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 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...
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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 relationship with his crippled father. The extent of the boy’s relationship with Sam and Willie is developed through reminiscences ranging back to Hally’s first tentative entrance into the “boys’” quarters before he was ten years old. Their recollections are so vivid that they seem to coexist with the present. The audience begins to realize that Sam is a kind of surrogate father for Hally, the true source of his education and moral guidance, while Willie is like an amiable older brother. The delight that Hally and Sam share in exploring major ethical questions indicates their mutual delight in mental agility and shows their respect and deep affection for each other. They seem to be wryly aware of the incongruity of this comaraderie between a comic-book-reading black man and a literate, articulate white boy.
Although the play is one continuous act without intermission, the first section concludes with a dialogue in which Sam comments on Hally’s story of a day when Sam designed and built a kite and then flew it successfully in spite of the boy’s doubts and...
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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 play to resonate beyond the themes of history and race.
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 build in an associative progression as Sam and Hally trade insights on political leaders and theoreticians until...
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Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
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.
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