Athol Fugard and the Serpent Players: The Port Elizabeth years

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Athol Fugard in Amsterdam (© Anthony Akerman)


Athol Fugard, the Grand Man of South African Literature, turned 92 on Tuesday, 11 June 2024.

Rory Riordan, who will have known Athol for 50 years next year, is writing a biography of the man who earned the title of “the foremost active playwright in the English-speaking world” in a 1988 article by William A Henry in Time Magazine.

Riordan’s biography is hoped to be on the shelves of bookstores by March next year, and it focuses particularly on the work of Athol and the Serpent Players of New Brighton township, Port Elizabeth.

The following is from a first draft of a section of the biography (you would be wise to expect considerable change by next year), which covers possibly Athol’s most productive years, the years from the explosion of The blood knot in South African and world theatre, to the rapturous reception of Sizwe Banzi is dead and The island.

In Riordan’s words:

Submitted in love, and with total respect, for the Grand Man of South African Letters, on his birthday.



So, my novel (à la Beckett) is no more. Read what I had written to Sheila. Her silence – my own feelings as I progressed from one muddled paragraph to another, were enough. I tore it up.

I don’t consider the work wasted. In any case, this business of writing “prose” because a publisher is interested is fundamentally wrong.

I am a playwright.

So tomorrow, we start again. How many false starts aren’t there before one hits on the one beginning that leads through to the end?[ii]


My life’s work is to witness as truthfully as I can the nameless and destitute of this one little corner of the world.[iii]


A less propitious place for the production of works of art or literature than Port Elizabeth it would be hard to imagine …. “Can one be moved,” asks Camus, “by a city where nothing attracts the mind, where the very ugliness is anonymous, where the past is reduced to nothing? Emptiness, boredom, an indifferent sky, what are the chances of such places?”[iv]


Over the years, I have readily identified myself as a regional writer …. Put me on a street corner in New York, or London, or Toronto or Amsterdam … and I am at a complete loss to make any real sense of the tide of humanity flowing past me …. But put me on a street corner in Port Elizabeth and it is a completely different matter …. I have mastered the code of one place and time; it is the Eastern Cape and the time is all of the life that started with that little boy scurrying around the streets of Port Elizabeth like one of the cockroaches that swarm under the lampposts at night.[v]


Apart from the talent of one individual in white theatre (Barney Simon), the work of this group (the Serpent Players) is the only significant provocation and stimulus to myself as writer and director that I have encountered in South Africa. In the context of theatre in this country, I think it is the only group of actors with a unique and important identity, a truly creative potential which if one day fully realised might be our most meaningful contribution to theatre.[vi]


“Athol Fugard is the foremost active playwright in the English-speaking world.”
– William A Henry, Time Magazine, 1988

Athol Fugard and his wife, Sheila, had spent 1960 in Europe – mostly in London, with a few sorties into the Low Countries, Belgium and the Nederlanden.

This was a frustrating and difficult year. Husband and wife had wished to make progress in their chosen world, the theatre, but no doors had opened in London and few in Europe. The Royal Court Theatre in London, often a haven for foreign theatre enthusiasts, had been unwilling to employ him even as a stage hand. They had to accept any work they could find – she as a typist, he a housecleaner.

They had lived poor in South Africa (their friend the Belgian Tone Brulin has described them living in an old Land Rover: “They were bohemians, types not common then in white South Africa, and I never came across any person who lived like them”[vii]; Sheila describes these times more prosaically: “[T]imes were hard and desperate and we were almost penniless”[viii]), but in Europe their circumstances became, if anything, worse. By year end, and with Sheila pregnant, they boarded the Carnarvon Castle in Southampton on 15 December 1960 and headed for home, South Africa.

The 28-year-old Athol Fugard who stood on the deck of the Carnarvon Castle was, in every sense, a no-hoper.

He had chosen to be a writer, and had written one novel, then tossed it into the sea at Fiji six years back, and never returned to it or its idea. He had then chosen to be a playwright. He had written two one-act plays while in Cape Town, and two full-length plays while in Johannesburg, and had repented of all four. In any case, nobody was willing to produce them. While in London, he had written another two full-length plays, and immediately discarded them. In truth, he had nothing to show for his six years of writing. Six plays, all hopeless.

“Then something happened,” wrote Don Maclennan 32 years later, in a tribute he gave to Fugard on his sixtieth year, in June 1992 at the Grahamstown Festival.

Not suddenly, but it happened nonetheless. In 1959 he and his wife Sheila went to Europe, and that is where the transformation took place in his perception of theatre. I liken it to James Watt watching a kettle on the hob: he saw the lid bulging up with steam, and it occurred to him that he could harness this energy into a steam engine. In Europe Fugard saw plays by Osborne, Pinter, Simpson, Wesker, Ionesco, Beckett, Chekov, Brecht, and Sartre. He felt the infectious excitement of the new surge of interest in theatre, in what was sometimes dubbed the Second Renaissance of European Theatre. This upsurge of energy was a cleaning out of the Augean stables, a dismissal of what theatre had been about for the last fifty years, and an affirmation that you could make theatre out of anything, especially out of the European psyche ravaged by the Second World War and robbed of its certainties.[ix]

It was on the Carnarvon Castle and on that journey home that Athol Fugard worked on three projects simultaneously, one on paper and two in his head. These projects were eventually to establish his reputation all over the world, and his next play was to blow South African theatre apart.

Firstly, the project on paper: he began to keep notebooks, which he diligently did for years thereafter, and which now provide extremely valuable insights into his thinking over his most productive years. Thirteen years later, Fugard wrote: “It became a daily ritual to record anything that happened to me that seemed of significance – sensual fragments, incidents, quotations, speculations. Writing now, I find in them the content of all I can possibly say about my work.”[x]

And secondly, he began thinking and developing ideas – and jotting them down in these notebooks – of two stories that were later to develop into a play and a novel, both of which went on to become twentieth century classics.

They disembarked in Cape Town and made their way home by road. Their destination was governed by their straitened circumstances – they were now to live in one room of his parents’ flat in Bird Street in Port Elizabeth. The flat had a second room, which was his parents’ bedroom. His father was an invalid with an amputated leg and had been without paying employment for years, and plainly had a drinking problem. The four of them were to live on the pennies Mrs Fugard could eke out of the café at the swimming pool in St George’s Park up the road from the Bird Street flat. Of this café she was the leaseholder and the proprietor.

As Fugard later wrote, “I was married, with a child (coming) and jobless, (Mother was) still there and feeding me and my family – plates of food in a basket from the St George’s Park Café,”[xi] and offering whatever pocket money she could spare.

He sat down at the table in this flat, and wrote and wrote.

For writing, his circumstances were about as far from ideal as can be imagined.

Their baby was growing inside Sheila daily, and money was needed to prepare for her arrival. They didn’t have any.

His father-in-law, Dr Ernest Meiring of Kirkwood, a small town 80 kilometres north of Port Elizabeth, was vocal in his criticism of his son-in-law. Dr Meiring saw him as a wastrel – a 28-year-old man with a wife and a child on the way, who was unwilling to get a job, choosing instead to sit and write a play and a novel of no particular importance, and certainly with no financial prospects.[xii]

His invalid father was in great discomfort, and would moan loudly out of his pain through the night, from the room next to that occupied by Fugard and his heavily pregnant wife. Fugard senior’s health was clearly failing, and the constant flow of painkillers was becoming increasingly ineffective. By May, Fugard’s notebooks included this: “Tonight, after two hours of pain, of sleepless nights, of crying and whining in the dark, of vainly imploring Jeeesus and God, Dad broke down and sobbed like a child. Tears and flat spit bubbled his lips.”[xiii]

Private space and “peace and quiet” did not exist in Mrs Fugard’s Bird Street flat.

But he just kept on writing. Fountain pen on foolscap paper. Page by page.

He had begun working on the two projects simultaneously – the novel and the play. The novel had begun in his mind earlier than the play, but the first notes in his notebook were of the play. Later, he worked out that this was not for him the way to work. “I’ve tried it a couple of times since, but the results have been a waste of time. If I can’t hand myself over to one project, I screw it up.”[xiv]

Fugard’s Notebooks begin with entries covering the end of 1960. Just over five pages cover this year; about two pages are on “Notes for a play”, and a similar amount of writing is devoted to “The idea for a story” for the novel. After some considerable writing on the novel, mostly on used stationery – the back of company documents Sheila had spirited out of her places of employment in London[xv] – Fugard abandoned the novel and set about writing the play only. The handwritten drafts of the novel were stored away by Sheila (he believed they had been destroyed), and, at a much later date, they became the first draft of Fugard’s only novel, Tsotsi, now read worldwide and the basis for a hugely successful movie.

It was to the play that he now turned all of his energies.

The first entry in his notebooks gives us an initial version of its story. It’s to be about two brothers – “The same mother! The same father!”[xvi] – but who differ dramatically in skin colour. The one, Morris, is light-skinned, almost white, and the other, Zachariah (Zach), is dark-skinned, certainly to be regarded as an “African”. Both are, of course, by South Africa’s horrifying legislated divisions of the time, “coloureds”.

The play has had a number of drafts, and the storyline has changed from that given to us in the first pages of the Notebooks. We will consider this all later, in detail. What we need to note here is that this play is to differ from Fugard’s two earlier plays, No-good Friday and Nongogo, performed in Johannesburg before his European adventure, in three ways.

Firstly, the earlier plays were set in township life in Sophiatown in Johannesburg – this play is set in a world apart from normal, vibrant society: it is set, from beginning to end, in a dilapidated, sparsely furnished shack in a lonely slum called Korsten, in Port Elizabeth. Korsten has been “cleared” by the Port Elizabeth municipality at least twice in its long history, plainly ineffectively. It borders on an industrial wasteland of pollution, dumps and desolation, and is thus to be the home only of discarded people, people with almost no life options. People like Morris and Zach.

Secondly, this play has a cast of two, full stop. And Morris and Zach are hardly multifaceted people. They are not “beautiful people”, nor are they much connected to a world off-stage. In this play, if we are to be entertained at all, it is Morris and Zach who will do the entertaining.

Thirdly, this is a play of considerable length. When first presented, it was over four hours of theatre. More words spoken onstage than in Hamlet. (Hamlet, the longest of Shakespeare’s plays, has 26 speaking actors, dozens of other “Ladies, Gentlemen, Officers, Soldiers, Sailors, Messengers, Gravediggers, a Ghost, etc”, set in 19 scenes involving 15 changes of set, beautiful women, a skull, and blood and murder galore, etc – all to hold the audience’s attention.) What does Fugard give us? The same two hobos in the same shack throughout these four long hours. Phew.

In May of 1961, three dramatic things happened. Firstly, the National Party government, tired of the Commonwealth’s endless criticism of their governing, turned South Africa into a republic on 31 May.

And four days earlier, Lisa Maria Fugard was born, at the end of a long and difficult birth process. This was on 27 May. On the next day, Athol Fugard put his pen down, for “The blood knot” was finally finished. A new play had arrived, as had a new Fugard.

A play is not a play until it is performed.

Fugard knew there would be no takers to mount his lengthy story of two beneuked brothers in a woebegone shanty, so he determined to do it himself. He decided to direct the production personally and to play the part of Morris also. Zakes Mokae, a friend from his Joburg stay before his English venture, was to be Zach. This was against the advice of others, as Zakes was inexperienced – in fact, he was a saxophonist with very limited acting experience – but Fugard was not to be changed; Zakes it was to be, and rehearsals were to be in Dorkay House in Johannesburg.

