Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard (b. June 11, 1932), better known as Athol Fugard, is a white South African playwright. His wife, Sheila Fugard, and their daughter, Lisa Fugard, are also writers.
Although he was born in Middleburg (in the Cape Province), his family soon moved to Port Elizabeth. In 1938, he enrolled at the Marist Brothers College—a Catholic primary school. After being awarded a scholarship, he enrolled at the local technical college for his secondary education. He then enrolled in the University of Cape Town but dropped out. He sailed around the world working on ships (mainly in the Far East). Fugard married Sheila Meiring, then an actress in one of his plays, in September 1956. She later became a novelist and poet in her own right. They started the Circle Players in Port Elizabeth before moving to Johannesburg where he was employed as a court clerk.
Working in the court environment and seeing how the Africans suffered under the pass laws provided Fugard with a first-hand insight into the injustice and pain of apartheid.
Working with a group of black actors (including Zakes Mokae), Fugard wrote his first play No Good Friday. Returning to Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s, he worked with a group of actors whose first performance was in the former snake pit of the zoo, hence the name The Serpent Players.
The political slant of his plays bought him into conflict with the government. In order to avoid prosecution, he started to take his plays overseas. After Blood Knot was produced in England, his passport was withdrawn for four years. In 1962, he publicly supported an international boycott against segregated theatre audiences which lead to further restrictions.
He worked extensively with two black actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona and workshopped three plays viz. Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, The Island and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act.
The early plays workshopped with Kani and Ntshona were staged in black areas for a night and then the cast moved to the next venue – probably a dimly lit church hall or community centre. The audience was normally poor migrant labourers and the residents of hostels in the townships. The plays at this time were political and mirrored the frustrations in the lives of the audience. It really was live theatre – the audience used be drawn in to the drama, applauding, crying and interjecting. The plays were workshopped in the fullest sense of the word. Fugard used the feedback to improve the plays – expanding the parts that worked and deleting some that didn’t.
For example in Sizwe Banzi is Dead migrant worker Sizwe Bansi can only survive by assuming someone else’s identity and getting the important apartheid pass in order to get a job. When he debates how Sizwe would effectively “die” and whether the sacrifice would be worth it, the audience would cry out “Go on. Do it” because they appreciated that without a pass you were effectively a non-entity.
Sets and props were improvised from whatever was available which helps to explain the minimalist sets that productions of these plays utilise. In 1971, the restrictions against Fugard were eased, allowing him to travel to England in order to direct Boesman and Lena.
Master Harold...and the Boys, written in 1982 is a semi-autobiographical work.
Fugard showed he was against injustice on both sides of the fence with his play My Children! My Africa! where he attacked the ANC for deciding to boycott African schools as he realised the damage it would cause a generation of African pupils.
With the demise of apartheid, Fugard’s first two postapartheid plays Valley Song and The Captain's Tiger focused on personal rather than political issues.
His plays are regularly produced and have won many awards (see below). Some have been filmed. Fugard made his directorial debut in 1992 with the film version of The Road to Mecca. In 2006 the film Tsotsi, based on his novel of that name, won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Iain Fisher has broken his plays into the following periods: Apprenticeship (up to 1957), Social Realism (1958 to 1961), Chamber Theatre (1961 to 1970), Improvised Theatre (1966 - 1973) and Poetic Symbolism (1975 onwards).
Films of his plays
Films appeared in