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The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard
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The Road to Mecca

by Athol Fugard

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Helen, whose husband’s death has caused her to stave off various bouts of depression and battles with, to use her word, “darkness,” has recently re-discovered her gift for sculpture. Her back yard – which Helen calls her Mecca - is full of bright, colorful, life-sized figures of biblical wise men, birds, and anything else her imagination encourages her to make. One of Helen’s only remaining friends, Elsa, pays her a surprise visit from Cape Town. During their discussion, Helen mentions that the dominee at her local Church, Byleveld, has taken it upon himself to suggest to her that she should consider moving into a convalescent home. Byleveld claims to express concern for the Church, but also for others in New Bethesda who think that Helen has become a mad eccentric, tottering on senility. Even though Helen is unable to do some things for herself, she has a local woman come to her house a few times a week, and seems very capable of living alone. Elsa vehemently urges Helen to resist Byleveld’s “help,” and refuse his offer. He’s even gone so far as to fill out the paperwork for the home; all he needs is her signature.

The play consists of only three characters, but the balance, dynamism, and tension between them is beautiful and subtle. While Byleveld could easily come off as patriarchal and overbearing, Fugard leaves plenty of room for the reader to believe that he’s really doing what he thinks is in Helen’s best interests, even though we are not to mistake his interruption as anything other than heavy-handedness. He’s not the easy-to-hate bigot that would have been caricatural. In a number of ways, Elsa is more of a caricature, with her youthful idealism and cosmopolitan, rigorous rejection of Afrikaner tradition.

As all great drama does, this resonates on a number of levels. It’s a comment on aging and how sometimes we see aging as a necessary loss of personal volition and independence. The disagreements between Byleveld and Elsa embody many of the dualisms that South Africans were dealing with thirty years ago, and to some extent continue to deal with: the rural versus the urban, the religious versus the secular, and a conscious effort to crush artistic openness and personal freedom versus a volitional effort to let that openness, or eccentricity as Byleveld calls it, flourish and prosper.

It might strike some as interesting that, for a play written in apartheid South Africa, I haven’t mentioned race. It’s not a major theme, but its presence is as insidious as Byleveld’s. Elsa is worried about her privilege, especially how it might impinge upon the lives of others, in compelling and sincere ways. On the way to visit Helen, Elsa gave a ride to a young black woman with a child, and she is haunted by what might have happened to her after they parted. By the end of the play, Elsa and Helen have rebuilt the trust that was compromised by Helen being ambivalent about standing up to Byleveld.

Athol Fugard is South Africa’s most well-known playwright, perhaps best known for “Master Harold … and the Boys.” I’d never read anything by him when I found “The Road to Mecca” last weekend at a library book sale for fifty cents. And after reading this, I’m even more eager to read more by him than I was before. ( )
1 vote kant1066 | Apr 22, 2012 |
Great for finding scenes for two female actresses. Other than that, I found it a bit hard to swallow - too depressing and dark, although I suppose the ending compensates for that. All in all, I think it is very well written and a great look at what happens when people are lonely and left to create their own world. ( )
  moonstormer | Mar 9, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0930452798, Paperback)

A South African pastor and a young teacher from Cape Town battle over the fate of an eccentric elderly widow.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:02:46 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A South African pastor and a young teacher from Cape Town battle over the fate of an eccentric elderly widow.

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