Authors: Athol Fugard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

South African playwright, actor, and director

Author Works


No-Good Friday, pr. 1958

Nongogo, pr. 1959

The Blood Knot, pr. 1961

People Are Living There, wr. 1962, pr. 1968

Hello and Goodbye, pr. 1965

The Coat: An Acting Exercise from Serpent Players of New Brighton, pr., pb. 1967 (with Serpent Players)

The Occupation, pb. 1968 (one act)

Ten One-Act Plays, pb. 1968 (Cosmo Pieterse, editor)

Boesman and Lena, pr., pb. 1969

Friday’s Bread on Monday, pr. 1970 (with Serpent Players)

Orestes: An Experiment in Theatre as Described in a Letter to an American Friend, pr. 1971

Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, pr. 1972

Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, pr. 1972 (with John Kani and Winston Ntshona)

The Island, pr. 1973 (with Kani and Ntshona)

Three Port Elizabeth Plays, pb. 1974, revised pb. 2000 (includes The Blood Knot, Hello and Goodbye, and Boesman and Lena; revised pb. includes “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys)

Dimetos, pr. 1975

A Lesson from Aloes, pr. 1978

The Drummer, pr. 1980 (improvisation)

“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys, pr., pb. 1982

The Road to Mecca, pr. 1984

A Place with the Pigs, pr. 1987

My Children! My Africa!, pr., pb. 1990

Blood Knot, and Other Plays, pb. 1991

Playland, pr., pb. 1992

Valley Song, pr. 1995

The Captain’s Tiger, pr., pb. 1997

Plays: One, pb. 1998

Sorrows and Rejoicings, pr., pb. 2001

Long Fiction:

Tsotsi, 1979


The Occupation, 1964

Boesman and Lena, 1973

The Guest, 1977

Marigolds in August, 1982


Mille Miglia, 1968


“The Gift of Freedom,” in At the Royal Court: Twenty-five Years of the English Stage Company, 1981 (Richard Findlater, editor)

Notebooks, 1960-1977, 1983

Cousins: A Memoir, 1994


Athol Harold Lannigan Fugard (FYEW-gard) was the product of two distinct traditions: the Afrikaner tradition of his mother’s family and the British tradition of his father’s. Born in 1932 in Middelburg, Cape Province, on the Karoo, Fugard was the son of two impoverished squatters. Fugard’s mother gave him encouragement throughout his early periods of rebellion and unrest, which, though painful, were important for his artistic development.{$I[AN]9810001129}{$I[A]Fugard, Athol}{$I[geo]SOUTH AFRICA;Fugard, Athol}{$I[tim]1932;Fugard, Athol}

Athol Fugard

(Richard Corman)

Fugard’s early life was spent primarily in the city of Port Elizabeth. At various times he was a student at Cape Town University, studied mechanics, hitchhiked toward North Africa, and served as a member of a Malay ship’s crew, where he lost whatever residual racial prejudice he may have harbored. His extensive travels as a hitchhiker also helped him learn what people of other races may think and feel. He returned from his adventures as a merchant seaman in Asia with his new wife, Sheila, with whom he opened an experimental theater in Cape Town.

For a time, Fugard worked as a clerk in the Native Commissioner’s Court in Cape Town. There he observed how South Africa’s restrictive pass laws were ruining the lives of many black people. Fugard resigned from his post and turned to working with his group of talented amateur players, among whom were Zaikes Mokae and Bloke Modisane. In 1958, the group produced Fugard’s first play, No-Good Friday, which addressed the violence born of despair in South African black ghettoes, blacks’ victimization by one another, and the powerlessness of those on the “outside.”

Real success did not come to Fugard until 1961 with the production of The Blood Knot, a powerful allegorical play about blacks and whites living in close proximity. The Blood Knot played in both London and New York and drew much attention to the dramatist.

After The Blood Knot production finished touring in England and the United States, Fugard returned to Port Elizabeth to organize a group of black amateur actors called the Serpent Players. The group evaded governmental bans because Fugard carefully chose classical plays–by Sophocles, Bertolt Brecht, and Jean-Paul Sartre–that were not overtly political yet still carried subtly subversive messages.

In 1971, another turning point came in Fugard’s career when he came across the ideas of the Polish drama theorist Jerzy Grotowski, who gave him the notion that he must find a new, more improvisational sort of theater. From collaborations with such actors as John Kani and Winston Ntshona came such well-known plays as Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island.

