“Wrong Fugard”

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Athol Fugard in Amsterdam (© Anthony Akerman)

Why should a novel located in the Karoo have triggered homesickness?

When I left South Africa in April 1973, I felt I’d escaped to the Free World. I was convinced I’d blend into British society, become a surrogate Englishman and never look back. But most of the contacts I’d been given in the UK were South Africans, and so, inevitably and perhaps ironically, I spent more time with them than I did with the English. Gradually, I came to accept that I could never be – and no longer wanted to be – English, and that I was inescapably South African.

Shortly after that epiphany, I was in a second-hand bookshop – probably looking for a copy of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade – when I absent-mindedly picked up the Penguin edition of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm. I’d never read it. I’d read little South African literature besides Athol Fugard and Herman Charles Bosman, which hadn’t prevented me from dismissing the rest as parochial and second-rate. But on that wintry day, weighing that paperback in my hand, I had to concede that not having read it was one of the many gaps in my literary education. So, I went back to my digs and, having already decided it would probably be mediocre and provincial, I opened the novel and read the first paragraph.

The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted “karroo” bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.

When I’d finished Schreiner’s passionate and magical novel, I was desperately homesick. It was a chronic condition I suffered from until my plane touched down at Jan Smuts Airport in May 1990.

Why should a novel located in the Karoo have triggered homesickness? I’d grown up in a subtropical part of Natal. I didn’t think the Karoo was in my DNA. My most vivid recollections of the Karoo were childhood road trips to Cape Town, when – with me sitting in the back of my father’s Peugeot 203 – the stretch between Colesberg and the Hex River Pass seemed a very good reason for never driving to Cape Town. For those 400 miles, my sister and I kept up an incessant chant of: “When are we going to get there?”

Athol Fugard in Amsterdam (© Anthony Akerman)

Athol was spending increasingly longer periods working away from South Africa, but he always returned home to write. He told me he couldn’t write anywhere else. He had to be at home.

After Olive Schreiner, it was Athol Fugard who made me re-evaluate the Karoo. His play Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act – which I directed in Dutch in Amsterdam in 1976 – is set in the small Karoo town of Noupoort. Errol Philander, a schoolteacher with an all-consuming interest in evolution, is not allowed to use the town’s whites-only library, but Frieda Joubert, the sympathetic librarian, orders the books he wants and hands them to him through the back door. They fall in love, and that is their undoing. But before their arrest, Errol excitedly tells Frieda that the last book she lent him mentions them – and that the richest deposits of the Permian and Triassic Periods are found in the Graaff-Reinet district. “Us,” he exclaims proudly. “Our world.” Noupoort is only 40 kilometres from Middelburg, the town where Fugard was born – and where, coincidentally, Olive Schreiner got married in 1894. Most of his major plays are situated in the Karoo or Port Elizabeth.

In 1981, Athol came to Amsterdam for the opening of my Dutch-language production of A lesson from aloes. Although he lived in Port Elizabeth in a home revealingly named The Ashram, in the mid-1970s he’d paid – if my memory serves me correctly – R100 for a house in Nieu Bethesda, a village in the heart of the Karoo. Nieu Bethesda is 100 kilometres from where he was born, off the beaten track and – something we’re all becoming increasingly used to – off the national electricity grid. It was somewhere he could escape to and write his plays without the distractions and demands that came with international success.

Athol was spending increasingly longer periods working away from South Africa, but he always returned home to write. He told me he couldn’t write anywhere else. He had to be at home. In 1960, in London, he’d made detailed notes for a play about two brothers who were classified by South Africa’s race laws as coloured, although one had the pigmentation of a black African and the other could “pass for white”. He still didn’t have a title, but at the end of the year he returned to Port Elizabeth and wrote what came to be known as Blood knot – the only Fugard play I ever directed in English with South African actors.

Athol’s words came back to haunt me when I took the decision to write my first play. Olive Schreiner had written The Story of an African Farm while working as a governess on the Karoo farm Ganna Hoek, and 100 years later Athol was writing his plays in Nieu Bethesda. I was in Amsterdam. Would this result in Somewhere on the border being less authentically South African?

Then I reminded myself that some of the most achingly beautiful Afrikaans poetry had been written by Breyten Breytenbach in Paris and that, in September 1946, while staying at the Hotel Bristol in Trondheim, Norway, Alan Paton had written the first two sentences of Cry, the beloved country – sentences that, for me, rival Olive Schreiner’s in evocative beauty.

