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Power, self, and other    the absurd in boesman and lena(1)
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Power, self, and other    the absurd in boesman and lena(1) Power, self, and other the absurd in boesman and lena(1) Document Transcript

  • 1power, self, and other: the absurd in Boesman and Lena.Athol Fugard IssueTwentieth Century Literature, Winter 1993, by Craig W. McLuckie.http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0403/is_n4_v39/ai_16087648/pg_5/?tag=content;col1 [Accessed:2011/02/21.As the substantive body of criticism about Samuel Becketts theatre attests, it is difficultnot to impose a variety of contexts onto his work.(1) Athol Fugards theatre,alternatively, restricts and focuses ones perceptions so that it is difficult to see morethan a single context. More simply put, an audience reads its world into Waiting forGodot, while it reads another world out of Boesman and Lena. The authors respectiveuses of absurdity have led to this state of affairs.Boesman and Lena is as explicit a title as Waiting for Godot. In the latter title, asnumerous others have pointed out, unidentified individuals are waiting for God. Controlof the individuals fate is placed outside his/her hands into those of a deity; humanresponsibility is diminished. Others have offered less useful biographical interpretations:Godot is named after a French cyclist, or is the French slang word for boot (Bair 382).While offering an additional dimension to the punning that Beckett indulges in, theselatter correlations are not particularly useful for those seeking to explicate the play.Beckett has insisted that the meaning of the title is unimportant (Bair 382). Flippancy,mischievousness, or authorial right may be invoked to explain or support Beckettsposition, but the play is an act of communication, a dramatic utterance, which beginswith a statement of import. The gerund "waiting" in Becketts title alerts thereader/audience to the fact that if the communicative act is to mean anything, ifgrammar means anything, the state of waiting is both subject and action of Beckettsplay. What does it mean to wait; what is it like to wait? The prepositional phrase thatcompletes the title specifies whom (or what) one is waiting for. It clarifies the subjectand the act.Boesman and Lena is simply the names of two characters in a play inhabited by three.Obviously the lack of identification of the third individual gives these two more
  • 2importance than the unnamed African. More specifically, Lenas song illustrates that"Boesman" is not merely a name, it is also a label and an identification of ones culture:"Boesman is n Boesman / Maar hy dra n Hotnot hoed" [Boesman is a Bushman / Buthe wears a Hottentots hat] (184). (2) "Bushman" is a political label, for the Afrikanersuse it as a general term of abuse against the Africans and "coloureds." That Boesmanwears a Hottentots hat should not go unnoticed because a Bushman is considered lesscivilized, and so lower on the social scale, than a Hottentot. Boesman, therefore, can besaid to spurn his identity and falsely attempt to assume another to (re)gain a sense ofdignity, albeit in the discourse and practices prevalent in the white scale of values, nothis own. Lena, on the other hand, seeks a definition of her being: the questions sheposes Boesman in this regard link her to him, and he to her, as inextricably as does thesimple coordinating conjunction of the title. Where Boesman seeks validation of hisassumed identity through Lena, Lena craves a witness to her existence throughBoesman.An important final point on the titles is the remaining abstraction in Becketts becauseneither spatial nor temporal concerns come into play. Fugards title is more spatiallyspecific, as the assessment of the name Boesman indicates. Lenas exclamation of"Mud! Swartkops!" (143) fixes the location further--they are in the barren Swartkopsregion of the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Temporally, Boesman and Lena are at onestage in a long cycle of walks:Redhouse to Missionvale . . . Missionvale to Bethelsdorp. Back again to Redhouse . . .Then to Kleinskool. Kleinskool to Veeplaas. Veeplaas to here. First time. After that,Redhouse . . . Bethelsdorp, Korsten, Veeplaas, back here the second time. ThenMissionvale again, Veeplaas, Korsten, and then here, now. (196)It is the walking, not the temporary stops in that are most important. The absurdity oftheir condition is found in this incessant, pointless, repetitive cycle of walks. The playcould have been called Walking for Godot to emphasize the importance and,paradoxically, the meaninglessness of the action. Any similarities between the two playsends here, though, for Boesman and Lena know their "Godot" and his purpose: "Blamethe whiteman. Bulldozer!" (144). The white, in his "slum clearance," determines theirexistence with: "Vat jou goed en trek!" [Take your things and go!] (144 and glossary,
