Tag Archives: Blood Knot

“Something New” from Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard at the Fountain Theatre, Sept 2012

by Chris Thurman

The last time I met Athol Fugard, he was following a technical rehearsal of The Bird Watchers – his thirty-fourth play. Sitting in the auditorium of the Cape Town theatre that carries his name, Fugard leaned over and told me in an almost-conspiratorial whisper: “I’m working on something new.” The playwright’s eyes sparkled as he showed me a typescript of The Blue Iris. That script is now a performed reality (the US Premiere just concluded its run at the Fountain Theatre on September 16th).
Athol Fugard, who is based in San Diego, has returned to South Africa to take up a three-month residency in Stellenbosch and – you guessed it – he’s working on something new.

This time, we’re talking on the phone, but that same excitement is discernible in Fugard’s voice as he describes his “first attempt at Afrikaans theatre”. This may be surprising to many; after all, the work of this self-designated “half-English, half-Afrikaans bastard” (he grew up in a bilingual household) is peppered with Afrikaans phrases, characters and settings. His play texts have also been translated into Afrikaans, most recently The Captain’s Tiger/Die Kaptein se Tier by Antjie Krog. But Fugard himself has never penned an exclusively Afrikaans play, and he’s clearly eager to take up the challenge.

What is it, I wonder, that drives this restless creativity? What is the imperative that keeps an 80-year-old writing “compulsively”? In the past, Fugard has emphasised the feeling of both obligation and delight that accompanies his discovery or invention of characters and their stories: “Everything I have written is an attempt to share their secrets.” But watching The Blue Iris, I thought I discerned a darker (perhaps even desperate) impulse behind the author’s prolificacy.

Fugard outside the Fountain Theatre, Sept 2012.

The play is a different kind of “first”. Fugard’s work bears evidence of a range of influences, from Beckett to Camus – but, he tells me, “Before Blue Iris I had never written a play directly in response to a particular piece of writing.” The writer in question is Thomas Hardy, who is best known as a novelist but who turned away from fiction towards the end of his career and produced a series of poems that Fugard considers “among the finest in the English language”. Hardy wrote them after the death of his wife, Emma, from whom he had become estranged (he subsequently married his secretary): they express grief, regret and longing for an irrecoverable past, ultimately paying tribute to the relationship.

The Blue Iris is, in turn, a tribute to Hardy’s poems – an encomium in which that curious love triangle takes on a South African incarnation, in the Karoo landscape so closely associated with Fugard. We find Robert Hannay and his sometime housekeeper, Rieta Plaasman, camping outside the ruins of a farmhouse that Robert had built for his young English bride, Sally. It stood for decades until, one night, it was consumed by fire after a lightning strike. Sally died shortly afterwards, but her spirit haunts the place; Rieta has stayed with Robert during his unsuccessful attempt to recover items lost in the fire, hoping to exorcise Sally’s ghost.

Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris” (Fountain, 2012)

In the opening dialogue, Robert admits to Rieta that his recuperative efforts remind him of an old story about “some arme ou skepsel who, as punishment for something bad, is made to push a big rock all the way up to the top of a koppie. But just when he gets there, he slips, the rock rolls back down the hill, and he has to start all over again. And so it goes, on and on…” This is, of course, the tale of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to an eternity of futile labor – a likely comparison, particularly given the prevalence of ancient Greek myth in Fugard’s oeuvre.

Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris” (Fountain Theatre, 2012)

Yet the allusion is given a different resonance as, during the course of the play, we learn that Sally was a talented artist. She spent years painting the flowers of the Karoo, partly out of a wish to locate herself within a landscape to which she felt foreign and partly to reconcile with Robert, from whom she had grown distant as the strain of farming under conditions of drought took its toll. The blue iris – the ‘bloutulp’, Moraea polystachya – was her first subject: a beautiful but poisonous plant, surviving the harshest conditions but deadly to animals. The painting was the centrepiece of her collection, but we hear Sally’s ghost shriek, at the climax of the action, “I didn’t get it right!”

