Based on an incident in his own adolescence, “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys is Fugard’s most autobiographical work. Harold “Hally” Athol Lannigan Fugard was born on June 11, 1932, near Middelburg, Cape Province, South Africa. Like the character Hally, Fugard is of mixed descent; his Afrikaner mother ran a boarding house, and his British father was a crippled former jazz pianist. In 1935, Fugard’s family moved to Port Elizabeth, where the play is set. Like Hally, Fugard completed his secondary education at a local technical college. At the age of thirteen, he spit in a servant’s face. From that event, Fugard learned about the pain that people often cause to close friends and family. Thirty-five years after the original incident, he faced his guilt by writing this play.
Fugard’s decision to set the play in 1950 instead of 1945 was politically motivated by South Africa’s Group Areas Act of 1950, which enforced complete residential segregation between races and “social” or “petty” apartheid segregation in public places such as theaters, parks, and restaurants. Although writing in English, Fugard uses Afrikaner moods and culture. He was the first white South African playwright to blend cultures and the first to violate apartheid artistically by putting black and white actors on stage at the same time. His characters are usually underprivileged white people and black Africans—ordinary people caught in racial and social traps. By dramatizing their interactions, he exposes the quality of life in South Africa, not only for oppressed black Africans but for all races as well.
Fugard creates Sam and Willie as very different characters in order to counter the stereotype that all black South Africans are alike. Willie calls his fellow servant “Boet Sam.” “Boet”—brother—is used as a term of affection between friends or with an elder as a sign of respect. Sam and Willie are the same age, but Sam is wiser and more mature. Willie is lazy and abuses his girlfriend; Sam is refined and intelligent, learns Hally’s lessons quicker than the boy does, and retains all that he learns.
The central metaphor that Fugard uses for relations between people, races, and countries is ballroom dancing. Willie practices dancing throughout the play, and Hally observes the competition for a school essay. Ballroom dancing also becomes a metaphor for getting through life—communication, maneuvering, people and nations avoiding collisions. Hally suggests that the United Nations is a global dance. Ballroom dancing is not easy; one must practice in order to be good. An accomplished dancer, Sam coaches Willie and shows Hally how to be a man.
The title “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys ironically suggests Fugard’s concern with the concept of manhood. Although nearly thirty years older, Sam and Willie are considered “boys” by white South Africans, while Hally has been a “master” from birth. As part of his coming-of-age, Hally must learn to recognize the social implications of race and gradually reject institutionalized racism (apartheid). His friendship with Sam transforms from “Master” and “boy” to man and man.