Boesman & Lena
ATHOL FUGARD 1969
Athol Fugard’s Boesman & Lena is one of the playwright’s best-known and most widely respected dramatic works. It established Fugard’s reputation as a major playwright. Boesman & Lena was first produced at the Rhodes University Little Theatre in Grahamstown, South Africa, on July 10, 1969. Fugard played Boesman in this production. The play was first produced in the United States in an Off-Broadway production at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 1970. This production won an Obie Award from the Village Voice for Most Distinguished Foreign Play of the season.
Like many of Fugard’s plays, Boesman & Lena focuses on non-white characters and includes an element of social protest. Set in the mudflats outside of the playwright’s native Port Elizabeth, South Africa, the title characters are an ill-matched “colored” (a South African term that describes people of mixed race) couple who have been beaten down by society. From its first productions, the play has been praised for its frank depiction of the affects of apartheid on people of color.
But critics also applaud Fugard because his play transcends time and place. Boesman & Lena can be seen as a metaphor for oppressed people of all nationalities, an exploration of the difficulty in relationships between men and women, and the need for human kindness, compassion, and hope. In a review of the original Off-Broadway production, the New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann wrote: “This Page 24 | Top of Articleis not a protest play, though the pain of race hatred flames through it; it becomes, quickly and surely, a drama of all human beings in their differing captivities, suffering from and inflicting hate.”
Athol Fugard was born in Middleburg, Cape Province, South Africa, on June 11, 1932, the son of Harold David Fugard, of English descent, and his wife, Elizabeth Magdalena, who was an Afrikaner descended from the original Dutch settlers of South Africa. His parents ran a general store at the time of his birth, but when Fugard was three, they sold it and moved the family to Port Elizabeth. Port Elizabeth was home to every racial group and social strata found in South Africa. Growing up, Fugard was keenly aware of the racial divisions and their economic and social consequences. His family had two black male servants, one of whom, Sam, Fugard came to regard as a father figure. Fugard’s own father was an alcoholic. As a child, Fugard spat in Sam’s face in anger, an incident that Fugard felt tremendous guilt over for many years until he worked it out in his 1984 play “Master Harold” and the Boys.
Fugard attended the University of Cape Town on a scholarship and studied philosophy and social anthropology. In the middle of his senior year, in 1953, Fugard dropped out and became a sailor. He was the only white crewmember on the ship for two years. Fugard said the experience left him stripped of any racial prejudice. When he returned to South Africa, he met and married Sheila Meiring, an actress, in 1956. Fugard wanted to be a novelist and composed a manuscript, but watching his wife audition, Fugard became interested in, then involved with the theater. The couple eventually formed the Circle Players in Johannesburg.
In 1958, Fugard took a job as a clerk with a local court to support his family and art. There, Fugard saw racial injustice firsthand in the interworkings of the laws of apartheid (the South African political system that relegated the native blacks to second class status). The playwright was appalled at what he saw. As Fugard developed friendships with black people and saw their living conditions, their plight became even more evident to him. These experiences inspired his first play, No-Good Friday, which was performed privately for white audiences.
Fugard left the court position, and in 1959 he and his wife went to London to gain more theatrical experience. Within a year, a campaign against apartheid was being mounted, and Fugard and his wife returned to South Africa.
Upon his return, Fugard wrote the first of his “Port Elizabeth” plays, The Blood Knot. In 1962, five Xhosa tribesmen approached Fugard wanting to start a theater company. After some initial reluctance, Fugard formed the Serpent Company, which became the first successful non-white theater company in South Africa. Because of this success, several members were arrested. Fugard’s passport was withdrawn by the South African government from 1967 until 1971. Still Fugard continued to write plays exploring racial and economic issues stemming from apartheid in South Africa.
During this time period, Fugard wrote his most successful and reputation-building play, 1969’s Boesman & Lena. Performed both Off-Broadway and in London, the play garnered Fugard international praise. In the early-1970s, Fugard experimented with developing scripts in an improvisational theater format. The best known result is 1972’s Sizwe Bansi Is Dead. In the early-1980s, Fugard became associated with the Yale School of Drama, which hosted the first production of “Master Harold” and the Boys. Widely acclaimed, this play is representative of Fugard’s autobiographical period. In the 1990s, he split his time between the United States, where his actress daughter Lisa lives, and South Africa.
Boesman & Lena opens with Boesman, a colored man, finding a spot to make camp in the Swartkops mudflats outside of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He is heavily burdened, carrying all his possessions as well as a piece of iron with which to make a shelter. Tired, he drops his load. A few moments later, his woman Lena, who is also colored, enters. She carries all her possessions in a bundle on top of her head and a load of firewood in her arms. She walks past Boesman, realizes her mistake, and comes back. She asks him if they are going to stop here, and through his silence, she realizes that they are. She drops her baggage and looks around. Lena knows this place, and asks
Boesman why they have walked so fast to get here. She continues to address him, though his only response is stare at her with animosity. Through her dialogue, it is revealed that their previous home, a shanty, was destroyed by white people bulldozing the area, forcing them to leave.
