What It Means To Be an Artist

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1792

At an early age, Athol Fugard knew he would one day be an artist. In a 1989 interview with director Lloyd Richards in the Paris Review, Fugard remembered the importance of music and storytelling in his family. His father was a jazz musician, as well as an avid reader and storyteller, and Fugard recalled dreaming about becoming a composer or concert pianist and writing short stories of his own as a boy. ‘‘By eighteen, by the time I went to university, I knew that somehow my life was going to be about putting words on paper,’’ he told Richards.

After trying his hand at poetry and considering a novel, Fugard found his calling in the theater at the age of twenty-five, and since that time he has understood that his purpose in life is to create art through drama, to touch people and occasionally effect change through the living art of play writing. ‘‘I have some sort of creative energy,’’ the author revealed in a 1993 speech transcribed in Twentieth Century Literature. ‘‘I know that I am propelled, obsessed, driven to make things. That is all I understand in terms of creative energy. I think that every human being on God's earth has got a spark of that energy. Some people have great big conflagrations and furnaces burning away.’’

Glimpses of Fugard's own creative furnace—his life and identity as an artist in South Africa—can be found in several of his plays, most notably Master Harold … and the Boys (1982), a frankly autobiographical work about a family event from his teenage years. Fugard has often appeared onstage in performances of his plays, portraying the light-skinned half-brother Morris in The Blood Knot (1961), the angry Coloured outcast Boesman in Boesman and Lena (1969), and several more of his creations over the years. But never until Valley Song (1995) did the playwright literally insert himself into one of his plays as a character, interacting with and even seeming to control his fictional counterparts.

Like all of Fugard's previous plays, Valley Song presents its audience with important ideas about love, loyalty, the beauty of the land, and the importance of dreams. But the appearance of the playwright himself in the form of The Author adds a unique new dimension to the work and allows Fugard to raise whole new questions about art and those who create it. Valley Song asks, how is an artist made? What obligation does an artist have to his or her art? What is the value of art to society? What does an artist do when he has outlived his usefulness; when he is running out of creative energy? Through the characters of The Author, an aging white man, and Veronica, a black teenage girl, Fugard contemplates these questions and examines what it means to be an artist in a world that does not always understand the artist's craft.

As The Author, Fugard has spent a lifetime living in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and presenting his make-believe stories about real life to audiences in cities around the world. Now, past sixty years old, he has returned to the land of his birth, South Africa's great Karoo region, to buy a piece of land and experience the ‘‘real’’ world for a change. He tells the audience, ‘‘A vision of a new life unfolded before me. I could see myself sitting on my stoop after a good day of writing—all prose now, no more nonsense from actors and producers and critics—sitting there on my stoop watching the sun set and admiring my land, finally at peace with myself.’’


(This entire section contains 1792 words.)

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Fugard himself, The Author is a somewhat self-satisfied white South African male, who has achieved a degree of fame writing plays that criticize the way white society has treated the non-white majority in his country. His success has given him a measure of financial comfort, and he could, if he chose, now turn his back on the troubles of the world. But he has an artist's sensitivity to the plight of other human beings. In his interview with Lloyd Richards, Fugard suggested, ‘‘If you are a true artist, you will have a very finely tuned moral mechanism.’’ The Author's moral mechanism causes him to feel guilt at his ability to drive into the little village of Nieu-Bethesda and casually write a check for the land old Abraam Jonkers has spent his life farming, but will never be able to own because of the color of his skin. It is a dilemma he did not expect to face in the ‘‘new,’’ post-apartheid South Africa, and it gives him pause. How successful can he really have been as an artist if society has changed so little in his lifetime?

That question has certainly bothered Fugard himself from time to time. Because his plays have always had a political undertone to them, audiences and critics have come to expect him to write dramas that are meant to change the world—a daunting task for anyone, artist or not. He maintains, however, that art continually contributes to the world around us. ‘‘Art has a role,’’ he told Richards. ‘‘Art is at work in South Africa. But art works subterraneanly.’’ It's never the striking, superficial cause and effect people would like to see. Art goes underground into people's dreams and surfaces months later in strange, unexpected actions.’’

Besides not expecting to face a moral challenge over an issue of race in Nieu-Bethesda, The Author also did not seem to count on discovering a kindred spirit—another artist—in this sleepy town in the Sneeuberg Mountain valley. Veronica Jonkers, a black teenager, has been a singer since the day she was born. Her grandfather, Abraam, remembers that as a baby she did not even cry so much as she opened her eyes wide, stretched her little mouth open, and sang out loud. He tells Veronica, ‘‘Your Ouma always used to say to me: If that child ever stops singing, Abraam Yonkers, then you must know there is something wrong with the world.’’

