By his own proclamation, Athol Fugard belongs fervently and wholeheartedly to his native South Africa. Writing in his personal notebooks (segments of which have recently been published by Knopf), he once described his life’s work as “possibly just to witness as truthfully as I could the nameless and destitute (desperate of this one little corner of the world.” But in recent years, Fugard has come to belong to America as well—and particularly to New Haven and the Yale Repertory Theatre.
While the substance of his work is destined to remain bound to his homeland, his last two plays, Master Harold…and the boys and The Road to Mecca, received their world premieres at Yale Rep under his direction. Parts of Mecca were actually written in New Haven, marking his first theatre writing outside of South Africa. Along with A Lesson from Aloes, the American premiere of which Fugard directed at Yale in 1980, the plays form what he now calls his “Yale Trilogy.” And over the course of his work on them, he has forged a precious, painstaking union with the theatre and with Lloyd Richards, its artistic director. In his words, “Yale Rep is a home away from home. One of the cornerstones of that is a very, very trusting, supportive, understanding relationship with Lloyd.”
I share an afternoon with Fugard in New Haven, just a few days after the opening of The Road to Mecca. It is clear, even before he says so, that he is in a period of personal transition, even within the context of his affinity with Yale. There are changes to come—in his writing, in his work as a director and actor. It is a time to reflect back on completed projects and conjecture about things to come.
Over lunch and numberless cups of coffee, he does reflect, liberally, emphatically, by turns serious, wry, teasing—but always truthful, each of his statements following a moment of internal deliberation in which he seems to weigh and verify its absolute honesty. The severity of Fugatd’s features—all sharp lines, angles and points—is thoroughly at odds with the tone and cadence of his speaking voice which is gently measured, even elegant. Closing my eyes, I think of an anglicized Fred Astaire.
At age 52, Fugard only half jokingly refers to himself as a “senior citizen.” He has been a produced playwright for more than 25 years; he has acknowledged and achieved mastery over a long term drinking problem; he has even accepted invitations to speak at college commencement exercises, an honor and a responsibility he takes quite seriously: “It made me realize the awesome reality of being a playwright, the awesome privilege…Every night people listen silently to what I have to say. Jesus!” After years of self-reflection, Fugard has found a somewhat steady, objective vantage point from which to view Fugard.
He is quite naturally preoccupied with The Road to Mecca, a play that represents both a beginning and an end within his artistic progress. It is the third and, he says, last of a group of plays he considers “orthodox in both their genesis and in the way they were produced. Very, very orthodox theatre experiences.” He continues conspiratorially, “I’ve got a kind of feeling that after my Yale Trilogy—it’s just a hunch—that I’ll want to start playing around with the medium as such again. I don’t think I’lI abandon the orthodoxy of privacy as a writer. I find it hard to believe I’ll end up in a rehearsal room evolving a text with actors as in the old days. But I’ll be engaged in a private experimentation with the form. Yes, I think that might well be on!”
But even in Mecca Fugard has broken new ground. It is his first work to center on the relationship between two women, one a solitary, elderly widow who expresses herself through the creation of a backyard “Mecca” of cement sculpture; the other a young, fiery schoolteacher troubled by her personal and political surroundings. It is also his first work to deal squarely with the role—and the burden—of the artist within society. In that sense, the play is at least as personal, as autobiographical as Master Harold, which draws liberally on Fugard’s childhood experiences. He admits as much, gladly.
“I didn’t realize that I was writing about an artist until I was really up to my neck in the experience. You see, my pivotal fascination, the thing that hooked me—the bait that I swallowed—was the challenge of dealing with two women. I believed Miss Helen could be just an eccentric character in a little village. I didn’t realize I had to take her on as an artist. I thought I didn’t need to. It was fascinating reading back in my notebooks, which is how I spent opening night, and seeing the first questions about ‘Helen as eccentric or Helen as meaningful artist?’ starting to surface and then being dismissed. And then I realized, in one page-long entry that I underlined so I could go back to it in the months of writing that lay ahead, that the more I came to terms with Helen as a valid creative energy, the more every event on that stage would resonate with significance. That was the pivotal reality.
