A Lesson from Aloes
A Lesson from Aloes
Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes was first performed at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1978. In 1980, it was performed at the Yale Repertory Theater, starring James Earl Jones. Later that year, the play opened on Broadway, gaining an enthusiastic public and critical response. This play, as is the case with many of Fugard's other works, focuses on the tensions that arose between whites and blacks living under the system of apartheid in South Africa. The plot of A Lesson from Aloes centers on a farewell dinner in 1963 given by a white Afrikaner for his good friend, a black activist who has given up the cause. During the course of the evening, the two friends confront issues of loyalty and betrayal and sanity and madness, as they struggle to make sense of their experience in an oppressive and divisive world and of the effect that experience has on human relationships.
Athol Harold Lannagan Fugard was born in the Karoo village of Middleburg, South Africa, on June 11, 1932, and grew up in nearby Port Elizabeth with his Polish Irish father and Afrikaner mother. He studied for two years at the University of Cape Town in South Africa before signing on as a merchant sailor. A few years later, he worked as a freelance journalist and law clerk. In 1959, he relocated to London where he became involved in the theater
there, acting and writing plays that focused on racial tensions in South Africa. His first play, Blood Knot, was produced there in 1961. In 1962, after returning to Cape Town, he wrote a letter supporting a boycott of segregated theaters in South Africa, which, along with the controversial nature of his plays, resulted in the confiscation of his passport and the harassment of his family. He then involved himself in South African theater, and in 1973, he and his wife, Sheila, founded the Space Theatre there.
By 1982, his plays began to enjoy an international audience and have since been produced in South Africa, London, and New York. A Lesson from Aloes was published in 1979 and first produced in the United States in 1980. Published by Theatre Communications Group in 1981, this play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. Fugard's Master Harold …. and the Boys premiered in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1983, and was another big success.
In the last two decades of the twentieth century, Fugard continued his successful career as a playwright and also became involved in film. He acted in the film versions of some of his plays, including Boesman and Lena (1976) and in other films, such as Gandhi (1982) and The Killing Fields (1984). In 1992, he directed the film version of his play The Road to Mecca, and in 2006, the film version of his 1980 novel, Tsotsi, won an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.
Act 1, Scene 1
A Lesson From Aloes opens in the backyard of Piet and Gladys Bezuidenhout's home in South Africa in 1963. Piet is seated in front of an aloe plant, reading aloud from a book on the subject, trying to identify his specific plant but not having any luck. Gladys sits nearby. After he tells her that if this is a new species, he will name it after her, he then begins a brief monologue on the importance of names, quoting from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to help prove his point.
Gladys claims that time is passing slowly that afternoon as they wait for their friend Steve and his family to come for dinner. Piet asks if everything is ready in the kitchen for them, and Gladys tells him it is. He tells her to relax then and enjoy the lovely autumn weather, but she is worried about getting sunburned. When Piet returns with her sun hat, she appears anxious and goes into the house to confirm that she put away her diary.
Piet again turns his attention to his aloe, insisting that he must not neglect it. He asks Gladys whether they have enough food, noting that Steve is bringing his wife and four children. Her response that food is "not going to be the problem" reveals her apprehension about their arrival. When Piet tries to calm her by reminding her that they are friends, Gladys claims that she is "out of practice" and is worried about coming up with conversation, noting that they have been the first visitors since she has been back from the mental hospital.
Piet turns his attention to his plant again and reasserts the importance of naming, explaining that a name is the first thing people give a newborn and someone met for a first time. He is frustrated that he cannot find the right name for his plant and then discusses its qualities, describing its ability to survive in harsh terrain. Piet suggests that there may be a lesson in the plant's survival mechanisms for all of them, but Gladys refuses to identify herself with it and begins to get upset by their discussion. She claims that conversation with him always turns political, "a catalogue of South African disasters" because he "seem[s] to have a perverse need to dwell on what is cruel and ugly about this country." She insists that she wants more out of life than just to survive. Although she is afraid of the country and the effect it can have on her, she is determined not to let it pass on its "violence" to her. In an effort to lighten the mood, Piet shifts the conversation to the upcoming dinner.
Act 1, Scene 2
As they get ready for the dinner, Gladys tell Piet that she feels isolated there while he is at work since no one is nearby. She notes that during the almost seven months that she has been back from the hospital, not one of their friends has come to visit. When she wonders whether they are avoiding her, Piet declares, "it's a dangerous time and people are frightened," citing all of the political and social unrest that has been occurring. Gladys insists that his explanation is too simple; she complains about people's "lack of courage and faith," alluding to the political activism in which they are no longer involved. Piet admits that he is frightened, too.
Later, Gladys proudly recalls every word from a quote by Thoreau about finding and following a purpose in life that Piet had recited to her on their first date. When he admits that he still believes in the sentiment, Gladys declares that she envies him that. She insists that she would be lost without her diary, which keeps her secrets. When she brings up the fact that her diaries were stolen from her, Piet tells her to try to forget, but she cannot. As she remembers the government officials coming into her room, she gets increasingly angry and agitated. Piet tries to reassure her that they will not come again, but she is not sure that she believes him.
When Gladys discovers that Piet still has the receipt the men gave him for the diaries, she demands that he rip it up so she can cancel those years. After Piet tears up the receipt, she calms down a bit, explaining how important the diaries were to her. But her hysteria returns when she thinks about how her trust in herself and in life has been shattered and declares that there is no safe place to hide her diary. She begins to attack Piet, blaming him for her "condition" but then pulls back and apologizes. When Piet offers to cancel the dinner, she tells him that she will be all right and that she does not want to hide anything anymore. The scene ends with her telling Pier, "I am trying," suggesting that she is struggling to cope with her fragile emotional state.
Act 1, Scene 3
Piet declares that he owes Steve "more than anybody else in this world," since his friend gave him a sense of purpose. He explains that when he worked as a bus driver, he had no interest in politics. On the morning of a bus boycott, he was reassigned into the "Coloured area" where he saw people "full of defiance" over the penny increase the government demanded for bus fares. He wondered why they made such an issue over a penny, but then started listening to a man who was handing out pamphlets and speaking to a crowd on a street corner. Steve was that man, and he was soon arrested by the police, but the next day he was back on the corner.
Piet decided that he should hear what the man had to say and was surprised that the crowd welcomed him, which became, as he describes, "the most moving thing that has ever happened to me." Piet quit work that day, and a week later, he was handing out pamphlets with Steve on the same corner. Even though the bus company got their penny raise, Piet saw the boycott as a success since it "had raised the political consciousness of the people." Political activism like this, he was certain, could "make this a better world to live in."
Piet then tells Gladys that Steve and his family are leaving for England and will not be able to come back. Although she is surprised, Gladys declares that they are very lucky to be leaving. She knows that she could never convince Piet to leave and becomes cynical about the fight against apartheid that Piet and Steve were both so committed to now that it seems to have failed. She admits that she could never become as devoted to their cause because some of their goals, such as overthrowing the government, frightened her.
When Piet argues that the movement's slogans were not empty, that they, not their dreams, failed, Gladys notes that just one person, the informer, failed. Someone apparently told the police that Steve was going to break the order that banned him from meeting with his friends, and so he was arrested. Piet insists that he does not know the identity of the informer and tries to change the subject to the upcoming dinner, but Gladys presses the point, asking him if other people think that he is the informer. Piet admits that it appears that they do, but that Steve does not believe it was him. After Piet tells her how horrible it is to be considered an informer, Gladys asks, "it's not true, is it?" Piet does not respond and turns away. Later, he announces that Steve and his family should be arriving soon.
Two hours later, Steve arrives without his family, claiming that one of his daughters is ill. Piet is thrilled that Steve has arrived, sure that "he wouldn't have come if everything wasn't all right." When he and Steve toast the "good old days," Piet recites the quotation he found for the occasion. Piet later declares that he has been thinking a lot about his days on the farm when he had to help bury the child of a family that had worked for him. The child died of a stomach ailment since there had been no clean water on the farm. On that day, Piet admits, "a sense of deep, personal failure overwhelmed me," as the family waited for him to say a few words, and he was too overcome with emotion to speak. Three months later, he left the farm.
Gladys tells Steve that he is fortunate to get out of the country, and he asks her what England is like, thinking from her manners, that she has lived there. Gladys at first denies this, but then admits, "In a way I suppose I am from England," referring to Fort England Clinic, the mental hospital where she received treatment. Steve then shows Piet an old snapshot of him and his father on the day the latter caught a big fish, "the biggest moment in the old man's life." Soon after, however, the family was kicked out of their home, which had been declared a white area, after losing all of their money trying to fight the relocation. Steve notes that it "finished" his father.
Steve wants Piet to admit that he understands why Steve is leaving, but Piet does not want to talk about the subject. Trying to justify his decision, Steve explains that he has not been allowed to work for four years and that he has to get his family out so that they can survive, insisting that he does not want to be a martyr to the cause. He asks Piet to name one thing they accomplished and to admit that they fought for a lost cause, but Piet cannot agree. Steve tells Piet to get out while he can and come to England with him.
When Gladys tells Steve that everyone thinks that Piet is the informer and asks Steve if he thinks so too, Piet tries unsuccessfully to stop her, which causes her to grow agitated. She declares that enough lies have been told and that Piet is the informer. After Piet refuses to defend himself, Steve tells about the mental torture he endured while incarcerated, and that eventually, he told them everything he knew about the group's political activities, information, ironically, that the police already had. Steve then asks Piet if he is the informer, noting that Steve's wife thinks that he is, but Piet still refuses to respond.
Gladys declares that she admires Piet's faith in himself and admits that she lied about his being the informer. When Steve asks her why she lied, she becomes angry and argues that he is not the only victim of their country and rails against Piet for not protecting her from the police and from the doctors who gave her shock treatments. She becomes hysterical when she remembers the treatments, insisting that they "burned my brain as brown as yours, Steven."
