Visiting Athol Fugard and his wife in their new home in Stellenbosch, TEMPLE HAUPTFLEISCH discovers what it takes for the playwright to find a spiritual home.
THE PROMISE OF SUMMER lurks in the air when photographer Johan Wilke and I are met at the door by the smiling Athol and his wife Paula Fourie, who lead us into their lovely two-storey townhouse on the banks of what Athol fondly refers to as ‘die Eersterivier’. It faces north and is filled with light, with a lush, fenced-in garden that gives access to the footpath along the river.
They are still settling in, but the house already feels cosy and lived in. While Paula and Johan look for a place to take photographs, Athol shows me his favourite room. “It’s here that I have begun to
write once more,” he says, having feared for a while that his writing impulse had died. To his joy, it seems to be coming back slowly.
The south-facing space is small, intimate and lined with books from floor to ceiling. He calls it his “cell”. A small and much-used typist’s desk stands against a wall, a full set of writer’s tools at the ready: his traditional fountain pen and sufficient paper for first drafts, a laptop for the rest of the work. He uses an ornate oak swivel chair that has writerly antecedents, having come from the famous Grocott’s Mail in Grahamstown. A more modern lounging chair by the bookshelves points to Athol the avid and eclectic reader.
The curtains of the cell are closed when he’s working, which seems understandable. For this self-confessed ‘regional writer’, a sense of place is always a primary concern – in his work and in his life. For him to travel to any imagined and significant place in the mind, all distractions need to be kept in check. The room seems a little too crowded for a photo shoot, though, so we head upstairs to Paula’s study, equally book-filled but much more spacious. The contrast is astounding: while suggestive shadows dominate downstairs, the space upstairs revels in clear light. As Johan snaps away, Athol is talking. I observe his face. Aged 85, it is less gaunt than it used to be; the dark beard of yore is snowy white, the hair cropped short. Yet this is still the brooding face of the intense writer I first got to know in the 1960s and ’70s, whose sharp, dark eyes, peering from under those heavy brows, pin you to your chair as his fiery energy and reflective words cast a spell. Like the best of his writing, his conversational style is straightforward and unpretentious, with something almost Zen-like about it: a strong sense of ‘less is more’. His distinctive voice and colourful South African English, hovering charmingly between English and Afrikaans, is complemented by the occasional conscious and highly theatrical gesture; often arrested for just a moment, for emphasis, before being completed, or performed in slow motion, to the rhythm of his speech.
Athol requires no prompting, for he is a born raconteur and takes over from the first moment, telling me how he copes with his heart problems and his recent mild stroke. As he talks, he occasionally calls on Paula, working in another corner of the study, for names, dates and confirmation about events. (“She is my archive,” he says with a fond smile.) The stroke on 2 December 2016, combined with his already existing heart condition, led his doctor to suggest they move away from the seclusion of Nieu Bethesda to somewhere with a better range of medical care. A swift decision had to be made. “Actually, Stellenbosch had been on the cards for a long time,” he says, and now it seemed the logical place. They were extremely fortunate to find that this particular house had come onto the market at just the right time. The contract was signed on 24 December and by the end of August they had moved the last of their possessions from Nieu Bethesda.
I jump in to ask about his intriguing admission that Stellenbosch had been ‘on the cards’ and he is happy to respond. He had a brief exposure to the town in 2006 when he received an honorary doctorate in drama from Stellenbosch University, but he says his fascination with it started somewhat later, when he met Paula, who was studying at the university for her PhD. Then, in 2011, his relationship with the town really took off when he became a research fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) to work as artist in residence, writing a kind of autobiography, “an attempt to give some kind of reckoning of the life I’ve led”.
Though Athol is the first to point out that his plays contain many biographical elements, this is usually done “in disguise”, as he puts it. The new project was to be more overt, a prose document provisionally entitled Dry Remains. The text is not yet complete, having lost impetus along the way, but he feels he may be ready to take it up again soon, perhaps even rework it as a play. This tantalising suggestion is not unexpected, for in most of what he does Athol seems to respond and think primarily as a playwright, viewing and narrating his sense of the world in terms of visual images, snatches of dialogue, interactions between people. It is thus not surprising that the most visible and complete outcome of his period at STIAS has in fact been a play. The compelling Die Laaste Karrietjiegraf, his first play in Afrikaans, was written in 2011–2012 and first performed at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in January 2013.
