Athol Fugard is the most celebrated South African playwright of our time, and in many ways The Island (along with Sizwe Banzi is Dead) propelled his international career. The play is an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone set on Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was held in a damp, eight-foot cell for eighteen of his twenty-seven years in jail for his opposition to Apartheid laws. Apartheid, condemned in 1962 by the United Nations General Assembly, which then declared the system a crime against humanity in 1966, separated groups by skin color, establishing a ruling, minority class of whites (dominated by Afrikaners, descendants of the Dutch settler colonialists) over the majority Black population, in many cases kin to their white oppressors. In Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah, the famous South African comedian, son of a Swiss-German father and Xhosa mother, has written about what it was like to embody the paradoxes of Apartheid.
A bit of background on the Greek antecedent, which would always have been, in countless ways, the perfect cipher for Fugard and his other South African actors of the Serpent Players theater company, John Kani and Winston Ntshona: The play, as performance theorist Judith Butler masterfully teased out in her Housman Lecture at UCLA (2017), is expressly concerned with kinship—the feelings, behaviors, and actions it provokes, and its limits. Seeking support for her bold move of burying her brother against the edict of King Creon, Antigone goes straightaway for support to her sister, Ismene. The first words of Antigone are her greeting to Ismene, who is reluctant to join the cause. Antigone calls Ismene “my own dear sister,” regarding her as if part of her body, even her own head. Creon is Antigone’s kin, too; he is her uncle (her mother’s brother). The paradoxical interplay between the bloodline and the blasé, allyship and betrayal, or oppressor and liberator, exposes the knottiness of familial ties. Often difficult to disentangle, kinship ties compel Antigone’s rebellion, her act of civil disobedience: she breaks the law of the land by disregarding the king’s edict, but in doing so she purports to honor her brother, claiming an affinity to unwritten laws. Her defiance disrupts Antigone’s sociability. Cut off from others in a cave, she is socially dead even before passing away. Her single strongest advocate is Haemon, her fiancé, who happens also to be Creon’s son. Haemon advises Creon to give way to the wisdom of widespread opinion, the consensus that his punishment of Antigone is unjust and unmerited.
The legacy of Sophocles’ Antigone in South Africa precedes The Island. (See Betine Van Zyl Smit, “Antigone in South Africa,” Bulletin for the Institute of Classical Studies 2006: 281-298.) There were several Afrikaans productions of the play by the 1970s, some of which were part of a broader advocacy for slow, social change. The Serpent Players workshopped Antigone in 1965 before developing The Island, which toured internationally. Kani and Ntshona each faced brutality and imprisonment under Apartheid. In the name of kinship within and beyond bloodlines, these men defied unjust laws. Mandela himself, in A Long Walk to Freedom (1995), recounts his “thespian career” in prison, performing Creon’s role as his personal lesson in leadership. Although “there is wisdom in [Creon’s] early speeches when he suggests that experience is the foundation of leadership and that obligations to the people take precedent over loyalty to an individual” (456), Mandela concurs with Haemon. Creon’s “inflexibility and blindness ill become a leader, for a leader must temper justice with mercy. It was Antigone who symbolized our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the grounds that it was unjust.”
Mandela’s affirmation of the wisdom of consensus, consistent with Haemon’s appeal to flexibility, insight, and mercy, is a call for conviviality: the reality that if people are to live together in peace, there must be ways to understand one another’s points of view. To understand another person is to dwell with them for a time, to inhabit their ideas, commitments, and concerns—to break bread, as one saying goes. In the United States, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for this conviviality, in his April 16, 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” when he wrote to fellow clergy who had opposed the protests to end segregation and Jim Crow. In this case, King compared himself not to Antigone, but to Socrates, arguing that “one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” King writes that protest, nonviolent direct action, is a way to “dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” Through conviviality, King would weave a “beloved community,” which affirms the neighbor as kin within a human family.
For King, dramatization is more than a metaphor for imagining conviviality. Theater itself is one way of dwelling together. Theater has been shown to promote pro-social behavior, change attitudes, and foster empathy (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 2021). It is no wonder, then, that Antigone appealed to those on opposite sides of Apartheid. Beyond bonds of blood, dwelling together is what makes people kindred. And, we can dwell together well or poorly, convivially or contentiously. It has become commonplace to see Kani and Ntshona as Creon and Antigone, respectively, since they embodied the roles. Fugard also deserves notice as a remarkable, Antigone-like figure. Even as a white South African, he faced restrictions and surveillance for his public opposition to Apartheid, but from early in his life, he imagined kinship, friendship, and conviviality across the artificial racial divide. From childhood, three commitments shaped him. The first was to his own dear Afrikaner mother, his kin, whom he writes lovingly as a young twenty-year-old working on a steamer ship. The second was his commitment to his Black companions alongside whom he traveled and worked: “The camaraderie of nameless strangers made brothers by a common fate” (Notebooks: 1960-1977 2013, 205). Fugard resolves to “dedicate my life to alleviating the suffering of others” (The Captain’s Tiger 1999, 19). His third and equally important commitment has been to theater. Early on, he concluded that he could not make compelling plays under Apartheid—this not even as a matter of principle, but as he puts it, as a matter of taste. The Island is proof positive, appealing to many tastes, drawing diverse audiences into a common dwelling, and changing a few minds along the way.