After Gladys escapes into the house, Piet explains how after the police took her diaries, she became paranoid and thought that he was one of them. Piet then tells Steve that he did not deny her charge because there would have been no point if Steve had believed it. After Steve leaves, Piet goes in to Gladys, who admits that she tried to wreck his friendship with Steve and that she wanted to destroy the goodness in Pier, just like the country has done to its people. She decides that she has to go back to the clinic but will "go quietly this time." Piet gives her pills to help her sleep and goes into the backyard where he sits with his aloe.
Gladys Bezuidenhout is a middle-aged white woman, living with her husband in South Africa. She spends the entire evening trying to hold onto her sanity, but by the end of the play, she recognizes that she will need to go back to the mental hospital. Gladys is eventually overcome by her fears about her safety amid the racial tensions of South Africa. These fears carry over into other areas as well, as when she gets nervous about whether she will be able to make conversation with Steve's wife, whether his son's boisterousness will upset her, and whether people are avoiding her. Her fears also transfer into an obsession with where to hide her diary so that no one can read it, although by the end of the play, Piet discovers that she has not been writing in it.
Gladys insists on setting herself apart from black Africans, which suggests that she has racist attitudes. She obsesses about getting sun burnt, although it is now autumn. When she explains, "Mommy was terrified that I was going to end up with a brown skin," she is speaking about her own fears as well. Her desire to protect herself from the sun so that she would not turn brown has been thwarted, however, by the shock treatments she received in the mental hospital, which, as she tells Steve, have "burned [her] brain as brown as [his]," an admission that helps speed her descent into madness. Another way Gladys tries to keep herself separate is through her language. Steve notes that she talks like an Englishwoman, and she always uses a formal address for her husband and Steve, referring to them only as "Peter" and "Steven."
Piet feels a strong identification to his heritage and to his home. That identification, however, is problematic since Afrikaners are part of the apartheid movement in South Africa. Piet devotes himself completely to whatever he becomes involved in, farming, political activism, or raising aloes. He needs a clear sense of purpose, even if it is directed toward naming aloes. When he fails at one enterprise, such as his farm and his fight for the cause, he quickly finds another project, refusing to be consumed by a sense of defeat.
Sometimes that adaptability causes him to ignore reality, as is the case with his wife's emotional instability. He is accommodating of her needs, assuring her that what she has prepared for dinner will be fine and getting her a sunhat to alleviate her fears that she will be burnt. Yet he continually sidesteps the reality of her mental health, turning to his aloes rather than discussing the cause of her fears. He values his friendship with Steve but avoids the reality of the racial tensions that have affected it. He also does not comment on Steve's descriptions of the torture he endured or the fact that, as a result, he told the police all that he knew about his and his friends illegal activities. When he ignores painful realities, Piet tries to sustain his comforting vision of his homeland and his place in it.
When Steve comes to dinner without his wife, who believes that Piet is the informer, he proves his loyalty to Piet and his trust in him. He shows his good humor when he first arrives, as he jokes with his old friend. Steve is honest enough to admit that he broke under torture, that he became an informant, and that he has "had enough" of his difficult life in South Africa. He was devoted to the fight for equal rights in his country, but when he can no longer support his family, he decides to move to England for their sakes, even though it is difficult to leave his homeland.
Sanity and Madness
During the course of the play, Gladys struggles to maintain her sanity by pushing back her fears that she is not safe. At one point, she admits to Piet that she is even afraid of his aloes because, she claims: "they're turgid with violence, like everything else in this country. And they're trying to pass it on to me." Her mental state results from the governmental officials reading and confiscating her diaries, which made her feel "violated." Piet explains to Steve that after that incident, she became more and more paranoid to the point that she thought her own husband was a spy, and, as a result, she was sent to a mental institution.
In an effort to try to maintain her sanity, Gladys redirects her fear into anger, and Piet is her target. She insists that he is to blame for her "condition" since he is the one who convinced her to trust in herself and in life, and now she does not trust in anything, not even his ability to protect her. Gladys declares that the diaries contain intimate information that a woman addresses only in private dialogue with herself. Her loss of trust causes her to obsess about where to hide her diary so that no one will find it, but she cannot find any safe place, for her or her diary.
Her anger also causes her to accuse Piet of being the informer who was responsible for Steve's incarceration. But when Piet refuses to respond to her accusations, her anger is deflected and her fears return as she recognizes that Piet feels safer in their environment than she does. This recognition reinforces her own fears that by the end of the evening become so severe that she feels herself slipping back into madness. Gladys's inability to maintain her sanity reveals the profound effect that an insane political realm can have on the personal one.
The Consequences of Isolation
Both Gladys and Piet feel isolated in their home and community although Gladys is the only one to admit it. The streets around their community are relatively empty, due most likely to the racial tension that surrounds them. Also, their friends, who suspect Piet of informing on Steve, have been noticeably absent. Using avoidance as a coping mechanism, Piet fills his time tending to his aloes so that he will not dwell on the failure of his cause to which he has devoted himself so completely. The isolation, however, has had greater effect on Gladys, which is evident in her response to Steve's coming over for dinner. She exclaims: "I won't have any trouble finding something to write in my diary tonight. At last! Other people! Just when it was beginning to feel as if Peter and I were the last two left in the world." She tells Piet that during the day "it's hard sometimes to believe there is a world out there full of other people." The isolation helps push her further from sanity since she becomes more afraid when no one is home and when she has no one to help her face reality. Gladys's response to isolation illustrates that the social as well as the political can have a great impact on emotional and psychological stability.
The aloes in the play's title become symbolic of the situation of each of the main characters in the sense that they all must struggle to survive their harsh environment. The one "nameless" aloe that Piet keeps returning to throughout the evening becomes especially symbolic of the characters' situation due to its anonymity. Piet notes that since the aloe is confined in a tin, its roots are "going to crawl around inside …. and tie themselves into knots looking for the space creation intended for them." Africa has become a tin for Piet, Gladys, and Steve, confining each of them in different ways. Steve's tin is created by the oppression of apartheid, which ultimately causes him to take his family and leave his country. Gladys's is formed by the fear generated by her husband's involvement in the cause to overthrow the system, which is brought to a peak when government officials raid their house and steal her diaries. Piet is restricted by the failure of his cause, which removed his sense of purpose and limited his activities to tending plants.
Fugard suggests that extra care must be taken with aloes and people alike when they are confined by their environment. Piet notes that the aloes will not survive if he neglects them. Gladys also will not survive if Piet does not stay vigilant in his attempts to reassure her that she is safe, and Piet will not survive unless he has the distraction of his plants, which takes his mind off of his failed cause and damaged relationship with his wife and best friend. Perhaps, Piet has the best chance of survival since he, like the plant, has developed a thick skin, a lesson he has learned well. Ultimately, however, the play illustrates how apartheid confines and isolates, an unhealthy, even dangerous system, against nature. Adapting and coping within the confines of this unequal system cannot be called living.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read Fugard's Master Harold … and the Boys and compare its treatment of race relations in South Africa to those in A Lesson from Aloes. Does Fugard raise any new points in Master Harold about the tensions that arose between blacks and whites living under apartheid? Write a comparison and contrast paper on the two plays.
- Fugard reveals the incident when the police took Gladys's diaries only as a memory. Write a new scene that could be added to the play that would depict this important event, noting Gladys's sense of betrayal and the beginning of her descent into madness.
- Research the subject of race relations in the United States during the 1960s and compare your findings to conditions in South Africa during the same period. What do you think accounted for the differences? Present a PowerPoint presentation on your findings.
- Write a poem or short story that focuses on the interaction between two people of different races.
The Colonization of South Africa
Dutch colonists were an early group of outsiders to settle in South Africa. Calling themselves Afrikaners, they established Cape Town colony in 1652 and set up a rigid social and political hierarchy that gave them complete control of the government and the power to force most Africans into slavery. When the British seized control of the colony in 1795, they continued the system of racial segregation set up by the Afrikaners, appropriating land from South Africans and encouraging large groups of immigrants from Europe and Britain to settle there. Although Britain outlawed slavery in 1830, the South African government continued to enforce racial segregation. In 1910, the white minority institutionalized policies that disenfranchised Africans and legalized racial discrimination and segregation. A few years later, British troops forced hundreds of thousands of Africans off of their land, which was confiscated by the government; these displaced people were moved into restricted, separate communities that did not have adequate living facilities.
Some colonists suffered under this system as rural Africans were forced to urban settlements. Afrikaners, who were only one rung below the British in the established hierarchy, were especially hard hit as their farmers lost many of their cheap laborers. They feared that growing unrest in the black communities would further jeopardize their economic status if reforms were enacted that enabled blacks to gain political power. The Afrikaner Nationalist Alliance was subsequently formed in order to assist blacks in gaining a voice in the government. The alliance proposed a political and social system that would address the growing concerns of the white minority, which they called apartheid, an Afrikaner word for apartness.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1960s: The government of South Africa, in its second decade of the enforcement of apartheid, begins to crack down on protesters. During one protest near Johannesburg in 1960, police gun down sixty-seven Africans and wound nearly two hundred others.
Late 1970s and early 1980s: In 1982, the newly established Internal Securities Act attempts to contain escalating opposition to the government.
Today: The government under President Mandela desegregates schools and prohibits discrimination in the workplace.
- 1960s: The Pan Africanist Congress, a multiracial organization in South Africa, holds successful demonstrations against the government in the form of work stoppages.
Late 1970s and early 1980s: All levels of society, including Afrikaner business leaders, begin to recognize the failure of apartheid and to denounce the system. In 1983, six hundred South African organizations come together to form the United Democratic Front, which openly opposes the policies of apartheid.
Today: Protests against the government are ended but social problems, such as the lack of health care for AIDS sufferers, have not been adequately addressed.
- 1960s: In 1961, Nelson Mandela becomes one of the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC), a political group that forms to fight Apartheid. A year later, he is arrested and thrown in prison where he is to spend the next eighteen years.
