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Book Title: The Road to Mecca|
The author of the book: Athol Fugard
Edition: Theatre Communications Group
Date of issue: January 1st 1993
ISBN 13: 9780930452797
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 31.66 MB
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Reader ratings: 7.8
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Helen, whose husband’s death has caused her to stave off various bouts of depression and battles with, to use her word, “darkness,” has recently re-discovered her gift for sculpture. Her back yard – which Helen calls her Mecca - is full of bright, colorful, life-sized figures of biblical wise men, birds, and anything else her imagination encourages her to make. One of Helen’s only remaining friends, Elsa, pays her a surprise visit from Cape Town. During their discussion, Helen mentions that the dominee at her local Church, Byleveld, has taken it upon himself to suggest to her that she should consider moving into a convalescent home. Byleveld claims to express concern for the Church, but also for others in New Bethesda who think that Helen has become a mad eccentric, tottering on senility. Even though Helen is unable to do some things for herself, she has a local woman come to her house a few times a week, and seems very capable of living alone. Elsa vehemently urges Helen to resist Byleveld’s “help,” and refuse his offer. He’s even gone so far as to fill out the paperwork for the home; all he needs is her signature.
The play consists of only three characters, but the balance, dynamism, and tension between them is beautiful and subtle. While Byleveld could easily come off as patriarchal and overbearing, Fugard leaves plenty of room for the reader to believe that he’s really doing what he thinks is in Helen’s best interests, even though we are not to mistake his interruption as anything other than heavy-handedness. He’s not the easy-to-hate bigot that would have been caricatural. In a number of ways, Elsa is more of a caricature, with her youthful idealism and cosmopolitan, rigorous rejection of Afrikaner tradition.
As all great drama does, this resonates on a number of levels. It’s a comment on aging and how sometimes we see aging as a necessary loss of personal volition and independence. The disagreements between Byleveld and Elsa embody many of the dualisms that South Africans were dealing with thirty years ago, and to some extent continue to deal with: the rural versus the urban, the religious versus the secular, and a conscious effort to crush artistic openness and personal freedom versus a volitional effort to let that openness, or eccentricity as Byleveld calls it, flourish and prosper.
It might strike some as interesting that, for a play written in apartheid South Africa, I haven’t mentioned race. It’s not a major theme, but its presence is as insidious as Byleveld’s. Elsa is worried about her privilege, especially how it might impinge upon the lives of others, in compelling and sincere ways. On the way to visit Helen, Elsa gave a ride to a young black woman with a child, and she is haunted by what might have happened to her after they parted. By the end of the play, Elsa and Helen have rebuilt the trust that was compromised by Helen being ambivalent about standing up to Byleveld.
Athol Fugard is South Africa’s most well-known playwright, perhaps best known for “Master Harold … and the Boys.” I’d never read anything by him when I found “The Road to Mecca” last weekend at a library book sale for fifty cents. And after reading this, I’m even more eager to read more by him than I was before.
Incidentally, Helen's character is based on the historical Helen Martins whose story is similar. Her former home, "The Owl House," is now a museum. Here are some photographs of it:
One of the interior rooms with crushed glass on the walls
Sculptures in the garden, most of which are facing East (toward Mecca)
A large arch with an owl at the peak
A close-up of one of the sculptures
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Read information about the authorHarold Athol Lannigan Fugard (b. June 11, 1932, Middelburg, South Africa), better known as Athol Fugard, is a South African playwright, actor, and director. His wife, Sheila Fugard, and their daughter, Lisa Fugard, are also writers.
Athol Fugard was born of an Irish Roman Catholic father and an Afrikaner mother. He considers himself an Afrikaner, but writes in English to reach a larger audience. His family moved to Port Elizabeth soon after he was born. In 1938, he was enrolled at the Marist Brothers College — a Catholic primary school (although he is not known to be a Roman Catholic). After being awarded a scholarship, he enrolled at the local technical college for his secondary education. He then enrolled in the University of Cape Town but dropped out. He sailed around the world working on ships (mainly in the Far East).
Fugard married Sheila Meiring, now known as Sheila Fugard, then an actress in one of his plays, in September 1956. She later became a novelist and poet in her own right. They started the Serpent Players in Port Elizabeth before moving to Johannesburg where he was employed as a court clerk.
Working in the court environment and seeing how the Africans suffered under the pass laws provided Fugard with a firsthand insight into the injustice and pain of apartheid.
Working with a group of black actors (including Zakes Mokae), Fugard wrote his first play No Good Friday. Returning to Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s, he worked with a group of actors whose first performance was in the former snake pit of the zoo, hence the name The Serpent Players.
The political slant of his plays bought him into conflict with the government. In order to avoid prosecution, he started to take his plays overseas. After Blood Knot, was produced in England, his passport was withdrawn for four years. In 1962, he publicly supported an international boycott against segregated theatre audiences which led to further restrictions.
He worked extensively with two black actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona and workshopped three plays viz. Sizwe Banzi is Dead, The Island and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act.
The early plays workshopped with Kani and Ntshona were staged in black areas for a night and then the cast moved to the next venue – probably a dimly lit church hall or community centre. The audience was normally poor migrant labourers and the residents of hostels in the townships. The plays at this time were political and mirrored the frustrations in the lives of the audience. Fugard's plays drew the audience into the drama, they would applaud, cry and interject their own opinions. Fugard used feedback from the audience to improve the plays – expanding the parts that worked and deleting the ones that did not.
For example in Sizwe Banzi is Dead, migrant worker Bansi can only survive by assuming someone else's identity and getting the important apartheid pass in order to get a job. When he debates how Sizwe would effectively “die” and whether the sacrifice would be worth it, the audience would cry out “Go on, Do it,” because they appreciated that without a pass you were effectively a non-entity.
Sets and props were improvised from whatever was available which helps to explain the minimalist sets that productions of these plays utilise. In 1971, the restrictions against Fugard were eased, allowing him to travel to England in order to direct Boesman and Lena. Master Harold...and the Boys, written in 1982 is a semi-autobiographical work.
Fugard showed he was against injustice on both sides of the fence with his play My Children! My Africa! where he attacked the ANC for deciding to boycott African schools as he realised the damage it would cause a generation of African pupils. With the demise of apartheid, Fugard's first two postapartheid plays Valley Song and The Captain's Tiger focused on personal rather than political issues.
His plays are regularly produced and have won many awa
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