I put it to Fugard: does this aspect of The Blue Iris reflect his own frustration as an artist? Is the relentless desire to create new plays, to write new stories, a Sisyphean curse? “That’s a fair interpretation,” he replies. “When I look back on my earlier stuff, there is always a sense of ‘If only I’d known then what I know now…’ And yes, I think I am more critical of my own work than anyone else.”

He notes that, along with The Captain’s Tiger (1997) and The Bird Watchers (2011), Master Harold … and the Boys (1982) makes up a trio of “portraits of the writer – from arrogant little schoolboy to adolescent ambition and finally a playwright wrestling with the material of his own life. They all have the same concern: what does it mean to be a writer?”

Fugard at the Fountain Theatre

I ask Fugard what he makes of the other ways in which his plays have been grouped together. Some critics have noted, for instance, that The Blue Iris continues a pattern established in Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001) and Victory (2007), in which much of the dramatic tension stems from the age and race of the main protagonists: an older white man and a younger coloured woman.

“Any writer,” Fugard concurs, “has only a handful of themes. You don’t invent a theme every time you write a play.” We talk about the conscious echoes in Blue Iris of earlier plays, such as Boesman and Lena (1969) – the trope of homelessness is underscored when Rieta complains, “We are living out here like people in one of those plakker kampe outside PE” – and A Lesson From Aloes (1978), in which a character affirms that studying Karoo flora “makes me feel that little bit more at home in my world”.

Indeed, Fugard takes the idea of “categorising” his plays even further. “Look at Blood Knot (1961), Boesman and Lena and Hello and Goodbye (1965), which together examine the primary relationships in a family: between siblings, between spouses, between children and parents. I didn’t set out consciously to do that, but it happened.” And, of course, there is Fugard’s “sustained romance with the opposite sex – in my work, I mean. Blood Knot is the only one of my plays in which the dominant, most powerful presence is not a central female character.”

This is certainly true of Boesman and Lena, which has been ‘updated’ by director James Ngcobo for a current staging at the Baxter Theatre. Fugard says he’d like to go and watch the show “with a disguise on”, just to see how it has been revised. “My plays are like my children – they must make their own way in the world.”

Chris Thurman is Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg (South Africa); a freelance arts journalist, academic and editor. 

‘Blue Iris’ Playwright Athol Fugard: Wisdom at 80

Athol Fugard

South African playwright, actor and director Athol Fugard describes the time Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 as “a period of euphoria that was the most extraordinary experience of my life.”

He says he was also convinced he would be the country’s “first literary redundancy.”

“My life had been defined by the apartheid years,” he says. “Now we were going into an era of democracy … and I believed that I didn’t really have a function as a useful artist in that anymore.”

But as President Mandela gave way to Thabo Mbeki and later Jacob Zuma, Fugard’s disappointment set in, and it did not take him long to realize his voice was still needed. He says he isn’t sure his comments will be welcomed though, “because amongst armchair liberals, the notion that South Africa is now a happy democracy and that Nelson Mandela did it all, is very widespread.”

On his plays:

Continuing its 12-year relationship with Athol FugardThe Fountain Theatre celebrates the master playwright’s 80th birthday with the U.S. premiere of his newest play. Directed by Stephen Sachs and starring Morlan Higgins, Julanne Chidi Hill and Jacqueline SchultzThe Blue Iris opens at the Fountain on August 24.

“The Blue Iris” (US Premiere, 2012, Fountain Theatre)

The Blue Iris is set in Fugard’s beloved and desolate South African desert, the Karoo. In a burnt-out farmhouse, a widowed farmer, Robert Hannay (Higgins) and his housekeeper, Rieta (Hill) sort through the fire-ravaged debris of their lives. The discovery of a miraculously undamaged painting of a flower – a blue iris – created by Hannay’s deceased wife (Schultz) unlocks long-forgotten memories and hidden secrets. Fugard digs deep into the human heart, and the result is a love story full of tender, soul-touching and surprising revelations.

Fugard started writing plays in his mid-20s, and this year, five decades later, at least six are being performed in the U.S. and U.K. He says he’s surprised to see there’s still so much interest in his work.

Described by Time magazine as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” Athol Fugard celebrated his 80th birthday on June 11, but the prolific writer shows no signs of slowing down.