Late 1970s and early 1980s: In 1980, Mandela issues a statement from prison, urging his supporters to continue the fight against apartheid.
Today: Mandela is released from prison in 1990. He is elected president in 1994 and serves until 1999, when he retires from the office. After that he continues his advocacy work for human rights organizations.
The system of apartheid was based on the division of South Africa into four racial groups: the whites, predominantly British and Dutch descendants; the Africans, black descendents of indigenous Africans; the Indians, immigrants from Asia
and India; and the Coloreds, South Africans of mixed race. The ideology of apartheid asserted the dominance of the white race because of its perceived racial superiority and granted it the power of governance in all areas. To ensure the effective control of the country, racial segregation was enforced. This system was adopted and put into effect in South Africa in 1950, after Afrikaners aligned themselves with the National Party, which won control of the country in 1948. The government passed the Group Areas Act, which restricted all persons of color to segregated living and work areas with substandard facilities.
In the 1950s and 1960s, black Africans, often aided by sympathetic whites, formed political groups that began to protest government policies through strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and riots. In the 1960s, some members of the international community also protested, which resulted in South Africa's withdrawal from the British Commonwealth. In 1985, Britain, along with the United States, imposed economic sanctions on the country in response to its apartheid policies. By the 1990s, the South African government, led by President F. W. de Klerk, began to reform the system, legalizing black political groups and releasing black political prisoners. By 1994, the system of apartheid was dismantled, and the country held for the first time, free general elections that resulted in Nelson Mandela becoming South Africa's first black president.
The play received mostly positive reviews that applauded its treatment of race relations in South Africa as well as its dramatic structure. In his essay on Fugard's plays, Michael J. Collins insists that while A Lesson from Aloes lacks "the immediate political relevance" of his earlier work, it manages "without ever ignoring or mitigating the horrors of life in South Africa, to move beyond the particulars of place and affirm, in a world of cruelty and suffering, the value and dignity of human life everywhere." He especially praises act 2, which he claims "is beautifully written, exquisitely paced and inordinately moving."
Joel G. Fink, in his review in Theatre Journal of this "important" play, echoes Collins's sentiments regarding act 2, arguing that "with the arrival of Steve, …. the evening's dramatic conflicts are truly engaged." He finds fault, however, with act 1 in which, he claims, "too much effort is focused on the introduction of poetic symbols." Overall, Fink concludes that "the play's theme and literary textures are strikingly and surprisingly akin to those of Chekov" and that it "confirms that Athol Fugard continues to grow and mature as a dramatist." Gerard Molyneaux, in his review of the play for Library Journal, found it to be "honest" but "not altogether dramatic."
Sheila Roberts, in her article on Fugard, does not find the thematic import of the play compelling enough, suggesting that "no lessons are learnt." She concludes, "The aloes can only teach Piet to wait. But for what? The play doesn't tell us."
Perkins is a professor of twentieth-century American and British literature and film. In the following essay, she considers the importance of language in the play.
At the beginning of Athol Fugard's play, A Lesson from Aloes, Piet Bezuidenhout, an Afrikaner living in South Africa with his wife, Gladys, searches a book on plant species in an effort to discover the name of an aloe plant that he is growing. When Gladys questions his determination, Piet insists on the importance of the task, noting that a child is given a name as soon as it is born and the first thing people do when they meet is to exchange names. Adam, he claims, named his world as soon as he was created. Consequently, he declares, "there is no rest for me until I've identified this." Not finding an exact match for his "Aloe Anonymous" frustrates him because, he admits, knowing its name would make him feel "that little bit more at home in [his] world." Having the right name or words for an object or an occasion has become important for Piet, since they also provide him with a sense of order and meaning, which are lacking in this world of great racial conflict. During the course of the evening, Piet uses the power of language to try to impose an order onto his world, but he ultimately discovers that there are some aspects of human experience that cannot be so easily named or understood.
Piet considers his aloe plant "a stranger in our midst." Naming it would immediately forge a connection between him and the plant and between him and the terrain of South Africa, where the species thrives. Establishing connections with the indigenous forms of life in this country is important to Piet because he knows the difficulties of living in a world of racial segregation and has been caught up in the fight to end apartheid. However, he hints at the complications he will face in his determination to use language as a connecting device when he quotes lines from Romeo and Juliet, a play about prejudice and the perceived need to keep opposing factions separate. He says, "‘What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.’" The stage direction notes, "These lines, and all his other quotations, although delivered with a heavy Afrikaans accent, are said with a sincere appreciation of the words involved." Yet when Piet declares, "Alas, it's not as simple as that, is it?" he recognizes that naming does not necessarily bridge separations.
Piet has tried to impose a sense of order on his world by naming his home Xanadu, which means a place of beauty and contentment. Yet neither he nor Gladys has been content there as they are caught in tensions between blacks and whites in their country. Piet tries to make his home a safe place for himself and his wife, but the outside world, in the form of government officials who conduct raids on whites sympathetic to black causes, has invaded their home, leaving Gladys feeling violated and on the brink of insanity and Piet afraid for both of them. Their home is also the place where the tensions between Piet and his friend Steve erupt, damaging a relationship that had given both a sense of meaning and purpose.
Piet, however, insists that "names are more than just labels," as he struggles to maintain a sense of order and gain a clear understanding of his world and his relationship to it. At one point, he paraphrases another part of Juliet's speech to Romeo, thinking about his own name, "trying to hear it as others do." He insists that there is a clear connection between his name and who he is. His name identifies his "face" and his "story." While it may seem easier for Italians like Juliet to "deny thy father and refuse thy name," Piet declares that this would be a difficult task for Afrikaners: "No. For better or for worse, I will remain positively identified as Petrus Jacobus Bezuidenhout …. and accept the consequences." The consequences can be problematic for a member of a group of immigrants that exploited black Africans during their colonization of the country and helped the government establish the repressive system of apartheid. His name and his classification as an Afrikaner give him his identity but appear at odds with the cause of racial equality to which he is devoted, which includes the fight to overthrow the South African government and establish civil rights for all the country's inhabitants.
In conjunction with the function of naming, Piet uses words in the form of quotations to provide meaning to his experience. As he tries to impress on Gladys the importance of naming, he quotes Shakespeare to give his view more authority. Later, he finds what he considers to be the perfect quotation to express his feelings about Steve and their dinner together. Reciting quotations, however, can also be an avoidance strategy; he attempts to reestablish order when he reads the quotation for Steve, in effect trying to shift the conversation away from discussion of the informer. The reestablishment of order also becomes his motive when he repeatedly returns to his aloe during the evening. Gladys insists that the aloes give him a purpose, which he denies, claiming that they are only a pleasure to him. But Gladys understands his actions at times more than he does, declaring, "with your aloes, quoting your poetry …. in spite of all that has happened, you've still got a whole world intact."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Ian Barry's Living Apart: South Africa under Apartheid (1996) examines the history of the implementation of the racist policies under apartheid and the effect that they had on black Africans.
- Fugard's Master Harold … and the Boys (1982), another of his semi-autobiographical plays that condemns the racist policies of apartheid, centers on seventeen-year-old Hally, who is white, and his relationship with two middle-aged black men who work in his parents' tea room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
- South Africa in Pictures (2003), by Janice Hamilton, includes photographs of the landscapes and people of South Africa throughout its troubled history.
- The Poisonwood Bible (1998), by Barbara Kingsolver, focuses on the experiences of the Price family, who arrive in the Congo in 1959, emissaries of the Southern Baptist Mission League. The family struggles to adapt to and to survive in the harsh conditions in the Congo as their beliefs about racial relationships are challenged.
Piet discovers, however, that no words can offer meaning and comfort in certain situations, such as when a child dies on his farm. At the grave, he became so emotional that the words would not come, and eventually he had to walk away. He spent the next three months reading a book of poetry and stories, "looking for something [he] could have said out there in the veld," but he never found anything.
Piet also learns that words can create chaos. The word, informer, changes in the play. First, it is applied as innuendo to Piet by others, including Steve's wife, who think that he betrayed Steve to the authorities. Gladys then uses the word as a lie and a tool for revenge when she tells Steve that Piet is the informer. Ironically, this accusation causes Steve to confess that he informed on members of their group when he was tortured in prison.
By the end of the play, Piet and Steve have exposed the breakdown of their relationship with each other as well as the failure of the political cause that brought them together. Steve admits to Gladys that he and Piet have nothing left to say to each other by the end of the evening, so Steve leaves with no parting words. Yet Piet still clings to his belief that language can have a great deal of significance, and so turns at the end of the play to his unnamed aloe as Gladys drifts off to a troubled, drugged sleep. Instead of thinking about her return to the mental clinic, Piet tries to reestablish a sense of order and comfort by continuing his search for a name for the plant that he is nurturing, working to ensure its survival in its inhospitable environment, along with his own survival in a harsh political one.
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on A Lesson from Aloes, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of (Harold) Athol Fugard's work.
As a white child growing up in segregated South Africa, Athol Fugard resisted the racist upbringing society offered him. Nevertheless, the boy who would become, in the words of Gillian MacKay of Maclean's, "perhaps South Africa's most renowned literary figure, and its most eloquent anti-apartheid crusader abroad" did not completely escape apartheid's influence—he insisted that the family's black servants call him Master Harold, and he even spat at one of them. Fugard told MacKay that the servant, an "extraordinary" man who had always treated him as a close friend, "grieved for the state" of Fugard's soul and forgave him instead of beating him "to a pulp."
Fugard never forgot this incident, which he transformed into a powerful scene in the play, "Master Harold" … and the Boys. He told Lloyd Richards of Paris Review that the event is like a deep stain which has "soaked into the fabric" of his life. In Fugard's career as a playwright, director, and actor, he has forced himself and his audiences to consider their own "stains." As Frank Rich remarked in a 1985 New York Times review of The Blood Knot, "Mr. Fugard doesn't allow anyone, least of all himself, to escape without examining the ugliest capabilities of the soul."
