Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775

Athol Fugard has always been a multi-talented theatrical artist, often acting in and occasionally directing his own plays. Never before Valley Song, however, did the playwright write so much of his own life into one of his plays, then choose to act two of the parts and direct himself and his co-performer. Valley Song premiered in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August, 1995, with Fugard directing and playing the parts of The Author and Abraam Jonkers, and Esmeralda Bihl portraying Veronica Jonkers. Several months later, in October, 1995, the play opened in the U.S. at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. This production, staged in association with the Manhattan Theatre Club, also listed Fugard in the multiple roles of author, director, and actor of two parts, with Lisa Gay Hamilton as Veronica.

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Fugard has long been respected by American audiences and critics as an outspoken voice against his country's unjust apartheid segregation policies, and as the author of several poetic, poignant dramas set against South Africa's tumultuous political scene over the past forty years. His accomplishments, coupled with his tour de force performance in Valley Song, earned him praise both at home and abroad. As Robert King reported in the North American Review, ‘‘He received entrance applause at its American premiere in Princeton's McCarter Theatre, a tribute to his life as well as to his art.’’ Because Fugard the man was obviously the inspiration for The Author in his play, King noted, he received additional response from his audience when he expressed regret at leaving ‘‘the real world of the Karoo’’ for the ‘‘make believe world of the theatre.’’

Beyond Fugard's unique accomplishments as both creator and interpreter of his play, however, critics mostly expressed appreciation for his continued ability to capture the history and mood of his entire country within the struggles of a handful of people. The plight of Veronica and old Buks led several reviewers to draw comparisons between their intergenerational family struggle and the larger conflicts facing the newly liberated and unified South Africa. Reviewing the Arizona Theatre Company's 1997 production for Arizona Arts Review Online, Mark Turvin noted, ‘‘The transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa seems to have been a smooth one, but the subsequent new travails for blacks there are only now being discovered. With freedom comes dreams, and with dreams comes responsibility, and some of those dreams may remain unfulfilled. Mr. Fugard has brought these problems across with a positive spirit that gives the work a punctuation to all of his pieces.’’ Critic John Bemrose optimistically wrote in Maclean's, ‘‘Veronica's troubled longing for the future is also South Africa's. If its determination for a better future is anything as strong as hers, it may well get there yet.’’

Perhaps most importantly, Valley Song seemed to answer a question that ran through the minds of many critics and scholars when F. W. de Klerk ended apartheid between 1990 and 1992 and black leader Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994: What would Fugard write about? He had, after all, built a career around plays that directly or indirectly attacked his country's government and policies. Not to worry. John Bemrose reported in Maclean's, ‘‘Valley Song is a watershed play for Fugard—his first since the collapse of apartheid two years ago. Throughout his 40-year career, Fugard has drawn on his outrage at South Africa's institutionalized racism to help power such dramas as The Road to Mecca and My Children! My Africa! But the mood in Valley Song is different. Gone is the shadow of the police state. Freedom is in the air.’’

Jack Barbera, reviewing the play for the Nation, suggested, ‘‘Now we have Valley Song to demonstrate the truth of Fugard's claim that the end of apartheid would not put him out of business. He tells stories, and if the new South Africa has altered the nature of people's problems, it only means there are new challenges, new stories to tell.’’

The significance of placing himself, a successful white male author, in the center of this particular play's story also led critics to reflect on what the playwright may be thinking about his new role in the new South Africa. King noted, ‘‘He suggests a poignant, personal truth—that with a new day dawning for South African blacks, his day may be coming to an end.’’ The end, however, is not meant to be final or disheartening. King continues, ‘‘It's time, Valley Song argues, for the white male, surely Fugard himself, to step aside, to let the black woman sing her song to the world. That song will be all the more winning for being born on native soil.’’

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