For budget provision, there was nothing. Fugard had to clip onto the very limited infrastructure he had worked with previously when in Johannesburg, and this was the facilities of the Union of South African Artists. This grouping of black persons interested in the theatre had been put together by white liberals with the same interests, now under the leadership of Ian Bernhardt, a theatre promoter. United Artists had “hit the jackpot” with an Afrojazz musical about the life of the boxing legend Ezekiel Dlamini. This work, called King Kong, had introduced Miriam Makeba to the world, and had been a great success.

United Artists had previously been the beneficiary of the takings from Father Huddleston’s farewell concert, which had been sufficient to lease a disused warehouse named Dorkay House on Eloff Street in the centre of Johannesburg. Although its major function was to provide rehearsal and performance space for musicians, by 1961 this building also housed a drama school and an arts workshop, and included, on the third floor, the “Rehearsal Room”, a small (seating 60 on stack chairs) experimental theatre.[xvii] Small, yes, but the best Fugard could get, and it was here that he and Zakes set about turning the endless script into a performance play.

Living in Johannesburg on a threadbare budget also had its risks. Fugard described their lodgings:

Braes o’ Berea – abuses, obscene slanging match between two women in annexe next-door. “Ou poes”, “you mongrel bitch”, “fucking ou hoer”. The one, big, burly, aggressive, had beaten up the other – black eye, broken lips. Late at night. Inevitably a small crowd had collected and stood around watching, like statues – absolutely motionless. The woman who had been beaten up turned to them and in between berating the other, appealed, “Please call the police!” No one moved. “You rotten old bitch. I want my bloody money. You fucking old shit. It’s my room. Call the police for me. Phone them, tell them to come. I’ll show her.” No one moved.[xviii]

Five long months passed from when the first draft of the script was finished, to the first performance. In this time, a third personality entered the rehearsals. His name was Barney Simon, and he had previously attended performances of both Fugard’s early plays, No-good Friday and Nongogo, and had been impressed by both. There he had met Fugard, and, “There was instant rapport. I responded to those plays because of their directness and their access to humanity. I’d wanted to leave South Africa, but they gave me a sense of place and direction. When Athol asked me to be his ‘third eye’ for The blood knot, I didn’t believe that he meant it. I finally went to rehearsals, but it took time and Athol’s persistence.”[xix]

The Rehearsal Room was anything but an easy venue; it was overwhelmed by sources of loud sound – the traffic noise of Eloff Street, then Johannesburg’s busiest, on the one side, and traditional drumming and singing from the miners’ hostel on the other. And blazing evening sun hitting the windows on the west side. And there was inadequate lighting – they had to use Barney Simon’s bedside lamps for the first performance.

This first performance was on 22 October 1961. It was a mixed bag. Simon noted that Fugard and Mokae had to improvise at times, as they occasionally missed lines in the encyclopaedic text. Mokae describes an amazing evening: “We must have been crazy. The people had to sit on hard chairs. There was no ventilation and no intermission, but nobody walked out. It was so quiet, there were no coughs. Where there was finally applause you didn’t know where you were at. We drank ourselves to oblivion after the first night.”[xx]

Two reviews reflect the impact this work had. The review in the Rand Daily Mail was more instructive than critical:

For three and a half hours, two characters poured out torrents of words that made the air a solid thing in the rehearsal room of the African Music and Drama Association last night. Athol Fugard’s new play, The blood knot, was presented to an invited audience and proved for them as much a test of endurance as it must have been for the two actors …. A play, like a tree, needs good pruning. Athol Fugard has let his run wild.[xxi]

The review in the Star by Oliver Walker was more forgiving, and, writes Vandenbrouche, “attracted attention to the production”.[xxii]

Also in the invited audience were the two owners of United Artists, theatre promoters Taubie Kushlick and Leon Gluckman. They were split in their opinions of the work – Kushlick wanted nothing to do with it, but Gluckman, one of South Africa’s most talented theatre people, decided to take it on. Which, with Fugard’s agreement, he then did.

Gluckman transferred it to the YMCA Intimate Theatre in Rissik Street on 8 November, under his personal control, and the play – and Athol Fugard – never looked back.

First, Fugard and Gluckman agreed on a “pruning” of the text.

Fugard, now with a typewriter his mother had saved up for and bought him, somehow got someone to hammer out 93 pages of text (Fugard only, ever, wrote with a fountain pen on sheets of white paper – typewriters were, for him, no part of the writer’s trade)[xxiii]. Some of it was typed on the back of gala programmes his mother had brought back from the café at the St George’s Park Swimming Pool,[xxiv] and all of it was later extensively modified by Fugard with many, many pen and ink changes to the typed text. This new and shortened text, further cleaned up by an editor at Simondium Publishers, forms the basis of the first published version of The blood knot.[xxv]

When this version was presented in early November, the reviews were terrific.

The day after the first performance at the Intimate Theatre, the team woke to find the following in the Star: “[A]nd we are off on one of the most moving and meritorious local theatre experiments to date …. Athol Fugard’s play has almost everything. Superb acting from the two players, an atmospheric setting, biting pathos, refreshing humour and passages of sheer poetry.”[xxvi]

A day later, the Rand Daily Mail brought out another review, this time glowing: “This is certainly one of the most entrancing and imaginative pieces of theatre to have been staged in Johannesburg for a long, long time, and the audience showed its appreciation unmistakingly …. The blood knot is a significant contribution to South African theatre – authentic, original and completely stimulating.”

Three days later, on 13 November, Percy Baneshik, in the same newspaper, interviewed Fugard and began his article with: “Fugard has startled Johannesburg with a play of immense power and compassion.”[xxvii]

But the cherry on the top of it all was a sublime review from James Ambrose Brown in the Sunday Times. Brown, himself a playwright with nine plays to his name, was fulsome in his praise:[xxviii]

What theatre Athol Fugard has contrived from two brothers (one white, one black), an ugly shanty in a location, an alarm clock that rings stridently … and the theme that it is dangerous to dream, and that “a lot of people get by without futures these days”.

I have seen Fugard’s The blood knot three times, and each time I have been impressed by its subtlety, its unexpected richness, its sparks of penetrating dialogue, its humour and its deep pain. But above all it impresses by its lack of heat and anger when dealing with a subject which usually generates unbridled propaganda ….

As a theatre critic who has watched the indigenous theatre grow over many years (and as a playwright), I say emphatically that Fugard’s The blood knot has given the South African play international status.

Encouraged by these reviews and by the sell-out performances in Johannesburg, Gluckman took The blood knot on a national tour. Nearly six months and 130 performances later, this tour ended in New Brighton in Port Elizabeth. As Nadine Gordimer wrote, “The white audience stream[ed] in week after week as if fascinated by a snake before Athol Fugard’s The blood knot.”[xxix]

This was a major success. In a country where, at the time, theatre performances that attracted audiences were mostly musicals (My fair lady, The student prince), to have attracted thousands of attendees to The blood knot was nothing short of a theatrical miracle. A second miracle was to have done this with, for the first time, one black and one white actor on stage together in apartheid South Africa. Four years later, the government legislated this brief reality out of existence.

It goes without saying that the 29-year-old Athol Fugard was overwhelmed by the sudden transmogrification from desperate amateur to world figure in theatre. As Vandenbrouche has written: “In addition to having created the most important work of theatre in the history of South Africa to that point, Fugard took his first step into the company of the finest contemporary playwrights. According to him, The blood knot ‘marks my discovery of myself as a writer’.”[xxx]

The decade that followed the launch of The blood knot and its triumphal march around the theatres of South Africa was a period of intense activity for Fugard. This activity can be presented as two sets of events: firstly, the creation and launching of another three major plays, with many attendant issues; and secondly, the establishment of a relationship with a number of township theatre activists, leading to the beginnings of cooperative authorship of a further set of very different masterpieces.

We will consider these two sets of events separately, although in reality they overlapped continuously.

Firstly, the creation of Fugard’s next three major works: the plays People are living there, Hello and goodbye and Boesman and Lena.

But before we get there, there was still some gas in The blood knot’s tank. Its reputation was now all over the world, and to London and New York the play went.

The play opened in London at the New Arts Theatre in Hampstead on 22 February 1963. A London director, John Berry, directed it and made the first mistake: he (correctly) cast Zakes Mokae as Zach, but, to bolster the show’s visibility, he cast Ian Bannen, a Scot, and already a veteran of some 15 films, as Morris, leaving Fugard out. This delivered the play into the hands of the critics, many of whom felt that Bannen’s attempted Afrikaans brogue was too far removed from Zakes’s heavy Setswana accent for the two to be credibly brothers.

Worse was to come.

Harold Hobson, in the Sunday Times, failed to mention Mokae in his review, instead writing: “The blood knot is an anti-apartheid play with the strikingly interesting feature of seeming, until the interval, to be pro-apartheid.” He concluded: “In spite of all (its) virtues, I must admit that The blood knot is not a play I enjoyed. To be acceptable the reasons for presenting degradation on the stage must be more than philosophic.”[xxxi]

Charles Marowitz in the Times: ”Plays dealing with the colour problem in South Africa are almost obliged to have a certain revolutionary ardour. Otherwise, they cannot help looking like imposters …. The narrative has the bite of dentures rather than teeth, and the one scene in which it directly confronts the crux of the problem is so arbitrarily tagged on, it seems to have been included out of appropriateness rather than conviction.”[xxxii]

It was left to the reviewer Kenneth Tynan, a complex and flawed personality with an acid tongue, to deliver the coup de grâce in the Weekend Observer on 24 February. Tynan began: “At regular intervals throughout Athol Fugard’s The blood knot an alarm clock rings, summonsing the actors to food or bed. Its jangle may also be welcome to members of the audience who may find themselves, as I intermittently did, sunk in embarrassed sleep …. To some extent, I suppose, the piece reflects the guilt that a white South African feels about the Bantu; but to people who would not be horrified if their daughter married a Negro, it seems drably unadventurous, and at times – in the attitude of bemused benevolence towards the childish coloureds – unconsciously illiberal.”[xxxiii]

Only Bernard Levin, later to become possibly the most celebrated columnist the Times has ever had, found quality: “Mr Fugard has built the flesh of a play that is remarkable. It is remarkable in the evocative nature of its writing, conjuring up the heat and feel of the land; in its wisdom and tolerance, in its sad, desperate gaity, in its theatrically powerful horror, in its passionate detachment that never lets it speak directly to the audience, but lets the preaching be done by the blood that is thicker than water and louder than words.”[xxxiv]

Such was the power of the negative reviews that the play was pulled off in less than a month. In his notebooks, Fugard says nothing of this, and merely notes that he “returned from The blood knot production in London” – he had been away for five weeks.[xxxv]

The blood knot’s international career had not, however, been disrupted, not even temporarily.

Fugard was at the first night of his play at the Cricket Theatre in New York in March 1964. Berry again directed, now with American actors – James Earl Jones and JD Cannon. (United States equity had refused non-American actors opportunities unless they were “international figures”.)

Fugard was not confident: “I have forced myself to expect the worst. Tynan’s legacy is a certain fatalism and growing indifference. The critical asp has had its bite and I’ve bred antibodies.”[xxxvi]

He need not have been tense. The New York Times, then and now the USA’s leading newspaper, in the next year voted The blood knot the best new play of the previous year. This was the first of Fugard’s international awards – there were to be many to follow.

On 16 May 1966, The blood knot returned to England, beginning in Brighton and moving on to London. This time, Fugard and Mokae were cast, and Fugard directed. It did very well, indeed. “Hampstead season almost over. An incredible, disconcerting success. Full houses the past week; reviews unanimously good, many of them raves …. I am splendidly equipped to return (to Port Elizabeth) and the sea,”[xxxvii] wrote an upbeat Fugard in his notebooks.

