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Fugard, Sisyphus and the Blue Iris

First appeared
Thursday, 20 September 2012


The last time I met Athol Fugard, he was following a technical rehearsal of The Bird Watchers – his thirty-fourth play. Sitting in the auditorium of the Cape Town theatre that carries his name, Fugard leaned over and told me in an almost-conspiratorial whisper: “I’m working on something new.” The playwright’s eyes sparkled as he showed me a typescript of The Blue Iris.

That script is now a performed reality: after premiering at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown earlier this year, the play has come via Cape Town to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg (an American production recently completed its Los Angeles run). Fugard, who is based in San Diego, has returned to South Africa to take up a three-month residency in Stellenbosch and – you guessed it – he’s working on something new.

This time, we’re talking on the phone, but that same excitement is discernible in Fugard’s voice as he describes his “first attempt at Afrikaans theatre”. This may be surprising to many; after all, the work of this self-designated “half-English, half-Afrikaans bastard” (he grew up in a bilingual household) is peppered with Afrikaans phrases, characters and settings. His playtexts have also been translated into Afrikaans, most recently The Captain’s Tiger/Die Kaptein se Tier by Antjie Krog. But Fugard himself has never penned an exclusively Afrikaans play, and he’s clearly eager to take up the challenge.

What is it, I wonder, that drives this restless creativity? What is the imperative that keeps an 80-year-old writing “compulsively”, as Janice Honeyman describes it in her Blue Iris director’s note? In the past, Fugard has emphasised the feeling of both obligation and delight that accompanies his discovery or invention of characters and their stories: “Everything I have written is an attempt to share their secrets.” But watching The Blue Iris, I thought I discerned a darker (perhaps even desperate) impulse behind the author’s prolificacy.

The play is a different kind of “first”. Fugard’s work bears evidence of a range of influences, from Beckett to Camus – but, he tells me, “Before Blue Iris I had never written a play directly in response to a particular piece of writing.” The writer in question is Thomas Hardy, who is best known as a novelist but who turned away from fiction towards the end of his career and produced a series of poems that Fugard considers “among the finest in the English language”. Hardy wrote them after the death of his wife, Emma, from whom he had become estranged (he subsequently married his secretary): they express grief, regret and longing for an irrecoverable past, ultimately paying tribute to the relationship.

The Blue Iris is, in turn, a tribute to Hardy’s poems – an encomium in which that curious love triangle takes on a South African incarnation, in the Karoo landscape so closely associated with Fugard. We find Robert Hannay and his sometime housekeeper, Rieta Plaasman, camping outside the ruins of a farmhouse that Robert had built for his young English bride, Sally. It stood for decades until, one night, it was consumed by fire after a lightning strike. Sally died shortly afterwards, but her spirit haunts the place; Rieta has stayed with Robert during his unsuccessful attempt to recover items lost in the fire, hoping to exorcise Sally’s ghost.

In the opening dialogue, Robert admits to Rieta that his recuperative efforts remind him of an old story about “some arme ou skepsel who, as punishment for something bad, is made to push a big rock all the way up to the top of a koppie. But just when he gets there, he slips, the rock rolls back down the hill, and he has to start all over again. And so it goes, on and on...” This is, of course, the tale of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to an eternity of futile labour – a likely comparison, particularly given the prevalence of ancient Greek myth in Fugard’s oeuvre.

Yet the allusion is given a different resonance as, during the course of the play, we learn that Sally was a talented artist. She spent years painting the flowers of the Karoo, partly out of a wish to locate herself within a landscape to which she felt foreign and partly to reconcile with Robert, from whom she had grown distant as the strain of farming under conditions of drought took its toll. The blue iris – the ‘bloutulp’, Moraea polystachya – was her first subject: a beautiful but poisonous plant, surviving the harshest conditions but deadly to animals. The painting was the centrepiece of her collection, but we hear Sally’s ghost shriek, at the climax of the action, “I didn’t get it right!”

I put it to Fugard: does this aspect of The Blue Iris reflect his own frustration as an artist? Is the relentless desire to create new plays, to write new stories, a Sisyphean curse? “That’s a fair interpretation,” he replies. “When I look back on my earlier stuff, there is always a sense of ‘If only I’d known then what I know now...’ And yes, I think I am more critical of my own work than anyone else.”

He notes that, along with The Captain’s Tiger (1997) and The Bird Watchers (2011), Master Harold … and the Boys (1982) makes up a trio of “portraits of the writer – from arrogant little schoolboy to adolescent ambition and finally a playwright wrestling with the material of his own life. They all have the same concern: what does it mean to be a writer?”

