Since the 1950s, the searing plays of South African playwright Athol Fugard (born 1932 in Middelburg, South Africa) have traced the history of his nation and its people. Known as the world’s most-performed playwright writing in English in the 21st century, Fugard has created works that continue to touch audiences throughout the world, as these plays address the struggles that all human beings inevitably face. Often compared to Beckett, whom he admired, Fugard dissects mankind and the problems the world faces in the 21st century. He put South African theater on the world map through his indictment of the unjust apartheid system, which had one set of laws for whites and another (harsher) set for blacks. (Apartheid lasted from 1948 until 1994, when the first democratic election made Nelson Mandela president.) In the years since the collapse of apartheid, Fugard has turned his attention to the aftermath of apartheid rule while also continuing his search to understand humanity’s place in the universe. Fugard’s work shows a keen understanding and empathy for the flaws and virtues of humanity, the former being expressed in “Master Harold”. . . and the boys, where he portrayed himself as a young tyrant. At the same time, he highlights the heroes who brought about change, including himself, by denouncing apartheid in his plays. Now in his eighties, Fugard believes more passionately than ever that theater can change lives for the better. Although, like Seamus Heaney, he sometimes denies that art can bring about change, deep down he still believes it can impart faith in human decency and instill the courage to rectify at least some wrongs. For instance, The Island shows two prisoners putting on their version of Sophocles’s Antigone, and thereby they indict the whole audience of guards watching to say nothing of the South African audience attending the performance. The final three lines of the play embody Fugard’s own indignation in Winston/Antigone’s comments: “Gods of my Fathers! My Land! My Home!Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honor belongs.” Apartheid deprived the blacks of their just rights. The study of Fugard is not simply the study of a literary giant. To understand him means working to understand the societal and moral conditions of his country. Fugard is a vital and important writer, but his importance transcends neatly delimited literary study. He has, of course, influenced other genres (such as opera, which is covered in this article), but he has also helped shape the moral and societal conditions of South Africa. Thus, this article attempts to capture the wider importance of a writer who is dedicated to the highest standards of craftsmanship.
Critical Work on Aspects of Fugard’s Work
Benson 1997, written by a personal family friend of Fugard, gives background on the conditions Fugard was writing under. Benson also discusses early theatrical challenges for Fugard. Gray 1979 is an excellent scholarly introduction and looks at Fugard in the context of South African literature. Gray 1982 continues this introduction to Fugard’s work including reviews and additional descriptive material. Shelley 2009 and Shelley 2010 are helpful, opinionated discussions of various Fugard plays. Tjijoro 2010 tackles Fugard’s work from a postmodern theoretical point of view. Vandenbroucke 1986 is a more comprehensive study on theatrical aspects of Fugard’s work from the dramaturg of the Mark Taper Forum.
Benson, Mary. Athol Fugard and Barney Simon: Bare Stage, A Few Props, Great Theatre. Randburg, South Africa: Ravan, 1997.
This is a conversational account of the beginnings of Fugard’s theater works from the point of view of a close family friend and activist. Benson shows how Fugard staged his early works in minimal fashion (e.g., instead of opening and closing a curtain between acts, the light switch was simply turned on and off to darken the room). Benson also describes the perilous conditions under which this early “black” drama was staged.
Gray, Stephen. Southern African Literature: An Introduction. Cape Town: David Philip, 1979.
Discusses how popular Fugard’s Boesman and Lena was internationally, as well as in Africa. As a Hottentot Eve, Lena is given a new life.
Gray, Stephen, ed. Athol Fugard. Southern African Literature Series 1. Johannesburg: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Stephen Gray is an excellent scholar, and in this study he includes background and collected articles from various people who know Fugard and his work. He also assembles a clutch of reviews here, such as Tom Stoppard writing on Fugard’s Mille Miglia.
Shelley, Alan. Athol Fugard: His Plays, People and Politics. London: Oberon, 2009.
When Shelley retired from his chartered surveyor post, he earned an MA in African studies and wrote his doctorate on Athol Fugard. He conducted numerous interviews (including with Marianne McDonald and Athol Fugard in Dublin) and gathered much important information on Fugard’s work.
Shelley, Alan. Survival of the Dispossessed: Seven Athol Fugard Plays. Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic, 2010.
Shelley includes his comments on some of Fugard’s plays here. He adds his own political and literary observations in sections entitled “Lessons for Hally and a Tale of Two Fathers,” “God’s Stepchildren and White Man’s Rubbish,” “Ancestral Voices; Antigone and the Book of Life,” and “Survival and the TRC” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). These sections are followed by “Contacts and Interviews” as well as a chronology, bibliography, and references.
Tjijoro, Alfeus. “From Resistance to Redemption”: A Postmodern Reading of Athol Fugard’s Selected Plays. Saarbrücken, Germany: Lambert Academic, 2010.
Tjijoro includes discussion of the following Fugard plays: No-Good Friday (1958), Boesman and Lena (1969), and The Island (1973). This is an authorized dissertation approved by the Polytechnic of Namibia. Postcolonialism and racial issues are predominant in this work. There is an appreciation for the way Fugard treats the downtrodden in his plays and also recognition of Fugard’s portrayals of strong women.
Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theater of Athol Fugard. Craighall, South Africa: Ad. Donker, 1986.
Vandenbroucke saw through the atrocities of apartheid and shows how Fugard’s plays illustrated the barbarities of the apartheid system. Vandenbroucke does not have much firsthand experience of South Africa, but he does have experience in the theater (he is the dramaturg of the Mark Taper Forum). He covers half of Fugard’s plays, concluding with a look at “Master Harold”. . . and the boys (1982).
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