual, language, emotional, psychological—will reveal the source, kind, and meaning of the journeys of the three women, bearing in mind that not all the journeys have physical traveling elements.

Miss Helen

Miss Helen's journey is a metaphorical journey, not a literal one. To analyze her journey, look for visual indicators (in the stage setting) of progress and listen for other characters' comments about progress. For Miss Helen, "progress" would be progress in developing her garden Mecca and in developing her sense of artistic exploration, for instance, progress in her off-stage unfinished project for exploring light.

To analyze Miss Helen's metaphorical journey, listen for language that indicates changes in the interior decorations or in the development of the garden Mecca. Similarly, listen for language that indicates that artistic changes have stalled or that other changes are expected. Stalled changes indicate a journey that has stalled. For instance, there is an indication that Miss Helen's journey has stalled when, in reply to Elsa's queries, she says, "If [the images] don't come, all I can do is wait which is what I'm doing. (She is revealing a bit of inner agitation)."


Elsa's journey is a psychological one that, on this day, demands she travel 12 hours from one place to another, but that travel isn't her real journey. Her real journey is a journey of the mind. To analyze this, look for language and actions that indicate she is either triumphing or struggling psychologically. For instance, dissatisfied with the social divisiveness in South Africa, particularly between the Afrikaner and the English, Elsa journeys to acceptance of (to her) intolerable differences because of her friendship with Miss Helen (although the friendship and acceptance doesn't keep Elsa from railing against what she perceives as deep wrongs).

Elsa's journey is also a journey of emotions. To analyze this, look for actions and attitudes that seem to have motivations that are not readily apparent. For instance, her kindness to the African woman on the road is secretly motivated by recent, hidden events in her life. Miserable in a broken love affair and having aborted a pregnancy, she has to journey to self-acceptance and a new vision of life.

ELSA: Two weeks after David left me I discovered I was pregnant. I had an abortion. (Pause) Do you understand what I'm saying, Helen?

Elsa's journey is also a journey of belief in the depths of friendship. To analyze this, look for emotional reactions between the two friends and directed from Elsa at Marius. For instance, worried and alarmed by the anxious and frightened words in Miss Helen's last letter, Elsa has to confront Miss Helen and determine if she will trust and believe her and determine how she can help Miss Helen with her problems relating to the Church Council, her housework, her hands, and her eye sight:

ELSA: [Take] a trip into Graaff Reinet next week to see a doctor and an optician.
HELEN: What do you mean?
ELSA: Exactly what I said: appointments with a doctor and an optician.  

African Woman

The African woman's journey is a journey of life experience and physical endurance. Analyze this journey by listening for the deeper meaning behind her words as Elsa relates their conversation to Miss Helen. On the woman's journey, she finds herself alone in life, with a baby who "couldn't have been more than a few months old" to care for. In order to change her life experience from abandonment to hopefulness, the woman undertakes a physical journey on foot to "the Craddock district," where she has people to help her. Elsa gives her food, money, and a ride to her highway exit. Though the woman doesn't know it, Elsa's encounter with her will affect Elsa's psychological journey.

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The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard is based on the life of a real South African woman, Helen Martins, whose elaborately decorated home, The Owl House, is now a museum. As in the play, Helen was a recluse, misunderstood by her neighbors, who eventually, when her eyesight began to fail, committed suicide by poison. 

The African woman does not actually appear on stage; instead she is present only as Elsa describes her. Elsa encountered the African woman and her baby trudging along the road to an unknown destination and gave her food, money, and a lift. The significance of this was that Elsa had recently had an abortion and the sight of the new mother caused her to recall her conflicted feelings about her own relationship to motherhood.

Elsa's journey is an 800-mile drive to visit Helen because she thought Helen's most recent letter to her was a cry for help. Her journey is both a literal one and also a figurative one away from her failed relationship with her lover to her deep friendship with Helen.

Helen's home has sculptures facing Mecca, but Helen does not take the literal pilgrimage to Mecca. Instead, her artistic journey is to complete the Mecca which is her own home. Her pastor wants her to move into an old age home, but Helen, feeling that her life's journey is complete, finalizes it in her own way, possibly by committing suicide.

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