“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. 

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