He was called back to London in early 1967, for the BBC to do a teleplay of The blood knot. Robert Midgley directed a shortened script (90 minutes) with Fugard as Morris and Charles Hyatt as Zach. It took five weeks to make the teleplay, with: “Five cameras. A wonderful set …. The sheer luxury of total professionalism – got everything we needed to do the job.”[xxxviii]

The blood knot and its author were no longer phenomena in South Africa only.

Fugard had more to be proud of: “Twenty-five years later, I was on Broadway with the same actor (Mokae) in that play! That was one of the most extraordinary experiences I have had in theatre! That little play had survived twenty–five years. It’s been done in Russia, in Japan, in – well, just about every language I know of. It has survived and is still going strong. A lot of people, to my great discomfort, still describe it as my best play. It’s Sheila’s favourite … and there Zakes and I were on Broadway. And the play still worked!”[xxxix]

The success of The blood knot came just in time for Fugard and his family: ”Relationship between Mom, Sheila, Lisa and self in the flat. The flat is of course Mom’s, but Sheila and I have in a sense ‘taken over’. Chaos in the evening meal – everybody shouting, crowded around the too-small table. Next week Aunt Ann and her third husband – Hendrik – move in with us for a week. Sheila in particular is squirming at the prospect. Those two old bodies – urinating, farting, expectorating – separated from us by the partitioning between our and Ouma’s room.”[xl]

Relief came in June 1964: “So today life starts again and this time it’s The Haven, at Schoenmakerskop. A view of the sea and the silence and privacy I’ve wanted so long. I feel ready for work.”[xli] The Fugards had rented a cottage in the little fisherman’s village of Schoenmakerskop, nine kilometres south of Port Elizabeth on the Indian Ocean coast. Later that year, they were to buy it. It was to be their home and refuge for the next ten years. This was possible, Fugard has said, by the fact that he “wore three hats – actor, director and playwright – this kept us going as a family!”. It was only by 1990 that he came to believe that his earnings from royalties from his plays “could probably keep us going as a family!”.[xlii]

After the dust settled on The blood knot, Fugard moved on with People are living there, then Hello and goodbye, then Boesman and Lena.


Started writing

Finished writing

First performance


The blood knot

January 1961

May 1961

22 October 1961

Dorkay House, Johannesburg

People are living there

April/May 1962

August 1964

13 March 1969

Close Theatre, Glascow

Hello and goodbye

September 1963

September 1965

26 October 1965

Library Theatre, Johannesburg

Boesman and Lena

August 1965, then Oct 1967

Early 1969

10 July 1969

Rhodes University Little Theatre, Grahamstown

These four plays are both similar and different, and we will consider this in detail later. Here, it suffices to outline their stories and their relationships to each other.

The first to be written was People are living there, which Fugard began as he finished the long national tour of The blood knot. Like The blood knot, here the action is all played out by a group of marginal characters in one space, the kitchen of a seedy boarding house in downtown Johannesburg – which is almost certainly modelled on the Berea hostelry we have already mentioned.

The central character is Milly, just turned 50 and the proprietor of the establishment. She has recently been jilted by Ahlers after a ten-year love affair. Ahlers is, or was, also a resident of the boarding house, but does not appear onstage as he is out courting his new, younger lover. To prove Ahlers to be a man of weak judgment (Ahlers has said that Milly is “not a woman anymore”), Milly has assembled her remaining lodgers for a party – they are Shorty, a bumbling postman who endures a celibate marriage to Sissy, a poisonous lass whose only claim to fame is her ability constantly to humiliate her husband, who in turn has taken to breeding silkworms as a distraction from his hopeless marriage. To complete this uninspiring group is Don, a pseudo-intellectual amateur psychologist and full-time cynic.

The party is designed to help its originator, Milly, to lift her mood, and to show the absent Ahlers what he has tossed away so foolishly. Of course, it is a predictable failure, leaving Milly eventually more downcast than she was when she began the party.

The cast is larger than that of The blood knot, the characters are all white and none of the bite of the play can be put down to the effects of apartheid. It took years to be first performed, and possibly now stands in the shadow of many of Fugard’s other works.

Hello and goodbye was Fugard’s next play. Cast, like The blood knot, with only two characters, brother Johnnie and sister Hester Smit, both white, again it has only one set, the living room of a humble cottage at 57a Valley Road, in the centre of Port Elizabeth. Hester has, like Morrie in The blood knot, returned to the family home after a long spell away. Whatever her intentions were on leaving, they did not work out, and she ended up as a prostitute. “You want a sin? Here’s one – I hoer.” Now, she is home to claim an imagined inheritance from her deceased father.

Johnnie, pretending that their father is alive and resting in a room of the cottage behind a closed door, allows her to tear through case after case of all the remaining possessions of their father. Eventually, Hester realises that her father is dead, and that there is no fortune at 57a Valley Road. In fury, she attacks Johnnie, then recovers her senses and suggests he come with her back to Johannesburg. He refuses, she leaves and the play closes with him on his father’s crutches, muttering, “Resurrection.”

In August 1965, Fugard with his friend Barney Simon and with Mabel (May) Magada, Norman Ntshinga’s wife, went to Cradock for the trial of Fugard’s colleague in township theatre (more later), Norman Ntshinga. Ntshinga’s “offence” was to be a working member of the then-banned African National Congress, and his trial and subsequent sentence to Robben Island were removed from the public eye by being held in Cradock, a small town about 250 kilometres north of Port Elizabeth.

Driving home, they saw “an old woman on the road”.

We picked her up about ten miles outside the town – she was carrying all her worldly possessions in a bundle on her head and an old shopping bag. About 50 years old. Cleft palate. A very hot day.

Her story was that she had been chased off a farm after her husband’s death about three days previously. She was walking to another farm where she had a friend. Later on she told us she had nine children but didn’t know where they were. She thought a few of them were in PE.

I told her to tell me when to stop. When she had got into the car she said she was going very far. After driving about 15 miles it became obvious that she would never have reached her destination on foot that day. We asked her about this and she said she knew it and would have slept in one of the stormwater drains.

She cried frequently. The first time was when I took the bundle (it was very heavy) off her head and put it in the boot and she realised she was going to get a lift. She told May she couldn’t believe it, “It was like a dream.” Then in the car, telling her story, she cried again. May comforted her. Finally when we reached the gate where she wanted to get off and I gave her two of the three shillings left in my pocket, she cried again. I put the bundle on her head; May carried the shopping bag down an embankment to the gate and set her on her way. My last image of her is the thin scrawny ankles between her old shoes and the edge of her old skirt, trundling away in the bush.[xliii]

The seeds of the person, Lena, for the play Boesman and Lena, were planted in Fugard’s mind that day. But it took two years of many other things before the play got a start.

I first began working on Boesman and Lena in October 1967. I find these two entries in my notebook.


Boesman – self-hatred and shame, focused on Lena, who is, after all, his life … tangible and immediate enough to be beaten, derided and, worst of all, needed. His jealousy and bewilderment in her relationship with the old man. Her discovery of value, of herself as having value. Boesman’s loneliness at that moment.

Boesman and Lena facing each other across the scraps and remnants of their life.[xliv]

In Boesman and Lena, Fugard returns to the template that made The blood knot the sensation that it had come to be.

Again, we have just two characters, the now homeless coloured couple of the title. (Briefly there is a third character, Outa, who is mute.) The set is even more sparse than in the other three plays – in fact, Boesman and Lena begins with an empty stage, later to be furnished with the detritus brought in on the backs of, and in the hands of, the two characters. As with the lady on the road from Cradock. Nothing more.

Their story is pathetic. That morning, the anonymous agents of apartheid bulldozed Boesman and Lena’s shack in Korsten, and the couple departed the scene of this horror with whatever they could carry on their persons. From there, they trudged, overwhelmingly burdened, to where they are now – in the mud flats of the Swartkops River, many kilometres from Korsten. The brutality of another apartheid forced removal and their pitiful journey thereafter has left them utterly exhausted, penniless and alone. As they enter the empty stage, Lena sometime after Boesman, they bring all the horrors of apartheid with them. It is an overwhelming beginning, and the play becomes more and more depressing as it progresses. The abysmal process of two people, bound together in life, crushed by apartheid and the poverty it thrust onto such people as them, turning on each other in mindless angers, is presented with genius by Fugard – and it does not make for easy watching. Boesman and Lena is a description of apartheid South Africa from which there is no escape.

Russell Vandenbroucke has written, “If there is such a thing as modern tragedy, Boesman and Lena is a prime example. It is the finest play written since Waiting for Godot.”[xlv]

Boesman and Lena premiered at the Rhodes University’s Little Theatre in Grahamstown on 10 July 1969, with Fugard as Boesman and Yvonne Bryceland as Lena. Fugard directed also. The Eastern Province Herald newspaper reported the next morning that “at the end of the performance there was silence. And then the theatre filled with applause. The cast took eight curtain calls.”[xlvi]

The next day, the same newspaper quoted Alan Paton, who was also at the premiere: “[E]nthralled …. The play makes a tremendous impact and has great significance … my only regret it that I don’t see how such a play can be exported.”[xlvii] He should not have worried – more later.

Also at the premiere was Ben de Kock, the cultural editor of Die Burger. For the first time, a Fugard play was admired by an Afrikaans-language critic: “Boesman and Lena brought a new status and maturity to South African theatre …. Controversial it certainly would be, but because it is one of the most penetrating and moving stage productions ever created in our country, it must be seen on the stage.”[xlviii] This moved the editor of the Evening Post to remind readers that Fugard had languished for two years without a passport, and asked, “[I]s the government going to persist in punishing our most distinguished playwright?”[xlix]

This production of Boesman and Lena moved on to the Hofmeyr Theatre in Cape Town, where it played for six weeks and took 10 000 patrons.[l] Stephen Gray reports that by April 1971, it had been seen by as many as 70 000 people in South Africa.[li] For a play so unrelenting, so dramatic and so harrowing, with such a sparse cast and minimal stage set, and in a country so infested by apartheid, this is miraculous.

Boesman and Lena opened on Broadway at the Circle on the Square Theatre on 22 June 1971. The reaction was breathtaking. Boesman and Lena won the 1971 Obie Awards for Best Director (John Berry), Best Actress (Ruby Dee – Lena) and Best Foreign Play (Athol Fugard).[lii]

Clive Barnes, the New York Times’s critic, wrote: “In both The blood knot and Hello and goodbye, Mr Fugard has suggested a more than common talent. In Boesman and Lena, he is through suggesting: he is shouting from the roof …. For reasons that must be apparent to the entire world, the South African authorities have refused Mr Fugard a passport to leave his native land. However, both the authorities and Mr Fugard himself can be assured that nothing better than Mr Fugard’s writing has come out of South Africa for years.”[liii]

There was more. Milton Shulman in the Evening Standard: “Written with the grace of a poet and the vision of a man who loves and pities the broken and despised, this is easily the best play to come out of that troubled part of Africa.”[liv]

Finally, Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic: “Boesman and Lena is the kind of play that ‘nobody’ writes anymore, representational, sequential, mimetic; but it is rooted in such a felt need, its symbolism is so thoroughly assimilated, its tragic view so whole-souled, that it again provokes a sometimes forgotten truth: no art form is dead if it fits the purpose of a committed and talented artist …. To Athol Fugard, off there in South Africa that is at once his prison and his reason for artistic being: greetings, honour, love.”[lv]

Another somewhat disguised honour befell Boesman and Lena 13 years later. By then, Fugard’s reputation as the foremost playwright writing in the English language was established, to the point that departments of English language studies in South African schools had Boesman and Lena as one of the two alternative plays for the grade nine school syllabus – Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was the other.

