The Birth of "Blood Knot"
Blood Knot playwright Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard was born on June 11, 1932, on a Middleburg farm in the Cape Province of South Africa. His father, Harold Fugard, was a crippled English jazz pianist, and his mother, Elizabeth Fugard, was an Afrikaner from an old family deeply entrenched in the Cape region. Afrikaners are the descendants of Dutch settlers who arrived in the Cape beginning in 1652. When Fugard was three, his family moved to Port Elizabeth where his mother operated a boarding-house. She later managed the St. George’s Park Tea Room which would become the setting for Fugard’s best known play, “Master Harold” . . . and the boys (1982). In 1948, when Fugard was sixteen, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa and began enacting the policy of racial segregation termed apartheid. The first piece of legislation the Nationalist Party passed was the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, followed shortly by the Immorality Act of 1950, which forbid any sexual contact across the color line. The Group Areas Act of the same year established the pass laws which kept the Africans in certain areas and forbade them from others.
This sweeping political change had little effect, however, on the young Fugard’s life. He attended a technical college where he learned the trade of a mechanic. Instead of beginning a career in trade, Fugard decided to enter college with the help of a scholarship to the University of Cape Town, where he pursued a degree in Philosophy. After two years, he abandoned his degree in early 1953 and hitch-hiked across Africa with poet and fellow student Perseus Adams. Fugard and Adams were arrested for entering Sudan illegally and spent ten days imprisoned in a mud hut.2 Upon their release, the pair split up and made their separate ways to Port Sudan where
Fugard joined the crew of a British tramp steamer headed to the Far East.3 For nine months, from September 1953 to May 1954, Fugard served as the “Captain’s Tiger,” the captain’s personal assistant, aboard the S.S. Graigaur with a cargo of salt and a crew of Malays.
It is unclear exactly when Fugard began to write, but shortly after joining the crew of the S.S. Graigaur, he declared his firm commitment towards his future career as a writer in a letter to his parents dated October 28, 1953: “[I] am deeply satisfied with my writing; there exists no doubt now in my mind that it is the one thing I have always been destined to do, and one does not argue with destiny.”4 Three months later, while docked in Honolulu, Hawaii, Fugard wrote another letter praising his mother’s Afrikaner virtues as the inspiration for his writing: “I feel within me a strength equal to the great issues of my land.”5 When he returned home in May 1954, Fugard worked as a free-lance journalist for the Port Elizabeth Evening Post and eventually landed a job at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). The new job took Fugard to Cape Town where he met Sheila Meiring at a mutual friend’s party. Meiring was an aspiring actress who had just been cast in her first professional production. The two liked each other upon their second meeting and were married on September 2, 1956.
Soon, the Fugards formed a drama group called the Circle Players for which Fugard wrote plays while Sheila directed. When the couple relocated to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1958, the initial idea of the Circle Players became the African Theatre Workshop Company active in the Johannesburg black township of Sophiatown. The group consisted of several black intellectuals including Drum magazine writers, Lewis Nkosi, Bloke Modisane, and jazz saxophonist, Zakes Mokae. On August 30, 1958, the African Theatre Workshop Company presented Fugard’s first major play, No Good Friday, at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre under
Fugard’s direction. In it, Fugard dramatized the harsh lives of those who lived in the black township of Sophiatown. The following year, the company presented Fugard’s second full-length play, Nongogo (1959). Nongogo, a Zulu word for prostitute, centers on Queeny, a former prostitute who runs a Sophiatown shebeen, or speakeasy, with her brutish helper Blackie. The play was rehearsed at Jan Hofmeyr, a school for social workers and performed next door at the Bantu Men’s Social Center on June 8, 1959. Zakes Mokae, who had only a bit part in No Good Friday, played Blackie in Nongogo, a part Fugard had written especially for him.
