It would be understandable if, in anticipation of receiving a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award in New York next month — the first non-American to be recognised in this way by the most prestigious prize-giving body in the theatre world — Athol Fugard was feeling satisfied with his life’s work and perhaps a little self-congratulatory.
When I meet him, however, the 80-year-old playwright demonstrates more interest in his current and future projects than in the 30-odd plays that gave rise to, and have sustained, his international reputation. He describes ‘a sense of urgency to ‘get it out’, to write all the stuff I still need to write before I keel over”.
He also tells me that the one faculty he feels growing stronger as he gets older is judgment — and in his judgment he finds his own work wanting. The Blood Knot, one of his best-known plays, is actually ‘hugely overwritten” (even if it was a ‘valid mistake”: he later identifies it as the play in which he first felt he had found his voice).
Soon he is enthusiastically informing me about a yet-to-be completed piece inspired by the series of poems written by Thomas Hardy after the death of his estranged wife in 1912. Hardy’s poetry may be removed from contemporary South Africa in space and time but, unsurprisingly, Fugard’s response takes the form of a three-hander set in the Karoo. More on that evocative semi-desert later.
We are ostensibly meeting to discuss The Bird Watchers, the second of Fugard’s new plays to premiere at the theatre named after him in Cape Town’s District Six (The Train Driver opened there last year). Although The Bird Watchers may be backward-looking — a fictionalised rendering of Fugard’s relationships with fellow theatre-makers Barney Simon and Yvonne Bryceland — it is by no means an exercise in nostalgia. Rather, the tone is one of regret and even self-excoriation.
Drawing on his own formative experiences
It may be true that all writers, to a lesser or greater extent, produce ‘life writing”: texts based on their own experience, or stories they have come across. Still, in Fugard’s case the phrase is particularly apposite.
‘Every character I’ve written has a face that I’ve seen before somewhere,” he says. In other words, whether drawing on his own formative experiences (from Master Harold … and the Boys to The Captain’s Tiger) or transmuting the stories of other people’s lives, Fugard is not so much inventing narratives as reconstituting them.
It is tempting, then, to adopt a biographical bias when interpreting his work. Fugard does not resist such an approach — ‘a biographical reading of, say, Tolstoy definitely deepens one’s appreciation of his work” — but warns against allowing it to dominate. His gripe with scholars and theatre critics is that their pronouncements can be constraining, ‘as if there’s only one way to understand a work of art, one definitive reading to be imposed”. So he is not particularly worried about the labels that have been applied to him.
I mention a debate that surfaced around a play such as My Children! My Africa! in the early 1990s, when Fugard was accused of showing ‘white liberal” tendencies in his portrayal of township violence towards the end of the apartheid era. ‘Ag, people can tie that tag to my toe when I die if they want to!” he says, chuckling, adding: ‘The apartheid years were not actually complicated by definitions – it was a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Did you stand up to oppose it, or did you sit back and watch it happen? Political activists I met abroad after my passport was taken away envied South Africans for that polarity.”
Dark, malicious impulse
If he is not simply a ‘liberal”, Fugard is not a serial memoirist either. It would be limiting, despite the obvious similarities, to consider the characters of Garth (played by Sean Taylor), Lenny (Guy de Lancey) and Rosalyn (Dorothy Ann Gould) in The Bird Watchers as interchangeable with Fugard, Simon and Bryceland, respectively. Indeed, Fugard insists that The Bird Watchers is ‘not a documentary but a fictional work”. Nonetheless, various strands in the play resonate not only with Fugard’s oeuvre but also with his lifelong practice of the craft of play-writing itself.
For example: Fugard agrees wholeheartedly with my suggestion that there is a dark, malicious impulse behind his vocation. After all, writing a play entails controlling and manipulating characters, sometimes assuming a malevolent god-like status (in The Bird Watchers, the actress Roz complains about having to live in a world in which writer-director Garth is God). This creative violence is also driven, Fugard notes, by an ‘erotic impulse”.
Fugard has, at various stages in his career, been a comprehensive auteur: writing, directing and starring in his plays. He is modest about his acting career: ‘In the Fifties, Sixties and even Seventies, white South African theatre was still dominated by British jingoism. I was trying to write plays dealing with the guts, the grit, the grime of South Africa and nobody wanted to touch those roles. So I had to do it!”
But when it comes to directing, Fugard admits to a Samuel Beckett-like desire to ‘protect the text I wrote”. Although he affirms that he is not an author but a playwright — first and foremost a man of the stage — there is a distinctly literary quality to his play-making. One consequence is that he is uncomfortable with the ‘democracy” required when workshopping a play.
