Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Road To Mecca - by Athol Fugard

The copyright on my copy says 1985, it doesn't state where the play was first performed. The Road to Mecca, is a two act play with three characters. At open Elsa, a 28 year old woman from Cape Town, turns up unannounced at Helen's home. Helen is an older woman living alone in a small village 800 miles away from Cape Town.

Through the course of the first act we see the sculptures that Helen has been creating since her husband's death, and learn that the villagers have ostracized her for her choice to make these and not follow the conventional path of a widow, going to church and visiting with the other ladies of the village. Elsa is a teacher at a 'colored school' in the city and has had a rough few months, a tumultuous ending of an affair with a married man and she's up for disciplinary review for asking her students to write about equal rights in South Africa. We also learn that Elsa has been moved to come here unannounced in response to a letter she received from Helen which read to her like a suicide note. The pastor has been pushing Helen to go to an old folks home and a space is ready for her if she will just sign. Elsa pushes Helen to face the problems, start taking care of herself, and not give up and let them tuck her away.

In the second act the pastor arrives and the deeper conflicts of the situation are revealed. Helen nearly burned her house down and didn't move to save herself. Through the course of the second act Elsa and the Pastor vie for control over Helen's life, until Elsa withdraws angrily - she'd been inspired by Helen's pursuit of creating her sculptures, by her freedom, and is disappointed that Helen won't fight for herself. Eventually though, she does, explaining to the Pastor and to Elsa the significance of the sculptures, their ability to capture and play with the light so that it will never be dark. The pastor relents, and the two women are left alone together.

There are many stories told, the gossip is passed between the women, the exposition is revealed through their conversation, catching up and clarifying why Elsa has suddenly arrived. The version of events told by Helen in the first act are turned around by the arrival of the pastor in the second. Elsa has to deal with this shift, which she feels as a betrayal. The pastor pleads his case clearly and seems to be motivated by something more than pastoral concern for one of his parishioners. And Helen's voice is only finally heard in fullness and clarity by the end of the play, although there are slivers, glintings and hints throughout.

The background of a village in South Africa in the 1970s is deftly painted in the background, it does not dominate the play, but it is an essential part of it.

In the preface, Fugard talks about the woman and place this play was inspired by. He talks about feeling like it might be a play but not being 'hooked' quite yet, the fish weren't yet biting. When he learned that this woman had a strong friendship with a younger woman, a social worker from the city, then he said his bait was taken and he could write the play.

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