The Monday Interview: Athol Fugard Essay, Research Paper
‘I’m a storyteller, that’s all’Athol Fugard jumps up from his table to introduce himself and his partner Marianne. They are still eating. I say I’ll leave them to their lunch. Ach no, he says, nonononono, don’t be so silly. He throws back the food and ushers me towards him, and Marianne discreetly removes herself to the next table. He tells me how great it is to be back in London, and how exciting it is to have a new play on the road and, yes, how confused he was when apartheid was dismantled. His energy is awesome. Of course, the end of apartheid was the realisation of all he had dreamed for in his beloved country. But at the same time South Africa’s great white liberal playwright suffered a profound identity crisis. “All of my life had been spent in the shadow of apartheid. And when South Africa went through its extraordinary change in 1994, it was like having spent a lifetime in a boxing ring with an opponent and suddenly finding yourself in that boxing ring with nobody else and realising you’ve to take the gloves off and get out, and reinvent yourself.” He went on the radio and announced that he would probably be South Africa’s first literary redundancy. Since then, he’s had a rethink. Now he says that the new complicated South Africa needs more vigilance than ever before. So he’s still in a job. But Fugard, 69, says he’s still unsure whether he’s up to the challenge. “You know, it would have been fun if it had arrived at 40, but when you’re limping along on crutches into your twilight and you suddenly have this one thrown at you…” Crutches are a recurring image in his work, and in his life. He’s sitting in the cafe at London’s Tricycle Theatre, gesticulating fiercely with those tiny, proud hands. I can’t take my eyes off that face – part Old Testament prophet, part club bouncer. He talks and talks and talks, chomping on peanuts at the same time. And as he talks, the peanut shards explode in the air before dissolving in his beard. But he’s too absorbed in his stories, his history, his country, to notice them. “What do I do now? That’s it: what do I do now? That is the question and I’m trying to answer that question or explore the challenge of that question by way of the three post-apartheid plays I’ve written.” More peanuts, more explosions, more beard damage. Fugard is here to direct the British premiere of his new work, Sorrows and Rejoicings. He is known as the great liberal playwright; the man who dramatised apartheid. But his plays were always far removed from agitprop. The language was too rich, the characters too ambiguous, to accommodate political agendas. Yes, plays such as The Island, Master Harold… and the Boys, and My Children! My Africa! were set against a backdrop of South Africa’s race war, but more importantly they explored how people are gradually, desperately forced to confront their truths. They are confessional plays. In Master Harold, Hally is a 17-year-old pompous white aspiring writer with liberal pretensions and plans to educate one of the black servants, Sam. Sam is also a surrogate father to Hally, who confides to him that his real father is a drunk, disabled loser. Hally is so full of self-loathing at what he has admitted that he turns on Sam and spits in his face. In My Children! My Africa! an ageing black liberal teacher confronts his protege – a brilliant black militant who has turned his back on education in favour of revolution. In Hello and Goodbye a forlorn son who has never quite managed to leave home takes up his crippled father’s crutches when he dies and assumes his identity. His writing is soaked in guilt – not simply liberal guilt, but the messier guilts that accompany the secrets and lies of everyday life. “I’m always in disguise in one form or another in my plays,” Fugard says. Often barely disguised. He was born in the Eastern Cape to lower-middle-class parents: his mother ran a boarding house and then a tearoom; his father was a disabled drunk balanced on crutches. “He was a jazz pianist but eventually his drinking put an end to that as well, so my mother was the breadwinner.” At times, he says, there was no food on the table and they felt like white trash. Did he live in an all-white world? “Ja. Except for one very important factor. Two black men who were the servants first in the boarding house and then subsequently in the tearoom. Those two men became surrogate fathers to me. Despite being the victims of the prejudice current in that society, they had retained their dignity, their strength, their generosity of spirit.” As he talks, Marianne, a white, middle-aged American literature professor, nods and smiles adoringly from the next table. I ask her if she wants to join us. She does. He says his conscience was forged by his mother – together they would conspiratorially whisper about social injustice. He talks about how close he was to her, battling alongside her for the family’s survival. “You’d read letters giving excuses…” Marianne says. Fugard looks at her stony-faced. “Sorry, you’ve interrupted me.” “No, I’m sorry,” she says placidly, before continuing with the story. “So she…” Fugard cuts her off. “All right, all right. OK. Please!” He doesn’t seem like a man used to being interrupted. He finishes off the story that Marianne had started. “My mother could barely read and write her name. When a letter had to be written, as Marianne was suggesting, to a very pressing creditor I had to write it for her.” He talks slowly, deliberately in his granite Afrikaans accent, like a man who has dominated the stage for many years – which he has, performing in his own plays. At