Literature Annotations


Fugard, Athol
A Lesson from Aloes


Genre Play (79 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Colonialism, Cross-Cultural Issues, Developing Countries, Freedom, Human Worth, Individuality, Institutionalization, Marital Discord, Mental Illness, Power Relations, Racism, Society, Survival
Summary

The time is 1963; the place, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. In their lower middle-class home, Piet Bezuidenhout and his wife Gladys are waiting for friends to arrive for dinner. Piet is an Afrikaner man who hasn't achieved much in life, but has found sustenance and meaning in liberal politics. His wife is a South African of English descent, who, we later learn, has recently returned home from being hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Visible on the stage (or at least to the protagonists) is Piet's collection of indigenous aloe plants. He is attempting to classify a new aloe that he has just found, but which doesn't appear to fit into any of the listed species.

Their awaited guests are Steve Daniels and his family. Steve, a colored man whom Piet met in his political work, was recently released from jail, where he had served time for "subversive" activities. We learn that Steve has obtained a one-way exit permit; the following week he plans to sail with his family to England. When Steve finally arrives two hours late (and a little worse the wear from drinking), it turns out that his wife and children stayed home. In fact, everyone in the movement, including Steve's wife, believes that Piet (the white man) is an informer.

As the two old friends begin to talk, the conversation becomes painful; they circle cautiously around important personal questions. Was Piet really the informer? What happened to Gladys that caused her nervous breakdown? And, finally, why has Steve decided to give up the political struggle and go into exile?

Commentary

Aloes are hearty but ugly plants that survive in hostile environments. Like South Africa, these environments are typically dry and uncompromising. However, to be a "real aloe" the plant must fit into one of the 21 indigenous species. Piet's latest acquisition is peculiar; it doesn't seem to fit; yet evidently it exists. So what "lesson" does the unclassifiable aloe teach?

Two analogies come to mind. First, I think of the elaborate nine-tiered racial classification upon which the apartheid system was based. Every person in South Africa was classified soon after birth, based on a complex set of decision rules that included, if necessary, determining the color of the skin beneath the fingernails. No one could exist between or outside the system. To be was to be classified. From this perspective a "new" type of aloe plant would be impossible.

A second analogy resides in the aloe's endurance. They make their home and thrive in seemingly hostile territory. What they are they are. To transplant an aloe plant to England, or to some other lush environment, won't be successful, because it would have to compete with other plants that are already adapted to the cool, rainy environment. It makes no sense to ask an aloe why it prefers to remain in the drier climate.

The historical context of this play is the crackdown by the apartheid government on political expression after the boycotts and rallies of 1963, when many non-white communities resisted the implementation of higher bus fares.

PublisherRandom House
Edition1981
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 10/21/02
Last Revised 11/30/06