The Island – Athol Fugard

Background

Athol Fugard was born to an English father of mixed European descent and an Afrikaner mother. He grew up in Port Elizabeth which forms the setting for most plays. He went on to study anthropology and philosophy at the University of Cape Town but dropped out a few months before final examination. Along with a friend, he hitchhiked till Port Sudan in North Africa where he worked on a steam ship. Later, Fugard returned to South Africa and married Shiela Meiring, an actress, who ignited in him the love for theatre. His job as a court clerk made him keenly aware of the injustices of apartheid which is the theme for most of his plays. Later, he organized a multiracial theatre which caused a direct confrontation with the white government. His passport was revoked when his play Blood Knot was staged in England and his criticism of the practice of segregating theatre audiences in South Africa brought on more restrictions. Fugard’s plays kept the issue of the absence of individual freedom in South Africa at the forefront and drew the whole world’s attention to it. He won several awards and a lot of his plays have been converted into movies. He has also acted in movies like Attenborough’s Gandhi and The Killing Fields which is about the Pol Pot regime’s massacre of innocent Cambodians. Fugard now teaches theatre in the US.

The notorious island prison called Robben Island is the setting for this play. The most renowned inmate of this prison was Nelson Mandela who spent twenty seven years incarcerated here. During this period, South Africa was run by the white Afrikaner National Party. In order to perpetuate white rule in South Africa, they brought a catalogue of draconian laws aimed at apartheid which in Afrikaans meant separateness. Every aspect of the native African’s life was affected by these rules that aimed at segregating the blacks from the whites. Any opposition to apartheid from the blacks was put down ruthlessly. Extra judicial killings were common and the punishment dished out to the political prisoners aimed at breaking their spirit. Shifting sand from one heap to another all day long or pulling a road roller round and round were some of the cruel and meaningless punishments devised.

Nelson Mandela and his associates were arrested while at a meeting in Rivonia. On June 11, 1964, they were sentenced for life and imprisoned in Robben Island. The play ‘The Island’ draws on the real life experiences of some of the prisoners who were incarcerated on Robben Island. Antigone was staged there once with Mandela playing the role of King Creon. Athol Fugard chose the story of Antigone to highlight the conditions in South Africa where the majority community was kept down by ruthless rulers who like King Creon passed laws which went against God’s own rules. Antigone is just a young girl but she assumes the moral authority to challenge the king.

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Summary

The play is set in an unnamed island but the inference is there for all to follow. The island could only stand for the Robben Island which was packed with political prisoners one of which was Nelson Mandela, serving a lengthy prison sentence. There are only two characters who appear in flesh and blood – two cellmates, John and Winston, who share a close friendship that helps them survive those brutal conditions. In a short while John’s appeal for commutation will come up but meanwhile, they have a play to perform for the other inmates of the prison. The days are spent in meaningless back-breaking physical labour out in the open while the nights are utilized for rehearsals.

The play that is chosen is Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone. This play has echoes of the South African situation where the people are oppressed by ruthless rulers similar to Antigone being oppressed by King Creon. John plays the role of King Creon while Winston plays Antigone. Winston is reluctant to be a female character as he feels that his wig and fake tissue roll breasts will invite ridicule. John meanwhile gets the news that his appeal has been successful and his ten year sentence has been reduced to three years and in three months, he will be free while Winston will be detained for life. The friendship is tested here as Winston does not understand why he has been singled out. But in the end, the friendship endures and the two are back at hard labour.

Plot

John and Winston are prisoners on the island where they share a cell. Day after day they are subjected to intense labour or forced to run while they were shackled to each other. But their friendship is a constant source of solace for both of them. They take care of each other’s wounds, and remember the times when they were free while they rehearsed for the play they were to perform for the rest of the prisoners on the island. The play that has been chosen is Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone which mirrors the conditions in South Africa where despotic rulers crush all opposition. In the abridged version of the play, John is King Creon while Winston plays Antigone.

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When Winston sees his costume, he is reluctant to perform as he feels he will be mocked by the audience. Meanwhile John is summoned to the office of the governor. He returns elated with the news that his appeal for the commutation of his ten year prison sentence has been granted and in just three months he will complete his three year prison sentence. Winston shares John’s joy and both dream of what it will be like to be free. Soon Winston is racked by questions and he wonders why he opposed the regime in the first place and what the purpose of his very existence was. These doubts have a cathartic effect on him and he realizes that this is his lot in life.

The final scene of ‘The Island’ is the play, Antigone. Winston as Antigone has been sentenced to be walled up in a cave and left to die of hunger for having defied the orders of the king in giving her brother a ritual or proper burial. Here Winston steps out of his role as Antigone and makes a final stand against the white regime. He yells ‘ Gods of Our Fathers! My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs.’ The last we see is the image of John and Winston once again shackled together, running as the siren sounds.

Themes

Racial Segregation

Apartheid was practiced, and racial segregation was imposed on the black majority by the Afrikaner National Party in 1948. It existed till 1994 when democratic elections were held in South Africa. An informal form of racial segregation had been practiced by the Dutch colonists when they took over South Africa but it was institutionalized in 1948. The population was divided into four groups namely, black, white, coloured and Indian. Several western nations had tacitly supported the racist white regime but gradually world opinion turned against them. Punitive measures like trade embargo and boycott of sporting ties were imposed on the country.

Conditions in the segregated black areas were deplorable. Civic infrastructure barely existed and conditions in schools and hospitals were bleak. Even audiences in theatres were segregated. Blacks could never hope to buy land in the white only areas even if they had the money. Every imaginable service in the country was separate for whites and blacks.

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Obedience and civil disobedience

South Africa was ruled by the white minority using draconian laws that made life intolerable. Individual freedom was curtailed to such an extent that the most minor transgression could land one in prison for years. In the play, John has been jailed for belonging to a banned organization while Winston is in for life for burning his passbook in front of the police. This is a serious crime as the authorities enforced segregation and exerted control over the blacks using the passbook. Mahatma Gandhi used civil disobedience to exert pressure on the British when India was struggling against them in their fight for independence. One of the earliest depictions of civil disobedience is in Sophocles’ play Antigone. In this play, young Antigone fights against King Creon’s decree that nobody should bury Polyneices who was Antigone’s brother. Antigone argues that she would rather follow her conscience than a royal order.

Freedom

In South Africa, all forms of freedom were compromised. The black people who formed the majority were kept under subjugation by the ruling white minority. They had no freedom of movement as they lived in reservations meant exclusively for the blacks. They had their own schools, hospitals and stores. The conditions in black townships were deplorable as there was no sanitation or other civic amenities. The blacks had been disenfranchised so they could not choose their rulers.

The condition of the blacks is mirrored in Antigone’s condition. She is not permitted to give her brother a ritual burial as King Creon has willed it so. But she decides to follow her conscience rather than the king’s orders though she knows the consequences will be severe.

Symbols

Hodoshe is a character who does not appear on stage but is referred to by John and Winston. He is a symbol of the racist government and it is apt that he is represented by the shrill sound of the police whistle. The whistle controls all the movements of John and Winston.