Corrections or additions?

This article by critic Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

May 2, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Fugard’s Artful Journey

Athol Fugard has been called "the conscience of

South Africa," but he prefers to call himself "a harmless

old liberal fossil."

Regardless of which is truer, Fugard’s art has been so passionately

motivated by the history and the turbulence of South Africa under

apartheid that one is prompted to wonder what new pockets of unrest

and social turmoil will next inspire the internationally renowned

69-year-old playwright. While theaters around the world continue to

produce the most popular works in the Fugard canon, which include

"Blood Knot," "A Lesson in Aloes," "Master


the Boys," "The Road to Mecca," and "My Children!

My Africa," and eagerly await each new play, it is the McCarter

Theater that has served as a welcoming "home" to Fugard since

1994 (the year apartheid was abolished) when he came here to directed

an early work, "Hello and Goodbye."

Fugard has deepened his relationship with McCarter Theater, and in

particular with Emily Mann, its artistic director, who has been


receptive to nurturing and producing his more recent plays, including

the lyrical "Valley Song" (1995), the biographical "The

Captain’s Tiger"(1998), and now the world premiere of "Sorrows

and Rejoicings." Following the McCarter debut, Fugard will direct

the play in Capetown, South Africa.

"Nothing tests a new play more than that first rehearsal period.

That is when you either know you’ve got something that works or know

it doesn’t," says Fugard candidly at the start of our phone


following an early rehearsal. And unless he was just revving himself

up for our chat, he gave every indication, particularly by the way

words just seemed to start tumbling out, that he was exhilarated by

the rehearsal.

He was, after all, surrounded by his extended family. Fugard continues

a 20-year collaboration with the play’s co-director Susan Hilferty

(who is also serving as set and costume designer). This production

also marks Fugard’s 15th year collaborating with lighting designer

Dennis Parichy.

But more than the reuniting of long-time collaborators, Fugard is

anxious to give credit to his cast for opening up the play. Besides

Tony Award-winner L. Scott Caldwell ("Joe Turner’s Come and


the production reunites two other Tony Award-winners Blair Brown (for

"Copenhagen") and John Glover (for "Love! Valour!


who first worked together 20 years ago in the American premiere of

David Hare’s "Plenty." Fugard is particularly enthusiastic

about the play’s other cast member: South Orange, New Jersey, born

and raised Marcy Harriell (who played Mimi in "Rent" on


"Look at that cast we have. I now believe it is going to work

on stage," says the playwright, who should, at this point in his

career, have little doubt that his plays can be counted on to not

only reflect his country’s changing history but also to reveal his

own continuing artistic growth. Fugard has set the play in the


Karoo region of South Africa, his beloved birthplace.

In "Sorrows and Rejoicings," (which I had just finished


before our chat) an important character, David Olivier (pronounced

"Dahvid Olifeer" in Afrikaans), a political activist writer

and poet, is dead when the play begins. Compelled to leave South


and the black woman he loves, David had gone into exile when his


were banned and he was threatened with jail. When his self-imposed

exile to England did not give him the freedom he was seeking, his

life and his life’s work began to disintegrate. At his death 18 years

later, his body is returned home for burial.

The play focuses on the uneasy meeting at David’s family home of


(Brown), David’s white British wife, and Marta (Caldwell), the black

woman who was his lover and the family servant. Also present at the

family home is Rebecca (Harriell), David and Marta’s bitter and


18-year-old daughter, as well as David’s returning spirit.

Because Fugard responded to my first question so


I decided that it was best not to interrupt him. His zeal was such

that each thought seemed to connect to the next without much


I suspect that his stream of relevant and revelatory consciousness

will, nevertheless, provide some eloquent answers to questions that

I never got to ask. Some of my questions were, in fact, added after

the fact for clarity.

Saltzman: Are there parallels between what happened to

you and the events in the play, or did you draw more upon what you

saw happening to others?

Fugard: During those early tumultuous years when the Afrikaner

(a South African of Dutch descent) and Nationalist government came

into power and the system of apartheid began to emerge from their

legislation, they piled one evil brick on top of another. Important

choices had to be made. They targeted those of us — intellectuals

and artists — who found ourselves the dissident voices within

the society.

At that point in time, the early ’80s, violent resistance to apartheid

had not yet started. Even though I was always a loner and never


myself to a political party, I was harassed with midnight searches,

heard that my play had been banned, or discovered that my telephone

had been tapped. Others who were more politically committed were


to house arrests and detentions without trials, and in many cases


Many of my writer friends became artistically impotent once they had

been silenced in that way. What kind of a contribution to the struggle

is that: to sit in your comfortable white suburban home watching


from the play) "the world around you go up in flames." A lot

of them made the choice to leave the country with a one-way exit


(an alternative that the government offered). It was a way for the

government to purge the society of troublesome elements. In exile,

they dried up creatively. Two of my friends went on to commit suicide.

