Friday, May 21, 2010

Teaching Athol Fugard's Plays

Two weeks ago, I was in the midst of teaching Athol Fugard's plays to my senior class, all English majors. We got to Fugard after studying Tawfiq al-Hakim's The Tree Climber, an intriguing but very interesting play. Before that, we had discussed two plays by Ama Ata Aidoo and two by Wole Soyinka.

I had chosen two plays by Fugard: A Lesson From Aloes and Sorrows and Rejoicings. I recall, vaguely, that I read A Lesson From Aloes as a graduate student in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, around 1981. The name of Fugard was constantly in my mind then, partly because my fellow graduate school student and friend, Deborah Foster, had written a study of Fugard's Blood Knot that was famous in the Department.

When I decided to try teaching Fugard, several years ago, I chose to start with Master Harold and the Boys, for no particular reason. In a subsequent semester, I tried Sorrows and Rejoicings and taught it again afterwards. In the meantime, I bought and browsed through Fugards's Notebooks.

My growing interest in Fugard led me to decide to teach two of his plays this semester. My class has been able to see not only the range of Fugard's artistic techniques, but also the depth of his understanding of the human cost of apartheid, his probing revelation of the tragic consequences of this system on individuals who experienced it.

Fugard is a deep thinker, who draws from his own experiences of South Africa and the world--since he traveled much--and from his voracious reading of other writers. In his plays and his Notebooks, we see the influence of his wide reading: Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Andre Malraux and so on.

Like Camus, Hemingway, and other famous writers, Fugard struggles with issues of the meaning of life and the human condition, truth, and art itself. I am most inspired by Fugard's brilliance as well as humility in the face of those he admires for their contributions, as is evidenced by this passage from his Notebooks:

Resumed reading Camus's "Carnets." I would be happy to spend the next ten years deepening my understanding and appreciation of this man--and rereading and again rereading everything he has written. Camus sounds out and charts the very oceans of experience, feeling and thought, on which I find myself sailing at this moment. His importance to me is monumental. Reading Camus is like finding, and for the first time, a man speaking my own language.
(Athol Fugard, Notebooks, 1960-1977, Theatre Communications Group, 1984, p. 94)

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