Athol Fugard on The Power of Words

The South African playwright/director/actor - an eloquent voice on behalf of human rights - considers his new drama a literary manifesto

THERE are four of us in the room - the playwright, the director, the actor, and the interviewer - and three out of four are Athol Fugard. The South African who has been called ``the conscience of his country'' has thundered from the stage about the crime of apartheid in internationally acclaimed plays like ``The Blood Knot,'' ``Master Harold ... and the Boys,'' and ``Boesman and Lena.''

His new play, ``My Children, My Africa,'' began previews this week at the Perry Street Theatre in New York City. That play runs through Jan. 14 as a New York Theater Workshop production.

Before going to New York for ``My Children, My Africa,'' Fugard took an hour out of a hectic schedule to talk about his life as a playwright just prior to a Kennedy Center performance of ``The Road to Mecca.''

Then, after our talk he became Fugard the actor, striding on stage in the role of the dour minister of ``Mecca,'' a play that's a cry for creativity rather than his usual subject of racial justice.

Seated on his dressing room couch, Fugard the playwright leaned into a nubby tan pillow and talked.

In the new play, he said, ``I try to say that the written word, and the spoken word, is infinitely more powerful and effective a means of effecting change than any of the forms of violence that are so appallingly alive at this moment - bombs, and stones, and assassinations, and God only knows what.''

Fugard has paid dearly for the weapon of his words. His plays have aroused such controversy that his life has been under siege from the state. His home has been raided, his passport revoked for up to four years, his phone tapped, his mail sometimes opened.

Nothing To Hide

What effect has all this had on him? ``It makes you angry,'' he says. ``It makes you enormously angry; it scares you, too; and then finally you just get so bloody sick and tired of it. You live your life [anyway]. I mean, you know the simple truth of the matter is: I've never had anything to hide.''

Has all this fueled his writing?

``You've got to be careful. Sometimes you get nervous, and you've got to be careful that a situation such as the sort of dark years in South Africa - I'm thinking of periods like 10 years ago - you had to be very careful then that you weren't censoring yourself ... in order to avoid government censorship when the play was finally delivered. And I think I've successfully avoided that. But, I mean, it is a danger.''

This playwright who has put his life on the line for his writing has some thoughts on the politics of the theater. First, he says, ``All serious plays are political. Chekhov's plays are as profound a political analysis of the disintegration of a feudal society, a society that was going to be shattered by the revolution, as any political tracts written in that time.

``You read Chekhov, and you read politics.'' Expanding on that, he points out, ``All serious writing, all good writing inevitably involves something of a diagnosis, a dissection of the society that creates them. I believe that very strongly. That's why I think it's such a misnomer, really, to single out a particular playwright for being political - or labeling me for being political.

Plays That `Make People Think'

He hesitates to talk about the effect his plays have had on apartheid in South Africa, but eventually he says, ``I don't know; they make people think. They make people think and feel. And when you manage to do that in a society where the system tries to prevent people from thinking and feeling about certain issues, or even understanding or knowing about certain issues, then certainly, if you succeed in doing that ... then you have made a political act.

``...When I look back over a lifetime of 30 years of play-writing, it means a lot to me to realize that writing is as significant a form of action as standing up on a soap box on a street corner and preaching a revolutionary doctrine. It is a form of action, and I have acted.''

Fugard doesn't look like a firebrand until he starts to talk. He is a wiry man of medium height with a somewhat burled handshake and an easy warmth. He wears a tan cotton shirt over a faded blue shirt that casts a bluish tinge on the gray thickets of his beard. Laced up below his dark corduroy pants are tan running shoes.

A lock of dark hair falls over his face, with its features so strong they look forged. Thick eyebrows nearly hide deep-set brown eyes. But when a question about political repression sparks him, he rears back; the bearded jaw juts out; his eyes burn with fervor; and he speaks in a ringing voice as the prophet Jeremiah might have warned his people.

``My Children, My Africa'' is ``my literary manifesto,'' says Fugard. ``It has a number of themes, but one of the central themes is the power of the written word and the spoken word, the power!,'' he roars, ``of the written and the spoken word!''

The play had its world premi`ere in South Africa and will be produced in London following the American run, which producers say may end up on Broadway. Fugard says that spokesmen for the National Theatre in London have been badgering him to do it there.

He adds that the decision to do it first in the United States was made by the play's star, Tony award-winning John Kani.

The play is about a black teacher, and two children, one black, one white. (Three-character plays are one of his trademarks.) The two children enter a literary contest. ``The schoolteacher brings this black pupil, his star, his prize black pupil, together with this very bright young white girl. It's all meant to be an investment in a future South Africa. It all goes wrong, of course, because the unrest reaches the little society where this is all taking place, and everything falls apart.''

