by Temple Hauptfleisch*

Athol Fugard

The great South African playwright Athol Fugard recently moved to the city of Stellenbosch, the centre of the country’s major wine region and the home of one of South Africa’s leading universities. A short drive from Cape Town, his new home in Stellenbosch was the setting for this personal and wide-ranging interview with Temple Hauptfleisch, the former Chair of the Drama Department at the University and the long-time Editor of the South African Theatre Journal. It took place on August 23, 2017, and was commissioned by Hettie Scholtz for the magazine Stellenbosch Visio. It was first published in the magazine’s Spring issue of 2017. This particular article is a slightly revised version of a longer early draft of the interview, using some more photographs, in addition to the fine original pictures taken specifically for the interview by Johan Wilke and, Fugard’s wife, Paula Fourie. The article and photographs are published here with the explicit permission of the publishers and editors of Stellenbosch Visio.

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The promise of summer lurks in the air when photographer Johan Wilke and I are met at the door by the smiling Athol and Paula, who lead us into their lovely two- story townhouse on the banks of, what Athol fondly refers to as, “die Eersterivier.” It is north facing and filled with light, with a lush fenced-in garden, giving access to the footpath that passes by along the river. They are still settling in, but the dwelling already feels cosy and lived in.

Paula and Johan look for a place to take some photographs, while Athol shows me his favourite room. “It is here I have begun to write once more,” he says, having mentioned that, for a while, he had feared that his writing impulse had died completely, but that, to his joy, it seems to be coming back slowly.

The space is small, intimate and facing south, lined with books, floor to ceiling. He calls it his “cell.” There is a small and much used typist’s desk against the wall, full set of writer’s tools lying ready: his traditional fountain pen and sufficient paper for first drafts, a laptop for the rest of the work. He uses an ornate oak swivel chair, with writerly antecedents, having come from the famous (and sadly missed) Crocott’s Mail in Grahamstown. A more modern lounging chair by the bookshelves points to Athol the avid and eclectic reader.

The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town

Paula mentions that Athol keeps the curtains of his “cell” closed when working, which seems understandable. For a self-confessed “regional writer,” the sense of place is always a primary concern—in his work and in his life. For him to travel to any imagined and significant “place” in the mind, all distractions need to be cut out. However, the room seems a little too crowded for a photo-shoot, so we head upstairs to Paula’s study, equally book-filled, but much more spacious. The contrast is astounding: the space upstairs revels in clear light, while suggestive shadows dominate downstairs.

With Johan snapping away and Athol talking, I observe his face: at the ripe age of 85, it is less gaunt, the dark beard of yore is snowy white, the hair cropped short. Yet, it is still recognizably the brooding face of the intense writer I first got to know in the 1960s and 1970s, whose sharp, dark eyes, peering from under those heavy brows, pin you to your chair, while his fiery energy and reflective words cast a spell. Like the best of his writing, the straightforward and unpretentious conversational style has something almost Zen-like about it, a strong sense of “less is more.” His distinctive voice and colourful South African English—hovering charmingly between English and Afrikaans—is complemented by the occasional, conscious and highly theatrical, gesture, often arrested for just a moment, for emphasis, before being completed; or else, it is completed in slow motion, to the rhythm of his speech.

The intense playwright of the 1970s in rehearsal

Athol requires no prompting, for he is a born raconteur, and takes over from the first moment, telling me how he copes with his heart problems and his recent “beroerte” (“I am working my way through that . . .”). As he talks, he occasionally calls on Paula, working in the other corner of the study, for names, dates and confirmation about events. (“She is my archive,” he says with a fond smile.) A mild stroke on December 2, 2016 , combined with his already existing heart condition, led his doctor to suggest they move away from the seclusion of Nieu Bethesda to somewhere with a better range of medical care. A swift decision had to be made. “Actually, Stellenbosch had been on the cards for a long time,” he says, and now seemed the logical place. They were extremely fortunate to find that this particular dwelling had come onto the market just at the righ time. The contract was signed on December 24, and, by the end of August, they had moved the last of their possessions from Nieu Bethesda.

