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The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard: Analysis
This Is My World
Introducing The Play
The Road to Mecca is the story of Helen, an Afrikaner woman in her seventies who, since her husband Stefanus died, has been obsessed with making strange but very creative statues of owls and mermaids and Three Wise Men among other figures. The play begins with Elsa, a young woman in her twenties and fresh from a break up, who drives 800 miles to confront Helen over a troubling letter Helen sent Elsa. The Road to Mecca focuses on Helen’s decision of whether to be moved to a retirement home, the creepily named “Sunshine Home for the Aged” by Marius, an old friend from the village.
The story is based on, or as the play puts it, suggested by, the life of Helen Martins of New Bethesda born 1898. At the age of 29, Helen moved to her childhood home in order to care for her parents as they grew closer to the end. Her parents died but Helen remained and one day began decorating her house. She used ground up beer bottles and covered the walls in mirrors and glittering ground up glass. Martin even employed the help of a couple local men, Jonas Adams and Piet van der Merwe, to assist her in configuring mirrors throughout the house such that light was optimized. Eventually, Helen moved her artistic efforts to the yard, creating over 300 sculptures of animals, shapes, and human figures in all, most of which point east, toward Mecca. A sign hangs over the Martin house yard, now named the Camel Yard, that reads “ This Is My World”. Helen may have never visited Mecca but she has created a Mecca of her own and one for over 130,000 artists, tourists, and eccentrics a year.
Unfortunately, like her counterpart in the play, Helen Martin suffered from arthritis and fading eyesight, perhaps attributed to the volume of ground glass in her living space. The mood at the end of Road to Mecca is joyful and a release, albeit slightly ambiguous. Helen Martin’s end is neither joyful nor ambiguous, at the age of 78 she committed suicide by ingesting caustic soda otherwise known as lye.
The foreword clues the reader in to the motivation for the writer and his connection to the story. Athol Fugard was, like Helen Martin, born in the Karoo, fifteen miles away from Martin’s New Bethesda. In the foreword, Fugard relates his experience with New Bethesda and Martin. Two years before Martin’s suicide, Fugard had bought a home in her same town and he became aware of Helen through the locals although he never made a connection with her. After her death, Fugard was intrigued by the story but not yet completely sold on writing it. It was not until an actor politely remarked to Fugard that his roles for women were wonderful but that he never “had two women together” and questioned when he would. Fugard realizes, and clarifies, that he had not had “two women together on a stage as the focus of the whole event.” At around the same time, the playwright learned of Helen Martin’s one significant friendship with a much younger woman. After meeting with the woman and receiving from her, a photo of herself with Martin, Fugard looked at the photo and was “hooked”.
The play is set in 1974 under a context of increasing resistance to apartheid. In the play Elsa exclaims “We’re talking about adult men and women in the year 1974.” The line indicates the need to remind the much older Helen and Marius that times have changed and society is ever changing still. In the play, Elsa is speaking about the church council’s deciding on whether to allow a liquor store without consulting the “coloured” people but the notion and theme are the same; the play is in a context where people are no longer blindly accepting circumstance and convention. This theme of creating a selfhood and identity and breaking convention are made incarnate in Helen Martin and her Mecca.
Originally I chose this play because of a few minutes I saw of the movie version as a clip in an Athol Fugard documentary. To be frank, Kathy Bates is an amazing actor and I was interested in seeing more of her acting rather than the story. Unable to find the movie online I began to read the play and found it was easy to imagine Kathy Bates and apply her strong voice to the independent character of Elsa. I have a mom who is getting along in the years and she is currently living by herself so the subject matter alone was very poignant for me. The idea of losing independence, becoming frail as an inevitability especially with someone having such a pronounced will as Helen Martin or my mother, to me is scarier than their death itself because it is so drawn out in some cases. The play depicts a woman at this drawn out stage and so even before I knew the historical context or even read this play, it struck a chord with me.
