Athol Fugard

Marianne McDonald

in African Studies

ISBN: 9780199846733
Published online May 2016 | | DOI:
Athol Fugard

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Since the 1950s, the searing plays of South African playwright Athol Fugard (born 1932 in Middelburg, South Africa) have traced the history of his nation and its people. Known as the world’s most-performed playwright writing in English in the 21st century, Fugard has created works that continue to touch audiences throughout the world, as these plays address the struggles that all human beings inevitably face. Often compared to Beckett, whom he admired, Fugard dissects mankind and the problems the world faces in the 21st century. He put South African theater on the world map through his indictment of the unjust apartheid system, which had one set of laws for whites and another (harsher) set for blacks. (Apartheid lasted from 1948 until 1994, when the first democratic election made Nelson Mandela president.) In the years since the collapse of apartheid, Fugard has turned his attention to the aftermath of apartheid rule while also continuing his search to understand humanity’s place in the universe. Fugard’s work shows a keen understanding and empathy for the flaws and virtues of humanity, the former being expressed in “Master Harold”. . . and the boys, where he portrayed himself as a young tyrant. At the same time, he highlights the heroes who brought about change, including himself, by denouncing apartheid in his plays. Now in his eighties, Fugard believes more passionately than ever that theater can change lives for the better. Although, like Seamus Heaney, he sometimes denies that art can bring about change, deep down he still believes it can impart faith in human decency and instill the courage to rectify at least some wrongs. For instance, The Island shows two prisoners putting on their version of Sophocles’s Antigone, and thereby they indict the whole audience of guards watching to say nothing of the South African audience attending the performance. The final three lines of the play embody Fugard’s own indignation in Winston/Antigone’s comments: “Gods of my Fathers! My Land! My Home!Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honor belongs.” Apartheid deprived the blacks of their just rights. The study of Fugard is not simply the study of a literary giant. To understand him means working to understand the societal and moral conditions of his country. Fugard is a vital and important writer, but his importance transcends neatly delimited literary study. He has, of course, influenced other genres (such as opera, which is covered in this article), but he has also helped shape the moral and societal conditions of South Africa. Thus, this article attempts to capture the wider importance of a writer who is dedicated to the highest standards of craftsmanship.

Article.  12661 words. 

Subjects: African History ; African Languages ; African Music ; African Philosophy ; African Studies

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