I jump in to ask about his intriguing admission that Stellenbosch had been “on the cards” in some way. He is happy to respond.

He had had a brief exposure to Stellenbosch in 2006, when he received an honorary doctorate in Drama from the University, but, he says, the fascination with the town started somewhat later, when he met Paula, who was studying at the University of Stellenbosch for her PhD. Then, in 2011, his relationship with the town really took off when he became a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) to work as artist in residence, writing a kind of autobiography, “an attempt to give some kind of reckoning of the life I’ve led.” Though he is the first to point out that his plays contain many biographical elements, this is usually done “in disguise,” as he puts it. The new project was to be more overt, a prose document provisionally entitled “Dry Remains.” The text is to date still incomplete, having lost impetus along the way, but he feels he may be ready to take it up again soon, perhaps even rework it as a play. This tantalizing suggestion is actually not unexpected, for in most of what he does Athol seems to me to respond and think primarily as a playwright—viewing and narrating his sense of the world in terms of visual images, snatches of dialogue and interactions between people. It is, thus, not surprising that the most visible and complete outcome of his period at STIAS has, in fact, been a play. Die Laaste Karrietjiegraf (literally, “The last (donkey)cart grave”), his compelling first play in Afrikaans, was written in 2011-12 and first performed in the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, in January 2013.

“You know, I’m not a city man,” he comments, explaining that he had always sought to live somewhere intimate, not too big, not too small, a place where he could establish some kind of spiritual connection. Places like Schoenmakerskop, near Port Elizabeth, and Nieu Bethesda, in the Karoo. “Nieu Bethesda was our spiritual home for a long time,” he continues, “which San Diego in California, for example, never quite became, interesting and vibrant a place though it may be.”

His library. Photo: Paula Fourie

Now, they have come to seek a new spiritual base in Stellenbosch. Athol feels that the town is exactly the right size for his purposes, plus it is a place of extremes, with the richest of the rich living cheek by jowl with beggars sleeping in doorways, an exciting cultural and social mix that attracts him. “You know, I’ve really come to love this little town,” he says fondly. Connecting with the people from all levels of society is extremely important to him if he wants a place to be home. “The thing is,” he says, “being in the community, as we are now, is not yet being part of the community. To attain that I have to get to know the place intimately, not only the ‘grootkoppe’ at the top of the pile, but also the homeless and poor, like those passing by on the footpath along the Eersterivier.”

Prompted by this statement, Paula tells me an anecdote to illustrate this sense of connection. On an earlier visit Atholwas, walking to town from STIAS, and on reaching the Town Hall, Athol sat down to take a rest on a bench already occupied by someone who appeared to be a homeless person. While the two of them were sitting there, a man passing by recognized Athol and stopped to introduce himself as the Mayor of Stellenbosch—promptly sitting down between the two men for a brief conversation. I feel rather surprised this incident has not been worked into a play by now . . .

However, for Athol himself the first truly intimate moment with Stellenbosch also occurred during an early visit to STIAS. “I remember leaving the Eikestad Mall during rush hour and having to come to a stop at the crossing of Bird and Plein Streets, as cars whizzed by, no one stopping for us. Next to me stood a matronly lady, also waiting for a gap in the traffic. At last, frustrated by the waiting, I thought ‘bugger this’ and, putting out my hand to stop the cars, took her arm and led her across the street. On the other side, she thanked me warmly in the marvellous ‘Kaapse Afrikaans’ of this region. We stood there for a moment sharing a bit of conversation. And it was right there, on that corner of midtown Stellenbosch, that I was suddenly overwhelmed by a profound sense of finally being ‘home’ again—in South Africa, in a small town—speaking my mother’s tongue.”

