Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
“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...
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The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys opens on the set where the entire play takes place, a tea room in the South African city of Port Elizabeth in 1950. The tables and chairs have been stacked on one side; the room also contains a few shabby plants and a serving counter with stale cakes and a modest display of candy, cigarettes, and soda. A telephone and an old jukebox are arrayed between advertising placards and a crudely lettered blackboard with the prices of some basic items. Sam is sitting at a table, leafing through a comic book, while Willie is mopping the floor and singing up-tempo blues. Pausing in his work, Willie tries a few dance steps with the mop as his partner. He is trying to perfect his dancing style for an important ballroom dance contest to be held soon. Sam is coaching and encouraging him.
It is clear that there is not much work to do and that their lives are not particularly eventful. Willie is enthusiastic and eager but uneducated and not at all reflective. Sam is more composed and thoughtful but also clearly deprived of any formal educational experience. Their lives do not extend beyond the local community and the tea room. From their banter, it is evident that they are good friends.
As Sam demonstrates a dance step, exhibiting a surprising proficiency, Hally arrives, having just returned from school. Clearly, he has a very friendly relationship with the two men. The three discuss Hally’s troubled...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Port Elizabeth. City on the southern coast of South Africa. A strictly segregated city at the time of the play, Port Elizabeth is inhabited only by white families like the family of seventeen-year-old South African boy Harold (Hally), by a small merchant class of Indian origin, and by the black servants of these groups. Most black workers like Willie, who is employed in the tearoom owned by Hally’s parents, might have jobs in Port Elizabeth, but they come into the city by bus from black townships and neighborhoods including New Brighton, Kingwilliamstown, and the other localities represented in Willie’s blacks-only dance competition. Hally has lived so long as one of the privileged whites in segregated areas that he is usually unaware that others’ movements are more restricted than his own. Until Sam tells him near the end of the play, he goes for years without realizing that the reason Sam did not stay on the park bench and fly the kite with Hally is that the bench was restricted to whites only.
St. George’s Park tearoom
St. George’s Park tearoom. Shop owned by Hally’s mother. Like most South African businesses in white areas, the owners and customers are white, but the employees are black. The play takes place in the tearoom, where Hally enjoys the power and privilege of being the owner’s son, lording his position over the employees. The dynamic added by the tearoom itself allows the...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Athol Fugard is primarily concerned with the interaction of black and white culture in “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. His dramatic devices draw the audience into the character and changing moods of the three people on stage, in a gradual widening and deepening that moves toward the heart of their beliefs and fears. He uses only one basic set, but each feature of the set is used to make an important point. The telephone is a link to the always troubling and sometimes threatening outside world, and when it rings, a major change in emphasis is signaled. The chairs and tables are arranged to no particular purpose, to stress the emptiness of Sam and Willie’s work. The jukebox remains inert until the end, when its music underscores the quiet goodness of the black men.
The world of the play, like the lives of the characters, is built essentially through language, for the imagination is the only faculty on which the characters can rely to brighten their bleak prospects. Most of the dramatic moments of the play occur through sudden revelations that carry the characters to new levels of understanding. In the early stages of the play, Sam and Willie are preparing for the dance contest, all easy banter and old jokes. They are relaxed and following familiar patterns of conversation. When Hally arrives, the mood changes rapidly, as Fugard forces the characters into a new awareness of themselves through the introduction of alternate viewpoints. Ideas...
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Separate and Unequal
In the mid-twentieth century, the country of South Africa was dominated by the policy of apartheid, a separation and segregation based on race. Strict policies prohibited and governed such issues as intermarriage, land ownership, and use of public facilities. In "Master Harold" ... and the Boys, Sam illustrates the division quite clearly: "I couldn't sit down there and stay with you," referring to a "Whites Only" bench upon which Hally sat. The laws deliberately set out to humiliate people of color, even to the point of determining who could sit on a particular bench Errol Durbach explained the psychopathology of apartheid in Modern Drama: "It is not that racial prejudice is legislated in South Africa. It insinuates itself into every social sphere of existence, until the very language of ordinary human discourse begins to reflect the policy that makes black men subservient to the power exercised by white children."
Fugard's Underground Theater
Many of Fugard's early plays were performed for small private audiences rather than in public theaters, apartheid laws forbade white actors appearing on stage with black actors In the 1960s, Fugard helped to start the Serpent Players, an all-black theater group made up of residents of New Brighton, the black township of Fugard's hometown of Port Elizabeth. Despite frequent harassment from the police, the Serpent Players continued to...
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"Master Harold''... and the Boys is a drama set in the St. George's Tea Room on a wet and windy afternoon. The year is 1950 and the location is Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The entire play takes place in the restaurant. While it is a small, enclosed space, the tea room serves as a microcosm of South African society at large. The attitudes and situations that are displayed in the restaurant are variations on what occurred on a daily basis under the system of apartheid.
"Master Harold"... and the Boys subscribes to the school of realism in that the actions and dialogue of the three characters are very much as they would be in real life This is not surprising given that the play is based on events from Fugard's own life. Like his titular character, the playwright had the nickname Hally as well as an alcoholic father of whom he was greatly ashamed. Fugard found a surrogate father in a black man who worked at his parents' cafe, a relationship much like the one between Hally and Sam. The play also enacts a historical reality in its portrayal of the actions and attitudes of South Africa at the height of apartheid.
