Fugard was born as Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard, in Middelburg, Eastern Cape, South Africa, on 11 June 1932. His mother, Marrie ( Potgieter), an Afrikaner, operated first a general store and then a lodging house; his father, Harold Fugard, was a disabled former jazz pianist of Irish, English and French Huguenot descent. In 1935, his family moved to Port Elizabeth. In 1938, he began attending primary school at Marist Brothers College. After being awarded a scholarship, he enrolled at a local technical college for secondary education and then studied Philosophy and Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town, but he dropped out of the university in 1953, a few months before final examinations. He left home, hitchhiked to North Africa with a friend, and then spent the next two years working in east Asia on a steamer ship, the SS Graigaur, where he began writing, an experience "celebrated" in his 1999 autobiographical play The Captain's Tiger: a memoir for the stage.
In September 1956, he married Sheila Meiring, a University of Cape Town Drama School student whom he had met the previous year. Now known as Sheila Fugard, she is a novelist and poet. Their daughter, Lisa Fugard, is also a novelist. Following his separation from his wife, Fugard is now in a relationship with Paula Fourie.
The Fugards moved to Johannesburg in 1958, where he worked as a clerk in a Native Commissioners' Court, which "made him keenly aware of the injustices of apartheid." He was good friends with prominent local anti-apartheid figures, which had a profound impact on Fugard, whose plays' political impetus brought him into conflict with the national government; to avoid prosecution, he had his plays produced and published outside South Africa. A former alcoholic, Athol Fugard has been teetotal since the early 1980s.
For several years Fugard lived in San Diego, California, where he taught as an adjunct professor of playwriting, acting, and directing in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). In 2012 Fugard relocated to South Africa, where he now lives permanently.
In 1958, Fugard organised "a multiracial theatre for which he wrote, directed, and acted", writing and producing several plays for it, including No-Good Friday (1958) and Nongogo (1959), in which he and his colleague black South African actor Zakes Mokae performed.
After returning to Port Elizabeth in the early 1960s, Athol and Sheila Fugard started The Circle Players, which derives its name from their influential production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht.
In 1961, in Johannesburg, Fugard and Mokae starred as the brothers Morris and Zachariah in the single-performance world première of Fugard's play The Blood Knot (revised and retitled Blood Knot in 1987), directed by Barney Simon.
In 1962, Fugard publicly supported the Anti-Apartheid Movement (1959–94), an international boycott of South African theatres due to their segregated audiences, leading to government restrictions on him and police surveillance of him and his theatre, and leading him to have his plays published and produced outside South Africa.
Lucille Lortel produced The Blood Knot at the Cricket Theatre, Off Broadway, in New York City, in 1964, "launch[ing]" Fugard's "American career."
In the 1960s, Fugard formed the Serpent Players, whose name derives from their first venue, the former snake pit at the zoo, "a group of black actors worker-players who earned their living as teachers, clerks, and industrial workers, and cannot thus be considered amateurs in the manner of leisured whites", developing and performing plays "under surveillance of the Security Police according to Loren Kruger's The Dis-illusion of Apartheid published in 2004." The group largely consisted of black men, including Winston Ntshona, John Kani, Welcome Duru, Fats Bookholane and Mike Ngxolo as well as Nomhle Nkonyeni and Mabel Magada. They all got together, albeit at different intervals, and decided to do something about their lives using the stage. In 1961 they met Athol Fugard, a white man from Johannesburg, and asked him if he could work with them as he had the theatre know-how, how to use the stage, movements, and everything else. They worked with Athol Fugard since then and that is how the Serpent Players go together. At the time, the group performed anything they could lay their hands on in South Africa as they had no access to any libraries. These included Bertolt Brecht, August Strindberg, Samuel Beckett, William Shakespeare and many other prominent playwrights of the time. In an interview in California, Ntshona and Kani were asked why they were doing the play Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which was considered a highly political and telling story of the South African political landscape at the time. Ntshona answered: “We are just a group of artists who love theatre. And we have every right to open the doors to anyone who wants to take a look at our play and our work. We believe that art is life and conversely, life is art. And no sensible man can divorce one from the other. That’s it. Other attributes are merely labels”. They mainly performed at the St Stephen’s Hall – which has now been turned into a church, and other spaces in and around New Brighton, the oldest Black township in Port Elizabeth.
According to Loren Kruger, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago,
the Serpent Players used Brecht's elucidation of gestic acting, dis-illusion, and social critique, as well as their own experience of the satiric comic routines of urban African vaudeville, to explore the theatrical force of Brecht's techniques, as well as the immediate political relevance of a play about land distribution. Their work on the Caucasian Chalk Circle and, a year later, on Antigone led directly to the creation, in 1966, of what is still  South Africa's most distinctive Lehrstück [learning play]:'The Coat. Based on an incident at one of the many political trials involving the Serpent Players, The Coat dramatized the choices facing a woman whose husband, convicted of anti-apartheid political activity, left her only a coat and instructions to use it.
