Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Apprenticeship Years

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

The Apprenticeship Years

Article excerpt

My years as a drama student at the University of Cape Town were a time of questioning. I was forced to think about my life in the South Africa of the early fifties, with all its turmoil. I was intensely preoccupied, too, with theatre, and not just with my own acting. I yearned for a theatre that would reflect the complex and isolated land in which I lived. I had no inkling then that my passion would contribute to that theatre.

The university Drama School in the early fifties was a pale imitation of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Little in the curriculum tested or inspired me, so I turned to books. I discovered Stanislavsky for myself, with his demand for truth in theatre, and his insistence on the need to put aside ego-centered performance and the false posturing of the actor. My inner dialogue was formed through a combination of Stanislavsky's intense realism, and the idealized theatre of Gordon Craig.

I could not discuss any of this with my lecturers, who appeared to be myopically concerned solely with their own particular courses. My fellow students, mostly women, were hoping to meet engineering or architecture students and get married. Unable to detect originality or deep talent in their work, I struggled on my own at the Drama School for three years, trying to keep my intellect and ambition alive.

This was the period of post-colonialism in South Africa, just after the Nationalist government came to power and put into place the structure of apartheid. There did not seem to be, at that time, any truly South African theatre--one that spoke with the voice of all its inhabitants. British farces and the latest West End success were performed by a small English repertory company in Cape Town. The university Drama School staged more serious works, such as the plays of Shaw, and T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party and Murder in the Cathedral. Christopher Fry's wordy verse plays were very much in vogue. The London critics of the fifties were enthralled, and they were convinced that a new Elizabethan age had dawned. How wrong they proved to be.

As for non-British theatre, the fine surrealistic works of Ionesco were produced, and those of Anouilh, less original, but still entertaining. Brecht was just beginning to echo in our ears. Rumors circulated of this strange man in East Germany who, in the midst of a Communist society, had created significant theatre. Beckett had not yet spoken, although a few years later the Drama School did stage Waiting for Godot. A barnstorming state-sponsored National Theatre struggled to take bucolic adaptations of depression-era novels and European classics to the small towns.

Two years later, still burning with my vision of a truly South African theatre, I met a young fellow writer. His name was Athol Fugard. He was totally different from the somewhat inarticulate students I had met at university. He was intense, volatile, and even a little dangerous, with bright, inquiring eyes, a shock of dark hair, and a beard. A sense of enormous energy radiated about him, but his outgoing manner failed to mask a precarious sensitivity. We met at a mutual friend's apartment, a gathering place of young liberal intellectuals. To our surprise, we had the same vision of a truly South African theatre, and during our stormy relationship we developed a shared commitment to theatre and writing. About a year later, in September of 1956, we married.

My first encounter with Athol's work was when he showed me a page of dialogue. It was typewritten, with many scribbled corrections, and it conveyed a conversation between two white policemen in a small South African village. The dialogue was authentic: the men spoke haltingly, in the manner of rural Afrikaners who struggle with English. They commented on the stillness of the African night that was broken only by chirping crickets. Oddly, after all these years, the dialogue remains with me, the resonance of a man who, later in life, would move so many others with the power of his words. …

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