Born Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard in South Africa, Athol Fugard's own biography became his most significant resource for his plays. His father was a former musician, but his disability led to alcoholism and created a strained relationship with the family, especially young Athol. His mother--much like Hally's mother in "MASTER HAROLD" ... and the boys owned several small businesses to keep the family financially secure. In 1935, the family moved to Port Elizabeth, where Fugard became increasingly aware of apartheid's injustices.
First studying at Port Elizabeth Technical College, Fugard showed an interest in dramatic arts. He earned a scholarship to the University of Cape Town to study anthropology and philosophy; the works of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were of particular interest to him. However, Fugard did not finish his degree, and in 1953 he and a friend hitchhiked through Africa. Eventually, he made his way to Port Sudan and became the personal servant of the captain of a British tramp steamer. He was the only white crew member, and later stated that this experience profoundly impacted his beliefs and eliminated his childhood prejudices about race.
In 1954, Fugard returned to South Africa and wrote for the Port Elizabeth Evening Post. He met his wife, Shelia Meiring, after moving to Cape Town. Meiring, an actor, encourage Fugard's dramatic interests. Fugard began writing plays again, the topics centered around the racial injustice of apartheid. No-Good Friday (1958) and Nongogo (1959) documented the experiences of Black South Africans. Notably, Fugard refused to have his plays performed in "whites-only" theatres.
In the 1960s, Fugard founded the Serpent Players, the name inspired by the Black township near Port Elizabeth. He staged classic and contemporary works ranging from Machiavelli to Camus to Beckett to Soyinka. His plays Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973) were written for the group. He began to develop a national and even international following because of his anti-apartheid voice in the plays.
In 1982, Fugard premiered his most famous play, "MASTER HAROLD" ... and the boys at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Heavily autobiographical, it documents one rainy afternoon for a white teen named Hally (Fugard's childhood nickname) and two Black employees of a tea room. The play was immediately lauded in the United States, although it was originally (and temporarily) banned in South Africa. Fugard directed the production, and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play. For his portrayal of Sam, actor Zakes Mokae won a Tony Award.
While the plays of his early career were very politically-driven, following the end of apartheid, Fugard's works took on a more personal tone. In 2010, the Fugard Theatre opened in Cape Town, and Fugard himself wrote and directed the inaugural production The Train Driver. In 2011, he received the Tony Award for lifetime achievement. Throughout his career, he has written and directed for the stage and film, and taught theatre courses at the University of California, San Diego. Today, Fugard still lives and writes in South Africa.
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