Unformatted text preview: The Road to Mecca Athol Fugard - 1988 Study Guide Questions EXCERCISE p. 75 (1) How many characters are there in the play? Three – Marius Byleveld (the local dominee or priest), Elsa Barlow (a teacher from Cape Town) and Helen Martins, known as Miss Helen (an artist in Nieu Bethesda). One character, Elsa Barlow, is based on a real person and the other two are fictional. Elsa's character is based on a social worker from Cape Town which had a significant friendship with Miss Helen. Marius Bylevel's character is there because a little town such as Nieu Bethesda would, naturally, have had a church and a priest. Miss Helen lived from 1897-1976 and provided the inspiration for the character. She was born in the closing years of the 19th century, and grew up in the early part of the 20 th century, when there were strict expectations of all members of society (but particularly for women). In Miss Helen's real life, she divorced her husband and returned to Nieu Bethesda in the 1930's to care for her ill mother. Her mother died in 1941 and she was left alone. She inherited a small house in the village, Nieu Bethesde, known as “The Owl House”. (2) Who is the most important character? Why do you say this? Miss Helen. She is the protagonist of the play. The author used the real life of Helen, the setting and other aspects that were part of her life, but stated it was basically a “self portrait”. The entire play is played out in her home. She is also the reason Elsa comes to New Bethesda, to visit Helen because she is worried about her emotional state. Helen is also the reason for Marius’s visits; he cares for her and tries to fit her into his world. All of the characters gather at Helen’s home to discuss her emotional state and future. (3) How do the other characters relate to the main character? Elsa relates to Helen through her “Mecca” she sees it as Helen wants it to be seen and she has been drawn to it from the first moment she saw it as she states “ Believe me Helen, when I saw your “Mecca” for the first time, I just stood there and gaped.”(Page 22). To Elsa, Helen’s “Mecca” is a miracle “…your little miracle of light and colour” page 23. Helen and Elsa also share trust between each other, they are friends and share a passion for Helen’s art. Marius relates to Helen through their friendship, the possibility of love and the history he has with her. Marius cares for Helen and wants to be involved in her life and to ‘help’ her even if they do not agree on her “Mecca” as Marius himself states “A true friendship should be able to accommodate a difference of opinion.”(Page 44). Marius sees Helen the way he wants to see her and not for the person she truly is. (4) Does the play have a “happy ending”? Why do you think this? Yes, all three characters have gotten closure on aspects of their lives of which they were still unsure; they have all also come to conclusions about their lives. Miss Helen has realised that her “Mecca” is complete “My Mecca is finished…” (page 74). She has also finally stood up for herself against Marius, the church and the town who want to dictate her life. Elsa opened up about the hardships she faced while she was away, she also learns to trust again when she metaphorically tells Helen to catch her “Open your arms and catch me! I’m going to jump!” (page 76). This statement also refers back to a previous conversation between Helen and Elsa about trust in which Elsa tells Helen a story about a father and a son and the lesson of trust (page 20) showing that Elsa truly puts her faith in Miss Helen. Marius realises he has lost the battle to change Miss Helen back to the women she once was, and after years of trying he realises he must let her go and move on as he states “ All these years it has always felt as if I could reach you. It seemed so inevitable that I would, so right that we should find each other again and be together for what times was left to us in the same world.” (page 69). But he also realises that Helen is happy in her world. (5) What general, human issues is the play “about”? (Try to identify the theme or main idea of the play). Art vs. Religion: The church is against her “Mecca”, Helen chose her art over the church on the first Sunday she chose to stay home and make her first owl and she understood that there would be consequences for her actions but her art was more important to her se states in a conversation with Marius “…But don’t think that missing church that Sunday was something I did lightly, Marius. You don’t break the habit of the lifetime without realizing that life will never quite be the same again.“ (page 63) Apartheid: The play is set in apartheid South-Africa. Elsa struggles to come to terms with the situation, she is faced with an apartheid situation when a black farm workers wife was kicked of the farm by the “baas” when her husband died and Elsa picked her and her baby up beside the road hiking (page 7) She also encourages her students to freedom of speech and ends up with a hearing at her school because of it. She wants the coloured people’s decisions and thought to be listened to as well as she states on page 13 “…has anybody bothered to ask the coloured people what they think about it all?” The lack of people’s rights is a central theme as Helen also feels her rights are being stripped away. Women’s rights: Women’s rights are brought up in various conversations in the play. Such as Helen not being able to live alone because she is an elderly women or that it is frowned upon for her to make her art because it is not something women must be capable to do. Katrina’s life is also a part of the theme of women’s rights as her husband abuses her “And making all sorts terrible threats about her and the baby.” (page 11) also that she cannot leave him because “They’re married” (page 11) she is also only seventeen years old so it is also a child’s rights issue. Another example is the women Elsa meets beside the road that was evicted from the farm by the “baas” because her husband died. Trust: The trust between Helen and Elsa how it is broken in the middle of the play but built up again at the end. Journeys: The journey Helen takes her entire life to complete her “Mecca” and the one that lies ahead now that her “Mecca” is completed. Elsa’s journey to forget all the negative things in her life and to move on to a better place. Marius’s journey to save Helen ever since she started her “Mecca” as well as the journey he completed since his wife passed, and in the end of the play to forget Helen and how he feels about her. Introduction: the play and the film The Road to Mecca, by Athol Fugard, is playscript – it belongs to the dramatic genre. Genres and their subdivisions Prose (wheter fiction or non-fiction) uses chapters to devide sections of the text from one another. Poetry uses stanzas. A stanza is a paragraph in verse. Drama uses Acts for major devisions. Acts may be devided into scenes, so that the location of the action can change from one scene to