In May of 1984, the Cape Provincial Department of Education, which at the time controlled all state schools in what are now the provinces of the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape, and under whose jurisdiction the vast majority of “coloured” children studied, sent out an instruction to all these state schools which included the following horrifying words: “All copies of the book issued are to be taken in and destroyed forthwith. Schools are to submit to the Department a statement confirming that the instruction has been complied with.”[lvi]

The issue was apparently the rough language in the text (words like moer and such), and complaints had emerged, the officials pretended, that justified this extreme action. (Whether the destruction of the books happened or not, I am trying to ascertain.)

But not even the bureaucrats of the South African education departments could stop the triumphal march of Boesman and Lena, which continued its international travels, to exultant audiences.

There have been a number of attempts to group these four plays – sometimes all together, sometimes only three of the four, for People are living there does stand apart in where it is set (Johannesburg) and in the size of its cast.

Firstly, Oxford University Press published a grouping, calling them “Three Port Elizabeth Plays”, and excluded People are living there. As all of the other three were written and set in Port Elizabeth, this is clearly correct.[lvii]

Secondly, Stephen Gray terms all four “chamber plays”, which again they clearly are.[lviii]

Thirdly, while much comment exists about the influence of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus on Fugard’s writing, and of the initial strength of Beckett’s influence and its subsequent waning, while Camus appears to be a more constant influence over the years – these plays could be described as the high period of Beckett’s influence on Fugard’s writing.

Small casts; “marginal” characters presented in a close relationship embodying the tensions of their society; sparse sets in desolate environments; seemingly inconsequential plots; characters bound together who attempt to break from the mundanity of their lives and the restrictions imposed upon them by their relationships, but who fail to do so and eventually return to the inescapability of the present; the intrusiveness of the unwinding of their pasts and the inexorable pessimism of their futures – all this “Beckett stuff” is clearly in these early plays by Fugard, before he later slowly begins to wriggle free of all this nihilistic pessimism.

And fourthly, these plays, by Fugard’s own admission, are his “family plays”.

As Fugard writes in his notebooks:

The thought that Boesman and Lena is the third part of a trilogy that if anything should be called The family. The two generations – parents and children, and thus:

    1. Blood knot – (the children) brother and brother;
    2. Hello and goodbye – the child and parent (Hester and Johnnie and the father – not with each other); and
    3. Boesman and Lena – the parent and parent.

In biographical terms – myself and Royal [his elder brother]; myself and father (or mother); myself and Sheila.

No reckoning with a “stranger” – all knotted together by blood and habit. Fascinating, and depressing, to think that seven years of work has amounted to an exploration and statement of this one nexus in human relationships. Also the personal revelation involved.

What next?[lix]


“What next?” Fugard asked – for the future of his writing had already begun to emerge, and, by the time he asked “What next?” in his notebooks (1968), had already been five years in development.

For, in 1963, on his return from the London run of The blood knot, there had been a knock on the front door of Mrs Fugard’s Bird Street flat. On opening the door, Fugard was to meet Norman Ntshinga from New Brighton, who had come across town to this white suburb of Central with a mission – to get the newly famous Mr Fugard to help Ntshinga and his few friends begin a theatre group in New Brighton.

Little did Fugard realise how life-changing this meeting was to prove to be, for it prefaced the development of a new theatre group of which Fugard was later to write: “Apart from the talent of one individual in white theatre (Barney Simon), the work of this group is the only significant provocation and stimulus that I have encountered in South Africa. In the context of theatre in this country, I think it is the only group of actors with a unique and important identity, a truly creative potential which if one day is fully realised might be our most meaningful contribution to theatre.”[lx]

Initially, Fugard, exhausted by his long trip as director, writer and actor in the years of The blood knot, begged for time to consider their request. He was granted a week, and Ntshinga returned, this time with four friends. Fugard recalls that he “despaired really, I was very tired after the tour and I really didn’t feel like getting involved with actors again so soon – it’s very exhausting – but they were persistent and I felt guilty”.[lxi]

He agreed to direct the group in a performance of Machiavelli’s play Mandragola, which Fugard adapted to Port Elizabeth’s townships and renamed The cure. Their first rehearsal is best described by Fugard:

First rehearsal last night with the New Brighton group. We have decided to call ourselves Serpent Players. (Rhodes University, which has taken over the old museum and snake pit (in Bird Street across from Mrs Fugard’s flat) as part of their PE campus, offered us a pick of a place to perform – intrigued by the abandoned snake pit, with the audience looking down into the space, we have chosen that. Hence our name.)

The group – a clerk, two teachers, a bus driver and the women domestic servants or doing cleaning jobs. Most encouraging start. Potentially there are three or four talents up to Johannesburg standard. Enthusiasm incredible – their excitement almost that of a child given the toy of its dreams. They have transmitted this to me and I look forward to the three weeks ahead. I am very glad I committed myself. It is a positive act – creating hope and meaning – it cannot but make life richer and more significant for me. It balances some of the selfishness with which I live.

I will stage Mandragola very strictly in the commedia dell’arte style – bare stage, a few props but lots and lots of fun.

In the middle of our reading the Special Branch burst in. Five of them, with I believe a squad car of uniformed police parked outside the university. The cast and I took it easily. SB took all our names and addresses – read the play, went through all the papers I had – but it would be unfair to say they behaved offensively. Du Plooy – head of the local SB – spent some time chatting to me about the London production of Blood knot, wanting to know how it had been received, what the audiences were like, etc.[lxii]

The cure played for three consecutive nights, beginning 15 August 1963, in a hall on the Rhodes campus on Bird Street. The audience was one of the first racially mixed ones in Port Elizabeth, and Fugard was delighted by the reception the play got. “The New Brighton play has been a success beyond my wildest hopes. I never for a moment thought that we would enchant our audience and critics as much as we have …. Acting – excellent. I could not have got better – or possibly even as good – in Johannesburg. It has been a pleasure working with them. And my God, do they work on that stage! I must certainly work with them again …. For the first time I feel I really sense the potential in truly improvised theatre.”[lxiii]

Thus began the Serpent Players. This, their first production, included: Norman Ntshinga, Humphrey Njikelana, Welcome Duru, Mike Ngxocolo, Simon Hanabe, George Maci, Sylvia Mapela and Sarah Blauw. Others then joined: Gwyn Mjuza, Sipho Mguqulwa, Mabel (May) Magada, Fats Bokholane, Lloyd Mbikwana, George Luse, Mulligan Mbiquane, Mangaliso Grootboom and Nomhle Nkonyeni. The two great stars of the Serpents, who had been schoolmates at Newell High in New Brighton, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, joined in 1965 and 1967 respectively.

Initially, the relationship between Fugard and Kani was anything but cordial. As Kani has described these early times: “When I was working at the Ford Motor Company, I discovered that there was a group of black actors who were doing plays – not the usual song and dance things, and they were working with a white person called Athol Fugard. This was in 1965. I went to see them and they were doing a very strange play called Antigone, by a man whose name I couldn’t pronounce properly, called Sophocles – a Greek. And I knew that these brothers and sisters sitting there with this white honkey were duped. This white man is here to suck their brains out! He’s one of those who say, ‘I know black people.’ And in the meantime he’s writing volumes and becoming an authority on them. I was very, very suspicious. And I was surprised at how the elderly guys in the group were so trusting of him. They had been working with him since 1961, you see …. I began to like being there, and I began to understand one thing: this white man knew a lot more than me about what I wanted to know more than anything else: the profession, the craft of the theatre. And I could only get it from him at that particular time. And sticking around the group I would learn more …. And suddenly in my mind I thought, ‘Not all white people are bad, not all white people are evil, not all white people are racist and not all white people … support this government of apartheid.”[lxiv]

Fugard in turn saw the young Kani as “Suspicious!”, yet: “Early on I realised that there was a very, very special talent here. An innate gift for mimicry, for mime. An extraordinary energy. A charismatic performance personality. Great intelligence. That combination makes him the phenomenal actor that he is.”[lxv]

That their work developed rapidly to a professional level is attested to in a joint review of two of their early (1970) plays: Friday’s bread on Monday and The cure:[lxvi]

“The impact of Friday’s bread on Monday left the largely white audience I saw it with stunned,” writes Rob Amato. “Nomhle Nkonyeni rose, came forward, fell to her knees and started an absolutely convincing – but not realistic – mime of rising at 4:00 am and mobilising her family. In one of the few pieces of dialogue in the piece, she addresses her imagined son and dispatches him to buy last Friday’s stale bread (it’s all she can afford). She then rouses her sullen husband, played by Winston Ntshona, and tries to bring him to recite the morning Lord’s Prayer. His gullet sticks at ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, and he storms out to walk to work. Nomhle is left alone and the four remaining actors, still sitting, start a hollow clapping which the audience is dared-and-not-dared to take up.”

Then, Skhala Xinwa on The cure: “The chief impressions I was left with were of pace, wit, gaiety and flashing movement. Specific performances which remain in the memory were those of Welcome Duru as British Empire, the go-between; Winston Ntshona as Mr Tshabalala, the rich cuckold; and John Kani as ‘Dr Jabulani’, the lover posing as medic.”

Amato and Xinwa agree that “these productions showed the Serpents as a highly professional group with a wide range and lots of power”.[lxvii]

There are three important aspects of the approximately decade-long life of the Serpent Players: firstly, they adapted and performed in Port Elizabeth’s townships, a significant number of classical plays. This included, immediately after The cure, Büchner’s Woyzeck, staged in late November 1963; then, on 10 December 1964, their production of Brecht’s Caucasian chalk circle was nearly destroyed when, on this the first night, Welcome Duru, who was to play Azdak, “was taken in for 90 days”, Fugard records with a mixture of fury and exasperation in his notebook. “What the papers don’t report is that this warm and wonderful man – a school teacher – was savagely assaulted by the police in his home (1:00 am) in front of his family, then dragged away to jail crying for mercy. I felt suicidal. If I hadn’t had to go on as Azdak, I don’t know what I’d have done.”[lxviii]

This is the second aspect of the life of the Serpent Players that needs to be recorded: the continual police harassment and the jailing of its members. After Welcome Duru, it was Norman Ntshinga and Sipho (Sharky) Mguqulwa, both arrested for “assisting a banned organisation” (the ANC).

While in jail but awaiting trial, Norman Ntshinga was allowed to write to Fugard (this would not have been possible for a sentenced prisoner), and this communication included the following:

Dear Athol

Your letter has arrived safely, and it is very kind of you to keep us informed about the progress being made by you and the Serpent Players. At present, your letter is with Welcome. We were so excited to learn that there is a possibility of the play being staged in the townships Livingstone and Fort Hare, though we feel naturally hurt that we will not be in the group on their first outing, and our only consolation is the hope that one day we will be together on the stage.

I’ve always wanted to be a great actor, and when I acted in the first play directed by you, The cure, I said to myself, “At last my dream has come true,” and as we went along and did Woyzeck, Sons in law and the Chalk circle, I was sure that I was going to reach my goal as one of South Africa’s greatest actors and did not care how long it took but I knew eventually I would make it. At times, I was tempted to ask you to tell me the truth, not anything just to please me, and if your answer was not satisfactory to me I would ask you to give me extra lessons. That’s how I love acting, but now my dream seems to have been shattered.