There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.

Athol Fugard in Amsterdam (© Anthony Akerman)

When Athol arrived in Amsterdam in 1981, he’d just completed “Master Harold” … and the boys. After we parted, he went off to direct the play in the United States, South Africa and London. The next play he wrote in Nieu Bethesda was inspired by the life of an artist who’d been misunderstood and mistrusted by the inhabitants of that village.

It must have been shortly before Athol picked up his fountain pen to keep his appointment with The road to Mecca that Breyten Breytenbach surprised me with an extraordinary piece of information. He was in Amsterdam for the opening of Eksel, a production based on his as-yet-unpublished prison poems that I’d compiled and staged together with three Dutch actors. Breyten said, “Did you know Athol’s joined the AA and is speaking at meetings?” No, I didn’t know that. I knew Athol’s sympathies were unquestionably anti-apartheid, but I didn’t think he’d actually join an organisation and speak at political meetings. “No,” said Breyten, correcting my misapprehension. “Alcoholics Anonymous.”

When Athol had finished writing The road to Mecca, he told the press that it was the first play he’d written without alcohol. Theatregoers were holding their collective breath to see if it would live up to the standard of his previous plays. I’d heard stories of literary agents who’d rather their clients died of cirrhosis of the liver than have them sober and writing plays that had lost their alcohol-induced magic. When I saw the production at the National Theatre in London, it was vintage Fugard – a slow-burning exposition and a cathartic climax.

The real Helen Martins, who transformed the home she’d inherited from her parents into the Owl House, committed suicide in 1976 by drinking caustic soda. There’s some speculation that she did so because she felt her creativity had deserted her and she had nothing more to live for. In Athol’s play, Miss Helen is a survivor. She conquers her demons and feels she has everything to live for. On a coded level, the play is about Athol’s triumph over the threat that alcoholism posed to his own creativity.

I wrote to him after seeing the production and received a reply from The Ashram in April 1985, shortly before he left to direct the play on Broadway. He was still waiting to hear whether American Equity would allow Yvonne Bryceland to play Miss Helen. He told me that he was in good health, but not in good spirits. He felt that the political situation in the country had never been worse and he’d never felt so pessimistic about the future.

Yvonne Bryceland did get to play Miss Helen on Broadway, but after that my correspondence with Athol tapered off. Actor Zakes Mokae – the original Zach in Blood Knot – once described Athol as “a lousy correspondent”, so I gratefully treasure the letters I received from him in the sepia-coloured ink he told me he’d made from wild olives.

Athol had tackled one of the issues that had caused him to feel so pessimistic about the country’s future: the crisis in education. School boycotts and slogans such as “First liberation, then education” would bequeath a lost generation to the country, something we’ve never fully recovered from.

Athol Fugard in Amsterdam (© Anthony Akerman)

In July 1989, I read about My children! My Africa! in The Weekly Mail. It was the first Fugard play to have its world premiere in South Africa in over a decade. Athol had tackled one of the issues that had caused him to feel so pessimistic about the country’s future: the crisis in education. School boycotts and slogans such as “First liberation, then education” would bequeath a lost generation to the country, something we’ve never fully recovered from. I received the script from his agent in October, liked the play, approached Wim Visser – the producer who’d introduced Pieter-Dirk Uys to the Netherlands – and we scheduled a production for early 1991.

But a year before we went into rehearsal, FW de Klerk delivered his watershed speech, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and the South African Embassy in The Hague could no longer refuse me a visa. I was 40 when I was able to return home and meet my birth mother for the first time. But that’s another story – a story I’ve told in my still-to-be-published memoir, Lucky bastard.

In 1990, I visited South Africa twice. During my second visit – after directing Somewhere on the border in Durban – I flew down to Cape Town to spend more time with my birth mother. I’d suggested we go on a road trip through the Karoo. It would give us quality time together, and I’d be able to visit a part of the world I’d been longing for since that English winter when I read Olive Schreiner’s novel with the rain lashing against the windowpanes.

As we drove through Paarl, Vera told me I’d lived there “in utero” for five months. We then drove over the Du Toitskloof Pass, which I now knew was named after an ancestor of mine. We arrived in Matjiesfontein in time for a pub lunch at the Lord Milner. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit Olive Schreiner’s cottage, as it forms part of the hotel and the room was occupied. Is there anywhere in the Karoo where she didn’t once live?

