Playwrights > Athol Fugard discussion

about Fugard


Iain Fisher:
From the archive, a good article on Fugard in The Independent 20 March 2002:

"The playwright Athol Fugard furiously pounds the smooth black surface of the South African stinkwood table that is one of the props in his new play, Sorrows and Rejoicings, which opens tonight at the Tricycle Theatre in North London. But he's not talking about the play. The fire in his eye, the body language and the resonance of his voice are directed at the government of Thabo Mbeki.

"Just look at the whole issue of Aids." Bang on the table. "Look at South Africa patting Mugabe on the back." Bang. "I find myself profoundly ashamed as a South African of my government – something I never believed I would feel again.

"Hell, man, we have to have the courage to stand up and start criticising our government; to stop thinking that it is an act of betrayal to criticise the new South Africa. We have to get past that, grow up and mature. And the government has also got to grow up and realise that it must take responsibility for the situation we are in and not always blame everything on the past."

He may be 70 in June, but the playwright is still burning with passion – about life, about justice and equality, about his writing, and about the stinkwood table he is currently lugging with him around the world. It has already been flown from Cape Town to New York before coming to London. "Hell, man, it's earned more frequent-flyer miles than I have recently," he says, his small face breaking into an almost childish grin, while his fingers roam constantly over the black hardwood.

When his slightly shaky hand spills some coffee on it, he urgently wipes up the mess – with his hat. His speech is peppered with heavily accented exclamations – "Hell, man," "Wow!"and "My God!" – and if you couldn't see the true fervour in his eyes, you might dismiss some of his comments as sentimental ornaments of speech. Thus when I ask him why the table is so important to him, he answers: "For the South African cast, this table on stage is like having the soul of the country with us". There is no mistaking the intensity of his belief. This is from the heart. He really means it.

...Fugard has previously been securely glued to South Africa, even when persecuted by the apartheid regime. He refused to take the "exit visa option" and go into exile. He used to say that he could not write away from the streets of Port Elizabeth and the stark landscape of his beloved Eastern Cape. And yet he now lives for half the year in southern California, and this play was actually written in the US, the first to be penned abroad.

Fugard was born in 1932 in Middelburg, a small town in the semi-desert area of the Cape known as the Karoo. It's not very far from the town of New Bethesda, where he still has a home and where he has set some of his plays, including the new one. He attended the University of Cape Town for a while, but dropped out, determined to become a writer. He hitchhiked up through Africa to Europe, where he joined the crew of British tramp steamer and sailed the world for a year or two.

That's when he started writing a profound novel based on his mother's life. But one night, drunk, homesick and depressed, he threw the manuscript overboard into a lagoon in Fiji. "I realised that what I had written was a load of rubbish," he told me.

...The very strong women who appear in many of his plays are all versions of his mother, or at least contain her spirit. His father, on the other hand, was a weak and rather dissolute character, a hotel-lounge jazz pianist who was also "a cripple and an alcoholic" and never the father Fugard wanted him to be. "But my father did give me this extraordinary instrument called the English language, and my God, you can't get a better gift as a playwright."

..."The trouble is, I remain as passionate about the business of writing plays as I was 40 years ago. It's a love affair that has never palled, but has just got hotter and more passionate as the years have passed."



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