  • 3202). It is an irony that those who commemorate the Great Trek away from theimposition of British rule insist that others undertake a trek away from Afrikaner rule (or,minimally, habitation). Where can they go? Boesmans catalogue of towns implies thesame end--a return to the walking, for settlers have claimed all the land.Fugard, like Beckett and Camus, seeks an answer to Camus question of why thesepeople do not commit suicide when faced with the absurdity and squalor imposed ontheir lives. In Boesman and Lena the answer to the question is forestalled by the lack ofa complete and truthful consciousness of the self. Lena is preoccupied with uncoveringher identity, which she believes is held in her past and in an others recognition of her.Boesman, contrarily, fears an encounter with his self because his false sense of identitymight be brought into question.Lenas arrival on stage immediately sets up their relationship and their identities. Shefollows Boesman onto the stage and asks "Here?" (143). Both the action and thequestion are a deferral of power to him. Like Lucky in relation to Pozzo in Godot, Lenaexists as a slave to Boesmans position as master. And like Estragon in Godot, Lenalacks a sense of the chronology of their lives: "Haai! Was it this morning?" (146). Inquestioning Boesman she gives him the authority to decide her history and identity,while Boesmans remark--that she should have been walking backward (147)--revealsthe ties of her sense of self to the past, to history. Boesman is happy to occupy the seatof power in this relationship because he does not have to reflect (look back) on hisoppressed life. Instead, he has become the oppressor, white man reincarnated.Boesmans position is a false one, for he, too, is determined. In the most general sense,the oppressive forces of the white government determine him. His plea that whites sethim free from the burden of a squatters life is a false front, as Lena attests:[Holds up a clenched fist in an imitation of Boesman.]Thats how he talks to the world. . . . Ja, so it goes. He walks in front. I walk behind. Itused to be side by side, with jokes. (168)
  • 4Lena is both bitter and ironic here. She is bitter because their equality (side-by-side) inthe face of adversity is gone, as is their earlier happiness. The irony is evidenced byBoesmans bad faith, for his revolt against his condition is not one of solidarity, anacceptance and authentication of the condition; his "revolt" is denial. He talks with angerand beats Lena black and blue, while acquiescing to the real, identified oppressor:Whitemans wasting his time trying to help us. Pushed it [their shanty] over this morningand here it is again. . . . Were whitemans rubbish. Thats why hes so beneukt [fed up]with us. He cant get rid of his rubbish. (180-81)Boesmans cowed attitude reveals his inability and unwillingness to make the necessaryconnection between present conditions and origins. Their food, clothing, shelter, andselves may be considered rubbish by whites, but all rubbish is created: white society isthe cause of their status. Boesman fails to take an independent or even a skeptical viewof the white perspective that is privileged by raw power.(3) If Boesman made theseconnections, he would realize that whites could as easily label him valuable (even in thecynical sense of taking the Africans labors for white-owned corporations into account).A more humane attitude, trite as it sounds, is a beginning. Failing to connect the causewith the effect, Boesman allows his ignorance and the whites to colonize him.Similarly, Boesmans utterance of "Dankie, baas" [Thank you, boss] (179 and glossary,199), is a reflection of his subservience, of his inability to escape a particular frame ofmind.(he copies whites)So he becomes an oppressor, bullying Lena into saying"Please, my bassie" [Please, my little boss] (176 and glossary, 198), in an attempt todispel his servility. Intellectual engagement with whites, or at least, given the raw powerhe faces, engagement within himself of the whites false claim to power, would inhibitthis type of intra-race brutality. The stage that Fugard sets is the bleakest: Lenas lack ofbelief in Boesmans position and his actions reveals her strength (qualified by her needfor his "answers") but also causes him to wage psychological and physical warfare onher--just as the white oppressors, because of their false and degenerate humanity, arewaging warfare on Africans.Lenas response to the oppression is to seek human contact, warmth, a sense ofcommunity to stave off the madness that their absurd position entails. Boesman denies
  • 5her these comforts and reaffirms his oppressive role, for the action his role involveshelps him to stave off thoughts of the absurdity and the servility of his actions, as well asthe related guilt: "Look at you! Listen to you! Youre asking for a lot, Lena. Must I gomad as well?" (150). Thus Boesman continues to act in bad faith; he refuses to face hisabsurdity, to see his reflection in Lena. He is left, his consciousness unawakened,inhabiting despair. So, he will not go to Veeplaas: there are other people there, otherreminders of his shame (150).Although she is conscious of Boesmans faults, Lena remains inextricably tied to him,for she believes he holds the key to her past, and so her identity:LENA: Do you really know, Boesman? Where and how?BOESMAN: Yes!LENA: Tell me. [He laughs.] Help me, Boesman!BOESMAN: What? Find yourself? (156)Unable to extricate a sense of herself from Boesman, Lena pursues the problem alone,and produces a small identity--if she can be hit and bruised, then she exists(158).Moreover, if she is Lena, identified by her servile, oppressed relationship to him,then he is Boesman, the oppressor. She can affirm, therefore, that they are "Boesmanand Lena" (158), a microcosmic world that reflects the positions of groups (rather thanindividuals) in the larger world they inhabit. This consciousness of their roles, theirrelationship to one another, is an awareness of a small community, and of the positionof the self within that community. We do not find such an explicit awareness in Beckettscharacters.Lena, dissatisfied with this minimal sense of self, seeks witnesses to her existence. Thewitnesses--"Dog and a dead man" (197)--are as marginal as her Cartesian proof ofexistence. Similarly, when Boesman gives Lena an exact account of their past sherealizes that "It doesnt explain anything" (197); it is therefore absurd, meaningless.Lena consequently seeks the only path open to her, a sense of communal interest inher existence. She had instructed Boesman to "Try it the other way. Open your fist, put