Despite Fugard's insistence that he is not a political writer and that he speaks for no one but himself, his controversial works featuring black and white characters have found favor with critics of apartheid. According to Brendan Gill of the New Yorker, The Blood Knot, the play that made Fugard famous, "altered the history of twentieth-century theatre throughout the world" as well as the world's "political history." Not all critics of apartheid, however, have appreciated Fugard's works. Some "see a white man being a spokesman for what has happened to black people and they are naturally intolerant," Fugard explained to Paul Allen in New Statesman and Society.
Whether Fugard's theatrical explorations of passion, violence, and guilt played a role in undermining apartheid or not, it is clear that he was involved in breaking physical and symbolic barriers to integration. He defied the apartheid system by founding the first enduring black theater company in South Africa, by collaborating with black writers, and by presenting black and white actors on stage together for integrated audiences. He insisted upon performing plays for local audiences in South Africa as well as for those in New York City and London; his plays carried messages that people around the world needed to hear. Even after the government took Fugard's passport and banned his work, he refused to consider himself an exile or to renounce his country. Love, and not hate for South Africa, Fugard maintained, would help it break the chains of apartheid. "Wouldn't it be ironic if South Africa could teach the world something about harmony?," he asked MacKay.
Fugard is highly regarded by literary and theater critics. Stephen Gray of New Theatre Quarterly noted that the author has been called "the greatest active playwright in English." His works are renowned for their multifaceted, marginalized characters, realistic yet lyrical dialogue, and carefully crafted, symbolic plots. Critics have also praised Fugard's ability to write scenes which elicit emotion without declining into melodrama. Fugard has forged new paths in theater by directing and acting in many of his own plays and by writing and composing plays with the actors who perform in them.
Fugard credits his parents with shaping his insights about South African society. As a child, he developed close relationships with both his English-speaking South African father, Harold, and his mother, Elizabeth, the daughter of Dutch-speaking Afrikaners. Harold, a jazz musician and amputee who spent a great deal of time in bed, amused the boy with fantastic stories and confused him with his unabashed bigotry. Fugard's mother Elizabeth supported the family by efficiently managing their tea room. In an interview with Jamaica Kincaid for Interview, Fugard described his mother as "an extraordinary woman" who could "barely read and write." In Fugard's words, she was "a monument of decency and principle and just anger" who encouraged Fugard to view South African society with a thoughtful and critical eye.
If Fugard learned the power of words from his father, and if he discovered how to question society from his mother, he gained an understanding of the complexity of human nature from both parents. Like Fugard's characters, his parents were neither entirely good or evil. Nevertheless, as Fugard explained to Kincaid, "I think at a fairly early age I became suspicious of what the system was trying to do to me…. I became conscious of what attitudes it was trying to implant in me and what prejudices it was trying to pass on to me." Fugard fed his intellectual appetite with conversations with his mother and daily trips to the local library. By the time he began college, he knew he wanted to be a writer. He accepted a scholarship at the University of Cape Town and studied philosophy, but he left school before graduating to journey around the Far East on a steamer ship.
At this time in his life, Fugard entertained notions of writing a great South African novel. Yet his first attempt at writing a novel, as he saw it, was a failure, and he destroyed it. After Fugard met and married Sheila Meiring, an out-of-work South African actress, he developed an interest in writing plays. The Cell and Klaas and the Devil were the first results of this ambition.
Not until after Fugard began to keep company with a community of black writers and actors near Johannesburg did he experience a revelation in his work. During this time, he witnessed the frustration of the black writers and learned the intricacies of a system which shrewdly and cruelly thwarted their efforts to live and work freely. The plays he penned at this time, No-Good Friday and Nongogo, were performed by Fugard and his black actor friends for private audiences.
In 1959 Fugard moved to England to write. His work received little attention there, and Fugard began to realize that he needed to be in South Africa to follow his muse. Upon his return home in 1961, Fugard wrote a second novel. Although he tried to destroy this work, a pair of graduate students later found the only surviving copy, and it was published in 1981. Critics have noticed the presence of many of the elements which would re-emerge in Fugard's more famous plays in this novel, Tsotsi.
Tsotsi portrays the life of David, a young black man whose nickname, "Tsotsi," means "hoodlum." Tsotsi spends his time with his gang of thieving, murderous friends. He has no family and cannot remember his childhood. It is not until a woman he is about to attack gives him a box with a baby in it, and David gives the baby his name, that he begins to experience sympathy and compassion, and to recall his childhood. When David is about to kill a crippled old man he has been pursuing, he suddenly remembers how his mother was arrested and never came home, and how he began to rove with a pack of abandoned children. It is not long before he recalls the trauma that led to his violent life on the streets. Fugard does not allow David's character to revel in his newly discovered emotions or to continue his search for God: at the novel's end, David is crushed under a bulldozer in an attempt to save David, the baby.
Critics appreciate Tsotsi for the insight it provides into the lives of even minor characters. Fugard did not allow his readers to categorize characters as "good" or "bad"; instead, he forced readers to understand their complexity. In the New York Times Book Review, Ivan Gold called Tsotsi "a moving and untendentious book" which demonstrates Fugard's ability to "uncannily insinuate himself into the skins of the oppressed majority and articulate its rage and misery and hope." Although Barbara A. Bannon in Publishers Weekly commented that Tsotsi is "altogether different in tone" from some of his plays, she also observed that the "milieu is much the same as the one that has made Fugard … the literary conscience of South Africa."
While Fugard generally works on one project at a time (typically writing with pens instead of word processors), he wrote Tsotsi and The Blood Knot simultaneously. The inspiration for The Blood Knot came when the author walked into a room and saw his brother asleep in bed one night. His brother had lived a difficult life, and his pain was apparent in his face and body. Realizing that there was nothing he could do to save his brother from suffering, Fugard experienced guilt. By writing The Blood Knot, Fugard recalled to Richards in Paris Review, he "was trying to examine a guilt more profound than racial guilt—the existential guilt that I feel when another person suffers, is victimized, and I can do nothing about it. South Africa afforded me the most perfect device for examining this guilt."
The Blood Knot is the story of two brothers born to the same mother. Morris, who has light-skin, can "pass" for white; he confronts the truth about his identity when he returns home to live with his dark-skinned brother, Zachariah. Although the opening scene of the play finds Morris preparing a bath for hard-working Zachariah's feet, it soon becomes clear that the brothers' relationship is a tenuous one. The tension between the brothers is heightened when Zach's white pen pal (a woman who thinks Zach is white) wants to meet him, and Morris must pretend to be the white man with whom she has been corresponding.
Morris's attempts to look and sound white are painful for both brothers: To convincingly portray a white man, Morris must treat his black brother with the cruelty of a racist. In his role as a white man, Morris sits in the park and calls insults at his brother, who chases black children from the presence of his "white" brother. By the last scene, the "game" is out of control, and Zach tries to kill Morris. According to Robert M. Post in Ariel, the brothers in The Blood Knot "are typical victims of the system of apartheid and bigotry" and "personify the racial conflict of South Africa."
Fugard had little support in producing the play; it was not until actor Zakes Mokae joined the project that the production emerged. As a result of this collaboration, the first production of The Blood Knot was controversial not only for its content, but also because it featured a black actor and a white actor on stage together. Fugard played the light-skinned brother who "passes" for a white man, while Mokae played the darker-skinned brother. The Blood Knot opened in front of a mixed-race, invitation-only audience in a run-down theatre. As Derek Cohen noted in Canadian Drama, this first production of The Blood Knot "sent shock waves" through South Africa. "Those who saw the initial performance knew instinctively that something of a revolution had taken place in the stodgily Angloid cultural world of South Africa," he wrote. "Whites, faced boldly with some inescapable truths about what their repressive culture and history had wrought, were compelled to take notice."
Responses to The Blood Knot varied. As Cohen notes, some Afrikaners believed that the play's message was that blacks and whites could not live together in peace, and some black critics called the work racist. Many now accept the interpretation of the play as a sad commentary on the way racism has twisted and tangled our understanding of brotherhood and humanity. More specifically, according to Cohen, The Blood Knot is "about the hatred which South African life feeds on."
According to Dennis Walder in his book Athol Fugard, many of Fugard's plays "approximate … the same basic model established by The Blood Knot: a small cast of ‘marginal’ characters is presented in a passionately close relationship embodying the tensions current in their society, the whole first performed by actors directly involved in its creation, in a makeshift, ‘fringe’ or ‘unofficial’ venue." Since the first production of The Blood Knot, the substance of Fugard's plays as well as the means of their production have reflected the historical circumstances in which they evolved. Fugard insists that individual performances of each of his plays represent the legitimate play; he personally selects the actors and also continues to direct and act in them himself.
Boesman and Lena, produced in 1969, was Fugard's next great success; Cohen called it "possibly the finest of Fugard's plays." This work develops around the image of an old, homeless woman Fugard once saw, presenting a homeless couple (both "colored") who wander without respite. According to Cohen, it is a "drama of unrelieved and immitigable suffering" which becomes "more intense as the characters, impotent against the civilization of which they are outcasts, turn their fury against each other."
Fugard suffered from writer's block after he wrote Boesman and Lena, but went on to work in collaboration with actors to create Orestes in 1971. Orestes developed as a collection of images which, Walder remarked, "defies translation into a script" and explores "the effect of violence upon those who carry it out."
Fugard's next project began after two amateur actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, asked Fugard to help them become professional actors. As Fugard explained to Richards in his Paris Review interview, "at that point in South Africa's theater history … the notion that a black man could earn a living being an actor in South Africa was just the height of conceit." Nevertheless, the trio decided to create their own play. Three plays eventually emerged from this plan in 1972—The Island, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, and Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act, also known as The Statements Trilogy or The Political Trilogy.
