All achievers

Athol Fugard

Novelist and Playwright

I have no formulas for success. None at all. All I've learned is to try and be honest on the page.

Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard was born in 1932 in Middelburg, in the Karoo desert region of South Africa, the second of his parents’ three children. His father, Harold David Fugard, was a native English speaker of English and Irish descent. His mother, Elizabeth, was an Afrikaner, a descendant of earlier European settlers. Her first language was Afrikaans, the language derived from the Dutch spoken by 17th century settlers from the Netherlands. Young Harold Athol spoke both languages from childhood and has described himself as “an Afrikaner writing in English.”

The family, which included an older brother and a younger sister, moved to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. The elder Fugard was a jazz pianist. Crippled by a childhood accident, his disability was compounded by alcoholism. As he was increasingly unable to work, Mrs. Fugard took responsibility for supporting the family. She operated a small boarding house, and later a small cafe or tearoom that provided the setting for one of her son’s most popular plays, “Master Harold”… and the Boys.

By 1970, Athol Fugard had spent over a decade challenging the injustices of South African society through his work in the theater. In the years that followed, his work would reach audiences around the world. (© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/ CORBIS)
By 1970, Athol Fugard had spent over a decade challenging the injustices of South African society through his work in the theater. In the years that followed, his work would reach audiences around the world. (©CORBIS)

As young Fugard was growing up, South Africa’s National Party was instituting the system of apartheid — compulsory racial separation — that systematically barred black Africans from education, housing and employment opportunities in white areas. Black citizens were required to carry passbooks — identification papers — to work in white areas, and were otherwise required to remain in designated locations, “homelands” or “townships,” with grossly inadequate housing and services. Violations of the law were severely punished and dissent was gradually suppressed. Fugard’s father shared many of the prejudices of other white South Africans, but his mother never accepted the injustice of the system and communicated her values to her son.

Athol Fugard, as he preferred to be called, started writing seriously in his school years, inspired by stories his father had told him, and by his own voracious reading. His mother made great sacrifices to send him to the University of Cape Town, where he studied philosophy, but he longed to see the outside world and absorb the experiences he believed he would need for a writing career. Leaving the university, he hitchhiked the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo. In Port Sudan, he joined the crew of a cargo ship and spent the next years steaming in and out of the ports of Asia as a merchant seaman.

Returning to South Africa, he tried his hand at radio journalism in Port Elizabeth, then moved to Cape Town, where he fell in with a group of young actors and theater workers and began to write his first plays. He married an English-born actress, Sheila Meiring, and the couple moved to Johannesburg. While working at the Native Commissioner’s Court in Johannesburg, Fugard became intimately familiar with the oppressive passbook system used to control the movements of the country’s black citizens, and to limit their access to housing and employment opportunities. He augmented his knowledge of the theater working as a stage manager. Black friends introduced him to the street life of Sophiatown, the segregated township that inspired his plays No-Good Friday and Ngogo. At this time, Fugard could not interest producers in South Africa or Britain in his work. He staged these plays in private performances with non-professional black actors and developed an especially close working relationship with one, Zakes Mokae. Together, they performed the play that proved to be the turning point in Fugard’s writing career, The Blood Knot.

Athol Fugard, with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, outside the Royal Court Theatre in London during a 1973 production of Fugard's play Siswe Banzi is Dead. (Photo by James Jackson/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Athol Fugard, with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, outside the Royal Court Theatre in London during a 1973 production of Fugard’s play Siswe Banzi Is Dead. (Photo by James Jackson/Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Fugard began working with a group of black actors in Port Elizabeth, staging plays by other writers, and creating new works through improvisation with his actors. He traveled to London to appear in a BBC television production of The Blood Knot in 1967. The broadcast was better received than the initial London stage production of the play, but on his return to South Africa, the authorities confiscated his passport, to prevent him from traveling abroad for future productions, or from returning to South Africa if he did. The government placed increasingly severe restrictions on his work and movements, prohibiting publication and performance of his plays. Even the title The Island was considered too controversial as it was taken to allude to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Fugard and his family endured years of government surveillance; their mail was opened, their phones tapped, and their home subjected to midnight police searches. In The Blood Knot, Fugard and Mokae played mixed-race half-brothers, one identifiably “colored” and the other light enough to evade the passbook laws. The brothers’ complex and ambivalent relationship served as both a rich metaphor for the uneasy interdependence of black and white South Africa, and as a visceral dramatization of the system’s human cost. Although the South African production was closed by the authorities after a single performance, the play’s reputation spread, and productions were mounted in London, with Zakes Mokae, and in New York with the young James Earl Jones. London critics and audiences did not immediately warm to Fugard’s work, but he developed a substantial following in the United States.

