Human & Rousseau

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Author Focus

Athol Fugard

Biographical info

Born in the town of Middelburg in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa on 11 June 1932, Athol Fugard has been working in the theatre as a playwright, director and actor in South Africa, England and the United States for over fifty years. The early circumstances of his life, including his Afrikaner mother’s sense of injustice at the political system that was taking hold of South Africa and his early friendship with two black men who worked for his family (celebrated in his autobiographical play ‘Master Harold’ … and the boys), contributed to Fugard embarking on his writing career with plays that would quickly earn him the long-standing reputation of being a ‘political playwright’. Yet despite having been an outspoken critic of the apartheid regime, Fugard has always rejected this label, claiming, “I am a storyteller, and my stories are an attempt at honest witnessing of the lives around me in my beloved South Africa. It is impossible for them not to have political resonances.”

Starting in the apartheid years, Fugard invested heavily in South African theatre, starting multiracial companies in Johannesburg (Theatre Workshop) and in Port Elizabeth (The Serpent Players). It was for the Theatre Workshop that Fugard wrote what he considers his first plays, No-Good Friday (1958) and Nongogo (1959); at the time, both were staged in townships around Johannesburg. In 1961 The Blood Knot was directed by Barney Simon at the Little Attic Theatre in Dorkay House, Johannesburg, Fugard starring in the role of Morris opposite Zakes Mokae’s Zachariah. It is this play, described by Fugard as his watershed play, that would launch his international career when it was staged in an off-Broadway production in 1964. In The Serpent Players, Fugard met and began working with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, a relationship that would eventually lead to their celebrated plays, Sizwe Banzi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973).

During the following years, Fugard continued exploring the depths of human experience – including his own – against the backdrop of South African life, not only during but also after apartheid, writing plays such as Statements After an Arrest under the Immorality Act (1972), A Lesson from Aloes (1978) ’Master Harold’ … and the boys (1982), The Road to Mecca (1984), My Children! My Africa (1989), My Life (1992), Valley Song (1996), The Captain’s Tiger: A Memoir for the Stage (1997), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001), Exits and Entrances (2004), Booitjie and the Oubaas (2006), Victory (2007), Coming Home (2009), The Train Driver (2010), The Blue Iris (2011), Die Laaste Karretjiegraf (2012) and his latest work The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek (2015). Many of these plays have since become modern-day classics. Flowing out of the years Fugard spent living in the United States, he also wrote two plays set in Southern California, Have You Seen Us (2009) and The Shadow of the Hummingbird (2013). Besides writing plays, Fugard has also released an edited collection of his notes in Notebooks, 1960 -1977 (1983), and written an autobiographical memoir entitled Cousins (1994). His only novel, Tsotsi, was published in 1980, the film adaptation of which (directed by Gavin Hood) won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Fugard is the recipient of many awards, honours, and honorary degrees, including the 2005 Order of Ikhamanga in Silver from the government of South Africa. His achievements have also been celebrated internationally, with a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 2011 and the Praemium Imperiale arts prize for theatre/film awarded by the Japan Arts Association in 2014. After a considerable period of time living in the United States, Fugard relocated permanently to South Africa in 2015. He now considers the small village of Nieu-Bethesda, once home to the legendary Helen Martins honoured in The Road to Mecca, as his home.

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