Home and the World

The two main characters in South African playwright Athol Fugard's classic chamber drama Boesman & Lena are a poor mixed-race couple. Their shanty has been razed by the "whiteman's bulldozers," leaving them to wander the dismal mudflats near Port Elizabeth, and as the play opens Boesman picks a spot for the night by silently dumping all his worldly goods on the ground. "Here?" asks needy, haggard Lena, who seems unsure just how she has arrived at this place--both geographically and emotionally. Later she demands to know why they've made such an effort to reach this dreary spot. "Why did we walk so hard? In a hurry to get here? 'Here' ... What's here?"

Perhaps the most striking thing about the new movie version of Boesman & Lena is the way that her question has outlasted the sociopolitical context of the play's 1969 composition. Without altering Fugard's text in any substantial way, the late screenwriter and director John Berry (who died at age 82, when the movie was in the final stages of postproduction work) took a situation--slum clearance and its demoralizing aftermath--that once might have been understood chiefly in topical terms and whittled it back to its existential essence. But maybe this shift of emphasis isn't Berry's doing alone. If anything, it's time itself that has brought about this change of focus and rendered Boesman & Lena not a film about South African history per se, but a study of two almost broken souls desperate to convince themselves that they are in fact still alive.

Which is not, of course, to say that the movie, and the play itself, are not political in a more basic and possibly profound sense. Indeed, it would be harder to find two artists of more socially committed pedigree than Fugard and Berry. Born in New York, Berry was a former vaudeville actor, professional boxer, and member of Orson Welles's Mercury Theater whose time as a Hollywood director was cut short by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blacklisted in 1951, he refused to name names or recant and instead went into exile in Europe, where he continued to direct for both the stage and screen. (The closest most American moviegoers have probably come to Berry was the TV-ish Irwin Winkler movie about the blacklist, Guilty by Suspicion, which starred Robert De Niro as a watered-down stand-in for the director.)

Fugard, meanwhile, the son of an Afrikaner mother and a father of English stock, grew up in Port Elizabeth, among lower-middle-class whites whose bigotry he admits he shared as a child. His own passage into racial consciousness was gradual but mind-bending, and he made his first serious contribution to the theater and to South Africa when, in 1961, his play Blood Knot put a black and a white actor onstage together for the first time ever in that country's history. (The mixed nature of the audience was also revolutionary in its time and place.) Throughout the years that followed, Fugard's politically charged work was acclaimed abroad, often under Berry's direction, and censored at home: In 1967 his passport was confiscated, later he was placed under police surveillance, and so on. Yet Fugard felt compelled to remain in South Africa and struggle against the racist regime from within.

Berry directing in exile, Fugard writing at home: For these two men, the notion that "the personal is political" is not some touchy-feely slogan but an unavoidable fact of life--and art. And if Boesman & Lena seems, in its latest, cinematic incarnation, to take place on a nearly abstract plane, it is searing nonetheless, a testimony to its creators' deep understanding of the intricate mechanisms of power and domination.

Fugard has written that it is his life's work "to witness ... as truthfully as [I] can the nameless and destitute of [my] one little corner of the world." Elsewhere, he has declared himself proudly a "Regional Writer" (as opposed to that "most irksome [label] 'political playwright'"), a description that may make his agenda sound deceptively provincial--though it helps, while considering his relationship to the world at large, to remember Lena and her nagging question, "'Here?' ... What's here?" If anything, a film like this one makes it clear that Fugard is a writer whose vision transcends the parochial and comes to seem universal by, ironically, burrowing as deeply as possible into the examination of a single place--not just his grim, car-factory-filled hometown of Port Elizabeth, but what he has called "a very specific psychological region: The Family."

Each of his plays approaches its larger theme obliquely, by focusing on just a handful of characters at a time, all caught in some passionate blood- or love-bond. These are most often variations on a servant-master relationship, and skin color frequently figures in the dynamic. The shapes of these alliances may have taken their initial cues from the racial divisions of apartheid-era South Africa, but it's a tribute to the value of Fugard's work that plays he wrote more than three decades ago continue to make perfect psychological sense today, under the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, or, as is the case with Berry's Boesman & Lena, in a somehow timeless, borderless twilight zone, a rugged, half-realistic, half-fantastic landscape that (although the film was shot on the shores of the actual Swartkops River) calls to mind the nowhere-setting of Beckett's Waiting for Godot: "A country road. A tree. Evening."

