Crucible Moments from Fugard's Early Life in Port Elizabeth

Extracts from Athol Fugard's memoir, Cousins, shed light on the lost world of his childhood in Port Elizabeth, offering personal insight into why he came to describe himself as a "regional writer".

Mongrel son of two cultures

I am a mongrel son of white South Africa's two dominant cultures ... Afrikaner and English-speaking [...]

I have often described myself as an Afrikaner writing in English, and the older I get the more that seems to be the truth, that my English tongue is speaking for an Afrikaner psyche. Somewhere or other somebody is on record as having said that my plays were translated into English before they were written in their original language. Could I have written them in the first instance in Afrikaans? No. My command of that language is, sadly, not good enough. But maybe that is just as well, because I have a deep and passionate love of English (pp. 9-10).


Companions, lovers, teachers

This dominance of the women in my early family life set a pattern for the rest of it. My relationships with women have always been the decisive and sustaining ones. I don't mean to diminish or sound careless of the important and loving relationship I had with my father, and the many male friendships I have had over the years, and continue to enjoy. It is just that there has always been an added dimension when it came to the women, which ended up making them my great companions and lovers, teachers and inspirers. I believe my writing reflects this. Whenever there is a woman present - a Lena, a Milly, a Hester, a Miss Helen, a Gladys Bezuidenhout - hers is always the dominant and affirmative voice (pp. 10-11).


Sixteen miles out of town...

The first setting for our relationship [Athol and cousin Johnnie's] was the world of smallholdings and scabby little farms along what is now the 'old' Cape Road. My Aunt Ann and Uncle Lou had put their savings into one of them - a fifty morgen parcel of land on which they planned to grow flowers and vegetables for the market. A year or so later we followed them, selling the Jubilee and moving out onto Devon, a twenty morgen plot a mile or so further out along the Cape Road. Thinking about it now there really was no sense at all in that move. Apart from one or two juvenile efforts on my side, no serious attempt was ever made to work our land and live off it the way my uncle and aunt were doing. All of my mom's energies, and she was the family generator, were going into the recently acquired St George's Park Tea Room. It had replaced the Jubilee as our source of income and was to remain that, and my mom's pride and joy, for the next thirty years [...]

The only reason I can think of now for moving those sixteen miles out of town into a cold and comfortless little house was my mother's Afrikaner instinct to be on the land, reinforced by the bond of love and rivalry between the two sisters. If Anna could sit on her stoep and smile at her fifty morgen, so also could Elizabeth Magdalena (p. 20).


Beyond civilisation's bright lights

As it turned out neither sister did much sitting on the stoep or smiling. They were desperate times. For both families that "return to the land" turned out to be a big mistake. After only two years of it on Devon, we moved back into the city and we were followed a year or so later by my aunt, uncle and Johnnie.

But brief as that time might have been, it has left me with images of a little world that was as unique and rich in detail as anything else I have experienced in my life. In 1946 sixteen miles along the Cape Road meant you had left the bright lights of civilization very far behind. There was no telephone or electricity on Devon, and for water we were dependent on rainwater tanks. The very basic lifestyle created by these conditions - wood-burning stove in the kitchen and candles in the bedrooms - was typical of all the smallholdings along the Cape Road. It was a very humble world. The simple houses - most of them made of corrugated iron - were occupied by working-class Afrikaner families. I got to know those people well from those early-morning bus rides into town. By the time we reached the Hunter's Retreat Hotel - the half-way mark - the bus had a full load of sleepy-eyed men and women of all ages, clutching thermos flasks and lunch tins and fogging up the bus windows with their breath and cigarette smoke. They were headed for the railways, the post office and the factories of Port Elizabeth - GM Ford and Firestone, among others - which provided them with their livelihood. What I realise now of course is that in studying my fellow passengers with furtive fascination I was feeling my way for the first time into that very specific world of the alienated working-class Afrikaner. It is one that has always fascinated me, and my play Hello and Goodbye is my personal celebration of it. I had Johnnies and Hesters sitting all around on those bone-crunching, gear-grinding early-morning rides into town (pp. 21-22).


"Koffie and skinner"

Back at home the adult conversations on which I eavesdropped also underwent a radical change. Instead of it being all boarding house talk about residents' complaints and servant troubles, now when the two sisters got together for "koffie and skinner" it was to talk about seeds and seasons and good kraal manure, with the two of them trying their best to recall what their father had done to get the marvellous vegetables they remembered coming out of his garden in Middelburg. I listened with fascination to the names of flowers I hadn't heard of before... lupin and delphinium, phlox and stocks, gladioli and dahlias. Johnnie's discovery of the box of seeds in Hello and Goodbye, and his delight as he reads out the names, is a celebration of those fragrant hours when my mother and my Aunt Ann gave me my first lessons in loving the earth (page 23).


