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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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.]
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
Place, 609-258-2787. Written and directed by Athol Fugard. To May
20. $22 to $36.
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