Athol Fugard outside The Fountain Theatre in 2012.
Anyone who follows the Fountain Theatre knows about our longtime artistic friendship and association with Athol Fugard. The internationally acclaimed South African playwright considers The Fountain Theatre his artistic home in the United States. The Fountain has launched 6 premieres of Athol’s new plays since 2000. Fugard’s newest play, receiving its world premiere later this month at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, is his his first written entirely in Afrikaans. Fugard’s plays have often been translated into Afrikaans but Die Laaste Karretjiegraf (“The Last Buggy Grave”) is his first play written in the native language of his beloved and beleaguered homeland.
Fugard reveals that he had promised his late mother that he would write at least one Afrikaans play in his lifetime and that he would highlight the plight of the Karretjie people (“buggy people”) of her beloved Karoo.
South Africa’s “buggy people” in The Karoo.
“The Karoo’s buggy people are the gypsies of South Africa” he says. “In this country of ours where both blacks and whites make such harsh demands on the land, one must remember, the car people are the direct descendants of the original landowners, the Khoi and the San.”
Is he nervous about the upcoming opening night? “The premiere of a new piece is always a time for fear and trembling,” he laughs with just a touch of seriousness.
“But this one is perhaps different, because ultimately I make a promise to my mother, Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter, to write a play in her language.”
Fugard explains how he came to his subject. “A major incentive was the anthropologist Riana Steyn. Her master’s dissertation on the car people inspired me to write the play. “
“Earlier, the buggy people’s lives were hard, but they were free. They could move from place to place. The whole bloody Karoo was theirs. Now they have nothing. “
Fugard’s “The Blue Iris” at the Fountain Theatre (US Premiere, 2012).
In the new play, Koot and Sarah meet after many years on a farm in the Karoo at the grave of Koot’s mother, Mieta Ackerman. During Koot’s years of roaming he was the informal spokesman for a team of Karretjie sheepshearers at the Brug outspan. He has just been released from prison where he served time for murdering his second wife. During his detention in the local prison, Ouma Mieta looked after his children. Sarah is of Afrikaner descent and has in the meantime completed her dissertation in Anthropology on the subject of Karretjie children.
Although Afrikaans is both Sarah and Koot’s mother tongue they are worlds apart; they are, however, connected by shared experiences of pain, guilt, remorse, love and ultimately hope. Die Laaste Karretjiegraf is a story about the Karretjie People and a tribute to the heritage of the direct descendants of South Africa’s first inhabitants. This is a way of life which, for various reasons, has come to an end and has, in more ways than one, been laid to rest with Ouma Mieta in her grave.
Many of Athol’s plays are, in part, autobiographical. Is there a piece of himself in this newest work?
“The last buggy grave in the Karoo. This is me. ” says Fugard.
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 Tierby 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.
Morlan Higgins and Julanne Chidi Hill in “The Blue Iris”
by Steven Leigh Morris
A series of poems by Thomas Hardy, grieving after the death of his first, estranged wife, inspired Athol Fugard‘s latest play, The Blue Iris, now receiving its U.S. premiere at Hollywood’s Fountain Theatre, directed by Stephen Sachs.
Athol Fugard, the internationally renowned Causasian South African dramatist who writes in English, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because of his early writing career dedicated to battling his nation’s apartheid policies (in plays such as Blood Knot, 1961; and Master Harold and the Boys, 1982). Fugard was as brave as a playwright could be, joining the ranks of Chile‘s Ariel Dorfman and Czechoslovakia‘s Václav Havel by risking prison for writing works that looked askance at the policies of their authoritarian governments. It was a baton they passed along to the likes of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.
But when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in South African prisons, and in the nation’s first multiracial elections became the nation’s first black president, the purpose of aging white liberals such as Fugard became ever more nuanced and difficult to define. After all, South Africa’s brave new future also contained a raging AIDS epidemic, and the continuation of unspeakable poverty, revenge and violence.
That transition is what Fugard has been writing about since 1994, in a series of plays set in his beloved Karoo, among them Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001),Victory (2007) and his latest, The Blue Iris.
Invariably, they concern an aging white man and young “colored” (the South African term for mixed-race) woman. In Valley Song, presented here at the Mark Taper Forum, the young woman, Veronica, needed to come of age, to escape the confines of the Karoo for a faster life in the city. She was an innocent, and a symbol of the future.
Sorrows and Rejoicings (also premiered here at the Taper) concerned a white, male poet from South Africa who went into exile inLondon. When he returned to the Karoo, he was dying. There he met the young colored woman he left behind, Rebecca. She answered his abandonment of her by burning his early poems. The essence of Fugard’s anxiety was spoken in a single line from that play:
“For your soul’s sake, Rebecca, I hope you know that what you did was terribly wrong. What you turned to ash and smoke out there in the veldt was evidence of a man’s love, for his country, for his people — for you! Don’t reject it. … Rejoice in it! Because if you think you and your New South Africa don’t need it, you are making a terrible mistake.”
