“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 Rejoicings and 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 Rejoicings goes 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 The old play’s quest for love between brothers of different races has been replaced by the recollection of an exiled poet’s search for male-female love, divided between a childless white wife of English descent and a black African mistress who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.
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 Rejoicings is that it makes this world-class figure seem, of all things, provincial.
The people of Tristan da Cunha, an isolated lump of volcanic rock in the South Atlantic, are provincials and proud of it. Probably not so proud, though, that they would admire Zinnie Harris’s Further Than the Furthest Thing, which is set on an island much like Tristan. Harris was inspired by the tales of her grandfather, an Anglican priest who in the late ’40s was sent by the C. of E. to minister to the Tristanians. Naturally, she wrote a play in which the islanders are a semi-savage bunch of self-baptized primitive Christians, with nary a prelate in sight. This casual disregard for truth is the essence of what’s wrong with her play, which substitutes fake exoticism and theatrical hokum for reality every chance it gets.
In 1961, the volcano on Tristan erupted; the few hundred islanders were evacuated to Southampton. They didn’t enjoy England; when the volcano had cooled down, most of them went home. This took a while (the lava flow had buried the island’s one harbor) and a rumor sprang up that in the interim the British had used the island for weapons tests. Harris, of course, takes the rumor as fact, blames the delayed return on government ineptitude, and turns the islanders’ English exile into an updated Babylonian captivity. (In fact, the stay seems to have helped them learn how to modernize the island without harming its natural treasures.) Harris has to put this fascinating tidbit of history in fancy dress: The islanders must have a Dark Secret in their collective past, to which a new sordid one must be added for the first-act climax—an erupting volcano isn’t enough. And the islanders can’t merely be ordinary souls who’ve preserved archaic speech patterns and customs in their isolation—they must be simple, pidgin speaking, and slightly daft.
On the plus side, Harris’s dialogue is far fresher than her dramaturgy. If she can’t realize her islanders as individuals, she at least has the ability to make them talk perkily as a group. Harris’s text would make pleasurable hearing if director Neil Pepe had pruned away the vaudeville-simpleton repetitions that weigh it down. Pepe’s production does what it can to alleviate the general dramatic soppiness: Working on an ingenious, starkly spacious set by Loy Arcenas, he gets excellent performances from Jennifer Dundas, Robert Hogan, Jenny Sterlin, and Dan Futterman (especially the last two) as Harris’s four islanders, and a feisty one from Peter Gerety as a baseless fifth character—a compassionate capitalist who is also a government agent. Only in a quaint, isolated place hopelessly out of touch with the real world, like the contemporary London theater, could such an all-purpose stick figure pass for a human portrait.