“To round off the perception of Mecca as an autobiographical play,” he continues, “the only knowledge I have about the genesis and consequences of creativity is what I have experienced. It was marvelous finally to attempt to come to terms with it. Writing Helen, facing the challenge she presented to me, I tried for the first time to really understand what happens for myself when I create.”
“Weren’t you afraid to fully understand how it happens, to demystify the creative act?” I ask. His reply is firm: “Oh no, I don’t think anyone can really penetrate certain mysteries. There is always one veil that is not removed.”
But Mecca, it seems, is even more personal than that. Fugard’s Helen is an artist ostracized from the very proper Afrikaner society of her village because she’s different and therefore, somehow, dangerous. Her reaction to this condition reverberates as a reply to Fugard’s detractors, who have often taken issue with his work on political grounds. “I don’t harm anyone,” she says. “I create, and how people deal with my creations is their problem.” Fugard agrees that he shares this attitude with his central character. “I’ve never set out to write a play to change lives,” he states. “I set out to share an experience. I don’t know what the consequences are. I’ve encountered many forthright assaults, particularly on Master Harold, on the grounds that I’m doing a profound disservice to The Cause by presenting a black man who goes on forgiving, even when he’s spit on. Very, very strong criticism. If Mecca is a response to that, it was unintentional, but I see now that it is. Helen answers my critics by saying ‘an artist is an artist, not a politician. I make what make.’ I simply saw in Helen—the real Helen from whom I drew my character—an incredible metaphor for the artist, and for the artist’s need to stay removed from people’s attitudes about his work.”
Perhaps it is because of this need that Fugard feels uncomfortable with the label “political playwright.” What, then, is the function of his work? “The function of theatre,” he says, “is its potent civilizing effect.” If that sounds peculiarly passive coming from a playwright with Fugard’s moral impact, he would reply that it is “a question of certainties. I say that theatre civilizes because of that I’m certain. I am not certain about how much more it can do. Not my kind of theatre, in which I do not address myself to political issues head-on, the way Brecht does, the way David Edgar does. It’s not that theatre mightn’t do more than that. But I’m certain that it does that. And the reason it civilizes is that it forces one to listen. I think that one of the most refined of all civilized qualities -necessary to live a civilized life – is the capaci ty to listen. By that I really mean to perceive. It is the capacity for spiritual perception.”
But surely not all playwrights elicit “spiritual perception.” When pressed, Fugard’s list of contemporary American playwrights with the capacity to be “dangerous,” to demand this kind of attention, is very short: Sam Shepard. He suspects there are others, but can’t name any offhand. Is it that there is no room for meaningful theatre in this country? Is our art easy because our lives are easy? “I can’t believe that!” he insists. “I refuse to believe that. My American experience is relatively substantial now. I’ve spent a lot of time in this country and I’ve had good friends, good conversation. And I use my eyes and ears. Being a writer, the one place other than South Africa I’d want to be is in America. I just find it so challenging, so challenging. Jesus! I’ve laughed when some of my young friends here at Yale have envied me because they’ve felt that the South African situation had so much inherent drama. It’s rubbish. As if oppression makes art!
“I’lI give you an example. One night last year I got to know a stage carpenter working on the touring production of Master Harold—Ed Collins from Arkansas. He ended up in my apartment drinking beer and he just decided to talk. He had a beautiful way with words, and I got a four-hour monologue about his childhood in Arkansas—the most incredibly moving, life-affirming story. If I were an American playwright and I heard that, I’d know it was the very stuff and guts of life. Storytelling in the truest sense. It was just never to be forgotten. America has all the stuff a great writer needs.”
As if to ameliorate these uncharacteristically vehement remarks, Fugard adds, “What you’ve got to remember, of course, is that between the time Sheridan wrote his last play and Oscar Wilde wrote his first, 100 years passed. There was not one play during that 100 years of English theatre that’s worth doing today. So, give yourselves a break—Tennessee Williams died only yesterday. When a remarkable writer or artist is going to emerge always remains totally unpredictable.”
