A Lesson From Aloes
Very little happens on stage in A Lesson From Aloes, the South African writer Athol Fugard’s most recent play. In the first act, the Afrikaner Piet Bezuidenhout and his wife Gladys sit in the shabby back garden of their house in Port Elizabeth. They are waiting for the sunny afternoon to pass. Piet tends his collection of thorny aloe plants; together they set the table for dinner. His manner is considerate, elaborately solicitous, hers somewhat tenser but also pointedly polite. And yet it is clear from their first exchange that there is something terribly wrong—something that goes for the most part unmentioned, apparent only in their strained courtesy and the awkward silences between them. In the second act Steve Daniels arrives: a Coloured man, once a mason and a political leader, who has recently come out of prison. Although it was expected that he would bring his family, he has arrived alone—and very late. The exaggerated bonhomie that passes between him and Piet only seems to heighten the tension on stage.
Like Piet and Gladys, Steve has a store of unpleasant memories. Before the final curtain we hear about the drought that some years ago destroyed Piet’s farm, and about the failure of the liberal political ideals that once united him and Steve. Gladys talks about the night the security police appeared at the Bezuidenhout’s house and confiscated her personal diaries; then she describes the psychiatric asylum where she has spent several months since that night. Steve gives an account of his arrest and interrogation by the police. But again it is clear from their thinly veiled hints that the characters are playing out some sinister and unspoken drama that goes deeper than these frightening stories.
This comes to the surface near the end of the second act when Gladys tells Steve that, as he suspected, it was indeed Piet who betrayed him to the security police. Her outburst is hysterical, the accusation seems unreliable, and the moment passes quickly. Piet does not even deny the charge: “If you could have believed it,” he says later to Steve, “there was no point in denying it.” The deep mistrust between the three characters is not created by the action of the play or in any way resolved at its end: much more terrifying, their bitterness and suspicion are simply revealed and then thinly covered over as the work draws to a close.
Unlike many well-known South African authors who write in English, Fugard is not himself well educated or of English descent, but an Afrikaner born in a small frontier town in the dusty plateau region known as the Great Karoo. He grew up in the grim industrial city of Port Elizabeth, where his mother ran a cigarette shop and then a small neighborhood café. Fugard went to a technical high school, and after college spent some years in the merchant marine. He returned to Port Elizabeth in the late Fifties, already determined to become a …