A Note on Miss Helen by Athol Fugard

Posted on: December 30th, 2011 by Roundabout

It was a drive into the Karoo to spend a holiday on a friend's farm and the route I drove that took me for the first time through what had only been a name on a map until then: New Bethesda, a small village in what turned out to be an absolutely magnificent setting. As I drove through it, I couldn't help responding to it, because I was actually born in that part of the world—as a matter of fact, I was born fifteen miles away from New Bethesda in a place called Middelburg. Driving to my friend's farm I was struck by its isolation and thought to myself, hell, this would be quite a nice place to have a house to escape from the city if ever I felt like getting away from the world. I mentioned this to my friend, who said, "Well, you know, the houses are dirt-cheap in New Bethesda because there has been a move from the rural areas into the cities. You could pick up a house there very cheaply." So on the way back to Port Elizabeth, I stopped and looked around, and I discovered there were houses for sale very, very cheaply.

I returned three months later with the express purpose of buying a house, which I still own. In the course of looking at various houses and getting to know a few of the locals, reference was made to a rather strange character who lived in the village. Her name was Helen Martins and the people were kind of apologetic about her because they regarded her as a little crazy. They said that her craziness took the form of rather silly statues and sculpture that she made and had all around her house. I obviously couldn't resist the temptation of strolling in the direction of her house and seeing Miss Helen's "Mecca" for the first time. She was still alive at that point but had become virtually a total recluse. So, apart from seeing her in the distance once or twice, and nodding at her when she was among her statues and I happened to be walking past, I never got to know her personally.

Rosemary Harris in 'The Road to Mecca'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2011

About two years after I bought my house and started visiting the village regularly, Miss Helen committed suicide. Obviously, as a writer I couldn't help responding to this very eccentric character in this strange little community-a community which was in a sense hostile to her life and her work because it was a deviation from what the townspeople considered to be the way a life should be lived-and thinking: there's a damn good story. Over the next few years thoughts about Miss Helen occurred with some frequency in my notebooks.

I also began to discover more about the real Miss Helen. For example, up until the age of fifty, when her husband died, there was nothing about her that gave any hint of what was going to happen. Then her life suddenly erupted in this remarkable way in terms of her sculpture. Suddenly there was the first statue in the garden, and then over the next fifteen or seventeen years she worked away, with obsessive dedication, at what must have been a personal vision. After her death I went on to discover what she had done inside her house as well-as remarkable a feat as what she had done outside with the sculptures. Those seventeen years of creative activity ended, and there was a period of about eighteen months or two years during which she made nothing, did nothing and became very paranoid, very depressed. One night she killed herself by drinking caustic soda (the Americans would call it lye): she burned away her insides.

Though obviously in a sense provoked by Miss Helen's story, I'd never quite been hooked by it. I'm a fisherman and I know the difference between a fish that's just playing with your bait and one that says "WRITE! I'M IT!" and takes your rod down as you sit back and put the hook deep in. I wasn't hooked.

The hooking came through a coincidence of factors. At a personal level, I began to realize, a provocation had been thrown at me four years previously by an actress who was doing A Lesson from Aloes in Amsterdam (she had also done Boesman and Lena). In the course of a conversation at the Rijksmuseum she said to me, "Those are marvelous roles you have created for women. I'm very grateful to you for that but, looking back at your work, I can't help being struck by the fact that you have never had two women together. When are you going to do that?" And I suddenly registered for the first time that although I had created an interesting gallery of women's portraits over the years; I'd never put two women together on a stage as the focus of the whole event. Other personal factors in my life helped give the provocation more of an edge, more of a demand that I think about it and try to do something about it.

Rosemary Harris in 'The Road to Mecca'; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2011

While this was happening to me, I discovered another fact about Miss Helen: that in the last years of her life, the last period of nothing until her death, there had been one very significant friendship-a friendship with a young woman, a social worker from Cape Town. I'd rather not mention her name, because I've taken every liberty I felt necessary in writing the play. I've done my own thing; I've not written a documentary. I discovered the friendship had been very, very meaningful. I accidentally happened to meet the young woman. I was struck by her because she was very strong, a very remarkable person with a strong social conscience, a strong sense of what South Africa was about, a strong outrage at what was wrong with it. I couldn't help thinking of the anomaly of this sort of stern decency encountering the almost feudal world of New Bethesda-a South Africa which disappeared from the rest of the country a hundred years ago. Obviously, that young person had quite a confrontation with the village.

Because of my respect for Miss Helen the young woman gave me, as a gesture, a little memento of the occasion when we met-a photograph of herself and Miss Helen. I took one look at the photograph-it's a brilliant, beautiful photograph-and there was the play. There was the coincidence. I was hooked. That was the moment when I swallowed the bait.

From an interview first published in Theater magazine

The Road to Mecca plays at the American Airlines Theatre through March 4, 2012. For more information, click here.

Related Categories:
2011-2012 Season, The Road to Mecca

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