The small success of No Good Friday and Nongogo (1958 and ’59, respectively) allowed Fugard to land a job as a stage manager for the whites-only National Theatre Organization (NTO). In 1960, however, the promise of increased opportunities for artistic expression coupled with his newfound disgust with apartheid policies led Athol and Sheila Fugard to board the Orangefontein in Port Elizabeth, bound for Southampton, England. When the Fugards arrived, Fugard was unable to find work as a stage manager or stagehand in any London theatre. Eventually, he took a job housecleaning while Sheila worked as a typist. The Fugards began to grow homesick for South Africa. Their financial situation, always a difficulty, had become dire. Another factor in their decision to return home was the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21st 1960, in which police opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Africans who were peacefully protesting the government’s inhumane pass laws outside of the police station. When the dust cleared, sixty-nine people lay dead, most of whom were shot in the back as they attempted to flee. News of the attack reached Europe and caused the Fugards to give serious thought to the problem of returning home to a country whose politics appalled them. The Sharpeville Massacre coupled with the revelation of Sheila’s pregnancy in the fall of 1960 precipitated Fugard’s decision to return.
By December 27, 1960, Fugard was ensconced in his parent’s tiny two-room flat on Bird Street in Port Elizabeth.6 Fugard’s mother tended to his dying father in the first room, while the second room—separated by large folding doors—housed the pregnant Sheila and Fugard. Here he wrote what was to become one of his most famous plays, The Blood Knot (1961).7 On September 3, 1961, Fugard played Morris, a mixed-race man and Zakes Mokae played Zachariah, his African half-brother. The production marked the first time a white actor and a black actor shared the stage in South Africa. Fugard’s bold casting choice made the very act of performing the play illegal. The effect was riveting: the play lasted four hours with no intermission, yet not one audience member left. At the curtain, the audience sat in stunned silence, then came the applause. “Four hours,” recalls Zakes Mokae, who played Zach to Fugard’s Morrie, “after that, you don’t know where you are, man.”8 Oliver Walker, a reviewer for The Star called The Blood Knot, “a very remarkable new play.”9
With the help of producers Toby Kushlick and Leon Gluckman, The Blood Knot transferred to the YMCA’s Intimate Theatre on November 8, 1961, where it attracted larger white audiences and even better reviews. The play was hailed by one Johannesburg critic as “a significant addition to South African theatre—authentic, original and completely stimulating.”10 In an interview shortly after The Blood Knot opened at the YMCA, Fugard admitted that the work, like many of the plays which would follow, was autobiographical. While Fugard was quick to point out that “there is no question of a strain of colour in my family,” the setting of Blood Knot, “the primitive shanty with its enforced intimacy and depressing squalor, was my original home.” The play depicted an intense interaction between two brothers which Fugard attributed in the 11 November, 1961 interview, to the relationship between himself and his brother, Royal, saying, “in physique and temperament we were as contrasted as my two dramatic characters.” Despite his year spent in England, Fugard told Baneshik: “I had to come back to South Africa to write ‘The Blood Knot’.”11
Notes: 1 Excerpted from Gibson Cima, “Statements: The Making of Athol Fugard,” Master’s Thesis (The Ohio State University, 2007): 20-34.
2 The Galer, “From Karoo to West End.” The Natal Mercury. Cape Town, South Africa.16 Jan. 1962. National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa – Fugard, Athol Biography 1958-1964.
3 Hodgin. “Interview with Athol Fugard.” News/Check. 21 July. 1967. National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa – Fugard, Athol Biography 1967-1969.
4 Athol Fugard. Letter from Athol Fugard to Elizabeth and Harold Fugard, his parents. S.S. Graigaur, Malacca Straits. 28 Oct. 1953. Fugard Collection, Lilly Library, Bloomington, IN – Box #1, Folder #8.
6 Athol Fugard. Notebook Entry. 27 Dec. 1960. Fugard Collection Lilly Library, Bloomington, IN – Box #1, Folder #20. See also: Athol Fugard. Notebooks: 1960-1977, 13. This passage is incomplete in the printed edition and includes a passage about Fugard Senior playing cards with his daughter Glenda which does not appear in the original entry.
7 Athol Fugard. Notebook Entry. Undated, 1962. Fugard Collection Lilly Library, Bloomington, IN – Box #1, Folder #22. Also, Athol Fugard. Notebooks: 1960-1977, 41. This passage appears in the 1961 section of the printed notebooks even though the original entry is dated 1962.
8 Zakes Mokae. Interview by author. 15 Aug. 2006. 10:00 AM, Johannesburg, South Africa.
9 Russell Vandenbroucke, Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985): 47.
11 Percy Baneshik. “Shanty Start and Hobo Days Aid Rand Playwright.” The Rand Daily Mail. 11 Nov. 1961. National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa – Fugard, Athol Biography 1958-1964.