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 writer. It was also at that time that he began to work with a group of amateur black actors, producing plays for little or no money in people’s houses and abandoned buildings and places like the “Bantumen’s Social Center,” often in “black areas” of the city—the first of many such groups which have provided Fugard with the South African stories in several of his plays.

Fugard often complains that his work is misunderstood by critics who see him as a writer concerned primarily with political themes. When A Lesson From Aloes opened on Broadway in November—in a production with strong performances by James Earl Jones, Maria Tucci, and Harris Yulin, and directed by Fugard himself—the playwright was described by the press as an embattled and bitter figure, frequently harassed by the South African regime.* But although he takes a certain pride in being a dissident writer, Fugard insists that he is not a political playwright. “Hating the system is one thing,” he has said, “but I’m telling you, if your motive is hate, you’ve had it.” The people in A Lesson From Aloes are victims of South African repression. Yet the play is not a cry of outrage or protest. Fugard’s pessimism leaves no room for leftist pieties.

Describing the interrogation by the security police, Steve tells Piet, “I got no bruises to show you.” He was not tortured by the Special Branch, merely laughed at and humiliated—humiliated so severely that he was prepared to jump out of the fifth story window in the room where he was questioned. The violence in A Lesson From Aloes is suppressed violence, not the violence of revolutionary politics or of a repressive state, but violence that the characters turn against themselves and that divides them from one another: Steve’s suspicion of his once-trusted comrade and the bitter envy that passes between Piet and his wife. Fugard is less concerned with South African politics than with the poisoned relations that exist in a certain kind of political climate. It would be too easy to blame the regime for the fear and mistrust that overwhelm the three characters in A Lesson From Aloes.


For his part, Fugard refuses to join the increasing number of South African whites—both liberal and conservative—who are leaving the country, convinced that the situation there now admits of no just or peaceful solution. “My job,” he has said, “is to write as faithfully as I can about the nameless and destitute of one little corner of the world.” His earliest works, including the novel Tsotsi, which was written in 1959 but remained unpublished until last year, describe the gloomy bars and prostitution and petty crime in Sophiatown, the black “location” outside of Johannesburg.

Tsotsi is a somewhat heavy-handed parable about a young black hoodlum who turns away from his gang as he begins to sympathize with the suffering of the people he beats up and robs. His conversion is hard to believe and much of the prose sounds sentimental, but it reveals Fugard’s early determination to look as closely and unflinchingly as possible at the violence and ugliness in the black township. In some passages, the setting is described in the emotional but generalized style that Alan Paton and James Agee use to describe poor people. In the township, at the end of the day,

Children were despondent because there were no more games to play, busy women found themselves with empty hands, dogs stood around on awkward legs, old men dozing in the sun felt the sun go and awoke to find their bodies cold. It was an hour of despondent attitudes, when you kicked the dust if you had played in it all day, or stood up and spat into it if you had slept there in the sun.

Fugard also records a more particular kind of horror, noting in grotesque detail the deformity of a legless beggar stalked by the hoodlum Tsotsi through thirty unrelenting and disturbing pages at the center of the novel. The beggar’s “swinish grunts,” his bluish-black nails, the folds of skin on his neck, and the growing desperation of the curses that he shouts back at his pursuer—Fugard spares the reader nothing, trying to put across what happened to Tsotsi the first time “he felt for his victim.”

The intensity of these descriptions is greatly undermined by the writer’s habit of stepping in to explain their significance: what he calls “the full meaning and miracle of sharing in another man’s suffering.” Fugard’s story is told in a didactic voice that allows his characters little room to move. Tsotsi’s problem was how “to affirm his existence in the face of…nullity,” the narrator tells us, commenting on “these thoughts, or his equivalents of them.” Here and there Fugard looks ironically at the slow-witted hoodlum who thinks he can get anything he wants—even an explanation of God and the “meaning” of his life—with a few simple direct questions and a little bullying. But more often Fugard fails to distinguish clearly enough between the young thug and the narrator, sacrificing the story to a rather wooden lesson in his own existentialist beliefs.