Boesman finally speaks and threatens to leave her next time they walk. They argue, and Lena acknowledges that they are opposites: when she wants to cry, he wants to laugh. Boesman accuses her of looking back as they walked because she was trying to find a dog that had been following the couple. Lena says that Boesman did not know where he was going. When they rested earlier in the day, Lena says she counted her bruises, the result of Boesman beating her, as some white children watched her. She says she asked them if their mother needed a servant, but they didn’t want her. Boesman says he did not want her either.
Lena tells Boesman that she wants him to talk to her, but he says that he does not have anything to say to her. He starts to unpack their belongings and build their shelter. Lena tries to figure out the last time they lived in this location, and Boesman does not help her. Lena then tries to figure out the many other places they have been, attempting to catalog the places in correct chronological order. When she believes she has succeeded, she is happy. Boesman sees her happiness and is certain she has broken into their wine supply. He goes back to building the shelter, while trying to make Lena believe she has got the order wrong. Lena gets frustrated, and threatens Boesman, telling him that someday something will happen to him. Boesman counters by trying to make Lena doubt her own name.
Lena continues to try to reconstruct their past, while Boesman says the only thing that matters is today. Lena threatens to leave and takes a few steps away from the camp. She sees someone out walking on the mudflats, and Boesman comes to look. Lena waves the person over, much to Boesman’s disgust. He does not want anyone to join them. The stranger is a “kaffer,” an African man. When they try to figure out who he is, the man, who comes to be called “Outa,” can only reply in Xhosa, a language neither Lena nor Boesman can understand. Lena makes the old man sit by the fire and tries to communicate with him. She grows frustrated because he can only speak Xhosa. Boesman threatens to hit her when she tries to go for a bottle of wine. Lena tells Outa that he is a witness to Boesman’s abuse of her. She shows the old man the bruises on her arms that she received from Boesman when she dropped the sack of empty bottles that were to be Page 26 | Top of Articlereturned for money. Boesman beat her, accusing her of breaking three of the bottles.
Boesman goes in search of more metal scraps and other materials for their shelter. Lena again grows frustrated with the old man’s incomprehension, but finally gets him to understand that her name is Lena. With this breakthrough, Lena gives him water and tells him her about her life: her dog, the incident with the bottles, their walking, and their children (all but one born dead and that one only lived six months). He responds to her in his own language throughout, then tries to leave. Lena makes him stay, then Boesman returns. He is suspicious again, and watches them carefully as he continues to make the shelter.
Lena starts to make supper, asking Boesman if their bread can be cut into three pieces to share. Boesman says no, and Lena promises to share her portion with the old man. Lena seems happy, and Boesman insists the old man must go. Lena barters with Boesman foregoing her wine for the old man’s presence. Lena wants the old man to sleep with them in the shelter, but Boesman refuses to allow it. Lena decides to sleep outside with the old man wrapped in a blanket. This upsets Boesman, and he shoves the old man when Lena goes in search of firewood. Lena returns and shares her bread and tea with the old man while Boesman does not eat or drink at all.
An hour later, Boesman is on the second bottle of wine while Lena and the Old Man are huddled under the blanket. Boesman is drunk and taunts Lena and the old man. He goes on to verbally torture Lena for trying to save things and crying while the bulldozers destroyed their home. He says that the experience liberated him, made him free, and he thought about going somewhere else. But his feelings of freedom were short-lived, when he says he realized that they were the whiteman’s rubbish. Boesman does not understand why Lena traded a bottle of wine for the old man’s company. Lena says it is because he sees where her life has lead: to this place at this time. As Boesman goes into the shelter for the night, he tells her that she cannot join him.
Lena starts talking to the old man again, telling him about dances they used to do. After she demonstrates some steps and sings bits of several songs, she huddles under the blanket again with him. Boesman watches them from the shelter and tells Lena that he is the one who dropped the empty bottles. Lena asks him why he hurt her and what she has done to deserve his bad treatment. Boesman strikes her several times, and Lena finally says that he should hit himself. When he says it does not hurt, she asks him if hitting her hurts him. Boesman says she is there and he hears her.
Lena shakes the old man to get him to stay awake, but he does not respond. Lena begs Boesman to say that he hit her for nothing, but he will not, nor will he hit her when she begs him to. Lena loses her composure and wonders what she has done aloud. Lena sits next to the old man and realizes that he has just died. Lena wants Boesman’s help in putting him down, but Boesman refuses and decides to go to sleep instead. He goes into the shelter, then comes out and tells Lena to get rid of the dead man. Lena tells him to go back to sleep, but Boesman is agitated by the old man’s continued presence. He worries that there will be trouble in the morning when people find out about the dead man.