An aroma of paraffin and chew tobacco

It was inconvenience more than anything else that finally forced my mom to move the family back into town. Our new home was a substantial and, by comparison with Devon's primitive facilities, luxurious piece of suburbia on the corner of Hudson Street and Third Avenue in Newton Park. In the case of my Aunt Ann and Uncle Lou, their move back into town about a year later was not so simple [...]

Their next venture was a small general dealer store on the Buffelsfontein Road in the area known as Salisbury Park.
I write, read or even just think the names "Buffelsfontein Road" or "Salisbury Park" and I smell a heavy fragrance compounded of paraffin and chew-tobacco, ground coffee and blue soap, all stirred into the clammy sweetness from sacks of moist brown sugar; I close my eyes and I see again a dimly lit world of shadows and muted, deferential voices as soft as the moths fluttering around an old Coleman lamp that is hissing away on a wooden counter. My Aunt Ann and Uncle Lou are behind it serving, with bad grace, the trickle of customers that come in out of a black night - there is also no electricity out here. Old men, tired women, barefoot little children - coloured, African and an occasional white - all of them poor, and living in the simple little houses scattered around the shop, clutching sixpences and tickeys and pennies for candles or bread, or the small brown paper-wrapped portions - I remember the word "kadoosie" - of tea or sugar (p. 31).


Culture of poverty

His book [The Children of Sánchez, by American anthropologist Oscar Lewis, on what he called 'the culture of poverty'] helped me to recognise the emotional and psychological coherence of the lives in those humble little worlds that so fascinated me. From my point of view however there was something else about that 'culture of poverty' which he didn't deal with, and that is the way in which the very destitution of those lives can sometimes invest simple things and events, even simple gestures, with huge archetypal values and resonances. When Lena breaks and shares a piece of brown bread with Outa as they sit huddled together in the cold of the Swartkops mudflats, it is the profound simplicity of those elements that turn that moment into a Mass, a bitter celebration of her life.

The very destitution of those lives can sometimes invest simple things and events, even simple gestures, with huge archetypal values and resonances

Salisbury Park was a flowering of all these values and they were hothoused for me in the dark, fragrant interior of that shop. I got to know it well as a result of regular Sunday-night visits, at least two years of them, by mom and myself - I can't remember my father, brother or sister ever going along. We used to drive out there after closing up the tearoom in St George's Park, usually around 6pm... After the obligatory session of "koffie and skinner" we would settle back to enjoy a session of piano playing from Johnnie (p. 32).


Exploring the fantastical world of music

At first I was just another passive member of his audience like my mother and my aunt, sunk back deep into one of those carnivorous club easies, while he played. But it didn't stay that way for long. His music was far too potent. It stirred up wonderfully turbulent feelings inside me and the impulse to do something with them, to release them in some way, became overpowering. A decisive factor in all this was Johnnie's repertoire as a pianist. It did not consist solely of popular music the way my father's had. As it happened he would eventually also end up as a very successful band leader in his own right, but at this early point in his musical career he was still exploring the world of music and he took me along with him on his voyages of discovery. The Chopin nocturnes and études, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Brahms and Schubert, are just a few of the memorable landfalls we made together. And what amazing discoveries they were! They didn't only stir up my yeasty adolescence in the way my dad's sentimental ballads had done, they were like actual places, gardens of delight in which my imagination roamed freely.

The wonderful event inside me, the emotional journey I found myself making as Johnnie's hands travelled up and down the keyboard demanded their own unique life. All I had then with which to respond is all I have ever had out of which I have fashioned all of my responses to life... words (p. 34).


Translating music into words

I wish I could remember the specific little accidents that led to Johnnie and me evolving the performance pieces that eventually became the main and public event of those Sunday evenings. I'm sure there would be a lesson there about the craft of storytelling. But all I can recall now is the final process. It went like this: I would sit back, listen to the music, and wait for the first image. It always came, and when it did I would turn it into words, and then develop and elaborate it, improvising as I went along with the music. I was in a sense translating the music into words - the music always leading. But it wasn't long before a major development took place that reversed this order of things. What we discovered was that once started, my stories were inclined to have a life of their own. Although it might have got its inspiration from and started off in Clair de Lune, it most emphatically did not want to stay or end there. A new challenge! ... This one was Johnnie's and, thanks to his powerful and sensitive musicianship, he rose magnificently to the occasion. We started the same way: he would begin playing and I would sit back, listen and wait. Johnnie was free to go in any direction he fancied. But I had to listen very carefully and stay in sync with my story. The end result was that his musical scores for my scenarios were made up of bits and pieces of all the music he had in his repertoire, welded together by dramatic scales, arpeggios and original improvised passages (p. 35).