In these plays, personal experiences, along with the direction of Fugard, combine to provoke audiences. Post commented that The Island and Statements share "the basic conflict of the individual versus the government." In The Island, prisoners (portrayed by John and Winston) in a South African jail stage Sophocles's Antigone; the play within the play suggests that, according to Post, the "conflict between individual conscience and individual rights … and governmental decrees … corresponds to the conflict between the individual conscience and the rights of black prisoners and white government." Statements follows the relationship between a white librarian and a black teacher who become lovers despite their fear of being caught and castigated; eventually, their "illegal" love is uncovered by the police.
The development of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead began with an image of a black man in a new suit, seated and smiling, that Fugard saw in a photographer's store. Speculation about why the man was smiling led to a story about the passbook that blacks had to carry around with them under the apartheid system. Before Sizwe Banzi can get his passbook in order, he must symbolically die by trading his identity for another. The play was performed "underground" until, as Fugard told Richards, it "had played in London and New York" and earned a reputation that "protected" its writers and cast. In 1974, Kani won a Tony Award for his New York performance in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.
Fugard unveiled A Lesson from Aloes in 1978. Like his other works, this play demonstrates the extent to which apartheid effects everyone in South African society. Piet, a Dutch Afrikaner living in Port Elizabeth in 1963, tends his collection of hardy, bitter aloe plants and joins a group of political activists. When the group's bus boycott is disrupted by the police and Piet's only friend Steve is found to have mixed blood and sent away, Piet is blamed. Even Piet's wife, whose diaries have been read by the police, believes he betrayed Steve.
Instead of defending himself, Piet isolates himself in his quiet aloe garden, and even the audience is unsure of his innocence. At the same time, Gladys, his wife, laments the violation of her diaries and goes insane. Fugard explained that he wanted to demonstrate the "complexity" of the Afrikaner in A Lesson from Aloes. He told Richards in his Paris Review interview, "[we will] never understand how we landed in the present situation or what's going to come out of it" if we "simply dispose of the Afrikaner as the villain in the South African situation."
"Master Harold" … and the Boys communicates similar notions. Hallie, whose childhood parallels Fugard's, is troubled by his father's thoughtless and unthinking attitude. Although he has a close relationship with his family's black servants, Sam and Willie, even he is not immune to the evil of apartheid; at one point in the play, the boy spits in Willie's face. Fugard tells Richards how the relationship shared by Hallie, Sam, and Willie is autobiographical, and how he really did spit in Willie's face. He felt that it was "necessary" to deal with what he'd done by writing "Master Harold" … and the Boys.
"Master Harold" … and the Boys was the second of Fugard's plays to open in the United States, where it earned critical acclaim. Despite this American success, the play provoked criticism from individuals and groups who, as Jeanne Colleran noted in Modern Drama, either asserted that characters like Sam exhibit "Uncle Tom-ism," or demanded that Fugard present his plays in South Africa instead of abroad, in "languages of the black majority." Colleran suggested that because of this criticism, "Fugard cannot write of Johannesburg or of township suffering without incurring the wrath of Black South Africans who regard him as a self-appointed and presumptuous spokesman; nor can he claim value for the position previously held by white liberals without being assailed by the more powerful and vociferous radical left…. Ironically … Fugard has been forced to practice a kind of self-censorship by those whose cause he shared."
"Master Harold" … and the Boys also received negative attention from the South African government, which claimed that it was subversive. The government proclaimed it illegal to import or distribute copies of the play. Fugard later managed to present "Master Harold" … and the Boys in Johannesburg, because the government did not forbid the play's performance.
The publication of Notebooks, 1960-1977 reinforced Fugard's growing popularity in the United States. This book provides what Pico Iyer of Time calls "the random scraps out of which Fugard fashioned his plays" and "a trail of haunting questions." Richard Eder of the Los Angeles Times Book Review asserted that, in addition to providing "the most vivid possible picture of an artist striving to shape his material even as it was detonating all around him," the Notebooks are "an illuminating, painful and beguiling record of a life lived in one of those tortured societies where everything refers back, sooner or later, to the situation that torments it."
When The Road to Mecca opened in 1984 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, American audiences were captivated by Fugard's mastery once again. Nevertheless, this play reinforced Fugard's reputation as a regional writer by reconstructing the character and life of a woman who lived in Karoo, where Fugard kept his South African home. Unable to take comfort from the Karoo community, Helen Martins isolates herself at home; there, she produces sculpture after sculpture from cement and wire. Benedict Nightingale noted in New Statesman that while Helen Martins actually committed suicide by "burning out her stomach with caustic soda," Fugard recreates her as "a docile old widow" with a beautiful life; "that paranoia, that suicide are ignored" by the playwright. The central problem in the play consists of the local pastor's attempts to get Helen to enter a home for the elderly to hide his secret love for her. As Jack Kroll observed in Newsweek, although The Road to Mecca "doesn't seem to be a political play at all," it "concerns love and freedom, and for Fugard that is the germ cell of the South African problem."
With some exceptions, The Road to Mecca was lauded by critics. While Nightingale appreciates the presentation of the Afrikaner pastor "in the round, from his own point of view as much as that from the liberal outsider," he also finds the play to be "exasperatingly uneven, as unreal and real a play as Fugard has ever yet penned." According to Colleran, The Road to Mecca was "extraordinarily well received," playing at Britain's National Theatre and on Broadway. Graham Leach asserted in Listener that The Road to Mecca is "universal" and "a major piece of theatre…. Many people here believe it may well end up being judged Fugard's finest work."
A Place with the Pigs, as Colleran recounted in Modern Drama, is a personal parable "concerning the forty years spent in a pigsty" by a "Red Army deserter." It premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987 with Fugard in the leading role. Unlike The Road to Mecca, A Place with the Pigs did not receive critical acclaim. Colleran suggested that the play may have failed to gain positive attention because it "simply does not conform to the audience's expectations of what a work by Athol Fugard should be like." In her opinion, the "dismissal" of A Place with the Pigs is unfortunate, in part because this "parable of one segment of South African society—the white South African who is committed both to dismantling apartheid and to remaining in his homeland—it adds a new voice, an authentic one, to those clamoring to decide the future of South Africa."
My Children! My Africa! was the first of Fugard's plays to premiere in South Africa in years. According to Gray in New Theatre Quarterly, Fugard believed that "South African audiences should have this play first." Fugard ensured that many audiences were exposed to this work: After a long run at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, My Children! My Africa! was performed for six weeks in a tour of black townships in South Africa in 1989 with Lisa Fugard, Fugard's daughter, and John Kani in starring roles.
Like "Master Harold" … and the Boys, My Children! My Africa! portrays the struggles of youths to live with or confront the division between races in South Africa. Yet, as Allen of New Statesman and Society observed, the play marks "the first time Fugard … put the struggle itself on stage." Fugard was inspired by the story of a black teacher who refused to participate in a school boycott and was later murdered in Port Elizabeth by a group that believed he was a police informer.
Playland was the first of Fugard's plays to appear after the fall of apartheid. It is set on New Year's Eve in a traveling amusement park in Karoo. Here, a black night watchman painting a bumper car and a white South African whose car has broken down meet, discuss their lives, and reveal their darkest secrets: the white man tells how he killed blacks in a border war, and the black man confesses that he killed a white man who tried to force his fiancée (who was working as the white man's servant) to have sexual intercourse with him. John Simon of New York criticized the play: "There is hardly a situation, a snatch of dialogue, an object that isn't, or doesn't become, a symbol." But, according to Edith Oliver in a New Yorker review of the play, the spell cast by the actors' performances "is rooted in Mr. Fugard's moral passion." She concluded: "I have rarely seen an audience so mesmerized, or been so mesmerized myself."
Set after Nelson Mandela's election as South Africa's new president, Valley Song portrays four "colored" characters as they prepare to face the challenges of the future. Fugard was happy to premiere Valley Song at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. As Donald G. McNeil, Jr., of the New York Times reported, Fugard was also optimistic about the future of South Africa: "We're pulling off a political miracle here." In a World Literature Today article, Harold A. Waters stated: "Valley Song is a paean to post-apartheid."
Fugard published an autobiography in 1997, entitled Cousins: A Memoir. In it, the playwright describes his relationship to Johnnie, his cousin of Afrikaner descent, and Garth, his English cousin. Fugard considers that as different as the two men's characters may have been, each served as an important inspiration to him in his literary work. This memoir also includes some hints of autobiographical events that appear in his plays. "A readable gem of a memoir," wrote Katherine K. Koenig in Library Journal. In a Booklist review, Jack Helbig commented that Cousins is a "warmhearted memoir." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the book "an excellent complement to [Fugard's] plays."
Cousins was followed by a dramatic memoir, The Captain's Tiger: A Memoir for the Stage, which first appeared in Johannesburg and Pretoria. This play is concerned with the twenty-year-old writer as he travels from Africa to Japan on a steamer. During his sea journey, the young man makes an inner journey through his attempt to recount the story of his mother's life. "Athol Fugard has cooked up a rare feast for theatergoers," wrote David Sheward in Back Stage. In a Variety review, Charles Isherwood voiced conflicting sentiments about the play. "It's suffused with a tenderly evoked sympathy for [Fugard's] mother," said Isherwood, but, he continued, "it's a minor-key and ultimately rather uninvolving play." Later in the article, the critic stated: "The play feels like a piece of prose only half transformed into stage material." Robert L. Daniels called The Captain's Tiger "a sweetly autobiographical memory play" that demonstrates Fugard's "lyrical sense of storytelling." Daniels remarked in his article in Variety: "Fugard is delightfully feisty and impish" in his role as the ship's steward. The critic concluded that the co-directors (Fugard and Susan Hilferty) had directed The Captain's Tiger "with tasteful simplicity."
Sorrows and Rejoicings is yet another drama in Fugard's series of post-apartheid plays. It involves an Afrikaner poet, David Olivier, who goes into exile in England when his writings are banned in South Africa. He returns to his homeland, along with his wife, Allison, shortly before his death. As the play begins, David has already died, and his story is recounted by his wife, his "colored" mistress, and his illegitimate daughter. The ghost of David appears onstage to interact with the women in his life.