Boesman gets so upset that he almost hits Lena, but she says that he has to be careful because there is already one body present. She taunts him further, suggesting the old man might not really be dead. Boesman checks the status of the old man by kicking him. Lena eggs him on, and Boesman kicks and beats the old man’s body. Lena says she now knows what it looks like to be beaten and that the bruises he has caused will be suspicious. Boesman panics and starts packing up their things to leave. Lena refuses to help. She does not want to leave. Boesman smashes their shelter, and tries to carry everything on his body. She turns away from Boesman and goes to the old man’s body to say goodbye. Lena returns to Boesman and takes up her share of their belongings. Boesman tells her the real order of the places they have been. She tells Boesman to walk slowly and that the next time he hits her, he should hit her hard enough to kill.
Boesman is a middle-aged “colored” man (in South Africa, this means that he has the blood of both Europeans and Africans). He is downtrodden and poor, carrying all his possessions on his back. He has been with Lena for many years and is abusive towards her in many ways. He beats her regularly with his fists. He also abuses her verbally, Page 27 | Top of Articletaunting her and making her doubt herself. For example, he makes Lena believe that she broke three bottles they were going to sell at an exchange when in fact he broke them.
Boesman does not want Lena to invite the old man, Outa, to their camp. He cannot understand why Lena would give up her part of the wine for the company of the old man. There are a number of explanations for Boesman’s behavior, most related to the oppressive atmosphere the white minority have created for the blacks in South Africa. The immediate source of stress is the recent bulldozing of Boesman and Lena’s shanty. Unable to look toward the future, Boesman is only concerned with the present.
Lena is Boesman’s woman. Like him, she is also “colored,” middle-aged, and poor. She carries her possessions on her head and is gaunt. Lena is covered with bruises from the beatings that Boesman has given her. She says she wants to leave him—going so far as to ask some white children if their mother needed a maid while Boesman was selling the bottles—but she never does.
Lena tries to get a grasp on where she has been before and who she is, but her efforts are always undermined by Boesman. Unlike Boesman, Lena feels sympathy. She invites the old man over to the fire and talks to him in a way that Boesman does not approve of. She tells him that she and Boesman had many children born dead, except for one that lived for six months. While revealing herself to the old man, Lena uses Outa as her only weapon to fight Boesman’s hold over her. She uses the old man to make Boesman doubt himself, and she nearly leaves him in the end.
Outa is a very old African man who only speaks the tribal Xhosa language. Lena sees him wandering on the mudflats and brings him to the campfire. Though he does not understand Lena’s language, he is a sounding board, someone to whom she can talk. She likes Outa because his presence annoys Boesman. Lena is delighted when he learns her name. Outa gratefully takes the water she offers him.
When Outa tries to leave, however, Lena will not let him. He allows her to cover him with a
blanket and share her food with him. In Act II, Outa dies while holding Lena’s hand. Following his death, Boesman takes out his rage on the old man’s body, kicking and beating the body. Because Outa’s death and bruises could be interpreted by the authorities as a crime, Boesman and Lena leave the mudflats.
Violence and Cruelty
Acts of violence and cruelty underlie much of the action and character motivation in Boesman & Lena. Boesman acts out his frustrations, which are caused by his substandard place in South African society, by beating Lena. She is covered in bruises from such beatings. Boesman is also mentally cruel to Lena. He neglects and ignores her, refusing to talk to her at their campsite. He tells her several times that he wishes she would make good on her threats to leave him. When Lena tries to figure out where they have been, Boesman deliberately confuses her.
Lena cannot physically match Boesman, but she can return his mental cruelty. To cure her loneliness, she calls over Outa, an old African man wandering the flats. Lena uses the old man to make Boesman doubt his power over her. She gives up her ration of wine in exchange for the old man’s presence in their camp, an act which Boesman cannot understand and which enrages him. After the Old Man dies, Boesman rails against Lena, but she turns the tables and makes Boesman doubt that the Old Man is really dead. To prove it to himself, Boesman kicks the body, then starts to beat on it. After
Boesman is through, Lena points out that it now looks as though Boesman murdered the old man. These taunts play upon Boesman’s fears and are as cutting as his fists. These words are Lena’s only means of expressing her rage, of fighting against the oppression she suffers at his hands—and the white society at large.
Race and Racism
Boesman & Lena focuses on two “colored” people. In South Africa, this term refers specifically to people who have both African and white blood in them (a mix often referred to as mulatto in America). In this period (the 1960s) in South Africa, dark-skinned people were denied certain rights and forced to live in certain areas—predominantly ghettos and lower class projects. Boesman and Lena are essentially homeless, though they did live in a shanty town until bulldozers destroyed their home and forced them on the journey that led to the mudflats. The oppressiveness of racial separatism also fuels Boesman’s anger, which he often takes out on Lena. At one point, Boesman refers to himself and Lena as trash discarded by white men.