Boesman and Lena, one of the finest plays in the Fugard canon, achieves great dramatic intensity while using only two main characters (a third is not seen, only spoken to). This play is what Fugard considered to be “pure theater,” the kind he found described in the work of Grotowski. It has a simple set of characters who speak in a simple way, in language laced with obscenities and banalities yet at times poetically beautiful.

When a previously unpublished early work, the novel Tsotsi, was published in 1980, readers gained insight into the Sophiatown ghetto existence Fugard had observed so closely. “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys, produced in 1982, made a triumphal tour of New York and London and further buoyed Fugard’s reputation. Like other Fugard plays, it centers on conflict between people of differing backgrounds and is filled with intense yet often futile attempts at communication.

With the gradual dismantling of apartheid at the end of the 1980’s, Fugard turned his attention to its aftermath. In My Children! My Africa! he explores the effect that apartheid had on the youth of South Africa, both black and white. Playland is set on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and focuses on the complex encounter between a white army veteran and a black night watchman. As his international reputation grew, the playwright began to spend more time abroad, often in the United States, where he oversaw productions of several of his works. Valley Song is a positive, forward-thinking play celebrating the limitless possibilities for South Africa’s youth. When Sorrows and Rejoicings begins, South African writer Dawid Olivier is already dead. In flashback, the audience discovers that he had chosen the creative suicide of political exile to England when threatened with jail for his activist views. Present at the funeral are Dawid’s white British wife, his angry teenage daughter, his black former lover, and his own spirit. Fugard said of this play, “It is both a sorrowing for the pain of my country and the Rejoicings of what it is becoming.”

Fugard’s knowledge of South Africa’s tragedy is deep and his anger genuinely felt. He re-created the tragedy of his native country for the world’s examination, and he allowed South Africans to see how their police state brutalizes everyone–whites included. On another plane, however, his plays are universal depictions of people’s loneliness, frustration, separation, and inhumanity toward one another.

Like Samuel Beckett, Fugard writes about barely developed characters leading lives that are unfocused and stripped of dignity and meaning amid industrial-age ugliness. Fugard’s people, like Beckett’s, want meaning in life but cannot find it anywhere. All seems futile: love, duty, hope. Fugard’s characters are kin, too, to those of Eugene O’Neill.

Athol Fugard is one of South Africa’s most important writers. His theater is filled with energy and haunting in its search for meaning. He tells the truth about South Africa without descending into propaganda. A consummate experimenter, Fugard changed the direction of his playwriting many times. There is little doubt that he is among the most significant playwrights of the second half of the twentieth century.

BibliographyBenson, Mary. Athol Fugard and Barney Simon: Bare Stage, a Few Props, Great Theatre. Randburg, South Africa: Ravan Press, 1997. Benson relates her friendship with South Africa’s two major playwrights and provides extraordinary insights into their lives and worksBenson, Mary. “Keeping an Appointment with the Future: The Theatre of Athol Fugard.” Theatre Quarterly 7, no. 28 (1977): 77-86. A personal biography regarding Fugard’s wife and daughter, his early career struggles, and his aesthetic debts to Jerzy Grotowski, Albert Camus, and others. Benson’s interview is followed by some acting comments by and about Fugard. The entire issue is devoted to South African theater.Fugard, Athol. “Athol Fugard’s South Africa: The Playwright Reveals Himself to a Fellow Writer.” Interview by André Brink. World Press Review 37 (July, 1990): 36-39. Excerpted from the Cape Town periodical Leadership. Brink discusses Fugard’s “commitment to the search for meaning” in a warm interview following the opening of My Children! My Africa! Fugard states that he regrets the time he must spend away from Africa, where his energies belong.Gray, Stephen. Southern African Literature: An Introduction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A strong discussion of Boesman and Lena, “seen by more South African audiences than any other South African play,” in its stage or film versions. Gray interprets the play as a “rewording of the myth” of Hottentot Eve: “The play is ultimately more about the strains of the marriage bond between her and her husband than the colour problem which aggravates it.”Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985. A full study of the playwright’s life, work, and philosophies. Contains introductory material on South Africa and a concluding chapter on influences, crosscurrents, language, style, and critical reputation. Appendices offer the full text of The Drummer, an essay on Dimetos, and a production chronology. Bibliography and index.Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. New York: Grove Press, 1985. A general survey and appreciation of Fugard’s work to “MASTER HAROLD” …and the Boys. Walder says Fugard’s plays speak “not only of the South African dimension of man’s inhumanity to man, but also of the secret pain we all inflict upon each other in the private recesses of our closest relationships.”Wertheim, Albert. The Dramatic Art of Athol Fugard: From South Africa to the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. Wertheim explores Fugard’s life and work in such great detail as to make this a vital resource.
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