Critics greeted this play with mixed reviews. "Fugard's sparsely populated and sparely plotted tone poems are an advanced model of the most literary kind," said Sean Mitchell in a Los Angeles Times review. He also noted that the writer's words "fail to gather much steam as drama," despite the fact that they "offer enduring images of a beautiful, cruel land." Charles Isherwood called Sorrows and Rejoicings an "eloquent, moving and piercingly sad new play…which has been sensitively staged." "The play does not succeed so well as most of [Fugard's] earlier work," commented Robert L. King in North American Review. In a Variety article, Robert L. Daniels stated that Sorrows and Rejoicings is "a romantic memory play heightened by the playwright's poetic storytelling gifts." Ed Kaufman praised Fugard as "a writer-poet with power and passion." In his Hollywood Reporter review, the critic considered the play to be Fugard's "most personal statement about the political, social and moral dynamics within South Africa."
Twenty-eight years after its premiere, a revival of The Island appeared in London in 2002, featuring the original actors, Kani and Ntshona. Since the play was written and staged during the apartheid period, it might well have seemed outdated; the theater critics, however, did not find that to be the case. "The production makes the prisoners' experience seem vividly of-the-moment as well as universal in application," wrote Dominic Cavendish in Daily Telegraph. Michael Billington of the Guardian praised Fugard's "astonishing collaborative play" that is staged with "sheer theatrical intelligence."
In an interview with Simon Hattenstone, Athol Fugard considered his work in the light of post-apartheid. When apartheid first ended, Fugard thought he might become "South Africa's first literary redundancy." After further reflection, however, he considered "that the new complicated South Africa needs more vigilance than ever before." Although the country's politics have changed, Fugard finds himself faced with a challenge: "What do I do now? That is the question and I'm trying to answer that question…by way of the three post-apartheid plays I've written."
Source: Thomson Gale, "(Harold) Athol Fugard," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.
In the following excerpt, Weales points out that Fugard writes about what he knows. As a South African, glimpses of Fugard can be found in his character Piet in A Lesson from Aloes and the characters in the play "are necessarily South African."
"A man's scenery is other men," Fugard wrote in November 1966 (Notebooks 141), contemplating the final image of the Piet-Gladys-Steve story that would become A Lesson from Aloes in 1978. The men and women on Fugard's human landscape are necessarily South African. "I stand on a street in Port Elizabeth or Johannesburg or a small South African town, and in terms of the life that passes me I've mastered the code," he told Mel Gussow, and he gives a sample portrait of a black woman carrying shopping bags. "If I stood on a corner in London or New York, I couldn't put that sort of biography behind any of the people walking past me. Mastering the code of a place has been necessary to me as a writer." The three characters in Aloes—distantly based on people mentioned in Notebooks as early as 1961—are veterans of the struggles in a cause that—for two of them at least—has come to seem false, a kind of ideological self-delusion that made their idealism and their sense of community appear to be politically important. Piet, the Afrikaner, driven by drought from the farm he loved, found new meaning as a political activist. He still believes that man-made inequities "can be unmade by men", but he is isolated, shunned by his old colleagues, who think he is an informer. There is a kind of stolidity in Piet which allows him to withstand the attacks/demands on him by Gladys and Steve and which incidentally makes him a difficult character for an actor to play. Gladys, in response to a police raid in which her private diaries were read ("They violated me, Peter"), has been in and out of mental hospitals. Even though she knows better (her hysteria frequently breaks through her quiescent mask during the play), she blames Piet for what has happened, for luring her from the safety of her middle-class English home with his siren song, "Trust, Gladys. Trust yourself. Trust life." She not only accuses him, but tries to punish him by destroying the no longer existing closeness between him and Steve, the "coloured" friend whose eloquence brought him into the movement. "There was nothing left to wreck", Piet says. As for Steve, just out of prison and on his way to voluntary exile in England, he has come to Piet because he believes, with the others in their group, that Piet is an informer, and it is a flawed Piet that he needs. The most interesting thing about Steve is the way in which he transfers his own feelings onto Piet, at first attacking him for accusations that Piet never makes about his decision to leave South Africa and then, presumably in search of a fellow sinner, by revealing that he turned informer in prison.
At the end of the play with Steve gone and Gladys inside packing for her return to the hospital, Piet is left alone in the backyard with his collection of aloes. The metaphor of the aloes is explained, perhaps too obviously, in the exchange between him and Gladys in Act One, in which he describes the power of aloes to withstand drought, but the lesson is somewhat ambiguous. "Is that the price of survival in this country?" she asks. "Thorns and bitterness." Those words do not describe the Piet we see in the play, but he does find "some sort of lesson" in aloes, insisting, "We need survival mechanisms as well." The aloes in the play, however, are not "the veritable forest of scarlet spikes" he remembers from the farm, but captive plants, and "An aloe isn't seen to its best advantage in a jam tin in a little backyard." Gladys rejects the survival lesson. "If that's what your expectations have shrunk to, it's your business, but God has not planted me in a jam tin." That she may have a jam tin of her own—her recurring madness—does not alter the validity of her statement. God may not have planted Piet in a jam tin either, but at the end he crawls into one, joins the other potted plants in the backyard. "I wasn't writing about a hero," Fugard told Gussow. "I was writing about a victim. I've never written about a hero. I don't understand heroism. Piet is a very simple man, saying, ‘I've lived through one drought. I'll try to survive this one as well.’" Of course, he lived through the drought by leaving the land which, in the present context, would be a Steve solution which is impossible for Piet. A positive negative end, then, in the best Fugard tradition.
There are a great many set pieces in Aloes— Piet on aloes, Piet on the drought, Piet on the bus strike and his conversion, Steve on his father's fish and his decay after losing his home, Steve on his prison experience, even Gladys on the diary and the raid. Sometimes these appear to be information-giving speeches, for the audience not the other characters, but at their best they work dramatically. Piet uses his to deflect Gladys's anger, Steve uses his to elicit Piet's presumed complicity, and Gladys's are both weapons against Piet and indications of her increasing instability. Fugard has always used such devices, although at times he seems to disapprove of them….
Source: Gerald Weales, "Fugard Masters the Code," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter 1993, pp. 505-506.
In the following excerpt, Durbach explores the Afrikaner characters in A Lesson from Aloes who want to "create a world of sustaining order" amid the chaos in South Africa in the 1960s, like the "miraculous" aloe plant which springs forth from seemingly deficient and hostile land.
When A Lesson from Aloes premiered in Johannesburg, Fugard himself played the role of Steve Daniels. When it opened in New Haven, James Earl Jones was cast as Steve. The role, clearly, is ambiguously "Coloured"; but it would be a mistake to regard Steve Daniels as a representative of the Black South African community (which has its own story, its own peculiar hell, and a very different history). The significant fact about the three million Coloureds in the Cape Province is that they are the racially mixed children of predominantly Afrikaner parentage—
Damned from birth by the great disgrace,
A touch of the tar-brush in his face (Butler 102)
—and denied by their Afrikaner father as shameful evidence of his "immorality." They speak the same language as the Afrikaner (which the Black people do not), belong in large numbers to the Dutch Reformed Church (which the Black people do not), and share in the Afrikaners' gene-pool (which the Black people do not). The very names of Afrikaner and Coloured—"Willem Gerhardus Daniels," "Petrus Jacobus Bezuitenhout"—resonate with a Dutch sonority which bears witness to their common heritage. The Coloureds, in other words, have no racial origins apart from those shared with the Afrikaners, no country beyond South Africa, no "homeland" to which they may be summarily banished (like the Black people). They are the reef on which all rational arguments for apartheid smashes and sinks, living evidence that its basis is racist and not cultural, that its politics are those of blood-purity and not the much vaunted integrity of the Afrikaner language and faith. The history of the Coloured people of South Africa has been one of systematic deprivation, a tragedy of dispossession, disinheritance and disenfranchisement unmatched in the fate of any other racial group: humiliated by the Immorality Amendment Act (1950) which extended the prohibition against interracial sexual contact to White/Coloured relationships, racially classified (or reclassified) under the Population Registration Act (1950), segregated from their White neighbours under the Group Areas Act (1950) and forcibly removed where necessary, and struck—after five years of constitutional wrangling—from the voters' roll in the Cape by the Separate Representation of Voters Act (1956). The Coloured experience of the 1950s is captured in Steve's fragmented recollection of his father, the fisherman expelled under the Group Areas legislation from his "home" in racially reclassified "White" area, and excluded by distance from the sea. Two memories dominate: the old man's Bible-curse on the little bit of ground after the legal battle to save his land, and his Job-like despair in the face of his nation's destiny under apartheid: "Ons geslag is verkeerd" ["Our generation … our race is a mistake"]—an image of the Coloured as an error on the White genetic map. It is this very despair that impels his son to decisive action in the 1960s, that drives him to countermand his fate as a racial "mistake" in the history of humankind.
The "Cause" begins in a non-violent, optimistic alliance of White and Coloured interests and there is a vivid lived-through quality to Piet's recollection of a Xanadu of hope and solidarity: the boycott of the Port Elizabeth buses which, for the first time, impels the Coloured community into political action; the sensation, "like rain after a long drought," of being welcomed by the non-White brotherhood; and the lessons in Liberal philosophy, learned from Steve Daniels, that an evil system is not a natural disaster and that men have it in their power to correct social injustice and reform the world. But the rhetoric, restated in 1963, rings trite and hollow—like the first inspiring utterances of faith and purpose in Gladys's diary, and their gradual fading into blankness and silence. It was the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the banning of the African National Congress, as Margaret Munro suggests (473-74), that decisively terminated all inter-racial alliances in South Africa. But Liberalism had begun to die even before Sharpeville. The growing militancy of ANC splinter-groups, like POQO with its "Africa for the Africans" slogan, redefined the "Cause" in terms of a Black nationalism which had lost all patience with White Liberal purpose and its evolutionary dream of political change. White participation in the Black struggle is no longer welcome, and Liberalism of any hue becomes a counter-revolutionary betrayal of the "Cause."
