Printer Friendly

Encounters with Fugard: native of the Karoo.

"A play that never ended," is Athol Fugard's recollection, in a conversation with me in 1986, of the first performance of The Blood Knot: it went on for four hours "on a terrible little stage, only about six inches high at one end." The momentous event took place in Johannesburg in 1961 with Fugard and Zakes Mokae playing Morrie and Zach. The tiny rehearsal room of the African Music and Drama school in Dorkay House, a rundown factory in the automobile district, was packed on that suffocating summer's evening. Egg boxes were glued to one wall to shut out the noise of traffic, but through blacked-out windows on the opposite side came the beat of drums from a nearby mine compound. The play, I wrote in the London Times, gave South African theater international status.

During that original South African run of The Blood Knot, Fugard spoke to me of his roots in the Karoo--a starkly beautiful region of semi-desert in the Eastern Cape where he was born, grandson of an Afrikaner patriarch, Veldkornet Potgieter. "So I think like an Afrikaner," he explained, "and believe that certain things about South Africa achieve their truest statement made from an Afrikaner background. The tragedy," he added, "is their love of country has become a passionate but shriveling emotion."

In Johannesburg, while writing plays during the morning, Fugard earned a meager living at the African Music and Drama school. The students were part-time, with jobs as messengers, factory workers, cleaners, teachers--all living under apartheid's oppressive conditions. Yet the place hummed with enthusiasm as young singers and musicians aspired to emulate Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, while for the sinewy, darkly bearded, intense Fugard, working in the rehearsal room meant, he told me, "continuity without the compromise that led to vulgarity." He also affirmed his belief that in his country the creative impetus must come from cooperation between the races. The humble surroundings of Dorkay House seemed peculiarly appropriate as a setting for Athol's magical performance in Krapp's Last Tape, which was directed in 1961 by his friend Barney Simon.

The local tour of The Blood Knot and its London production enabled him to risk writing full-time. With his wife Sheila and their baby daughter Lisa he returned to the Eastern Cape, sharing a cramped apartment with his parents in Port Elizabeth. The early sixties were a time of intensified arrests throughout South Africa and he wrote to me--I was back in London--to describe a journey to Johannesburg to discuss his new play, People Are Living There: "I can't begin to tell you how important that trip was for me--just the trip, the twenty-four hours in the compartment going up, and again coming back. I think I came nearer to understanding my purpose than ever before. It is to love the ugly--the unloved because that is all that ugliness is. . . . Has this poor, blighted country ever been uglier? Is it possible for the stain of injustice on this earth to be deeper?"

By December 1964 he was at last able to afford a small cottage on the coast and wrote happily, "The sea is at our doorstep. There is enough land and need for the highly moral activity of tree-planting and the beginnings of a vegetable patch. . . . I'd never realized fully how much of an Afrikaner I really am, until the moment when I kicked off my shoes and stood barefoot on the earth. I keep looking at my toes to see if roots haven't appeared."

His sense of rootedness became a recurring theme. "I know that I have mastered the code of one time, one place," he confided in another letter. "My life's work is possibly to witness as truthfully as I can the nameless and destitute of this one little corner of the world." And so he wrote about Johnnie and Hester Smit living in a back street of Port Elizabeth and in the first production of Hello and Goodbye, directed by Barney Simon at the Library Theatre in Johannesburg, gave a poignant and wonderfully comic performance as Johnnie. Next he created Boesman and Lena, the "coloured" couple scratching for bait in the mudflats, and embraced them "so fiercely and lovingly," as Stanley Kauffmann wrote in The New Republic, "that in their rags and drunkenness and cunning and persistence they move through a small epic of contemporary man" (16).

Deprived of his passport for four years by the South African government, Fugard was not free until 1971 to journey to London for a production of Boesman and Lena. He arrived exhausted after touring the play in South Africa. Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook stimulated him with its theme of the flight of an arrow and the question, "How do I expand my reach?" (Klee 54). Here is restriction, thither is there and liberation, Klee was saying. The consolation, then, is to go a bit farther than customary. "Yes!" Athol exclaimed, when I gave him Klee's book and he glanced through it, "I must extend my reach with this new production!"

