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If you like Athol Fugard's story, you might also like:
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Athol Fugard
Athol Fugard
Profile of Athol Fugard Biography of Athol Fugard Interview with Athol Fugard Athol Fugard Photo Gallery

Athol Fugard Biography

Playwright, Novelist and Actor

Athol Fugard Date of birth: June 11, 1932

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  Athol Fugard

Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard was born in 1932 in Middelburg, in the Karoo desert region of South Africa, the second of his parents' three children. His father, Harold David Fugard, was a native English speaker of English and Irish descent. His mother Elizabeth was an Afrikaner, a descendant of earlier European settlers. Her first language was Afrikaans, the language derived from the Dutch spoken by 17th century settlers from the Netherlands. Young Harold Athol spoke both languages from childhood and has described himself as "an Afrikaner writing in English."

The family, which included an older brother and a younger sister, moved to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. The elder Fugard was a jazz pianist. Crippled by a childhood accident, his disability was compounded by alcoholism. As he was increasingly unable to work, Mrs. Fugard took responsibility for supporting the family. She operated a small boarding house, and later a small cafe or tearoom that provided the setting for one of her son's most popular plays, "Master Harold"... and the Boys.

Athol Fugard Biography Photo
As young Fugard was growing up, South Africa's National Party was instituting the system of apartheid -- compulsory racial separation -- that systematically barred black Africans from education, housing and employment opportunities in white areas. Black citizens were required to carry passbooks -- identification papers -- to work in white areas, and were otherwise required to remain in designated locations, "homelands" or "townships," with grossly inadequate housing and services. Violations of the law were severely punished and dissent was gradually suppressed. Fugard's father shared many of the prejudices of other white South Africans, but his mother never accepted the injustice of the system and communicated her values to her son.

Athol Fugard, as he preferred to be called, started writing seriously in his school years, inspired by stories his father had told him, and by his own voracious reading. His mother made great sacrifices to send him to the University of Cape Town, where he studied philosophy, but he longed to see the outside world and absorb the experiences he believed he would need for a writing career. Leaving the university, he hitchhiked the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo. In Port Sudan, he joined the crew of a cargo ship and spent the next years steaming in and out of the ports of Asia as a merchant seaman.

Returning to South Africa, he tried his hand at radio journalism in Port Elizabeth, then moved to Cape Town, where he fell in with a group of young actors and theater workers and began to write his first plays. He married an English-born actress, Sheila Meiring, and the couple moved to Johannesburg. While working at the Native Commissioner's Court in Johannesburg, Fugard became intimately familiar with the oppressive passbook system used to control the movements of the country's black citizens, and to limit their access to housing and employment opportunities. He augmented his knowledge of the theater working as a stage manager. Black friends introduced him to the street life of Sophiatown, the segregated township that inspired his plays No-Good Friday and Ngogo. At this time, Fugard could not interest producers in South Africa or Britain in his work. He staged these plays in private performances with non-professional black actors and developed an especially close working relationship with one, Zakes Mokae. Together, they performed the play that proved to be the turning point in Fugard's writing career, The Blood Knot.

Athol Fugard Biography Photo
In The Blood Knot, Fugard and Mokae played mixed-race half-brothers, one identifiably "colored" and the other light enough to evade the passbook laws. The brothers' complex and ambivalent relationship served as both a rich metaphor for the uneasy interdependence of black and white South Africa, and as a visceral dramatization of the system's human cost. Although the South African production was closed by the authorities after a single performance, the play's reputation spread, and productions were mounted in London, with Zakes Mokae, and in New York with the young James Earl Jones. London critics and audiences did not immediately warm to Fugard's work, but he developed a substantial following in the United States.

Meanwhile, Fugard began working with a group of black actors in Port Elizabeth, staging plays by other writers, and creating new works through improvisation with his actors. He traveled to London to appear in a BBC television production of The Blood Knot in 1967. The broadcast was better received than the initial London stage production of the play, but on his return to South Africa, the authorities confiscated his passport, to prevent him from traveling abroad for future productions, or from returning to South Africa if he did. The government placed increasingly severe restrictions on his work and movements, prohibiting publication and performance of his plays. Even the title The Island was considered too controversial as it was taken to allude to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Fugard and his family endured years of government surveillance; their mail was opened, their phones tapped, and their home subjected to midnight police searches.