And, sure enough, Veronica has been singing ever since. Like the ‘‘creative energy’’ that drives Fugard to write plays, Veronica sings her way through each day, and feels compelled to do whatever it takes to achieve her dream of becoming a famous performer, even though her grandfather doesn't understand why she would want to leave home and face the dangers of the world outside their valley. Veronica experiences the same initial resistance felt by many budding artists. She has a sense of purpose, and a plan for her life is beginning to unfold, but she must convince those around her who do not share her artistic sensibilities that she can overcome the odds and succeed at her craft. She pleads with her grandfather, ‘‘All I know is that when I sing, I'm alive. My singing is my life. I must look after it the way Oupa looks after his vegetables. I know that if I stay here in the Valley it will die.’’

Veronica, like The Author and Fugard himself, has been given the artist's mission: to go forth into the world, overcome terrible obstacles, and produce the art she is uniquely gifted to create. Her gift is song, while Fugard's, and therefore The Author's, is stories. ‘‘My essential sense of myself is that of a storyteller,’’ he revealed in Twentieth Century Literature. ‘‘The only safe place I have ever known is when I am in the middle of a story as its teller.’’

Of course, in Valley Song Fugard is quite literally in the middle of his story, which gives him the opportunity to express his fear that his usefulness as an artist may be nearing an end, even though all his hopes for the future have not yet been realized. ‘‘A lot of my dreams didn't come true and I saw them very clearly,’’ The Author warns Veronica when she shares her dream of stardom with him. But she is unshakable and committed to her dream. Her artistic powers also seem stronger than his. While he is torn between the life he knew in the theater and turning to writing ‘‘simple prose,’’ and not doing either one effectively at the moment, she is focused on her most singular talent. With a simple song she is able to bring her old grandfather back to the present when his mind starts to wander and he thinks he is talking to his long-dead wife.

The difference between The Author and Veronica is striking. The Author believes he has ‘‘just about used up all of the ‘Glorious Future’’’ that he once had, but Veronica's future, like the future of young blacks across South Africa in the 1990s, is just beginning. As Robert King noted in the North American Review, ‘‘He suggests a poignant, personal truth—that with a new day dawning for South African blacks, his day may be coming to an end.’’

Watching your talents fade or your technique become obsolete is not easy for an artist, and, though he has admitted to fearing the day when his ‘‘appointment book is empty’’ and he cannot write any more, Fugard's unquenchable optimism keeps him constantly vigilant for the next opportunity his world might have to find redemption through creation. Over the years, he reported in Twentieth Century Literature, he has been surprised again and again by the strength of character and the resiliency of South Africa's young blacks, even in the face of terrible treatment under apartheid. ‘‘I have been moved to see the many young men and women who, with an innate instinct for decency and justice which every human being is born with … fight free of that system,’’ he reported. ‘‘I have had the most unbelievably inspiring encounters over the years, with young men and women who have had every reason to hate, to resent, to be hell-bent on destruction, and who instead turn out to be individuals of love and tolerance and forgiveness.’’

So, like any good artist, Fugard borrowed from his surroundings and turned his life into his art. Valley Song becomes, in effect, the gesture of The Author, Fugard, the artist, passing the torch from his generation to the next, with every expectation that progress will be made. ‘‘The future belongs to you now,’’ The Author tells Veronica, and with those few simple words, the world changes. As King observed, ‘‘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 in native soil.’’

Source: Lane A. Glenn, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Lane A. Glenn has a Ph.D. specializing in theater history and literature.

Play Paints Picture of Pain: Dreams Emerging from "Valley" of Apartheid

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

South African playwright Athol Fugard, author of Master Harold … and the Boys, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, Statements After An Arrest Under the Immorality Act, and other plays protesting racial conditions in his homeland, doesn't have apartheid to kick around anymore.

Still, Valley Song, now at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater in a production directed by and starring the playwright, is typical of Mr. Fugard's works: It is topical, earnest and sometimes movingly lyrical. It is still informed by racial oppression—things don't change overnight, after all. Spiritual repression, the theme of his incandescent The Road to Mecca, plays a big part here, too.