I ask Fugard what he makes of the other ways in which his plays have been grouped together. Some critics have noted, for instance, that The Blue Iris continues a pattern established in Valley Song (1996), Sorrows and Rejoicings (2001) and Victory (2007), in which much of the dramatic tension stems from the age and race of the main protagonists: an older white man and a younger coloured woman.

“Any writer,” Fugard concurs, “has only a handful of themes. You don’t invent a theme every time you write a play.” We talk about the conscious echoes in Blue Iris of earlier plays, such as Boesman and Lena (1969) – the trope of homelessness is underscored when Rieta complains, “We are living out here like people in one of those plakker kampe outside PE” – and A Lesson From Aloes (1978), in which a character affirms that studying Karoo flora “makes me feel that little bit more at home in my world”.

Indeed, Fugard takes the idea of “categorising” his plays even further. “Look at Blood Knot (1961), Boesman and Lena and Hello and Goodbye (1965), which together examine the primary relationships in a family: between siblings, between spouses, between children and parents. I didn’t set out consciously to do that, but it happened.” And, of course, there is Fugard’s “sustained romance with the opposite sex – in my work, I mean. Blood Knot is the only one of my plays in which the dominant, most powerful presence is not a central female character.”

This is certainly true of Boesman and Lena, which has been ‘updated’ by director James Ngcobo for a current staging at the Baxter Theatre. Fugard says he’d like to go and watch the show “with a disguise on”, just to see how it has been revised. “My plays are like my children – they must make their own way in the world. But I also don’t like to see them ‘tampered’ with too much.” For Fugard, the intention of an artist is important, despite all the literary theory that claims it is not.

Still, this pales in comparison to other restrictions on artistic autonomy. Our conversation ends on an ominous note, as Fugard asks: “Are the rights of South African artists sufficiently protected? The ‘Spear’ episode was a shocking indictment of what the ANC understands ‘freedom’ to mean.” 



* The Blue Iris is at the Market Theatre until 7th October



The FM bolsters its feature articles with a "7 Questions" supplement. I talked to Daniel Galloway, General Manager of the Fugard Theatre …  



1. When was the Fugard Theatre established, and why?

The Fugard opened in January 2010. Eric Abraham underwrote the construction costs and named it in honour of Athol Fugard, to be a crucible of creativity in the heart of Cape Town.

2. To what extent is the Theatre’s identity tied to that of Athol Fugard?

We are closely linked with Athol, present many of his plays and are proud to carry his name. But we stage a wide range of works, producing theatre, hosting musicians and screening films.

3. How have Fugard’s recent plays been received when staged at the Fugard Theatre?

We have gathered wonderful, loyal support for Fugard productions in both the Main and Studio theatres. The iconic building and stage spaces offer themselves up very well to his work.

4. Give us some examples of the other work you put on.

We have exclusive screenings of the Royal Opera, Royal Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet companies; we put on intimate, once-off music events – such as Karen Zoid and Zolani Mahola’s combined concert.

5. What has been your most successful production thus far?

David Kramer and Taliep Petersen’s musical Kat & the Kings. We had to extend the run three times; it played to standing ovations and full houses. The show is transferring to Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre.

6. What are some of the challenges of running an independent theatre?

Sustainability. We receive no subsidy or grant to cover our operational costs. Our local and international reputation continues to grow and we expect that this will result in corporate investment in our theatre space.

7. What is currently on stage?

Our World Opera and Ballet Season continues (the Main Theatre doubling as our Bioscope) and we will host the second Open Book Festival, presented by The Book Lounge, from 20 to 24 September.



Comments (2)

  • Paddy
    04 January 2013 at 17:10 |

    "For Fugard, the intention of an artist is important, despite all the literary theory that claims it is not."

    Ah, but in what way is it important? It may be important to him, but why should anyone else care? Once the play is written and released into the world, Fugard's intentions become irrelevant. An audience member sitting in the stalls and wondering to herself "what did Fugard intend by this" is too busy thinking and not busy enough watching, and thereby missing the entire experience.

    Chalk that up as another 5-hour discussion we have to have sometime.

  • Jennifer Bryson
    19 November 2014 at 17:54 |

    Hi there, I'm looking to get hold of the script for Blue Iris for my Masters Thesis. Where has it been published or if it hasn't been published yet, do you have suggestions for how I could track it down and buy it?


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