Key Theatrical Aspects
One key element to the stage direction in The Road Mecca is the prevalence of acting direction in the play that refers to tone. As the entirety of the play is made up of three, arguably four, conversations the stage directions must, and do, go into detail explaining the acting and its motivation. Direction like “(Trying hard to contain her emotion)” leading to “(She can’t hold back any longer)” vividly and charmingly inform the tone while “(Miss Helen is smiling with suppressed pride and pleasure)” give insight into the characters emotion. Fugard uses direction in the play to the effect that two people speaking can be animated yet still realistic with extremely believable emotion and little context.
The lighting for the play should consist of two separate phases. The first phase would be during the day and would be lit up to show off the color and glitter of the room and create long shadows on figures in the yard, highlighting the figures’ eastern, toward Mecca facing position. The second phase would be at night, where the candles, a focus point of the play and of which there are “ a multitude” of different sizes, would light up the stage. Electric candles would obviously work best The great quantity needed for sufficient brightness would not be superfluous because their great volume being noted in the direction.
Set design would be no easy task, the entire play takes place inside a room covered with glitter and mirrors, with statues of camels, mermaids, and angels outside. The directions note that it should look as if the creator had tried to use as much light and color as they could fit in to the cozy room. Fugard describes the effect as “not bizarre but rather one of light and extravagant fantasy.” The nuance of this room and how Fugard describes it could easily frustrate a set designer but it also clues the reader or producer of the play into the light of how Fugard saw Martin, as an individualistic artist not an insane recluse.
A key point of the play is a large burn on one of the walls in the room. The burn is described as hidden by Helen but not very well. This would require the burn to be noticeable enough that it is seen clearly be all members of the audience but not so extreme that the viewer wonders about it before it is brought up, this could solved by lighting, focusing more on the burn when more attention is being paid to it. The play slowly builds the question in the viewer’s mind as to its true origin. First Elsa remarks on the burn and the new curtains Helen, unbeknownst to us, lies and changes the subject. The burn is finally explained toward the end of the play and it is a point at which Elsa seemingly changes her mind about Helen, but the way it is described, brought up, and explained away so casually in the first act suggests the burn, though key, should not be overly obvious.
The costume is important in particular for the character of Helen. As the debate concerning Helen and whether it is acceptable that she goes on living alone, we as readers are made to see the frailty of Helen. The costume of Helen wearing ragged clothes gives the reader doubt as to whether or not Marius has a point in encouraging Helen to move to assisted living. Even before the explanation of the burn mark, Helen’s candles catch fire to the curtains and Helen simply watches, the tension is built. Because the audience sees Helen as an amiable character, we are not sure whether she should or should not live alone. The sympathy derived from Helen’s shabby clothing and burn marks on her knuckles heightens conflict because it causes the viewer to simply want what is best for Helen. Important because the motivation for Elsa and Marius is now the motivation of the viewer as well, a striking effect.
Another aspect of the portrayal of Helen’s frailty comes from the prop of the tea kettle. There is repeated mention of the tea kettle in both the dialogue and stage direction of the play. The kettle is described as large and must be handled differently between the two women. For the actor playing Helen, it is crucial that she show difficulty in handling the kettle, particularly because that is the main device for showing the effects of her arthritis. On the other hand, to heighten the contrast between Elsa’s youth and the age of Helen, Elsa must handle the kettle with ease. These effects are essential in assisting the viewer to empathize with Elsa and Marius’ desire to help an old woman.
One Key Scene
The key scene of anagnorisis, where the true story of the burn mark on the wall is revealed, comes just when Elsa directly takes on Marius in the argument, instead of making Helen speak for herself as she had been doing. Elsa shows the strength of her youth, of someone who lives in the now. She calls Marius out on what we the viewers have been seeing the whole play. To Marius, “You were doing everything in your power to bully and blackmail her into signing that.” . We the viewers agree. Marius, from stage direction to dialouge shows every sign of trying to coerce Helen into signing a document that would move her to the retirement home. The actor gives a long, uninterrupted dialogue about the home accompanied by the direction “places his fountain pen, in readiness, on the form”. To which Helen can only beg him to slow down and talk about it. Marius also uses guilt and ticking clock techniques, claiming that people went to great lengths to procure this room for her and it will only be available for a short time.