But the chief theme is change. At its most basic level, Valley Song is about a 17-year-old black girl named Veronica and her grandfather; the young girl is striding toward the future, while the old man is mired in the past.

Veronica is a free spirit who aspires to make it big as a singer. Veronica is a boisterous, fearless, funny character, and Lisa Gay Hamilton gives a very entertaining performance as she banters with the grandfather. Miss Hamilton sings with unembellished joy; her body twists with delight and her arms wave and flutter like twin flags in a happy breeze. Her Veronica comes so alive in her music that it is easy to read her as a sweet emblem of liberation.

In Valley Song, it isn't the government that crushes Veronica's dreams. It is Abraam ‘‘Buks’’ Jonkers, her grandfather, played by Mr. Fugard. For Buks, apartheid hasn't ended. He still tills the ground on land he doesn't own, and when a white writer—called the Author in the play and also played by Mr. Fugard—comes around to the property where Buks has lived and worked all his life, Buks goes hat in hand to beg to keep his place.

That prompts Veronica to call her grandfather a ‘‘useless old coloured.’’ Buks can't understand why Veronica wouldn't want to be a domestic for the white Author—it's a living wage, after all, he argues—and their argument crystallizes a generational dispute that is complicated by the new freedoms in South Africa. Buks, whose fears are intensified by family tragedies in the not-too-distant past, simply doesn't think the way Veronica does.

‘‘What's the use of a little dream, eh?’’ she asks at one point. That statement defines her, but big dreams terrify Buks. He wants to stick to the narrow world he knows, no matter how precarious it is.

The performances are exquisite. Miss Hamilton's Veronica is radiant, and it's painful to see her light dimmed by Buks. Mr. Fugard is a different sort of actor than the fluid and utterly believable Miss Hamilton. Acting with a storyteller's wily cunning, he switches from playing the Author to Buks by donning a wool cap, slowing his step and pitching his voice slightly higher.

There is a whiff of deliberate artifice to Mr. Fugard's performance that is in keeping with Susan Hilferty's set design, which features an askew curtain behind a largely barren stage.

Having one actor play both parts—the white Author and the black Buks—gives Valley Song a provocative and often elusive political edge. Sometimes it goads you to see how close the concerns of the two men are—their feelings for the valley are almost identical—yet there is something subversive about hearing the white man recount the black man's servile appeal to him, stocked as it is with humble, smiling ‘‘Masters.’’

At such moments, the lovely, moving Valley Song takes on a teasing complexity that is wonderful to behold.

Source: Nelson Pressly, ‘‘Play paints picture of pain dreams emerging from ‘Valley’ of apartheid,’’ in The Washington Times, May 5, 1997, p. 11.

Valley Song (Theater Review)

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1448

What is clear from Athol Fugard's new play, Valley Song, held over at the Manhattan Theatre Club through January 21, is that the only box in which the playwright's work belongs is the stage itself, especially if the set is designed by Susan Hilferty, who has been working with Fugard for fifteen years. She has marked off a rectangular arena for the conflicts in Valley Song and painted it the colors of the semi-arid Karoo, where the story takes place. Curtains hanging from horizontal rods at the rear are the same colors, suggesting a low line of hills in the distance and the endless vistas of the region, where earth and sky seem of a piece. A diagonal rod flashes across the backdrop, suggesting both the divisions between the characters and also the fact that Abraam Jonkers' life is winding down at the same time his granddaughter Veronica's life is starting to take off.

But what about the boxes in which critics and scholars try to place Fugard? Is he a ‘‘regional author’’? Not in the sense sometimes implied, a category in which authors are put who are mainly of interest because of the region they write about. The fascination, early in Fugard's career, with this brave voice coming out of South Africa obscured to some extent the fact that his work was powerful in its art, and not only in its subject matter. Is he a ‘‘political playwright’’? Fugard's plays have often depicted life under apartheid, but they are not political pamphlets. The tight sense of Fugard as a political playwright was implied, for example, when reporters in 1990 began peppering him with variations on the question, ‘‘Haven't de Klerk and Nelson Mandela put you out of business?’’