“The Train Driver” (US Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2010)

This year, the Signature Theatre in New York is hosting Fugard as its first international residency playwright and showing three plays from various periods of his career. He says it’s given him a chance to look back over the 50 years that span the writing of the first play he directed, Blood Knot, and the last play he says he will direct, The Train Driver, which had its US Premiere at the Fountain in 2010 and just opened in NY Aug. 14.

Fugard describes the two plays as “the bookends of an arc that essentially defines myself as a playwright,” though he assures his fans this does not mean he’s stopped writing.

On the people who shaped him:

As a child, Fugard says that “society was trying to make me conform to a set of very rigid, racist ideas,” and he credits his mother for making him challenge them. He says she was “endowed with a natural sense of justice and decency” and was “a simple Afrikaans woman (who) gave me my soul.” He thanks her for prompting him to “break the conditioning that was taking place on school playgrounds, in classrooms, everywhere.”

He describes his father as “a gentle man and a very beautiful man,” and also, like himself for a period of time, an alcoholic. This family dynamic shaped his plays.

“You’ll see that the strong, the affirmative, the positive voice in any of the plays I’ve written is that of a woman,” he says. “My men are, well not quite worthless, but they are certainly weak, and that reflects the reality I grew up with and what I think has in a sense shaped me.”

Athol Fugard (center) with actors John Kani (left) and Winston Ntshona at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1973.

On working with a multiracial theater group:

In the 1950s, when so much of South African life was regulated to keep the races separate, Fugard worked with a multiracial group of actors.

“It was foolhardy and we paid prices, but it was a gesture of defiance,” he says.

He learned enough about the laws to work out situations that would allow him to work with his black colleagues.

“It raised a very, very serious issue of conscience,” he explains as he acknowledges that his punishments were relatively minor compared to what those colleagues would eventually endure at Robben Island with Mandela.

On racial prejudice:

As an observer from outside looking at the American scene, Fugard says he believes that racial prejudice and profiling is flourishing, and that underlying all the opposition that President Obama is encountering is actually “the problem is that there’s a black man in the White House.”

He says South Africa has also not overcome its apartheid legacy, and explains that the real intention of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up after the end of the apartheid regime, was not achieved.

“You can’t legislate into existence an act of forgiveness and a true confession, those are mysteries of the human heart and they occur between one individual and another individual, not a panel of judges sitting asking questions, trying to test your truth,” he says.

 On wisdom at 80:

When asked what wisdom he would like to impart to listeners, Fugard directed his comments to fellow 80-year-olds. He says “it’s supposed to be the age when you stop, but that is such nonsense. … I have a greater sense of adventure at this moment in my life than I ever had in the past.

“There are most probably five or six more years left in my case, but I’m going to live them up to the hilt.”

And does that mean he’ll keep writing? Of course.

“The act of witnessing is important to me, somebody’s got to tell the truth, you know what I mean?” he says.

The Blue Iris   Aug 24 – Sept 16  (323) 663-1525  More Info  Buy Tickets

Happy Birthday to our dear friend, Athol Fugard!

by Theresa Smith

Playwright Athol Fugard

TO CELEBRATE his 80th birthday on Monday, June 11th, , much lauded South African playwright Athol Fugard wants nothing more than a family braai.

Speaking on the weekend by telephone from San Diego, California where he lives with his wife, poet Sheila Fugard, close to their novelist daughter Lisa Fugard, he said he wanted a quiet occasion. This is a far cry from the 80th birthday he imagined for himself thirty years ago when he plotted a birthday party to which he’d invite all the characters in his plays.

“When I was 50 years old there was a manageable gang of people,” he joked. To date he has written more than 20 plays, four film scripts, two memoirs and two books and received awards and nominations including the Tony, Obie, Evening Standard, Drama Desk, and Audie Awards.

US premiere of  Fugard’s “The Train Driver” (Fountain Theatre, 2010) starring Adolphus Ward and Morlan Higgins.

He was honoured with the 2005 South African Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his “excellent contribution and achievement in theatre” and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He scoffs at descriptions such as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world” saying it is the worst possible thing to call a writer. “I’m always trying to make people write and think and feel and use their hearts,” he said, describing his life’s work.

