Master Harold... and the Boys | Study Guide

Athol Fugard

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Athol Fugard | Biography


Early Life

Playwright, novelist, director, and actor Athol Fugard was born Athol Harold Lanigan Fugard on June 11, 1932, in the small town of Middelburg, South Africa. His mother was an Afrikaner—a South African of Dutch descent who spoke the Dutch dialect Afrikaans. Fugard's father was a South African of English descent. His family moved to Port Elizabeth when Fugard was three years old. The city is Furgard's present-day home and the setting for many of his plays, including "Master Harold"... and the Boys.

Fugard studied philosophy and social anthropology at the University of Cape Town. He left before graduating and hitchhiked through Africa and spent time as a seaman in East Asia. In 1956, back home in South Africa, Fugard married the actress Sheila Meiring. Together they founded an experimental theater group, and the couple wrote material for the stage together. In 1958 Fugard and his wife moved to Johannesburg, South Africa. Here Fugard worked in court where pass law violations were tried. The so-called pass laws mandated every South African to carry a passbook that determined, according to their race, where they could live and work. Fugard's experiences with the law court influenced his later plays, including a drama he wrote collaboratively with two actors, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (1972), which concerns the injustice of the pass laws. Fugard has recalled that his time in the court showed him "more suffering than [he] could cope with." It also taught him "how [his] country functions."

Plays and Other Works

Fugard's first major play was Blood Knot (1961), about two brothers of mixed-race parents in South Africa; one of whom was light-skinned and the other dark. Fugard himself played the light-skinned brother, Morris, at its premiere in Johannesburg, October 23, 1961, and for its subsequent six-month tour in 1962. South Africa had no laws against the performance of plays with multiracial casts in front of nonsegregated audiences at the time, but once the play closed, such performances were banned by legislative law.

The play was later performed in London and New York—as well as adapted for television—and has been adapted for amateur educational performances as a reader's theater presentation. Blood Knot formed the first of Fugard's Family Trilogy Plays, the subsequent ones being Hello and Goodbye (1965) and Boesman and Lena (1969). In 1973 the trilogy was published under the title Three Port Elizabeth Plays.

Many of Fugard's plays deal with apartheid, the system of racial hierarchy that benefited the white minority of South Africa from 1950 to the early 1990s. In the 1970s he produced plays that began with "a cluster of images"—in Fugard's words—instead of a script. These include the political plays Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (1972), Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (1972), and Orestes (1978). Fugard's work was never directly censored in South Africa, but his passport was taken away from 1967 to 1971. His passport was later returned to him on a restricted basis.

Autobiography is another major strand of Fugard's work and became more pronounced after apartheid was dismantled in South Africa in 1990–91. His autobiographical plays include "Master Harold"... and the Boys (1982), Playland (1992), Valley Song (1996), and The Captain's Tiger (1997). He also published a memoir, Cousins (1994).

Fugard's off-stage achievements include his novel Tsotsi (1980), which was made into a feature film in 2005. The motion picture won an Academy Award in the United States for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year in 2006. His journals were published in Notebooks, 1960–1977 (1983). In 2011 Fugard received the lifetime achievement Tony Award. Other recognition for his plays include awards from the New York Drama Critics' Circle and the Drama Desk Award for "Master Harold"... and the Boys in 1982. The play also garnered the Standard Award for Best Play in 1983. Today Fugard is internationally known for his plays about South African society, particularly the intersection of personal and political in response to apartheid.

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