Athol Fugard (born 1932) was a South African playwright known for his subtle, poignant descriptions of the racial problems in his country.
Athol Fugard was born on June 11, 1932, in Middelburgh, a small village in the Karroo district in South Africa, of an English-speaking father and an Afrikaner mother. When he was three years old the family moved to Port Elizabeth, an industrial city on the Indian Ocean coast where Fugard was to spend, off and on, most of his life, and where he was to set most of his plays. He began his higher education studying motor mechanics at the technical college, but he transfered to Cape Town University to study philosophy and social anthropology.
After three years he quit school, deciding instead to hitchhike up the African continent. He became a merchant seaman in North Africa and spent two years sailing around the Far East. In 1956 he returned to Port Elizabeth and found a job writing news bulletins for the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation. That year he also married Sheila Meiring, an actress. Together they started an experimental theater group for which Fugard wrote plays. In 1958 the couple went to Johannesburg, where Fugard secured a clerical position in the Native Commissioner's Court. It was while in Johannesburg that he made his first black friends and became fully aware of the extent of the racial problems in his country.
Fugard drew on his experiences in the slums of Johannesburg to write his first full-length play, No-Good Friday (1959). His second play came out that same year; titled Nongogo (A Woman for Twenty-Five Cents), an account of a woman who had been a mineworker's whore. Following the production of the second play, Fugard obtained his first paying position in the theater as a stage manager in the National Theatre Organisation.
His first major play, The Blood Knot, was written in 1961. It is set in Korsten, a non-white slum near a factory area in Port Elizabeth, and concerns two brothers: Morrie, who is somewhat educated and light skinned enough to pass for white, though he chooses not to, and Zach, who is illiterate and dark skinned. The conflict between the two brothers, who live together, begins when Zach somehow acquires a pen-pal who turns out to be a white girl. He wants to meet her but cannot, and Morrie could meet her but does not want to.
The Blood Knot later became part of a triology known as The Family. The two other plays include Hello and Goodbye (1969) and Boesman and Lena (1969). These plays also deal with destitution in Port Elizabeth. Hello and Goodbye takes place on Valley Road, a poor white area near the center of town. It is about Hester Smit, a woman who returns after a long absence to claim money that she thought had been paid to her father after a crippling industrial accident. Her brother, Johnnie, experiences some difficulty in explaining to her that their father is dead and that the money was never paid. Boesman and Lena is about a black couple evicted from their home and forced to live in the mudflats near the Swartkops River. The play depicts the depths to which human existence can descend.
After The Blood Knot appeared, the South African government passed harsh censorship laws that forbade racially mixed casts and/or audiences in theaters. When the English television network BBC broadcast The Blood Knot in 1967 the South African government confiscated Fugard's passport for four years. He was not allowed to leave the country until 1971 when he went to London to direct Boesman and Lena at the Royal Court Theatre, where most of his plays have since been performed.
Politics without Dogma
The primary strength of Fugard's work lies in the way in which his works convey strong political messages without being dogmatic. He chose plays as his medium of speech because he felt that the theater enabled him to reach the largest number of people. His messages were discreet enough that his plays could be performed in South Africa, yet strong enough to have an important impact on the audience. While his plays were not explicitly anti-apartheid, the sorrows that arise in them do so as a result of apartheid. He said of his writing, "The sense I have of myself is that of a 'regional' writer with the themes, textures, acts of celebrations, of defiance and outrage that go with the South African experience. These are the only things I have been able to write about."
In 1974 Fugard published three plays. Sizwe Bansi is Dead is about a photographer, Styles, who wants to take a picture of Sizwe Bansi, a black whose work permit has been cancelled. Bansi, however, decides to exchange his identity for that of a corpse he finds in a ditch. The Island is about two black political prisoners, John and Winston, who share a cell on Robben Island. While they rehearse for a camp production of Sophocles' Antigone, they are struck with the contemporary relevance of the tragedy's message against tyranny. Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act depicts an affair between a white librarian and a black schoolteacher who are denounced to the police by their neighbors.
Appeared on Stage
Fugard's later works include A Lesson from Aloes (1978), Master Harold … and the Boys, perhaps his finest work (1982), and The Road to Mecca (1984). He also published a novel, Isoti (1979), based on notes taken on a voyage back from Europe in 1960. More recent plays are A Place with the Pigs (1987), My Children! My Africa! (1989), and Playland (1993). He published another novel, Tsotsi (1980), as well as film scripts. Fugard often directed and acted in his plays, as he did with 1995 and 1996 productions of Valley Song. In the play, Fugard played the character of the black grandfather, Jonkers, and the autobiographical character of the white author. Fugard stipulated that in subsequent productions, the two characters must be played by the same actor.
The stage was something of a pulpit for Fugard, and the actors in his plays preach with an artistic subtlety against the evils of apartheid. In My Children! My Africa!, friendship, idealism, and a young life are lost in the volatile political climate created by apartheid. In the mind of the public, Fugard's politics sometimes overshadowed the art of his plays. Writing in Time in 1994, William A. Henry III commented, "In his mind he is a poetic playwright, but the world has seen him as a political, even polemic one, and his works are valued more as a testimony against apartheid than for their subtle interplay of emotion and Beckettian sensitivity to the downtrodden."
Nelson Mandela biographer Mary Benson celebrated the lives of Fugard and another close friend, the late South African playwright Barney Simon, in her book Athol Fugard and Barney Simon: Bare Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre. The subtitle came from a 1963 letter to Benson from Fugard describing plans for an upcoming production. Benson maintained the work of both playwrights could not be characterized simply as "protest theater." Speaking of her book to an interviewer, Benson remembered an interview once given by Simon. "He said, we should be going into people's lives, their souls, their ways of life. And if it brings in aspects of the struggle then that's okay. But it's good if it can go beyond just protesting the horrors, and inspire people to function constructively."
Though he traveled to direct and act in his plays, Fugard generally wrote when he was home in South Africa. During his later years he lived in his longtime home of Port Elizabeth.
Further Reading on Athol Fugard
Fugard is listed in The Modern Encyclopedia of World Drama (1984). A synopsis of South African theater that places Fugard in the context of his intellectual predecessors can be found in The Oxford Companion to the Theatre (1967). Selected portions of his journals are published under the title Notebooks 1960-1967 (1983), edited by Mary Benson.
Additional Biography Sources
Read, John, Athol Fugard: A Bibliography, National English Literary Museum, 1991.