Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Road to Mecca – an essay

A quick note... The following is an essay I wrote for my English literature module at university. We had to discuss the character Marius Byleveld from the Athol Fugard play The Road to Mecca, which is based on the life of outsider artist Helen Martins, creator of the Owl House. I thought I'd share, specifically if there are other students or interested parties who might benefit from having my thoughts available. 

The Camel Yard, Owl House
Picture: Robin Tweedie / Wiki Commons
At a glance, the character Marius Byleveld in Athol Fugard’s play The Road to Mecca, is not a sympathetic character, yet on closer reading, he is revealed to be an individual who displays surprising depth tempered by the tragedy of the socio-historical factors he is unable to transcend. 

To understand the man, we need to grasp his position among the people he serves. As dominee of the village of Nieu Bethesda, Marius is an important member of a highly conservative community. In that regard, people look up to him, and he is under a fair amount of pressure to maintain high standards and function as the spiritual and moral pillar of this community. It is also clear that he takes his work seriously and is hyper conscious about what he considers his Christian duty, even if it results in actions that might be viewed as authoritarian from a more liberal point of view. As a religious leader, he must display only exemplary behaviour according to the norms of the time, perhaps even at the cost of his own happiness.

This is borne out by his attitude towards Helen’s predicament, when he says, “We can’t tell you what to do. But if you want us to stop caring about what happens to you, we can try… though I don’t know how our Christian consciences would allow us to do that.” (Fugard: 60)

He speaks for the community, but in a way, perhaps, it can also be construed that he uses his position as a community leader who expresses what a community feels, as a front behind which he hides his true feelings, consciously or unconsciously.

As dominee and friend, he approaches Helen with the proposition that she apply to live in an old age home. The most obvious reason for this he gives as Helen’s recent “accident” where she almost burns down her home. It is implied that her actions may have been intentional when Marius lets slip, “She had stopped trying to put out the flames herself and was just standing staring at them.” (Fugard: 63)
In the play, he is set up as the antagonist, whose actions threaten Helen’s way of life and her continued connection to her beloved home with all its sculptures and artworks. This does not immediately make him a likeable character, but then Fugard weaves in additional details that develop Marius as a person and allow us to gain a degree of sympathy with him.

This is illustrated when he shares that he came to Nieu Bethesda to escape a painful past. “This was going to be where I finally escaped from life,” Marius says, “turned my back on it and justified what was left of my existence by ministering to you people’s simple needs. I was very wrong. I didn’t escape life here, I discovered it, what it really means, the fullness and the goodness of it.” (Fugard: 53)

He also expresses his deep connection with the earth (through his thriving vegetable garden), and the practical nature of his soul, when he says, “With every spadeful of earth that I turned when I went down on my knees to lift the potatoes out of the soil, there it was: ‘thank you.’”

Not only is he in this case—almost literally—down to earth, but he is by his own admission also deeply spiritual and humble. His intentions are good; he honestly wishes to serve his community even at the expense of himself.

He is about to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his service to Nieu Bethesda and its people, and it’s been twenty-one years since his wife, Aletta, passed away, and it is clear that his reason for coming here in the first place was to escape and find peace (this is also a play on the Biblical Bethesda in Jerusalem, that was associated with healing). 

Yet at the same time, for all his good, Marius (and by default the majority of the Nieu Bethesda community) also displays that he is incapable of understanding why Helen’s home and its art is so important to her. Examples of this are:
“And then your hobby, if I can call it that, hasn’t really helped matters. This is not exactly the sort of room the village ladies are used to or would feel comfortable in having afternoon tea. As for all that out there… the less said about it, the better.” (Fugard: 60)

This encapsulates how Marius misunderstands the nature of Helen’s art, as if it were a mere hobby, a trifle. In a way he blames her for isolating herself by creating an environment that is contrary to accepted norms. He simply cannot wrap his head around the idea that an individual would willingly step outside of accepted social behaviour.

This results in him, despite his good intentions, to act in a patronising manner towards Helen (for which Elsa chastises him) because he cannot control nor understand her yearning for artistic expression. He cares deeply, yet he himself cannot express himself.

When the subject of the community’s behaviour towards Helen’s eccentricity is brought up (children damaged some of her sculptures) Marius claims, “We don’t persecute harmless old ladies”, (Fugard: 65) yet he goes on to admit, “You’ve seen what is out there… How else do you expect the simple children of the village to react to all that? It frightens them, Miss Barlow. I’m not joking! Think back to your impressionable years as a little girl. I know for a fact that all the children in the village believe that this house is haunted and that ghosts walk around out there at night. Don’t scoff at them. I’m sure there were monsters and evil spirits in your childhood as well.”