another in the same Act. Terms uses in studying drama The dramatis personae is the list of characters in the play. The stage directions tell the director and actors what is happening on the stage at any point in the play. The dialogue is the words spoken by the characters in the play. TRTM is devided into two Acts. The first Act begins with Elsa Barlow's arrival at Helen Martin's home in Nieu Bethesda. The conversation introduces the audience to the problems that the two women are facing. The second Act intriduces a third character – Marius Byleveld, the “dominee” or priest of the local church. The conversation between Helenn, Elsa and Marius takes up the whole of Act 2 and brngs some resolution to the problems that were raised in Act 1. Act 2 is different from Act 1, although they take place in the same location (or setting) because there is an extra character. This changes the tone and content of the conversation between Helen and Elsa, and pushes Helen to make an important decision about her life. The characters: Of the three characters in TRTM, one is based on a real person and the other two are fictional. Fugard tells us in “A Note on Miss Helen”at the beginning of the play that “there had been one very significant friendship ― a friendship with a young woman, a social worker, from Cape Town”. Elsa Barlow is based on this person, whose real name is not given in the play. Marius Byleveld, the “dominee” or priest of the local church, is there because a little town such as Nieu Bethesda would, naturally, have had a church and a priest. Helen martins (“miss Helen”): Helen Martins, who was known as “Miss Helen”, lived from 1897 to 1976 and provided the inspiration for the character of Helen in The Road to Mecca. Helen Martins was born in the closing years of the nineteenth century, and grew up in the early part of the twentieth century, when there were strict expectations of all members of society (but particularly for women, as we shall see later). The important events in Helen Martins’s life, as far as TRTM is concerned, are her divorce from her husband and her return to Nieu Bethesda in the 1930s to care for her ill mother. Her mother died in 1941 and she was left alone. After the death of Martins’s mother, she inherited a small house in the village. The Karoo desert is very dry all year round, cold in winter and hot in summer. Houses in the village were small, with low roofs. “The Owl House”, as Helen Martins’s house has become known, is typical of the architecture of the town. From the outside, Helen Martins’s house looks exactly like any other house in an arid area. It is only when one enters it that one sees the extraordinary transformation that she brought about inside it. Look at the following picture of the interior of the house: and of the yard, which Helen called “the Camel Yard”: EXERCISE p. 81 (1) What is your first response to the pictures of Helen Martin's art that you have just seen? For example, do you find it attractive, strange, ugly or does it arouse any other feelings? Why? My first response to her art is that it reminds me of the desert, complete with camels and biblical figures. My impression is that she created her own world - a fantasy world - by creating sculptures of animals that don’t exist in real life - having a vivid imagination. My feeling is that she was very lonely and wanted to create a town where she fits in - the statues were almost like her friends that kept her company. She is fulfilling her dreams by creating her own environment. Many of her statues were mystical - as if she is living in a fantasy world of her own. I can only describe Helen’s domain as being a mixture of wonder, sadness, I’ll say it – creepiness – but there is an overwhelming sense of awe. This was a woman who had lived past her conditioning and her limitations and who had no other resources other than a few postcards and some books. (2) What do you think about the woman who made these art works? What kind of person could she have been? I think she was a very lonely woman. Her life was boring and dull and she decided to do something about it and started bringing some “light” into her life by creating her own haven. I also think she had a very creative imagination. She was eccentric and did not care much about her own appearance. Introvert. (3) Are there religious symbols among Helen's art works? Yes, there is a sculpture that looks like a church which reminds me of Christianity. It could also be a mosque which reminds me of the Muslim religion. There is also an image of a face which reminds me of an extinct religion. Then there are also statues that refer to different cultures with their own unique religions. According to Helen Martins’s biography, she was ill one night and watched the moon shining through her window. That night, she thought that her life had become drab and grey, and she decided that she would change it by bringing light into her environment. From that one moment of self-reflection sprang the entire transformation of the Owl House. Helen Martins’s life and art provided the inspiration for Athol Fugard to write TRTM. The real Helen Martins and her husband were divorced after only a few years of marriage, while Fugard makes his Helen the widow of a man called “Stefanus”. The marriage between Helen and Stefanus, which took place many years before the action of TRTM, gives Helen the opportunity to reflect on what really matters in her life and whether marriage (which was expected of women in small villages) provided her with real fulfilment. In addition, Helen Martins did not make all her own sculptures: she designed and only possibly made some of them. She employed two “Coloured”men, Piet van der Merwe and Koos Malgas, to build, cement and decorate the figures and animals in her “Camel Yard”and around her house. These men are now honoured as artists in their own right, but they do not appear in TRTM, where Helen describes building her own figures and animals. Finally, Fugard has invented all her words in the play; and the two other characters, Elsa and Marius, are also invented. Elsa Barlow: Athol Fugard writes in an interview with Gitta Honegger that: … in the last years of [Helen’s] 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. (Fugard 2003: n.p.) Elsa Barlow is based on the young social worker who meant so much to Helen Martins in her later life. Fugard has changed the details, though: he has invented the young woman’s name and her profession (she is not a social worker, but a school-teacher in the play) and he has invented all her circumstances as well. The play opens with Elsa’s arrival at Miss Helen’s house in Nieu Bethesda. She has just driven for twelve hours from Cape Town to Nieu Bethesda, and she appears to be tired from her journey as well as somewhat irritable. One of the first things she tells Helen, rather strangely, is that she gave a lift to a young woman and her baby on the road between Cape Town and Cradock. This nameless young woman, whom Elsa describes as “African” is extremely important. Exercise p. 82 (1) What kind of person is Elsa? Which adjectives (describing words) would you use to describe her personality? Single, adulterer, outspoken, troubled, caring, dominating, rude, independent, strong, truthful, trustworthy. (2) What are Elsa's life problems? Elsa has trust issues, she had an affair with a married man who chose his wife over her, she was also impregnated by him but she had an abortion which only added to her emotional instability. She is also against the apartheid government and tries to advocate against this government, she tries to teach people about freedom of speech. She is also against traditions and conformity. Elsa also struggles with “Afrikaner” conventions. (3) Why has she come to visit Helen? Elsa is worried about Helen’s emotional wellbeing because of the letter she received from Helen as stated on page 27. She is Helen’s friend and has come to support her and help her through the difficult time she is having. (4) What is her role in Helen's life? Elsa has a deep friendship with Helen despite the big difference in their ages. They share a mutual trust and can be themselves with each other. Elsa treats Helen’s work with respect and is interested in her work. These two women cling to each other in challenging a symbiotic friendship. Elsa gives Helen’s recognition for the work she does and accepts her eccentricity. Elsa is Helen’s only true friend who accepts her and her art just as they are; she is a lover of Helen’s work. Elsa and Helen trust only each other. also makes Helen feel like a “young girl” again. (5) What does Helen mean to her? Helen has served as a source of inspiration for Else, to grow the ability to cope with the hardships of life and sees Helen as a role model, and a mother figure as the writer tells us on P77. As Elsa slowly explains her personal problems to Helen, we realise that she is a single woman who has been having a relationship/affair with a married man and has fallen pregnant. She had an abortion to do away with the foetus and is deeply scarred by the experience. This helps to explain why she is so upset by the plight of the African woman and her baby on the road, although her reaction (she tells Helen in Act 2 that she “stopped the car, switched off the engine, closed my eyes and started to scream” (Fugard 2003:77)) is extreme. EXCERCISE p. 82 Read page 73 again and write a paragraph explaining why Elsa screams after she has dropped the young woman and her baby on the road. It is the first time truly expresses her hurt in a physical manner about all the sadness she has experienced. Elsa feels remorse about the baby as well as the relationship she had with David. She has feelings of hate and sadness towards herself, David, the apartheid nation, and the school she is teaching at. She mourns for her dead baby and by seeing this women and her strength in these horrible circumstances, she is disappointed in herself and her actions. Elsa and Helen have a deep and special friendship. Early in Act 1, Elsa says “Let’s face it, we’ve both got a little girl hidden away in us somewhere”and Helen replies “And they like to play together” (Fugard 2003:18). Despite the differences between their ages, occupations and cultural backgrounds (Elsa is English-speaking while Helen is rooted in Afrikaans culture), they discuss ―and disagree about ―a wide range of private and political matters. Helen and Elsa agree that the essence of their friendship, the thing that makes it special, is “trust” (Act 1, pp. 31–32). For Helen and Elsa, the fact that they can trust each other means that they can let their defences down, show their faults and vulnerabilities, and be truly themselves with each other. And that, Fugard suggests in The Road to Mecca, is the only way a relationship between two people (whether they are partners, parents, children or friends) can mean anything. It also refers to the Introduction to TRTM, where Fugard writes that this is the first time he has ever written about a friendship between two women, although he is famous for including intense interactions between men in his plays. EXCERCISE p. 82 (1) What is Elsa's challenge to Helen? Elsa mentions freedom, and that is one of her challenges to Helen, to rediscover her freedom. If she agreed to go to "Sunshine" she would have given up her freedom completely. Elsa referred to the yard as being an expression of freedom, and Helen was almost willing to surrender her freedom because she was no longer able to add to her Mecca My Mecca is finished and with it - I must try to say it, mustn't I? — the only real purpose my life has ever had. Elsa challenged her to realise that there is still purpose in her life, and more to learn Just as I taught myself how to light candles, and what that means, I must teach myself now how to blow them out…and what that means. The last phase of my apprenticeship…and if I can get through it, I'll be a master! and part of her new expression of freedom is a visit to the Doctor for her arthritis, a visit to the Optometrist for her sight, and someone to help her around the house. She is not as helpless as she had been led to believe — needing some help is not the same as being completely helpless. The challenges aren't always direct - Elsa focuses on getting Helen to stand up for herself, to assert her independence, and to actively say "No" to Marius. Helen obviously tries to avoid this by asking Elsa to speak to Marius, but Elsa stands firm in her refusal to do so, and her insistence that it has to come from Helen directly, to the point where she actually tries to be out of the room when the time comes for Helen to take her stand against Marius and the town. We get the idea that this is something that Helen has done many times in the past 15 years, but appears to have grown tired and weary of doing this anymore. Part of the risk is that Marius will believe it is Elsa who has manipulated Helen, and indeed he does Does she have so much power over you that you will now believe anything she says? Maybe Elsa has manipulated Helen, but only into holding onto her freedom and independence, while Marius and the town have manipulated Helen into believing she is helpless. Elsa is also challenging Helen to fight against the darkness (the metaphorical darkness). It is something that has been with Helen almost her entire life, so there is no possibility of her vanquishing the darkness, but she still has the ability to fight against it, to push it back with her light, with the candle her mother left her because she is now old enough. We know that the darkness eventually won - real darkness and the metaphorical darkness. Her eyesight got worse, and it was the fear of going blind, succumbing to complete darkness, that pushed her to take her own life. A bitter irony is that a possible cause of her deteriorating eyesight was the finely ground glass she used to decorate the inside of her house in order to enhance the light and keep the literal darkness at bay. (2) How does Helen challenge Elsa in return? Helen in turn challenges Elsa to trust again, which in turn will help her to love again and to feel alive. “She challenges me into an awareness of myself and my life, of my responsibilities to both that I never had until I met her” (Fugard 1988:61). The play ends on a note of hope. As the two women prepare for bed, Elsa offers Helen a Valium (a chemical tranquilliser or sedative). The final line is spoken by Elsa: “Open your arms and catch me! I’m going to jump!”