Despite being the victim of such practices, Boesman also expresses racial prejudice. When Lena calls over the old man, Outa, Boesman does not want him to stay because he is black, an African. When Lena wants to give him water, just as other black people have previously done for the couple, Boesman does not want her to, in part because Outa is black and not brown. Lena does not share this racism and gives the old man water when Boesman’s back is turned. Boesman treats the old man as white people have treated him. Despite her mistreatment at Boesman’s hands, Lena identifies with humanity as a whole, separate from racial boundaries.
Search for Identity
Lena tries to understand her life and where she has come from in Boesman & Lena. She often looks to the past, especially in Act I, though Boesman repeatedly tells her she should be concerned with the present. One of Lena’s first dilemmas is trying to figure out how she arrived in the mudflats. That is, she wants to know, in the correct order, where they have lived before now. Boesman tries to subvert these efforts when Lena comes up with a list by naming other possible areas, but by the end of the play, he relents and tells the exact order.
Lena also tries to quantify her existence by counting her bruises. Each has a story. Lena repeats one story several times. Boesman beat her that morning because he says she dropped three bottles they were trying to sell. Lena believes that this is the truth (because she has forgotten how to question the validity of what Boesman says) until the end of the play, when Boesman admits he broke the bottles, blaming her for his mistake.
Through Lena’s “conversations” with the old man, she uses him as a sounding board to reconstruct her life. She recalls the stillborn children she has borne, the dog that she tried to keep, and the times when life with Boesman was not as hate filled. These recollections, which occur mostly in Act I, fuel Lena’s actions in Act II, when she gains some power in her relationship with Boesman and nearly breaks away from him.
Boesman & Lena is a drama set in contemporary South Africa. Specifically the action takes place in the Swartkops mudflats outside of the city Page 29 | Top of Articleof Port Elizabeth. Only owning possessions that they can carry with them, the characters are exposed to the elements. In order to survive in such a homeless state, Boesman builds a shelter out of scrap iron and other found materials. Yet once it is built, only he enters the shelter. Lena tends the fire and sits outside of it for the duration of the play. These desperate, temporary circumstances emphasize Boesman and Lena’s precarious place in the world, but even they seem to have it better than the old man, Outa, who wanders in from the flats with nothing but the clothes he wears.
Language and Dialogue
In the standard English translation of Boesman & Lena, Afrikaan phrases pepper the text. (Afrikaan is South Africa’s official language, a derivation of Dutch.) This emphasizes the setting of the play and the background of the characters. It also works as a contrast when Outa appears. He speaks Xhosa, a tribal language, when he says anything at all. The language difference underscores the fact that the old man is an outsider to even Boesman and Lena, themselves outcasts from mainstream (predominantly white) South African culture. It also allows Lena to use Outa as a sounding board; she can talk at him and interpret his responses to suit her own purposes.
A monologue is defined as a long speech in a drama, spoken by one character. It can be used in the context of one person monopolizing a conversation or a character speaking more or less directly to the audience. Monologues can be used as a form of exposition to quickly relate dramatic events that the playwright may not wish to stage. A form of this is also called interior monologue—so named because it relates what a person is thinking by saying it aloud. William Shakespeare used such a device to great effect in his plays. Also known as a soliloquy, Shakespeare employed this technique to relate the emotions and inner thought processes of his characters; a famous Shakespearean soliloquy is the “To be or not to be” speech spoken by the title character in Hamlet.
Both of Boesman & Lena’s primary characters reveal their innermost thoughts and feelings via monologues. Lena has the majority of the monologues in the text. Most of her monologues occur in Act I and essentially relate what has transpired in the time leading up to the start of the play’s action. Because Boesman will not talk with her, Lena talks
at him—and to herself—while he is unpacking and building the shelter. Later, Lena talks at Outa, who does not speak her language. In both circumstances, Lena talks about herself: where she has been, what has happened to her in the past (her dead children, the dog that followed her), and the circumstances of her life (the reason why Boesman beats her). Lena’s monologues serve to orient her and the audience in time and place.
In Act II, Boesman has several monologues. His monologues are more angry than Lena’s and often derisively make fun of something she has said. He describes such things as the white man’s bulldozer that destroyed their home, the so-called “freedom” the incident gave them, and how they are the white man’s rubbish and no longer people. Boesman’s monologues give insight into how he perceives the world, a stark contrast to Lena’s world view.