Fugard’s preoccupation with the tangled intimacy between bully and victim reappears in his first major play, The Blood Knot, written in 1961. It is his most winning work for the theater, and has some of the sardonic humor that has marked most of his writing since Tsotsi. The Blood Knot is the story of two brothers—one light skinned, the other dark—who take a white woman for a pen pal. In the first scene, the darker brother Zachariah returns from work to the one-room shack he shares with Morris, his educated and well-traveled brother who has passed for white. Morris is preparing a footbath for him. Zachariah sits down and “dips his feet into the basin. He sighs with satisfaction, but stops abruptly when he sees Morris smile.” Zachariah frowns:

Zachariah: Not as hot as last night, hey?

Morris: Last night you said it was too hot.

Z: [thinks about this] That’s not what I mean.

M: So what is it? Too hot or too cold?

Z: When?

M: Now.

Z: Lukish.

The hate and fear that passed between the characters in Tsotsi are transformed here into a kind of changeable ambivalence—seemingly playful, but no less threatening. Morris continues to look after his brother, as if he does not notice the other’s hostility: the lighter man is clearly too eager to please, troubled by unspoken guilt. Zachariah admires his cleverness, but is also cagey and demanding, annoyed by the fussy routines that come with Morris’s orderliness and his dream of saving for the future. The brothers laugh together and remember old times and draw each other out with fantastic schemes. But between them kindness is always the other side of obligation, their need for each other inseparable from resentment.


The Blood Knot was Fugard’s first explicit treatment of racial themes. The pen pal is Morris’s idea: something to occupy his restless brother. Zachariah shows little interest until they learn from the photo she sends him that they have unwittingly written to a white woman. Horrified, Morris insists that they tear up the letter. Zachariah refuses:

I like the thought of this little white girl…. It’s the best thought I ever had and I’m keeping it…. Who knows? You might get to liking it too. [Morris says nothing. Zachariah comes closer.] Ja. There’s a thought there. What about you, Morrie? You never had it before…that thought? A man like you, specially you, always thinking so many things.

Zachariah begins to goad and provoke his brother, encouraging him to masquerade as a white man and arrange a rendezvous with the pen pal. He insists that Morris use their savings to buy a suit that a white man would wear. “Why are you doing this to me?” Morris asks. Zachariah answers, “Aren’t we brothers?” The next evening Morris works up his courage to put on his new clothes, and within a few minutes he is calling his brother Swartgat—a word that could be translated as “nigger.” The following night it is again Zachariah who encourages him to try on the suit: the darker man says it makes him “feel good.” Then in the final scene, as their good-humored banter wears thin, they act out an intense game of make-believe violence in the darkness of their shack. In the end, both are relieved. They depend on each other, and on their brutal game, to remind them what it means to be a black or a white man.

The Blood Knot showed how much Fugard had learned from reading Beckett’s spare dialogue and how he had absorbed Beckett’s feeling for two characters isolated on an empty stage. But Fugard had not abandoned what he calls, with no apology, his “regional” art. For him even the starkest absurdity must be rooted in a specific place: he once told a group of black actors he directed in Waiting for Godot to imagine that Vladimir and Estragon had read accounts of the Nuremberg trials or been at Auschwitz or Sharpeville. Like much of Fugard’s other work, The Blood Knot has been foolishly criticized for not being more specific about political problems in South Africa. But the starkly metaphoric style of the play makes one see in the antagonism between black and white man a complicity between master and servant that has little to do with legal restrictions.