All this combined creates the effect of Marius indeed sounding like a bully. The key scene, where this effect is broken begins with Marius, attempting to contain his excitement, explaining to Elsa that he does not care what her opinion is of him, he only has Helen’s wellbeing in mind. A statement that we see is ultimately true. This is followed by Marius expressing his concern for Helen’s safety and citing the accident of the candles. When the truth of the accident comes to light there is a break in the tension between the two characters Marius and Elsa to a point that Marius apologizes to Elsa.
Elsa’s following line is somewhat ambiguous. To Marius’ offer of an apology Elsa replies “ You owe me nothing. Just tell me what happened.” In relation to Marius, this can be seen as an assertion on Elsa’s part of her own strength, that his words have had no effect on her. It could also be a slight recognition of Marius’ well meaning intentions, that he only argues for Helen’s sake. Most likely though this quick dismissal of Marius’ apology is evidence that the argument, like Marius, means nothing to Elsa, that she too is only concerned for Helen’s wellbeing. This is evidenced by Elsa’s change of mind and subsequent abandonment of Helen, at least in Helen’s mind. This news of Helen possibly being trapped in a house of flames evokes an almost motherly anger, like a scolding. Appropriately, Elsa at the thought of a dear friend burning cares nothing for any information but the details of the accident.
There is an outburst of emotion following the revelation and the truth of the incident has many different repercussions. As Elsa says, Helen’s lie makes Elsa look like a fool to Marius. Elsa tells Helen as much and that she “fucking well resents it.” This statement, that Elsa resents being made to look like a fool in front of Marius is contrary to what we know about Elsa as a character, namely that she does not hold Marius in any esteem at this point nor does she care his opinion of her. Elsa’s following speech to Helen suggests that Elsa’s anger and resentment comes from fear and a sense of betrayal. Elsa trusts that Helen is independent, like she imagines herself to be, but the news of the accident and Helen lying about it breaks that trust, everything Elsa “knows” about Helen’s ability to live safely alone is shaken. She has already injured herself and almost killed herself and there is a question to whether it was even a true accident.
Elsa is now forced to look at Helen without a personal bias, to empathize with Marius. As Elsa accuses Helen of attempting to go out in a literal “blaze of glory”, two stage directions inform this motivation. First, Elsa is directed to study Helen with “cruel detachment” (p. 58) Elsa is now clearly looking at Helen as an outsider might see her, she is putting away her love and personal feelings for Helen and seeing her as an old woman living in a veritable tinderbox. The cruelty of the detachment comes from how much it hurts both women to experience. In the same speech, Elsa is “hurting herself every bit as much as she is hurting Miss Helen, but is unable to stop” (p. 58) Elsa is unable to completely remove her bias and distance herself from Helen the friend, as opposed to Helen the aging woman with eccentric tendencies. As a result, Elsa, in light of a letter from Helen, pleading Elsa to save her from the darkness, Elsa now has a more complete picture of the circumstances and infers that Helen may or even probably was attempting suicide.
This notion of Helen killing herself effects Elsa in a way that makes her even angrier to a point where she even goads Helen as she mocks her, claiming the act was very dramatic but there are easier ways to do the deed. Elsa is clearly hurt and her idea of Helen crumbles a bit. She lashes out at Helen. To which Helen replies with one of the most moving single lines of the play. Helen walks to Elsa and stares at her “Who are you?” she asks, and Elsa is devastated. In three words Helen not only reasserts her agency and strength, standing up to arguably the strongest character of the play, but offers perspective on the issue at hand. Helen brings Elsa down to the reality that her socially timid friend has asked for help and tried to commit suicide. Helen’s fear, and she says as much, is that Elsa will agree with “them”, the others, that she will no longer be on Helen’s ever-shrinking team. The question, who are you, asks are you still my friend, is it us or are you one of them. Elsa’s devastation comes from the realization that she has berated someone who is in genuine need of help, like the young black woman she gave a ride and provisions to.