  • 6your hand on me. Im here. Im Lena" (186). It is a polemical statement directed both tothe individual, who forms the foundation of the community, and to the varyingcommunities of race present within South Africa. The message seems appropriate toSouth Africa, but the scene depicts two people of the same race; thus Fugard could becriticized on the basis that in the strict sense of South Africas (thankfully now departed)Population Registration Act the races are separate, apartheid remains in place. Thiswould seem an appropriate interpretation, given the lack of communication betweenblack and "coloured" in the play. Yet, if one gives Fugard the benefit of the doubt, theuse of "coloured" people seems an artistically exacting touch--as people of "mixed"blood Boesman and Lena are of indeterminate race, neither black nor white--enablingthe characters to represent all races. Whether such generosity in interpretation would"wash" with the people long identified by color/race is a different question. There is aclear political allegory in Lenas acceptance of the black man and the beating of him byBoesman, who takes the white role--"coloureds" must unite with blacks, not aspire toacceptance by whites, if they are to find their true place.Without a true place for the duration of the play, Boesman and Lena walk. It is an aptmetaphor, in all the circularity the act of walking takes on in the play, which justifiesDennis Walders comment that"Overwhelmed" by Camus writings . . . Fugard follows him to the brink of despair,where, nevertheless, may be found "finally the only certainty, the flesh": living "withouthope, without appeal," without the traditional certainties of religion or history, we may beable to continue after all, relying on . . . "truths the hand can touch." (AF 53)Boesman and Lena, in spite of their age, and in spite of the darkness, still have"daylights left in [them]" (197). So Lenas decision to rejoin Boesman is a consciouseffort on her part to resolve their problems one way (annihilation) or the other(recognition of self and other and the inherent worth and value of each). The resolutionultimately rests with Boesman (the oppressor) and his ability to change.(introduction)--Boesman and Lena is a response to the institutionally created absurdityinherent in the lives of Africans, "coloureds," and Indians under the policy of apartheid.Fugard thus seems to view absurdity as something specific to certain social or political
  • 7contexts; at least this is the view that surfaces because the play is set in South Africa,and race predominates within that society and in Fugards text. However, Fugard is amore universal thinker than such an interpretation suggests, as a careful reading of hisnotebooks reveals. Fugard, having set the play in the region he knows best,extrapolates from the situation under apartheid to more universal concerns about therelationship of human beings to each other. Post-apartheid productions of his play willconfirm its continued worth and vitality. So, in Boesman and Lena, as in Albees TheDeath of Bessie Smith,The racial situation functions . . . as a potent image of mans self-inflicted absurdity. Here. . . is that lack of compassion which Albee [with Fugard] sees as a mark ofcontemporary society. (Bigsby 24)Absurdity, for Fugard, is therefore a part of life, an obstacle to be overcome by anequitable awareness of self and other, and the others reciprocation of this awareness.Both Beckett and Fugard follow Camus path into the absurd. In his deliberate omissionof spatial and temporal data, Beckett creates a stark world that becomes a universalmetaphor for the absurd nature of existence in both the physical and metaphysicalrealms. Fugard, less rooted in the metaphysical, provides exact information on hischaracters spatial locale and thus defines absurdity as a condition resulting from thehuman power structures that govern life, not as the condition of life itself.
  • 8NOTES1 See, for example, Martin Esslins recounting of United States prisoners responses toWaiting for Godot (20), or Fugards description of black Africa responses in hisNotebooks: 1960-1977 (62-63).2 Translations from Boesman and Lena are from the glossary at the back of Blood Knotand Other Plays. The translation for this passage is not there, however, but is in theglossary to Fugards Boesman and Lena and Other Plays (New York: Oxford UP, 1973)298.3 For whatever reason, Fugards characters are rarely aware of the mass movements oftheir time: black consciousness, the African National Congress, the Communist Party ofSouth Africa, the Pan Africanist Congress, Fanonian psychiatry, etc. Either Fugardbelieves that his characters would not come into contact with these movements orFugard himself has not, so the question of their inclusion is a moot point for him.COPYRIGHT 1993 Hofstra UniversityCOPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group