The response of the Nationalist Government to Black Nationalism, civil disobedience and political dissidence was to declare a State of Emergency and enact the Unlawful Organisations Act (1960) to ban political groups. Individual banning had been made possible under the Suppression of Communism Act (1950, 1954)—which defined one of the aims of Communism as "a belief in racial equality" (Brookes 204)—and it is possible under a banning order to restrict mobility, effectively silence a dissident, forbid communication, and preclude him from belonging to any political organisation. The only alternative to the banning order is "voluntary expatriation" under an Exit Permit which prohibits any return without the Government's permission. And to make assurance doubly sure, the General Law Amendment Act (1963) licensed the South African police to arrest without warrant or charge, and detain for up to ninety days, anyone suspected of committing or knowing about certain specified types of political offences. There is no appeal to the Courts, and many detainees (as Edgar Brookes discreetly puts it) "were subjected to solitary confinement, with, in some cases, marked psychological results."
This is the massive reactionary backlash in which Steve Daniels is ensnared and to which he has fallen victim "with marked psychological results." His experiences are loosely based on those of the exiled Coloured poet, Dennis Brutus, whose career is coupled in Fugard's Notebooks with that of Piet V.—the prototype of the Liberal Afrikaner. There is a passage in the September 1963 entry (99-100) about the wounding of Brutus who had taken a stand against apartheid in sport, had been banned, arrested for breaking his banning order, then captured by the Security Police and shot in the stomach. No lead smashes into Steve Daniel's stomach, but the violence inflicted by the police is no less devastating. He, too, is arrested for breaking his banning order, and under police interrogation is driven to the brink of suicide. Finally, his nerve broken and his defences smashed in prison, he is pressured to provide whatever information—real or fictitious—the police demand. But his breakdown is merely an occasion for mockery and derision. They know it all already. Some unknown traitor to the "Cause" has already leaked its secrets, most probably the same informer who had betrayed Steve's violation of his banning order to the authorities. His world, devastated of trust, becomes merely uninhabitable. Half-fearing that his visit to Xanadu may be a trap, his courage boosted by liquor, Steve Daniels is shamefully prepared to believe the worst of his staunchest ally.
Joseph Lelyveld, in Move Your Shadow, provides a useful gloss on the "exorbitant price of trust" in South Africa. Visiting Port Elizabeth for the POQO trial, he meets two Black friends at Athol Fugard's cottage and asks them why Black policemen and state witnesses in political trials are never assaulted in the townships.
"To do something like that," one of the men said, "you would want at least two men, wouldn't you?" Pausing to indicate that my question was hypothetical and not intended as incitement, I gestured towards the only other person in the room, the man's best friend. "How do I know," came the mumbled reply, "that he is not an impimpi [informer]?" No one who was not in jail or house arrest under what was called a banning order could ever be immune from that suspicion. So pervasive was it then that the authorities could compromise stalwart black nationalists by seeming to ignore them. (9-10)
This is more insidious than a bullet in the guts. It strikes not at the individual, but at his relationship with a world of men; it undermines the Universal Brotherhood more effectively than an Act of Parliament; and it infects even the most apparently unassailable relationship with a corrosive suspicion. "Your beautiful friendship?" cries Gladys. "Can't you see it's rotten with doubt?" For if Steve can suspect Piet as impimpi then nothing remains of Xanadu, the Liberal domain whose inhabitants must now engage in a charade of friendship with others who may (or may not) be fee'd servants of the Special Branch. The clandestine meeting of two old comrades in the back yard of Xanadu merely underscores the interlocking tragedies of cunningly programmed alienation and disillusionment in a country where not to be imprisoned is as heinous a penalty as banishment. One exile leaves his "home," shamed by his betrayal of fellowship and trust. The other remains "at home," exiled forever in an ice cave of suspicion and fear.
Gladys's story and her history have little in common with Steve's. She is a visitor to Xanadu, rather than a founding member, one temporarily inspired by the rhetoric of a "Cause" which now leaves her fundamentally indifferent, and involved in the violent aftermath of its collapse only as an apathetic bystander. She is the rose in a garden of uprooted and rootbound aloes searching, in their jam-tins, for the space nature intended for them and seeking to survive the South African drought. But the price of survival, "thorns and bitterness," is too much to pay in a country which she resolutely refuses to acknowledge as her "home." "I know I was born here," she says, "but I will never call it that." Her allegiance remains with a land she has never seen, a climate she has never known, a culture absorbed at second-hand. But she clings to her "Englishness" as a drowning woman to a spar, Anglicizes her world in a futile endeavour to deny its Africanness (Piet is called "Peter" in her domestic vocabulary), and dissociates herself from God's unspecified curse on the Afrikaner nation. South Africa, with its sun and its politics and its violence, has scarred her; and her Anglo-African attitude of sentimental nostalgia for a world of English rose-gardens and sunny spots of greenery barely conceals the fear that she is as "homeless" and "roofless" as Steve Daniels. It might have been possible, before the 1960s, for the English-speaking South African to cherish an illusion of England as some primary "home," and domicile in Africa as a temporary visit of the uncommitted; but in 1961 South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth, severed its cultural ties with Great Britain and declared itself a Republic. The psychological effect upon the Anglo-Africans was to spoil the illusion of the alternative "home" and the myth of a temporary sojourn; and the symptoms of this shock of cultural redefinition are clearly manifest in Gladys's depression, her dissociation from the catalogue of South African disasters, and her sense of almost apocalyptic isolation in an alien universe:
Do you know they've got a date worked out for the end of the world? It's not far off, either. I almost told him there are times when I think it has already happened … it's hard sometimes to believe there is a world out there full of other people. Just you and me. That's all that's left. The streets are empty and I imagine you wandering around looking for another survivor.
The great irony in the life of this existentially displaced person is that "England" is, indeed, her final "home"—not the country to which Steve is exiled, but the Fort England Clinic in Grahamstown where she has been treated before, and to which she will retreat again. Persecuted for a political "Cause" she has never really believed in, violated by the confiscation of her diaries by the Special Branch (she experiences it as rape), Gladys's descent into madness reduces her to another item in the catalogue of South African disasters. For merely to live in South Africa is to be incriminated, either by indifference or complicity or chance, in the violence of apartheid and the misery of others; and the notion of a refuge in some other "home" is as illusionary as the myth of Xanadu. "England"—the only England she knows—is a Romantic cliche on the wall of a Mental Hospital, a composite of greenery and soft mist and thatched roofed cottages glowing in the twilight of Somerset. She is sane enough to dismiss it as a futile distraction from the reality of her situation. For her, there is finally no hope, no faith, and no trust left in the world—nothing but the absolute goodness of her Afrikaner husband, which is a terrible provocation to her desire to violate it. Her lesson in survival has been the bitterness and the turgid violence which she associates with the aloe-garden of Xanadu. And to save herself from what she most hates and fears, she packs her bags for voluntary exile, "home" to the protective custody of the Fort England Clinic.
"The aloe," writes Perseus Adams in his poem "The Woman and the Aloe," "talks truly only to those who have endured her wait"—the seasons of drought, the silence, the loneliness:
Nothing else can so quickly, and with such pure art
Raise up my thorn-riddled love for this place
Hard as banishment—yet lit with wild
A neighbour to stones am I, a sister to a priceless
"The aloe," writes Vandenbroucke in his stringent criticism of the image, "is too simple a symbol to bear the weight expected of it since it has no meaning outside of its ability to survive a harsh environment. Instead of being evocative it is demonstrative." Maybe so, for the reader who has not had to endure her wait. But few images evoke more breath-catchingly the South Africanness of the icon, that pervasive poetic tradition in which, as J. M. Coetzee puts it in White Writing, "the stony truth of Africa emerges in the form of a flower." In a tradition stretching from the early Afrikaner verse of van den Heever to the poetry of Roy Campbell—whose lines on the "glory" bred from "thirsty rocks" clearly establish the context of Piet's miraculous vision—the aloe reasserts her hold on the poetic imagination and affirms once more the poet's faith in the "living heart" beneath the rocky and unpromising surface of Africa (Coetzee 168). To Gladys, who rejects the wild sweetness of the aloe, the "lesson" it teaches is the appalling cost of survival—thorns, bitterness, a turgid violence. She knows nothing of the scarlet spikes of aloe aborescens with its nectar-filled cups for the suikerbekkie birds, or the defiant flowering of aloe ferox in the desolate veld, or aloe ciliaris pushing through the undergrowth to find the sun. Over and against the demonstrative lesson in survival is a wonderfully evocative image of uncommon beauty and defiance and a miracle of natural variation and difference which resists man's habitual attempts to codify, and classify, and separate. If one of the play's political "lessons" advocates a counter-revolutionary philosophy of stoical endurance, another surely celebrates Nature's resistance to the fetters and shackles of man-made systems. But beyond all the didactic "messages" spoken in the play, there is a peculiarly South African Romanticism in Piet's sympathetic affinity with the aloe, the kinship (in Perseus Adams's words) that "carries the undertow of twelve deep / Seasons together":
What a bane it must be to the cold heart of Death
That beauty could rise and be stronger than this
Survival is not merely a matter of weathering the "dry white season" of the Nationalist regime, naively trusting in a change of heart and political climate. It inheres in the one quality Piet shares with Gladys's mother: "a terrible determination not to die," not to succumb to the congealment of spirit in the ice-cave of apartheid. The cold heart of Death has already claimed Steve Daniels and Gladys. What they cannot understand in Piet is his determination to endure the futility of his commitment to a politically uninhabitable country. What can "home" possibly mean to a socially displaced and ideologically suspect Afrikaner? His condition at the end of the play, as Fugard describes it, is one he shares with Beckett's lonely protagonists: "face-to-face with himself … the absurdity of himself, alone." It is, again, a peculiarly South African variation on a European existential theme.