One thing that’s certain about the American theatre is that it has taken Fugard’s work to heart. Both A Lesson from Aloes and Master Harold transferred successfully to Broadway, the latter gamering a Tony Award for actor Zakes Mokae, and in the past three seasons, no fewer than 30 productions of his plays have been produced professionally around the country. Critics, even when less than ecstatic about individual plays or productions, are uniformly reverential toward Fugard and his canon as a whole. (Even the perennially acerbic theatre director Jonathan Miller expressed “unabashed admiration” for him recently in an otherwise unrelentingly negative New York Times interview.) Master Harold‘s sharp close-up of the personal ravages of apartheid left Broadway audiences tear-stained and shaken. But the plays are set in South Africa, not the South Bronx. How much of Americans’ attraction to them, willingness to be moved by them, is a function of that distance? Troubled observers have noted that perhaps we’re just a bit more comfortable empathizing with the life within Fugard’s works because it’s life “over there.”
Fugard listens intently to this idea, as if hearing it for the first time. “I understand exactly what you’re saying,” he nods, darkening. “And there’s a bit of substance to it. I think the South African audiences’ experience of Master Harold would support that point, because they had a somewhat different reaction. A lot of people made a point of walking out. They were more confused, more troubled. When a play like that is seen without the clarity that comes with distance from the situation. it is more threatening. Much more.”
Does that mean that it is more important for his plays to be produced on their own soil, rather than in front of America’s more removed, self-congratulatory audiences? Fugard answers in the negative, reaffirming his unwillingness to take on the mantle of The Political Playwright. “I think performances in both places are important. If a play is worth looking at in South Africa, it’s worth looking at here. If it’s got something important to say, it applies to people everywhere.”
Fugard’s life in the theatre, never confined to the page, has included directing—predominantly his own plays—as well as acting on the stage and in such films as The Guest and Marigolds in August (for which he wrote the screenplays), Gandhi, and a filmed version of his play Boesman and Lena. He has always considered his directing role that of a “mid-wife,” birthing what he conceived at his writing table. But he’s currently experiencing some conflict concerning his future in this area of theatre.
“I’m starting to wonder whether I’m running out of steam as a director,” he admits quietly. “Perhaps I’m talking out of post-production exhaustion, but I’m not sure I can still do my job as well as I used to. Of course it would complicate my life if I made the decision to stop—I’d have to trust somebody else. I’ve never evolved a trust in someone to the extent that I’d feel comfortable allowing them to direct my work.”
Fugard has on rare occasions seen productions of his plays directed by others, and has had “a few good experiences and some bad experiences.” He hesitates to say he’s the best director of his work, but admits that these other productions held few surprises for him. So why the doubts? “Well, it’s a hard, hard, brutal experience getting the actors there,” he sighs. “I’m dealing with words and shifts of mood that are for me as frail as spiderwebs. And during the course of directing Mecca, I had a huge confrontation with Carmen Mathews, the actress playing Helen. It was a precious experience for me because nothing but good came of it, but…”
He goes on to describe a point in the rehearsal process when things weren’t going well. “I had identified two enemies that threatened our work: theatricality and sentimentality. I had to say so. I really depressed the cast—and myself—and we all spent a suicidal weekend. When we came back to rehearsal on Monday, I knew immediately that the bird had flown. The bird had flown. And Carmen was manifestly agitated, full of desperation and terror. I realized that there was a major, major guilt that I had to confess to her right there and then. I realized that I had this clear vision of Helen as I would have played her, and that I was imposing that on Carmen. In order to do that, I was actually taking away her own soul as a performer.
“God doesn’t give you two souls—you’ve only got the one. You can’t sort of buy second-hand souls when you’re up there on the stage. You have to use the one you’ve got. The fact that I’d inflicted my soul on Carmen was a shattering realization, and I made my admission of guilt. She said to me, ‘Trust me to try and use my own soul to give Helen life.’ And I did. The point is…” Fugard laughs. He’s momentarily forgotten why he told the story, but then he adds, “Well, it explains why I feel tired of directing at the moment.”
What about directing other people’s plays? It would seem a logical extension for Fugard, whose work as a director has been praised as soundly as the plays themselves. “I don’t think I’m a good enough
director,” he replies. “I’m more than adequate for my own work because I set the one priority that there be no tricks, that the play be presented as clearly and lucidly as possible. But I’ve created no illusions about myself as a groundbreaking director.”
