Athol Fugard can’t bring himself to say the name of the new theatre named in his honour. “I’m just going to call it the District Six Theatre,” he says, pen in hand to autograph a copy of his Notebooks.
For just under an hour, we have been sitting in the front row of the Fugard. For the past half-century, Fugard, reputedly the most performed playwright in the world after Shakespeare, has chronicled the realities of life in South Africa.
Starting with the earliest surviving text, No-Good Friday, performed in the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg in 1958, Fugard has shown not only our wickedness, but also the soul still struggling to free itself, and to blossom in common cause with all who live in this country.
A spry 78-year-old, his compelling stentorian voice carries his robust being more than ever. His zest for life is infectious. He trips up the stairs on to the stage to chat to ensemble members of the Isango Portobello theatre company who have just arrived to warm up for their evening performance. Fugard enthuses with them, asks about the marimbas, tells the women how beautiful they are.
“I could fall in love with you, and you,” he says, laughing. “And [President] Zuma has given me permission!”
Fugard lives in San Diego to be near his only daughter and grandson. He starts every day by reading the South African newspapers. The Mail & Guardian, “not to flatter you, but it is an essential one”, he says. From Die Burger he chooses two news reports, which he reads aloud to himself to “keep my tongue nimble with my mother’s language, Afrikaans”.
Fugard is in Cape Town to direct the world premiere of his latest play, The Train Driver. He says it is his darkest work. “There wouldn’t have been this play if it hadn’t been for the M&G article about that lady who committed suicide on the railway line. I read it online in the United States and I dedicate the play to her, Pumla Lolwana, and her three children. I knew that I had an appointment with that story in some way or the other and for the longest time after first reading it in December 2000. I tried in different ways to deal with her. I knew I hadn’t dealt with it in the way that it had to be dealt with. But then, finally, I put it aside. I don’t know why or what made me come back to it, but I did, and I suddenly saw that I wanted to deal with that whole incident from the perspective of the train driver, the man who actually drove the train.” It’s going to be on the stage in three weeks.
You have always been incredibly prolific. Does writing become easier?
No, it gets harder. Writing one play never helps you to write the next one. They somehow all come with different demands, require a different approach and involve a different perspective. It’s almost like having to learn the craft all over again. Well there is one craft you don’t have to learn — I know that I have, over time, developed an ear for dialogue.
This is the premiere you’re directing, so are you making changes to the script?
Oh, yes! The actors are helping me discover the possibilities of enrichment all the way through the text. I have worked with Sean [Taylor] as a director. I’ve not only worked with Owen Sejake, also as a director, but I have [also] been on stage with him. I know the heart of Owen Sejake is so big. I’m working with two men I love. What could be a greater gift for a director?
I think the most recent performance you gave was Valley Song?
Was it Valley Song [Royal Court, 1996]? Was it Captain’s Tiger [State Theatre, 1997]? I don’t know, I have no sense of history. Once a play is written, it is out of my life and my desk is cleared.
Do you miss acting?
Yes! When I arrived in Cape Town, I said to Mannie [Manim, the executive director], take me to the theatre. I just want to see the auditorium and the stage. He showed me this remarkable auditorium. And I stood up there [he gestures to the stage] and realised it was an auditorium that puts the audience in the palm of your hand. An actor can’t wish for a better relationship.
So you miss the South African audience?
Yes, for one simple reason: it’s the audience that occurs to me when I’m writing a play. Harold Pinter said you write a play first for an audience of one — yourself at the desk. Then you think about it after that first encounter, if it has any quality. I think about a South African audience that will know, capture, enjoy the nuances that one brings into one’s writing. I write for my fellows, South Africans. You know, white and black, we are dealing with the same issues; they haven’t gone away.
Yes, but post-1994, everyone, not only artists, had to make a shift.
I thought it was the end of me as a playwright. I thought … [I] was going to have nothing to write about. Apartheid was gone. Nothing could be further from the truth. I write about desperate people and there are as many desperate people in the new South Africa as there ever were in the old South Africa. So I am not going to die short of stories.
Do you view your work in recent years, in particular Victory and Coming Home, as part political activism?
If you’re going to tell a real South African story you don’t have to worry about its political resonances; they come with those built into them. Just get the story straight, tell the story truthfully and it will be like that pebble in the pond. There will be ripples and you don’t have to worry about those ripples. No one goes into a pond without ripples. And you know, South African stories are like that. Why are people desperate? They are going to be very basic issues.
Have you felt a 21st-century shift? In the year 2000 did you feel different or was it just an arbitrary date?