A different historical coffin in which to bury Fugard was suggested a few years ago by a scholar who concluded that it is the playwright's early collaborative work with black performers that defines his value in the new South Africa, ‘‘because it shows how he found the voice of the voiceless,’’ a task presumably no longer needed now that all are free to speak for themselves. No sooner was Fugard placed in that box than South African theatergoers were viewing My Life, which he put together with five young South African women of different racial and social backgrounds, helping them to express their experiences, hopes, and fears. Critics in South Africa praised him for this ‘‘new beginning,’’ but, as Mark Gevisser has pointed out, some considered Fugard's recognition that ‘‘he couldn't find his own words for South Africa's new reality’’ an evasion. 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. By nature Fugard is a minimalist. He said recently, ‘‘I need to stay on a very specific focus and trust that the dreaded word ‘universal’ will look after itself.’’ For him, like Faulkner, the universal does look after itself; his characters have a resonance that makes them who they are and more.

Fugard has said that the only safe place in his life is in the middle of a story, because then he knows who he is and why he is. In Valley Song he has put himself in the middle of his story as a third character, The Author, who tells us about Jonkers and his granddaughter, and who interacts with each. The Author is a playwright who buys a home in the Karoo, as Fugard has done. He envisions himself at a future time sitting on his porch after a good day of writing—all prose, he says, ‘‘no more nonsense from actors and producers and critics.’’ Fugard, too, has expressed a weariness of late with the business of playwriting, and recently published in South Africa a prose work, Cousins, which seems to be part of an autobiography in progress. In that memoir Fugard looks back at the influence two cousins had on his development as a playwright. The mysterious and sinister Garth one day delivered to him a confession that explained the ‘‘dark aberrations’’ of his character. ‘‘That is my real territory as a dramatist,’’ Fugard noted, ‘‘the world of secrets, with their powerful effect on human behaviour and the trauma of their revelation.’’ The moment of revelation in his new play comes when Abraam admits he has opened his granddaughter's letter, and Veronica confesses her desire to move to Johannesburg, where she can take singing lessons and pursue her dream of fame. Fugard's other cousin, Johnnie, had been an accomplished piano player. On lazy Sunday afternoons as he played, images would come to Athol, who would turn them into stories. ‘‘I have come to believe,’’ Fugard wrote, ‘‘that those sessions with Johnnie were the first formative experiences that led to my career as a dramatist.’’ Fugard's passion for music is evident in Valley Song. He wrote the lyrics of the simple songs that Lisa Gay Hamilton, as Veronica, sings a cappella. (The engaging tunes for those songs were written by a young Afrikaner musician, Didi Kriel.) Hamilton brings to her role all the expressiveness and vitality it requires, along with physical beauty and a lovely voice. Fugard's love of music is also evident in the Afrikaans hymns in the play, and in the majestic King James English of two psalms he recites simply and stirringly as The Author (Fugard also plays the Coloured Abraam).

But the importance of Fugard's having created musical stories with cousin Johnnie is not really about the incorporation of music into his plays, or his feel for the rhythms of language. The importance, Fugard noted, has to do with the ability he developed to organize and control the emotional event of a story in the way a musical composition organizes and controls the flow of thought and feeling in time. Consider, again, Valley Song. It opens with The Author showing the audience some Karoo pumpkin seeds and inviting us to imagine them in the hands of old Abraam Jonkers, planting them in, the soil. The Author begins to enact what he describes, and he soon becomes the old man in repartee with his granddaughter about his time as a corporal in the military.

We see their love for each other and Abraam's delight in the simple songs she makes up—but not the song about the railway bus. Years before, the bus had taken Veronica's mother to Johannesburg, where she soon died. But Veronica sees the new South Africa as a world of possibility, where Coloureds can dream big and will not have to beg menial jobs from whites, while Abraam fears the changing future and considers Veronica's singing for money to be begging from whites.

Eventually Veronica leaves. Abraam, who cannot understand her need, is devastated. His daughter died when she left home, his wife has died, he is old, and now he will be alone. And yet the ending is surprisingly upbeat, and it is a perfectly believable surprise. Fugard orchestrated it from the start with those seeds. Abraam will not be left ‘‘slumped in defeat and misery,’’ The Author tells us. That would be ‘‘a dishonourable discharge from life,’’ and Abraam is ‘‘an honourable old soldier.’’ His love for the land tempts him to go and plant again, and his rebirth is like the everyday miracle of a dry, hard seed bursting into life.

