Athol Fugard: Making Music With Words

Theatre stories spun like symphonies

Musical trends shape generations. At the heart of our emotional make-up, there are tunes that trigger powerful memories. Striking A Chord, a four-part mini series in the SABC 3 Docuville slot, combines compelling life stories with the music that defined the different eras of each person’s journey. Always in the background of every story is the socio political reality of the times. This Sunday night at 7.30 the story of Playwright Athol Fugard, the last in the series, will be broadcast.

He has been dubbed the greatest living playwright. The Sunday Times of London picked him as one of the 1 000 Makers of the 20th Century. Hardly a day goes by without one of his plays being performed or studied somewhere in the world. But few people know that above all else Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard is driven by… music.

And up there on the top of a long list of classical favourites is Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. The one that even the composer claimed was near perfect. It is a structure and elegance he yearns for on the stage.

“I try to write plays with the same emotional dynamic, the same organisation of energy there is in music. I am very conscious of that marvelous potential in language of creating a sort of music in our choice of words,” he says sitting in a wobbly wicker chair with his favourite pipe always close by.

Fugard-London-Sunday-Times

And somewhere in a day of filming he makes a dramatic announcement. Maybe no more plays…

“I’m not going to stop writing. That I won’t stop you know. I… because I just love that, the feel of my pen and the challenge of what I call the inquisition of blank paper.”

Eighty-two and still facing the ‘inquisition of blank paper’… A challenge he has met to create almost 40 plays, several films and a novel. His first novel Tsotsi was ‘discovered’ many years after it was written and turned into a feature film. His second novel will be an even more remarkable story.

“At the end of my life I’m going to try and repeat what I did right at the beginning which is when I wrote Tsotsi. I remember I wrote it at the same time that I wrote the Blood Knot. But I want to write this novel right at the end and it’s well advanced. It’s called Dry Remains.

My title Dry Remains comes from forensics. The five stages of decomposition of an animal body. First there’s the fresh stage which lasts for about six to nine hours after death. And then comes bloat, that’s when the body distends with gasses. And the first maggots in you hatch out. Then comes active decay when the maggots go to work on your body. Advance decay when the microbes in all of your body finish off what’s left and then what’s left is the fifth and final stage and it’s called dry remains.”

The clinical description is matter-of-fact. Devoid of emotion. His partner Paula Fourie interrupts with a story about a poem she wrote about Fugard’s death and decomposing corpse. He flicks her away with a hand that underlines his calm acceptance of these matters.

Athol-Fugard

The latest Fugard play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, had its premiere in New York recently. Some say he’s in search of the perfect play. But what drives Athol Fugard?

It’s a compelling story with many twists and turns, like an intricate symphony …

Athol Fugard, Making Music With Words premieres in the Docuville slot on SABC 3 on Sunday 24 May at 7.30 with a repeat on Thursday 28 May at 22.30. It is part of the Striking A Chord mini series and the Producer was Jacky Lourens. Executive Producer and Director Sylvia Vollenhoven. The other Directors were Basil Appollis and Eugene Paramoer. Cameramen Ryan Lee Seddon and Jason Aldridge. Editors were Aeysha Anthony-Abrahams, Annamarie James and Tanya von Abo. The Story Editor was Tim Knight.

Production Stills by Ryan Lee Seddon.

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