(Fugard 1988:76). EXERCISE p. 83 What does Elsa mean by “I am going to jump”? It means that she trusts Helen to catch her if she jumps. The fact that she trusts Helen proves that she dropped her defences, and made herself wide open to Helen. After all the problems and difficulties that they have dealt with, they still take comfort in their friendship. She is saying that she will take a leap of faith not only by putting her trust in Helen again but also in her own life by moving on from the hardships she has experienced and starting over. Dominee marius Byleveld: As an ordained minister of religion, Marius’s job is to take care of his “flock”(everyone who attends his church). He is not only interested in their spiritual wellbeing and beliefs, but also in their life circumstances and whether they are living lives that are both good and happy. People in small villages usually live there for many decades, so their priests have plenty of opportunity to get to know them, their families and their situations. The priest would often visit them, too, and often became a trusted friend of everyone in his parish. Helen describes Marius as “an old friend”, but it is evident that her friendship with him is not as deep or profound as her friendship with Elsa. In fact, there is an unspoken conflict between Marius and Helen over religious and artistic issues, although Their conflict is expressed in polite terms and is not violent in any way. ECXERCISE p. 83 Re-read Act 2 and answer the following questions: (1) What is the reason for Marius's visit? What does he want Helen to do? After a series of accidents around the house and convinced that Miss Helen is unfit to live by herself, the local dominee, Marius Byleveld, on behalf of the Christian Church Council, is trying to manipulate and pressure Miss Helen to give up her house and art to go live in an old-age home called 'Sunshine Home for the Aged', in Graaff-Reinet. Marius thinks he is well intentioned and has Miss Helen's best interests at heart, but together with the conservative Afrikaner community, he is seeking to still a progressive and threatening artist and shutting down her garden of disturbing images. The main reason for Marius's visit, is to collect the apllication form – already pre-filled in by him – for a room in the old age home. He is clearly forcing Miss Helen to sign the form by placing “his fountain pen, in readiness, on the form.” (TRTM 1988:51). In contrast Marius states that “Nobody is forcing you, Helen! If you sign this form, it should be of your own free will.” (TRTM 1988:53). At first, Marius pretends that his visit is just a quick social call because of Elsa's presence, and the unknown if Miss Helen discussed the matter with Elsa, and maybe hoping that she didn't. Marius and Miss Helen discuss and complete the unanswered questions on the form, and also discuss her will and testament. According to Marius, her move is a done deal because he says “the room is definitely yours” (TRTM 1988:48), and he has already arranged for her to go visit the old age home “to meet the matron and other people there and to see your room.” (TRTM 1988:50). (2) Marius claims that he knows what is good for Helen and that is why he has come to visit her. Do you believe him. Why? At first I do believe that Marius's intentions are pure, within the context of the time period, and the conservative mindset that prevailed, and that he knows what is good for Miss Helen. As the second act progresses, I learn that he does not know what is best for her, as he does not understand her wildly beating feminist heart. Marius thinks it is his duty as a friend and a Christian to save Miss Helen by putting her in a retirement home for the elderly, because he fears for her safety (she recently burned herself by accident), her physical well-being and her soul. During the second act, we learn that Marius is sincerely concerned about Miss Helen's health and whether she is able to look after her home and herself. Marius presents 'Sunshine Home for the Aged' as the only possible option and solution, yet having known Miss Helen for 20 years, he should be aware of her independence and need for freedom and creative expression, something she would be completely stripped of when leaving her home. Marius never presents other options and solutions to Miss Helen, showing that he doesn't know what is best for her. Marius slowly reveals his religious objectives to Miss Helen's art – he calls them “cement monstrosities” (TRTM 1988:63) – what is all along his main motive. He wants to shut down her garden of ornaments which he describes as “expressions of freedom” (TRTM 1988:62) and “idolatry” (TRTM 1988:61), and what he believes have replaced her faith. He sees her art and lifestyle as a dangerous break with the status quo to which the villagers, and himself, respond with rejection and suspicion. In the end, Marius notices a remarkable change in Miss Helen: “I've never seen you as happy as this! There is more light in you than in all your candles put together.” (TRTM 1988:70). This peak experience has a turning point on Marius when he realises his misstep towards Miss Helen and his limitations, and takes his leave of her with a heavy heart. Marius is not a villian wishing to bind and confine Miss Helen, but a fellow sympathetic sufferer. (3) Elsa claims that Marius is in love with Helen (Fugard 2003:74). Do you agree with her? Why? Yes, I do believe that Marius was and still is in love with Miss Helen, but with the 'previous version' of her, before her 'hobby' became her whole life. Marius indirectly confesses that he loves Miss Helen and was ready to take care of her: “...can't give you love or take care of you the way we wanted to. And, God knows, we were ready to do that.” ( TRTM 1988:63). He struggles to 'find' Miss Helen because she turned her back on him and his love for the company of “those cement monstrosities.” (TRTM 1988:63). Marius says that Elsa “knows nothing, nothing, about my true feelings for you.” (TRTM 1988:64). He confesses hat he loves Miss Helen, but has concealed it from her, and everyone else, for all these years. Marius feels that he should be the saviour of Miss Helen's soul and the one to help her renew her Christian faith. Because of his love for her, he is willing to break his own soul just to save hers. Marius had waited patiently, all these years, for Miss Helen to reach the end of her Mecca, as it was inevitable. His love for her was strong enough to endure despite his prejudice and