The conflicts between Abraam and his granddaughter are not a matter of right and wrong but of different perspectives. There is reason to be concerned for Veronica's future: An unrealistically big dream can lead to bitterness. But if she does not pursue her dream she may suffer a death of the spirit. South Africa today is a country filled with people whose situations mirror those of Veronica and Abraam, and whites like The Author, who fears he will become one of the ‘‘pale, frightened white faces looking out on a world that doesn't belong to them anymore.’’ The future offers promise and danger. But Valley Song is as timeless as it is timely, a story of the old fearful of change and the young with their hopes and impatience, and of a teller of stories, ‘‘that most ancient of all the arts,’’ as Fugard notes in Cousins. Valley Song is a story without a right or wrong, but it has a point of view in seeing its characters with love. That loving gaze, that celebratory presentation, is pure Fugard.

Source: Jack Barbera, ‘‘Valley Song,’’ (theatre review) in The Nation, Vol. 262, No. 4, January 29, 1996, p. 35.

Valley Song (Theater Review)

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

Athol Fugard gets four credits in the program for his new play, Valley Song—he wrote it, directed it and played two of the three parts. He received entrance applause at its American premiere in Princeton's McCarter Theatre, a tribute to his life as well as to his art. The play, despite Fugard's personal involvement and commitment, ultimately submerges the author's self in an allegory, one in which he passes the creative torch to the first generation to mature after the formal end of apartheid in South Africa. Fugard plays ‘‘The Author, a White man’’ and Abraam Jonkers (or Buks) ‘‘an old Coloured tenant farmer’’; both men have deep attachments to the land and both see it as fecund, literally so to the farmer and metaphorically to the creative writer. In the latter role, Fugard provoked appreciative chuckles when he said that he left ‘‘the real world of the Karoo’’ where there is no ‘‘nonsense’’ for the ‘‘make believe world of the theatre.’’ Throughout his career, Fugard has worked the resources of that make believe to question and undermine the appearances of civility that authorize discrimination. In his collaborations with John Kani and Winston Ntshona (Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island), in The Blood Knot and in Master Harold, Fugard displays, through theatrical convention, costume and role-playing, the socially acquired nature of racism, its conventional behavior. Whites learn how to dominate; blacks to accommodate, sometimes preserving a measure of dignity with irony. In Valley Song, however, digging, saluting, dancing and other actions are performed more to illustrate the acts themselves than to invite questions about their deeper significance. Similarly, speeches of simple exposition are delivered straight out to the audience. On a basic level of creativity, Fugard forsakes subtlety for clarity while on a higher level, he suggests a poignant, personal truth—that with a new day dawning for South African blacks, his day may be coming to an end.

With the house lights up, Fugard entered carrying pumpkin seeds; he mimed the digging and planting of Buks, the tenant farmer and his alter ego. As Buks, he spoke of hearing the valley sing in its springtime promise of new life. His granddaughter's singing is also a valley song; her voice fills the theater several times in the play. She, Veronica, wants to leave the valley to become a singer in Johannesburg; she does not want the job that Buks would have her take, doing housework for the White Author. She hopes for a better future after apartheid: ‘‘Isn't it supposed to be different now?’’ So far, though, everything is ‘‘just the same,’’ and the young woman's talent is frustrated: ‘‘I am also a living thing, you know. I also want to grow.’’ As this kind of clarity is delivered, it completely occupies our attention, while on reflection such lines can be heard in a larger context which deepens their meaning. Fugard himself had blacks technically listed as his house workers so that they could write, act, and ‘‘grow.’’ As White Author, Fugard would ‘‘own a piece of the Karoo’’ even though the tenant farmer has worked that land with his hands and can probably make a stronger moral claim to it. One has title from ‘‘a piece of paper’’; the other has the legacy from a father who structured his life on land, house, and Church. At the end, the white man invites Buks to plant pumpkin seeds with him; to him, the Karoo's creative potential is sensual and immediate—it smells and feels better than a woman. Now, after apartheid, the two older men are joined by a common enterprise for the first time and can find fulfillment in the Karoo. Veronica, reminiscent of the young Fugard, is being pulled away from it so that she can flourish artistically: ‘‘I'll die if I have to live my whole life here.’’ In an echo of The Master Builder, the young woman's enthusiasm prompts the old artist to say that he once had a dream of his own.

At one point, Buks can't quite sing an aria he learned while guarding an Italian prisoner of war; at others, he has no problem with hymns learned in Church. In contrast, Lisa Gay Hamilton sings Veronica's new songs with an exuberance and sincerity that refute the heritage of an imposed culture. 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 in native soil.

Source: Robert L. King, ‘‘Valley Song,’’ (theatre review) in The North American Review, Vol. 281, No. 2, March-April, 1996, p. 45.


Critical Overview