No, I just thought it brutally, tragically ironic. The December month of that new millennium, Pumla Lolwana stood on the railway line, while the rest of us were pulling firecrackers, putting funny hats on our heads, blowing stupid little bugles, getting drunk and wasting money on presents. Out of some sort of desperation — that I find hard to comprehend — it is such an awesome act, to stand with your children and make sure they can’t run away. One tried to and she pulled him back. Oh, my God.
Have you ever thought of suicide?
Myself? No. That’s why I had to write about it. Because I can’t imagine a darkness that great. I am by nature an optimist, not a pessimist …
Your plays are always redemptive.
Yes, redemptive, that’s right. Sometimes the note of hope is a bit thin, fragile, but that note is there. In this one, too, it is there, but it is more brutal in this one than in anything else I have written. Suicide is something I can’t understand — how life can get that dark that you give up. I have encountered suicide often enough, but it always leaves me with a question for which I have no answers.
What about Helen Martins [on whom Fugard based The Road to Mecca]?
Yes, yes, but look, although the truth about Helen Martins was suicide, I copped out. I gave it [The Road to Mecca] a slightly more positive ending, that she realises there is a greater challenge than just lighting the candles, and that was confronting darkness. So even that had a positive note in the end — in her resolve to try to face the darkness. But of course Helen didn’t; you’re right, she drank caustic soda.
Those two beautiful women [Helen and Elsa in Road to Mecca]. For a man with my crude metabolism and crude whatchamacallit to go into that area. I was very audacious going into that. It was a learning curve, because it forced me to examine a lot of things about gender and role-playing. I haven’t done it again. Or have I done it again?
Perhaps Allison and Marta in Sorrows and Rejoicings?
Yes, that’s right: Sorrows and Rejoicings. And in Exits and Entrances. André Huguenet, he was such a beautiful man.
I saw the original production when it went to Edinburgh and it was the best one I’ve seen.
It started off in one of my favourite little theatres just down the road from me, in southern California, and I was so happy with it.
Those two actors [Morlan Higgins and William Hurley] had got to the heart of the play I had wanted to write, and they had captured the profound debt of gratitude that I had to that man [Huguenet] and, even more importantly, they somehow touched on the beauty of that man. And his pain and his loneliness.
Only the accents bothered me. As a South African playwright, performing all over the world, people keep attempting this very difficult accent of ours. Shouldn’t it be played without accents?
That’s the first advice I give to every American director. Don’t mess around with it. What South African accent are you going to talk about? We have a dozen. I say, oh please, don’t call in your drama coaches and give these actors complications they don’t need, just let them speak. But, no, they don’t always listen to me.
Are your choices artistic or do you have in mind the practical realities of the theatre today? I felt for instance that Booitjie and the Oubaas would have been a fantastic three-act play of Eugene O’Neill proportions.
No, these are artistic choices. The canvas must be small, tight. I’m a miniaturist. I haven’t got an O’Neill sweep. It’s like, you know, the artist who chooses a piece of canvas this big [he pretends to hold up a canvas, a square foot in size], whereas Brecht does the equivalent of Diego Riviera, he does a whole panorama, you know and it’s magnificent. And Christ, my admiration for the ability! I couldn’t tackle that. Give me two characters, I’m happy.
When you write, do you perform the lines aloud?
Yes, I find that I am talking to myself. It’s about the sound … I first fell in love with that when listening to my mother with her Afrikaner background — she was a Potgieter — and what she did to the English language in trying to speak it correctly, it was beautiful, and that’s when I fell in love for the first time — like Hester …
We had a fantastic revival last year of Hello and Goodbye with Dorothy Ann Gould.
I believe so! Oh, I am so proud of that woman. It’s amazing that that little play refuses to lie down. It also gets revived in America.
You must have a clear sense of the importance of your works in terms of their place in history, but do you ever think about how the work will speak to a future audience?
No, no. You can’t indulge in that. But, Brent, I know for myself, personally, I’m not talking about the audience or the critics, but for me, The Train Driver is the most important play I have ever written. What other people are going to make of it, I don’t know, but because it has that kind of significance for me, I realise I might never write another play. But I can’t believe that, because my notebook is already full of ideas, images for work I want to do. So I must be very careful about talking about it as my last play, but it might be. My health is not quite what it used to be, and my wife and I live with the reality for both of us that something could happen suddenly. But one thing I do know, I will have my pen in my hand and I’m not going to give it up easily to the undertaker when he tries to stretch me out for the coffin. I will hang on to it.