Even more than Zachariah and Morris, the vagrant couple in Boesman and Lena (1969) are bound to each other by a kind of murderous dependence. They are escaping from a shantytown destroyed by government bulldozers and, as night falls on the mudflats outside Port Elizabeth, they stop to build themselves a shelter. An old African man passes by. Lena calls him in to warm himself by their fire. During the night he dies, and Boesman hits and kicks the corpse—as he often hits Lena. To her, his beatings are the “proof” of her existence: “When I feel it; I’ll know I’m Lena.” As for Boesman, when he “doesn’t understand something, he hits it.” The existentialist riddles that trouble Lena seem incongruous: will it “explain anything,” she asks, if she can remember the route she and Boesman have taken as they wander across the mudflats? In the end she decides it makes no difference: she must in any case continue. “Moer moer moer,” she curses bitterly, “can’t throw yourself away before your time.” That is the full extent of her courage. Boesman and Lena is a difficult play, uncompromising in its bleakness. It seemed to mark the end of Fugard’s search for a kind of minimal heroism: the least that is necessary, in Lena’s case an enormous effort.

By the late Sixties Fugard had begun to retreat from the emphasis on the “absurd” one finds in Boesman and Lena and also from what he has called “the inquisition of blank paper”; he worked out plays not at his writing table but through improvisations with actors, which he later rewrote. What are perhaps his best-known plays, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island (1973), were devised in collaboration with two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Like many other members of Serpent Players, a group that Fugard had been directing since the early Sixties, they were untrained amateurs who worked during the day in menial factory jobs. They brought to Fugard’s improvisation sessions their own direct concerns as black South Africans: for the passbook laws which provide the plot of Sizwe Bansi and the treatment of political prisoners on Robben Island. They used a hard sarcasm that was new to Fugard’s work—a kind of ruthless banter that is never simple about politics and cuts even deeper than the humor of The Blood Knot.

Sizwe Bansi is a Coloured worker from the provinces whose passbook does not allow him to stay and work in Port Elizabeth. One night he and his friend Buntu find a dead man in the street, and Buntu encourages him to take the other man’s pass, although it means he must burn his own, in effect “killing” Sizwe Bansi.

Man: I don’t want to lose my name, Buntu.

Buntu: You mean you don’t want to lose your bloody passbook! You love it, hey?

M: Buntu, I cannot lose my name.

B: All right, I was only trying to help. As Robert Zwelinzima you could have stayed and worked in this town. As Sizwe Bansi…. Start walking, friend. King William’s Town. Hundred and fifty miles. And don’t waste any time! You’ve got to be there by yesterday. Hope you enjoy it.

M: Buntu….

B: Lots of scenery in a hundred and fifty miles.

M: Buntu!…

B: Maybe a better idea is just to wait until they pick you up. Save yourself all that walking….

Later in the play, the two black men, Kani and Ntshona, scornfully play with the idea of “dignity” as they mock the proud bearing and Sunday clothes of a black man who must on Monday grovel before his white master.

The Island is even more savage in tone. When John learns that he will soon be released from prison, Winston goads him with a description of the freedom that awaits him. John is simply reluctant to ruin the pleasure by anticipating it. But for Winston the vision of John drinking among their friends is an almost unbearable torment. He says in a deceptively quiet voice, “You stink, John. You stink of beer, of company, of poes [cunt], of freedom…. Your freedom stinks, John, and it’s driving me mad.” As he becomes more agitated, he confesses, “I’ve forgotten why I’m here…. Fuck slogans, fuck politics…fuck everything, John. Why am I here? I’m jealous of your freedom.” In the last scene of the play, when the two men perform Antigone for the other prisoners on the island, their thinly veiled comment on the injustice of the South African regime comes as little more than a bitter ironic coda to Winston’s devastating outburst.

There is something of this deliberately unresolved ambivalence in A Lesson From Aloes: Piet’s political activity is at once honorable and futile. That the movement is now, as Steve says, “a lost cause” is clear enough from his own decision to leave the country on a oneway exit permit—as a political exile. “We were like a bunch of boyscouts playing at politics,” he says darkly. “Those boer-boys play the game rough. It’s going to need men who don’t care about the rules to sort them out.” Gladys taunts Piet with the failure of the movement, jabbing at him with the bold lucidity of a woman stepping back from a bout of madness. And yet Piet remains immovable. His political commitment is simple and emotional. It has less to do with ideology than with the friendship he felt one morning when he joined a group of blacks on a street corner. They were listening to a man, who turned out later to be Steve, encouraging them to protest an increase in the bus fare. The issue meant little to Piet: “I didn’t even hear what Steve said when he carried on talking. Something about a penny and the price of bread.” He still smiles at the idea that he should care about “politics.” For him, it means a sense of what he loosely calls “purpose,” shared with other men. That is the most that Fugard will say about a political cause.