Fugard has never considered retiring, writing it is simply what he does.

“I have a great abiding passion for theatre, it’s consumed my whole life. I’m as passionate about theatre as I talk to you now as I was 50 years ago.” Born in Port Elizabeth in 1932, Fugard studied Philosophy and Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town in 1952, but dropped out in 1953 to hitchhike around North Africa and then travel around east Asia in a steamer ship.

“Exits and Entrances” (World Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2004) starring Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley

His writing has ranged from stories about specific people to protest theatre, but he has always draws inspiration from real South Africans. He helped to form the Serpent Players in Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s specifically because he was asked to use his voice by black residents of New Brighton: “In working with them I realised that they didn’t want to do plays for entertainment, they wanted to do plays because they were suffocating with silence. The silence in the country was awful.”

“It was with Blood Knot that I discovered my own voice and I knew that I could tell certain stories in a way that nobody else could do it. Once a writer has discovered that, there’s no holding them back.”

It was the 1967 BBC TV production of Blood Knot that led to the confiscation of Fugard’s passport and partially due to international protest on his behalf this was lifted in 1971 when he flew to England to direct Boesman and Lena. The bulk his work since then was performed outside of South Africa, but his post-apartheid work has seen him return home more frequently.

While he spends a great deal of time not living in this country he still regards it as his spiritual home. He has just returned to San Diego after several months in Cape Town working on his latest play, The Blue Iris, which will debut at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown later this month and then return to The Fugard Theatre. Fugard describes himself as deeply incensed by the recent controversy surround Bret Murray’s The Spear painting.

“What really worries me is that I don’t think people recognise it for what it was. They know it was a big controversy for the day, but it’s past. We are going to look back on the moment as a warning that we were given about the future we’re going into if we don’t do something radical.

“We have to realise that we have a government in power that is prepared to assault our most cherished freedom. They’re trying to do it to the arts and to the media. The bully tactics they used, the whole demonstration of brute force that they displayed, that they [government] were going to shut them [Goodman Gallery] down regardless of what… that you will not use your voice, you will not speak up, you will not speak out. That moment, we will look back on and recognise as significant.”

“The Road to Mecca” (LA Premiere, Fountain Theatre, 2000) with Priscilla Pointer and Robert Symonds

While he sees similarities with the situation under apartheid, Fugard says a significant difference is that back then there was a sense of community amongst artist that all were in opposition to apartheid. This is in contrast to the fragmented response from the contemporary artistic community.

“It’s so false, almost as if there’s a perception that we’re being disloyal to the ANC if we speak up. You mustn’t be careful about what you say, have the freedom to say anything you like. That sense should never be constricted by loyalty to a political party.”

When questioned about what he would do next Fugard mused aloud in Afrikaans, “Wat is my verpligting?” (What is my duty?). The final word for me is that my country has taught me two of the biggest debts you can have. My country has taught me how to hate and how to love.”

“How do you repay your country for your soul? Met trane of met woorde? (With tears or words?).”

Theresa Smith writes for Independent Online, South Africa. 

Note: The Fountain Theatre enjoys a long term friendship and collaboration with Athol Fugard, producing the premieres of his new plays since 2000. To celebrate and honor Athol’s 80th birthday, The Fountain Theatre will present the US Premiere of his newest play, The Blue Iris, this August, 2012. Stay tuned for details!

Athol Fugard Speaks of Old Friends and “Blood Knot”

At the first rehearsal last week of his play Blood Knot at the Signature Theatre Company in New York, our dear friend Athol Fugard spoke movingly about the first production in South Africa nearly 50 years ago and dedicated the current production, which he is also directing, to his old dear friends and fellow artists Barney Simon and Zakes  Mokae.

Athol Fugard Turns 80 in 2012

Athol Fugard on the "Road to Mecca" set in NY.

Playwright Athol Fugard calls the Fountain Theatre his “artistic home” on the West Coast. For twelve years, the Fountain has produced five premieres of his new plays. The Fountain’s world premiere production of Fugard’s Exits and Entrances toured the country, was produced Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in NYC, and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

This June, Athol turns 80 years old.  He is being honored with four major New York productions.

