The title largely sums up the play. When the play begins the wall is bare; an hour later it is painted green. Throughout the duration of the play, the audience witnesses Peter, Henry, Willy and Samson painting the wall. The only element of staging is the wall; their life is painting the wall; and their only prospects are painting other walls (or, as Samson points out, lots of walls at once if they paint a house!).
The play is absurd and to a degree seems pointless. But the lives of the painters are also absurd and pointless. Beyond the monotony of painting the wall, lies an extensive use of symbolism, which indirectly raises important political issues about apartheid, the condition of Coloured workers and colonialism.
The wall, which must be painted white to comply with government regulations, is owned by the South African ‘white’ government and is a symbol of the oppressive rule of the National Party. The wall is a trap and a barrier. It is hard and unflinching and the four painters are unable to see what is beyond the wall. According to Willy, employing them to paint the wall is merely a way of keeping the Coloureds busy so that they are unable to do ‘anything else’. It is a means of preventing unrest, but also a means of narrowing their life prospects and keeping them under the tutelage of the ‘white’ government. The four men paint the wall and have no formal education. They speak pidgin English and Afrikaans and are prisoners of their limited vocabulary and inability to communicate. As Willy says, he only really knows five words, two of which are ‘wall’ and ‘paint’! He is unable to express himself, to fight for his rights, to get over the wall and to escape his life as a painter.
The four men are trapped in the world of being Coloured painters employed by the ‘white’ government and their lives have turned to absurdity. Their jobs are pointless, if they are merely employed in order to be kept under the government’s control. Their day’s work is absurd because they have been delivered the wrong colour of paint. They have to paint the wall to earn their daily wage, but will have to repaint it white the following day.
The absurdity of their lives is all the more tragic because all four characters are aware of their condition. They deal with it in different ways. They laugh and joke, they cry and even attempt suicide, they get on with their jobs or they run away. They shout and they fight. Samson’s constant repetition of the phrase ‘tell me if anything at all was done’ appears a sign of insanity.
However, even the realisation of their condition is futile because they remain trapped. Henry and Samson are in desperate need of their jobs in order to support their families. Their individuality is suppressed. Henry is a talented painter, but his talent is wasted because painting a wall requires no creativity. He paints a picture on the wall, but he eventually has to paint over it. Their lives are wasted. At the end of the play, when they have finished painting the wall, Willy asks where they are now going. They do not know. They will go where they are told. They will paint the next wall with the paint they are given and, if the paint is the wrong colour, they will paint the wall again. They will not escape and, despite moments of frustration and threats to leave and to never paint walls again, they will remain painters.
The play is somewhat frustrating because it lacks dynamism. But this lack of dynamism is a wider reflection of the lives of the painters, which lead nowhere. The play is most frustrating because of the message of hopelessness which it conveys. It requires patience in order to decipher and reflect on the various issues about South Africa, apartheid, racism, white rule and colonialism which it raises, albeit subtly and discreetly.
For further information on the origins of the British movement to oppose apartheid, read our article When the Boycott Began to Bite For further information on the ‘Border War’ fought to maintain apartheid, read our article South Africa’s Forgotten War
Painting A Wall
May 12th – June 6th
118 Finborough Road
London SW10 9ED