A dramatic imagination

I have come to believe that those sessions with Johnnie were the first formative experiences that led to my career as a dramatist. I am convinced that it was in that little lounge in Salisbury Park that I developed and shaped a dramatic imagination and forged what was to become a lifelong link between music and my writing process. It is a major connection in my life. To put it quite simply, I try to write plays with the same emotional dynamic, the same organisation of energy as there is in music (p. 37).


Forced into the big wide world

We had moved into the Jubilee Residential Hotel after the death of my paternal grandmother had brought to an end our comfortable and protected years in quiet and very respectable Clevedon Road and forced us out into the big world. Hardly a stone's throw away, at the bottom of the Hill, was Main Street, then Port Elizabeth's principal business and shopping centre. It was 1940 and I was eight years old at the time (pp.43-44).


My personal playground

The world couldn't have been any wider than that. I had a choice of no fewer than five cinemas in the immediate neighbourhood - The Grand, Astra, Metro, Opera and Popular, the latter being one of those wonderful old 'bio-cafés' where you sipped a green cooldrink while watching Gene Autry or the Lone Ranger galloping after rustlers and stage-coach robbers. Whenever I had the price of a ticket I would dash around to each in turn to see what was showing before making my choice. Also only minutes away from the hotel were the Port Elizabeth Public Library, the Willowtree Ice-cream Parlour and the Donkin Reserve - a large, open public space with a lighthouse in the middle, and a few stands of scraggly, gnarled pines. This was my personal playground; it was here that I came to hide away from my mom whenever I had done anything really wicked, and it was here that I flew kites with Sam, and where with my cousin Garth I had one of the most decisive experiences of my childhood (p. 46, Sam Semela).


Discovering the library

Looking back now I am amazed at how many of the formative experiences of my childhood are crowded into those six years. Among the major ones was unquestionably my discovery of the beautiful Port Elizabeth Public Library [...]
My subscription allowed me to two books, and for an extra sixpence I could have a third. That was the rate at which I devoured them - three a week (pp. 47-48).


The impact of Faulkner

Once I had got into these upper galleries and started exploring the world of serious fiction, the real adventure began. I can't remember any more in what order they came, but there was Dumas, Hugo and eventually Zola and Flaubert as well; those monumental Russians - Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky (pronounced Dostoofski) and Turgenev - and then one day, relegated to dust and oblivion in an unlit little corridor right up on the top gallery, an unknown American author called William Faulkner. What on earth prompted me to take out that first novel I'll never know. And what on earth made me persist in m attempt to read it, because it was really heavy going, I also don't know. And then finally after all of that, why on earth did I go on to take out a second novel by this man who seemed determined to make life as difficult as possible for the reader? But take it out I did, and slowly, laborious page by laborious page, I mastered the code of Faulkner's time and place. It was a profound and inspirational lesson to me as a writer, even though I didn't know it at the time. More than anybody else I was to read, it was Faulkner who gave me the courage to embrace, uncompromisingly, my identity as a regional writer.
It was Faulkner who gave me the courage to embrace, uncompromisingly, my identity as a regional writer

In my early formative years as a playwright, when most of the critics were urging me to stop addressing myself so specifically to fellow South Africans and to think of the wider English-speaking audience, it was his example that kept me passionately rooted in my "time and place" (p. 49).


A surge of dark elation

With one clumsy, halting sentence after another he [Athol's cousin Garth Fugard] finally blundered into this confession:
"I'm not like other men... I'm not interested in girls... I'm different... I like to be with men and boys... Some people are born that way... I am one of them..."

And then finally, when he got it all out:

"You understand don't you, Hally?" I remember nodding, and whispering a barely audible "Yes" [...]

As for understanding him? That was the biggest surprise of all: I did. If there was any shock at all in the experience it was in discovering that I already knew his secret. From almost the first few words of his confession, something in me had jumped ahead and had known what was coming: somehow I had tapped into a fund of secret knowledge inside myself that I never knew I had. It was my first experience of that most essential of all the writer's faculties - intuition. But as surprising as was its discovery, even more so were the emotions it provoked: a surge of dark elation, a thrilling sense of power (p. 71).


A world of secrets

[...] I properly understand for the first time the dark elation, the sense of power I had experienced through Garth's confession on the Donkin bench. In opening his heart to me Garth had given me my first empowerment as a writer.
Because that is my real territory as a dramatist: the world of secrets, with their powerful effect on human behaviour and the trauma of their revelation. Whether it is the radiant secret in Miss Helen's heart or the withering one in Boesman's or the dark and destructive one in Gladys, they are the dynamos that generate all the significant action in my plays.

My first and last word of advice to any young writer remains: guard your secrets jealously (pp. 73-74).


