JOHANNESBURG — ATHOL FUGARD, like his plays, mirrors both the trauma and triumph of human striving in South Africa. But the universal insights into human nature that characterize his plays transcend the geographic and political context of his work. Fugard's plays deal with the suffering of apartheid, but they also reflect the striving of the human spirit.
His celebrated story of death in detention, "Sizwe Banzi is Dead," paradoxically led him to be labeled as the original author of political protest theater in South Africa. But Fugard rejects this label.
"People often ask me: `What are you going to do now that apartheid is over?' It is an amazing question in the ignorance it displays [about my work] to think that the passing of apartheid will put me out of business," Fugard said in a recent Monitor interview. "Politics has never been a major consideration. I am essentially a storyteller, and I like telling stories about people - about desperate people."
To underscore his contention that politics is not the driving force in his work, Fugard draws a comparison with Nadine Gordimer, South Africa's celebrated recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature. "I have always been an outsider," says Fugard. "I avoid all forms of organization and belonging." He has never joined a political party or even a writers' guild.
"Magnificently, there is Nadine Gordimer at the other pole. She believes very strongly that artists have a role to play in the political struggle," he says, alluding to the fact that Ms. Gordimer is a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and a leader of its literary wing, the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW).
Fugard concedes that anger aroused by the injustices of apartheid has been a major source of his inspiration. "Its made me cut deeper," he said. "But I never formulated a strategy for myself as a writer in the days of apartheid. I lived with the promptings of my heart and told stories which reflected the reality of society which others do not see. That is what my anger showed me."
Fugard has earned the distinction of being the English-language playwright whose plays are most frequently performed in American theaters after William Shakespeare. Some scholars consider him the greatest living playwright in the English language.
But Fugard, an intensely private and humble man, resists his role as an international artist. He describes himself as a regional writer and insists that he can write only amid the bleak and haunting landscape of the Karoo, the vast expanse of semi-desert, rocky outcrops and scrubland in the Cape Province to which he returns whenever possible.
Whenever he can, Fugard withdraws to a spartan house in the remote Karoo Hamlet of Nieu Bethesda to write his plays with pen and ink. The retreat was the scene of one of his most celebrated plays, "Road to Mecca," which revolved around a tormented Afrikaner woman, Helen Martins, who sought refuge by creating haunting figures of owls and camels in concrete.
"Road to Mecca" is also an acclaimed film starring Oscar-award-winning actress Kathy Bates and the late South African actress Yvonne Bryceland, who Fugard says was the most important influence in his professional life.
FUGARD was born in the Eastern Cape town of Middelburg and now lives in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth where he spent some of his childhood. He is the product of an English-speaking father who sowed the literary idea in him and a "simple Afrikaner peasant mother" who, Fugard says, was responsible for his emotional well-being.
"My sense of myself as an Afrikaner becomes stronger and stronger as time passes and will become total in the end," says Fugard. "I will enter the new South Africa as an Afrikaner. If I have to abandon that identity, then there is no place for me," he insists, adding that his country's future strength lies in celebrating cultural diversity - not in jettisoning it.
As playwright, actor, and director, Fugard is essentially a man of the theater. He has collaborated on several movies based on his works, however, as well as taking small roles in Sir Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" and "The Killing Fields."
In Gandhi, he worked alongside Ben Kingsley who later performed with Paul Schofield and Yvonne Bryceland in the theater production of his controversial play "Dimetos" at London's Royal Court Theatre.
Fugard lists among those playwrights who have influenced his thinking: Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and Arthur Miller; Albert Camus and Samuel Beckett showed him how theater could be used to investigate complex philosophical problems of human existence; but it was American writer William Faulkner's tales of the "deep South" that convinced him he was on the right track by concentrating on the dramas of his own small world.
"He feels so intensely the pain of his society that, like Jeremiah, he cannot hold back from reminding his fellow human beings of the suffering of the oppressed and the callousness of the self-righteous," wrote a reviewer recently in the journal of the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown, a town in the Eastern Cape.
Fugard was once compared, in a profile in the New Yorker, to an Old Testament prophet. He certainly looks the part. His deep-set eyes, chiseled features, grey-flecked beard and short-cropped grey hair fortify his gentle authority and vision. He has a natural sense of awe, an obvious vulnerability, and a spontaneous enthusiasm for life.
Fugard believes that theater and the arts have made an invaluable contribution to keeping alive liberal values and basic tenets of justice in the dark years of apartheid. "It kept liberal values alive ... the value of human life and human dignity ... what human beings need to realize their full potential."
Fugard says he maintains an overall optimism about the emergence of a just and democratic society but concedes that his sense of hope is tempered with fear that liberal values are under siege. "There are going to be powerful forces which will have no truck with liberal values, and I am mindful how useless it would be for me to try to sell my liberal values to a bunch of comrades," says Fugard, referring to young black revolutionaries.
He admires the initiatives that President Frederick de Klerk began, but he says he will not be able to accept De Klerk's sincerity until he makes an unambiguous public apology to the victims of apartheid. "Nobody, least of all him, can ever live in ignorance of what apartheid did to people," says Fugard, becoming more passionate.
At the age of 60, Fugard is contemplating the future. He believes he will live to see the just society he has dreamed of. "I don't know how much writing I have left in me," he says. "Maybe the best part of my writing career is behind me. But I will continue to follow the promptings of my heart."