“You know, I’m not a city man,” he comments, explaining that he had always sought to live somewhere intimate, not too big, not too small, a place where he could establish some kind of spiritual connection. Places like Schoenmakerskop near Port Elizabeth
and Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo. “Nieu Bethesda was my spiritual home for a long time,” he continues, “which San Diego in California, for example, never quite became; interesting and vibrant a place though it may be.”Now they have come to seek a new spiritual base in Stellenbosch. Athol feels that the town is exactly the right size for his purposes, plus it is a place of extremes, with the richest of the rich living cheek by jowl with beggars sleeping in doorways, a cultural and social mix that attracts him. “You know, I’ve really come to love this little town,” he says fondly. Connecting with people from all levels of society is extremely important to him if he wants a place to be home. “The thing is,” he says, “being in the community, as we are now, is not yet being part of the community. To attain that I have to get to know the place intimately and not just the grootkoppe at the top of the pile, but also the homeless and poor, like those walking along the footpath by the
Eersterivier.” Prompted by this statement, Paula tells me an anecdote to illustrate this sense of connection. On an earlier visit, Athol was walking to town from STIAS and on reaching the town hall, he sat down to rest on a bench already occupied by someone who appeared to be homeless. While the two of them were sitting there, a passer-by recognised Athol and stopped to introduce himself as the mayor of Stellenbosch, promptly sitting down between the two men for a brief conversation.
For Athol himself, the first truly intimate moment with Stellenbosch also occurred during an early visit to STIAS. “I remember leaving the Eikestad Mall during rush hour and having to come to a stop at the crossing of Bird and Plein streets as cars whizzed by, no one stopping for us. Next to me stood a matronly lady, also waiting for a gap in the traffic. At last, frustrated by the waiting, I thought ‘bugger this’ and putting out my hand to stop the cars, I took her arm and led her across the street. On the other side she thanked me warmly in the marvellous Kaapse Afrikaans of this region. We stood there for a moment sharing a bit of conversation. And it was right there, on that corner of midtown Stellenbosch, that I was suddenly overwhelmed by a profound sense of finally being ‘home’ again, in South Africa, in a small town and speaking my mother’s tongue.” Talking of the town, he mentions that he sadly had to give up his iconic pipe, but has since found himself relishing good food and
fine red wine far more than before. “And Stellenbosch is the ideal place to be for that, of course,” he adds with a mischievous twinkle.
Although Athol was a central player in the cultural and political struggles from the 1960s to the 1980s, his contribution to our theatre has been much wider and has evolved over a longer period. All his plays are infused with an acute sense of moral outrage,
but he has never seen himself as a militant political writer or an aspiring saviour of society. To him the role of the writer is less presumptuous, yet in its own way important. “I feel I have an obligation in terms of our time to bear witness. That’s it!” And in more than 35 plays over the course of the past 60 years, he has been a keen observer of, and witness to, the many joys and sorrows of everyday South Africans and of the multiple failures and triumphs of the human spirit. When I touch lightly on the politics of the day, he expresses his anger and disappointment that all the hopes and aspirations of the cultural struggle have gone to waste. “I live with an enormous sense of betrayal every day,” he says, almost wearily.
We could talk about his numerous plays, which include such perennial favourites as The Bloodknot, The Island, Boesman and Lena, Master Harold and the Boys and The Road to Mecca, but I prefer to ask about his current writing and how he copes with
this disappointment. I hesitate, though, acutely aware that many writers prefer not to talk about work in progress, and so I go to safer ground and return to the prominent role that some kind of ‘image’ has always played as an initial inspiration for his best
work. He heartily agrees, and to my delight this leads him directly to the new work.
“The play I am working on now, which will in fact be my first Stellenbosch play, began with a powerful image.” It was of a man scavenging for food in a rubbish bin near Die Braak, his body folded over it, his legs outside, his torso inside. When he emerged,
triumphant, he was holding up a half-eaten muffin in his right hand. “And he began to eat it with relish, while staring the world in the eye, a radiant smile on his lips. The image went into my notebook immediately.” The work started out slowly, an idea perhaps, but now it is beginning to be more than that. “It’s going forward, it’s got momentum. Every instinct I’ve got as a writer tells me that this wants to be written.”
I end the interview by asking for the loan of a few pictures, perhaps some images of things that have particular meaning for him. He hesitates, running his eyes over the contents of his study. “There are so many memories here,” he murmurs, then stops and
slowly points at a shelf behind me. “Do you see that tin mug? That is the mug from which I drank the very first water drawn from my bore-hole in Nieu Bethesda, just after I had fixed the pump.” A moment’s thought, then a nod: “It’s the most cherished possession in my life.”
I look at the mug and think, “That as an image of one magnificent life? Yes, I think I can see that.” V