The day you started rehearsing Antigone, I was in a cell at Walmer. I did not worry much then, as I know that for a few meetings you would be doing nothing but reading, and I hoped that I would be released in time to catch up with the play, but when I learned that you were moving the play, I paced about for hours in hysterics. I reproached myself bitterly for losing my nerve; I tried to sleep, but sleep would not come. I got up again and paced about. Towards the early hours of the morning, I lay down but not to sleep, and when the dull daylight of the following morning came, all support vanished and I seemed to be sinking into a bottomless abyss. God help me if I ever endure greater anguish than I did [with] this. As time went on, I grew worse week after week and my melancholy took a fixed form. I heard a notion in my head that my brain was failing, and that was my first acquaintance with the malady called hypochondria …. I never knew what solitary confinement can do to a person. I never could understand it. But I understood enough to be convinced that any person who has gone through it can assure himself that there is nothing on earth that has still to be done he need dread.

Bye Friend, Norman.[lxix]

Still determined, the Serpent Players continued planning for Sophocles’s Antigone in July 1965. Just before the opening, Simon Hanabe, cast as Haemon, was also arrested – his stand-in, now playing his first speaking part, was the 22-year-old John Kani.

Thus within just over two years from its inception, the Serpent Players had seen four of its small number of actors jailed for political “offences”. Fugard was to have his turn also, for on 14 June 1967 his passport was withdrawn, leaving him the option of either leaving the country for an indeterminate period (which would end only when the government so decreed) on an exit visa, or of abandoning his ambitions to be with his plays as they reached international stages. Thankfully, he took the second option, and thankfully again his passport was returned, years later in 1971, after considerable international outrage.

The third aspect of the development of the Serpent Players flowed from this persecution. For in August 1965, Fugard, accompanied by Norman Ntshinga’s wife Mabel (May) Magada and Barney Simon, went to Cradock for Norman’s trial. He had been charged with “furthering the aims of a banned organisation” – the ANC – and had been found guilty. Fugard was asked to speak in mitigation of sentence, and the three of them went to the court in Cradock.

Mabel was allowed to speak to her husband in the cells under the courts. There she was approached by another defendant in a similar trial, who had been found guilty and had just been sentenced. “The old man grabbed May when she was talking to Norman afterwards in the cells – took off his old coat (it would be taken from him now, as he was a prisoner) and gave it to May, asking her to go to his family and tell them what had happened and give them the coat to “use”. So May carried it back to New Brighton in her shopping bag.”[lxx]

As we have mentioned, from the first work Fugard and the Serpent Players did together, Fugard began to see the possibilities of improvised and collaborative theatre. This old coat, now hanging in a prominent corner of Fugard’s creative memory, came back to take this possibility many steps further, and slowly a piece of theatre began to emerge from the old coat and its sad story.

It took a year from the arrival of the coat in Mabel’s bag to when it became a performance piece. Fugard and Mabel spoke of it, admittedly intermittently, but often. “The coat: moving on to foolscap paper. Notes becoming extensive – possible form also emerging. Not yet clear in my own mind as to what I am after. Encumbered by what I would like to believe, ie, the woman not selling the coat. Maybe she does – the point is truth and honesty in dealing with either alternative.”[lxxi] This was on 23 September 1966.

Then, in November 1966, the group received an invitation to address a “Theatre Appreciation Group” on the white side of town. By now, the Group Areas Act had been extensively tightened, and a permit was required for black actors to entertain white patrons on the white side of town. They applied, and permission was received, but under three conditions: it must not be a meeting open to the public – members only; the Serpent Players must not use the toilets in the hall; and the actors must leave immediately after the meeting – no discussion or social gathering was to be allowed.

Plainly these conditions were unacceptable, and the Serpent Players immediately saw that. Then a voice arose among them: “Let’s dump our idea of a comedy, and instead present the story we are working on, about the old coat.” This was agreed, and the work was finished in the four weeks to the agreed performance date on 28 November. Fugard wrote:

The reading of The coat was a considerable success. Mulligan started the event rolling with a friendly chat to the audience (we had about 150) …. Mulligan sits down … Mabel comes forward: “I brought back the coat from Cradock …. I had gone up there for my husband’s trial. The coat isn’t his. It belongs to another man from New Brighton. There have been a lot of men from New Brighton in the Cradock cells. The charges are mostly the same: membership of a banned organisation; contributing to its funds; holding a meeting … distributing pamphlets … etc.”

You could have heard a pin drop. The audience’s complacency shattered – they sat and watched us with the horror and fascination that freezes you a few feet away from a puff adder …. Improvisation and discussion, improvisation and discussion – and an apparent carelessness, a logic, in our case centred on the question: “Would she sell it?”[lxxii]

Thus, in the company of, and stimulated by, the Serpent Players, Fugard found a new way of playmaking – the next plays to bear his name had other names on the title page also, for these works were to be a collaboration between actor and writer. He explained how, in The coat, this process had unfurled:

First we just wanted to see the moment when the coat was handed over. So we very crudely, using almost no words, improvised that one scene – the coat leaving Mabel’s hands and ending up in the wife’s. Nothing more …. Then we asked: “What do you do with the coat now that you’ve got it?” The wife, the actress playing the wife, said: “Well, I’m in my house. I’ve now heard about my husband. I know I’m not going to see him for five years. I’ve got his coat in my hands. I’ll hang it up, first of all, then go on working. I want to think about him and the coat.” … I jotted down, very crudely, several of her attempts, and at the end we compared notes. I said: “This is how the last one came out, Nomhle.” The other actors joined in …. I made a few more notes and handed them over to her. “Take these away. Come back next week. Same time, same place. Live with them. See if you can fill them out a bit.” … And in this way, it started to grow …. In all of this, I acted as scribe … you know, making my little notes and keeping an eye on the overall structures.[lxxiii]

Other collaborative plays followed, until, in 1970, with Fugard now passportless and unable to travel, Mary Benson and Barney Simon sent him a copy of Jerzy Grotowski’s book Towards a poor theatre and a batch of notes on Grotowski’s work.

Grotowski contended that the essence of theatre was not those things that camera theatre can do better than live theatre – make-up, scenery, lighting, sound effects, etc – they should now be seen as dispensable. What was not dispensable was the actor-audience relationship. As such, Grotowski proposed “poverty in theatre” – small sets, intimate relationships between actors and audience, with lighting, sound, costumes, scenery becoming much less necessary.

At the time, Fugard had recently finished writing and performing in Boesman and Lena. He was ready for new thinking. “After the run of Boesman and Lena, I decided to do something I had wanted to for a long time … turn my back on my securities …. My work had become so conventional! It involved the writing of a play; it involved setting that play in terms of local specifics; it involved the actors assuming false identities … etc, etc. I wanted to turn my back on all that. Permanently or not, I don’t know. I just wanted to be free again.”[lxxiv]

Grotowski’s thinking fell right in line with Fugard’s new mood. Grotowski “became in every sense the agent provocateur at that moment in my career.”[lxxv]

What to do?

Fugard’s mind was now fusing together two separate events: firstly, the bomb planted in Johannesburg Station in 1964 by John Harris that had killed a child and injured an old woman – Harris had been caught, convicted and hanged; and secondly, the Greek myth centred on Clytemnestra and her children Iphigenia and Orestes, including, as it does, much blood and sex around the siege of Troy. This all was now to be turned into a performance piece, called Orestes.[lxxvi]

Fortuitously, the Cape Performing Arts Board (Capab), the organisation funded by the government to deliver performing arts performances in the Cape Province, now approached Fugard, whose reputation after Boesman and Lena was sky-high, and offered him a line of support that was sufficient for Fugard to appoint three actors (Yvonne Bryceland, whose performance as Lena was now world-famous, Val Donald and Wilson Dunster) for 12 weeks to create an experimental work, without any commitment to a public performance. Fugard was exultant: “The three actors and myself disappeared into a rehearsal room and ten weeks later we came out and gave our first ‘exposure’ …. We stayed working on and exposing the project for another six weeks, by which time money ran out and we had to disband.”[lxxvii]

All this work ended with a performance piece for which “there was no text. Not a single piece of paper passed between myself and the actors.”[lxxviii] After that: “It has defied translation onto paper in any conventional sense. I have tried. At the moment, it is ‘scored’ in three large drawing books. It is one of the most important experiences I have had in theatre and I will be living with it, and using it, for as long as I continue to work. I can think of no aspect of my work, either as writer or director, that it has not influenced.”[lxxix]

Another who found this exercise extraordinary was the actress Yvonne Bryceland, who we should already have introduced in this story, but will do so now.

Bryceland was born in Cape Town in 1925. Her father, Adolphus Heilbuth, was a railway foreman, and her family was Catholic – she was schooled at St Mary’s Convent. After school, she married young and soon had three daughters. Her husband, Danny Bryceland, was abusive and they divorced in 1960. As she was a Catholic, this caused her much anguish.

Somehow, the theatre got into her blood. In 1947, she played a part in The stage door, and from then on the theatre was to be her obsession.

In 1962, Fugard’s The blood knot came to Cape Town. She saw it and “was astounded …. Nobody had been writing plays like that about South Africa – this meant something to South Africa …. I thought, ‘My God! This is something else.’ It took me a long time to get into what Athol had naturally – a burning desire to change the whole system of South Africa.”[lxxx]

When Fugard returned to Cape Town in 1965 with Hello and goodbye, Bryceland had just been employed as an actress by Capab, and she interviewed Fugard as part of her second job as a journalist for the Cape Times. This was the first time they really connected, Fugard says. Two and a half years later, when he was casting People are living there, he called and asked her to play Millie, the lead. Thus began a remarkable collaboration that would continue the stellar path Fugard was on, and now he was to be accompanied by a person who was, in his words, “an interpretive actress who totally understood what I sought to achieve”.

Bryceland showed the script of People are living there to Capab, and they decided to produce it. It premiered at the Hofmeyr Theatre on 14 June 1969, and Fugard and Bryceland were off together in theatre. Not a month later, they opened Boesman and Lena at the Rhodes University Little Theatre, and Bryceland’s performance as Lena was described by Fugard as “one of the pinnacle achievements of her career”.[lxxxi] He was, as in The blood knot, both director and actor.

With these two plays now available, they, said Bryceland, “took the country by storm …. We were invited to play at the other centres. People just clambered to get in to see these plays. People are surprised that Athol’s plays were and are done in South Africa with enormous success. But they were, from that time onwards.”[lxxxii]

Bryceland was completely immersed in her role as Lena. By 1971, she had played it over 400 times. “I’m obsessed with Lena. I love her … only now that I feel the full impact of it all.”[lxxxiii]

Then came Orestes and their further collaboration. Bryceland again: “Fugard’s experimental theatre is at a really fascinating state of development. I’d work for Fugard for nothing. He’s my sort of playwright.”[lxxxiv]

She did not renew her contract with Capab, preferring to throw her lot in with Fugard.

She was not the only person to be overwhelmed by Orestes. Her husband, Brian Astbury, soon to found that extraordinarily important experimental theatre, The Space, in Cape Town, “spent two days in the rehearsal room (of Orestes) …. These days – and the subsequent performances I attended – literally changed my life …. It all began with Orestes …. Without Orestes, there would have been no Space.” [lxxxv]

A performance of Orestes was to last only 80 minutes, with only 300 to 400 words spoken on stage. It was first performed in Cape Town’s Castlemarine Auditorium on 24 March 1971, and the powers that be in Capab “nearly died. They didn’t want it to be seen. They gave it only six public performances and claimed that it was ‘a difficult play to market’, but they obviously had instructions from Big Brother, or they thought they would have enormous trouble if they had that kind of thing on their stages. They dropped it like a very hot cake,” said Bryceland.[lxxxvi]

Orestes has only rarely been performed since. Fugard never again used a structure as free as he did in Orestes. Its importance is probably mostly in that it is “the bridge between the small-scale improvisational works such as The coat and the more ambitious Sizwe Bansi is dead and The island”.[lxxxvii]

And these two works, along with a third, Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act, were to appear in 1972 and 1973. Known as the “Statement Plays”, they were to become sensations.


