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Athol Fugard, who was born in Middleburg, South Africa in 1932, is a well known realist playwright. He has written many plays which reflect his extreme opposition to the Apartheid system. Two such plays are 'Boesman and Lena' (1969) and 'My Children! My Africa!' (1989). Both plays are set in apartheid South Africa and demonstrate the cruelty of those years in South Africa as well as the current issues surrounding them. Athol Fugard's work in both of these plays is therefore a reflection of the times and society in which he was writing. The plays' socio-political contexts and his intentions in them can be individually discussed as well as compared to each other.
Boesman and Lena is set in Apartheid South Africa and is a play about a young, non-white couple who are truly facing difficulties and struggling during this time. The play opens with the couple on a journey, walking from place to place, after being forcefully removed from their home. As they are travelling, Lena tries to recount where they have been. They can only bring the belongings with them that they can afford to carry on their backs and so they are exposed to the elements around them. Because the couple are homeless, Boesman decided that in order to survive he needs to build a shelter out of scrap iron and other materials that he has found. Once the shelter is built, he is the only one to enter it. Lena not only tends the fire but also tends to sit outside of the shelter for the entire play. The desperate circumstances that they are in emphasize their lonely, isolated and impoverished place in the world.
Boesman and Lena was written in 1965 which is a mere 17 years after the start of apartheid. The play clearly shows the harshness of this time period relating to the Forced Removals and Group Areas Acts, which were passed by the government in order to draw a line by fully separating racial groups. Boesman and Lena perfectly represent the millions of non-whites who suffered during Apartheid. The forced removals from homes and dispersal of communities led to social breakdown and widespread poverty in South Africa. Non-whites were not given the opportunity to really settle down in any environment whatsoever, and this caused them to be depressed and feel as if they had no meaning whatsoever in their lives. This alienation can be noted when Lena is distraught after she has just been forcefully removed from her own home.
At the beginning of the play, an old man called Outa appears at their campsite. The way Boesman acts around Outa and shows his feelings towards him show the incredibly racial tensions between the many different non-white groups. "Boesman believes he is superior to Outa. He is frustrated by the situation in South Africa and he vents this frustration on other non-whites. Outa, being very frail and unresponsive, is an easy target for Boesman, and this is evident in the way he treats Outa." [Mtvass]
Boesman and Lena, as well as their actions, can be interpreted as symbols. Boesman's violence towards Lena represents the violence white South Africans inflict on citizens of colour. Lena represents hope and life. She is optimistic and believes things will change in the future. She is also very compassionate (as with the old man, Outa). Boesman is mostly bitter and jealous, trying to destroy any hope and life that she has.
Fugard has recorded many of his ideas in his notebooks. In one entry, Fugard describes that he had many encounters with the poorer South Africans. He notes that these encounters all contributed to the creation of Boesman and Lena. He also reports back on the day he came into contact with a particular woman which influenced him to begin writing the play. He says in Athol Fugard: Notebooks 1960-1977: "On a hot August day in 1965, Fugard and two friends were driving along a rural road when they saw an old woman trudging along with all of her worldly possessions tied up in a bundle on her head. They stopped and offered her a ride. She cried at their unexpected kindness, and during the fifteen-mile trip to a farm up the road, she told them about the death of her husband three days earlier and her nine missing children. If Fugard and his companions hadn't stopped to offer her a ride, she would have followed her plan to sleep in a stormwater drain that night and continue her long journey the next day." [E-notes 2010]
He also gives his impression of the woman. He writes , "In that cruel walk under the blazing sun, walking from all of her life that she didn't have on her head, facing the prospect of a bitter Karoo night in a drain-pipe, in this walk there was no defeat-there was pain, and great suffering, but no defeat.'' Athol Fugard: Notebooks 1960-1977. The walk that this woman went on was 'the walk' that Boesman and Lena are on throughout the play as it inspired him to come up with this idea in the first place.
