04 February, 2009
Athol Fugard is a South African playwright, novelist, actor, and director who writes in English, best known for his political plays opposing the South African system of apartheid and for the 2005 Academy-Award winning film of his novel Tsotsi, directed by Gavin Hood. He is an adjunct professor of playwriting, acting, and directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, San Diego. For academic year 2000–2001, he was the IU Class of 1963 Wells Scholar Professor at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. The recipient of many awards, honors, and honorary degrees, including the 2005 Order of Ikhamanga in Silver "for his excellent contribution and achievements in the theatre" from the government of South Africa, he is also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Athol Fugard was born as Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard, in Middelburg, Eastern Cape, South Africa, on 11 June 1932, to English and Afrikaner parents; his mother, Elizabeth Magdalena (née Potgieter), an Afrikaner, operated first a general store and then a lodging house; his father, Harold, was a disabled former jazz pianist of Irish, English and French Huguenot descent. In 1935, his family moved to Port Elizabeth. In 1938, he began attending primary school at Marist Brothers College, a private Catholic school founded by the Marist Brothers; after being awarded a scholarship, he enrolled at a local technical college for secondary education and then matriculated at the University of Cape Town, but he dropped out of the university in 1953, a few months before final examinations. He left home, hitchhiked to North Africa with a friend, and then spent the next two years working in the Far East on a steamer ship, the SS Graigaur," where he began writing, an experience "celebrated" in his 1999 autobiographical play The Captain's Tiger: A Memoir for the Stage.
In September 1956, he married Sheila Meiring, a University of Cape Town Drama School student whom he had met the previous year. Now known as Sheila Fugard, she is a novelist and poet, and the Fugards' daughter, Lisa Fugard, is also a novelist.
The Fugards moved to Johannesburg in 1958, where he worked as a clerk in a "Native Commissioners' Court," which "made him keenly aware of the injustices of apartheid." The political impetus of Fugard's plays brought him into conflict with the national government; in order to avoid prosecution, he would have his plays produced and published outside of South Africa.
He and his wife live in San Diego, California, where he teaches as an adjunct professor of playwriting, acting, and directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and maintain a residence in South Africa.
In 1958, Fugard organized "a multiracial theatre for which he wrote, directed, and acted," writing and producing several plays for it, including No-Good Friday (1958) and Nongogo (1959), in which he and his colleague black South African actor Zakes Mokae performed.
After returning to Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s, Athol and Sheila Fugard started The Circle Players, which derives its name from their influential production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht.
In 1961, in Johannesburg, Fugard and Mokae starred as the brothers Morris and Zachariah in the single-performance world première of Fugard's play The Blood Knot (revised and retitled Blood Knot in 1987).
In 1962, Fugard publicly supported the Anti-Apartheid Movement (1959–1994), an international boycott of South African theatres due to their segregated audiences, leading to government restrictions on him and surveillance of him and his theatre by the Secret Police, and leading him to have his plays published and produced outside of South Africa.
Lucille Lortel produced The Blood Knot at the Cricket Theatre, Off Broadway, in New York City, in 1964, "launch[ing]" Fugard's "American career."
In the 1960s, Fugard formed the Serpent Players, whose name derives from their first venue, the former snake pit at the zoo,"a group of black actors worker-players who earned their living as teachers, clerks, and industrial workers, and cannot thus be considered amateurs in the manner of leisured whites," developing and performing plays "under surveillance of the Security Police."
Their plays utilized minimalist sets and props improvised from whatever materials were available; often staged in black areas for a night, the cast would move on to the next venue, such as a dimly-lit church hall or community center, where the audience consisted of poor migrant labourers and the residents of hostels in the townships.
According to Kruger,
the Serpent Players used Brecht's elucidation of gestic acting, dis-illusion, and social critique, as well as their own experience of the satiric comic routines of urban African vaudeville, to explore the theatrical force of Brecht's techniques, as well as the immediate political relevance of a play about land distribution. Their work on the Caucasian Chalk Circle and, a year later, on Antigone led directly to the creation, in 1966, of what is still South Africa's most distinctive Lehrstück [learning play]: The Coat. Based on an incident at one of the many political trials involving the Serpent Players, The Coat dramatized the choices facing a woman whose husband, convicted of anti-apartheid political activity, left her only a coat and instructions to use it.
In The Coat, Kruger observes, "The participants were engaged not only in representing social relationships on stage but also on enacting and revising their own dealings with each other and with institutions of apartheid oppression from the law courts downward," and "this engagement testified to the real power of Brecht's apparently utopian plan to abolish the separation of player and audience and to make of each player a 'statesman' or social actor.... Work on The Coat led indirectly to the Serpent Players' most famous and most Brechtian productions, Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973)."
Fugard developed these two plays for the Serpent Players in workshops, working extensively with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, publishing them in 1974 with his own play Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (1972). The authorities considered the title of The Island, which alludes to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was being held, too controversial, so Fugard and the Serpent Players used the alternative title The Hodoshe Span (Hodoshe being slang for prison work gang).
These plays "evinced a Brecthian attention to the demonstration of gest and social situations and encouraged audiences to analyze rather than merely applaud the action"; for example, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, which "combined Brechtian critique and vaudevillian irony – especially in Kani's virtuoso improvisation – even provoked an African audience's critical interruption and interrogation of the action." While dramatizing frustrations in the lives of his audience members, the plays simultaneously drew them into the action and attempted to have them analyze the situations of the characters in Brechtian fashion, according to Kruger.
Blood Knot was filmed by the BBC Television in 1967, with Fugard's collaboration, starring the Jamaican actor, Charles Hyatt as Zachariah and Fugard himself as Morris, as in the original 1961 première in Johannesburg. Less pleased than Fugard, the South African government of B. J. Vorster confiscated Fugard's passport. Four years later, in 1971, partially as the result of international protest on his behalf, the South African travel restrictions against Fugard eased, allowing him to fly to England again, in order to direct Boesman and Lena.
Master Harold...and the Boys, written in 1982, incorporates "strong autobiographical matter"; nonetheless "it is fiction, not memoir," as Cousins: A Memoir and some of Fugard's other works are subtitled.
Fugard demonstrates that he opposes injustices committed by both the government and by its chief political opposition in his play My Children! My Africa!, which attacks the ANC for deciding to boycott African schools, based on recognition of the damage that boycott would cause a generation of African pupils.
His post-apartheid plays, such as Valley Song, The Captain's Tiger: A Memoir for the Stage and his latest play, Victory (2007), focus more on personal issues than on political issues.
Fugard's plays are produced internationally, have won multiple awards, and several have been made into films, including among their actors Fugard himself.
His film debut as a director occurred in 1992, when he co-directed the adaptation of his play The Road to Mecca with Peter Goldsmid, who also wrote the screenplay.
The film adaptation of his novel Tsotsi (Afrikaans for hoodlum), written and directed by Gavin Hood, won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.