AN APPOINTMENT KEPT: An Interview with the Playwright

American Theatre Magazine
By Susan Hilferty
Date published: September 1, 2010

You’ve denied being a political writer, though you’re often called that. 

I only write from a very personal response to a face, to a story, to an incident that I’ve witnessed or been told about, or even a little newspaper cutting. The whole of My Children! My Africa! comes out of reading a simple, two-inch story about the lynching of a black school teacher who was suspected of being an informer. My response is personal. But I do know you can’t attempt to be an honest witness in South Africa without it having political resonances. The situation there is so intensely politicized that I don’t think that even the time you spend in bed with your wife is free from it.

You’ve kept a notebook as a companion throughout your writing life in which you indicate “appointments” you have to keep. Is that how you began The Train Driver?

From the moment I read the South African newspaper report of what Pumla Lolwana had done, I recognized it as something that at some point I would have to deal with. I call these moments that have occurred throughout my writing life “appointments.” A year after reading that story, I had a sense that the moment had come.

Do you often explore characters in your notebooks?

Oh, yes, always, always. Before this conversation, in fact, I was making notes for what could possibly be another play. I say “possibly” because some of my plays have gone through many false beginnings. 1 don’t know how many attempts I made to write the story of Sam and Willie in “Master Harold”. . .and the boys before I got it right.

In this case, before you wrote The Train Driver, you went from your notebooks to a piece of fiction called To Whom It Must Concern.

My first attempt in my notebooks ends in a stalemate – I closed that experience without having arrived at any conclusion. And then the thought came to me that maybe I could bear some sort of witness to Pumla Lolwana by looking at the train driver, the actual man in the cab. The newspaper article in question mentions him, but I’d never thought of taking his point of view. And that became To Whom It Must Concern.

What brought you to write the play?

I suddenly realized that if I just imagined the train driver, brought to a moment of critical despair in his own life because he killed a woman, and he doesn’t know anything about her or why she did what she did to him. ..once I had those elements – the desperate train driver, asking questions about the dead woman, about who actually is responsible (him? the train? God?) – then I had what I needed to start putting words down on paper. The end result is, for me personally, the most important play I’ve written.

That’s a hell of a statement. What’s so special about it?

All that happens to Roelf Visagie in the course of the play encapsulates the journey I have made myself in trying to deal with my legacy of racial prejudice. It is, in essence, a final statement for me – about my relationship to the South Africa I have loved all my life, cursed at a couple of times, but loved, certainly loved. South Africa has taught me all I know about loving, just as it’s taught me all I know about hating. Fortunately, after dealing with all the hate and blindness and ignorance, what really stays with me now is the legacy of love.

Why did you take away the name of the dead woman?

One of the things we try to do with those we love is to rescue them from the threat of oblivion. Why do we put names on gravestones? We put them there not just for ourselves – we know who’s buried there! It’s so that other people can read the names as well. Not knowing her name only piles yet another factor onto Roelf’s desperation and frustration. He doesn’t know why the woman did it, he doesn’t know her name – he known nothing. He only knows a pair of eyes that looked at him with stoical acceptance in the seconds before they disappeared under the wheels of his train. I wanted that anonymity.

You describe the setting as “a graveyard of a squatter camp…an image of desolate finality.” For me, that is such a terrifyingly beautiful vision, almost like the River Styx. Greek theatre lurks behind you work.

You’re absolutely right. I wanted the graveyard to have that sort of resonance, that density. It could be Oedipus going in the wrong direction and ending up in a graveyard. I like the sort of challenges to designers that this play represents – there are so many things you can do with it, and all would be valid.

Sometimes I’ve thought of Simon as being a Tiresias figure, brooding and ominous. He loves his dead. One of my favorite moments in the South African production was the way he goes out among the graves and sings a lullaby to the dead who are restless and frightened of the wild dogs that come in at night to dig them up. That might sound a little bit corny, hut believe me if you had seen what Owen Sejake did with that moment – this huge goliath of a man, suddenly being so gentle, more gentle than any mother has ever been with a newborn babe – you would have been as moved as I was.

A decade ago you retired from acting and directing. Why?

Well, I chose to retire because time gets shorter and shorter – a lot of appointments still unkept and waning energies. I felt that the absolutely essential Athol Fugard is not the actor who tried to resist the invitation to be vain on stage, or the director who tried so hard to lead actors to the edge, but the man who wrote those plays, however flawed they may be. I’ve often thought that the best self-portrait I could ever come up with is the hand holding a pen on a blank sheet of paper. That’s me. I recognize that more than I recognize the face that stares back at me in horror in the mirror.

You came out of retirement to direct The Train Driver in South Africa. Was that difficult?

It was nerve- racking. Sitting in the rehearsal room in Cape Town on the first day for our read-through with these two beautiful actors whom I knew so well – I wondered, did I still know, as a director, how to challenge an actor to go further. to make his performance right at the edge? One step further and you’re in free-tall and it’s a mess, but it’s at the edge that great performances are made. I know I’ve led many actors during my directorial days to that place and succeeded; I’ve also failed a couple of times. Did I still know how to do it? I was very nervous, because the stage invites vanity, directorial conceits, showing-off from actors. But there was love and trust, and a sense that we were dealing with something bigger than ourselves.

Will an audience see this play as a statement on post-apartheid South Africa?

The more ways a play can be seen, interpreted, accepted, in terms of audience reaction or critical response – that is a measure of richness in a work, and not a drawback. There were reviews in South Africa that saw it as being particularly relevant to the situation facing the country at this point in time.

Do you do rewrites during rehearsals of your plays?

Some have gone through very important developments in rehearsals. Train Driver wasn’t one of them. There were certainly tine tunings – very, very, very, very subtle little corrections to the text which made the actors more comfortable.

You write every single day. Is it incurable?

I certainly hope so.

Well, I never want you to give up writing.

Oh God! That’s why I wrote The Road to Mecca – to try to understand what happens when what little spark of creativity you’ve got is extinguished. It happens. I’ve seen it happen to friends of mine, writers who are genuine, authentic artists turning out beautiful work. And then it’s gone. In The Road To Mecca, Helen had to finally face up to the fact that once having learned how to light candles, she has to learn how to blow them out and stop being afraid of darkness.

Susan Hilferty is a theatre designer in New York City who has worked with Athol Fugard since 1980 as set and costume designer and often as co-director.