Because Fugard passionately abhorred apartheid, his intentions in writing this play were to show what was going on in South Africa at the time and to expose the effects of apartheid. He used symbolism-for example representing the violence white South Africans inflict on citizens of colour through Boesman's violence towards Lena - as well as themes. The main theme of Boesman and Lena is violence and cruelty which reflects the state of apartheid at the time. In the 1960's, when the play was written, people of colour had absolutely no power and could not do anything about how they were treated. Basically, in this play, Fugard portrayed severe real situations and displayed the struggling and suffering of the characters and thereby projected a true representation of what was going on at this cruel time in South Africa.
Fugard wrote 'My Children My Africa' about 20 years after Boesman and Lena was published. At this time, there was an immense amount of racial tension and ongoing violence, both within various black communities and violence perpetrated by the white security police and military apparatus. Life was not the same in South Africa as it had previously been in the 60's and things were coming to a head. There were many anti-apartheid movements and international censure because of this. Although the confrontational violence between the government and forces of liberation had escalated in Apartheid South Africa, the underlying themes of exploitation and human suffering were still the same.
As historian Alistair Boddy-Evans summarized: "During the 1970s and 80s Apartheid was reinvented - a result of increasing internal and international pressures, and worsening economic difficulties. Black youth was exposed to increasing politicisation, and found expression against 'Bantu education' through the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Despite the creation of a trilateral parliament in 1983 and the abolition of the Pass Laws in 1986, the 1980s saw the worst political violence by both sides."[Boddy-Evans]
My Children! My Africa! is a play which depicts a time when friendship and cooperation across the colour line were extremely rare. Such relationships were strictly frowned upon and actively discouraged by apartheid officialdom. This was because they represented a potential threat to the elaborately constructed and legislated racial barriers.
In My Children! My Africa! (an emphatic title indeed) Fugard constructed a very powerful dramatic work which explores the possibility of such interracial connections despite the human and professional risks involved. His thrust is that mere skin colour should in no way be a significant barrier to friendship and cooperation.
The play involves a white schoolgirl and black schoolboy whose teacher must take risks in sending the black boy to a mixed-race team in a literary competition. They have different viewpoints in how to challenge the system. The schoolboy, Thami, has adopted an attitude of violent confrontation, whereas the teacher is more in favour of a conciliatory and gradual approach to change, hoping optimistically that violence can be avoided. The schoolgirl, Isabel is besieged with white liberal guilt.
The play reflects varying attitudes to the best approach to achieving inevitable change. As it turned out it was the destabilising threat of violent confrontation that ultimately counted in effecting change in South Africa. The play was in fact written in 1985 foreshadowing the unbanning of the ANC and the subsequent release of Nelson Mandela some 5 years later.
Fugard was an active supporter of the Anti apartheid movements and endorsed international boycotts of segregated audience theatre in South Africa. In fact he was vilified, harassed and put under security police surveillance. To avoid further trouble with the authorities Fugard had his plays produced and published outside of the country [Alan McIver :2010]
Fugard was accorded wide international recognition. His compelling and impressive body of work surely contributed in a significant way to international awareness of the dire developing situation in South Africa. To me he is an inspiring figure, whose realistic depictions of the devastating human consequences of an evil system opened audience's eyes to cruel and unsustainable realities.
Fugard once said: "[My] real territory as a dramatist is the world of secrets with their powerful effect on human behaviour and the trauma of their revelation. Whether it is the radiant secret in Miss Helen's heart or the withering one in Boesman's or the dark and destructive one in Gladys, they are the dynamos that generate all the significant action in my plays"[Fugard]. We can gather from this, that his plays are always individually and contextually significant and he intends to display and uncover and bring to light deeper issues within them. Using the two plays discussed above as evidence , one can not only tell that Fugard really cares about his work and his country but also that his work is an accurate reflection of the times and society in which he was writing.