Dispersoned Places

"If one more of these wonderful natives shows up speaking pidgin," the drama critic and humorist Robert Benchley muttered on a celebrated occasion, "I leave." Just then, the story continues, a beautiful native girl rushed onstage and flung herself into the hero's arms, crying, "Me Nubi. Nubi good girl. Nubi stay here." Mr. Benchley, who wasn't short, stood up in the audience and announced impartially, "Me Bobby. Bobby bad boy. Bobby go home." Well, it was a different era—in those days, The New Yorker's drama critic actually resided in New York. Nowadays, my colleague John Lahr commutes from London, and I assume that he, like me, was a good boy and sat through all of both Sorrows and Rejoicingsand Further Than the Furthest Thing, two accent-thick dramas with exotic settings, about village characters having a rough collision with the modern world. Not having seen John at either production, I don't know if he thought about reviving the quaint tradition of The Benchley Exit; I know that I was sorely tempted on both occasions. Those wonderful natives have their charm, but they can lure playwrights into astonishing lapses, the kind that make leaving early more effective—more compassionate, even—than a written review.

Compassion, of course, is endemic to the plays of Athol Fugard, who has taken us across South Africa's Karoo plain many times before. Thanks to him, we know this landscape all too well. We know, too, that it can shift disconcertingly from the actual plain to the allegorical plane: When a South African writes a play like The Blood Knot, in which a white man and a black man, half-brothers, jointly occupy a house they've inherited, the house is as much symbolic as real. Sorrows and Rejoicingsgoes back to the symbolic house, but now the allegorical state is the new South Africa, where the government has been freely elected by all the people; the bitter memories live on, but legalized "apart-hate" is over. The old play's quest for love between brothers of different races has been replaced by the recollection of an exiled poet's search for male-female love, divided between a childless white wife of English descent and a black African mistress who has born him a daughter with feelings as mixed as her genetic heritage. You'll never guess who inherits the house.

Dramatized against the backdrop of the new South Africa, with its terrifying birth pangs and traumatic heritage, this could have made exciting drama. But Fugard, who has often used storytelling frameworks cannily in the past, flatly declines here to do any dramatizing at all. Everything's narrated; there are narrations within the narrations; even the climax is set up as a series of narrations. The new South Africa is often alluded to, but never brought to life; the production's physical backdrop is another of Susan Hilferty's lovely scumbled renderings of the same old veldt. Of the omnipresent poverty, the skyrocketing crime rate, the nightmarish AIDS mess, the return of old tribal rivalries in vicious new political guises, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the desperate strivings, and the thousand and one tiny signs of hope in the midst of horror—of all these the play contains not one peep. Well, one: the climax itself. And even that is centered on the white characters' generosity.

Woodard, Light, and Glover in Sorrows and Rejoicings: Karoo Syrup
photo: Bruce Davidson
Woodard, Light, and Glover in Sorrows and Rejoicings: Karoo Syrup

Details

Sorrows and Rejoicings
By Athol Fugard
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street
212-246-4422

Further Than the Furthest Thing
By Zinnie Harris
Manhattan Theater Club
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212

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For the rest, the play is sealed off from reality, as if Fugard thought that locking it in the past would guarantee its timelessness. He dwells on his nostalgia for the veldt and the village to a degree approaching fixation. (One of the hero's poems consists entirely of a string of Afrikaans names.) Even the characters are reduced to types in comparison, their stories fuzzed into incoherence. The hero has apparently published enough to provoke a banning order from the Verwoerd government, but somehow manages to leave the bulk of his oeuvre behind, unpublished, when he goes into exile. This part of his legacy goes up in smoke. There's no glimpse of the English and American publishers, readers, and media-makers who would, in those days, have been desperately eager for the works of a banned South African poet. Does Fugard think that he himself became internationally celebrated by accident, or that history has swept his achievements under the rug? That implies a self-pity unbecoming in a writer of his stature. Yes, the reality that surrounds his plays has shifted: Our previous theatrical trips to his country were both tourist voyages and fact-finding missions; the tension between the two purposes could give the event tremendous force. Now the facts are all in, but the agony at the core of his earlier plays is still fresh and true, still mirroring the reality of racisms the world over. This barely seems to matter to Fugard, who touches the live drama of his theme here only at the very end, when the tormented daughter speaks.

The greatest puzzle is how eager Fugard seems to reduce his characters to their most obvious traits, so that they come out sounding alarmingly like the people in countless other works about isolated small towns. The daydreamy village poet destroyed by big-city life; the intelligent, urbanized wife whose devotion can't rescue him; the fiercely loyal servant, shunned by the villagers for bearing his child, who guards the empty house like a tigress till his return—we learned to anticipate their moves long before Fugard wrote; if we knew the Afrikaans words they toss around, we could supply most of their dialogue. As if in acknowledgment, Fugard's direction has pushed a normally first-rate actor, John Glover, into a performance of almost Pavlovian predictability as the poet. The luckier females encircling him, given equally trite but better-grounded material, come off less painfully: Judith Light grants the English wife a smooth simulacrum of believability; Marcy Harriel, as the daughter, handles the play's tiny mite of actual drama movingly. And Charlayne Woodard, called on to do all the emotional heavy lifting, carries out her wearisome task with consummate power, dignity, and heart-twisting conviction. Even she, though, can't lift this stodgy event into theatrical life. What's most astonishing is that Fugard, with all his experience of the world and the theater, should settle for so little of this new reality. It's as if time and travel had not broadened his spirit; the saddest aspect of Sorrows and Rejoicingsis that it makes this world-class figure seem, of all things, provincial.

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