Boesman and Lena, as well as their actions, can be interpreted as symbols. Boesman’s violence towards Lena represents the violence white South Africans inflict on citizens of color. Lena represents hope and life: despite her setbacks and hardships, Page 30 | Top of Articleshe marches forward, believing the future holds better times for her. She retains a sense of compassion, as her actions with the old man indicate. Boesman acts on his most bitter and jealous instincts, trying to destroy the hope and life inside of Lena. Also, Lena carries all her possessions on her head. Her baggage does not impair her ability to still see the world around her; it is also symbolic of the way she reflects on life with her mind. In contrast, Boesman carries everything on his back, hunched over and barely able to look up to the sky, symbolic of manner in which oppression has affected him.
In the late-1960s, as it had been for many years before, South Africa was controlled by its white citizens, Dutch settlers who colonized the country and displaced the indigenous black people. People of color were not allowed the same rights as these whites under the policies of apartheid. Apartheid stipulated that races be strictly segregated so that the white minority (only about 14% of the population) could maintain its hold on power. People of color did not have access to the same kinds of education and social services afforded the whites, and their movements within the country were strictly limited—while white children had to attend school from ages seven to sixteen, compulsory education for African children was limited to ages seven to eleven. Colored and black people were forced to live in specifically designated “homelands,” “townships,” and “national states” that were often overcrowded and without basic amenities. Jobs were also scarce, and many lived in poverty while the white minority grew more wealthy. People of color were also not represented in the South African Parliament.
Controlled by the all-white Nationalist Party, the South African government tried to insure the continued practice of apartheid in many ways. In 1969, the Bureau of State Security was formed. Among other things, this organization controlled the admission of evidence in courts. Thus there was no public control over their actions, and those in power consequently had a more restrictive grasp on society. White power in South Africa was also increased in 1969 when a new political party, the Reconstituted National Party of South Africa, was formed. This organization favored even more restrictive and repressive apartheid policies.
Not all whites in South Africa agreed with apartheid. When the government restricted membership in political parties to whites in 1968, the Liberal party disbanded rather than comply. The South African Council of Churches declared their nonsupport of apartheid in 1969. Despite protests from legal scholars and the world press, the South African government, led by B.J. Vorster, passed the General Law Amendment Act which prohibited cabinet members from giving evidence if it would be prejudicial to the interests of the public or state security. They also could not reveal, under punishment of law, any matter the Bureau of State Security was handling. These kinds of restrictions insured secrecy among those in power and a greater hold on the populace.
Despite such ominous security measures, there were forces moving against apartheid within South Africa. One such organization was the African National Congress (ANC), which was formed in 1912. With members of color, both radical and moderate, the ANC countered apartheid using both political and terrorist tactics. The South African government outlawed the ANC in 1960, and its leader, Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned in 1964. Still, these organizations had problems organizing resistance or protest against the repressive policies because interracial contact was so difficult under the law.
The policy of apartheid was routinely condemned by most countries in the world, including the United States. African-American leaders, their own battles for civil rights still fresh in their minds, were outspoken in their opposition to such policies.
From its first productions, critics praised Boesman & Lena for its powerful insights into the affects of apartheid as well as the human condition. Of the original Off-Broadway production, Harold Clurman in the Nation wrote, “Surely Boesman & Lena could not have been written by anyone who was not wholly immersed in the tortured realm of apartheid. Yet it is something more than a black play. It is about a man and woman, husband and wife, on a path of life beset by constant adversity.” Stanley Kauffmann of the New Republic saw the deeper elements at work. “The play’s epic quality derives from the wide and simple arch of its compass: shelter, food, fire, children, quarrels, dependence,
ego needs, death, endless pilgrimage. The rubbish that this pair gathers is the detritus of experience.”
Many critics saw deep meaning in Lena and Boesman, and how the play draws unexpected parallels between them and the rest of the world. Jack Kroll of Newsweek wrote, “It is a powerful image—these two tattered, feral figures, like creatures neither human nor animal, hunched over with chronic fear and exhaustion, lurching and clattering through a wasteland that is neither nature nor civilization. The play in a sense is like a dramatic poem in which nothing much happens except the deepening of this basic image to a point of utmost terror and pathos.”
Kauffmann concurred with Kroll, arguing that “Fugard makes very clear that, within the circumference of their lives, they represent the larger world. He is not saying that racial injustices do not signify; he is saying that those injustices are an extremity of the cruelty in all men. The reason that his play achieves towering height—as in the main it does—is because it includes the agony of apartheid and shows that apartheid is not devil-inflicted but man-made, and that Boesman is a man, too.”
Several critics believed that one aspect of the play did not work: they found Boesman & Lena to be too literary. Kroll summarized these comments when he wrote, “Fugard’s plays are filled with understanding and compassion, and written with power and eloquence. But somehow, they bear that faint taint of ‘literature’ in which the eloquence and power seem to struggle unsuccessfully to break out of a self-regarding void and into that mysterious realm in which art has its radical effect and becomes primary rather than secondary experience. And this is true of ... Boesman & Lena.” Kroll added later in his review, “For all its strength and authentic feeling, the play seems to beat its fists against its own eloquence.”