Piet's identity would seem, initially, unassailable. He knows who he is and, like an aloe, finds himself "at home" in the South African landscape:
For better or for worse, I will remain positively identified as Petrus Jacobus Bezuitenhout; Species, Afrikaner; Habitat, Algoa Park, Port Elizabeth, in this year of our Lord, 1963 … and accept the consequences.
This sounds unappealingly like the sort of South African bloody-mindedness that one associates with Afrikaner Nationalism—the defiant political arrogance, contemptuous of consequence, that typified the Nationalist Party triumphs of 1963: the smashing of resistance movements under the Sabotage Act, the abrogation of habeas corpus under the Detention laws, the imposition of stringent censorship controls under the Publications and Entertainment Act, and the arrest and imprison-ment of Mandela and other White, Black and Indian dissidents. But the early 1960s were also witness to the emergence of a radically alternative form of Afrikanerdom: the "Sestigers" who resisted censorship of their writing and were denounced as traitors, ostracized from the community, their books publicly burned and their publishers threatened (Brink and Coetzee 10); a courageous group of Dutch Reformed Churchmen and intellectuals—among them Professor Geyser and Beyers Naude—incapable of reconciling Scripture and Apartheid, and consequently denounced as apostates and heretics (Lelyveld 277-314); and an indeterminate number of "ordinary, good-natured, harmless, unre-markable" Afrikaners (Brink 9), like Fugard's Piet or André Brink's Ben Du Toit, whose humanity is outraged by the system, and whose defection from the Tribe brands them as kafferboeties ["n——-lovers" ] and hensoppers ["Boer War traitors"]. It soon becomes manifestly clear that Piet Bezuitenhout is just such a dissident Afrikaner, and that "accepting the consequences" of his betrayal of the volk is the defining aspect of his absurd endurance—clinging to an idea of "home" in a country "harsh as banishment," expending his "thorn-riddled love" in a land where his roots no longer find the space creation intended for them, confident of his own integrity on a political stage where others cast him in the role of an impimpi. In a world devoid of trust, all human action suddenly becomes absurd—a cautious playing of parts in relationships riddled with uncertainty and doubt. In the final analysis, it is Piet who is betrayed by the appalling failure of others to recognize his essential goodness.
Piet's story is that of the grassroots Afrikaner, politically naive and unsophisticated, whose consciousness is raised by his own humanitarian response to the harsh circumstances of South African life and the misery of the Black and Coloured people. The death of a child on his drought-stricken farm, the defiant dignity of the Coloureds who refuse to ride the Cadles buses, the discovery that "politics" begins in human sympathy and solidarity: the discontinuous narrative sections of the play trace the unexceptional history of an Afrikaner "common man," a simple farmer, whose tragedy is inseparable from the tragedies of the other racial groups in the 1960s. In a sense, it is the African farm that fosters both the humanity and the naïveté. Race relations, as Piet V. puts it in Fugard's Notebooks have no place on a farm where Black and White children play together in friendship, and where the old Afrikaner tradition of household prayers takes place in a gathering which recognizes no racial differences. Piet's Xanadu is, in some ways, an anachronistic urban replication of this aspect of the South African farm, sharing with it the same isolation from rough "boer-boy" politics, the same unworldliness of Liberal idealism which Piet has pieced together from a Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Political Thought. Like his impassioned recitation of Longfel-low's "The Slave's Dream," his aspirations and ideas are simultaneously comic, pathetic, and deeply moving.
They are also contradictory, confused, and "banal" (Vandenbroucke 175) to those who demand that political drama advocate political solutions to the South African predicament. If an evil system is not a natural disaster and men can make this a better world to live in, how can Piet's stoical determination to endure change the situation? "What sort of significant action is that," asks Nadine Gordimer, "in terms of the contest of our country?" (Seidenspinner 339). The point, however, is that Piet's attitudes are challenged consistently throughout the play in an attempt to define the absurdity of his final resolution. "I am … surprised," says Gladys, voicing the single most insistent objection to the play's politics, "at how easily you accept the situation." To which he replies, "I don't accept it easily, but there is nothing else to do. I can't change human nature." For the Marxist "significant action"—through revolutionary violence, if necessary—will alter the situation and make a better world in which human nature can flourish. But for Fugard, if bad laws and social injustice are to be unmade by men, it may be necessary to change human nature as precondition for significant action. We can make a better world, he would seem to imply, by being better people; but insofar as "human nature" has been conditioned by the psychopathology of apartheid to deny love and trust and faith as the only strategies for resistance against the "cold heart of Death," what political solution can there be? Even Gladys, in her irresistible urge to violate the "goodness" of her husband, succumbs to deadly thoughts. Did he collude in the police raid on her private property? Is he one of the Special Branch? It is not only Steve Daniels whom she deliberately infects with such suspicion, but the audience as well. The deadliest moment in the play is Gladys's response, at the end of Act One, to the shame and humiliation that overwhelm Piet at the thought of being branded an impimpi. "It's not true, is it?" she asks. His answer is a shocked silence. If wife and friend can believe such outrage, what point is there in denial? And what possible action can be taken when the greatest contest of the country is the havoc wreaked on human nature by the operation of the Nationalist Party regime on human connections?
Can a writer so passionately identified with his country, clinging so vainly to an outmoded Liberal ethic, and bound by his own Afrikaner heritage into such sympathy with his protagonist ever provide a viable alternative to the South African predicament? Many of his critics point to a career of failure and despair, withdrawal from action, and guilt. "He has dreamt of a ‘superman’," writes Margarete Seidenspinner, "but has finally identified with Piet Bezuitenhout, the ‘victim’ of the system whose only wish is to survive, a notion whose pessimism has created a very strong antipathy in many South African spectators." It is a curious "victim," however, who refuses to compromise his humanity, who chooses his mode of survival—neither compelled by the State into exile, nor driven ineluctably into insanity—and whose pessimism is held in a delicate balance with an absurd form of hope. At the end of the play, Piet Bezuitenhout is left contemplating the same unidentifiable aloe that eluded categorization at the beginning. Aloe Anonymous? Some improbable new species, like nothing else in South African botanical records? The final sympathetic affinity that binds the Man and the Aloe is their anomalous and mutant identity—unnamable first specimens in an evolutionary, grassroots change that begins with one ordinary and unremarkable individual finding his "home" in a world not programmed for his survival. Is there, finally, a name that fits a subversive Afrikaner who refuses to relinquish his drought-stricken tradition, whose defection from Afrikanerdom has left him without tribal connections, rejected and ostracized by a Brotherhood of which he is the conscience of the tribe? To the Afrikaner majority he is "kafferboetie" and "hensopper." To the Liberal minority he is "impimpi." To the political Left he is a compromising counter-revolutionary evasionary. To Fugard he is an absurdly courageous pessimist, an answer to the death of spirit in the South African ice-cave, and an indomitable survivor like Perseus Adams's Aloe-woman: … "Though the silence and loneliness have beaten / The walls of my identity and failed." The hope, in 1963, was that the species would take root and spread and that a new generation of "Verligte" [Enlightened] Liberal Afrikaners would engage in the dialectics of South African history. It would be naive to claim any validity for this prophetic expectation when the "Verligte" movement in Afrikanerdom has been so brutally offset by an extreme Right wing backlash—the "Verkramptes," whose electoral victory has made them the official parliamentary opposition. But the Piet Bezuitenhouts are an undeniable term in the South African political argument, as indigenous a species, now, as the Aloe Aborescens. Their survival may be tenuous and endangered (Ben Du Toit in Brink's novel is murdered by the Special Branch); but Fugard's play, "in celebration" of his Afrikaner mother, Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter, also celebrates the "absurd" goodness and decency which remain the Liberal's weapons against all attempts to destroy him.
Source: Errol Durbach, "Surviving in Xanadu: Athol Fugard's Lesson from Aloes," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 20, No. 1, January 1989, pp. 9-21.
Collins, Michael J., "The Sabotage of Love: Athol Fugard's Recent Plays," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 369, 370.
Fink, Joel G., Review of A Lesson from Aloes, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 33, No. 3, October 1981, pp. 398, 399.
Fugard, Athol, A Lesson from Aloes, Theatre Communications Group, 1981.
Molyneaux, Gerard, Review of A Lesson from Aloes, in Library Journal, June 15, 1981, p. 1319.
Roberts, Sheila, "‘No Lessons Learnt’: Reading the Texts of Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes and Master Harold … and the Boys," in English in Africa, Vol. 9, No. 2, October 1982, p. 33.
Colleran, Jeanne, "Athol Fugard and the Problematics of the Liberal Critique," in Modern Drama, Vol. 38, 1995, pp. 389-407.
Colleran examines Fugard's depiction of liberalism in South Africa, including an analysis of its failure as depicted in A Lesson from Aloes.
Fugard, Athol, Notebooks 1960-1977, Knopf, 1984.
In these notebooks, Athol records autobiographical information, including his experience with people who inspired A Lesson from Aloes.
Mshengu, "Political Theatre in South African and the Work of Athol Fugard," in Theater Research International, Vol. 7, No. 3, 1982, pp. 160-79.
In this article, Mshengu argues that Fugard's whiteness and privileged class have caused him to ignore in his plays certain realities of Africans' experience in South Africa.
Von Staden, Heinrich, "An Interview with Athol Fugard," in Theater, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1982, pp. 41-46.
In this interview, Fugard talks about his ambivalent feelings toward South Africa and how those feelings emerge in his plays.
Wilderson, Frank, III, Incognegro: From Black Power to Apartheid and Back, Beacon Press, 2007.
The literary memoir of a revolutionary, this book tells the thrilling story of an African American who lived a double life during the years from 1991 to 1996, teaching in universities in Johannesburg and Soweto during the day, and at night participating in the armed branch of the African National Congress. The book gives one view of the political intrigue that marked the final years of apartheid.
"A Lesson from Aloes." Drama for Students. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 27, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/educational-magazines/lesson-aloes
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