Writing started

Writing finished

First performance


Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act

June 1970

1-25 March 1972


25 March 1972

The Space, Cape Town

2-25 January 1974

(Expanded and adapted script)

27 January 1974

Royal Court, London



Travels, Europe, USA

Sizwe Bansi is dead

20 September 1972

(No written script)

8 Oct 1972

(No written script)

8 October 1972

(No written script)

The Space, Cape Town

January 1974

(Written script)

Royal Court,

13 November 1974

Edison Theatre, New York

The island

November 1972

(No written script)

July 1973

(No written script)

July 1973

(No written script)

The Space, Cape Town

January 1974

(Written script)

Royal Court, London

24 Nov 1974

Edison Theatre, New York

And they were to be a change in line of attack from that used in the four family plays.

Until these Statement Plays, Fugard’s line of attack on the viciousness of apartheid had been oblique, rather like the photographer David Goldblatt used in his art. Goldblatt has described his work as: “My work was political, there’s no question of this, but I wasn’t on the scene of the riots and focal points of political life, and I realised that events themselves were to me much less interesting than the conditions that led to the events. I was looking obliquely at things. Photography has been to me a vehicle, or a justification, or a licence for doing things, that were otherwise impermissible, or not easy in our society.”[lxxxviii] Possibly, Fugard’s early plays can be described similarly.

Now, with the collaborative plays, and beginning with The coat, the specific laws of apartheid and their political poison are moved clearly into sight.

The return of a coat from a political prisoner to his family, the planting of a bomb in a train station, the grotesque uncovering of two lovers and their prosecution for loving across South Africa’s racial lines, the desperate theft of an identity document from a dead man to be reused by an otherwise unemployable breadwinner, the staging of Antigone on Robben Island by imprisoned but unbroken men – this is another level of attack on apartheid, compared with the confused mental torture of two brothers in a shack, and the horrific degradation of a couple, dispossessed of everything including their humanity, by apartheid’s bulldozers. Now the pass laws, the Immorality Act and political imprisonment are moved from the wings to centre stage; no lines of vision are blurred; the devil is clearly in view.

It all began with two events.

Firstly, in November 1971, Bryceland and her second husband, Brian Astbury, spent a holiday with the Fugards at the Wilderness. Fugard and Astbury have different memories of the time spent chatting: “In talking to Brian Astbury … I told him about my ideas and central images for The island and then, in an afterthought, resurrected my ideas for Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act.”[lxxxix]

Astbury has a different memory: he remembers telling Fugard about his plans to open a small alternative theatre in Cape Town to be called The Space.[xc] He badgered Fugard for either a new play, or to direct People, for the opening night. Fugard, under a heavy workload, politely refused. Only when Bryceland later requested help in finding a director for People, did he offer to finish Statements for the opening. This was enthusiastically agreed on, and the opening date was set for 25 March 1972.[xci] This was enough to send Astbury back to Cape Town “in a state of near exaltation”.[xcii]

The second event was a meeting Fugard had with John Kani and Winston Ntshona. The meeting was at their request, and they called it to ask Fugard what chance they had of making a living through full-time work in theatre, which they believed they could do if they each could earn R100 per month.[xciii]

Fugard was nonplussed. “I took it as the height of idiocy – no, not idiocy, just totally impossible.” But they were not to be deterred. “Can’t we do what we are doing with the Serpent Players, with just the two of us?” I said, “Okay, we’ll try.”[xciv] He booked a time at The Space in Cape Town, for 8 October 1972. They had to have something for that date also.

Fugard now had two impossible deadlines to meet.

The first was to be the March opening of Statements at The Space. Here, Fugard ran into trouble. The idea of Statements came to Fugard from six photographs that he saw in an Afrikaans newspaper. These were police photographs, taken of a couple caught in the act of making love. The issue was, of course, the South African flavour – the woman, a librarian, was white, and the man, a school principal, was coloured; and that, of course, in South Africa and only in South Africa, constituted a crime. They were tried, found guilty and given suspended sentences. Tragically (and this was not uncommon in such cases), the man later committed suicide.

The structure of the play suited Bryceland and Fugard as an acting pair, but Fugard was unable to complete the play to his satisfaction by rehearsal time. “The day before the scheduled opening, he and Bryceland appeared in Astbury’s office. Fugard confided: ‘It’s not working. I’m not sure we have a play. I’m going to change the whole structure tonight.’”[xcv]

The Space did, somehow, open with Statements the next night. And it ran for five weeks, taking good audiences. But Fugard was not satisfied. His notebooks read, in May 1972: “Back at S’kop from doing Statements at The Space in Cape Town. At many levels, possibly unavoidably because of circumstances, the most uncompleted, even careless work I have yet done on a stage. Absolutely no doubt now that what I have staged was Notes for a play.”[xcvi]

His notebooks then go into an agony of redirection of the play. This made him no more content. In August, he noted: “I am now very near abandoning Statements as a flawed work which I will never get right. Shall put it aside for at least a month and if, at the end of that time, I still feel about it the way I do now, that will be the end of it.”[xcvii]

Fortunately, he did not abandon it. But, from the time of the above note (August), he had just over a month to get a play ready with Kani and Ntshona for their opening at The Space. It was to be another terrible crush. So, Statements came off the boil – thankfully only for the time being.

For Kani and Ntshona to fill in their slot at The Space, Fugard initially searched for a suitable two-hander or something they could quickly adapt. He could find nothing that worked. So, he proposed an idea he had – of a pair of waiters at the Royal Hotel in Grahamstown, waiting for the arrival of a group of customers – arrogant, white, self-satisfied university students.

Eighteen days before the scheduled date at The Space, they tossed this work – “shallow, trick- and cliché-ridden”, Fugard felt. Instead, Fugard proposed they work something out from a photograph he had seen in the window of a New Brighton photographer – a picture of ”a man, sitting at a table with a vase of flowers, wearing a very special hat – a big hat – with a pipe in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It was a celebratory image, affirmative, full of life – the sort of life that is still intact in New Brighton, despite what it has to cope with”.[xcviii]

And from this photograph, in 18 short days, a play they called Sizwe Banzi is dead took shape in a desolate classroom in the now-abandoned Moslem Institute on Kempston Road near Korsten. “A Group Areas ruling had closed down this school, so Johnny, Winston and I were able to rent a classroom to rehearse Sizwe Banzi is dead. Appalling and depressing contrast with the building of five years ago when we rehearsed Antigone there in the Sub A classroom …. It had been well kept and bustling with activity. This time we encountered total dereliction – classroom floors strewn with abandoned textbooks, maps, etc …, windows and doors smashed, and on everything a thick layer of the ugly blue dust of Korsten.”[xcix] Other rehearsals happened in the garage of Joan Dollery, one of Fugard’s neighbours at Schoenmakerskop.

Sizwe was designed for Kani and Ntshona as a two-hander, to begin their proposed career in the theatre. It has a complex plot that we will inspect in detail later in this work – for now, the kernel of the story is of a township man, who worked for years as a hand in the Ford Motor factory, and who has now broken free from that stultifying job. He has set himself up as a “purveyor of dreams”, a township photographer, with his own studio in New Brighton. His name is Styles, and this is the role that was created for the astonishing talents of the young John Kani.

Into Styles’s studio comes a reticent, nervous young man with the name Sizwe Banzi – the role created for Winston Ntshona. He wants a photograph to send home to his wife, in a distant Bantustan.

Many extraordinary things then happen to these two young men, until the central core of the play – Sizwe needs a particular stamp in his reference book, or he is disqualified from workseeking in Port Elizabeth. He does not have this stamp, and this bureaucratic omission leaves him in the position where he cannot work and thereby care for his family. What to do?

After an evening at a shebeen (pub), Sizwe’s accompanying drinker needs to pee – he enters an alley and decides to urinate on a mound of rubbish. This turns out to be a dead man, and in his pocket is – a reference book, with the stamp Sizwe desires. Photos are swapped, Sizwe becomes “dead”, and Robert Zwelinzima emerges with a clean reference book with the required stamp.

The play begins with a long monologue by Styles in his studio – different in every performance, as Kani reads from that day’s newspaper and comments splendidly thereon – and it ends with Styles finally taking the photo of the smiling Sizwe/Robert. In between, we have been provided with a sometimes hilarious, but underlyingly tragic, trip through the magnificent adventures of these young men, trapped in the vicious ramifications of the pass laws and all the other “apartheid stuff” designed to make the lives of “urban blacks” impossible, but nevertheless surviving with their dignity and humour intact.

It is theatre at its best, and on 26 October 2022, the theatre critics of the Independent (London), Paul Taylor and Holly Williams, ranked Sizwe as one of “the 40 best plays of all time”.[c] And it had been created by these three men in 18 days in a derelict school, and took over a year before it had a written script.

The first production, in The Space on 8 October 1972, saw John Kani, according to John Astbury, “scheduled to do 20 minutes of newspaper improvisation (the monologue) before the play proper started. He went out visibly nervous. An hour and a half later, he was still there, the audience in the palm of his hand. Offstage, Winston was in a fury – Athol walking up and down in the lighting box, twisting his beard. Finally, he sent Winston out in the middle of another of John’s hilarious stories, and we were into the actual play at last.”[ci]

After the first night premiere, half the audience wouldn’t leave. “Sizwe Banzi exploded onto our stage …. I have never attended such an opening night,” wrote Astbury.[cii] Additional shows were scheduled. Now the police insisted it close to public audiences, but fortunately the Argo Film Circle intervened and signed up 1 500 members in five days, and “the show went on”!

There was another great spin-off from the Cape Town launch.

In the words of John Kani: “At the same time, in the 1970s, I met Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, the politician, who was then a lecturer at UCT [the University of Cape Town]. He saw Sizwe Banzi is dead and invited Winston and me and Athol for tea. He said he had been considering a job offer from a university in Canada, but after seeing the play and the courage of the people in that theatre, he was thinking no, he wasn’t going to go. He was needed here. It was wonderful for us to hear that.”[ciii]

Word of this extraordinary piece of theatre got to Oscar Lewenstein at the Royal Court Theatre in London. He asked for a script for inspection – there wasn’t one. Lewenstein nevertheless offered Fugard a date at the Royal Court. He offered the large Theatre Downstairs. Fugard demurred – he’d take the smaller (seats 70) theatre upstairs. “I found it difficult to believe that a story as South African as this could have any significance outside my country, and I was plain scared. I wanted to stay in the small space.”[civ]

With the London trip looking assured, Fugard, Kani and Ntshona had time on their hands while they waited for their passports. So, they again began a play. This time, they took the many stories that Norman Ntshinga and the other Serpent Players had told them on returning from their long years in the Robben Island prison. They melded these memories to the Antigone production the Serpent Players had been about to present in New Brighton in 1965, when Simon Hanabe from their group had been arrested. The idea became prisoners on “the island” mounting a production of Antigone. “We joined our hands, closed the garage door and, after two weeks, 14 days, we were on stage in Cape Town,” says Kani.[cv]

Named The Hodoshe span for its July 1973 launch at The Space, it played for three weeks. The name was created from the nickname of a particularly notorious warder on the island, which also was the Xhosa word for a green carrion fly; and span is the Afrikaans word for “team”. They simply did not have the courage to name it The island while in South Africa – this became the play’s name at the Royal Court in London.

