by Nick Riddle
Many years ago, when he was a young man working on a tramp steamer, the then unknown South African writer Athol Fugard threw the manuscript of his first novel into the Indian Ocean. These days, after the success of plays such as A Lesson from Aloes and Master Harold ... and the Boys has turned him into a major literary figure, Fugard is more concerned with preserving his work. His papers now reside in IU Bloomington's Lilly Library, alongside a Gutenberg Bible, a Shakespeare first folio, a first edition of Paradise Lost, and the earliest sample of Abraham Lincoln's handwriting
"Fugard is clearly one of the top half-dozen living playwrights writing in English," says Albert Wertheim, professor of English and theatre and drama at IUB. "He also happens to be one of the leading spokespeople for the apartheid generation, along with Nadine Gordimer, whose papers are also at the Lilly. During the apartheid period in South Africa, white writers had to carry the banner for oppressed and politically handicapped blacks and 'coloureds.'"
Wertheim, left, and South African playwright Athol Fugard discuss
one of Fugard's notebooks concerning his play The Captain's Tiger.
The notebook is among the many manuscripts Fugard has given to the Indiana
University Lilly Library.
Wertheim played a key role in bringing the Fugard collection to the Lilly Library. He was writing a major literary analysis of Fugard's plays (now published as The Dramatic Art of Athol Fugard: From South Africa to the World) when the opportunity arose. "Fugard is a keeper of notebooks, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, and he writes notes onto the drafts of his work," says Wertheim. "To see what’s going on behind his plays, you need to find out how they evolved, which means looking through Fugard's notes and revisions."
Fugards papers were stored at the National English Literary Museum (NELM) in Grahamstown, South Africa, a government-sponsored archive that houses papers of South African authors writing in English. Wertheim traveled to Grahamstown three times to use the extensive Fugard collection. He found the material fascinating.
Playwriting is an act of revision," he explains. Drafts change after workshops and rehearsals. So Fugards papers are not just typescriptstheyre filled with his handwritten notes. There are ideas, directions on the staging and on what the driving feeling of a scene should be."
In November 1998, the director at NELM sent Wertheim an urgent e-mail: Fugard had decided to put his papers on the market. In early 1999, Wertheim met with Fugard and learned that the playwright had given his papers to an agent in Philadelphia to sell. Fugard no longer felt that his papers were safe at NELM. The archive was short of funds, and with the issues facing the South African government, that didnt seem likely to change.
NELM is basically two wood frame houses joined together," Wertheim says. Theres no climate control, no acid-free storage boxes, no security to speak of. There are no computers, not even a card catalog." Then there was the volatile political situation to consider: If South Africa explodes, a repository for white writers is probably going to get torched," Wertheim says.
Wertheim was struck by an idea when he remembered that Gordimers papers were at the Lilly Library. I saw that IU could become a major player as the home of a research library for the study of South African writers," he says. So I came trotting back and went to see (Lilly Librarian) Lisa Browar."
The library contacted the agent, and Fugard was pleased at the prospect of IU acquiring his papers. He knew of Gordimers connection to IU and was acquainted with Wertheim and his new study. The Lilly Library purchased Fugards papers in summer 1999. Ironically," Wertheim reflects, the manuscripts that I traveled across the world three times to look at are now ten minutes from my house."
The collection is a rich resource for students of literature, theater, and South African culture. A scholar from the University of Freiburg came to IU last year on a Fulbright scholarship to examine the papers for her doctoral dissertation on Fugard, and others will doubtless follow.
Having this kind of thing draws a lot of attention to IU, and it strengthens IUs already distinguished African studies program," says Wertheim. It also drew Fugard himself to IU last September as the Class of 1963 Wells Professor. Fugard gave public presentations and interviews, taught a seminar for Wells Scholars, and led a master class for IU students.
But in this digital age, why purchase original manuscripts that could be scanned and sent anywhere in the world as an e-mail attachment? Well, becauseto put it plainlyacquiring originals is what the Lilly Library is all about.
People get a feeling for the survival of this stuff when they can see and touch a quarto edition of The Merchant of Venice or the first edition of Gullivers Travels," Wertheim says.
And then there are the things one cant see on the Web. Wertheim cites an example from his work on Fugard: Some sheets of Fugards notepaper bear the legend St. Georges Park Swimming Pool" on the reverse side. His mother ran a whites-only milk bar in St. Georges Park, Port Elizabeth," Wertheim explains.
Now that word has gotten around, other South African writers and artists are considering the Lilly Library as a final destination for their collections. That can only bode well for IUs reputation, both as a center for research and as a custodian of the "hard copies" of world culture. Thanks to the Lilly Library, primary sources for the study of Fugard, Gordimer, and countless others are safe from the ravages of politics, neglect, and the Indian Ocean.