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Resituating Fugard: South African Drama as Witness

  • Dennis Walder


The recent work of the South African dramatist Athol Fugard has addressed the present realities of a country undergoing traumatic change. But on whose behalf does it speak today? The common claim of critics has been that his work ‘bears witness’: but what does this claim amount to in the context of current debates about culture in South Africa? Central to these debates is the contextualizing work which has arisen out of the neo-Marxist emphasis on previously marginalized black dramatic forms: tending to supplant the liberal, universalizing approach which helped promote Fugard, this is fast becoming a new orthodoxy, diminishing his contribution and historic influence alike. In this article, Dennis Walder looks more closely at the European origins among the liberal-left of the idea of ‘bearing witness’, and considers its continuing potential as taken up by Fugard himself at a turning-point in the development of his plays – the moment from which sprang both Boesman and Lena and the collaborative Sizwe Bansi and The Island. These plays can still be understood to offer a voice to the voiceless – above all to Lena, the ‘Hotnot’ woman, an outcast among outcasts, who affirms her identity through her body and her language. Dennis Walder, who was born and brought up in South Africa and educated at the Universities of Cape Town and Edinburgh, is now Senior Lecturer in Literature at the Open University: a Dickens scholar, whose Dickens and Religion appeared in 1981, he also wrote the first book-length study of Athol Fugard (Macmillan, 1984), and is currently editing Fugard's plays for Oxford University Press.



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Notes and References

1. ‘Beware of “cultural commissars” of the left, warns Fugard’, in a lecture to Rhodes University staff and students, Grahamstown. See Cape Argus, 20 June 1991.

2. See, for example, Arthur, Thomas J., ‘My Children! My Africa! by Athol Fugard’, Theatre Journal, XLII, No. 2 (1990), p. 246–7; Billington, Michael, ‘The Word versus the First’, The Guardian, 8 09. 1990; Truss, Lynne, ‘Variations on the Riot Act’, Independent on Sunday, 9 09. 1990.

3. Gray, Stephen, ‘“Between Me and My Country”: Fugard's My Children! My Africa! at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg’, New Theatre Quarterly, VI, No. 21 (1990), p. 2530.

4. For the most important and influential views to date, see de Kok, Ingrid and Press, Karen eds., Spring is Rebellious: Arguments about Cultural Freedom by Albie Sachs and Respondents (Cape Town: Buchu Books, 1990).

5. Paz, Octavio, On Poets and Others, trans. Schmidt, M. (Manchester: Carcanet, 1987), p. 111–12.

6. See Miller, Jane, Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture (Virago, 1990), p. 108–35.

7. See Kavanagh, Robert, Theatre and Cultural Struggle in South Africa (Zed Books, 1985), especially p. 6183.

8. See, for example, Steadman, Ian, ‘Collective Creativity: Theatre for a Post-Apartheid Society’, in Rendering Things Visible: Essays on South African Literary Culture, ed. Trump, Martin (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1990), p. 307–21.

9. Serote, Mongane Wally, ‘Art as Craft and Politics: Theatre’, Arekopeneng, London, 1986, reprinted in On the Horizon (Fordsburg: Congress of South African Writers, 1990), p. 45–7.

10. Fugard, Athol, Notebooks: 1960–1977, ed. Benson, Mary (Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1983), p. 81, entry for May 1963. All subsequent references are to this edition, silently revised and modified as it has been, unless otherwise specified.

11. See my Athol Fugard (Macmillan, 1984), p. 79–82, for a more detailed account.

12. Kavanagh, op. cit., p. 161.

13. Levi, Primo, If This is a Man and The Truce, trans. Woolf, Stuart (Abacus, 1987), p. 47.

14. Levi, Primo, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Rosenthal, R. (Abacus, 1988), p. 63.

15. Lewin, Hugh, Bandiet: Seven Years in a South African Prison (Barrie and Jenkins, 1974), p. 134–48; Nkosi, Lewis, Mating Birds (Constable, 1986), p. 183–4.

16. Albert Camus, ‘Notebook 1, May 1935’, reprinted in Albert Camus, Selected Essays and Notebooks, trans. Philip Thody (Penguin, 1970), p. 235.

17. Sartre, Jean-Paul, What is Literature?, trans. Frechtman, B. (Methuen 1978), p. 80.

18. Ibid., p. 80.

19. Ibid., p. 58–9.

20. Gray, Stephen, ed. and Introduction, Athol Fugard (Johannesburg: McGraw-Hill, 1982), p. 27.

21. Seymour, Hilary, ‘Sizwe Bansi is Dead: a Study of Artistic Ambivalence’, Race and Class, XXI, No. 3 (1980), p. 273–89.

22. ‘An Island of Dreams’, Weekend Argus, Cape Town, 2 Nov. 1985.

23. See, for example, Ndebele, Njabulo, ‘The Rediscovery of the Ordinary’, Journal of Southern African Studies, XII, No. 2 (04 1986), p. 144–57; Manaka, Matsemela, ‘Human Problems that Come from a Political Situation’, interview in The Drama Review, XXX, No. 4 (06 1986), p. 4850.

24. wa Thiong'o, Ngugi, Introduction, Decolonizing the Mind (James Currey, 1986), p. 3.

25. Personal interview, National Theatre, London, September 1990.

26. Not fugitive for very much longer: see my forthcoming edition of The Township Plays (Oxford University Press, 1993).

27. Fugard, Athol, ‘When Brecht and Sizwe Bansi met in New Brighton’, Observer Review, 8 08 1982.

28. ‘Winner Through Hard Work’, Cape Times, 8 August 1991.

29. Anonymous, unpublished manuscript, 28 May 1965, Fugard Collection, National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown.

30. Quoted by Vandenbroucke, Russell, Truths the Hand Can Touch: the Theatre of Athol Fugard (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985), p. 126.

31. Compare the earlier, pre-Benson version of this part of the Notebooks, reprinted in Athol Fugard, Boesman and Lena and Other Plays (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. xxv: ‘How do I align myself with a future, a possibility, in which I believe but of which I have no clear image?’

32. Orkin, M., Drama and the South African State (Manchester: Manchester University Press; Johannes-burg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1991), p. 231.

33. Ibid., p. 141. Again, note that this oft-quoted remark does not appear in Fugard's own first, 1974 version of the Notebooks, reprinted in Boesman and Lena and Other Plays, op. cit., p. xx-xxv. Was it added later?

34. The correct version of the text may be found in my edition of Fugard, Athol, Selected Plays (Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 200. Subsequent references are to this edition.

35. Unpublished personal interview with Yvonne Bryceland, London, 21 Sept. 1983.

Resituating Fugard: South African Drama as Witness

  • Dennis Walder


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