Recovered Treasure: What I Found When I Heard Athol Fugard Speak
I was first introduced to Athol Fugard back in high school, when an excerpt from his play, “Master Harold” … and the boys found its way into my SAT exam booklet. So captivated was I with the story — of a young Afrikaners boy learning about ballroom dancing from his two black servants — that I read the excerpt several times. Pouring over the beauty of the prose, I nearly ran out of time to finish my exam. I scrawled down the playwright’s name on a sheet of scrap paper, meaning to look up the rest of the play when I returned home. But at the end of the exam, the instructor took up our booklets and our scrap paper, and the name of the play, and its author, were lost to me.
Until Wednesday night. That’s when Athol Fugard, this year’s Morgan Writer-in-Residence, spoke in Paul Green Theatre and read an excerpt from that very play. Imagine my surprise when, several years later, I finally had the playwright before me, and a copy of his play available for purchase right outside the auditorium!
I will not pretend that I knew anything of Athol Fugard — or at least that I knew that I knew anything of Athol Fugard — until I was sitting in the theater listening to him speak. Of course, I knew a few quick facts about the playwright, the kinds of things one shares with a friend in response to “Who’s that?” I knew that he was a South African playwright, who had written Blood Knot, which was performed by the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance the previous night, and which I had missed because I didn’t know what I was missing.
But other than that, I knew nothing. I was simply going because as a creative writing student, who has attended every Thomas Wolfe Lecture and Morgan Writer-in-Residence speech since I first came to UNC, I knew that the speech promised to be inspiring. And I went because after 20 years the Morgan Writer-in-Residence speaking series is ending, and I didn’t want to miss the last resident.
And then Athol Fugard opened his mouth. His speech was entitled “Milestones of a Literary Journey,” and while this title promises much, he is probably one of the few writers who could not only fulfill my expectations, but could far exceed them.
He began with the story of a young Afrikaners boy who is writing an essay for school, about a ballroom dancing competition, held in a nearby black town. He had solicited the help of his two black servants, Sam and Willy. When I heard the names and the topic, my mind immediately returned to that long-lost play that I’d read several years ago, and I listened, in mounting wonder, as I heard fragments of the same passage, read by the author himself. Of course, the Afrikaners boy is really Athol Fugard as a young schoolboy and the story was the first example of one of his literary milestones.
He went on to describe countless other important moments in his life. He talked about deciding to quit school only a few months before graduation to hitchhike to Cairo “because you have to see the world to be a writer.” About his early, grand plans to write “the great South African novel,” which he later tossed overboard, while on a ship delivering sugar cargo (one of his many adventures to “see the world”), because after reading over the manuscript with a bottle of gin: “Drunk as I was at the end, I still knew it was very bad.”
About meeting his wife, a young actress, who introduced him to the stage and “was my inspiration that told me there might be something more than prose or poetry.” About accompanying his wife to an audition for the play Oedipus Rex, and being asked to audition himself and earning the part of an old shipper — his first introduction to the stage. And then about his first critique, in which he was told, “If I had aspirations of getting a career in theatre, I had better take lessons from the stick I was leaning on.”
About starting a black theater company in South Africa, in which he and his wife were the only white actors. About his first great success with writing Blood Knot and the later flood of criticism, which he received after its initial warm welcoming. About writing more and writing harder in the face of that criticism. About falling in love with his homeland and with discovering that he could never live anywhere else. About finding his voice as a writer. And about still using that voice at the age of 79, with a play published last year and more on the way.
As an aspiring writer, I’ve often wondered why I want to write. It’s not like a hard day’s work has the potential to cure cancer or save someone from a burning building. Mostly, I work with fictional characters, the shades of which haphazardly make it onto the page. But after Athol Fugard’s speech, I realized that writing can and does save people. It has the power to change them, the way his speech inspired some minute change in me, in my outlook on what I want to do and why I want to do it.
When Athol Fugard agreed to answer a few questions, after his speech, I was the first to raise my hand and the second (and last) to have the opportunity to speak with him. I had struggled through the duration of his speech — ever since he actually read from “Master Harold” … and the boys — whether or not it was appropriate to tell him about discovering and losing him so quickly and then rediscovering him on campus. I had still not made up my mind when I took the microphone.
But with the microphone in my hands, everyone else in the audience disappeared. It was as if I was sitting across from Athol on a sofa, just chatting. His demeanor was so approachable; I forgot all his status and acclaim. The fact that next week he’ll return to Manhattan to direct one of his plays on Broadway. And I found myself not only telling him the story, but telling it so well that the audience was getting into it also. Who knew you could go to a speech and return with so much more — a long-lost treasure in fact?
I not only bought a copy of that long-coveted play, I even hung around for a good while, until almost everyone else had left and the staff were removing a large assortment of plants which had been placed around the podium, hoping for him to sign my copy. Alas, he did not leave from the front exit.
But I’m not worried. I will carry my copy with me on campus for the rest of the week. And I’ll attend the next few public readings of his plays on Thursday and Friday, in hopes of catching him afterwards. Who knows? I might just bump into him before he returns to Manhattan.
Emily Palmer, a sophomore global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for the Carolina Alumni Review. She is blogging for the Review and wants to hear about your can’t-miss experiences while at Carolina.