misunderstanding. Ever since that Sunday, when Miss Helen wasn't at church, Marius was trying and struggling to reach her, to find the 'real' Miss Helen so that they can “be together for what time was left to us in the same world.” (TRTM 1988:69). Marius says that “it seems wrong...terribly wrong...that we won't.” (TRTM 1988:69). He is a defeated man and accepts that he has completely lost her. He doesn't find it easy “trying to find the first moment of a life that must be lived out in the shadow of something that is terribly wrong.” ( TRTM 1988:69). When Marius and Miss Helen bid their final goodbyes, he notices a change in her and says: ““I've never seen you as happy as this! There is more light in you than in all your candles put together.” ( TRTM 1988:70). For the first time he notices, and maybe even accepts, the true Miss Helen - radiant, happy and free. Naturally, Marius believes in and serves the Christian religion, worshipping God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit within his church. We can assume that most of the people in the village belong to his church, too. Helen’s statues of mermaids, owls and pilgrims on camels, on their way to Mecca, offend him because they refer to another religion (Islam Religion) or vision of life: they do not fit into his views of what widowed old ladies are supposed to do. He says of Helen’s statues: “In another age and time it might have been called idolatry” (Fugard 1988:61), or the worship of false gods. Later Marius remembers how Helen missed church to make her first statue of an owl, and it is clear that he views the making of the statues as a kind of competition in Helen’s mind and life with “the true faith”of Christianity. T o Elsa, though, the statues are an expression of something else: Helen’s “vision”of life and her desire for beauty and light. There are, therefore, three different views of Helen’s art, which is at the centre of the play’s development. Some of the symbols in Helen Martin's art: Symbol Meanings The owl Helen Martin's personal totem animal (an animal that is a symbol of a particular quality). For her, the owl was a symbol of intuition, insight and wisdom. Mecca Mecca, the capital of the Middle Eastern country of Saudi Arabia, is the holy city of the religion of Islam. To travel to Mecca is the high point, or goal, of a devout Muslim’s religious life. Mecca is, therefore, the symbol of a spiritual or personal goal. It represents a state of mind in which spiritual fulfilment and freedom have been reached. Glass Helen Martins used glass in her art because it reflects light. Her aim as an artist was to fill her living space, and her life, with light, which is a symbol of clarity and happiness. Camels and their riders As Mecca is situated in a desert country, pilgrims on their way to the holy city would often ride on camels (which are known as “ships of the desert” because of their ability to undertake long journeys across desert landscapes). Religion and conflict: Religion is one of the greatest spurs on disagreement and conflict because people feel strongly about it. Helen Martins’s use of the word “Mecca”in TRTM is associated with Islam, not Christianity. Marius Byleveld is a Christian priest, or “dominee”. In the twentieth century, during Helen Martins’s life, the village of Nieu Bethesda was part of the settlement of South Africa by Christians of European origins, belonging to various denominations, such the Dutch Reformed Church. To them, the Christian religion was the only right way to live. The Church was the instrument of God’s will and the Bible was the ultimate authority. By using The Road to Mecca as the title of his play, Fugard aligns himself with a different religion from Christianity ―Islam. The holy symbol of Islam is not the cross, but the city of Mecca, where pilgrims travel as the culmination of their devotion to God. Pilgrimages Throughout history, religious people have travelled to holy places. They do this to deepen their experience of God. These journeys are called pilgrimages and the people who undertake them are called pilgrims. There is a clear conflict between Helen’s “Mecca”and the Christian faith of the Church Council of Nieu Bethesda, represented by Dominee Marius Byleveld, even though this is not spelled out in terms of faith, God or any spiritual concepts. Marius, on behalf of the Church Council (who are probably very powerful in the village), wants Helen to move to the “Sunshine Home for the Aged”in the nearby town of Graaff-Reinet (about 60 km from Nieu Bethesda). Elsa describes the Sunshine Home as follows: ELSA: That’s the lovely old house on the left when you come into GraaffReinet, next to the church. In fact, it’s run by the church, isn’t it? HELEN: Yes. ELSA: That figures. It’s got a beautiful garden, Miss Helen. Whenever I drive past on my way up here there are always a few old folk in their “twilight years” sitting around enjoying the sunshine. It’s well named. It’s all very restful. (Act 1, p. 30-31) Helen does not want to move to the Sunshine Home for the Aged, though. She wants to stay in Nieu Bethesda, close to her “Mecca”. Part of her discussion with Elsa concerns whether she is able to look after her home and herself, and therefore keep her independence in her own home as an active artist (there would be no place for strange sculptures of camels and owls in the Sunshine Home). There is, then, an opposition, or conflict, between what the (Christian) Church wants for Helen and what she wants for herself. Throughout the play, Elsa and Helen talk a great deal about Mecca and its meaning for Helen. At their first meeting, Helen asks Elsa the way to Mecca and then proudly corrects her. This is very unusual behaviour for a woman in a tiny, Christiandominated village in the Karoo: we would expect her, if she showed any religious belief at all, to be interested in the location of the nearest church. EXCERCISE p. 86 Read the following passage from The Road to Mecca in preparation for answering questions on it. ELSA: But that first time …I wish I could make you realize what it’s like to be walking down a dusty, deserted little street in a God-forsaken village in the middle of the Karoo, bored to death by the heat and flies and silence, and then to be stopped in your tracks – and I mean stopped! – by all of that out there. And then, having barely recovered from that, to come inside and find this! Believe me Helen, when I saw your “Mecca”for the first t ime, I just stood and gaped. “What in God’s name am I looking at? Camels and pyramids? Not three, but dozens of Wise Men? Owls with old motorcar headlights for eyes? Peacocks with more colour and glitter than the real birds? Heat stroke? Am I hallucinating?”And then you! Standing next to a mosque made out of beer bottles and staring back at me like one of your owls! (Act 1, p. 22) Now re-read the section of the play that deals with the idea of “Mecca”(Act 1, pages 22-26 and 37) and answer the questions below. (1) Is Helen's Mecca the same as the holy city of