The scene is key not only because of the critical discovery of the truth behind Helen’s accident as a plot point. It is in this scene that two pages of text alter so dramatically the way the audience views the characters, and even the way characters view each other. Helen’s ending question in particular is a prime example of how economic Fugard is with his words and how this creates a more poignant feel to every line and direction.
An audience inherently looks for tropes and convention. Helen, for much of the play, follows the trope of the eccentric old lady and so with her timid contributions to the arguments is a slightly ambiguous character. It is not until around page 64 that the individuality of thought that her statues suggest becomes truly apparent. Marius asks why she has seemingly given up her life and faith to which Helen replies with a monologue of eccentricity but also creativity and selfhood.
The first and powerful way that Helen displays an unconventional individuality is her distancing herself from religion, and attesting that she has had her distance for a long time. Helen relates words of religious significance to common stones, and the speech can seem somewhat sacrilegious. This is the point. As a character who had gone to church for years, to publicly and turn against religion Helen defines herself as the individual she has wanted to be. Helen had, in her own words, been lying by attending church, years while her husband was alive, she had no faith and was only going because she was supposed to. Helen now has freedom from convention and it is here that the audience gets a real idea of that freedom.
Helen relates a secret. The night of her husband’s funeral she was not mourning her husband’s death, like her faith was a lie so was her love. Again, Helen establishes her selfhood in a way, it is evident, she never has before. First we see her distance herself from the institution of religion then marriage. At this point the audience is now forced to view Helen as anything but conventional.
As Helen truly expresses herself, her timidity disappears. She “speaks with authority” and while she talks about her Mecca she is “ radiantly alive with her vision”. This authority and radiance suggests that this is who Helen truly is. Although these figures and her life may appear “grotesque” to outside characters, this is her world and it is beautiful to her. Not only Helen’s speech but the stage direction demonstrates that Helen belongs to her own world and that her joy comes from this world and, with the exception of occasional visitors, only this world. Indeed she has become reclusive but creating her Mecca is what she enjoys and so has no need for the public and institutions like church.
Lest we think Helen manic or crazy, because of her extreme enthusiasm and her likening the flames of her candles to children, she perceptively addresses this. She cites the difference between madness and sanity as the ability to tell what is real and what is not. Helen explains that she learned the techniques and made the supplies for her world, her statues are a reminder of reality because Helen is the one that made them, her hands will keep her sane. At this point, the monologue builds to a climax of Helen’s independence. The application to the home for the aged, that at one point Helen was begging Elsa to save her from signing, is handed back to Marius with a “I won’t be using this”. The empathetic audience rejoices at Helen’s pride of her world, her Mecca. She will not “reduce [her] world to a few ornaments.” In that statement Helen affirms her belief that her creations are her identity and so they are the whole world for her.
The Road to Mecca, its subject, its setting, everything goes back to focus on Helen and her identity. In this scene the audience finally has the chance to hear Helen speak for herself and not through a friend or a letter. While Athol Fugard had very little direct contact with the real Helen Martin, he paints an extremely three dimensional character in the fictional Helen, no doubt owing much to his conversations with the inspiration for Elsa. The Road to Mecca is written secondhand, things Fugard heard from friends of Martin, much like how Helen often communicates in the play, but with her creations her identity is always expressed.
Fugard, Athol (1993-01-01). The Road to Mecca (p. 68). Theatre Communications Group. Kindle Edition.
Ross, Susan Imrie, "The Owl House," Raw Vision 5, Winter 1991/92, p. 26-31.
The Owl House Foundation Website.
PBS Off the Map, Backyard Travelouge