The Sorrows and Rejoicings Of a Poet Without a Cause

It’s painful to think how an artist as fine and humane as Athol Fugard can see himself as quite suddenly and tragically redundant. You will know that for more than a generation, Mr. Fugard has been the dramatic conscience of South Africa’s agony, and few writers possess a more generous heart. He has never been an overtly political playwright. He’s more of a tremendous moral conscience, as Arthur Miller is. His memorable dramas and stories that appear so intimately modest at center –Master Harold and the Boys , A Lesson from Aloes and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead among them–have defined for us not just the racism of a foreign country, but the hell of bigotry and injustice everywhere.

Yet with the new post-apartheid South Africa, Mr. Fugard feels as if the past– his past–has been made redundant. “I suppose maybe the word would be rejection that I, as a white man, presumed to write and give voice to the black reality in South Africa,” he told The Times . And when I read that bleak statement, I thought reluctantly that his loneliness as he approaches 70 was horribly inevitable. What use a mere playwright from the past in the midst of the convulsive new South Africa?

Fat consolation to Mr. Fugard, of course. But aren’t all playwrights, even the best of them, cruelly put out to pasture sooner or later, to be treated like fossils in a dusty museum? Theater has always played cruel victim to fashion. Each generation of playwrights is always replaced by the next (until it comes back into fashion). For the mature dramatist to keep writing–to keep going against all the odds, to risk the whim of public deference or disdain–strikes me as heroic. Talent can fade. But the great dramatist doesn’t lose his talent, exactly. He loses his audience.

Is this–God forbid–what has happened to Athol Fugard, whose creative height and international reputation were forged in the heat of apartheid? His last two plays have been in the minor key of personal fable, as if Mr. Fugard were still finding his feet. Valley Song , written in spare simplicity when he was 63, was a tender poem of longed-for rebirth, with Mr. Fugard acting the role of a grisly old storyteller in his own play. “You see,” the storyteller explained with transparent honesty, “the truth is that I am not as brave about change as I would like to be.”

But his last play, The Captain’s Tiger , faltered so badly that it was as if he were now in exile from himself. The slender, even ponderous play that was little more than a sketchy anecdote prompted the uncomfortable question, What place does this dramatist have? What does the old warrior do when the long battle against apartheid has been won?

His troubled new play at the Second Stage Theatre, Sorrows and Rejoicings , which Mr. Fugard has also directed, goes in search of the answers. It tells the story of Dawid Olivier, a white liberal poet who returns home to die in post-apartheid South Africa after 16 lost years of political exile in London. “I would have survived solitary confinement at home,” Dawid says to his wife about the slow alcoholic death of his life in England. “I won’t survive freedom here.”

The action takes place just after Dawid’s funeral in his beloved, flybown region of Karoo, where the three women in his life have gathered in the house he returned to just before his death. The estranged English wife, Allison, the devoted mistress and black servant, Marta, and the angry mixed-race illegitimate daughter, Rebecca, struggle to come to terms with each other and the memory of Dawid.

As is often the case with Mr. Fugard even in his best work, the approach is unpretentiously anecdotal, the symbolism tending to be laid on (the table in the Karoo living room that’s shone, we’re told, with Marta’s tears). But though the undecorative clarity of his storytelling remains powerful, the writing can prove dispiriting by his own high standards. “Deep down inside,” Allison confides wanly, “I already knew that I was going to have to fight to keep his love … and I wasn’t sure I would win.” In such ways, the confessionals drift uneasily into melodrama: “No, Marta. You had as much to give him as I ever did, maybe even more.”

Dawid appears in flashbacks, but I’m afraid the unreal tone of his overwrought dialogue –”Time, Marta. Time is a hungry rat and it’s been gnawing away at me”–isn’t helped by John Glover’s messianic performance. Charlayne Woodard, Judith Light and Marcy Harriell make strong contributions, but I felt it wasn’t until Ms. Harriell’s belated explosion as the illegitimate Rebecca that Mr. Fugard’s elegy to South Africa’s savage past and unknown future began to take flight. And when the dramatist took wing again in the closing moments of the play, when life held texture and love and meaning and unquenchable hope for the poet, the outcome was ecstatic and beautiful.

But Sorrows and Rejoicings isn’t really about the new South Africa, but the old. It’s about the apocalyptic past rather than the present. It’s a fugue for an exiled poet without a cause, without a sense of his own posterity. Whatever the biographical details, the piece at its agonized heart is about Mr. Fugard.

At one point, Dawid quotes a poem by Ovid:

I fear I’m not the man I was,

And I was little even then.

Long suffering dulls the sharpest wit:

There’s no edge left to tongue or pen .

Is this what Mr. Fugard feels about himself? Or the burnt-out poet of the play? I pray the latter. For his proud legacy must surely be more secure than he believes. When I was at college in England, Athol Fugard was the dramatist an entire generation looked to in the midst of England’s shameful role in South Africa’s apartheid. Later, when I came to know South African expatriates, he was the artist of integrity and compassion who spoke to us. And when his great plays came to America, he spoke to a country riven by its own racism and injustice. “Social injustice is man-made and can be unmade by men,” he wrote in Master Harold . Who would ever forget him?

And today? Perhaps he’s like the artist in his play The Road to Mecca . Its heroine is an old sculptress who must create art even if no one ever sees it. Some think she’s deranged and ought to be retired. But she still knows things! And she’ll never stop. There’s no choice, Mr. Fugard is saying. The artist creates because he must, while yearning for the light to shine from native skies.