The Serpent Players conceptualised and co-authored many plays that they subsequently went on to perform for a variety of audiences in many theatres around the world. The following are some of their notable and most popular plays:Their first production was Niccolo Machiavelli’s La Mandragola, directed by Fugard as The Cure and set in the township. Other productions include Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Sophocle’s Antigone. When the group had turned to improvisation, they came up with classic works such as Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, emerging as inner experiences of the actors who are also the co-authors of the plays.
In The Coat, Kruger observes, "The participants were engaged not only in representing social relationships on stage but also on enacting and revising their own dealings with each other and with institutions of apartheid oppression from the law courts downward", and "this engagement testified to the real power of Brecht's apparently utopian plan to abolish the separation of player and audience and to make of each player a 'statesman' or social actor.... Work on The Coat led indirectly to the Serpent Players' most famous and most Brechtian productions, Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and The Island (1973)."
Fugard developed these two plays for the Serpent Players in workshops, working extensively with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, publishing them in 1974 with his own play Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act (1972). The authorities considered the title of The Island, which alludes to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela was being held, too controversial, so Fugard and the Serpent Players used the alternative title The Hodoshe Span (Hodoshe being slang for prison work gang).These plays "espoused a Brechtian attention to the demonstration of gest and social situations and encouraged audiences to analyze rather than merely applaud the action"; for example, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, which infused a Brechtian critique and vaudevillian irony-–especially in Kani's virtuoso improvisation-–even provoked an African audience's critical interruption and interrogation of the action.
While dramatising frustrations in the lives of his audience members, the plays simultaneously drew them into the action and attempted to have them analyse the situations of the characters in Brechtian fashion, according to Kruger.
Blood Knot was filmed by BBC Television in 1967, with Fugard's collaboration, starring the Jamaican actor Charles Hyatt as Zachariah and Fugard himself as Morris, as in the original 1961 première in Johannesburg. Less pleased than Fugard, the South African government of B. J. Vorster confiscated Fugard's passport.
"Master Harold"...and the Boys, written in 1982, incorporates "strong autobiographical matter"; nonetheless "it is fiction, not memoir", as Cousins: A Memoir and some of Fugard's other works are subtitled.
His post-apartheid plays, such as Valley Song, The Captain's Tiger: a memoir for the stage and his 2007 play, Victory, focus more on personal than political issues.
The Fugard Theatre, in the District Six area of Cape Town opened with performances by the Isango Portobello theatre company in February 2010 and a new play written and directed by Athol Fugard, The Train Driver, will play at the theatre in March 2010.
Fugard's plays are produced internationally, have won multiple awards, and several have been made into films, including among their actors Fugard himself.
His film debut as a director occurred in 1992, when he co-directed the adaptation of his play The Road to Mecca with Peter Goldsmid, who also wrote the screenplay.
The film adaptation of his novel Tsotsi, written and directed by Gavin Hood, won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.
In chronological order of first production and/or publication:Films adapted from Fugard's plays and novel
Boesman and Lena (1974), dir. Ross Devenish
Marigolds in August (1980), dir. Ross Devenish
"Master Harold"...and the Boys (1984), Television movie, dir. Michael Lindsay-Hogg, first broadcast on Showtime
The Road to Mecca (1992), co-dir. by Fugard and Peter Goldsmid (screen adapt.)
Boesman and Lena (2000), dir. John Berry
Tsotsi (2005), screen adapt. and dir. Gavin Hood; 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
""Master Harold"...and the Boys" (2010), dir. Lonny Price
Boesman and Lena (1974) - Boesman
The Guest at Steenkampskraal (1977) - Eugene Marais
Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979) - Professor Skridlov
Marigolds in August (1980) - Paulus Olifant
Gandhi (1982) - General Jan Smuts
The Killing Fields (1984) - Doctor Sundesval
The Road to Mecca (1992) - The Reverend Marius Byleveld
Praemium Imperiale 2014
1971 – Best Foreign Play – Boesman and Lena (winner)
1975 – Best Play – Sizwe Banzi Is Dead / The Island – Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona (nomination)
2011 – Special Tony Award Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre (winner)
New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards
1981 – Best Play – A Lesson From Aloes (winner)
1988 – Best Foreign Play – The Road to Mecca (winner)
Evening Standard Award
1983 – Best Play – "Master Harold"...and the Boys (winner)
Drama Desk Awards
1982 – "Master Harold"...and the Boys (winner)
Lucille Lortel Awards
1992 – Outstanding Revival – Boesman and Lena (winner)
1996 – Outstanding Body of Work (winner)
The Audie Awards (Audio Publishers Association)
1999 – Theatrical Productions – The Road to Mecca (winner)
Outer Critics Circle Award
2007 – Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play – Exits and Entrances (nomination)
Writers Guild of America, East Award
1986 – Evelyn F. Burkey Memorial Award – (along with Lloyd Richards)
National Orders Award (South Africa)
2005 – The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver – "for his excellent contribution and achievements in the theatre"
Yale University, 1983
Wittenberg University, 1992
University of the Witwatersrand, 1993
Brown University, 1995
Princeton University, 1998
University of Stellenbosch, 2006