Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity       January 2001 • Volume XXIII, Number 3


Gilding the Lilly

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.'"

Professor Albert 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.
Photo © 2000 Tyagan Miller

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."

Fugard’s 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 Fugard’s papers are not just typescripts—they’re 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 didn’t seem likely to change.

“NELM is basically two wood frame houses joined together," Wertheim says. “There’s 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 Gordimer’s 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 Gordimer’s connection to IU and was acquainted with Wertheim and his new study. The Lilly Library purchased Fugard’s 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 IU’s 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, because—to put it plainly—acquiring 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 Gulliver’s Travels," Wertheim says.

And then there are the things one can’t see on the Web. Wertheim cites an example from his work on Fugard: Some sheets of Fugard’s notepaper bear the legend “St. George’s Park Swimming Pool" on the reverse side. “His mother ran a whites-only milk bar in St. George’s 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 IU’s 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.

For more information on the Web:
• Fugard Mss. at the Lilly Library
www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/lilly/mss/html/fugard.html

Return to Table of Contents