The Embodied Images of Athol Fugard

By Weales, Gerald | Hollins Critic, February 1978 | Go to article overview

The Embodied Images of Athol Fugard


Weales, Gerald, Hollins Critic


I begin with an image. A slight man, ludicrously disguised in a large hat and a false moustache, slipping across a forbidden border, bearing contraband. The figure' is compounded of my own imagination, muddied by pop-culture sterotypes, and a half-remembered account given to me by Jack Cope, the South African writer and editor, who visited this country in the 1960s at about the time the American production of The Blood Knot first kindled my interest in Athol Fugard. Whether or not this conjuration has any factual connection with Fugard I do not know, but it feels right-as Fugard said of Johnnie's assuming his father's crutches at the end of Hello and Goodbye. Since the late 1950s, Fugard has defied convention and circumvented restrictions, legal and spiritual, to work with theater groups in non-white areas in several South African cities. The most celebrated and most persistent of these groups is the Serpent Players, which was started in 1963 in New Brighton, an African township in Fugard's home city, Port Elizabeth. The contraband, of course, is art.

Too heroic, Fugard would probably say, measuring the distance between his choices as a white South African and the arena of no-choice in which his black colleagues live as well as perform. "Nothing is as honest as doing," he wrote in the introduction to the American edition of The Blood Knot (1964), making a point about Zach's life before it was sicklied o'er with the pale cast of Morris's thought; wrenched from its context, the phrase might serve as an explanation of Fugard's commitment to acting, in the general as well as the theatrical sense of that word. "Athol is the white man who is not complacent and not fat and happy," John Kani, one of the creators of Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island, told the New York Times (October 28, 1976). If Fugard were only a theatrical activist in a country in which any kind of activism is suspect, if he were only Kani's metaphorical white man turned inside out--skinny, unhappy, concerned--he would be admirable, a fit subject for a cultural-political reporter, but I would probably not be writing about him in the pages of The Hollins Critic. In the Times interview, Kani tried to identify the line between Fugard and his black friends. "Our suffering is the essence of our life," Kani said. "His sympathy is nothing else but an extension of the imagination." Rescued from the limiting "nothing else" of that sentence, Fugard's imagination can be appreciated as the begetter not only of sympathy but of a body of plays which mark him as one of the two African playwrights--Wole Soyinka is the other--with an undeniable claim to a place among major world dramatists.

My fanciful entrance into a critical essay is not simply an attempt to establish some sense of Athol Fugard, but an approximation of his method. Image is the word that crops up most frequently in his comments on his own plays. "The starting-point to our work was always at least an image, sometimes an already structured complex of images about which I, as a writer, was obsessional," he says in the introduction to Statements, an essay on the Serpent Players' experiments with improvisation and group-created drama. The same kind of generative image was a necessary beginning for those Fugard plays written in the traditional way--the artist working alone. This is obvious in the memory of "the local street-corner derelict" which he worries in his notebooks, quoted in the introduction to Three Port Elizabeth Plays, as the image turns into Johnnie in Hello and Goodbye. "The complex of central images survives the frequent assault of my doubts about validity, significance, etc.," he says in a 1968 notebook entry on Boesman and Lena, but, "I do not yet have any image of her 'choice.'" With rare exceptions, the initial image is not the final theatrical image, and when it is--Sizwe Bansi posing with a pipe in one hand, a cigarette in the other--it has made its peace with theme and idea, discovered its history, learned to walk and talk and display "those warm substantialities" that Fugard mentions in the interview with Don MacLennan (1969), published as introduction to The Coat. …

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