Boesman And Lena Literature Essay

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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.

Boesman and Lena is a small-cast play by South African playwright Athol Fugard, set in the Swartkops mudflats outside the playwright's native Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape,[1] that shows the effect of apartheid on a few individuals, featuring as characters a "Coloured" man and woman walking from one shanty town to another.


In common with much of Fugard's other work, the play focuses on non-white characters and includes an element of social protest. Boesman and Lena was inspired by an incident in 1965 when Fugard was driving down a rural road in South Africa. He noticed an old lady walking along the road in the boiling-hot sun, miles from anywhere, and offered her a lift. She was overcome and cried with gratitude. She told him that her husband had just died and she was walking to another farm. If Fugard had not stopped, she would have spent the night on the side of the road.[2] (It was a common practice in apartheid South Africa for farmers to evict worker's families when the worker died.) What struck Fugard was that the woman was in pain and suffering but was far from defeated. This inspired him to write the play.

Notable productions[edit]

The play premiered in 1969 at the Rhodes University Little Theatre in Grahamstown, South Africa. Fugard himself played the part of Boesman, Lena was played by Yvonne Bryceland and Glynn Day, a white actor, played the part of Outa in blackface.

On 22 June 1970, the US premiere, an acclaimed off-Broadway at the Circle in the Square Downtown, starred James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee,[3] directed by John Berry (who would also direct a film version, also titled Boesman and Lena, in 2000).[4] Running for 205 performances until 24 January 1971, the production won Obie Awards for Best Foreign Play, Distinguished Direction, and Best Performance by an Actress.[5]

A revival of the play by the Manhattan Theater Club, directed by the playwright himself (and starring Keith David, Lynne Thigpen and Tsepo Mokone), was produced at New York City Center in 1992, when the New York Times review by Frank Rich said: "Whether or not you get to the Manhattan Theater Club's revival of 'Boesman and Lena,' you can always see another, informal version of its drama day or night on a Manhattan sidewalk or subway platform or vacant lot. Athol Fugard's image of an itinerant homeless couple sheltered within their scrap-heap possessions and awaiting the next official eviction is now as common in New York City, among other places, as it was in the South Africa where he set and wrote his play in the late 1960's. Even at the time of its premiere, 'Boesman and Lena' was recognized as a universal work that might speak to audiences long after apartheid had collapsed. But who would have imagined that the universality would soon prove so uncomfortably literal?"[6] Writing in New York magazine John Simon concluded: "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."[7] This production won a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Revival and an Obie Award for Thigpen's performance, as well as being nominated as Best Revival of a Play for an Outer Critics Circle Award.[8]

Film versions[edit]

Two film adaptations of Fugard's play, both of the same title — one directed by Ross Devenish, starring Fugard and Bryceland, and the other directed by John Berry, starring Danny Glover and Angela Bassett — were released in 1973[9] and 2000,[10] respectively.


Boesman and Lena was first published in 1971 by Samuel French (ISBN 9780573606205), and has since appeared in other editions of Fugard's works: Boesman and Lena and Other Plays (Oxford University Press, 1978; ISBN 978-0192812421), Three Port Elizabeth Plays: The Blood Knot: Hello and Goodbye: Boesman and Lena (Oxford University Press, 1974, ISBN 978-0192113665; Viking Press, 1974; ISBN 978-0670709298), and Blood Knot and Other Plays including Boesman And Lena and Hello And Goodbye (Theatre Communications Group, 1991; ISBN 978-1559360203).


  1. ^"Boesman & Lena",
  2. ^"Boesman and Lena / Introduction". enotes. Retrieved 6 March 2008. 
  3. ^Mel Gussow, "James Earl Jones Sighs For ‘Boesman and Lena’", The New York Times, 22 June 1970.
  4. ^Ralph Blumenthal (1 December 1999). "John Berry, 82, Stage and Film Director Who Exiled Himself During Blacklisting of 1950's". The New York Times. 
  5. ^"Boesman and Lena" at Circle in the Square Downtown, Lortel Archives, Internet Off-Broadway Database.
  6. ^Frank Rich, "Review/Theater: Boesman and Lena; Fugard's Sad Wanderers, With Intimations of Now", The New York Times, 30 June 1992.
  7. ^John Simon, "Benoit & Marcelle & Henri & Angelique" in New York, Vol. 25, no. 6, 10 February 1992, pp. 86–87.
  8. ^"Boesman and Lena" at New York City Center-Stage I, Lortel Archives, Internet Off-Broadway Database.
  9. ^"Boesman and Lena (1973)", IMDb.
  10. ^"Boesman and Lena (2000)", IMDb.

External links[edit]

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