Islam in Saudi Arabia? Why, or why not? No, this is her own “pilgrimage”. Her “Mecca” is her own journey of self-discovery and it is a world she has created for herself which she visits daily. Her “Mecca” does not have any involvement in Islam or religion. (2) We know that Mecca is the goal of Islam's most important and meaningful pilgrimage. In what way can Helen's art be compared to pilgrimage? Her art is a journey for her; each peace takes her a step closer to self-discovery, and new creative outlets. Her “Mecca” takes her on her pilgrimages to freedom, creativity and light. (3) Helen creates her “Mecca”as a non-Christian holy site. Can you speculate about the values of Christianity that she might be rejecting in this action? The values of the “old” Christian church that she should be in church each Sunday, that she is not allowed to make these ‘strange’ art pieces and that she should conform to the church and societies rules for what is acceptable behaviour. It should be clear from your exploration of the idea of “Mecca”in TRTM that Helen associates religious values with her art. Certainly, for Helen, “Mecca”is associated with the freedom to express herself and her inner vision. In he same way as the city of Mecca is the goal of the major spiritual pilgrimage of Islam (the Haj), Helen’s “Mecca”is the goal of her journey as an artist. She might feel that she has reached Mecca when she has finished decorating her house with light and building sculptures in her yard. It is clear that, as long as Helen continues work on her “Mecca”, she will have a reason to live. Women in The Road To Mecca: Helen Martins’s life story tells how she married a young man called Johannes Pienaar, but did not remain married for long. It is important to remember that at the time of her girlhood, a woman’s destiny was to marry and raise children (to a large extent, this is still true). By marrying in her early adulthood, Helen Martins was, therefore, living up to social expectations. But separating from her husband was not part of what was expected of a woman, and would have brought some degree of shame or notoriety upon her. Therefore, at the end of her marriage, Helen would have been seen as an unusual, slightly misdirected woman, who had strayed from the path that society laid down for her. Her next act was to move to Nieu Bethesda to look after her ailing parents, which was perfectly acceptable for a dutiful daughter of her time. Helen spent 17 years nursing her sick mother and she was nearly 50 when she found herself alone in a small village in the Karoo. Even in our time, this is not a promising situation for a single woman, and it was less promising in Helen’s time. There was, presumably, a shortage of eligible men, so Helen Martins’s marriage prospects were not very good. And in the early part of the twentieth century, it was not socially appropriate for single, middle-aged women (Helen, by then, was in her late middle age) to take up a new career and manage it on their own. Helen Martins was, therefore, a very unusual woman, who did not conform to what society expected of her in any way. Once married, she did not devote herself to the care and nurturing of her husband or children (she did not have any children, in fact): and when alone, she did not do what many women of her age did, namely to sink peacefully into old age as a useful member of her community, perhaps as a helper in the local church. Instead, Helen began an activity that is usually considered as belonging to men only: making sculptures. EXCERCISE p. 87 Write a paragraph about the ways in which Helen, in The Road to Mecca, does not conform to what is expected from women. Helen is a forward thinking, unusual women for her time. Since her husband’s death she has not conformed to what is expected of a widowed white woman. Helen did not truly mourn her husband, nor did she join the other ladies of her age in church activities. She went against all that was seen normal by living on her own and not getting married again. She stepped away from her religion and started making sculptures which was not ‘normal’ for that time. Now write another paragraph about how you imagine her community in Nieu Bethesda might have responded to her as a single woman in late middle age who was building sculptures in her yard of camels, pilgrims, owls and mermaids with cement, broken car headlights and bottles. The people would have reacted in the same way people usually do when someone is different; by pushing them away. The people must have tried to avoid Helen as they now saw her as strange and unstable. Most people would have thought she went insane. That is why Helen only has three friends. The children were afraid of her and her house but so also were the parents. There are other women characters in TRTM, too, who come into conflict with social expectations for women: Elsa Barlow and Katrina, as well as the woman to whom Elsa gives a lift. Katrina is Helen’s part-time domestic helper. In Fugard’s version, Katrina is also married to Koos Malgas (the real name of the man who, under Helen Martins’s direction, built a great many of the sculptures that decorate her yard). When Elsa is asking Helen about Katrina, Helen replies: HELEN: She’s fine. And so is the baby. As prettily dressed these days as any white baby, thanks to the clothes you sent her. She’s been very good to me, Elsa. Never passes my front door without dropping in for a little chat. Is always asking about you. I don’t know what I would do without her. But I’m afraid Koos has started drinking again. And making all sorts of terrible threats about her and the baby. He still doesn’t believe it’s his child. ELSA: Is he beating her? HELEN: No. The warning you gave him last time seems to have put a stop to that. ELSA: God, it makes me sick! Why doesn’t she leave him? HELEN: And then do what? ELSA: Find somebody else! Somebody who will value her as a human being and take care of her and the child. HELEN: She can’t do that, Elsie. They’re married. ELSA: Oh, for God’s sake, Helen. There’s the Afrikaner in you speaking. There is nothing sacred about a marriage that abuses the woman! (Fugard 2003:23) The problems mentioned in these lines (alcohol, wife-beating, teenage pregnancy and the abuse of women) are common in poor communities across the globe. Unfortunately, they impact more heavily on women than they do on men, because women are child-bearers, their social role is to raise children, and they tend to be physically weaker than men. We learn a few lines later that Katrina is seventeen years old, which is really very young for motherhood. By not believing that Katrina’s child is also his, Koos is also accusing her of infidelity and giving himself a further reason to abuse his wife. Katrina’s plight is the same as that of many black women, who are married and pregnant at a young age and are then at the mercy of abusive husbands. Elsa’s response to her problems (“There is nothing sacred about a marriage that abuses the woman!”) expresses