Lewenstein got them to London. During rehearsals for Sizwe, he pressed Fugard about another play he had heard of, called The island. Again, Fugard had no script, as it had not yet been scripted – but he had a tape recording of a South African performance. Lewenstein loved it and wanted it – and he was not finished yet. He’d also heard of a third Fugard (Fugard only, this time) play, something about an arrest under the Immorality Act. He got that, too!

And so, in late 1973 and early 1974, the three Statement Plays were presented as a “South African Season” at the Royal Court (downstairs – in the big theatre). They were received with rapturous enthusiasm. As Vandenbroucke wrote: “Fourteen years prior to the 1973 London premiere of Sizwe, Fugard had been unable to secure a job as a stage hand at the same Royal Court.”[cvi]

John Kani, Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona, Royal Court Theatre, London, South African Season. (Photo: James Jackson/Evening Standard, 1971)

The critics were enraptured. Irving Wardle in the Times: “The piece was marvellously performed, and despite its intimate ties to one African town, it works with commanding strength on a foreign stage. … This performance made me care more than anything else I saw last year.”[cvii] When asked by Plays and Players Magazine to name his Play of the Year 1973, Wardle voted for Sizwe Banzi is dead.

And Martin Walker: “John Kani and Winston Ntshona are two young actors working professionally for the first time, and last night, acting with an intensity and flair that is beyond words, they gave us a performance of rare brilliance. I can think of nothing in London to rival it.”

Later in the year, Plays and Players assembled London’s theatre critics to vote on a number of plays and performances – Sizwe Banzi is dead was voted by the panel of London Theatre critics as the Best New Play of 1973.[cviii]

One who was at the Royal Court for these performances was a 21-year-old, third-year fine arts student from Syracuse University in the United States. Her name was Susan Hilferty, and when she saw Sizwe Banzi at the Royal Court, “I knew very little about theatre …. Until my arrival in London, I had never seen any professional productions.” She later wrote of the Royal Court experience:

A chair and a blackboard on an empty stage. And I was crying.


I’d been to South Africa and back without even leaving Sloane Square.


I felt as if I had been torn into a million pieces and then somehow put back together again. In an hour and a half.

And in the process, I’d found a profession.

It was 1974, and I was sitting in the Royal Court Theatre in London. I’d just seen Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi is dead, and I was in a daze. Disorientated. What had just happened? Had it happened to everyone in the seats around me? That I didn’t know. All I knew was that I had just travelled to South Africa, and that for 90 minutes I had entered into the lives of two African men. And then, somehow, I was transported back to my seat in the audience. And all that remained in front of me on that tiny stage was a chair, a table and a blackboard. When the house lights came on, I was transformed.[cix]

Hilferty was thus driven into a career in set and costume design, and this career has seen her awarded over 400 stage design commissions, of which about 45 were to be with Athol Fugard productions. Fugard says that Hilferty was a great influence on many of his later performances. As Fugard noted in 1990, “She now works as my associate director. An extraordinary stimulus and provocation to me.”[cx]

From London to Broadway.

Sizwe Banzi opened on Broadway on 13 November 1974, in repertory with The island.

The opening night was beautifully described by Dawn Lindberg (of Des and Dawn fame) many years later, in an open letter to Fugard published in Johannesburg’s The Star newspaper:

A few years later, I sat with Des and Barney Simon and you in a small coffee bar in New York, holding your hand, as you lived through the opening night agonies of Sizwe Banzi is dead.

You had a stopwatch propped against your brandy glass on the table, and as each minute ticked past you told us which part they’d reached, until the end, when we crept across the road and listened to the applause and you knew you’d made it.[cxi]

And “made it” they had. They woke up to the legendary New York Times’s critic, Clive Barnes, the next morning (14 November 1974):

Theatrical power is a curious thing. It can start small, like a murmur in a chimney, and then build up to a hurricane. It can slide into you as stealthily as a knife. It can make you wonder, make you think. The South African play Sizwe Banzi is dead starts almost slower than slow. A black South African photographer from Port Elizabeth wandered onto the stage at Edison Theatre last night and started chatting to the audience, talking nonchalantly about Ford, Kissinger, Nixon and the like.

It was beautifully acted, mildly amusing, but I must admit that I thought this improvisatory and, I now believe, deliberately low-key introduction boded a strange evening. I realised that this play, when at London’s Royal Court Theatre, had been triumphantly received by audiences and critics alike, but there was a moment there when I thought that this was liberal Britain’s guilt over South Africa.

But slowly it happened, like a train gathering speed. The play, the theme, the performances gradually took over, and the sheer dramatic force of the piece bounced around the theatre like angry thunderbolts of pain. From this slow, kidding beginning, there comes a climax that hits and hurts.

You will not forget Sizwe Banzi easily.[cxii]

He later added: “There is a second South African play which runs in repertory with Sizwe Banzi at the Edison Theatre. It is called The island and it is probably the most terrifyingly realistic play of prison life I have ever seen.”

If Fugard, Kani and Ntshona were looking for theatre awards for Sizwe and The island, they had picked a very bad year to introduce these plays. For, in 1973, the renowned playwright Peter Shaffer, working for Britain’s National Theatre, delivered to this institution, with all its resources, a great play, Equus. This play centred on the true story of a 17-year-old boy in Suffolk, England, who had blinded six horses with a metal spike, and his complex relationship with a psychiatrist, Dr Martin Dysart. The London production was directed by Peter Dexter, with Alec McCowen as Dysart, and, with the resources of this massive institution behind it, it was very well received.

This production was then moved to Broadway, to New York’s Plymouth Theatre. Now starring Anthony Hopkins as Dysart, it was to last 1 209 performances on Broadway, a major success, for sure.

Then came the 1975 Tony Awards, and both Equus and the scruffy, co-written plays from Port Elizabeth were nominated for Best Play, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Director.

It came as no surprise that Equus and Dexter won Best Play and Best Director. Both fell clearly into the tradition of “winners” as far as the history of the Tony Awards went.

However, the choice of Best Actor in a Leading Role was both sensational and historic – for the first time, two actors each won (they didn’t share it, they both won) the Tony Award: John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who had first entered a stage nine years before (Kani) and seven years before (Ntshona), who had neither seen a drama school nor been to a university, neither of whom spoke English as their home language, and whose attendance at theatres had been, to say the least, very occasional. And for roles played in two plays, both of which they had co-written and co-created in 18 days (Sizwe) and 14 days (The island), and which had been put together in an abandoned school and a suburban garage. And they had beaten Anthony Hopkins and the National Theatre of Britain.

This story is simply unbelievable.

And the story didn’t end there. As Fugard has noted: “That Sizwe Banzi involved only John Kani and Winston Ntshona meant we could move it around. It contributed to its success. Wrap it up. Put it in a suitcase. Go anywhere we wanted with it.”[cxiii]

And they did. Kani and Ntshona spent much of the next five years circumnavigating the globe performing Sizwe and The island. With this fame came, fortunately, somewhat more than the “R100 per month” that they had set out, so recently, to earn. Lisa Fugard, Athol and Sheila’s by now adult daughter, remembers riding her horse in the peri-urban Lovemore Park when a gleaming, brand-new, bright yellow sports car drew up alongside her – it was John Kani, visiting Dad Athol.[cxiv] R100 per month? Forget it!

This new dynamic, that of international success, had a further two results. Firstly, Fugard now did a refocus:

I’ve lived for three and a half years in rehearsal rooms making theatre, not writing in any sort of privacy …. I think I’ve exhausted that experience for myself …. Working collaboratively requires a very special energy, a very special sobriety, concern and accuracy in keeping company with your actors and in going through minefields with them. It’s to the extent that I don’t have that energy, or am no longer capable of that accuracy, that I won’t be working so intimately in collaboration any longer …. I think, finally, those experiences don’t give me the opportunity for the very personal statement that I want to make.[cxv]

And secondly, as Fugard put it: “When John and Winston were swept off their feet by the success of Sizwe Banzi and The island, the Serpent Players went into a slow, genteel decline.”[cxvi] The group did a number of plays, including Coriolanus, La ronde, Bacchae and The just, but the two dominant performers, John (who had previously done much of the directing) and Winston, had effectively moved on. The Serpent Players began to fade away.

For Kani and Ntshona, and also for Fugard, it was now time to move on.

Athol Fugard in Amsterdam (© Anthony Akerman)

For Fugard, “moving on” had a physical dimension also, for in early 1974 the Fugards commissioned a friend, Denis Scarr, to build them a home on a smallholding of a few acres in Lovemore Park – certainly not far from Schoenmakerskop, but they were to leave this hamlet. “One night last week, just before sleep, I realised what this meant. We were leaving S’kop. A spasm of loneliness and pain that accompanies a conscious experience of loss,” he wrote in his notebooks.[cxvii] He cushioned this loss by also buying an old railway cottage in the Karoo, in another tiny hamlet, named Nieu-Bethesda. This was now to become the spiritual home of the writer, Athol Fugard.

And for Kani and Ntshona – well, the bright lights. For most of the next five years, they toured the world with those two wonderful plays. They had certainly accomplished their goal of earning a living from the stage.

The above story of Athol Fugard and the Serpent Players rests on two miracles:

Firstly, that Athol, who may uncharitably be described as beginning life as a “poor white”, and who then endured 13 years of mediocre schooling before obtaining a school-leaving matriculation in the technicalities of the motor car, and who then supplemented this with an incomplete university degree, and who thereafter wrote six failed plays – that Athol could, with this background, become the foremost living playwright in the world of the English language in less than 30 years – this is the first miracle.,

Secondly, that John Kani and Winston Ntshona, two young men with matric certificates from Bantu Education and no tertiary education, and who came together with others as a group of theatre enthusiasts in New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth, naming themselves “the Serpent Players” – that they could, from a standing start, both co-create with Athol a play (Sizwe Banzi is dead) that the theatre critics of London’s Independent newspaper have placed as one of the top 40 plays of all time; and secondly, while starring in this play and another co-creation, The island (together Sizwe Banza and The island took 32 days of creation, all done in an abandoned Muslim school and Athol’s neighbour’s suburban garage), that they could beat Anthony Hopkins in the British National Theatre production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, seeing Kani and Ntshona win Tony Awards as the best two actors in a play on Broadway in New York in 1974 – surely a second miracle.

Of course, the full story begins well before the story told in this Overture – it begins with Fugard’s youth, his family and schooling, his university years and his globetrotting, and then his Cape Town years and his first marriage. Then Johannesburg/Sophiatown and on to London, where our Overture begins.

And Kani’s youth, and Ntshona’s. So totally different, so undesigned for success in any of life’s aspects.

And later, after the 15 years recounted in this Overture, there was much also – Fugard has gone on to write many more plays, three movie scripts which he and Ross Devenish have filmed, and much else. The later plays include possibly his most performed works: “Master Harold” … and the boys, his most autobiographical work, and The road to Mecca, the culmination of his stunning working relationship with Yvonne Bryceland.

John Kani and Athol Fugard (Picture: Paula Fourie)

And John Kani also went on to great things. After travelling the world, he returned home to join and then run the Market Theatre and write remarkable plays, Nothing but the truth, Missing and Kunene and the king, and perform in many more.

