Maskew Miller Longman Literature Awards: 10 quick questions to Charles J Fourie

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Maskew Miller Longman has announced the winners of its 2008 Literature Award competition for writing in all South Africa’s official languages. This year’s competition focused on youth dramas. Charles J Fourie won the English category with his drama The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife. Naomi Bruwer asked him 10 quick questions.

What does a competition such as the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award contribute to creative writing in South Africa?

The MML competition is open to experienced and non-experienced writers with an entry in each of the thirteen indigenous languages. This creates the opportunity to tell diverse stories in one’s home language. All the winning entries get published and some prescribed at schools. As plays seldom get published, it is an added bonus. Ironically, I mostly write in Afrikaans, and just happened to enter an English play which won that category.

Tell us more about The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife.

The play had its origin with a story that retired newspaperman Jan Breytenbach told me years ago. The main character in the play, called Plaatjes, was a prisoner on the island during a period of the island’s history when it was home to lunatics and lepers. Plaatjes built boats with which he wanted to escape, but every time the warders on the island destroyed his handiwork, leaving him destitute. This would not deter him, and he would just build another boat. The story gripped me, and the play took shape. In its published draft it tells the story of a lighthouse keeper and his estranged wife. She befriends the character of Plaatjes as the two of them have a common bond in their love of poetry. It ends quite tragically for all of them. In a way the island represents the Garden of Eden.

What are the challenges of writing for the youth compared with writing adult plays?

I never intended to write The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife as a youth drama and entered it for the competition long after I had written it. It was in fact stage-read in the UK as an adult drama at the Old Vic theatre and later performed as part of the John Caird New Directors' festival in London. I felt, however, it was suitable for entry in the competition as it tells a story that explores Robben Island’s history beyond the contemporary political heritage associated with the island.

Should youth dramas be educational as well as entertaining?

The play has educational value for its historical setting, and I guess the performance or entertainment value lies in the story it tells of indignant love and the yearning for freedom. Love and freedom here are conflicting entities that seduce man to a state of despair.

Does drama as a literary genre receives the attention it deserves?

Compared with British theatre writing, there exists a definite lack of interest in drama as a literary genre in South Africa. Play texts tend to be looked upon as scribbling for entertainment, and not regarded with the same esteem as, say, poetry. Ironically, the two genres share the same status quo when it comes to publishing. You also find that many plays get published lacking the process of staging beforehand, and inherently do not make for good theatre. A play needs at least a stage production or two before it is ready for print. Drama criticism requires literary analysis that understands the transition of page to stage and vice versa. You need to take the play’s inherent "stageness" into account. The same goes for its performance value with actors, set and audience when reviewed by a theatre critic.

Do you write only dramas, especially youth dramas?

I see myself in essence as a playwright, although I dabble in other genres. Writing short stories is good groundwork for writing a play. Hopefully a few of these stories will eventually shy away from the stage and stand as pieces of fiction. The short stories of Chekov are a great inspiration on this count. I also aim to publish a collection of my "enfant terrible" poems in the future.

Which plays have recently inspired you and why?

I continually return to the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s work. His plays are masterpieces of modern stage writing, which when read or staged, subtly unearths the horror that underlies the human condition. And of course Chekov is always nearby.

In your opinion, what needs to be done to promote the attendance at drama productions in South Africa?

South African theatre is very much alive and well and the attendance figures at the various arts festivals around the country corroborate this. Unfortunately it is not always the case outside the festival environment, but we should be realistic about our expectations. Quantity does not always equate to quality. We all know you can have a box office hit with a musical, or a soapstar-filled production. I recently ventured into writing for television after becoming tired of hustling my plays onto stage.

How, when and where do you write?

I write in the world’s smallest study. It used to be the tool shed of my cottage. I converted it a few years ago into a study, with a desk cramped amongst old stage props and costumes, my fishing gear, outboard motor, diving equipment and tool boxes. It is only 1,5 m x 3 m, but even has a shelf with books. I call it "my little room without a view".

Are you working on anything new? Can you tell us about it?

I’m working on a new play which we plan to stage next year. I also recently collaborated with scriptwriter Hein Eksteen on a sitcom for television, which is due for broadcast next year, and we are currently writing a sitcom for the actor Frank Opperman which is based on his and Dana Snyman’s popular one-man show Die Uwe Pottie Potgieter.

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