a feminist attitude to the social problems that beset women, especially in poor communities where, unfortunately, they are frequently the victims of violence and abuse. It is likely that Athol Fugard shares Elsa’s view of marriage, as it is a “human rights”approach to the problem of marital violence: but what does this mean for Helen’s marriage? In conversation with Marius in Act 2, Helen describes her marriage: HELEN: You brought me home from the cemetery, remember, and when we had got inside the house and you had helped me off with my coat, you put on the kettle for a pot of tea and then … ever so thoughtfully … pulled the curtains and closed the shutters. Such a small little thing, and I know that you meant well by it, that you didn’t want people to stare in at me and my grief … but in doing that it felt as if you were putting away my life as surely as the undertaker had done to Stefanus a little earlier when he closed the coffin lid. There was even an odour of death in here with us, wasn’t there, sitting in the gloom and talking, both of us in black, our Bibles in our laps? Your words of comfort didn’t help. But that wasn’t your fault. You didn’t know I wasn’t mourning Stefanus’s death. He was a good man, and it was very sad that he had died so young, but I never loved him. My black widowhood was really for my own life, Marius. While Stefanus was alive there had at least been some pretence at it … of a life I hadn’t lived. But with him gone …! (Fugard 2003:71) The experience Helen describes in these lines is also common amongst women, who marry and then discover that they do not share real love with their husbands. After Stefanus’s funeral, Helen feels as though she is dead: as though her life is over and there is nothing meaningful in it any more. But she realises that her marriage was deathly and that, after Stefanus’s death, she is free. EXCERCISE p. 89 Write a paragraph about the way/s in which women are not “free” in marriage. When two people get married they are connected to one another and there are certain roles as dictated by society that should be filled by each individual, it cannot be said for all marriages but in many the women are not “free” this would have been especially true in Helen’s time. In many marriages the women is part of her husband’s household and sadly is not as free to make her own choices. Some men would even go to the extent of believing that their wife is their property which leaves a door opens to abuse and domestic violence. EXCERCISE p. 89 Read the sections of TRTM in which Elsa describes her relationship with David (pp. 1821 and 76). (1) What problem in Elsa's relationship with David led to their seperation? He is married. (2) What were the consequences of the relationship? She fell pregnant, had an abortion and ended up with a broken heart. (3) How does Elsa feel? Angry, hateful, sad, emotional. (4) How do you imagine David feels? Remorseful, guilty, sad. (5) Who is to blame in the situation? Both David and Elsa were consensual adults, they knew it was wrong but they continued the affair. They are both to blame. (6) Would you say that Elsa is as much the victim of a man as Katrina is? No, she had a choice in having an affair with a married man and she also chose to have and abortion, she could have chosen differently. We don't know Katrina’s background - if it was an arranged married by her parents - but Katrina does not choose for her husband to drink and beat her, it is not in her hands. Art and freedom: Her transformation of her home and garden with countless sculptures and works of mosaic is now regarded as some of the finest art produced in South Africa. It is worthwhile, here, to look at another picture of her art: Helen Martins is known as a “visionary artist” because of the way she made her art in accordance with an inner vision of the final product. In TRTM, Helen explains to Elsa how she works: HELEN: I’ve told you before, Elsie, I have to see them ver y clearly first. They’ve got to come to me inside like pictures. And if they don’t, well, all I can do is wait … and hope that they will. I wish I knew how to make it happen, but I don’t. I don’t know where the pictures come from. I can’t force myself to see something that isn’t there. I’ve tried to do that once or twice in the past when I was desperate, but the work always ended up a lifeless, shapeless mess. If they don’t come, all I can do is wait …which is what I’m doing. (Fugard 2003:36–37) Some artists take their inspiration from objects and the world around them. But the “pictures” Helen speak of here are not images in the world around her. Although some of them can be recognised as creatures or objects in the “real” world, many of them are fantasy creatures, made up of parts of real creatures, like the winged horse with an owl’s head in the picture above. These images come from Helen’s mind and imagination. She does not know where they come from: they appear to be “visions”from some source outside herself. EXCERCISE p. 91 Re-read page 62-63 of TRTM. (1) Why does Helen miss the church service? She got a picture (dreamed) of an owl the night before which was to be her first sculpture which she had to start working on immediately while it was still fresh in her mind. She wanted to remember clearly what she saw, because it doesn't last long. “After a little while it becomes very hard to remember clearly what you saw”. (Fugard 1988:62-63) (2) What is Marius's response to her absence from the church service? He feels “grieved” and betrayed. He thinks Helen has turned her back on him and religion as he states “You turned you back on your church, on your faith and then on us for that?” (Fugard 1988:63). He says that is why Helen is now in trouble and so helplessly alone. He does not understand the importance it held for Helen. He also feels jealous – of Helen's life, her “beautiful, light-filled, glittering life” (Fugard 1988:64). In the table below, place a tick next to all the activities that you would expect a woman of Helen’s age to do and place a cross next to those activities that would not be expected. Give reasons, either from the play or from your own experience, in the final column of the table. Activity Expected or not Reason Attending church Yes People of Helen’s age are set on religious customs such as attending church every Sunday. Taking care of her home Yes It's a social norm. Going out with single men Yes Most widows will want another companion, it should be acceptable to date again if a person is lonely and wants another companion. Socialising with other villagers Yes It's a social norm. Might be expected to involve youerself in “good works”, such as helping the poor or visiting the sick Making art Yes It keeps a person busy while you stimulate your mind and do something fun and artistic. Many old age homes and old people do arts and crafts to keep busy. Talking to people of other races Yes You should not discriminate against other cultures because the Aparheid era is long over and we are