Fugard’s collaboration with John Kani and Winston Ntshona resulted in two famous plays, The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, but whereas Fugard was criticised some time ago for not giving enough credit to Kani and Ntshona, the opposite is true: ‘I don’t actually think of those as my plays.”
Distance between author and characters
If Fugard-Garth is a control freak, he has various other failings. Bryceland-Roz calls him a ‘selfish, frightened, prejudiced male chauvinist pig” but, significantly, ‘something very mysterious” takes place when he sits down to write. Hopefully, Fugard suggests, although he is invested in each of the characters he creates, his own shortcomings are ‘not too evident in the plays”.
There remains an ironic distance between author and characters (even in ‘autobiographical” plays) and theatre is, of course, polyvocal — differing opinions are expressed in dialogue. So a selfish playwright notwithstanding, plays can still exhibit the ‘Promethean fire” of imagination that, he believes, makes sympathy with others possible.
For Fugard, these ‘others” are always fellow South Africans. He may live and write in San Diego (where the surrounding desert is reminiscent of the Karoo), but even though ‘this is an extraordinarily complex moment in American history”, with half the population facing up to its bigotry — ‘they still can’t get over the fact that there is a black man in power” — Fugard does not feel the desire, or the ability, to write about the United States. ‘I don’t know the textures of the place and people; I haven’t mastered the code.”
Does he feel, as a predominantly overseas-based writer and a world theatre figure, that he is ‘writing from exile”? On the contrary; Fugard sees himself as engaging with the rest of the world through the strong prism of regionalism. ‘When I first read Faulkner as a schoolboy, I wondered: ‘What the fuck is going on?’ Likewise, Hardy made me ask: ‘What relevance does this have to the grubby back streets of Port Elizabeth?’” But Fugard came to realise that the appeal of Faulkner’s American South or Hardy’s English Wessex was precisely because of their distinctiveness.
He always writes, then, with a South African audience in mind. Referring to The Autopsy, a poem by Odysseus Elytis in which a corpse renders up the material and symbolic objects that had shaped the dead man’s identity, he exclaims: ‘South Africa is inside me! When they open me up, they’ll find that my heart is old Karoo stone! Boesman and Lena in the mudflats, Gladys from A Lesson from Aloes — And birds and flowers. I don’t deserve them, but they’re there!”
Fugard broadly defines his writing as an ‘act of celebration” and even goes so far as to claim: ‘If theatre affects the matrix of society, one could say that theatre taught us in South Africa to talk instead of killing one another”. But when our conversation turns to recent events in the country, the previously affable and genial Fugard I have been talking to disappears.
His famously deep brow wrinkles into mighty anger: ‘In one week, there is a hate speech trial in which people arrive with enormous guns, and a protest in which an innocent man is killed by police. There is an ongoing challenge to the freedom of the press. We are returning to that apartheid polarity: yes or no. But even young people I meet tell me they’re reluctant to say no for fear of being labelled counter-revolutionaries or racists. It’s cowardly! Political correctness takes away your balls.”
Fugard has not, however, adopted the despairing and dismissive tone of contemporaries such as Breyten Breytenbach, whose dispatches from abroad and occasional forays into political commentary have raised the ire of many South Africans for their out-of-touch moralising. Fugard, by comparison, muses: ‘I wish I knew where the moral high ground was!”
The playwright’s dedication to the local and regional has never been parochial. Rather, his work has always alluded to, or explicitly placed itself within, a global community (and universal history) of writing and performance. In his early township theatre days he directed productions of Brecht and Sophocles, rejecting assumptions about what was suitable or of interest to black South Africans.
The ancient Greeks, in particular, have found their way into his work again and again. ‘No play in the last century has not been written in the shadow of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. They defined the human condition. Look at Libya and Tunisia today, then read The Trojan Women.” These archetypal depictions not only anticipate grand historical repetitions on the same theme; they also offer insight into private desires and suffering. In The Bird Watchers, the main plot driver is a never-to-be-staged production of Aeschylus’ tragic trilogy, The Oresteia, which lends its sexual jealousies and bitter regrets to the subtext of Fugard’s play.
The triangular relationship between Fugard, Bryceland and Simon was by turns vexed and tender; The Bird Watchers manages to capture these nuances at the same time as reminding audiences about two ‘cherished icons” of South African theatre (lest we forget about Bryceland’s influence as an actress as well as co-founder of the Space Theatre, or Simon’s playwriting in addition to his equivalent role at the Market Theatre –Fugard is unequivocal in stating that Simon ‘was a better playwright than me”).
Whether through fate or circumstance, Fugard is one of few who remain to provide continuity between then and now. Audience members who encounter The Bird Watchers will no doubt be deeply appreciative that he is still around, and still writing.
The Bird Watchers is at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town until June 4