Immediately, however, he had to decide whether to direct or to play Boesman. In South Africa he had encompassed both, but in London the strain might be too great. He chose to direct Zakes Mokae, who had taken over the role from James Earl Jones in the Off-Broadway production, would be Boesman, freshly challenged by Athol's direction. Besides, Zakes's blackness, and his performance potentially so different from Athol's, would in turn challenge the white actress, Yvonne Bryceland, a magnificent Lena in the South African production. Searching through a London garbage dump, Fugard found a mattress, blankets, bottles, pots, boxes, and sheets of corrugated iron. These were the props for his characters, themselves the embodiment of white man's rubbish, whose survival depended on his actual rubbish. All this the actors would carry while laboriously circling the stage, two brown scraps of humanity tramping through mudflats and along rough paths as shack after shack is bulldozed by white authorities. It struck me that his production was truer, more shattering, and more comic than could be achieved by a foreign director.

Yet in Paris a few years later there was a moving recreation of the lives of those two "nameless and destitute" wanderers. Roger Blin, who twenty-five years earlier had directed a play by an unknown Irish playwright, making history by introducing Beckett's En Attendant Godot to the world, had met Fugard in London and explained that, "captivated by Boesman and Lena's humanity and poetry," he wanted to direct the play for his return to theater after a serious illness. I acted as interpreter in this conversation between Blin and Fugard, and later I was able to attend Blin's fine production of Boesman in Paris.

Meanwhile, since 1963 Fugard had been working with a group from New Brighton, Port Elizabeth's black township--men and women who, as he once said to me, "hungered for experience in the realm of ideas." Naming themselves Serpent Players they rehearsed, usually in the Fugards' garage, two or three times a week after work teaching in schools, inspecting buses, clerking, and cleaning offices. Their first production was Machiavelli's Mandrake, adapted by Fugard to a township situation and staged in Commedia del Arte style. He wrote to say how fragile was their "newfound excitement and hope and making of meanings." And there was the tension of coping with the security police, who had broken up a rehearsal. Nevertheless the production--according to a local critic--was "A small masterpiece in improvisation. Something new and significant for South African theater." Next came Woyzeck, then The Caucasian Chalk Circle, followed by Antigone. The only assistance Athol ever requested was a sum of twenty-five pounds.

In those years the security police were ruthlessly purging the black townships of the Eastern Cape of all political activity. Three of the Serpent Players' leading actors were swept off to the infamous prison on Robben Island. At this moment two newcomers to the company, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, told Fugard they wanted to become professional actors--a hazardous prospect for black South Africans. Out of their daily lives and his experience during the 1950s of a job as clerk in the Pass Laws Court--"horror unadorned"--the three of them created Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. And out of their comrades' imprisonment came The Island. Both were workshop productions which they hoped would attract local audiences, and which to their astonishment became international successes. For the actors the financial risk had paid off; the political risk remained, however, and in 1976 they were detained in South Africa's Transkei Bantustan. Among the international celebrities whose outrage brought about their release was Patrick White, the great Australian novelist, who sent me a copy of his message to the South African Prime Minister, J. B. Vorster: "In a lifetime of theater-going in London, Paris, New York, Berlin, and Athens, I thought I had seen only three performances of the kind which becomes legendary, until recently in Sydney I was able to add to my short list John Kani and Winston Ntshona in The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead."

At Yale for a semester during 1980 Athol directed A Lesson from Aloes. His characters were all ultimately survivors--in South Africa's harsh political landscape aloes symbolized that survival. In his notebooks Athol had written of the play's "dark ambiguities." Two characters, Piet and Steve, were "victims of a system . . . which they have tried to resist, . . . something man-made," whereas Gladys was "God's victim" (Notebooks 230).

