Athol Fugard Biography

Athol Fugard has created theater of power, glory, and majestic language.  -The New York Times

Once identified by Time Magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English – speaking world,” Athol Fugard is known for his deeply rooted and controversial anti-apartheid dramas. Raised in Port Elizabeth since the age of three, Fugard deems himself the mongrel son of an English speaking father of Polish/Irish descent and an Afrikaner mother. Before becoming a playwright, young Fugard traveled through Africa, worked on a merchant ship, and served as a clerk in the pass-law court where he witnessed, first-hand, the extremities of Apartheid. As a playwright, Fugard has come into much conflict and controversy. He has been subjected to government surveillance, restricted in his play development and travel by the South African government, and has been able to collaborate with several native, black South Africans to create confrontational and necessary theatre about the curse and price of apartheid both in South Africa and abroad.

There are critics who believe that a white Afrikaner like Fugard can not speak to the tragedies and challenges faced by the black native South Africans of which Fugard writes. People “see a white man being a spokesman for what has happened to black people and they are naturally intolerant. My response,” Fugard says, “is that I haven’t been anybody’s spokesman. I’ve written very selfishly, not to be representative of anybody but myself.”(1) This racial identification with which Fugard and his work is often associated is exactly what Fugard has been contesting since he began as a playwright.

The “perception of myself as a political writer disturbs me. An attitude like that closes off an individual to an important thing I have tried to do. […] I’ve tried to celebrate the human spirit—its capacity to create, its capacity to endure, its capacity to forgive, its capacity to love, even though every conceivable barrier is set up to thwart the act of loving.” – Fugard (2)

His works, though concerned with race and politics, should not be viewed as such, but viewed with an eye for creating a better planet, a more understanding and loving world.

In fifty years of writing plays, Fugard’s work ranges from real-life-inspired stories and personal accounts to political theatre protesting South Africa’s inhumane practices and laws. Regardless of his themes, or where his plays lie in his overall body of work, Fugard’s dramas can be summed up as powerful, honest, and thought-provoking. There are six play categories to which Fugard’s work can be ascribed: the Port Elizabeth plays, the Township plays, Exile plays, Statements, My Africa plays, and Sorrows. For the purposes of this article I will only focus on a few of Fugard’s Port Elizabeth, Statements, and My Africa plays, those which deal primarily with apartheid’s effects. (3)

The plays set in Port Elizabeth (roughly 1961-1982) feature some of Fugard’s most notable and personal works, depicting the familial and personal struggles which are caused by apartheid. The Blood Knot (later known as Blood Knot) tells the story of two Coloured brothers (one light skinned and one dark) who are confronted with the reality of their skin tones when a prospective white pen-pal may visit. The brothers must come to terms with the ways the colors of their skin dictate how both are treated and how they treat each other. Hello and Goodbye, a personal play for Fugard, dramatizes a brother and sister who have been estranged for more than ten years. Once the fact that their father is dead and there is no inheritance money is learned, the sister leaves and the brother is once again alone; there is no love between them. Fugard’s extremely personal “Master Harold” …and the boys recounts and dramatizes the relationship a young Fugard had with two servants who worked in his mother’s boarding house and tea room. The play confronts racism and bigotry as passed down through generations and is absorbed into one’s culture without ever perceivably accepting it or making the choice to accept it. “Master Harold” examines the father and son relationships between one white boy and two fathers (one black, one white), and the differences in impact these have on the young boy’s views and relationships in the midst of Apartheid’s reign.

Fugard’s Statement plays (1972) directly attack apartheid. These collaborative efforts created through the improvisations of John Kani and Winston Ntshona have brought much acclaim to Fugard’s works and an awareness of Apartheid’s effects to the rest of the world. Sizwe Bansi is Dead illustrates the struggles of Sizwe Bansi, a man who is unable to work because of an incorrect stamp in his pass-book. When a corpse is discovered, Sizwe must decide whether taking the deceased man’s identity is worth the risk, even though in doing so it means working and living. This play is a direct reaction to Fugard’s work as a law clerk at the Native Commissioner’s Court in Johannesburg where he saw blacks jailed daily for not having their pass-books in proper order. The Island, often produced with Sizwe Bansi is Dead, is another play, inspired by true events and directly attacks apartheid.(4) Jon and Winston are cell mates and must produce a staged version of Antigone for their fellow inmates, but when one of the men learns his sentence has been reduced, tensions flare and emotions are shaken as the men recreate the final scene of Antigone. Questioning the political reasons for imprisonment and punishment, both for Antigone and the men, The Island evaluates the strength of friendship in the face of oppressive regimes and altering circumstances. Finally, Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act explores the love relationship between a black man and white woman during the times when inter-racial mixing of any kind was prohibited.