A few critics found Boesman & Lena to be unwatchable. Among them was T. E. Kalem of Time, who wrote, “It may sound odd, but misery needs to be entertaining. Appalling calamities befall Page 32 | Top of Articlesome people; yet they manage to make them sound drab and boring. Others possess the gift of making a minor mishap vividly compelling. Unfortunately, Boesman & Lena is one of those accounts of unlimited woe that try the playgoer’s patience.” Several critics agreed with this assessment; despite their praise for the play, they found its pace “challenging.”
In 1992, Fugard directed a production of Boesman & Lena at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City. Despite the twenty-three year gap since its debut, critics still found the play to be relevant, though the situation in South Africa had changed and apartheid polices had grown less oppressive. John Simon in New York wrote, “This is an important play, no less so since conditions in South Africa have somewhat improved: The misery may now be as much existential as social. Outside oppressors add to it, but we carry oppression within us.”
Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, agreed that in the two odd decades since its debut, the play’s depths stood the test of time. “Even at the time of its premiere Boesman & Lena was recognized as a universal work that might speak to audiences long after apartheid had collapsed.” Later in the review, Rich added, “Their [Boesman and Lena’s] shared life, alternately a refuge and a brutal prison, is above all a marriage, observed by the author at a microscopic range Strindberg might have admired and as elemental and timeless a the primitive campsite where the play’s single evening of action takes place.”
In this essay, Petrusso discusses the evolution of Lena’s character and why she decides to stay with her abusive mate, Boesman, at the end of Fugard’s play.
In Athol Fugard’s Boesman & Lena, the title characters, de facto husband and wife, seem to have an adversarial relationship. Though they are a couple, Boesman and Lena have no love lost between them. Boesman is impatient with Lena and often threatens her. He beats her regularly, and she has the bruises to prove it. Yet Lena stays with Boesman despite this mistreatment. During the play, however, Lena undergoes a transformation that shows she is more than an object for Boesman’s fists. By looking at Lena’s nature and clues to her evolution, the reasons for her decision to stay with Boesman become much clearer.
When Lena and Boesman make their entrance in Act I, Fugard writes in the stage directions that “She has been reduced to a dumb, animal-like submission.” Lena trails behind Boesman, though she once, a long time ago, walked beside him. Boesman tries to ignore her as much as possible. When she starts complaining about their walk and the loss of their home that morning to bulldozers run by white men, he threatens to leave her behind next time. He says, “It’s useless to talk to you,” though he never says much to her. She is there to share the burden that is life and provide a convenient whipping post for his anger and frustration. Boesman regularly tries to erase Lena’s humanity. Early in Act I, he accuses her of faking her need to rest so she could look for a dog that she had been feeding.
But Lena wants more. What emerges in Act I is Lena’s need for an individual, human identity. She needs to know who and where she is. She wants her humanity back. One way she achieves this goal is physical appearance. Her bruises, markers of Boesman’s beatings, prove to her that she is flesh and blood. Each bruise also has a past. They are reminders of where she has been and what she has done. By counting them, as Lena does several times in the course of the play, she can recount something about her past.
Lena also affirms her existence by talking aloud, mostly to herself since Boesman refuses to communicate with her for most of Act I. This practice allows her to remember the past, something Boesman wants to forget. Unlike Lena, Boesman does not have to think about where he is. In Lena’s early monologues, she tries to orient herself in place. She recounts the places they have lived and attempts to reconstruct their chronological order. When she thinks she has gotten a segment of it correct, Boesman makes her doubt herself, first feigning disinterest in her triumph, then making her mix-up the cities. Boesman goes on to say that someday Lena will not remember who she is, but Lena turns the tables when she asks him, “Who are you?” Self-examination throws Boesman off completely.
The incidents that fully forge Lena’s identity and humanity in the play involve an old African man she invites to their camp. His presence highlights the contrast in Lena and Boesman’s attitudes. After she threatens to leave Boesman, Lena sees this old man, whom she dubs “Outa,” wandering in the
mudflats. Lena wants to help him, while Boesman says “We got no help.” Later, after the old man has joined them, Lena wants to give the old man some of their precious water supply, as other black people have given them water in the past. Boesman will have none of it. He says, “He’s not brown people, he’s black people.” Lena points out, “They got feelings too.” By acknowledging another’s humanness, her own identity grows stronger.
Even though the old man only speaks Xhosa, a language that Lena is unfamiliar with, she can talk at him. He manages to learn her name, which means she is a person with an individual identity. At the moment he learns her name, Lena decides the old man is truly her ally, her link to her humanity. She gives him water, and they talk at each other. The old man listens to Lena reconstruct her past, which acknowledges that she is alive. She tells him more of her story, and when she believes she has told him most everything, she says, “That all? Ja. Only a few words I know, but a long story if you lived it.”
