NEW HAVEN — A truckload of clamshells and a two inch squib in a Capetown newspaper are brought together on Long Wharf’s main stage for what playwright Athol Fugard considers the most important play he has written (out of a total of 33), The Train Driver.
The news item dealt with the suicide of a woman, Pumla Lolwana, who jumped in front of a speeding commuter train, while clutching her three children, two weeks before Christmas. The article added that the dead woman’s body was never claimed, and that the train driver was receiving counseling, because, as the company social worker explained, these things happen quite often, and the drivers always feel very guilty, despite the fact that they were in no way responsible.
The clamshells were pulverized at the inspiration of set designer Eugene Lee, to create the illusion of earth in a crude burial ground, which is the setting of Fugard’s work. Real dirt is too messy, Lee explained, and ground cork has the wrong feel to it. The cemetery, outside a squatter camp in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, is an amangcwaba, a windblown bone yard, where Simon Hanabe, a shambling, elderly Xhosa caretaker, lives in a shack and tends the graves of the unidentified dead.
Fugard transposed the thrust of the news article by putting his emphasis on the train driver, to whom he gave the name Roelf Visagie, and leaving the victim as an unidentified woman, holding one baby. The play is set in February, a few months after the event, when, suffering from post traumatic nightmares and outbursts of anger, Visagie has quit his job and left his family to visit the squalid shukuma squatter camps along the railroad line, looking for someone who would claim the woman in the red doek (scarf) whose face loomed up at him and looked in his eyes, seconds before his train smashed into her.
It is this search that brings him to the amangcwaba and Simon, in a confrontation as bleak and abstract as the existentialist dramas of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter. At the outset, their encounter is fraught with hostility and gruff suspicion. Enraged and distraught, Visagie demands to be shown the grave of the woman he calls Red Doek, so that he can curse her for what she has done to him.
Hanabe tells the white baas that he has no idea who is buried in any of the graves. That is the point, after all. He also warns Visagie to go home, that it is not safe for a white man to be there after dark, when the Amagintsa (gangs of young men with sharp knives) come to rob and kill.
Instead, Visagie remains in the graveyard. As Simon stolidly eats his supper of a can of beans, the train driver soliloquizes about his increasing alienation from his wife and children after the incident, the ineffectiveness of his bright-eyed “counselor,” his disappointment with God, and the ultimate explosion in which he ripped off the fairy lights and smashed the family Christmas tree, at which point his totally unsympathetic wife locked the kids in the bedroom and threw him out of the house.
For Fugard, whose life and career has revolved around the struggles and consequences of South African Apartheid, the case of a train driver who is jolted by the experience looking a woman in the eyes right before he inadvertently kills her becomes a metaphor for the much larger guilt that white South Africans must feel when they honestly face the appalling consequences of their country’s racial policies and start to see black Africans as human beings like themselves.
There are myriad psychological, theological and political overtones that can be read into its abstract, hauntingly mythic story, thus The Train Driver can be interpreted in a variety of ways, a fact which the playwright calls “a measure of richness in a work.”
While the actual play runs for just 90 minutes, without intermission, it leaves thinking for many hours afterward. In any case, the production, which wrapped on November 21, was superb. The performances, by Harry Groener as Roelf Visagie and Anthony Chisholm as Simon Hanabe, were absolutely wonderful.