Athol Fugard: The Playwright


Playwright Athol Fugard takes part in a long tradition of artists compelled to create socially conscious art. While his plays take place in South Africa and are concerned with both the political and social climate specific to that country, Fugard's work explores universal questions of brotherhood, community and the necessity of mankind to let go of and learn from the past. In using his art to respond to the injustice of apartheid, Fugard illuminates the dehumanizing effects of his native country's political system, champions the fight for reform, and examines how South Africa might heal in the wake of apartheid.


Athol Fugard was born on June 11, 1932 in Great Karoo, Cape Province, South Africa. His mother, an Afrikaner, ran the household and family business while his father, the son of immigrants from Manchester, England, was frequently ill and unable to work following a hip injury that left him handicapped. In 1935, the family moved to Port Elizabeth. Like Hally in the play, Fugard spent a great deal of time in St. George's Park Tea Room, a café owned and run by his mother in tandem with a boarding house and general store. The relationships he formed with the black employees at the Tea Room would ultimately fuel the story of "MASTER HAROLD" …and the boys.


Fugard's passion for the theatre developed relatively late in life. Following his study of auto mechanics at Port Elizabeth Technical School, Fugard briefly studied at the University of Cape Town. Deciding to abandon college, Fugard hitchhiked through Africa with a close friend, and then accepted a job as a sailor. Unable to bear the loneliness of a sailor's life, Fugard returned to South Africa and worked for a short time as a freelance writer for the Evening Post in 1954. Soon, he was promoted, then transferred to Cape Town in 1955 where he was re-aquainted with several of his old college friends. One such friend set him up with an actress named Sheila Meiring, whom Fugard had met in passing while at school. The two married in 1956.


Under the influence of his wife's passion for the arts, Fugard grew to know and love the theatre. His career as a playwright began in 1954 with the play Klaas and the Devil. Around this time, he and his wife founded the Circle Players, a theatrical workshop which would produce some of Fugard's original works. While working as a clerk in the Native Commissioner's Court in Johannesburg, Fugard frequented the black township of Sophiatown. He developed friendships with black South African artists such as Zakes Mokae (see box below). His experiences during this time cemented Fugard's deep hatred for apartheid, and he relinquished his clerkship in protest. In 1959, Fugard moved to London to more firmly establish himself as an artist, but with the occurrence of the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, he felt compelled to return home to South Africa.


Fugard's collaborative work tapered off in the 1970s, as the playwright felt the need to write increasingly personal work. In the 1980s, frustrated by the limitations placed upon his work under apartheid, Fugard forged a close relationship with Yale Repertory Theatre, which premiered “MASTER HAROLD”… and the boys in 1982.


In the decades that followed, Fugard continued to write prolifically for the theatre to considerable acclaim, both in

South Africa and abroad. Over the course of his career, Fugard has won the Obie Award, Outer Critic's Circle Award, and a Tony Award nomination, among others. Today, he keeps a residence outside San Diego to be near his extended family, but returns frequently to his home in South Africa.