KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 15, 1998
It’s 1952, on an old cargo ship somewhere in the Red Sea. A young man is beginning “a great adventure”: a trip away from home, a voyage around the world, a journey to manhood and a writer’s odyssey.
Athol Fugard is doing what he does best and often brilliantly — telling tales. This time, it’s not about his beloved, tormented homeland, South Africa; it’s about his own tortuous route to personal and literary maturity.
He was 20 when he signed on a tramp steamer as a captain’s tiger, which, as he describes it, is “a glorified servant” to the ship’s chief officer. At the outset of his latest play, he comes downstage to confide in us, to tell us that this trip was seminal to his life and work, the perfect opportunity for him to write the Great African novel. Subtitled “A Memoir for the Stage,” “The Captain’s Tiger” takes us along for the ride, as Fugard magically transforms himself, irresistibly assuming the bright-eyed energy and enthusiasm of a boy, brashly confident in his writing skill and ready to make his mark on the world.
He’s both haunted and inspired by a picture of his mother as a young woman, and this hopeful ingénue becomes his inner voice and his muse. Fugard’s also kept on track by a hulking, illiterate stoker, a Swahili-speaking Kenyan, Donkeyman. One character represents Fugard’s own internal dialogue, the other the harsh realities of life, contrasted with the idealized pursuit of art. Both take shape as his conscience, forcing him to face his ghosts, his fears, his latent incestuous feelings, his virginity, his denial of the facts of his family, and his need to be true to his story, himself, and those who can’t tell their own tales. Through the real and imagined guidance of Betty and Donkeyman, The Writer achieves literary integrity. This ultimately forces him to destroy his novel, and with it, a friendship.
It’s a fascinating voyage, this writer’s pilgrimage, and we’re privy to the whole painful process. We witness his coming-of-age, through direct presentation to the audience, re-creations of onboard conversations, letters written to his mother, imagined discourse and dreams. It’s a tricky dramatic structure, moving from the present to the past, from reality to reverie. But, by and large, Fugard works theatrical wonders; he is an artful conjurer, a word-painter whose imagery is visual, visceral and poetic.
As an actor, Fugard is authentic and thoroughly convincing, as is Tony Todd, a commanding presence as Donkeyman. Felicity Jones plays the stubborn but ethereal Betty with casual elegance, if not a totally convincing accent.
Wearing yet another hat, Fugard also serves as co-director with Susan Hilferty, his longtime collaborator and set and costume designer. They’ve handled the material with respect but not reverence, striking an excellent balance between earnestness and humor, fervor and fancy. The production is spare, the set suggestive. The ensemble is strong and the writing is beautiful, though it leaves nothing to the imagination of the audience.
During its 100 intermissionless minutes, the play, like the ship and The Writer, occasionally finds itself in the doldrums. But the muse comes again, the engines start up, and the journey continues, with big waves and small, with poignant revelations, lovely, telling gestures, and an often unnerving honesty. The “sin” of destroying that first novelized version of his mother’s life reportedly made Fugard “do penance” for the rest of his writing career. One can only wonder if at last he is exonerated, if he has finally told his mother’s story as he promised her he would.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.