Headline: ‘A Tender Bond Confronts Racism. Racism Wins.’
He picked up the phone in the limousine whisking him between planes from O’Hare Airport to Chicago’s Loop. “It’s the first time I have ever had a telephone conversation from a car,” he said. It was a first for both of us. There were no cellphones then. It was 1983.
The occasion for our chat was a production of “Master Harold … and the boys.” The play, regarded as a masterpiece, had propelled Athol Fugard into the first rank of living dramatists. Such esteem had bred too many appointments in too little time. Phoning him from my desk in the newsroom seemed the surest way of catching him alone.
Fugard was about to turn 51 later that week. A small, wiry man with a short beard, he was often pictured smoking a pipe. His reputation for modesty preceded him, so I half expected him to downplay the critical acclaim. Which he did. “I knew enough about my craft as a playwright,” he told me, “to know that I had made a good little play. I deliberately use that term, ‘good little play,’ because it is the only way I will ever refer to it.”Calling it “my youngest born,” Fugard said it was “obviously a favorite because it’s still suckling at the breast. Otherwise I wouldn’t be in America at this moment. But it does come as a surprise to watch an audience, as I have in Minneapolis, stand up at the end of a performance. It makes me a little bit scared.”
I thought he would have gotten used to ovations. “Master Harold” had had its world premiere [in 1982] at the Yale Repertory, where it was a huge success, and soon went on to even greater success on Broadway. But Fugard said he was convinced he had written “too personal a piece” for it to be so well received. Of the dozen and a half plays he’d written by then, “Master Harold” was the most openly autobiographical. He had been forced to write it, he said, because he “needed to come to terms” with an act of racism he had committed as a 10-year-old boy.
“I think that ’round about three years ago I felt myself to be sufficiently distant from that very, very ugly experience to deal with it, without laying a trip on the audience or myself. I wanted to use it in the correct way as the climactic moment in the play. I did not want to exploit it emotionally.”
Like the arrogant white boy in the play, which is set on a rainy afternoon in a little rundown tearoom in Port Elizabeth, the South African town where Fugard grew up, the playwright had a strong mother who ran a boarding house café with the help of two black men. Fugard also had a crippled, alcoholic father, toward whom he felt shame and resentment, though rather more love than the title character of the play does.
The racist incident occurred one day after Fugard and one of the black men, Sam Semala, had closed the café. Fugard, still at a loss to explain his motive, rode up to Semela on his bicycle, called his name, and spat in his face. Semela, who had shared Fugard’s books and was indeed a spiritual father to him, wiped his face and looked back at the young Fugard with a pity that seared the boy’s conscience.
The event is somewhat changed in the play, as is Master Harold’s age, but the guilt that swept over Fugard had remained the same. “There’s a line in ‘Master Harold’ when the young white boy and this glorious black man are discussing the state of the world,” Fugard recalled. “The white boy, agreeing with Sam, says I know, Sam, I often os-killate — he mispronounces the word ‘oscillate’ — I os-killate between hope and despair as well. And that statement is as true of me as it is of the character in the play. The pendulum keeps swinging.”
The phone began crackling with static. We waited it out. “There are days back in South Africa when the news makes me despair of anything like a nonviolent resolution,” Fugard continued. “Well, nonviolent is now out of the question — speedy, let’s say speedy resolution of the situation so that at last society will start moving toward decency. We’ve totally exhausted the patience, the unbelievable patience and forbearance and tolerance of the majority of black South Africans. And I think they rightly see the only recourse to remedy the situation as being violent.”
Such views and his longtime collaboration with black actors of the Serpent Player, the small company he founded in 1965, had made Fugard a target of the repressive regime in his native country. He hadn’t been jailed, but his associates had been. His telephone was often tapped, he said, and his mail opened. His passport had been confiscated for years at a time.
“At the moment I’m in the for-better-or-worse position where my reputation outside of the country affords me a degree of protection,” he said. “In terms of the political climate, I foresee a deterioration back home in the very near future. So I think I may find myself with traveling problems again, as I have on several occasions.”
The South African government would have liked nothing better than to bar his re-entry. But Fugard said he was determined not to allow that to happen, and he continued to travel freely. Following his brief stop in Chicago, he would be heading back to the airport for a flight to Thailand, where he was scheduled to play a small role in the movie “The Killing Fields,” then being made by the British producer David Putnam.
When I asked Fugard his opinion of race relations in the United States, he replied, “Man! It’s not as easy to identify the enemy here, as it is back home, which makes the struggle vastly more complicated. At home the enemy is immediately identifiable — simply because of the institutionalization of racism. Whereas in America the enemy wears many disguises.”
He added, “A black man or a gay or someone in any of the minority groups is actually on the receiving end of a lot of prejudice here. But there are certain profoundly stated concepts that you have in terms of individual liberty. They correspond to the American dream. Whether or not it is practiced, at least you have got a dream. Back home we haven’t even got that to start with.”
Which was precisely the grim failing that struck the most despairing note in “Master Harold … and the boys.” And the despair, it turned out, was warranted. Apartheid would not be dismantled as official policy until 1992, a decade after the play first appeared, and a nonviolent, let alone “speedy,” resolution of de facto racism was shown to be impossible.