As Apartheid was ending in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Fugard’s My Africa plays (1989- 1996) confront the new challenges that face post-apartheid South Africa. My Children! My Africa!, created by Fugard in protest to the African National Congress’s decision to close African schools and not allow black students an education, depicts two students, one white and one black, debating the values and rights of education in light of recent political action. In the end, as their friendship is interrupted by boycotts, the plays’ black teacher is murdered by a mob and the students are forced to stand by their ideals and take charge of their futures. Valley Song is a play about a Coloured grandfather and his black granddaughter exploring their generational differences, family heritage, and living a simple versus fantastic life in South Africa when they learn that a white man is interested in buying their farm. Playland centers on “two men—one black, one white—with violent pasts [who] meet in an amusement park and in the course of the action confront each other, their pasts, and themselves. It suggests a microcosm of South Africa in which an exorcism of white-black experience and guilt is played out.”(5)

Because of the strong hold apartheid kept on South Africa’s people and culture, Fugard’s works were un-producible within the country until 1994 (after the end of apartheid), therefore, many of his works premiered in London and at Yale Repertory Theatre. Fugard’s American debut was The Blood Knot, produced Off-Broadway in 1964 by Lucille Lortel at the Cricket Theatre. Five of Fugard’s plays have since played on Broadway: Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1974), The Island (1974), Lesson from Aloes (1980), “Master Harold” and the boys (1982 original and 2003 revival), and Blood Knot (1985 revival).

As to how Fugard’s works have been received by his own South Africa:

“Fugard is now in a somewhat anomalous position in South Africa. Blacks have criticized him for dealing with themes that they feel are more properly developed by black writers. At the same time, he is ostracized by white South African society because of his sympathies toward blacks”6

“I am totally unacceptable, a radical nationalist Afrikaner politician because of the attitudes I have. And I know that both within South Africa now, and certainly in the exiled black community outside of South Africa, I am regarded in a very, very uncertain light. Inside the country my old style liberalism is not radical enough; outside the country I’ve gone on to be an embarrassment because, so far, in terms of theater at least, I appear to have been the only person who has got around to talking about black realities in South Africa, and I’ve got a white skin.”(7)

After decades of government surveillance on Fugard and his family, opening mail, tapping phone lines, being subject to midnight police searches, losing friends and actors to Apartheid, and being given the “choice” to either leave the country or remain without the ability to leave, Fugard has finally been able to rejoice in his plays in South Africa’s theatres free of oppression, and the government has stopped interfering with his life. Fugard states that the government “realized it would be wiser to leave me alone, even though I was an irritant, because the adverse publicity that would come from it would outweigh any benefits to them. I think their sense of me is that, even though he makes a lot of noise, he’s one of those dogs that bark but don’t bite.” (8)

Fugard and his works have received many awards and nominations including the Tony, Obie, Lucille Lortel, Evening Standard, Drama Desk, and Audie Awards. He has been honored with the 2005 Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his “excellent contribution and achievements in the theatre” from the government of South Africa, and he is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Fugard has written over twenty plays, four film scripts, two books (one of which he dumped into a lagoon in Fiji) 9, and two memoirs. He is currently an Adjunct Professor of Playwriting, Acting, and Directing at the University of California, San Diego.

1. Allen, Paul. “Interview with Athol Fugard”. New Statesman & Society; Sep 7, 1990; 3, 117; ABI/INFORM Global. p. 38.
2. Fugard in a lecture to inaugurate the annual Joe A. Callaway Distinguished Lecture Series in Drama at New York University on October 16, 1990.
3. For more information on Fugard’s other plays, click here.
4. To hear Fugard speak about this real life influence for The Island and also his views on Antigone, click here.
5. Brockett, Oscar G., and Franklin J. Hildy. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2003. p. 608.
6. The Bedford Introduction to Drama. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. 2nd ed. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1993. p. 1228-9.
7. 1982 Interview with Athol Fugard by Heinrich von Staden (pieced together from [The Bedford Introduction to Drama, 2nd ed. Edited by Lee Jacobus pp. 1251-2.] & [The Harcourt Brace Casebook Series in Literature for “Master Harold” …and the boys. Contributing editor Kimberly J. Allison. pp. 95-101.]
8. Fugard in a lecture to inaugurate the annual Joe A. Callaway Distinguished Lecture Series in Drama at New York University on October 16, 1990.
9. Maclennan, Don. “A Tribute for Athol Fugard at Sixty.” Given in June of 1992 at the Winter School of the Grahamstown Festival, Grahamstown, South Africa. Reprinted in Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal. Athol Fugard Issue. Guest Editor Jack Barbera. Hofstra University. Winter 1993; Vol. 39, Issue 4. p. 517.

–Kelli Marino, Production Dramaturg