I am writing from something I witnessed. As with most things I graft

aspects of myself onto one if not all of the characters. In the case

of David, there are aspects of myself, that passionate love of the

Karoo, that passionate sense of being an Afrikaaner.

Saltzman: How would you describe "Sorrows and


Fugard: The title tells exactly what my play is about. It comes

from Ovid’s Latin book of poems "Sorrows," which he wrote

during exile. It is both a sorrowing for the pain of my country and

the Rejoicings of what it is becoming. Even in the darkest years of

apartheid, I could never hand myself over to total despair. The


particularly the real victims — the black, the brown, the Indians

— were inspirational. With all that the government tried, they

never broke the spirit of the people. I hope that audiences will see

a celebration of life in each of the characters in the play.

In my play, the last memory Marta has of David is of this young poet

in full flight who has just created a poem by putting together the

names of the dispossessed colored people. The amazing thing is that

the house, just like what has happened in my country, now belongs

to Rebecca, who must decide whether to stay and maintain it or sell


Selling out to corruption is the challenge that South Africa faces

now. It is frightening and bewildering the degree of corruption that

is there at the moment. It is, in a sense, a betrayal of our struggle

to free the country and make it the kind of fledging democracy that

it is. But people know that what we have won and achieved, and in

Rebecca’s case the house, has to be looked after. You don’t throw

away the best of the past. If you can rescue the good from the past,

use it to help build the future.

Saltzman: Do you feel you have exhausted the issues of

apartheid in your plays?

Fugard: I thought I had until this play came along. After we

had our elections, I wrote my play about transition, "Valley


Then I thought my writing was going to start a journey into myself,

become more introspective, as with "The Captain’s Tiger."

Out of left field the play we are doing now just hit me, because I

was already involved in writing another play that was very personal

to me. This may surprise you, but it was about the 12th-century German

saint, mystic, and composer Hildegard of Bingen. I already had the

first draft of that play that Emily [Mann] was set to produce. But

then, wham, all those images were in my head of my friends, now


who went into exile and died. They were now suddenly there as


and Rejoicings" with the support of Emily Mann. Because Emily

is a fellow playwright, she has an understanding of the dilemma of

the writer with his play. I just go along minding my own business

and suddenly these plays find me. I’m not an angry man anymore,


I don’t claim to be a wise old man.

My work over the years has become sparer, simpler. My early plays

were all full of the excesses of a young writer. Now I have a much

more controlled use of language, although I still can’t resist having

my arias at times. Every character in "Sorrows and Rejoicings"

has a chance to hold the stage with an aria.

Saltzman: Is there a debit side to the new South Africa

as it tries to sort itself out?

Fugard: Yes there is a debit side. But on the credit side is

the way young South Africans of all colors are coming together to

make the vision a living reality. There are some old diehards from

the past who refuse to recognize that the world has changed. There

is a lot of anger and resentment left over from the years of


In South Africa, a lot of people want to run away from anything that

resembles reality, to just sit back and watch Noel Coward. Theater

is one of the ways in which society deals with its pain, its


Theater and all the arts, however, played a major role in the fight

against apartheid.

Saltzman: What is your reaction to the recent incidence of black

mobs attacking white-owned farms?

Fugard: The murders of farmers have more to do with social and

economic causes and are not motivated by race. Due to the high crime

rate, we have not had money flowing into the country in terms of


to generate jobs to feed the people. Poverty in the new South Africa,

housing, and unemployment is as big a problem as it was in the old

South Africa.

The economy is really just limping along. We are locked right now

in a very important court battle between the government and the drug

companies. We cannot afford to pay the prices that the drug companies

are charging. We want to import generics made in other countries,

but are told that it would be violating copyrights. [Last week 39

big drug companies bowed to public pressure and dropped their legal

efforts to keep South Africa from importing copycat versions of


AIDS medicines that Third World governments have been buying at a

fraction of the cost of named brands.]

Gone are the days when this "harmless old liberal


will see a play of his yanked off the stage in South Africa, or have

his passport withdrawn. Currently a resident of Southern California,

and a visiting faculty member at the University of California, San

Diego, Fugard says he feels very much at "home" at McCarter,

his home away from home.

He concludes: "On the threshold of my 70th year, here I am with

a new play coming together in a rehearsal room. Oh, my gosh, I never

thought I’d get this far."

I conclude: Fugard has only just begun the next leg of his artistic

journey: one that he himself has called "the start of a


process." How wonderful it is for us to be a part of this journey.

— Simon Saltzman

Sorrows and Rejoicings, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-258-2787. Written and directed by Athol Fugard. To May

20. $22 to $36.

Previous Story Next Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments