The Train Driver


Athol Fugard

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The Train Driver Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Athol Fugard's The Train Driver. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard is widely considered South Africa’s greatest playwright, and his works are influential and popular throughout the world. He was born in 1932 to a bilingual family: his father was a native English speaker, and his mother spoke Afrikaans. Fugard’s father, a jazz pianist, struggled with disability and alcoholism that impeded his ability to work, so Fugard’s mother supported the family by operating a boarding house and tea shop. These elements of Fugard’s life appear in one of his most popular plays, “Master Harold”… and the Boys. Fugard studied philosophy at the University of Cape Town, but he left before graduation to travel. After two years, Fugard returned to Cape Town, where he joined a theatrical community and began writing plays. When Fugard took employment at the Native Commissioner’s Court, he became familiar with the oppressive practices of apartheid. He began to argue explicitly against racism and apartheid in his plays, which prompted the South African government to surveil him and his family. After his play The Blood Knot (1961) was banned in South Africa, performances moved to the United States, where Fugard gained an American audience. Fugard continued to write plays as he explored the genres of prose and film, and in 2011 he was awarded a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement.
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Historical Context of The Train Driver

From 1948 to the early 1990s, South Africa was governed by apartheid, a policy of racial segregation that oppressed the nation’s Black and nonwhite majority and reserved basic rights only for the white population. Activist groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) fought against apartheid’s institutional racism. Many of these activists were imprisoned, including Nelson Mandela, who later became South Africa’s first Black president. He was elected in 1994, three years after South Africa repealed the Population Registration Act, which had established the racial categories that upheld apartheid. Though the formal, institutional racism of apartheid came to an end, South Africa still struggled with the remnants of segregated systems. The Train Driver examines these post-apartheid racial divisions.

Other Books Related to The Train Driver

Many of Fugard’s other works deal with themes of racism in South Africa. Like The Train Driver, the play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (which Fugard co-wrote with actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani) argues against hierarchies of race and class and explores themes of identity through the characters’ relationships to their names. Kwame Alexander’s 2014 novel The Crossover also analyzes identity through a lens of nicknames and language. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood (1977) examines the role of European languages as an oppressive force in Africa (specifically in Kenya), which provides a deeper insight into the racialized language barrier between Roelf and Simon in The Train Driver. Another work interested in similar aspects of racism as The Train Driver is Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson (1912), which focuses on racism in America rather than South Africa. The novel shines a light on racism and racial divides in America shortly after the end of slavery, mirroring The Train Driver’s argument that abolishing official institutions of racism does not end systemic racial prejudice on a societal level. Trevor Noah’s 2016 memoir Born a Crime is another piece of literature that examines the effects of racism and wealth inequality both before and after the end of apartheid.
Key Facts about The Train Driver
  • Full Title: The Train Driver
  • When Written: 2009–2010
  • Where Written: Cape Town, South Africa
  • When Published: First performed in March 2010
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Play
  • Setting: The graveyard of a South African squatter camp
  • Climax: Roelf resolves to find closure by digging a grave for Red Doek.
  • Antagonist: Despair, racial divisions, and prejudice

Extra Credit for The Train Driver

Based on True Events. The Train Driver was inspired by the true story of a mother who committed suicide with her three children on the train tracks outside of Cape Town.