The Karoo landscape I’d found desolate and boring as a child I now found hauntingly beautiful. It certainly made a change from the patchwork, polder landscape I stared at through the train window when commuting between Rotterdam and Amsterdam. I stopped the car. Vera asked if something was wrong. I just wanted to get out and be in the middle of it. It had recently rained and splashes of veld flowers were growing along the side of the road. Vera had told me her father had been born in Cradock in 1867, which was the year the twelve-year-old Olive Schreiner went to live there and received her first years of formal education. So perhaps the Karoo was in my DNA. When I got back into the car ten minutes later not a single vehicle had passed us in either direction.

At Beaufort West, we took the R61. The landscape flattened out – windmills pumping water, Merino sheep cropping Olive Schreiner’s “stunted ‘karroo’ bushes”, springbok twitching their tails. We approached Graaff-Reinet from Aberdeen and checked in at the Drostdy Hotel, where a magistracy had once been established in an attempt to impose law and order on a lawless population. It had been lovingly restored by Anton Rupert. The only discordant note was that it had been officially opened by the baleful BJ Vorster. His name was on a plaque affixed to a structure resembling – in staggeringly bad taste – a slave bell.

The next day, we drove to the top of the Wapadsberg Pass. It’s described in My children! My Africa! and I wanted to see the view from up there. On the way back, where the R61 joins the N9, I saw the sign to Nieu Bethesda. I’d told Vera about the Owl House and how it had featured in The road to Mecca. Could Athol have foreseen that his play would popularise Nieu Bethesda as a tourist destination? Would he now have to find another remote village to find the peace and quiet he needed for writing?

As we drove along the dirt road, I told Vera about the house Athol had bought and how he always went there to write. I wasn’t sure of his current whereabouts, but it was quite possible that he was there working on something new. As we pulled up outside the Dutch Reformed Church, I saw a car with a CB registration and said it was probably him. What were the odds? I got out, saw the front door of a house opening and had Athol walking straight towards me. He didn’t seem to recognise me, so I called out his name. “Wrong Fugard,” he answered.

I wondered whether Roy had ever seen the play and, if he had, whether he’d recognised anything of himself in Zach.

Vera Milner (née Farnham), Lucille & Royal Fugard, Nieu Bethesda 1990 (© Anthony Akerman)

He told me he was Royal Fugard, Athol’s older brother. The Fugard children had been given their names by their paternal grandmother, a British royalist. Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard grew up being called Harold or Hally. Later, he must have decided that Athol Fugard was a better stage name than Harold Fugard. Besides, Harold was his father’s name. His grandmother had probably come up with Athol in deference to the Earl of Athlone, who’d been governor general of South Africa between 1924 and 1931. His younger sister was called Glenda. Either she was named after an obscure royal I’ve never heard of, or Athol’s parents had decided enough was enough.

I told Roy – that’s what everyone called him – how I knew Athol. We were joined by his Dutch wife, Lucille, and they invited us to their home for tea. They’d also bought in Nieu Bethesda. If we’d been here a few weeks earlier, Roy told me, we’d have bumped into Athol. He’d been there to buy a house for his daughter, Lisa. He probably paid a lot more than R100 for it. Roy said that Athol was in America. I surprised Lucille by speaking Dutch to her, and then we explained how my mother and I had met for the first time that year. Roy and Lucille said they knew someone else who was also adopted. Everyone does. They said you could see Vera and I were mother and son.

You could also see that Royal and Athol were brothers, but in other respects they were very different. Athol had won a scholarship to UCT to study philosophy and French, while Roy had had a poor academic record. Athol worked in the theatre, while Roy worked for the Parks Board. Before we left to visit the Owl House, Roy gave me a piece of kudu biltong. I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure he had shot the kudu himself. He shook my hand warmly, and then I remembered reading a quote in which Athol said that Blood Knot “is basically myself and my brother”. I wondered whether Roy had ever seen the play and, if he had, whether he’d recognised anything of himself in Zach.

See also:

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  

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  • Wonderlike geskryf in smaakvolle Engels. Ongetwyfeld 'n talentvolle dramaturg met 'n passie vir Fugard.

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