Boesman & Lena charts the tortured connection between the two weary, crushed title characters, who have apparently been wandering for years with all their belongings strapped to their backs or balanced on their heads. (Fugard's debt to Beckett cannot be stressed enough, and even his opening stage directions show this influence: "An empty stage. A Coloured man--Boesman--walks on. Heavily burdened.") Once in love, and now, it seems, barely able to stand one another, they're locked together in the endless, inescapable clinch of habit, in (again) the Beckettian sense: "Habit," according to the great Irish writer, "is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantee of a dull inviolability, the lightning-conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit."

The characters take turns victimizing each other. Boesman (played in Berry's version by Danny Glover) feels helpless, beaten down by his situation, and he takes it out on Lena (Angela Bassett), hitting her or pummeling her with long streams of verbal abuse. And she, for her part, gives as good as she gets, laughing loudly and mocking his rages as readily as she stoops to absorb his emotional lashings. Lena has buried one baby and carried several stillborns, and throughout the proceedings she searches hungrily for some child-substitute--at first adopting a mutt (who, we're told, disappeared when the couple's shanty was destroyed) and then clinging to an old Xhosa tribesman (Willie Jonah) who wanders into their campsite on the flats. Despite Boesman's agitated orders to send him away, Lena insists the stranger stay on and warm himself, drink their water.

In its original context, the play might have been read as an allegory about the inevitable dehumanization that takes hold in a bigoted society: The mixed-race man, whose pride has been repeatedly wounded by the whites, beats "his woman" and insults the black man just as viciously as he feels himself insulted. Lena's efforts to stand her ground and indeed to be witnessed might have been read as faintly feminist. Berry's Lena and Boesman still suffer at the hands of an unjust social order, but now, after apartheid, their predicament may strike us as somehow more eternal and, for this fact, even bleaker. There's no longer a single malevolent power (the white man) to blame for their despair. Rather, the dark forces that determine the way they interact come, it seems, from within them. Though their race hasn't evaporated with the changing of governments, it accounts for only a small fraction of the way they see themselves.

The political backdrop is not the only thing that has changed since Fugard wrote his play. There is also the dicier matter of the text's movement from stage to screen--a shift that Berry addresses in a way so conservative it comes almost to seem radical. By preserving the inherent theatricality of the characters' confrontations and the very written texture of Fugard's script, he evolves a peculiar compromise between the two media. It's not a play nor is it a film, entirely. Neither is it quite a filmed play: The close-ups, the soundtrack, and occasional flashbacks (to a happier, more brightly lit time, when neither of these characters was reduced to wearing burlap and trudging through the grime) figure too centrally for that rather quaint, proscenium-bound term to apply. Although the viewer must adjust in the beginning to Berry's stylized, unnaturalistic approach, the central conflict eventually takes hold with such startling energy one forgets the movie's first few moments of awkwardness.

The crucial animating force is without a doubt the actors--Bassett especially, whose work as Lena is sheer fire, but Glover, too, who in his more interior, bitten way, brings Boesman to life. And as Berry focuses intently on the two of them and their emotional tug-of-war, we do not need much more than this to hold us. Here Fugard's own notion of the centrality of the live performance itself seems still to apply. The ingredients necessary to create "pure theater," the playwright has explained, are "the actor and the stage, the actor on the stage. Around him is space, to be filled and defined by movement and gesture; around him is also silence to be filled with meaning, using words and sounds, and at moments, when all else fails him, including the words, silence itself."

Berry's picture is not "pure" in the strict sense of Fugard's definition: The performances aren't live but were shot over days, edited, and fixed on celluloid. The actors' silences are measured carefully and parsed according to the director's larger design; the encounter with the audience happens at a remove both spatial and temporal. But it does seem somehow fitting that, after the set of apartheid has been struck, and most of the primary players in the historical dramas that determined the course of both Berry's and Fugard's own lives have passed on or disappeared, the core of Boesman & Lena endures--potent as ever. ยค