Athol Fugard On Playwriting, V

November 28, 2012

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

Some (of my) plays have gone through rehearsal and ended up on the stage without even so much as the punctuation having changed. Others have benefited substantially from the rehearsal process. Sometimes the actors have made me aware, in the course of the rehearsal process, of moments that needed fleshing out and points that hadn’t been made strongly enough.

Obviously when it comes to the question of telling stories about other people’s lives in a situation as political as South Africa, you get to be political. So political commitment isn’t really something I’ve had to look for; it was an automatic by-product of my being a storyteller—one who is going to try to tell stories truthfully and through them bear witness to the South African situation. Talking with young students at Yale recently, I was asked whether I agreed with a fellow South African writer . . . who said that all writers in that country had an obligation to make a political stand. I got angry about this because I don’t think any writer should presume to give orders to another. The place from which you take your orders is probably the most secret place you have. If you have a word like God in your vocabulary, then that is an area in which you and God deal with each other. So, no writer must ever presume to tell another writer what his or her political responsibilities are. It is a poet’s right in South Africa to write a poem that seemingly has no political resonance.

Some writers do nothing but talk about the objective moral obligations that artists must live up to. If you’re Brecht, you’re going to write as Brecht writes; you’re going to be as committed as Brecht. There may be pale imitations, but there will only be one Brecht. Every artist does as he needs to. There is a desperate tendency to try to legislate artists, to try to lay down rules for their obligations to society. Just leave artists alone. If you are a true artist, you will have a very finely tuned moral mechanism. If you’re a Georgia O’Keeffe, a Bertolt Brecht, or a Harold Pinter, you’ll do it your way.

Exile is a phenomenon I have watched with morbid curiosity over the years because it is a fate that has befallen a lot of my friends. It is something I have watched but not experienced. I do not consider myself to be in exile. I could play around with words and say that I consider myself an exile from the society that I believe South Africa should be, but that’s just being clever.

Art has a role. Art is at work in South Africa. But art works subterraneanly. It’s never the striking, superficial cause and effect people would like to see. Art goes underground into people’s dreams and surfaces months later in strange, unexpected actions. People bring a sort of instant-coffee expectation to art; they’d like the results to be immediate. It doesn’t work that way. I like that image of art dropping down through the various layers of the individual’s psyche, into dreams, stirring around there and then surfacing later in action.

If you’d like to read what playwrights such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates — and many more —  have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part VI of the Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.


Athol Fugard On Playwriting

October 31, 2012

Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 8

Interviewed by Lloyd Richards

By eighteen, by the time I went to university, I knew that somehow my life was going to be about putting words on paper. Originally I thought I was going to write the great South African novel, then poetry, and only when I was twenty-four or five did the thought of theater come into my head. That obviously relates to my meeting my wife Sheila, who, when I met her, was an out-of-work actress.

I can’t think of a single one of my plays that does not represent a coincidence between an external and an internal event. Something outside of me, outside even my own life, something I read in a newspaper or witness on the street, something I see or hear, fascinates me. I see it for its dramatic potential. That external event affords me the opportunity to deal with what has been building up inside me. For example, the writing of The Bloodknot. I remember the genesis of that, even though it happened twenty-five years ago. I am singularly prone to that most human of all diseases—guilt. I’ve had my fair measure of it. But the image that generated The Bloodknot had absolutely nothing to do with the racial situation in South Africa. The seminal moment was my returning home late one night and going into the room where my brother was sleeping. My brother is a white man like myself. I looked down at him, and saw in that sleeping body and face, all his pain. Life had been very hard on him, and it was just written on his flesh. It was a scalding moment for me. I was absolutely overcome by my sense of what time had done to what I remembered as a proud and powerful body. I saw the pain: that is the seminal image in The Bloodknot.

I was trying to examine . . . . the existential guilt that I feel when another person suffers, is victimized, and I can do nothing about it. South Africa afforded me the most perfect device for examining this guilt without going into the area of the absurd as Ionesco did by giving a man a rhinoceros’s horn.

I got to know an Afrikaner in Port Elizabeth who had been committed to the struggle for decency and dignity and human rights, but who was suddenly suspected of being a police informer. His name was Piet. Piet’s story gave me a chance to deal with the fact that you cannot simply dispose of the Afrikaner as the villain in the South African situation. If that’s the only sense you have of the Afrikaner in South Africa at this moment, your thinking is too naive, and you are never really going to understand what is happening in that country. You’ll never understand how we landed in the present situation or what’s going to come out of it. The terrible and challenging thing about the Afrikaner is his complexity: he is not just bad; there’s good as well. The case of Piet Bezuidenhout occurred at a time when I was ready to put an Afrikaner—not a hero, but a survivor—up on the stage. That was my internal provocation.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part II of this Athol Fugard series will post next Wednesday.