Yet realism in literature is not a mere transcription of actual events; it seeks to use reality as a kind of mirror in which the audience can see themselves. Fugard uses realistic events and settings to strike chords of recognition in his audience. The play may be...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: In South Africa, the system of apartheid legislates the separation of the races. Black people are forced to live in designated areas and may only use designated public facilities.
1980s: The world condemns the policy of apartheid. Many people across the globe protest the involvement of businesses in South Africa and demonstrate for divestiture of investments in that country.
Today: The government of South Africa has officially renounced the policy of apartheid and has elected a black leader, Nelson Mandela.
1950s: In America, pre-World War II race restrictions (Jim Crow laws) are discarded. Black people assert their civil rights with marches, demonstrations, sit-down strikes, and boycotts. The Supreme Court strikes down the doctrine of "separate but equal" in the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision. In the ensuing decade, the Civil Rights Movement will reach a fever pitch, creating sweeping legislation to promote equality among races.
1980s: While race relations in the U.S. have improved since the 1950s and 1960s, there is still considerable inequality to be addressed. These disparities are trivial compared with the plight of South African blacks, however. Expanding public knowledge of apartheid renews many Americans' commitment to racial harmony and equality in their own country.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the South African system of apartheid. Compare that system to the segregated system of "separate but equal" that existed in the United States in the 1950s. What differences in the respective governments of the two countries enabled the U.S. to overcome racial inequalities before South Africa?
Discuss the episode of the kite, particularly in the light of Sam's explanation after Hally has spit in his face.
Sam discusses the complexities of human relations by using the metaphor of dance. Show how this metaphor works in the context of the play.
Hally has two one-sided telephone conversations during the play. Discuss his mood after each one. Why is the second call more troubling than the first?
Almost all of the dialogue in the play is between Sam and Hally. What is Willie's role in this drama? Is it mere observer"? Or is his role more significant than that9
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What Do I Read Next?
Selected Stories, a collection of short stories by Nobel-Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer A white South African like Fugard, Gordimer brings her characters and the African landscape they inhabit to life.
Hamlet, one of William Shakespeare's classic tragedies, was written in approximately 1603. It concerns a young man who has unresolved issues with both his father and his uncle. His inability to articulate his feelings causes him to lash out at people he loves with serious consequences.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a novel by Harper Lee that examines the events of a American town in the South during the Depression. The novel confronts issues of racism and power through the story a black man on trial for the rape of a white woman and the white lawyer who defends him.
Black like Me (1961) a memoir written by John Howard Griffin, recounts the adventures of a white man who changed the pigment of his skin to resemble a black man in the 1950s in the American South. The books offers a unique perspective on the treatment of African Americans during a pivotal time in the history of civil rights.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brustein, Robert, Review of "Master Harold" in the New Republic, Vol 186, No 25, June 23, 1982, pp. 30-31.
Colleran, Jeanne, Modern Drama, Vol. XXXTTI, no. 1, March, 1990, pp. 82-92.
Crow, Brian, "Master Harold . and the Boys" in International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol 1- Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St James Press, 1992.
Durbach, Enrol, "'Master Harold' . .and the Boys Athol Fugard and the Psychopathology of Apartheid" in Modern Drama, Vol. XXX, no. 4, December 1987, pp 505-13.
Gray, Stephen New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. VI, no. 21, February, 1990, pp 25-30.
Brians, Paul "Athol Fugard. 'Master Harold' , and the Boys" at http//www.wsuedu'8080/~bnans/anglophone/fugard.html. A website containing notes to the Penguin Plays edition of "Master Harold" and the Boys (1984); organized by page number.
Mallaby, Sebastian After Apartheid. The Future of South Africa, Times Books, 1992. Polarized by decades of apartheid, black and white South Africans now face the challenges of racial coexistence and economic growth in a new, multiracial nation This incisive examination of the radical consequences of apartheid's demise offers a penetrating look at South Africa on the brink of racial and historic change.
"Underdog's South African Independent Film Site'' at http //www...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Benson, Mary. “Keeping an Appointment with the Future: The Theatre of Athol Fugard,” in Theater Quarterly. VII, no. 28 (1977), pp. 77-87.
Bragg, Melvyn. “Athol Fugard, Playwright: A Conversation with Melvyn Bragg,” in The Listener. December 5, 1974, p. 734.
Durbach, Errol. “ ‘MASTER HAROLD’ . . . and the Boys’: Athol Fugard and the Psychopathology of Apartheid.” Modern Drama 30 (December, 1987): 505-513. A thorough analysis of the political atmosphere of black/white relationships as portrayed by Fugard in comparison with the reality in South Africa.
Freed, Lynn. “Vividly South African: An Interview with Athol Fugard.” Southwest Review 78 (Summer, 1993): 296-307. A detailed account of apartheid and the interpersonal repercussions it caused. Discusses Fugard’s impact as a playwright as well as his antiapartheid themes.
Fuchs, Anne. Review of Athol Fugard: A Bibliography, by John Read. Research in African Literature 24 (Spring, 1993): 137-139. Reviews Fugard’s themes as they relate to the black/white relations in Africa through the 1950’s. Includes background information on Fugard.
Fugard, Athol. “Fugard on Fugard,” in Yale Theater. I (Winter, 1973), pp. 41-54.
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