Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Crossing Boundaries: The Genesis of the Township Plays

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Crossing Boundaries: The Genesis of the Township Plays

Article excerpt

On 18 June 1954, the Port Elizabeth Evening Post published an article by an unknown young local freelance writer recently returned from working his way around the world on a tramp steamer. The article, entitled "Drama of P.E.'s Night School For Adults," attempted to explain to its white South African readers why "four nights a week, month after month and year after year, over 500 African men and women of all ages attend the night school in New Brighton," the black township on the outskirts of the city.

To engage the Post's readers with a subject they obviously knew nothing about, the writer simply and effectively dramatized the stories of some of these men and women of New Brighton, in particular, "Philip" and "Lena." For men like Philip, learning to read and write meant keeping out of trouble, for instance by being able to read notices like "Europeans Only." It also meant some alleviation of the bewilderment and loneliness of urban life, for instance through enabling him to write letters home to his parents "in the kraal." For women like Lena, worried about having brought her children into "a world of suffering," learning to read enabled her to share their "budding learning," as well as to "buy an occasional tin of something special because she can follow the directions on the side."

The author of this small attempt to convey something of the lives and everyday experiences of his fellow South Africans across the boundaries of race, class, and gender was the twenty-two-year-old Athol Fugard. It sounds patronizing today, but the article demonstrates how, from his earliest published writings, Fugard was concerned to acknowledge the lives, indeed the very existence, of those of his compatriots excluded in one way or another from the centers of privilege and power in his society.

Although this concern led him to go on and testify to the experiences of lost and discarded whites from Hester and Johnny (in Hello and Goodbye) to Gideon Le Roux (in Playland), it has also involved "bearing witness" to the experiences of black people, from the correspondence student Willie Seopelo (in No-Good Friday) to the rural migrant Sizwe dictating a letter home (in Sizwe Bansi Is Dead), to--how prophetic the name of her New Brighton predecessor--the desperate Lena (in Boesman and Lena), stripped even of the consolations of motherhood and belonging in the township.

As I have suggested elsewhere ("Resituating"), the idea of "bearing witness," which Fugard has used to describe his motivation since 1968, and which has subsequently been echoed by many critics (myself included) to legitimate his work, should not be accepted without question. Certainly it seems an appropriate idea to invoke as a humanist version of the familiar Christian notion of offering oneself as testimony to the truth of what has been seen or experienced in extreme situations. The writer "as witness" is a type who "increasingly appears in the annals of twentieth-century literature," representing the writer's "solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the under-privileged" (Heaney xvi). But who really should bear witness in situations of degradation, suffering, even death? Shouldn't the victims speak for themselves? And if they cannot, who can legitimately speak for them? In other words, whose voices are heard, whose have been silenced? And how does the passage of time change the answers to these questions?

The passage of time in South Africa since Fugard first began his career has now at last produced the sound of many voices, previously silenced, belittled, or degraded, demanding to be heard, as ANC exile Barbara Masekela remarked in a historic speech delivered in Grahamstown shortly after her return to the country in 1990. Indeed, a battle is going on for space at the center of a culture for so long dominated by the white minority. Masekela attacked English speakers for having been "the most exclusive and resistant to genuine national influences," and the associated "cultural elite, those who work in financed cultural institutions, who have fax machines, telephones for instant interviews and time and resources to create," for enjoying "a disproportionate access to national and international media," where "their voice is often assumed to be our voice, simply because it is the only one anyone has heard. …

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