In Victory, which received its U.S. premiere at the Fountain Theatre, also directed by Sachs, the aging white man (Morlan Higgins) found himself being robbed and held hostage by the young colored woman (born on the day Mandela was released from prison, and consequently named Vickie in honor of this victory) and her boyfriend. The old man was Vickie’s educator and mentor. Her petty criminal alliance was a representation of how the innocence of Veronica and the hope for the future in Valley Song had corroded in Fugard’s eyes.
Jacqueline Schultz and Julanne Chidi Hill
Fugard’s plays have been getting ever more despondent, and The Blue Iris contains his most austere view to date. Morlan Higgins returns as Robert Hannay, eking out an existence in the Karoo near the charred remains of a house where the colored woman, Rieta (Julanne Chidi Hill), once grew up and worked as a housekeeper. Robert still grieves for his wife, Sally (Jacqueline Schultz, appearing as a phantom), who died of a heart attack shortly after a lightning strike that burned their home. (Jeff McLaughlin‘s set depicts blackened beams and detached doors amidst piles of detritus.)
Sally begged Robert not to leave the night of that storm, but he was determined to buy a new breeding ram, and so now he lives with the agony of his decision on that night of decimation. Rieta stands by him, for reasons unveiled in the play. She endures his conjurings of Sally.
Some verses of one poem by Hardy, “The Voice,” embody Robert’s state of mind:
“Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!
“Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Traveling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?”
Sally, a painter by avocation, floats through the play on the day Rieta discovers Sally’s only painting that was untouched by the fire. It’s a botanical portrait of a blue iris, which for Robert brings back the memory of when Sally found the flower on the floor of the drought-blasted veldt — a single symbol of hope in a withered landscape otherwise punctuated by the death of plants and sheep.
That particular flower, however, has poison within its beauty, enough poison to “bring down an ox,” which is why the local farmers so loath it. That’s what Sally was trying to capture. What looks pretty contains toxins. And there you have the parable for the contamination of a hope-filled future.
Sachs’ meticulously rendered production features a trio of impeccable performances. These include Schultz as Sally’s ghost, who arrives as though via tornado, chattering and desperate, before she’s sucked away by that same wind tunnel, to explain the meaning of her painting, and of how in painting it she failed to convey that meaning.
Then there’s Higgins as Robert, and his fastidious, lumbering search for his own meaning amidst the remains, his world-weary eyes, the sonorous, aching tone in his voice. Hill’s Rieta offers a spritely foil — she’s as impatient as she is pained. Their joint decision, the only decision in the play, is whether she and Robert, both tramps and Platonic lovers, should stay or go, together or apart. And there’s an allegory in that, too, about circumstantial bonds and inexorable isolation. The play is saturated in allegories.
Julanne Chidi Hill and Morlan Higgins
To fully appreciate The Blue Iris, however, one might look beyond Thomas Hardy’s poems to W.B. Yeats‘ poetical drama Purgatory, also set by the remains of a charred house. Purgatory also studies a man grieving for his late wife, trying to release her from purgatory. She, too, paces between life and death, listless in her travels beyond existence. The other character in Purgatoryis the man’s son, representing a hope for the future that stands on the brink of corrosion.
Both plays wrestle with how past and future can possibly travel any road together. And yet they do, as they must, as they always have. The ensuing, combustible emotions are what provide the fire of our most timeless poems and stories, where writers such as Yeats and Fugard ache to fathom the unfathomable.
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 Fugard, The 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 Schultz, The Blue Iris opens at the Fountain on August 24.
“The Blue Iris” (US Premiere, 2012, Fountain Theatre)
The Blue Irisis 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.
Old decaying farmhouse in the Karoo, South Africa.
In Athol Fugard’s newest play, The Blue Iris, the playwright describes the setting as “the blackened shell of a once proud Karoo farmhouse that was destroyed by fire … gaping holes of what were once doorways in two of the walls. There are only remnants left of the roof and ceiling that once covered the space.” In the play, farmer Robert Hannay and his housekeeper sift through the ashes and debris of their lives, uncovering hidden secrets and powerful truths about themselves and Robert’s deceased wife, Sally.
The Fountain turned to designer Jeff McLaughlin to create the fire-ravaged farmhouse setting for The Blue Iris. A longtime Fountain award-winning designer, Jeff designed the set for such recent Fountain productions as The Train Driver, Bakersfield Mist, A House Not Meant to Stand, and Cyrano.
Here is an early pencil rendering of the set design for The Blue Iris:
The cast and director are already in rehearsal, working on the Fountain stage during the week while the current hit production of Cyrano is performed on the weekends. For Blue Iris rehearsals, Tech Director Scott Tuomey has erected a make-shift facsimile of Jeff McLaughlin’s set design so the actors can get a sense of the burned-out farmhouse world Jeff has created for them.
Rehearsal set for “The Blue Iris”
After the final performance this Sunday, the Cyrano set will be struck and the actual Blue Iris set will be brought in and installed. Stay tuned and keep an eye on the Fountain stage as the setting for the new play evolves.
The Blue IrisAugust 18 – September 16 (323) 663-1525More Info