lauded SA playwright Athol Fugard, who turns 80 today, is deeply incensed by the controversy surrounding Brett Murray’s The Spear painting – and has slammed the present government’s “bully tactics”.
“We are going to look back on the moment as a warning that we were given about the future we are going into if we don’t do something radical,” Fugard said in an interview with the Cape Argus to mark his birthday.
“We have to realise we have a government in power that is prepared to assault our most cherished freedom. They’re trying to do it to the arts and to the media. The bully tactics they used, the whole demonstration of brute force that they displayed, that they were going to shut them (the Goodman Gallery) down regardless of what… that you will not use your voice, you will not speak up, you will not speak out.”
For him a significant difference between this situation and what he faced under apartheid was that there was a sense of community amongst artists back then. “It’s so false, almost as if there’s a perception that we’re being disloyal to the ANC if we speak up. You mustn’t be careful about what you say, you have the freedom to say anything you like. That sense should never be constricted by loyalty to a political party.”
Speaking at the weekend by telephone from San Diego, California where he lives, Fugard said he wanted a quiet braai for his birthday. The prolific author has written more than 20 plays, four film scripts, two memoirs and two other books and received awards and nominations including the Tony, Obie, Evening Standard, Drama Desk and Audie awards.
He has been honoured with the 2005 SA Order of Ikhamanga in Silver for his “excellent contribution and achievement in theatre” and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
He scoffs at descriptions such as “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world”. saying it is the worst thing to call a writer. “I’m always trying to make people write and think and feel and use their hearts,” he said.
Fugard has never considered retiring, saying his passion for theatre has consumed his life. His writing has ranged from stories about specific people to protest theatre, but he has always drawn inspiration from real South Africans.
Born in Port Elizabeth in 1932, Fugard helped form the Serpent Players in the early 1960s.
“In working with them, I realised that they didn’t want to do plays for entertainment, they wanted to do plays because they were suffocating with silence. It was with Blood Knot that I discovered my own voice and I knew that I could tell certain stories in a way that nobody else could.”
The 1967 BBC TV production of Blood Knot drew the ire of the SA government and after directing Boesman and Lena in England in 1971, Fugard spent most of his time abroad.
The bulk of his work since then debuted in the US and UK, but his post-apartheid writing has seen him return to his spiritual home more often.
He recently spent time here to work on The Blue Iris which debuts at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and then returns to the Fugard.
What next? Fugard muses in Afrikaans: “Wat is my verpligting? (What is my duty?) The final word for me is that my country has taught me two of the biggest debts you can have. My country has taught me how to hate and how to love. How do you repay your country for your soul? Met trane of met woorde? (With tears or words?)”
l Sky Arts in the UK broadcast a 100-minute documentary, Falls the Shadow: The life and times of Athol Fugard on Friday. The Fugard will screen this documentary on July 23.