Last Updated on June 22, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 874
Athol Fugard’s “MASTER HAROLD”and the Boys is a tightly woven one-act play that examines the author’s personal experience as a white South African in troubled times. The play won international acclaim but was considered revolutionary in South Africa because there were black and white actors on the same stage. One of Fugard’s close associates was Zakes Mokae, a black actor who studied at Yale University and created the role of Sam in the first performance of the play at the Yale Repertory Theatre.
In this perfectly choreographed drama, Fugard illustrates the duplicity in the friendship between the seventeen-year-old white “Master Harold” and the black forty-five-year-old “boys,” Sam and Willie, who work for his family. The relationship between Sam and Hally and the interaction between Sam and Willie create a pulsing rhythm of personal conflicts within the play. Hally had taught Sam everything that he himself learned in school, thus creating a verbal sparring partner who could argue with him about topics related to history, literature, and tolerance. To the throbbing beat of historic names from Hally’s teachers, texts, and home, Sam offers ideas based on his limited textbook knowledge and his life experience. Willie, who is not as educated, has neither Sam’s book knowledge nor his rhythm, but he provides a perfect counterpoint to the beat of the discussion in the Tea Room. Sam’s relationship with Hally is intellectual and fatherly, his relationship with Willie is racial and brotherly.
A conflict within one person is Hally’s frustration with the dichotomy between the teaching of his prejudiced and “crippled” drunken father and Sam’s sensible, more educated nonprejudiced teaching. Hally dislikes his father, but he becomes angry when Sam scolds Harold for talking badly about his father. At that point, Sam crosses the fine line of master/servant relationships. While Harold was trying to bring Sam closer to an understanding of the white world, Sam tried to impose a rule of parental respect. This results in the climax of the play, where Hally demands that Sam call him “Master Harold.” Hally attributes his superior attitude to his mother, who has said that Sam is only a servant and should not “get too familiar” with the white proprietor. This confrontation illustrates a person versus society conflict.
Several themes create cohesiveness in the play, among them that of the multiple shades of love and hate. Hally loves Sam for his guidance and companionship, yet despises him because he represents the culture he was raised to consider inferior. Male/female relationships are another theme. The relationship between an overbearing male and a submissive female is represented by Hally’s father and mother as well as by Willie and Hilda, showing the strong parallel of noncommunication in different cultures. Another theme relates to family and generations. Hally’s parents would like him to continue as a biased white person, but his interaction with Sam has caused a split in that prejudiced thinking because Hally sees Sam display an intelligence and insight that Hally had been told blacks did not possess.
Fugard makes use of several symbols in the play. The bench in the park is first mentioned as a starting point from which to fly a kite. New hope of racial cooperation is symbolized by Sam’s and Hally’s makeshift kite. Only much later in the play is it revealed that the bench was for whites only. At the end of the play, the bench becomes a symbol to discard old prejudices when Sam advises Hally to “stand up and walk away from it.” Another symbol is the dancing that flows through the play. Dancing is the symbol of the smooth interaction of people or nations in which no one “bumps” into anyone. Sam, the expert dancer, had integrated white education and black knowledge. Willie was trying to learn to dance to avoid bumps, but Hally refused to learn to dance. The implication is that Sam and Willie are closer to moving toward harmony than Hally and his parents, who would continue to “bump,” or fight.
Hally experiences a rite of passage from innocence to experience. All through the play, his immaturity is clear. Once at the beginning, when Sam teases Willie about a “leg trouble” that has a sexual innuendo, Hally takes the remark literally. Earlier, Sam had created the kite to help Hally forget the shame of having seen his drunken father carried through the town streets. While Hally was old enough to appreciate the kite flying, he was not mature enough to understand the implications of the need to distract his sadness, nor did he understand the implications of the whites-only bench. Finally, Hally did not fully understand his father’s joke, which concerned white skin versus black skin, until Sam demonstrated the literal and social implications of “fairness” by showing Hally the blackness of his buttocks.
“MASTER HAROLD”and the Boys illustrates that race has no bearing on intelligence or common sense and that prejudice creates conflicts that education can help to alleviate. Fugard weaves a rich dialogue that illustrates the conflicts between the black and white communities and shows the possibilities of harmony in a vision of the world as a politically smooth ballroom dance.