First performed in 1995 and published in 1996, Valley Song
is a one-act play written by South African playwright, Athol Fugard. Fugard describes himself as a “classic example of the guilt-ridden impotent white-liberal of South Africa” and often reflects on the systemic evil of apartheid and its legacy in South Africa through his writing. The play has only three characters, The Author (a white man in his sixties), Abraam Yonkers (a seventy-six-year-old ‘Colored’ tenant farmer known as “Buks”), and Buks’ seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Veronica. In the original production of the play, Fugard played both The Author and Buks. Valley Song
tells the story of the conflicts that arise for Buks and Veronica when a white man expresses interest in buying the Landman estate where they live. Buks worries that the new owner will not allow him to continue sharecropping on his land while Veronica dreams of the possibility of escaping the village of New Bethesda and The Karoo (a desert-like region in central South Africa) entirely.
As the play opens, The Author presents the exposition of the story while holding a handful of pumpkin seeds—pumpkins are one of the crops Buks grows on his acreage; the seeds become a recurring metaphor
as the drama unfolds. As The Author delivers his monologue, he slowly transforms into Buks, singing a song he learned from an Italian POW. Veronica calls Buks in for lunch and they converse about Buks concerns regarding the white man who has been to visit their property three times now. Changing the subject, Buks asks Veronica what she has been up to. She laments the lack of “romance and adventure” in their village. Veronica, not satisfied—as Buks had hoped—with singing in church, longs to be a professional singer. She expresses her desire to move to a big city with a song about the railway bus. Hoping to quell Veronica’s wanderlust, Buks tells her a story about her deceased mother, Caroline. When Caroline was about Veronica’s age, she ran away to Johannesburg with the village troublemaker; Buks and his wife didn’t hear from her for a year. The next and last time Caroline contacted them, she was at the hospital in Johannesburg where she died in childbirth. Buks is afraid of losing Veronica just as he lost Caroline, and later, his wife.
Veronica tells the audience about Mrs. Jooste, an alcoholic white woman who watches television in the evenings with her blinds open. Veronica likes to stand on an apple box and watch, mirroring the singers she sees on the screen. The Author re-enters, debating with Veronica about whether or not it would be a better idea for her to limit herself to more realistic, practical dreams. Time passes and The Author changes back into Buks; time passes. They find out that the white man has decided to purchase the land. Veronica suggests that they should write the government and begin lobbying for land reform. Buks balks at this idea, convinced that getting the government involved would only invite further trouble. He plans to beg the new owner to allow him to continue to plant on his land. He also hopes that Veronica will be able to get a job cleaning in the Landman house like her grandmother had for most of her life. Buks takes Veronica’s disgust at this idea as an insult to his late wife’s memory. Once more, The Author reappears, delivering a monologue detailing his plan to purchase the land and live a life of seclusion. His decision to buy the property is actually due to Buks’ request to continue working it. He muses that perhaps Buks is the real owner of the land, that working it all these years has made it his. Veronica counters this with her own argument that working the farm makes you a slave to the land. The Author again warns Veronica about dreaming too big and, as she starts to look through her neighbor’s window to watch television, The Author informs her that Mrs. Jooste has died. He exits, and Veronica pantomimes singing on the street for white people, busking for money.
In the next scene, Veronica confronts Buks about a letter addressed to her from a friend in Johannesburg that he picked up from the post office. The letter is opened, but Buks, finding he isn’t able to read it, asks Veronica what it says. At first, she attempts to lie about the content of the letter, but ultimately admits that her friend is offering her a place to live in the city. She also admits to having her own money, which will allow her to strike out on her own. At first, Buks forbids her from leaving. He once again expresses his belief that Veronica should be satisfied with singing to God, in church. Veronica responds that if she can’t leave their village she will never sing again. The Author gives a final speech in which he explains Buks’ confusion regarding Veronica’s desire to leave. He feels he has provided a good and full life for her and can’t understand her desire for something more. The Author turns back into Buks who briefly confuses Veronica for Caroline. When Buks comes back to reality, Veronica tells him that if he does not give her his blessing to leave, she will run away. Reluctantly, Buks allows Veronica to move out. As she leaves town, Veronica encounters The Author one last time, who also gives her his blessing, confessing that he wanted her to stay so the village wouldn’t change. After she exits, The Author reveals that Buks will continue to plant his fields as he has every season before.
Athol Fugard’s short plays, such as Valley Song
, are known for their simplicity and sparse set designs. Valley Song
was his first publication after the end of Apartheid. Charles Isherwood, writing for Variety,
wrote that like “the best of Fugard’s work, [this play] is also a perfectly focused picture of a universal human predicament: the eternal clash of youthful hope and the wisdom of age, and life’s boundless ability to dash our dreams, from the humblest to the grandest.”