Teacher and Student: The First and the Final Confrontations Between Thami and Mr M
The true tragedy of apartheid lies not on the surface, but in the revealing of unspoken desires underneath the surface. Starkly contrasting with the play-long idealistic image of the “all-knowing Mr M and his brilliant protege Thami”, Thami and Mr M’s ideas about change in the apartheid system clash in this extract. By characterising this much needed moment of honesty as an anagnorisis, Fugard emphasises Thami and Mr M’s role reversal as they flesh out the truth from each other and thus go their separate ways, representing the black-on-black reality of apartheid.
Ripping off their fake ‘public’ masks, Thami and Mr M finally challenge each other to speak the truth in this extract. Starting off the extract with an accusatory tone, Thami sets the atmosphere as one of confrontation and invites the recurring silences that follow. Instead of calling Mr M by his respected title, Thami instead uses indirect, ‘avoidant’ personal pronouns like “you”, “somebody” and “everybody”. Adding to the resulting tone of betrayal, Mr M’s continual asking of questions, contrasting with Thami’s short, assertive responses throughout the extract conveys his confusion and dismay that their pedagogical relationship faces the threat of ending. For example, Mr M deliberately forces Thami to denounce the cold, hard truth when he orders: “Go on. [violently] If they find me here what?” As Thami’s actor chokes out the blatant truth – “They will kill you” – Fugard seems to seal the moment of transition from the fake, wishful ‘happy teacher and student’ relationship to the ugly, unresolved conflict underneath. While initially the rift may have stemmed from disagreeing methods of obtaining freedom – Thami with action, Mr M with language – here, Fugard utilises the tense moments of silence to suggest that there is more to that.
Throughout the play, the relationship between Thami and Mr M was between that of a student and his teacher. However, Fugard reverses their roles in this keystone peripeteia and thereby hints at the passing down of the dream of attaining freedom from the older to younger generation. As leader of the mob, Thami’s role forces him to eliminate all obstacles in the way, including Mr M. Thus, he speaks the truth in confronting Mr M: “I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for the struggle.” However, as Thami’s actor “[avoid[s] Mr M’s eyes]”, Fugard shows us the most significant conflict that apartheid raises – “black-on-black conflict” (Brian Crow, 1992). Considering this, the colour of one’s skin would not separate people, as demonstrated by the harmonious friendship between Thami and Isabel. Instead, Fugard argues that mutual understanding would separate the “innocent” from the “guilty”. Thus, when Mr M admits his betrayal of Thami – “That’s right, Thami. I am guilty. I did go to the police.” – a sympathetic audience’s mourning of the ensuing ‘breakup’ stems not only because of the teacher and student’s previously familial bond, but also because of the looming scent of death that follows. From a bright, optimistic front cover, Mr M’s seems to have given up by the end of the extract – not because he realises the fault of his peaceful method, but because he sees that he has “really lost [Thami]”. Thami and Mr M’s character arcs finally cross as the student becomes both the hero for the mob and the villain that saw his teacher to his death. With the theatrical use of a red coloured backdrop and lights at the end of this extract, an audience would understand that the end of the extract represents the death of Mr M’s peaceful protest. As Eric Sterling, 2016, notes: “The idea of patience as a virtue is a cliche to members of an oppressed younger generation who have become frustrated and desperate.”
Arguably Fugard’s key concern, “the reality of black-on-black conflict” (Brian Crow, 1992) is the legacy of the apartheid system. Contrary to the peaceful debate that opened the play, the resonating sound of violence in the background punctures the notion of words as the sword of truth in apartheid. With the rise of unexplained ideas of “the boycott”, “mob” and “revolution”, Fugard creates a sense of looming uncertainty for Thami’s future. Even though Mr M and Thami tried to convince each other to abandon his own cause one last time in this extract, the tragic nature of the play’s plot denounces the ineffectiveness of such cries. Interestingly, however, the play appears not to end, as Thami and Isabel – members of the younger generation – continue to live and lead their own causes. Perhaps then, Mr M’s death may be considered to be the breaking of the chains tying down Thami and Isabel to old, traditional ideas. Fugard demonstrates Thami’s young blood when he asserts: “I’ll make [the mob] believe me.” ‘The end of the play marks the beginning of the fight for freedom’, argues Fugard.
Aside from economic reasons, perhaps Fugard employed minimalist theatre in this three-hander to emphasise the birth of future young leaders. Because while Thami might have continued to hold sentiment with Mr M, Fugard argues that he stood up to Mr M in understanding that he could “do whatever it is [he] wants to” and advocate for whatever ideas he believes in. Reflecting the master-to-student legacy, Mr M’s separation from Thami represents only the start of ‘the hero’s journey’. The journey towards change truly only begins at the end of the play, and only future audiences will know the outcome of apartheid.
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