The plan, says Fugard, has tragic consequences. There is one line he particularly loves, in which the black schoolteacher says he believes, like Confucius, that ``using only words, a man can right a wrong [he pauses] and judge and execute the wrongdoer.''

Self-Image: Fugard the Writer

Although he acts, directs, and writes, he says, ``My real sense of myself is Fugard the writer.'' Even though he wrote the very lines he's given himself as an actor, Fugard admits he has to re-create the character anew in playing it. ``I go through the same desperate search for my character as any actor does in relationship to it.''

As a playwright, he finds that the characters have a life of their own. There's the wonderful line in ``Mecca,'' for instance: ``All I know about darkness is that that is when you put on the light.'' It did not consciously come from his own life, says Fugard. ``I cannot say that I had stored that up. My pen left that line behind it upon the page. I was surprised.''

Fugard speaks with the rocky lilt of an Afrikaner, in a rough-hewn, spellbinding voice that makes you feel like a child sitting beside a campfire, listening to stories. Here's how his characters arrive: ``You get the idea for a play from whatever direction it comes.''

With ``Mecca,'' it came from seeing a photo of the real-life Miss Helen, the person upon whom he based the play's eccentric artist and heroine, with the young woman who befriended her. ``I looked at that photo and saw my play.''

The first idea acts as a magnet, he says, ``and you just make notes. You may even hear scraps of dialogue; you hear characters talking, or you hear maybe a nice, choice phrase about something or other, and you make a note of it. And you hear an image, see an image. And slowly, over a period of time that can vary from a few years to as many as 20 years, you accumulate a lot of unrelated scraps of paper, ideas, notes, and things like that. And you actually start writing. I start writing when I feel there's enough substance there for a play....

Writes Only in South Africa

``I find that what has usually happened is that as these unrelated and as yet unconnected little ideas and thoughts have occurred to me, the actual definition of the characters has emerged slowly.''

He writes with pen and ink, typing it out only when the play is completely finished (after often four, occasionally five, drafts). He explains, ``Athol Fugard the playwright works very much like a craftsman, bending ideas, plotting out the sequence of events. It's a very specific, crafted activity. I write slowly, meticulously, and I build, brick by brick. There's no great outpouring and rushing torrent of inspiration. It's very disciplined.''

How does he go at the actual writing? ``First of all, I leave America, and I go back to South Africa. I can only write in South Africa.''

He becomes a recluse when writing. Up early, at his desk by 8:30 a.m., he writes until 1 p.m., then goes running, fishing, our out to work the land - physical activity to offset the sedentary work of writing. After dinner and reading or listening to music, he writes again. ``And it needs an uninterrupted succession of days. I think it was Baudelaire who said, `Monotonous days, exciting literature.'''

When the play is finished, there are no readings for its prospective producers. ``I give them the manuscript, and I expect them to say yes or no. I'm quite brutal about that. Don't expect me to read it; don't come to me and say you want to try it out,'' he says, biting off the words like beef jerky. ``Here's the play. Make up your mind.''

There is one fiction about writers and writing he wants to puncture. ``It's a terrible lie that drinking helps creativity. There's this great myth about the artist and alcohol. It's absolute rubbish, and it's dangerous, and it's evil..., says Fugard.

``Mecca'' was the first play he wrote after he stopped drinking. ``It's not connected with how much alcohol you've got in your blood stream. It's how much truth you've got in your soul.''

Source of Anti-Apartheid Feeling

Fugard was born in the Karoo desert region of South Africa, where ``Mecca'' is set and where his parents owned a small general store. His father was an English-speaking South African, his mother an Afrikaner who urged him to free himself from prejudice and bigotry. When he was three, his parents moved to Port Elizabeth, which has been the home port of some of his plays, like ``The Blood Knot'' and ``Boesman and Lena.''

Fugard studied motor mechanics, then won a scholarship to the University of Capetown to major in philosophy and anthropology. He dropped out just before graduating to become the only white crewman aboard a tramp steamer.

That job and working for six years as a clerk in a court, enforcing apartheid laws, fired his passion for writing against segregation of black South Africans. The result was his first play, ``No-Good Friday,'' which he and his wife, Sheila Meiring (then an actress, now a novelist), produced and performed with a cast of 10.

In the 30 years since then, his plays have garnered major theatrical laurels: ``A Lesson from Aloes'' received Tony nominations for the play and for his direction, as well as a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play. ``Master Harold ... and the Boys'' won more Tony nominations as well as the Drama Desk Award and Critics Circle Award for best play. Its London production received the Evening Standard Best Play of the Year Award. Fugard is considered South Africa's leading playwright.

And he's already looking beyond the ``My Children, My Africa'' opening to the play he plans to write after that. He says, ``I think [it] will be a very committed piece of writing, in terms of it being about issues central to the dilemmas of South Africa today. That's as much as I like to say about a new work until I've written it. I'm sure you understand.''

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