Magazine article The American Prospect

Home and the World

Magazine article The American Prospect

Home and the World

Article excerpt

The two main characters in South African playwright Athol Fugard's classic chamber drama Boesman & Lena are a poor mixed-race couple. Their shanty has been razed by the "whiteman's bulldozers," leaving them to wander the dismal mudflats near Port Elizabeth, and as the play opens Boesman picks a spot for the night by silently dumping all his worldly goods on the ground. "Here?" asks needy, haggard Lena, who seems unsure just how she has arrived at this place--both geographically and emotionally. Later she demands to know why they've made such an effort to reach this dreary spot. "Why did we walk so hard? In a hurry to get here? `Here' ... What's here?"

Perhaps the most striking thing about the new movie version of Boesman & Lena is the way that her question has outlasted the sociopolitical context of the play's 1969 composition. Without altering Fugard's text in any substantial way, the late screenwriter and director John Berry (who died at age 82, when the movie was in the final stages of postproduction work) took a situation--slum clearance and its demoralizing aftermath--that once might have been understood chiefly in topical terms and whittled it back to its existential essence. But maybe this shift of emphasis isn't Berry's doing alone. If anything, it's time itself that has-brought about this change of focus and rendered Boesman Lena not a film about South African history per se, but a study of two almost broken souls desperate to convince themselves that they are in fact still alive.

Which is not, of course, to say that the movie, and the play itself, are not political in a more basic and possibly profound sense. Indeed, it would be harder to find two artists of more socially committed pedigree than Fugard and Berry. Born in New York, Berry was a former vaudeville actor, professional boxer, and member of Orson Welles's Mercury Theater whose time as a Hollywood director was cut short by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blacklisted in 1951, he refused to name names or recant and instead went into exile in Europe, where he continued to direct for both the stage and screen. (The closest most American moviegoers have probably come to Berry was the TV-ish Irwin Winkler movie about the blacklist, Guilty by Suspicion, which starred Robert De Niro as a watered-down stand-in for the director.)

Fugard, meanwhile, the son of an Afrikaner mother and a father of English stock, grew up in Port Elizabeth, among lower-middle-class whites whose bigotry he admits he shared as a child. His own passage into racial consciousness was gradual but mind-bending, and he made his first serious contribution to the theater and to South Africa when, in 1961, his play Blood Knot put a black and a white actor onstage together for the first time ever in that country's history. (The mixed nature of the audience was also revolutionary in its time and place.) Throughout the years that followed, Fugard's politically charged work was acclaimed abroad, often under Berry's direction, and censored at home: In 1967 his passport was confiscated, later he was placed under police surveillance, and so on. Yet Fugard felt compelled to remain in South Africa and struggle against the racist regime from within.

Berry directing in exile, Fugard writing at home: For these two men, the notion that "the personal is political" is not some touchy-feely slogan but an unavoidable fact of life--and art. And if Boesman & Lena seems, in its latest, cinematic incarnation, to take place on a nearly abstract plane, it is searing nonetheless, a testimony to its creators' deep understanding of the intricate mechanisms of power and domination.

Fugard has written that it is his life's work "to witness ... as truthfully as [I] can the nameless and destitute of [my] one little corner of the world." Elsewhere, he has declared himself proudly a "Regional Writer" (as opposed to that "most irksome [label] `political playwright'"), a description that may make his agenda sound deceptively provincial--though it helps, while considering his relationship to the world at large, to remember Lena and her nagging question, "`Here? …

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