Railing against the "bourgeois"

It was my passion for science and philosophy that led to my escape from a possible career as the world's worst motor mechanic and landed me on the campus of the University of Cape Town. Literature and music had nothing to do with the subjects I selected for my degree: social science, social anthropology, ethics and metaphysics, and political philosophy. It was only degree requirements that forced me very reluctantly to include a year of French in my studies, and it was the one subject that gave me no joy whatsoever. Fortunately for me, through my friendship with the poet Perseus Adams, writing stayed open as an option in my life. When we first met on the UCT campus Perseus was studying psychology, but there was no doubt in his mind that poetry was his destiny, and time was to prove him right. We were both campus misfits and spent all our free time together either railing against the 'bourgeois' (quite definitely our favourite word) or in long, rambling and exhausting conversations about the books and poems we loved. My escape from the world of science and philosophy and the trap of an academic career came when, just prior to the final exams for my degree, the two of us decided to embrace our identity as writers, and hitch-hike up from Cape Town to Cairo (p. 79).


Little boxes in suburbia

And so, finally, suburbia, and what was to be the last of the family homes: 73 Third Avenue, Newton Park. It was a prototype middle-class white South African world: square, solid brick houses with small manicured gardens in front, a servant's room in the back yard and a notice: Beware of the Dog [...] (p. 74).


The lure of science

The most serious contender of all my options at that time, though, was unquestionably science. It was an authentic passion, on a par with literature and music, and although it is now only vestigially present in my life I am convinced that a few serendipitous accidents at the time might well have made it the winner and given my story a very different ending [...]
When we moved into the Newton Park house I immediately commandeered the empty servant's room in the back yard and set it up as my laboratory, with my microscope, chemistry set and, most ominously of all, my dissecting kit. A series of terrible "mad scientist" experiments on frogs and a few other poor creatures still haunt my Buddhist conscience.

A series of terrible 'mad scientist' experiments on frogs and a few other poor creatures still haunt my Buddhist conscience

I remember very clearly the awe with which I looked down at the beating heart of the first frog - anaesthetised with a swab of chloroform - that I opened up. I even dragged poor Sam at the St George's Park Tea Room into it by leaving him in charge of the post-operative care of my "patients" - with very specific instructions about catching and feeding flies to them - while I trudged off reluctantly to the workshops of the PE Tech. Many were the bitter and accusatory harangues I inflicted on him when I returned later to find the patient dead at the bottom of the intensive care jam jar (p. 78).


Signs of life

There were four bedrooms in the house, and it was in them that you found signs of life. My parents' room in the front was the largest, and eventually became an important inspiration and model for my play Hello and Goodbye. My mother was a compulsive hoarder, and all the rubbish that she hadn't been able to throw away when we packed up and left the Jubilee, and again when she finally packed up and left the St George's Park Tea Room, all of that rubbish - it is itemised in the play - ended up in cardboard boxes and suitcases and bags and biscuit tins under beds and on top of already jam-packed wardrobes and chests of drawers (p. 81).


A teary goodbye

[...] the bedroom I shared with my brother. With its windows facing the west it was the warmest room in the house and free of the sunless chill in which the others were permanently locked. I can still feel the warmth of the afternoon flood of golden sunlight that used to pour into it [...]

It was in this room that my dad and I settled down every Sunday afternoon during my last year at the Tech to listen to the BBC series on the lives and music of Gilbert and Sullivan. It was in this room that I eventually packed my haversack for my hitch-hike down to Cape Town and the start of my three years at university [...]

On my last afternoon in the room he [Fugard's father] hobbled in on his crutches, in his hands, still in its factory wrapping, the shirt I had given him as a Christmas present a few months earlier. This time around it was a parting present from him to me, and he handed it over tearfully. It was awful - his sobbing misery, my tears and sense of betrayal and desertion - another pivotal image in Hello and Goodbye that I owe to that house (p. 82).

- Fugard, A. 1994. Cousins: A memoir. Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg


back to the Athol Fugard memorial page

"The moral responsibility of the artist is to keep alive a total awareness of the realities of our time."
Athol Fugard
Athol Fugard
© Sunday Times


Resistance through theatre - Reviews as sources

In this lesson plan, learners will be asked to think about how theatre can speak to people in powerful ways that are not always possible through other media. By reading reviews and assessments of Fugard's plays, learners will appreciate the kind of impact that they had on audiences living under apartheid.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
A selection of images from Athol Fugard’s life and plays.
Artwork Photo Gallery
Get a closer view of the memorial to Athol Fugard in Port Elizabeth’s St George’s Park
Athol Fugard and John Kani
Athol Fugard discusses his relationship with Sam Semela, the inspiration behind the protagonist of ’Master Harold’ … and the boys, with Dali Tambo