Lena’s sense of self becomes nearly complete when she sacrifices everything she values to keep the old man in camp. Boesman will not let her cut their bread and tea into three parts, so she shares her food with the old man. Boesman throws his bread away and dumps his tea on the ground. Lena gives up her share of their wine in exchange for Boesman allowing the old man to stay with them. This is important because Boesman has previously called Lena “a drunk.” When Boesman will not let the old man sleep inside the shelter he has built, Lena stays outside, huddled under her blanket with the old man. By sacrificing for another, she has become human. She says, “I’m on this earth, not in it.” Boesman cannot understand this at all.
But Lena is also violent towards the old man. When he arrives in their camp, she yells at him to sit in an angry tone. When she first tries to talk to him, he can only respond in Xhosa, which frustrates her. She shows him her bruises, and expects him to laugh at the story behind one of them just as some white men did earlier in the day. When the old man does not, she lets her exasperation show. When he tries to leave, she pushes him down and makes him stay. She needs, in some measure, to control Outa, the only sympathetic human contact she has received in a long time. She tells the old man at one point, “You can’t just go, walk away like you didn’t hear.”
Lena’s relationship with the old man confuses Boesman. He cannot leave them alone, especially once Lena has decided that she will give up her wine to keep the old man there. He tries to humiliate them at the beginning of Act II, making them say submissive words and mocking Lena, but it does no good. Lena’s power has already grown beyond Boesman’s comprehension. She questions his claims of freedom and is able to ask him questions like why he hurts her and why he hits her. Boesman tells her it is
because “You cry.” In other words, this is the only way he knows he is alive. All Boesman has is Lena.
Lena never lets the old man go. The old man’s death makes Lena’s human identity complete. She was holding his hand when he died and felt him slip away. Lena now knows the physical difference between life and death, self and nothingness. Lena is more than Boesman thinks she is. After the old man has died, Lena can finally trick Boesman. Lena makes Boesman doubt the moment he is living in. She convinces him the authorities could question the old man’s death as suspicious and he could be implicated in it. As Boesman’s anger grows, he comes close to attacking Lena, but she says “Ja, got to be careful now. There’s one already.” She goads him into beating up the body by pointing out that he could still be alive. Lena then makes Boesman believe that the bruises could further implicate him. She has reclaimed her life from Boesman and now has power over him.
During Boesman & Lena, Lena talks about leaving Boesman several times. While Boesman sold the bottles, Lena asked some white children if their mother needed a maid. She was rejected but swears she would have gone had a position been available. Lena was trying to leave Boesman again when she saw the old man wandering the flats. Finding him made Lena change her mind. But at the end of the play, Lena stays with Boesman. This happens only after he admits that he broke the bottles he accused her of breaking and after he tells her the order of places they have lived. These admissions acknowledge Lena’s new identity, that of an equal to Boesman.
For Lena, it seems, the known is more scary than the unknown. She has found what she was looking for and to push her luck would not bring any discernable benefits. More importantly, Boesman is the only discernable link to her past. If she wants to continue her journey of self-exploration, she needs Boesman. Also, Lena has held the hand of death and emerged alive. She is not afraid, but Boesman fears the old man’s death and what it could say about him. She ends the play with more than she began. Her sense of self has grown while Boesman’s has diminished. In her last speech of the play, Lena tells Boesman, “You still got a chance. Don’t lose it.” Lena took her chances and has more than survived.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.
Thomas M. Disch
Disch reviews a 1992 New York production of Boesman and Lena, directed by Fugard himself. The critic lauds the playwright’s work for its powerful depiction of “the horror of homelessness and vagrancy so tellingly.”
At the same time that the Manhattan Theatre Club is offering Sight Unseen in its Stage II space, the larger Stage I is offering a revival of Boesman and Lena, which is directed by its author, Athol Fugard. The two acts are presented without intermission, and for once this practice seems justified by the resulting tautness. Too often, eliminating intermission is simply a way to prevent the audience from escaping.
Boesman and Lena, which premiered in South Africa in 1969, presents one desolate night in the life of its title characters, who have just witnessed the destruction of the shantytown they’d lived in and have no other home than a featureless wasteland, represented in this production by a dead tree trunk. I know of no other play that depicts the horror. of homelessness and vagrancy so tellingly, and surely the reason for this is that homelessness is not really Fugard’s theme. The extremity of the situation in which Boesman and Lena find themselves is like Lear’s heath or the desert with its single dead tree in Waiting for Godot. Boesman and Lena’s straits are presented as emblematic of the human condition and hence not to be protested—only, if possible, endured.