But the plays he developed in Port Elizabeth, such as Boesman and Lena, were being performed in New York, London and elsewhere. In 1973 he was permitted to travel to London with two of his actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, to perform one of the works they had developed through improvisation, Siswe Bansi Is Dead. The play won the London Theater Critics Award, and the following year, the trio took the play to New York where it was performed on alternate nights with The Island.

Athol Fugard Biography Photo
In 1980, he published a novel, Tsotsi, about gang life in Sophiatown, which he had first written in 1961. The year 1982 saw the premiere of his most popular and frequently produced work, "Master Harold" ... and the Boys (1982), a dramatization of Fugard's childhood friendship with Sam Semela, set in his mother's teashop in Port Elizabeth. "Master Harold" received Best New Play Awards from both London and New York critics, and brought Zakes Mokae a Tony Award for his portrayal of Sam.

During the 1980s, Athol Fugard appeared as an actor in a number of feature films, including The Killing Fields and Gandhi, in which he played South African general (and later prime minister) Jan Smuts. In 1985, Fugard and Zakes Mokae reunited in New York to perform their original roles in a revised version of Blood Knot (Fugard omitted "The" from the title). Critics hailed the play and the actors' performances as never before.

At the end of the decade, Fugard surprised many admirers with implied criticism of the African National Congress in My Children! My Africa! (1989). Despite his disagreement with the ANC's boycott of South Africa's segregated schools, he continued to support the organization's long-term goals: a multiracial democracy and the release of its long-imprisoned leader, Nelson Mandela.

In South Africa, the winds of change had become irresistible. In 1991, State President F. W. de Klerk made the decision to legalize the ANC and negotiate a transition to multiracial democracy. Nelson Mandela was freed from Robben Island, and the longed-for transformation of South Africa was underway. For a time, Athol Fugard believed that the triumph of democracy would mean the end of his usefulness as a playwright and social observer, but the trials and traumas of a country's newfound freedom continue to provide him with material for compelling drama.

While Athol Fugard pursued his career as a playwright on three continents, his wife Sheila, a novelist and poet in her own right, became increasingly immersed in the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. As Athol Fugard sought to define his role in the new South Africa, Sheila Fugard made a life for herself in California and the couple went their separate ways. Their daughter Lise became an novelist and actress herself and has acted in a number of her father's plays.

Athol Fugard Biography Photo
Since the downfall of the apartheid system and the inauguration of multiracial democracy in South Africa, Athol Fugard has been honored by his country's government with the Ikhamanga Medal, and is an Honorary Fellow of Britain's Royal Society of Literature. In 2006, the film Tsotsi, based on Athol Fugard's 1961 novel, won international awards including the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

He established a working relationship with the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. His plays Coming Home (2008) and Have You Seen Us (2009) both premiered at the Long Wharf. More recent plays, The Train Driver (2010) and The Bird Watchers (2011), premiered at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, a multi-space performance venue named for the country's greatest playwright. Die Laaste Karretjiegraf ("the last donkey cart grave"), which also premiered at the Fugard, is his first play in Afrikaans, written to fulfill a promise he made long ago to his Afrikaans-speaking mother. In 2011, he received Broadway's top honor, a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In 2014, Fugard returned to the stage as an actor for the first time in 15 years to act in his new play, Shadow of the Hummingbird, at the Long Wharf. He dedicated the play to his nine-year-old grandson, Gavyn Fugard Scranton. Athol Fugard's published work includes more than 30 plays, as well as journals, novels, short stories and screenplays. In 2015, his play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek opened in New York to critical acclaim.

In addition to traveling around the world for productions of his plays, for a number of years Athol Fugard taught acting, directing and playwriting at the University of California, San Diego. He still spends time regularly in Cape Town, and takes an interest in the theater there that bears his name, but the place he calls home is the house he shares with his partner Paula Fourie in Nieu-Bethesda, a small village in the semi-arid Karoo region of South Africa, not unlike the one where he was born over 80 years ago.

This page last revised on Jun 19, 2015 16:44 EDT
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