With this statement, I feel Marius truly reveals what he is feeling about Helen’s art, though he hides behind his designation as work as a community leader and representative when he makes that statement.

Elsa points out to Marius that Helen dared to be different by not going to church anymore and engaging more in her art, which is representative of her freedom. Helen, according to Elsa, is expressing an awareness of self and life versus the groupthink of the community, and in that very fact she isn’t as harmless as Marius would make out.

This pushes Marius into admitting, “You call that… that nightmare out there an expression of freedom? … In another age and time it might have been called idolatry.” (Fugard: 67)

He views her art as not only a threat to her spiritual well being but to her physical well being too – taking up space meant, in his opinion, for growing vegetables that could nourish her body. (Fugard: 68)

Helen uses her art as a way to pass time, thereby implying that people only attend church to “pass time”. That first Sunday she skipped church Marius worried about her and went to check up on her after the service, only to discover that she was busy making a sculpture. 

It is a natural step for him to feel threatened and jealous by her attraction to this pursuit, and view the sculptures as idols.

He is angry and confused, when he says, “I feel as if I’m on trial, Helen. For what? For caring about you? That I am frightened of what you have done to yourself and your life, yes, that is true!” (Fugard: 59)
This is a turning point for Marius, where the mask of Marius-the-dominee slips to reveal Marius-the-man, who has harboured feelings for Helen all these years without admitting them. He has hidden behind his role as an authority figure in the community all this time until events come to a head in Helen’s house that evening.

Helen further communicates how Marius’s world has lost meaning to her when she says, “All those years when, as Elsa said, I sat there so obediently next to Stefanus, it was all a terrible, terrible lie. I tried hard, Marius, but your sermons, the prayers, the hymns, they all became just words. And there came a time when even they lost their meaning.” (Fugard: 70)

She reveals more when she discusses how, after her husband Stefanus’s funeral, she felt it was her own life being packed away. With Stefanus gone, so was her last tie to her old life and her reason to pretend. Marius’s action of lighting a single candle for her that evening became highly symbolic to her choosing her new path and her discovery of her inner world. 

When Helen talks about her Mecca, Marius still doesn’t understand. He can’t get past Mecca as a physical place that one has to look up on an atlas. Yet he has his epiphany that he is incapable, at his age, of making that intuitive leap that Helen has, and Marius-the-man triumphs over Marius-the-dominee, in that he admits that Helen’s way of seeing things is valid, even if he can never follow her there.

“I’ve never seen you as happy as this,” he says. “There is more light in you than all your candles put together.” (Fugard: 74) This is perhaps the most telling statement near the conclusion of Act Two. Marius shows that he is mature enough to let Helen go; the gulf between them is too vast. He has loved her for twenty years and has only admitted it now, when it is too late, which is to my mind the real tragedy. 

The Road to Mecca is at its core, a story of the tension that arises between societal norms and the individual’s need for self-expression, and much of the dramatic tension in Marius’s story arc presents the opportunity to subvert the audience’s opinion of the man. In Act One, Marius is offered as the antagonist, very much Marius-the-dominee, who is the linchpin poised to separate Helen from her home for her own good (in his and the community he represents’ point of view). By the time Marius appears in Act Two, it’s difficult to like him and what he represents, but then Fugard goes on to show us the man behind the somewhat dour mask. Marius is revealed as humble, and down to earth, and as genuinely caring despite his prejudice against artistic freedom and his somewhat patronising attitude towards Helen.

However, as the tension builds, and many of Marius’s deeply held feelings are exposed, he begins his journey of acceptance by letting go of his fear. He may not understand the appeal of Helen’s artistic freedom, but he can appreciate her personal light and beauty, for what it is.

Tragically, he cannot let go and join her, but there is a resolution of sorts, and peace is made. Marius, though he has dropped his mask and the authoritarian figure has been defeated, still retains his human side, and has gained the reader’s grudging respect for having backed down even as Helen has learnt to stand up for herself out of her mire of self-pity. They both go their separate ways, their differences irreconcilable—freedom vs. tradition—but they have a better understanding of who they are and what they want. We are not left with complete closure, but rather a “happy for now” situation.

Fugard, Athol, The Road to Mecca. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1992 (80pp).

Kane, Gwen, Byrne, Deirdre and Scheepers, Ruth. Introduction to English Literary Studies (3rd edition). Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 2013 (217pp).

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