The play ‘The road to Mecca’ by Athol Fugard is a feminist play that expresses the struggle for freedom, identity and meaning through personal fulfilment. In the statement “There’s nothing sacred in a marriage that abuses the woman” (p23), Elsa expresses her feelings towards women’s rights, because these rights are supported by the law: “She has got a few rights, Miss Helen, and I just want to make sure she knows what they are.”(p23). Helen finds it interesting that Elsa has a liberal way of thinking and can express her feelings so freely. Elsa believes in the equal rights to all races and that no one should be treated unworthy: she believes Katrina must get rid of that “drunken bully” (p23), because she can “Find somebody who will value her as a human being.” (p23)
Elsa represents women that believe in human rights and freedom of speech. When Elsa and Miss Helen are discussing ‘Getruida’, Elsa states that Helen should “Tell her to demand her rights to get up there and put her case” (p24). Helen does not agree with Elsa’s point of view; that women should stand up for their rights and tells her “you’re terrible” to which Elsa replies: “And you’re an old hypocrite, Miss Helen” (p24). Elsa believes each person has the freedom to make their voice heard; regardless of gender, age, religion or race: “Has anybody bothered to ask the colored people what they think about it all?” (p25)
Miss Helen is part of the conservative White Afrikaners of Nieu Bethesda that still have fixed ideas about religion and Christianity. Miss Helen does not express her views and rights as a woman verbally but visually creates her own “Mecca” of beauty and freedom. She decorates the inside of her house with dozens of candles and mirrors; Helen’s room is a “little miracle of light and colour” (p33). The inside of ‘The owl House’, represents the link between creativity and light, the candles being Miss Helen’s freedom of expression. The outside, the ‘camel yard’, is a myriad of cement wise men, camels, owls, mermaids and other figures, mostly facing east (representing that the figures are looking towards the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia). Miss Helen’s ‘Mecca” is a metaphor for the relationship between freedom and imagination. Miss Helen sees her art as being her right of personal expression of her own identity and inner feelings: “It is the best of me, Elsa” (p34)
Miss Helen was a woman devoted to her church, but after the death of her husband she did not mourn as many expected, instead she lit her house with candles and sculpted bright, lifeless figures and allowed her to escape “the darkness that nearly smothered” her life. Miss Helen now has the right to make her own choices; she does not to become another churchgoing widow, but instead set herself free by doing what she loves and creating a wonderland of art because she “dared to be different”.
Miss Helen alienated herself from the Afrikaner community of Nieu Bethesda because they judged her vision and rejected her art. The community expected Miss Helen to stay inside behind closed curtains, but Miss Helen did the opposite and let as much light into her life as she possibly could. Elsa said: “Light is a miracle, Miss Barlow, which even the most ordinary human being can make happen.”(p32). Through Helen’s art she survives in an isolated community and freely expresses herself.
When Miss Helen met Elsa, she showed her the inside of her house and when Elsa saw Helen’s home, lit by candle light, she knew she had found a true friend: “I so desperately wanted you to like what you saw.” (p34) followed by “If you only knew what you did for my life that day”. When Elsa saw Miss Helen’s ‘Mecca’ for the first time she was overwhelmed: “I just stood there and gasped” (p33). Miss Helen was pleased: “How much courage, how much faith in it you gave me.” (p35). Elsa admired Helen’s courage to fulfil her dream despite the religious views of the community. Miss Helen finds happiness and piece in her own ‘Mecca’ and does not concern her with the vision of the community on what is considered to be “right” but rather believes her “Mecca has got a logic of its own,” (p36).
Elsa and Miss Helen are both women in a crisis point in their life and rebels against social conventions in their own special way. Miss Helen is a strong woman that is not dependent on men unlike Elsa who had an affair with a David, a married man, and always believed he will leave his wife for her, where she ended up “being a victim of the situation”(p30) Elsa hides her secret until the end of the play.
The local priest of Nieu Bethesda, Marius Byleveld, wants Miss Helen to move to “Sunshine home for the aged” (p40) in Graaff-Reinet, because he fears for her safety after she had an accident where she burnt herself when a candle fell over. Miss Helen wrote a letter of distress to Elsa, who then drove all the way from Cape Town to assist Miss Helen. Marius Byleveld came to see Miss Helen to express his concern that the community labelling
Miss Helen as ‘mad’. He came to tell her that a room is available in an old age home and he ensured that she was moved to the top of the list “as a personal favour” (p56): he also expresses that there is a “decision to be made, one way or the other”. Marius is a “persuasive talker” (p42) and puts a lot of pressure on Miss Helen by asking her many questions such as why she doesn’t go to church anymore (p66) and accuses her of idolatry (p67). He is trying to make decisions on her behalf saying it is his “duty as a Christian” (p67). Marius does not respect Miss Helen’s art or her opinion, when speaking to her, seemingly passive Miss Helen, has to stop him and say: “Can I please talk now”.
Marius is not only interested in Helen’s spiritual well-being but also fears for Miss Helen’s health and safety, because her appearance displays “personal neglect” (p15) and he feels she will be better off in an Old Age Home. His concern also has deeper meanings because he is concerned about her self-imposed exile from church and that she does not act what is socially expected of her. He evokes Miss Helen when he calls her statues “ornaments” and “cement monstrosities”. Marius Byleveld does not understand why Miss Helen is so persistent to stay in her own house where her ‘hobby’ seemed to have taken over her life and backyard: “You call that … nightmare out there an expression of freedom?” (p67). He believes her “life has become as grotesque as those creations out there”
Miss Helen was pulled in two directions by the two people closest to her; Elsa encourages Helen to be strong and independent and to stand up for her rights as an independent woman, while Marius motivates her to give in and move to a home where people can help take care of her needs; where she can become an active member of the church and community. Elsa challenges Miss Helen to stand up for herself and not give into Marius’s request; “You haven’t got enough faith in your life and your work to defend them against him”
Helen explains herself to Marius: when her husband, Stephanus, died she “lost faith” and used as many candles as she could find, because the “candles did all the crying”. She created her own “Mecca” as personal goal to set herself free. The candles that were lit after the funeral inspired Miss Helen to express her inner feelings: “I had all the candles I wanted” (p46). Elsa says it beautifully: Miss Helen is “the first truly free spirit I have ever known”. Elsa believes that all people have rights, as that is what she teaches her children in her class. Elsa empowers Miss Helen to choose freedom and not move to the retirement Home: “When he comes around tonight, hand this back to him … unsigned … and say no.” (p42) because Elsa believes “You’ve got to prove to the village that you are quite capable of looking after yourself.” (p44). Elsa vehemently urges Helen to resist Marius Byleveld’s “help,” and that she should refuse his offer: “You’re still living your life, not drooling it away”(p43).
Miss Helen has both the right and freedom to choose where she wants to live. With the help of Elsa, Miss Helen takes a stand for her personal rights to remain in her own little “mecca” rather than going to the retirement Home. Elsa is proud of Miss Helen who is now “A free woman.”(p66) and states: “You affirmed your right as a woman” (p75)