The Road to Mecca is a play by South African playwright Athol Fugard. It was first performed in 1984, won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award in 1988, and was adapted into a film in 1991. Based on the real-life story of Helen Martins, a South African woman whose home, “The Owl House,” is still open to the public, Fugard’s play explores themes of freedom versus oppression, trust, and the conflict between the self and the community.
The play takes place in 1974 at Miss Helen’s home in New Bethesda in the Karoo region of South Africa. After Helen’s husband died 15 years earlier, she began filling the house with light and color and started a sculpture garden of her own creations. The play features three characters: Miss Helen, in her late sixties; her friend Elsa Barlow, who is in her twenties; and local pastor Marius Byleveld.
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As the play opens, Elsa has unexpectedly arrived from Cape Town. She has come because of a worrying letter Helen sent her, but at first, the two talk about lighter matters. While they talk, Elsa notices burn marks on one of the walls—which Helen says are from one of the lamps smoking—as well as new curtains. Helen changes the subject by asking Elsa about her life. Elsa reveals that she just broke up with a man she was seeing and says that the experience has made her realize that “trust” is the “big word,” rather than “love.” The women express their trust in each other and recall the first time they met, after Elsa came upon Helen’s house—which Helen calls her “Mecca”—and Helen invited her inside.
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Elsa brings up the letter and Helen says she regrets sending it. In the letter, which Elsa reads aloud, Helen indicated that her health was declining and expressed thoughts of depression and suicide; she also wrote that she was losing “the house, my work, my Mecca” and asked Elsa for help. Helen now tells Elsa that Marius and others in the town are trying to move her into an old age home, and that Marius is coming by that night to pick up the application form. Helen also tells Elsa that her letter was about “Darkness” and that she’s dealing with depression.
Act II starts up a few minutes later, after Marius arrives as planned. Marius says that Helen has a room at the elderly home if she wants it. Elsa says Marius is trying to “bully and blackmail” Helen into signing the application (56), but Marius then reveals to Elsa that Helen’s burned wall is actually the result of a candle falling and starting a fire, and that Helen made no attempt to put it out. Elsa gets angry at Helen for lying to her, and they argue.
Marius and Elsa then argue over Helen. Elsa says that Helen’s sculptures express her freedom, and this freedom is why she comes to visit her—because Helen “challenges [her]” and is “the first truly free spirit I have ever known” (61). Marius protests, telling Helen that she has abandoned her faith and her town for her “Mecca” and is alone and ostracized as a result. Helen, he says, is the “opposite of” free because she’s “trapped now finally in the nightmare this house has become” (64).
Helen then reveals that the idea for her “Mecca” first came to her on the night of her husband’s funeral, after Marius came over and closed her curtains for her. Helen, depressed, sat and watched a candle, waiting for the “Darkness” when it went out, but instead the “small, uncertain little light seemed to find its courage again” and got “brighter and brighter” (67). The candle sparked Helen’s vision of her “Mecca” and inspired her to start creating it. She recounts this story as Elsa lights candles around the room, then gives Marius back the application form.
Marius leaves, defeated. Helen has realized that “the road to my Mecca was one I had to travel alone,” but it is now finished “and with it […] the only real purpose my life has ever had” (74), suggesting that she is ready to die. Elsa then expresses her own loneliness and reveals to Helen that she’s had an abortion. As the play ends, she again expresses her love for Helen, although whether the same trust remains between them is left ambiguous.
By Athol Fugard