The whole story will be the subject of the book that this Overture will help introduce. It’s all a fantastic story, one of the great stories entwined with many others to make our country’s complex history the astonishing story that it is.

I believe that it is a story worth telling – no, a story that must now be told.

See also

“Wrong Fugard”

Athol Fugard 90: Teatergedigte

Athol Fugard is 90: A portrait of the artist as a man who jumped at opportunities

Athol Fugard’s The island – David Willers investigates

Happy birthday, Athol Fugard | Verjaardagwense aan Athol met sy 90ste  


[i] A non-fiction book traditionally begins with an “Introduction”, and an opera with an “Overture”. An overture normally introduces the themes of the forthcoming musical work in an enthusiastic, vibrant, almost whimsical way. I have just had published a book on the bloodshed and horrors of the wars to end apartheid. It had an “Introduction”. This work is about the wonderful Mr Fugard and his masterclass of township actors and playwrights named the Serpent Players. It is a joyous celebration that does not rely on a blood-soaked story. I think I will introduce it with an “Overture”. That works for me.

[ii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks 1960-1977, AD Donker Publisher, Johannesburg 1983, page 51.

[iii] Athol Fugard, op cit, page 172.

[iv] Dennis Walder, Athol Fugard, Macmillan Modern Dramatists, Macmillan Publishers, Hampshire and London, 1984, pages 52-53.

[v] Athol Fugard, Cousins: A memoir, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1994, page 57.

[vi] Athol Fugard, Three Port Elizabeth plays, Oxford University Press, London and Cape Town, 1974, page xii.

[vii] Tone Brulin, “Early days with Athol Fugard”, in Stephen Gray, ed, Athol Fugard, McGrath Hill, Johannesburg, 1982, page 33.

[viii] Stephen Gray, op cit, page 5.

[ix] Don Maclennan, “A tribute to Athol Fugard at 60”, Winter School, Grahamstown Festival, June 1962, pages 5-6.

[x] Athol Fugard, Three Port Elizabeth plays, Oxford University Press, London and Cape Town, 1974, page viii.

[xi] Athol Fugard, Cousins, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1994, page 3.

[xii] Rory Riordan, “Athol Fugard: An interview”, Monitor Magazine, April 1990, page 129.

[xiii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 30.

[xiv] Russell Vanderbroucke, Truths the hand can touch, AD Donker Publisher, Johannesburg, 1986, page 44.

[xv] Some pages were on the back of Cyril Lord Carpets stock inventories, and others on the back of record inventories spirited out of a record store she had also worked at. Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 44.

[xvi] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 10.

[xvii] Dennis Walder, Athol Fugard, Macmillan Modern Dramatists, Macmillan Publishers, Hampshire and London, 1984, page 45.

[xviii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 42.

[xix] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, pages 66-67.

[xx] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 67.

[xxi] Many footnotes in this writing will refer to the archival collection at the Amazwi Museum of Literature in Makhanda. This institution began life in the Rhodes University English Department and was initially named the National English Literary Museum (NELM), but that has been changed, as has its focus – now to all literature in all of South Africa’s languages. Their collection on Fugard and the world around him is fantastic. I will refer to the institution as “Amazwi” hereafter. This reference is to a copy of the Rand Daily Mail’s first review, dated (I believe incorrectly) as 4 September 1961, in the Amazwi file “The blood knot reviews”, 1961.

I am immensely grateful to Amazwi’s archivist, Marike Beyers, for her endless patience in finding file after file for me, always uncomplainingly!

[xxii] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 67.

[xxiii] For a wonderful exposition of Fugard’s slavish addiction to writing with a fountain pen, please read Anthony Akerman’s “On fountain pens and lessons from Athol Fugard”, Daily Maverick, 9 June 2022.

[xxiv] The originals of the reduced text, typed carefully but corrected endlessly in pen, were originally at Amazwi, but have moved on to a library attached to a university in the United States. Nevertheless, copies are filed at Amazwi, some of them with the gala programme copied faithfully on the back.

[xxv] Athol Fugard, The blood knot: A play in seven acts, Simondium Publishers (Pty) Ltd, Johannesburg, 1963.

[xxvi] This and the next excerpt from reviews are from the programme Gluckman later put out for the play. This programme, in copy form, is in Amazwi, file “The blood knot reviews”, 1961.

[xxvii] Percy Baneshik, “Shanty start and hobo days aid Rand playwright”, Rand Daily Mail, 13 November 1961. Copy at Amazwi, file “The blood knot reviews”, 1961.

[xxviii] James Ambrose Brown, “Review of The blood knot”, Sunday Times, 12 November 1961, reprinted in Stephen Gray, op cit, page 71.

[xxix] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 68.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Harold Hobson, “Review of The blood knot”, Sunday Times (undated), Amazwi, file “The blood knot reviews”, 1963.

[xxxii] Charles Marowitz, “Review of The blood knot”, The Times (undated), Amazwi, file “The blood knot reviews”, 1963.

[xxxiii] Kenneth Tynan, “Review of The blood knot”, The Observer Weekend, 24 February 1963, Amazwi, file “The blood knot reviews”, 1963.

[xxxiv] Bernard Levin, Daily Mail, in Amazwi, file “The blood knot reviews”, 1963.

[xxxv] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 70.

[xxxvi] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 114.

[xxxvii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 133.

[xxxviii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, pages 148-149.

[xxxix] Rory Riordan, op cit, page 131.

[xl] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 96.

[xli] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 114.

[xlii] Rory Riordan, op cit, page 134.

[xliii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, pages 120-121.

[xliv] Athol Fugard, Three Port Elizabeth plays, op cit, page xix.

[xlv] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 99.

[xlvi] Eastern Province Herald, report on opening night, 11 July 1969, in Amazwi Museum file, ‘Fugard reviews , Boesman and Lena, 1970.

[xlvii] Eastern Province Herald, 12 July 1969, in Amazwi, file “Fugard reviews: Boesman and Lena”, 1970.

[xlviii] Ben de Kock, Review: Boesman and Lena, in Amazwi, file “Fugard reviews: Boesman and Lena”, 1970.

[xlix] Evening Post, 19 July 1969, in Amazwi, file “Fugard reviews: Boesman and Lena”, 1970.

[l] Evening Post, 29 November 1969, in Amazwi, file “Athol Fugard bio”, 1969.

[li] Stephen Gray, op cit, page 19.

[lii] Obie Awards are made for all plays appearing in New York Off-Broadway (theatres seating 100 to 499 patrons), and Off-off Broadway (theatres seating fewer than 100 patrons). Theatres seating over 500 qualify for the Tony Awards.

[liii] Clive Barnes, The New York Times, 23 June 1970, in Amazwi, file “Fugard reviews: Boesman and Lena”, 1970.

[liv] Milton Shulman, Evening Standard, 20 July 1971, in Amazwi, file “Fugard reviews: Boesman and Lena”, 1970.

[lv] Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic, 25 July 1970, in Amazwi, file “Fugard reviews: Boesman and Lena”, 1970.

[lvi] Peter Derinsky, “South African outlook”, 1984, in Amazwi, file “Fugard reviews: Boesman and Lena”, 1970.

[lvii] Athol Fugard, Three Port Elizabeth plays, op cit.

[lviii] Stephen Gray, op cit, page 19.

[lix] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, pages 174-175.

[lx] Athol Fugard, Three Port Elizabeth plays, op cit, page xii.

[lxi] Russell Vandenbroucke, Truths the hand can touch, op cit, page 132.

[lxii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, pages 91-92.

[lxiii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, pages 93-94.

[lxiv] John Kani, interviewed in “Alternative theatre in South Africa” by Rolf Solberg, op cit, pages 226-227.

[lxv] Rory Riordan, op cit, page 133.

[lxvi] Rob Amato and Skhala Xinwa, “The Serpent Players”: Review of two productions (1970), reprinted in Stephen Gray, Athol Fugard, op cit, page 83.

[lxvii] Amato and Xinwa, op cit, pages 84-85.

[lxviii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 120.

[lxix] Norman Ntshinga, Letter to Athol Fugard, 20 May 1965. In Amazwi, file

[lxx] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, pages 124-125.

[lxxi] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 137.

[lxxii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, pages 142-143.

[lxxiii] Athol Fugard, Introduction, Statements – three plays, Oxford University Press, 1986, unpaginated.

[lxxiv] Ibid.

[lxxv] Ibid.

[lxxvi] While there is no traditional “script” of Orestes, there is a detailed “letter to an American friend” that Stephen Gray has published in Athol Fugard, My children! My Africa! and selected shorter plays, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 1990, page 115+. This outlines in some detail the mysteries that are Orestes.

[lxxvii] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 149.

[lxxviii] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 150.

[lxxix] Athol Fugard, Introduction, op cit.

[lxxx] Eileen Blummenthal, “The actress the play of conscience”, The Washington Post, 5 June 1988.

[lxxxi] Ibid.

[lxxxii] Ibid.

[lxxxiii] Bob Hitchcock, Rand Daily Mail, 31 August 1971, in Amazwi, in file “Fugard reviews: Boesman and Lena”, 1971-1980.

[lxxxiv] Ibid.

[lxxxv] Brian Astbury, “Athol Fugard at The Space”, in Stephen Gray, Athol Fugard, op cit, page 57.

[lxxxvi] Eileen Blummenthal, op cit.

[lxxxvii] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 149.

[lxxxviii] David Goldblatt quoted in the remarkable catalogue “Magubane Goldblatt” for the exhibition On common ground at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, July-August 2018, curated by Paul Weinberg.

[lxxxix] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 192.

[xc] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 156.

[xci] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 157.

[xcii] Brian Astbury, op cit, p58.

[xciii] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 157.

[xciv] Athol Fugard interviewed by the American theatre historian, Prof Peter Davis. 1July 1981.

[xcv] Russell Vandenbrucke, op cit, page 179.

[xcvi] Athol Fugard, Notebooks op cit, page 196.

[xcvii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks op cit, page 199.

[xcviii] Russell Vandenbrouke, op cit, page 158.

[xcix] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 202. Fugard often switched between “Banzi” and “Bansi”.

[c] Taylor, Paul and Williams, Holly (26 October 2022): “The 40 best plays of all time, from The seagull to A streetcar named Desire”, The Independent.

[ci] Brian Astbury, op cit, page 59.

[cii] Brian Astbury, op cit, page 59.

[ciii] Interview with John Kani in “Alternative theatre in South Africa: Talking with prime movers since the 1970s” by Rolf Solberg, 1999, page 230.

[civ] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 170.

[cv] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, page 171.

[cvi] Ibid.

[cvii] Irving Wardle, The Times, in Amazwi, file “Sizwe Banzi reviews”, 1973-1974.

[cviii] Plays and Players Magazine, in Amazwi file.

[cix] Susan Hilferty, “Sizwe Banzi is dead by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona”, published on the internet on 4 December 2017.

[cx] Rory Riordan, op cit, page 132.

[cxi] Dawn Lindberg, The Star newspaper, 21 August 1985, in Amazwi file.

[cxii] Clive Barnes, “Sizwe Banzi’s message from Africa”, New York Times, 14 November 1974.

[cxiii] Rory Riordan, op cit, page 132.

[cxiv] Lisa Fugard in conversation with Rory Riordan, Port Elizabeth, 1 December 2023.

[cxv] Russell Vandenbroucke, op cit, pages 191 and 204.

[cxvi] Rory Riordan, op cit, page 134.

[cxvii] Athol Fugard, Notebooks, op cit, page 214.

  • 1



    Very well written. Thanks. Looking forward to reading your biography of Fugard next year. Like a diamond, he has many facets.

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