But the plays he developed in Port Elizabeth, such as Boesman and Lena, were being performed in New York, London and elsewhere. In 1973 he was permitted to travel to London with two of his actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, to perform one of the works they had developed through improvisation, Siswe Bansi Is Dead. The play won the London Theater Critics Award, and the following year, the trio took the play to New York where it was performed on alternate nights with The Island.

Athol Fugard, at the time of the 1981 Broadway production of his play, <em>A Lesson From Aloes</em>. (© Bettmann)
Athol Fugard, at the time of the 1981 Broadway production of his play A Lesson From Aloes. (© Bettmann)

During the 1980s, Athol Fugard appeared as an actor in a number of feature films, including The Killing Fields and Gandhi, in which he played South African General (and later Prime Minister) Jan Smuts. In 1985, Fugard and Zakes Mokae reunited in New York to perform their original roles in a revised version of Blood Knot (Fugard omitted “The” from the title). Critics hailed the play and the actors’ performances as never before. In 1980, he published a novel, Tsotsi, about gang life in Sophiatown, which he had first written in 1961. The year 1982 saw the premiere of his most popular and frequently produced work, “Master Harold” … and the Boys (1982), a dramatization of Fugard’s childhood friendship with Sam Semela, set in his mother’s teashop in Port Elizabeth. “Master Harold” received Best New Play Awards from both London and New York critics, and brought Zakes Mokae a Tony Award for his portrayal of Sam.

At the end of the decade, Fugard surprised many admirers with implied criticism of the African National Congress in My Children! My Africa! (1989). Despite his disagreement with the ANC’s boycott of South Africa’s segregated schools, he continued to support the organization’s long-term goals: a multiracial democracy and the release of its long-imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela.

In South Africa, the winds of change had become irresistible. In 1991, State President F. W. de Klerk made the decision to legalize the ANC and negotiate a transition to multiracial democracy. Nelson Mandela was freed from Robben Island, and the longed-for transformation of South Africa was underway. For a time, Athol Fugard believed that the triumph of democracy would mean the end of his usefulness as a playwright and social observer, but the trials and traumas of a country’s newfound freedom continue to provide him with material for compelling drama.

While Athol Fugard pursued his career as a playwright on three continents, his wife Sheila, a novelist and poet in her own right, became increasingly immersed in the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. As Athol Fugard sought to define his role in the new South Africa, Sheila Fugard made a life for herself in California and the couple went their separate ways. Their daughter, Lise, became a novelist and actress herself and has acted in a number of her father’s plays.

In 2011, Athol Fugard received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theater. (© Gary Hershorn/ Reuters/Corbis)
In 2011, Athol Fugard received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theater. (© Gary Hershorn/Corbis)

He established a working relationship with the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. His plays Coming Home (2008) and Have You Seen Us (2009) both premiered at the Long Wharf. More recent plays, The Train Driver (2010) and The Bird Watchers (2011), premiered at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, a multi-space performance venue named for the country’s greatest playwright. Die Laaste Karretjiegraf (“the last donkey cart grave”), which also premiered at the Fugard, is his first play in Afrikaans, written to fulfill a promise he made long ago to his Afrikaans-speaking mother. In 2011, he received Broadway’s top honor, a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. Since the downfall of the apartheid system and the inauguration of multiracial democracy in South Africa, Athol Fugard has been honored by his country’s government with the Ikhamanga Medal, and is an Honorary Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature. In 2006, the film Tsotsi, based on Athol Fugard’s 1961 novel, won international awards, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

In 2014, Fugard returned to the stage as an actor for the first time in 15 years to act in his new play, Shadow of the Hummingbird, at the Long Wharf. He dedicated the play to his nine-year-old grandson, Gavyn Fugard Scranton. Athol Fugard’s published work includes more than 30 plays, as well as journals, novels, short stories and screenplays. In 2015, his play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek opened in New York to critical acclaim.

Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg presents the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement to South African playwright Athol Fugard at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco.
Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg presents the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement to South African playwright Athol Fugard at the 2014 International Achievement Summit in San Francisco.

In addition to traveling around the world for productions of his plays, for a number of years Athol Fugard taught acting, directing and playwriting at the University of California, San Diego. He still spends time regularly in Cape Town, and takes an interest in the theater there that bears his name, but the place he calls home is the house he shares with his partner Paula Fourie in Nieu-Bethesda, a small village in the semi-arid Karoo region of South Africa, not unlike the one where he was born over 80 years ago.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2014

Hailed as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world,” South Africa’s Athol Fugard has won international praise for creating theater of “power, glory, and majestic language.” In more than 20 plays, written over six decades, he has chronicled the struggles of men and women of all races for dignity and human fulfillment.

