By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
In 1960, while the Fugards were broke in London, seeking theatrical experiences, they read about Sharpeville in the Evening Standardand saw photos of the massacre. Shock and dismay compelled them to return home immediately.
Through slice-of-life dramas that are structured like Greek classics (Blood Knot, Master Harold and the Boys, Boesman and Lena, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, The Road to Mecca, A Lesson From Aloes, My Children! My Africa!, The Islandand more), Fugard reflected his countrymen in a theatrical mirror while chronicling the human face of apartheid in its waning years; his dramatized indictments of apartheid’s savagery probably contributed to its demise.
After the collapse of apartheid and the ascendancy of black majority rule in South Africa, Fugard has continued writing (and sometimes acting in) deeply humane plays set in his native Karroo province. Plays such as Valley Songand Sorrows and Rejoicingsare bathed in memory and capture the paradoxes of holding to tradition in a volatile and rapidly changing society. Fugard’s later plays also imply the isolation of an aging white activist playwright after apartheid has gone. It was, after all, apartheid that provided Fugard’s primary moral purpose. It was his contempt for apartheid that propelled him to international acclaim and to become a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. When Nelson Mandela became president, apartheid, the crystallizing symbol of injustice, shattered into a thousand tinier injustices that are considerably less easy to frame.
“As a writer, what do I have to do now?” Fugard asked in a 1995 interview for Brown University’s alumni magazine, Under the Elms. “Am I in fact going to be South Africa’s first literary redundancy?”
Though rude critics like John Simon have shouted “Yes!” from the rafters, Fugard now writes more of God-made degradations than man-made ones, using memory and regional locales to ensnare the sprawl of life, death and the cruelties of destiny.
All of which raises several questions: Is Fugard questioning his own purpose? Does the theater even have a purpose in a swiftly changing society? And, finally, why would a playwright whose writings have been presented on the world’s major stages choose a 65-seat venue in Hollywood to launch his latest play?
The answers to these questions are revealed during three weeks of observing the playwright during rehearsals at the Fountain Theater and corresponding with him by e-mail.
Exits and Entrancesis Fugard’s third autobiographical play (following Master Haroldand The Captain’s Tiger) — a drama set almost entirely in various theater dressing rooms. The play, which opens this week, is a love letter to the theater, narrated by a character named the Playwright from the vantage of 1961 (as the bigoted new Republic of South Africa replaces equally bigoted British rule). It flashes back five years, and then forward through a series of meetings between the rising dramatist at the dawn of his career and the vainglorious actor Andr√© Huguenet, whom Fugard calls “the Barrymore of South African theater.”
In the play, Andr√© dresses and undresses, applies and removes makeup, while offering the Playwright scenes from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Bridget Boland’s The Prisoner and, finally, Hamlet— proud characters, like Andr√©, whose eventual humility devolves into humiliation. His performance style is filled with grand gestures and thundering recitatives that will soon become unfashionable as both the new realism of the theater and the new reality of South African society begin to unfold. The play’s five-year span sees proud, in-the-closet Andr√© degraded as a living anachronism, a local patriot forced by necessity to manage Johannesburg’s Pigalle Cinema and watch with disdain the sight of South African crowds reveling in American movies.
Meanwhile, the Playwright steadily gains the vision and confidence to put black and white characters together on the stage (a first in South Africa) and to depict life in the slums rather than in the homes of the prosperous and the privileged.
“Purpose” is a word and an idea that recurs throughout Exits and Entrances. “Fan the flames of your purpose; make them burn as big and bright as you can,” Andr√© counsels the Playwright, who speaks of his own father dying of “unimportance.”
Back at the rehearsal table, Fugard continues his spirited stories to the cast and crew. “The play’s first scene comes from a 1956 production of Oedipus the Kingat Cape Town’s Labia Theater, starring Andr√© Huguenet,” Fugard says, eyes blazing and hands carving the air. “I played a shepherd, and soon became the star’s prompter and friend. The review said, ‘Fugard should take lessons from the old stick he was leaning on.’ You’re going to fare better,” Fugard tells the company. “That was an extraordinary experience for me. I may not have been sitting at this theater had it not been for those hours with Andr√©, talking in his dressing room, and I sat trying to ask myself, Who am I? What’s it all about? To formulate an identity for myself.”
“How were you with him?” Sachs asks.
“At first terrified, but he was such a lonely man . . . He came to rehearsals in a suit and a tie, reined himself in, literally and figuratively buttoned himself up. In time he relaxed with me. I was very, very privileged — maybe he recognized something in me, just as I looked up to him.”