Talking of the town, he mentions that he sadly had to give up his iconic pipe, but has since found himself relishing good food and fine red wine far more than before. “And Stellenbosch is the ideal place to be for that of course,” he adds with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Though Athol was a central role player in the cultural and political struggles of the 1960s to 1980s, his contribution to our theatre has also been something much wider, and has evolved over a longer period. All his plays are infused with an acute sense of moral outrage, but he has never seen himself as a militant political writer or an aspiring saviour of society—for, to him, the role of the writer is something less presumptuous, yet equally important. “I feel I have an obligation in terms of our time to bear witness. That’s it!” And, in more than thirty-five plays, over the course of the past sixty years, he has been a keen observer of, and witness to, the many joys and sorrows of everyday South Africans, and to the multiple failures and triumphs of the human spirit. When I lightly touch on the politics of the day, he expresses his anger and disappointment with all the hopes and aspirations of the cultural struggle which have gone to waste. “I live with an enormous sense of betrayal every day,” he says, almost wearily.

We could talk about his numerous plays, which include such perennial favourites as The Bloodknot, The Island, Boesman and Lena, Master Harold and the Boys and The Road to Mecca; plays that, at times, not only affected the world around them politically, but also had a quite profound impact on our society. A marvellous case in point is the immense social, economic and cultural impact of his play about Miss Helen and the people of Nieu Bethesda, on that little town he had chosen as his home—turning a sleepy Karoo village into a popular tourist attraction and cultural hub.

However, interesting as his total oeuvre is, I would rather like to ask about his current writing and how he copes with the disappointment he has mentioned. However, I am hesitant, very aware that many writers prefer not to talk about work in progress, and so I go to safer ground and return to the prominent role that some kind of “image” has always played as an initial inspiration for his best work. He heartily agrees with me on this, and, to my delight, this leads him directly to the new work.

Photographs and pictures from his collection. Photo: Paula Fourie

“The play I am working on now, which will in fact be my first Stellenbosch play as such, began with a powerful image.” An image of a man scavenging for food in one of those square rubbish bins near Die Braak, his body folded over it, his legs outside, his torso inside. When he emerged, triumphantly, he was holding up a half-eaten muffin in his right hand. “And began to eat it with relish, while staring the world in the eye, a radiant smile on his lips. . . . The image went into my notebook immediately.” The work started out slowly, an idea perhaps, but has by now actually begun to be more than just an idea. “It’s going forward, it’s got momentum. Every instinct I’ve got as a writer tells me this wants to be written.”

I end the interview by asking for the loan of a few pictures, perhaps some images of things that have particular meaning or sentimental value for him. He hesitates, running his eyes over the contents of his study. “There are so many memories here . . .”, he murmurs,  then stops and slowly points at a shelf behind me. “Do you see that tin mug on the shelf there? That is the mug from which I drank the very first water drawn from my bore-hole in Nieu Bethesda, just after I had fixed the pump.” A moment’s thought, then a nod: “It’s the most cherished possession in my life.”

I look at the mug and think: “That as an image of one magnificent life? Yes, I think I can see that.”

The tin cup Fugard treasures. Photo: Paula Fourie
Video 1

Scene from The Island (Athol Fugard/Winston Ntshona/John Kani), 2012

 

Video 2

Athol Fugard: Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1 of 4)


*Temple Hauptfleisch is a retired South African drama teacher, playwright and theatre researcher, the former head of the Centre for SA Theatre Research (CESAT, 1979-87), Chair of the University of Stellenbosch Drama Department (1995-2005) and director of the Centre for Theatre and Performance Studies at Stellenbosch (1994-2009). Founder-editor of the South African Theatre Journal (1987-) and the online Encylopaedia for South African Theatre, Film, Media and Performance (ESAT, 2005-), which he currently co-authors and edits. He is on various international editorial boards and has published more than eighty works on South African theatre, including eleven collections of plays for young people.

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The Road to Stellenbosch: Interview with Athol Fugard