Dramatist Athol Fugard: struggle - and hope - in a grim context

Athol Fugard is sitting in a New Haven eatery. And it is 3 o'clock in the morning.

The clock on the wall says seven. Everybody around us is eating dinner. But you look into these two burning eyes, set hard in a gauntly lined face, and you remember F. Scott Fitzgerald's words: ''In a real dark night of the soul, it is always 3 o'clock in the morning.''

The sudden memory of this phrase should come as no surprise. All of Fugard's plays are set in that ''real dark night'' Fitzgerald was talking about.

Sometimes, as in ''Master Harold. . .and the Boys'' (which just had its premiere around the corner from this restaurant at the Yale Repertory Theater, and is moving April 13-18 to the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia), it takes a while to realize where you are. The dismal atmosphere sort of sneaks up on you.

But, eventually, Fugard hits you with the quiet realization, like a sledgehammer wrapped in mittens, that you have entered a dark and forbidding place.

It is a place that many theatergoers and critics like to visit. Maybe it's because the journey there and back is so enlightening. Or perhaps it is that one returns from the desolate places Fugard's characters inhabit with a strangely resilient hope, like a flower plucked from the depth of an abyss.

Whatever the reason, the South African playwright's works have attracted both critical paeans and warmly appreciative audiences.

''A Lesson from Aloes,'' his most recent work to appear on Broadway, ran for months and was hailed as a triumph of craftsmanship and human understanding. Like most of Fugard's plays, it deals with the bitterness and despair that can breed uncontrollably in a country where government policies authorize the human tragedy of racism and domination. But, like the rest of his works, it rides the political issue like an express train into the heart of human tragedy.

Now, in ''Master Harold . . . and the Boys,'' directed here by Fugard himself , he brings us a work so devastatingly simple and cunningly crafted that the express train has become an effortlessly gliding swan boat. ''Master Harold'' moves with a grace and delicacy of gesture that belies the underlying brutality of its message.

It represents the latest skilled effort of a playwright who has learned over the years to let his audience find out for themselves just how much they can care about these lost people, how much reason there is to long for their safety and survival, and how slender are the hopes that these characters will prevail.

Sitting in the semidarkness of this New Haven restaurant, his face moving in and out of shadow, Fugard reveals why he is, for the first time, letting a work of his have its premiere outside his homeland.

''First, there's the danger of censorship,'' he says in his clipped South African accent, referring no doubt to a moment of brief, partial nudity in the play. ''Then, there is my respect for American actors, which is quite considerable. They have the courage to live on the raw edge of emotion. American actors don't come from a tradition of drawing-room comedy.''

There is also a lingering sense of the seaman about him, from his four years spent in the merchant marine in the Far East. But his life was shaped less by oceangoing than by his job as a clerk in a Native Commissioner's Court in Johannesburg. There he saw an average of one black man and woman pass every three minutes through a turnstile justice system that left him bitter about his country's racial policies.

''During my six months in that courtroom I saw more suffering than I could cope with,'' he wrote in the introduction to a collection of his plays. ''I began to understand how my country functioned.''

The experience drove him into friendships with disadvantaged blacks and journeys into the ghettos of Johannesburg. Later, he and his wife traveled to Europe, where he began keeping a meticulously faithful journal.

To dip into these journals is to look over the shoulder of a man who is constantly peering into people's faces, reading the record of tragedy and triumph there and trying to understand the reasons for both. It was out of his experiences among the ghettos in Johannesburg and the seminal, bone-honest journal writing that almost all of Fugard's plays sprang.

''Master Harold'' is an exception. Far more personal and autobiographical than his other works, it recaptures a period in his youth and a complex of experiences that may have given birth to his character.

The play is built around a simple device: the effort of two black men, Sam and Willie, to become better at waltzing, so that they can win first prize in a social dancing contest. The waltz is a figure of harmony struggling to make itself felt.

Master Harold, the young white man of the house, has been largely raised by Sam, a servant in his parent's household, while Willie has been an affable, dim presence in the background. Harold, or Hally, as Sam calls him through most of the play, is high-strung, confused, and unable to deal with a crude, emotionally and physically crippled father.

The grim fulcrum of the play turns around Harold's crisis in dealing with his father and how it makes him eventually turn on Sam, using the most convenient weapon at his disposal: the racial superiority he has been taught all his life to believe in.

The delicate dance steps that get Fugard's characters from mutual understanding to ultimate dislocation are executed with simplicity and expertly shaded nuance by the three actors involved, especially Zakes Mokae, who brings a resonant depth of humanity to his work. He draws you into feeling for this character what you must feel for the play to work. Less successful is Zeljko Ivanek as a too hyped-up Hally.

It is characteristic of Fugard that the play emerges from its shattering climax to make a casual turn around the floor, a turn that leaves hope in the midst of hopelessness, the kind of hope that glimmers from a star in the dark of night.

In the end, the fact that we are all sitting there, yearning for the waltz to become a universal dance, means that there are all kinds of witnesses who hope for something better - and that we will, somehow, do something about it.

What Fugard seems to be saying is that, even if it is 3 o'clock in the morning, we are not alone.

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