Fugard treats the subject of his acting very lightly: “It’s fun. But let’s face it; it must be patently obvious to you that I’ve got a few of the bad actor’s vanities.” He twinkles when I reply that I’d noticed no such thing. “Yeah, like hell, he laughs. “Like hell.” It has been some time since Fugard has acted on the stage, but that will change in March, when he and his long-time colleague Zakes Moke reunite at Yale to perform in his 1961 play The Blood Knot. That, he says, will be “a celebration.” “Lloyd had better put a star on my dressing room,” he beams.
But if Fugard is lighthearted about his own acting, he views the work of other actors with something akin to awe. “There is one aspect of acting which I absolutely revere,” he says gravely. “That is, that performance has got to occupy three dimensions—space, time and silence. Those are the three constant realities of life as an actor. You occupy those three all the time, which makes the craft of acting unique, and the most challenging of all arts. That aspect of acting, that sense of those three dimensions, along with the body, the voice, the rhythm, the organization of the whole. Good acting is just such a challenge, such an achievement.”
Whatever else Fugard accomplishes in the theatre, he is first and foremost a playwright. He has an avowed love of even the physical process of writing, which he does longhand, a new pen for each play, with ink he often mixes himself. The act of writing is a sensual pleasure for Fugard. “Mmmmm. Don’t get me started talking about that,” he cautions me. “I’ll make you blush. I’m worse than ever on that subject!”
Does his own past work, his previous success, bear down on him when he sits down to write a new play? He seems to have given this some thought, and answers quickly. “I finally defined my relationship to my own work when I’m working on a new work. I think of it as ‘a difficult and interfering ghost looking over my shoulder.’ It gets in the way. Other writers,” he hastens to add, “sustain me.”
Though Fugard insists that artists are not heroes (“I think the term ‘hero’ would affix to my life or anyone’s life in the context of being the man I am, not the writer I am”), he does think of creation as an act of courage. To explain what he means, he cites something he’s recently read. “I’ve been thinking about Rilke’s amazing description of Cezanne in the last years of his life. He describes this man eating his meals mindlessly, going back to his canvas and brushes, not knowing what he’s achieved, whether the unattainable has been attained. Not knowing a thing about what his life has added up to, suffering from exhaustion.” Fugard pauses under the weight of this image. “What a stunning, profoundly moving, beautiful picture of the compulsion of the artist at work.”
But although the process of creation may be debilitating, even courageous—for Fugard, the period after creation is ecstatic, “a moment of disbelief.” He continues, “After Mecca this period lasted about two days. Oh, those few days of giddiness after completion! Without them, I’m just a worthless old man, to quote Helen. But then, eventually, for better or worse, I can see the work clearly again. It is finished. That’s my sense of the creative act—I’m not saying it’s true—it’s just my sense of myself.”
So what does the immediate future hold for Athol Fugard? On the subject of transferring The Road to Mecca to New York, he makes it clear that there is a dark side to the prospect as well as the obvious bright one. “Nothing has been decided,” he says, “and my agent knows I’m not interested in any talk until it’s real talk. But no matter what kind of reception a play gets in New York, there’s some pain involved. The life of a piece of work here at Yale Rep is very simple and very real. Professionally, it’s a very uncluttered, uncomplicated situation. The three actors in Mecca are having a marvelous time! One of them was just telling me what a decent, clean experience it’s been, free of the sort of shit they always start shoving at you in the City. If there is any future life to Mecca, that innocence will be lost. This is an innocent experience in the ‘strong’ sense of the word innocent, if you know what I mean.”
Somehow, our conversation has reached its natural end and we part. Fugard hurries back to his New Haven apartment and is soon bound for South Africa—home—where, among other things, he is about to receive an honorary Doctor of Arts degree. Several things stick persistently in my mind: his size—like his plays, Fugard is deceptively compact, much larger inside than outside; his phrase “It’s a question of certainties,” which seems in retrospect to guide his work and his life more than any other; and finally, his true affection for the theatre, for every aspect of it and every person working in it.
In his Notebooks, Fugard once wrote, “I suppose the theatre uses more of the actual substance of life than any other art. What comes near the theatre in this respect, except possibly the painter using old bus tickets, or the sculptor using junk iron and driftwood? The theatre uses flesh and blood, sweat, the human voice, real pain, real time.”
With a pen dipped in the lifeblood of his native South Africa, Athol Fugard continues to forge art from personal and national pain.
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