Born and raised in the Eastern Cape, he founded a multiracial theater company in the 1950s in defiance of the South African government’s apartheid system. When he and a black colleague appeared as mixed-race brothers in his play The Blood Knot, it was closed after a single performance. In the 1960s, his work found an audience in other English-speaking countries, but after he appeared in The Blood Knot on BBC Television, the government seized his passport.

Since the downfall of the apartheid system, Fugard has been honored by his country’s government and by critics and audiences the world over. An Honorary Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Literature, in 2001 he received Broadway’s Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement. His novel Tsotsi was adapted into the film of the same name, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2006. He has appeared as an actor in the feature films Gandhi and The Killing Fields. In 2014, he returned to the stage for the first time in 15 years to act in his new play Shadow of the Hummingbird at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

Watch full interview

Can you tell us about the first play where you think you really found your voice?

Athol Fugard: The Blood Knot. It’s about two brothers in that segment of our society called “the colored people,” people of mixed racial descent. And as tragically happened very often to families in that group, one brother can be born — or one sibling can be born — dark-skinned, and another one can be white, white enough to try to pass for white. And that is a temptation that is faced in that society, in that group of people in those years. And my play, which was really written not so much to — but then this has happened with so many plays I’ve written — not written so much to make a comment about or to say something about the racial tensions in my country. It was written to explore the relationship with my elder brother, about whom I felt very guilty because I was the smart one in the family. And Royal — his name was Royal Fugard — and Royal struggled very hard with his education and then subsequently with his attempts to get work and things like that. And that is what The Blood Knot was about. And it’s a play, as I first wrote it, which is flawed enormously by a young man’s enthusiasm for language. It’s grossly overwritten as first written. It has now been pruned down, and there’s a very, very good — not version — the soul of the play lives now in a very severely edited version of the play, and that is the one I did at the Signature Theatre, for example, in New York at the opening of their first season in that wonderful new premises they have.

Athol Fugard addresses the Academy of Achievement student delegates and members during the 2014 Summit.
Athol Fugard addresses the Academy student delegates and members during the 2014 Summit in San Francisco.

After your first success with The Blood Knot, you started an integrated theater company in South Africa. How did that come about?

Keys to success — Integrity

One night there was a knock on my door.  And into my life trooped five black people from the black ghetto of Port Elizabeth called New Brighton.  And they had come to ask me — they’d read about me and my success in the local newspaper, and they’d come to ask me if I would help them start a theater group.  At first I thought, “God, no.  The last thing I want to do is teach people how to act or what theater is about.  I’m a writer.  I just want to write my play.”  But my guilty liberal conscience got the better of me, and I said, “All right, let’s try something.”  And that started a very, very important and defining period in my life when I realized — because at that moment the apartheid laws were all powerful in the country.  And one of the consequences of it was there was a silence.  Free speech did not exist.  It’s as simple as that.  The Americas cherished free speech.  We knew nothing about that.  If you spoke up too loudly about the injustice or anything like that, you were in trouble.  And what those five people taught me, as we began to work together then, was that theater was a way of breaking that conspiracy of silence. That you could use the stage to talk about things that would have landed you in trouble if you talked about them openly and publicly in any other context.  As it turned out, there were consequences, because although the police had already targeted me to a certain extent as being a liberal —  a dreaded word in South African politics in that period — the black people were defenseless.  I was protected by my white skin.  And a large number of my actors were arrested during — not a large number — about five or six were arrested during rehearsals and carted off to Robben Island.

On what pretext?

Athol Fugard: That they were members of a banned organization, which was completely false.

Then what happened?

Athol Fugard: We just kept on working, because by then my plays were starting to be recognized abroad, particularly in America. The publicity associated with my name began to act as a defense against official action against me.

Playwright Athol Fugard enjoys an informal dinner at the Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley during the 2014 Achievement Summit with undersea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle, and cellist and Academy delegate Cicely Parnas.
Playwright Athol Fugard enjoys an informal dinner at the Auberge du Soleil in Napa Valley during the 2014 Achievement Summit with undersea explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle, and cellist and Academy delegate Cicely Parnas.

Were your plays ever banned or censored?

Athol Fugard: Some plays of mine were banned. A play of mine called Boesman and Lena, which got published in South Africa and then ended up being banned. And libraries were told, believe it or not, to burn — school libraries were told to burn the copies of the book! And another play of mine, which is arguably one of my most successful in terms of the frequency with which it is done, is called “Master Harold”… and the Boys. That also landed me briefly in trouble until we discovered loopholes in the law which allowed us to proceed with performances that they hadn’t anticipated and hadn’t been plugged up yet. You know, closed.

It was still brave of you to put them on.

Keys to success — Integrity

Please, and I mean this very honestly, I’m not a brave man.  That’s the last adjective that should ever be used in terms of me.  But you know, when your conscience forces you to do something, no matter how frightened you are of doing it, you sometimes get around to doing it, and that is the way it was with me.