Boesman and Lena is a central play in Athol Fugard’s canon, for it presents his concerns for the nonwhite South African population. Indeed, most of Fugard’s plays have black characters. For example, the central relationship in “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys (pr., pb. 1982) is between Harold and his black servant, Sam. Some of Fugard’s early plays, such as The Island (pr. 1973) and The Blood Knot (pr. 1961), focus exclusively on nonwhite characters. His plays are consistent in their commitment to portraying and protesting the conditions that nonwhites faced in South Africa.
Boesman and Lena is representative of Fugard’s body of work because it demonstrates the influences of Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht. Beckett’s influence on the play is apparent in the basic plot—two central characters, alone in a desolate landscape, who are forced to deal with their baffling condition, a story line similar to that of Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952; Waiting for Godot, 1954). The desolation of Boesman and Lena’s situation, their conflict, and the arrival of a third person who cannot understand them are also reminiscent of Waiting for Godot. The Brechtian influence might seem more subtle, for Brecht wrote large-cast plays on sweeping themes. Both Brecht and Fugard, however, have written indictments of society. Boesman and Lena is a social protest play, for Fugard is presenting an implicit indictment of apartheid laws that made possible such removals and dispossessions as Boesman and Lena face. Fugard, therefore, combines in Boesman and Lena significant influences of writers with quite divergent approaches.
Boesman and Lena captures themes and character types that recur in Fugard’s works and evidences his belief that theater can serve as a civilizing influence on society. The inhumane conditions depicted in the play are faced in real life by many of his countrymen, even in post-apartheid South Africa. Fugard’s use of approaches and dramatic devices borrowed from other major modern writers and filtered through his own imagination has permitted him to develop a powerful idiom for drama of social protest. A focus on moral conscience and social critique resurfaced as important themes in Fugard’s plays from the 1990’s. Playland (pr., pb. 1992) and Valley Song (pr. 1995, pb. 1996), among others, focused on post-apartheid South Africa and the myriad dynamics that the new social structure imposed.
Boesman and Lena Summary
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“Boesman and Lena” is a two-act play that centers around a couple in apartheid South Africa. Known as a particularly violent era of racism in South Africa, where blacks were suppressed by an entire system of government, the play addresses the effects of apartheid on various levels. The play was first produced in 1969, in South Africa, and was then produced off-Broadway in 1970. The play was a huge success, and established Fugard as a notable playwright while winning an Obie Award as well. Fugard’s play highlights the human will to overcome obstacles, thus positioning the play as both powerful and telling on an international scale. In fact, the play was so successful that it was made into a film starring Angela Bassett and Danny Glover.
“Boesman and Lena” takes place in the mudflats along the river Swartkops, outside Port Elizabeth. Fugard himself was a native of this area. The reader finds that the couple of the play’s namesake is “colored,” which was a term used to describe individuals of mixed race, and that they have been forced out of their home due to the injustices of the apartheid government. The couple must now live in the slums of Cape Town, a dangerous and depressing place.
Though the government is ultimately to blame for their woes, the couple’s relationship implodes due to their plight in life, causing the blame to fall on other areas of their life as well. The reader witnesses their descent into harsher and harsher problems, where the reach of corrupt government is manifested in both social and personal loss. Both characters lose their sense of dignity, and the helplessness of their situation only makes matters worsen. Though angry and bitter, however, they must try to survive their situation while holding on to whatever shred of humanity they can, though it is not certain if they will succeed.
Fugard’s play is so effective in that it shows the impact of politics on the individual level. The characters must live day-to-day with the injustice placed upon them by a government that is ideally supposed to protect them. In doing so, they must try to survive despite the hatred they harbor for the corrupt government, and despite the hatred that manifests in their own relationship due to their plight.
The couple’s circumstances transcend that of their time and place, however, thus highlighting Fugard’s effective reach and commentary on social protest. Boesman and Lena’s plight was the plight of many black South Africans, and their reactions to this injustice were similarly copied by others in similar circumstances. As such, Fugard’s play reveals how an entire community of people are systematically affected by a government’s corruption. Though the corruption itself is deplorable, the human toll is heartbreaking. Hatred grows like a cancer, while the loss of dignity and hope, plus the rootlessness and loss of self-worth, are all direct results of a diseased government.
Despite the heartbreak, Fugard’s play shows that the human spirit is fiercely strong, even in the most perilous times. As such, the play is symbolic of human struggle the world over. Its themes of human rights and dignity, of corruption and the human element involved with corruption, point to the very real need for effective social protest, no matter the time or place, whenever people find themselves rendered helpless from corrupt systems of government.