living in a rainbow nation where we are all esual. Once Helen decides, on that first Sunday morning, not to go to church as expected, but to stay at home and make her first owl, it seems her path is set and she cannot stray from it. Several years later, Marius remarks: MARIUS: Helen, Helen! I grieve for you! You turned your back on your Church, on your faith and then on us for that? Do you realize that that is why you are now in trouble and so helplessly alone? Those statues out there can’t give you love or take care of you the way we wanted to. And, God knows, we were ready to do that. But you spurned us, Helen. You turned your back on us and left us for the company of those cement monstrosities. (Fugard 1988:63) Marius’s words are a reproach. EXCERCISE p. 93 Write a paragraph explaining what Helen has done “wrong” in Marius's eyes and what his view is of her statues. Marius sees that Helen has changed. Marius realises what is going on for the first time in 15 years. According to Marius, Helen turned her back on the church, her faith and on the community especially him (page 63) because of the sculptures she is making. He sees the statues as “monstrosities” that have stolen Helen away from them and he feels that they cannot replace human love and affection, and the yard is a “nightmare” (pg. 61). Marius is disappointed in Helen for the choices she has made to get where she is now and disappointed in himself that he did not notice earlier. Now read Elsa's comments on his speech, on page 63-64. (1) According to Elsa, what motivates Marius's response to Helen's statues? Fear - “it frightens them” (Fugard 1988:59) and “they're also jealous” of her life, her “beautiful, lightfilled , glittering life.” (Fugard 1988:63-64). Being different - “…she dared to be different!” page 60 Idolatry - “…it might have been called idolatry.” page 61 The fact that “they express Helen's freedom” – “a free woman” (Fugard 1988:61). According to Marius Helen is not free -”You are not free, Helen. If anything, exactly the opposite.” (Fugard 1988:64). Her choice to pursue her art instead of doing what is expected of her by the society of the time is what offends Marius. (2) What is her view of them? Elsa sees the statues as an expression of freedom – “…they express Helen's freedom” (Fugard 1988:61). She sees her “Mecca” as beautiful and a miracle – “…your little miracle of light and colour.” (Fugard 1988:23). (3) What is the difference between Elsa's and Marius's view of the statues? Elsa sees the statues as an expression of freedom – “…they express Helen's freedom” (Fugard 1988:61). She sees her “Mecca” as beautiful and a miracle – “…your little miracle of light and colour.” (Fugard 1988:23). Marius sees them as “cement monstrosities” (Fugard 1988:63), a “nightmare” and “idolatry” (Fugard 1988:61). They have opposite viewpoints. Later on the same page, Marius explains: MARIUS: When I find that the twenty years we have known each other, all that we have shared in that time, are outweighed by a handful of visits from her, then yes again. That leaves me bewildered and jealous. Don’t you realize that you are being used, Helen – she as much as admitted to that – to prove some lunatic notion about freedom? And since we’re talking about that, yes yet again, I do hate that word. You aren’t free, Helen. If anything, exactly the opposite. (Fugard 2003:69) This speech by Marius makes the real point of the argument between him and Elsa (and Helen, too) very clear. It is a question of freedom. Helen wants and needs the freedom to create what her imagination can envision: but to do that, she has to refuse to do what her community wants of her, namely conducting her life quietly and concerning herself with the activities and wellbeing of other villagers, and, of course, attending church. Her choice to pursue her art instead of doing what is expected of her by the society of the time is what offends Marius. Marius’s claim that Helen is not free is another clue to what is at stake in his conflict with her. In one sense, nobody could be more free than a single woman with no children in late middle age, since she has no responsibilities to anyone but herself. But, from Marius’s point of view, she is not free because she has responsibilities to her community. T hose responsibilities demand that she should conform to expectations and live a “good”life as befits a woman in her situation. Character Their interpretation of Helen's art Helen “my Mecca” (my “holy city”) (Fugard 1988:68) a journey “something to pass away the time” (Fugard 1988:62) “Light” (Fugard 1988:69) Expression of freedom (Fugard 1988:61) Art Elsa “Monsters” (Fugard 1988:60) Beautiful Surprising “they express Helen's freedom” (Fugard 1988:61) “little miracle of light and colour” (Fugard 1988:23) Marius Helen's “hobby” (Fugard 1988:61) “cement monstrosities” (Fugard 1988:63) a “nightmare” and “idolatry” (Fugard 1988:61) dangerous ...
View Full Document
In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence. . . .”
Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications. The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion.
Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released.
Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm. Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest. Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern.
Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports. An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge.
We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there. Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”
For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come.
. . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights. I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work. I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is.
When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page. So I started a column.
By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?”
When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist. So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times. This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.”
I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story.
What was that?
At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited. We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama. The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak.
The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated?
The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.” So I became a kind of copy boy.
You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin.
All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline. The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that. Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing.
With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers?
Ken Kesey for one. His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone. But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.