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!

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