In the new play, as before, Fugard’s central concern is the snarled relation between two characters: the tenderness and loyalty that pass between Piet and Gladys, but also his feelings of guilt and her resentment of his strength. Piet is determined not to give in to the sense of futility that has troubled Gladys and Steve since they were humiliated by the police. That is why he ignores her brittle nerves as he cheerfully fusses over his aloe plants during the first act, and why he makes a show of reciting Tennyson and drinking boisterously to the good old days when Steve arrives at the house in the second. It is clear from the awkward silences and exaggerated jokes that in both scenes he wants to make a deliberate gesture to reach out to the other—no less important because Gladys’s fear and Steve’s suspicion have so corroded both marriage and friendship.

In the text, and also in his direction, Fugard charges such excruciating dramatic moments with both gaiety and despair. Piet, in his defiant optimism, is for a time successful in dispelling the others’ mistrust—or at least holding it at bay. Both Steve and Gladys make an effort to meet him: to keep up the bonhomie and the polite concern. Steve talks for a long time in the second act about how difficult it is to pack up and leave, and about his growing certainty that to be a black man in South Africa is to be a “mistake.”

Steve: I like the sound of my own voice tonight hey Gladys.

Gladys: Don’t apologize for that. So do I! I’m just sorry your memories are so sad.

S: You’re very polite. I hope they’re all like you in England.

G: I’m not being polite Steven. I mean it.

Like the memories and fantastic schemes shared between Zachariah and Morris, or between Kani and Ntshona, Gladys’s gesture is for a moment more than simply a gesture: she and Steve share a few seconds of intimacy all the more poignant as it becomes clear how much each character is in fact isolated by his own suffering. “I accept, Steven,” Gladys says a few lines later, “that I am just a white face on the outskirts of your terrible life, but I’m in the middle of mine and yours is just a brown face on the outskirts of that…. I’ve got my own story. I don’t need yours. I’ve discovered hell for myself.”

As long as the characters remain on stage together their efforts to be in touch with each other seem to match the threat of isolation and purposelessness—after all, without others around him, even Piet would have no sense of purpose. As long as they go on talking there is some hope that they may be able to sustain the illusion of their intimacy. But worse even than Gladys’s perverse attempt to persuade Steve that it was Piet who betrayed him to the police is Piet’s reply that he has “nothing to say” to the accusation. Piet has lost the will even to make a gesture to the other man. In the end, Steve goes home to continue packing and Gladys decides she must return to the asylum. Piet is left alone in the garden with his aloes. This resilient desert plant, which at times risks being an obvious symbol, now takes on yet another meaning. Throughout the evening, as Piet tends and boasts about the aloes, filling the awkward silences with talk about the varieties of the species, he seems at first funny, then pitiable, then courageous in his steadfast way. But his determined good humor will mean little if there is no one to listen. Fugard no longer sees much scope for heroes in South Africa.

A Lesson For Aloes takes place in a milieu very different from the ones in Fugard’s earlier plays. The characters are not vagrants or hoods, but include an Afrikaner like himself and an English South African woman, all of them educated and politically aware. They face the real growing tension in South Africa and the question, which also troubles Fugard, of whether to leave the country. It is not Fugard’s old preoccupation with the bitterness that can be part of intimacy and the courage of survivors but the texture of his work that has changed as he moves away from the symbolic style of his early plays. The new play is even bolder than the others in its direct use of South African experience. The author of Tsotsi is still determined to watch what is happening around him, no matter how ugly.

This Issue

February 19, 1981