First comes The Road to Mecca, which opened last night at the Roundabout Theater Company’s American Airlines Theater. It was the Fountain’s Los Angeles premiere of The Road to Mecca in 2000 that first caught Athol’s eye to our theatre.

Fugard makes it a general rule not to see a production of his plays that he had not directed.

“What do I say if I don’t like it? So a friend of mine and I drove to Los Angeles, and we slipped in, and I had one of the happiest experiences of my theater career,” he said. “It was a beautiful and truthful production.”

An artistic alliance and friendship between Fugard and the Fountain was formed. It remains to this day.

Rosemary Harris stars in the Roundabout production as Miss Helen, an Afrikaner widow who earns the mistrust of her village when she begins filling her yard with ambitious, whimsical sculptures after the death of her husband.

The Signature Theater Company in New York, which dedicates its entire season to the work of single playwright, has selected Athol Fugard for its inaugural season in its new home on West 42nd Street. The Fugard plays are Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa!, and The Train Driver.

Athol at the Fountain Theatre for rehearsals of "The Train Driver" (2010) with actor Adolphus Ward.

Blood Knot, the 1961 play that vaulted Athol Fugard into international prominence, features two young South African men, one black and one white, grappling over what the world owes them. The Train Driver, which Mr. Fugard wrote in 2010 and had its US premiere at the Fountain, features two older South African men, one black and one white, grappling over what they owe the world.

Written in 1989 shortly before the end of apartheid, My Children! My Africa! presents an honest and unflinching portrait of a country on the brink of revolution, and is a testament to the power and potential of youth, hope, and ideas.

Fugard, whose efforts toward the abolition of apartheid and the creation of a multiracial theater resulted in banned plays and a revoked passport, is not finished chronicling South Africa’s tumultuous past and future. He recently finished a one-act play that he plans to perform with his 8-year-old grandson. And the draft of a new play is nestled alongside his iPad and a neat pile of English- and Afrikaans-language books by Pablo Neruda, Breyten Breytenbach, Ted Hughes and Antjie Krog.

“That’s glorious, isn’t it?” he said. “Everything is exactly in place.”

His recent thoughts on Mecca and Train Driver:

Priscilla Pointer and Jacqueline Schultz in "The Road to Mecca" (2000)

THE ROAD TO MECCA (Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles Premiere, 2000) starring Priscilla Pointer, Jacqueline Schultz and Robert Symonds. 

“Something that has always intrigued me, as I think it does any sort of artist of any description, is the nature, genesis and consequences of a creative energy. Where did it come from? How does it work? And what prices do you pay for having it? Because there are consequences. Sometimes it’s a marvelous thing, and sometimes it’s a curse. And sometimes it’s both. And sometimes the discovery of what your life should really be about comes to you very late. I’m an alcoholic — I don’t try to keep that a secret — and I wrote this play when I’d just decided I was going to stop drinking. There’s a line in the play when Miss Helen says, ‘I’ve reached the end of my journey.’ The other night, at the first preview [in New York], I suddenly realized: ‘Wow, you’re reaching the end of your journey. You wrote this play for yourself.’ And it turns out to be the story of this moment in my life, because in a way I’m not far away from the moment that all my candles are going to be blown out. So there we are.”

Adolphus Ward and Morlan Higgins in "The Train Driver" (2010)

THE TRAIN DRIVER (Fountain Theatre, 2010, West Coast Premiere) starring Morlan Higgins and Adolphus Ward:

“The graveyards of the unnamed in South Africa stretch seemingly to infinity. And as you walk among them, from time to time you find that somebody has thought to put a bottle filled with seashells on the ground.

“That is where my idea of Simon [the caretaker] comes from. Although these are nameless people that he buries, he’s trying to do what I’ve tried to do in my writing. You can’t give them a name, but you can say, ‘Here lies a human being.’ That’s all you can say about them. ‘Here lies a bubble of dreams and hopes that came to nothing.’”

For 80 years, the life and brilliant writing of Athol Fugard has certainly come to something deeply meaningful to other human beings around the world.