times he spits out words like Exocets, at times he caresses them lovingly round his tongue. I ask him if there was ever a time when the politics became more important to him than the writing. “Yes. There was a very critical time when I had to seriously confront the question: is writing a valid form of action in a situation like this? I mean I had friends who were making bombs, and I really had to ask myself, and my answer finally for myself was that yes, writing is indeed a valid form of action.” He has never been a member of any political party. His plays have always been inspired by people and stories rather than ideas. “The essential ingredient is flesh and blood. And sweat.” And guilt? “And guilt. Ja, ja,” he nods happily. “Sweating because you’re guilty. Absolutely. Sweat, blood and guilt.” Did you feel guilty for being white? “Oh yes. Yes, very much so. Yeah. The major emotion in my life. Guilt, the major emotion.” What was the source of that guilt? “A sense of personal inadequacy. I think maybe it relates to your most formative image of your father, and I had a weak father, and I loved him.” He says he loved him with such quiet desperation, as if it was the worst thing he could have done. “So it wasn’t as if I could even fashion myself in opposition to him because I loved the man, alcoholic as he was, but gentle, kind. He wasn’t a monster. I think I also assumed like father, like son. I think a sense of personal inadequacy is still one of the most dominant aspects of my life.” Fugard is standing by a set of easels, having his photo taken, railing against the madness of the modern world – George Bush going mad in America, Israel and Palestine, Thabo Mbeki’s Aids policy, Zimbabwe. These days he lives half the time in South Africa, half the time in the US. I ask him if he thinks he has an Afrikaner soul. “Absolutely. Absolutely. Especially as I’ve got older.” What does an Afrikaner soul mean? “It is to be passionately rooted to the land. It’s almost a peasant sense of self, the earth – being on South African soul, being under a South African sky.” What makes him a great writer is his empathy with outsiders, which comes from having always been one himself. He talks about how drink almost destroyed him. “When I was at home with my wife and daughter I would get through a bottle or two of wine a day, but if I was in production away from home, then breakfast would be two or three double whiskies with raw eggs in it. I woke up one day in New York and realised I was on the verge of losing every personal relationship that I cherished – my wife and daughter. I hadn’t met Marianne yet. I don’t think it had eroded away any of my writing, but I think it was getting very close to that.” What did your drinking do to your sense of self? “Oh, withering self-disgust.” He’s been teetotal for 16 years now. The moment he stopped, he says, he heard a little demon in his head whispering that he needed drink to oil the cogs and that he wouldn’t be able to write without it. Is that voice still with you? “Oh, all the time.” He says drink is only one thing that has made him self-absorbed; that writers are selfish by definition. “A lot of people got less from me than they should have. Creativity is very selfish. Scandalously so, in fact. We feed on people.” Who got less? “Everybody. Family. Friends. I’m trying to undo that now. I realise that it needn’t of necessity be that way. Maybe this is just a mellowing that comes with age.” You’re anything but mellow, I say. “Yes, yes! Impatient! Impatient! Using a situation and moving on, always moving on. He talks about the way he’s interested in schoolchildren and education when he’s writing a play about schoolchildren, and then once it’s finished he’s off to mine the next subject. I ask him whether it is difficult being a great white writer in the new South Africa. “I do not think of myself in those terms. I daren’t. I don’t let that into my life; you can’t; it’s a trap,” he says quietly. Suddenly he’s fuming. “Just listen to those words you’ve used. That’s awful. You can’t think of yourself in that way.” But isn’t it inevitable that South Africa is now looking for the great black playwright? “I just tell the stories I’ve got to tell, that’s all. I’m a regional storyteller. The human imagination is all about the ability to transcend the limits of our own experience, and to empathise ourselves into other realities. One of the worst things that can happen to writing is political correctness.” But there are people saying: why are we still hearing white voices, where are the black voices? “Yeah, yeah, there you go, that’s what I’m talking about. You’ve got it. People are saying that all the time.” What does it make you feel? “Impatience. Because you know if they were just to sit down and think about it, they’re going to end up with a situation where they’re going to say to you: as a writer you can only write about yourself. In other words, it’s a form of misguided liberal apartheid.” “As for representing blacks, Shakespeare had to represent Othello and didn’t do too badly, did he?” Marianne says, defensively. “Who’s this?” Fugard asks. “Shakespeare has represented blacks,” Marianne repeats. “Oh ja. Ja. Jumped right out of his skin. Ja. Ja. Extraordinary. There’s a wonderful definition of Shakespeare at a dinner party, and he’s got Winston Churchill on one side and Hitler on the other, and he’s having a wonderful conversation with both of them, and both of them feel they’ve got a kindred spirit sitting next to them. You’ve got to do that as a writer. You’re a kind of whore. Ja. Ja. That’s right.”
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