Biography of Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard is a prominent playwright, novelist, director, and actor whose work is mostly based on and around the South African apartheid. He has won multiple awards and has received numerous honorary degrees.

Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard was born June 11th, 1932 in Middleburg, Cape Province, South Africa. His father was Polish/Irish and his mother was an Afrikaner. Because Fugard's father was disabled, his mother ran the family businesses: The Jubilee Residential Hotel and the St. George’s Park Tea Room. Fugard and his father had a tense relationship, which is why the writer decided to go by Athol (his grandfather's name) instead of Harold, his father's name.

Fugard attended the University of Cape Town until he dropped out to travel around Africa, later serving on a merchant ship. He then worked as a journalist in Port Elizabeth. He married Sheila Meiring, an actress, and the two formed the Cape Town Circle Players, a theater workshop. His first play, Klaas and the Devil, premiered in 1957.

Fugard first became aware of the harsh realities of apartheid when he took a job as a clerk in the Native Commissioner’s Court in Fordsburg. There, he dealt with cases of black South Africans violating the “pass laws” (passports laws making it difficult for black South Africans to travel and/or migrate). The experience had a deep impact on Fugard.

In order to have more opportunities in the theater, Fugard and his wife moved to London. By this time, he had written the play The Blood Knot about two African brothers, one with lighter skin and one with darker skin, as they navigate their familial relationship and their racially segregated society. He had tried to show it in South Africa but it was banned because it depicted interracial relationships. Fugard could finally stage the play in London.

The Blood Knot premiered as a television broadcast in 1967, and it led to the British government revoking Fugard’s passport for four years and keeping him under state surveillance. While he was detained, he wrote and staged Boesman and Lena, which won an Obie award. Most of Fugard’s writing focuses on anti-apartheid themes. His body of work can be separated into the Port Elizabeth plays, the Township plays, the Exile plays, Statements, the My Africa plays, and the Sorrows. The Port Elizabeth plays are deeply personal and deal with apartheid’s effects on South African families. One of Fugard's most renowned plays, “Master Harold”… and the boys”, is part of this series.

As apartheid came to a bloody and chaotic end in the 1980s and 1990s, Fugard’s work began to address the post-apartheid struggle. Plays like My Children! My Africa! and Valley Song deal with the resulting familial and political turmoil. He published his memoir, Cousins, in 1994.

Most of Fugard's work was banned in South Africa until 1994. The majority of his plays premiered in London or in the United States. He first staged several of his plays at the Yale Repertory Theater, and a handful had Broadway openings. In 2005, South Africa granted Athol Fugard the Order of Ikhamanga for “his excellent contribution and achievements in the theater.” His debut as a film director was The Road to Mecca (1992). In 2006, the film adaptation of Fugard's novel Tsotsi won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Athol Fugard currently teaches acting, directing, and playwriting at the University of California, San Diego. His most recent play was Coming Home (2009).

Study Guides on Works by Athol Fugard

Inspired by a true story during the time of apartheid in South Africa, The Island is a play that Athol Fugard co-wrote with two other playwrights, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. The three men met when they were members of a drama group called the...