“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys is a one-act play using only three characters. All of the action takes place in one hundred consecutive, uninterrupted minutes of real time on a rainy Thursday afternoon at the St. George’s Park Tea Room. Influenced by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, Athol Fugard uses minimal sets and props. The set design is a simple box with three walls and the fourth side open to the audience. The furnishings are sparse: one table and chair at centerstage, other tables and chairs stacked in the background, a phone, and a jukebox. Fugard uses music and dance to add movement to the play. Throughout, Willie Malopo and Sam Semela practice the waltz and the foxtrot for a ballroom dancing competition. Early in the play, Willie sings Count Basie’s “You the Cream in My Coffee, You the Salt in My Stew,” and other songs are sung or played on the jukebox throughout the play.
Less than fully scripted, finite entities, Fugard’s plays are existential—happening at the moment of performance as living theater. As the play opens, heavy rain keeps customers away, so the waiters have little to do but practice dancing. Sam has set a place at the centerstage table for Hally to eat his dinner. When the boy comes in from school, he takes for granted that the place is for him. The familiar routine suddenly breaks when Hally learns that his mother is not at the tea room, but at the hospital visiting his sick father. Hally senses that something is wrong because the hospital does not allow visitors on Thursdays. At first he thinks, and subconsciously hopes, that his father may be worse, or even dead. Embarrassed by his father’s alcoholism and amputated leg, Hally has enjoyed his absence.
Telephone calls from Hally’s mother help move the plot forward. Although the audience hears only Hally’s side of these conversations, his responses expose what she is saying to him; he is horrified to learn that his father is being released from the hospital. As Sam tries to stop Hally from talking cruelly about his father, the bond between waiter and boy is quickly established. During a brief phone conversation with his father, Hally lets down his guard and demonstrates his frustration by accusing Sam and Willie of meddling.
The emotional shifts between characters are initially small, but they increase drastically as the play progresses. The audience learns that for years, Hally had relied on Sam as a father-figure. In one remembered scene, Sam built Hally a kite out of scraps and made him fly it in a public park. The boy was initially ashamed of the kite, but its flight made him proud. Sam left Hally alone to fly the kite because the park was for white people only. At the end of the play, the audience learns that some time before the kite episode, Hally had asked Sam to go with him to a local tavern where his father had passed out from drinking too much. Hally had to go in first to ask permission for Sam to enter the whites-only establishment. Humiliated, Hally followed behind as Sam carried the drunk home.
Sam tries to dissuade Hally from hating his real father too much. Tensions turn racial when Hally lashes out and attempts to hurt Sam by saying “You’re only a servant here, and don’t forget it.” For a moment, the boy discards years of friendship and adopts his parents’ attitude that white people should not be friendly with black servants. Hally asserts his manhood by telling Sam to call him “Master Harold.” Sam, who had always called his friend by the familiar name “Hally,” warns that if he calls him “Master Harold” once, he will do so forever, and their friendship will be broken. After Hally jokes about an African’s backside not being “fair,” Sam drops his pants and shows the boy the truth—that his rear is just as dark as his face. Hally attempts to assert his racial superiority by spitting on Sam. The man is infuriated and initially wants to hit the boy, but as Hally’s intellectual superior, he controls his emotions and merely calls him “Master Harold.” Signaling the end of their friendship, these words are more condemning than physical violence. Hally tries feebly to get out of the situation, but Sam takes control and guides their relationship to a fresh start. Hally learns that being a man means not always resorting to hatred and violence. The play ends with the jukebox playing Sarah Vaughan singing “Little man you’re crying . . . Little man you’ve had a busy day.”