Very little happens in Act I. Once they’ve set down their bundled possessions, Lena starts a fire and Boesman scavenges junk, from which he constructs a crude hut. In his absence Lena talks to herself, and in his presence she continues to talk to herself. The arrival of a derelict who speaks a language neither of them understands triggers a battle between them, as Lena resists Boesman’s efforts to evict the intruder from “their” space. In Page 35 | Top of Articlethe second act Fugard has two such effective coups de théâtre that it would be sinful for a reviewer to say what happens, even though this play has already acquired the status of a classic. Keith David as Boesman has the more difficult role, since he must somehow win our sympathy while glowering through most of Act I. He does, and when his glower finally explodes into speech he is tremendous. Come to think of it, it may be that the role of Lena is the more demanding, since she must keep the audience attentive to at least an hour’s worth of nattering complaint before the tension mounts perceptibly. Lynne Thigpen turns these soliloquies into arias. Tsepo Mokone as the catalytic intruder should get this year’s award for best performance in a foreign language. Score one more for the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Source: Thomas M. Disch, review of Boesman and Lena in the Nation, Vol. 254, no. 8, March 2, 1992, p. 283.
In this favorable review, Oliver praises the 1992 revival production of Fugard’s play. She notes that it positively recalls the original production.
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Source: Edith Oliver, “Stopover” in the New Yorker, Vol. LXVII, no. 51, February 10, 1992, p. 76.
Calling Boesman and Lena “Athol Fugard’s profoundest play,” Simon lauds the playwright for his probing examination of the injustices of Apart-heid.
Despite his respect for the text, however, the critic offers only mixed praise for the cast of this 1992 revival production.
Boesman and Lena, when it comes off, is Athol Fugard’s profoundest play. Almost nothing happens—as in Beckett—yet all the injustices of the world are encapsulated in it. Two South African Coloureds—neither black nor white but in between—are wandering about the mud flats with their few belongings on their backs. They’ll hunt for prawns in the riverbed in the morning, but tonight they’ll pitch their makeshift tent, eat a little, drink, sleep, and maybe forget. Instead, they argue. Because Boesman relieves misery by beating his woman, and she, smarter and more verbal, relieves it with taunts. They fight, therefore they are.
Then a third person, even lower than they, is latched on to by Lena: Outa, a stray, decrepit Kaffir, who speaks Xhosa, not even Afrikaans, and with whom Lena can communicate only as with a child or dog. But she has someone now to witness her being and suffering, to corroborate the bruises Boesman and life have imprinted on her. She feeds Outa; Boesman bullies him. The old man dies, and Lena uses his death to scare Boesman. They flee. Prawnless and hopeless, the two trudge on into their daily drudgery. That is all, but it’s enough. Enough for Fugard to convey that “both are ... victims of a ... shared predicament, and of each other. Which ... makes it some sort of love story. They are each other’s fate.”
This is an important play, no less so since conditions in South Africa have somewhat improved: The misery may now be as much existential as social. Outside oppressors add to it, but we carry oppression within us. Unfortunately, no one in the cast is wholly right. Keith David, a black American, cannot, good actor though he is, quite convey a South African Coloured in looks and furtiveness. Ditto Lynne Thigpen, a fine actress, but one too robust and powerful. In the original American production (1970), the delicate yet resilient Ruby Dee was a more moving Lena. And though Tsepo Mokone gets across the dazed marginality of Outa, he lacks the unearthly fragility that Zakes Mokae brought to the part. None of this, though, is a serious blemish on a production that the author has directed with his customary unblinking honesty.
Source: John Simon, “Benoit & Marcelle & Henri & Angelique” in New York, Vol. 25, no. 6, February 10, 1992, pp. 86–87.
Fugard, Athol. Boesman & Lena in Boesman & Lena and Other Plays, Oxford University Press, pp. 237-99.
Kalem, T. E. Review of Boesman & Lena in Time, July 13, 1970, p. 63.
Kauffmann, Stanley. Review of Boesman & Lena in the New Republic, July 25, 1970, pp. 16, 25.
Kroll, Jack. “On the Mud Flats” in Newsweek, July 6, 1970, p. 78.
Rich, Frank. “Fugard’s Sad Wanderers, with Imitations of Now” in the New York Times, January 30, 1992, p. C15.
Simon, John. Review of Boesman & Lena in New York, February 10, 1992, pp. 86-87.
Davenport, T. R. H. South Africa: A Modern History, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
This book covers South African history, focusing on the nineteen and twentieth centuries.
Fugard, Athol. Cousins: A Memoir, Theatre Communications Group, 1997.
In this autobiography, the author discusses his life, focusing primarily on his childhood.
Fugard, Athol. Notebooks, 1960-1977, Knopf, 1983.
This book contains the playwrights notes on many of his plays written in this time period, including Boesman & Lena.
Richards, Lloyd. “The Art of Theater VIII: Athol Fugard” in Paris Review, Summer, 1989, p. 128.
This interview with Fugard includes information on his inspirations and the mechanics of writing his plays, including Boesman & Lena.
Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard, Donker, 1986.
This book discusses Fugard’s background and work in depth, including Boesman & Lena.