Those notebooks: for years I had tried to persuade Athol that they should be published, but he doubted that anyone would be interested in reading them. Eventually he agreed, and a dilapidated bag crammed with photocopies of barely legible handwritten journals was delivered to me in London. Now, whenever he had time, we went through my edited version of his notes that were so rich in insights and images--about his work and his family, about the landscape and its bird life, about the tragedies and comedies of life in South Africa.

In New Haven it was again fascinating to be on the fringe of one of his productions. Ever since he had brought Sizwe Bansi and The Island to the Long Wharf Theater, Kavanagh's had been his favorite bar. Friends, actors, and admirers orbited around him as, lunching or dining at his special table, we listened enthralled to his stories.

During 1984 Athol was at work on a new play. It marked his return to roots even deeper than those in Port Elizabeth, for it was set in the village of New Bethesda in the Karoo of his birth. He had even bought an old house there. He seldom spoke to me about his plays until they were completed but, passing through London, he described the woman who had inspired the leading character whom he called "Miss Helen." He had not actually met her, only glimpsed her in New Bethesda, where she had lived and died. Approaching the end of her life, she had created a fantastic world of beings and creatures, camels and owls, facing toward an imagined Mecca from her yard in the dorp. And when he remarked quietly that, just as all seemed lost, a vision had lit her life, I realized that "Miss Helen" was himself--the clue lay in a note he had written during May 1977, recording an "inner agony," a "death in life," a crisis of "the total extinction" of his creativity (Notebooks 229). From that descent into darkness he had triumphantly surfaced to write The Road to Mecca.

In the 1980s police and army rampaged against communities throughout South Africa and death squads roamed unchecked. From within the cauldron of violence Fugard forged My Children! My Africa!, also set in the Karoo (as was his earlier play, Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act). At the heart of the play was the bitter conflict between black youths' angry demand for "Liberation Before Education!" and a black schoolmaster's warning to "Be careful!" which expressed Fugard's passionately held credo: "Don't scorn words. They are sacred! Magical!"

After directing the play in South Africa, in America, and in London, Fugard, native of the Karoo, eagerly returned to his home there, to his work on Playland. The printed text starts with the stage direction: "A small traveling amusement park encamped on the outskirts of a Karoo town" (3). And because once again his play is rooted deep as the aloes of the landscape, its truth about the characters inhabiting the region he loves so profoundly touches us, wherever we may be.

"Warning ignored, prophecy fulfilled," he said to me about this play. The warning was The Blood Knot, in which Morrie and Zach were a metaphor for black and white: unless they accepted their brotherhood, they would destroy each other. They, Fugard points out, were innocents and were linked by brotherhood. Now, after more than thirty years of escalating violence in his country, Martinus and Gideon in Playland are strangers who have broken the sixth commandment. The play's gestation began in December 1966 when Fugard took his small daughter Lisa to Playland, an amusement fair traveling the Karoo. He watched the attendant of the "happiness machines," an African in faded overalls, behaving oddly, "muttering darkly to himself," his eyes with an "abstracted intensity" (Notebooks 145). That man is now incarnated in the character of Martinus. The catalyst for Fugard in writing the play was a photograph of white South African soldiers dropping the corpses of black men into a crude hole. In the play a black woman stands, watching--a sorrowful mother?--an image inspired by Pergolesi's Stabat Mater.

Now in his sixties, Fugard remarks that his true nature as a man of the desert is getting stronger. He recently spoke to me of the Karoo as beautiful, pure, spare, "a landscape where man is always the right size."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Hofstra University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Athol Fugard Issue
Author:Benson, Mary
Publication:Twentieth Century Literature
Date:Dec 22, 1993
Words:2309
Previous Article:"No way out": 'Sizwe Bansi is Dead' and the dilemma of political drama in South Africa.
Next Article:Life in the theatre: autobiography, politics, and romance in "Master Harold" ... and the boys.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters