Thursday, August 02, 2012

Treasuring Playwright Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard ca. age 60; Now 80, "more adventurous than ever"

An interview with playwright Athol Fugard, aired today on public radio's "Tell Me More,"  reminded me: this guy is my favorite playwright, bar none!   How could I have forgotten?

The easy answer is, as the world's most effective witness to the personal effects of South Africa's white supremacist apartheid laws on blacks and whites alike, Fugard receded in our consciousness when Nelson Mandela went from prison to the presidency.  I don't remember the details of what I read or saw back in the 80s -- Boesman and Lena, Statements..., My Children! My Africa!, A Lesson from Aloes -- and I can't recall when I've had an opportunity to see a play of his since the early 90s.

But the value of his best plays depends no more on events at the time of their composition than does Lincoln's rhetoric or King Lear.

In fact, it was as if I had the privilege of acting a new Shakespeare play when I first read through Fugard's two-character play Blood Knot.   It was at Duke back in 1981, and my fellow drama major Brad had asked me to learn the part of the white-skinned brother.  He said little as I read that part aloud, side-by-side with the charismatic black actor Erik who was to play the dark-skinned brother.    Never leaving the little hut they share, passing only the time it takes to perform the piece, talking only to each other, they take the audience to different places and times.   Fugard's characters role-play to make memories come alive.   The brothers recreate their boyhood fantasy of an adventure in a car early the play; the play reaches a violent climax when the white-skinned brother fantasizes of "passing" for true white, lording his power over a black beggar -- his brother.    So much art in the composition somehow felt like real life, intensified by compression.  That's poetry!

I read other scripts and his notebooks, too, to learn how he did it.  His ideal, he wrote, is to achieve a unity of meaning and action. As any good realistic playwright would do, he embeds memories in dialogue early in the play.  By the end, the characters have enacted some new, more powerful version of past events.  Memory and action reinforce each other and resonate with subtext.

I do recall two of Fugard's other plays in more detail.   First, there was the autobiographical Master Harold and the Boys, which starred Matthew Broderick on Broadway with the two original South African stars, and won Tonies all around.  He wrote it to expiate deep-seated guilt and shame, Fugard writes in a preface to the published script.  The "boys" are the grown men who worked for his mother.  The older man was like a father to him, Fugard's own father being an alcoholic, absent and ineffective much of the time.  But the white boy one day took offense and pulled racial rank on the older man, who left in anger.   (The next part is painful to recall, even for me.)  Fugard took after him on his bicycle, and, when the man turned his face towards him, a face expressing relief and forgiveness and love, the boy spat and rode on.  In the play, the incident is re-cast in a way that makes it even more painful to watch.

After a performance of The Road to Mecca by the wonderful Alabama Shakespeare Festival company, I thought that was the best of all his plays, and maybe the best play I'd ever seen.  Unfortunately, the memory has faded.  It concerned, not race, but age.  An elderly woman, living alone, showing signs of dementia, is pressured by well-meaning friends and uncharitable neighbors to leave her home and to cease and desist in filling her yard with idiosyncratic pieces of metal sculpture that she creates -- figures of her imagined "road to Mecca."  We never have to see her artwork to imagine it.   There is an incident that takes the choice out of her hands, involving an accidental fire. I've forgotten the details.  But I remember how she lit dozens of candles on wall sconces (more of her handiwork) that burned as the theatre's lights came down, and how Fugard's words made us understand that we were seeing the house as an image for her body, and the light as an image of her soul.   It worked, and it took our breath away.

Note to self:  Don't forget Fugard, and look for chances to see his work.  I hear that there's a cycle of his plays on display this month in New York at the Signature Theatre. 

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