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By Athol Fugard
New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1981
ISBN: 1-55936-001-1
79 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2014

Piet, an Afrikaner is married to an English South African woman, Gladys. As the play opens they are at their house and Piet is studying his small and growing collection of aloes. She has been in a mental institution for some time, is back home and struggling with her sanity.

Piet had been involved in an early struggle for improvement of the condition of blacks in South Africa, but their movement had been broken up. The leader, Steve, a black South African, and Piet’s closest friend, had been arrested during the protests and spent considerable time in jail and now has an exit visa (one way ticket) for him and his family and he will be sailing for England soon.

Piet and Gladys are expecting Steve and his family for dinner. However we discover things are not well in Piet and Gladys’ home. She is struggling with her condition and he has retreated into his aloes, seemingly to distract himself and lose himself in this meaningless hobby.

We discover along the way that Gladys is not getting well and is in fact slipping back into the madness which drove her to the institution. There are serious troubles in their marriage. She can’t face it all, nor can Steve, and each retreats in his or her own way.

When the “party” comes about it is a sad affair. Steve comes alone, leaving his family at home. We do discover that he is most unhappy to be leaving South Africa despite the terrible defeat their movement suffered, but he is leaving so that his children and wife may have a better life, yet he feels like he is utterly deserting his duty and country and the struggle he so believes in.

There is, however, an elephant in the room. There is a widespread belief in the community that it was Piet who ratted on Steve and caused his prison sentence and the break-up of that particular resistance group. None of the three want to discuss this.

The “lesson” from aloes is precisely the situation of the three. Piet’s obsession with these meaningless aloes is to give him some way to retreat from the painful and seemingly hopeless situation he is in. That’s how all three respond to their life situations. There is Piet with his aloes, his wife with her mental illness, and Steve with his deep concern for his family. Yet the whole play, at one deceptive level seems to be about the politics of South Africa. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is all about very personal issues; the political situation is there, but not central to their very personal problems.

This is a stunning, instructive, gripping and deeply touching play. What a master of the art of playwriting. I found myself gripped from beginning to end and couldn’t stop from the moment I started the play until a couple hours later when I’d read the play in its entirety. I recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett