"MASTER HAROLD" . . . and the Boys Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama) - Essay

Athol Fugard

Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In his entry for March, 1961, Fugard wrote in his Notebooks, 1960-1977, (1984), “Sam Semela—Basuto—with the family fifteen years. Meeting him again when he visited Mom set off string of memories.” The memories to which he refers led to the writing of “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. When he was about thirteen, Fugard remembers, Sam Semela was working in his parents’ hotel in Port Elizabeth. After a “rare quarrel,” he followed Sam on his bike as the black man walked home; cycling past, the young Fugard spat in his face. As Fugard recalls, “Shame . . . overwhelmed me the second after I had done that.” He carried the memory in his conscience until he could use his shame as the dramatic climax of “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. In the play, he universalized it to examine the shame of a nation, reaching further into the depths of the racial psychosis of South African society than he had done in any prior work.

By 1961, Fugard had come to realize that Sam was “the most significant—the only—friend of my boyhood years.” “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys is a tribute to their friendship and a gesture of gratitude to a man whose unselfish sharing of his life set an example that Fugard has made into a principle of being. The heroic figures of Fugard’s plays are all animated by “the true seed of love” that he learned from Sam’s teaching.