The summary of "Master Harold's'' action cannot begin to suggest its emotional intensity or its impact on an audience. Many who saw the play in its debut were greatly troubled by the society it depicted. Since that time "Master Harold" has continued to provoke critics and audiences alike.
Enrol Durbach, writing in Modern Drama, asserted that "Master Harold"... and the Boys is not an overtly political play, but a depiction of "a personal power-struggle with political implications." The only definition that the South African system can conceive of in the relationship of White to Black is one that humiliates black people. This definition "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." In the society depicted by Fugard White equals "Master" and Black equals "boy." It is an equation, continued Durbach, that ignores the traditional relationship of labor to management or of paid employee to paying employer.
During the course of the drama, Hally rapidly realigns the components of his long-standing friendship with Sam into the socio-political patterns of master and servant. Hally changes from intimate familiarity with his black companions to patronizing condescension to his social inferiors. It is an exercise of power by Hally, himself a "boy" who feels powerless to control the circumstance of his life and therefore seeks some measure of autonomy in his interaction with Sam and Willie.
Robert Brustein, in a review in the New Republic, described "Master Harold"... and the Boys as the "quintessential racial anecdote," and ascribed to Fugard's writing "a sweetness and sanctity that more than compensates for what might be prosaic, rhetorical, or contrived about it.'' There is a suggestion that Fugard's obsession with the theme of racial injustice may be an expression of his own guilt and act of expiation. As Brian Crow noted in the International Dictionary of Theatre, "biographical information, however, is not needed in order for the play to make its full impact in the theatre. This is achieved primarily through an audience's empathy with the loving relationship between Hally and Sam and its violation through Hally's inability to cope with his emotional turmoil over his father, and its expression in racism. If to what extent the play manages ... to transmute autobiographical experience into a larger exploration or analysis of racism in South Africa is arguable; what seems quite certain is its capacity to involve and disturb audiences everywhere."
Yet not all critical reaction to Fugard's work has been positive. Fairing to see the play's wider message on racism, Stephen Gray saw "Master Harold" as nothing more than a play about apartheid. In a 1990 New Theatre Quarterly article, Gray noted that South Africa's dissolution of apartheid has made the play obsolete, stating that it “feels like a museum piece today." Other negative criticism found the play's black characters to be falsely represented As Jeanne Colleran reported in Modern Drama,"To some black critics, the character of Sam is a grotesquerie. His forbearance and forgiveness, far from being virtues, are embodiments of the worst kind of Uncle Tom-ism." Such reproach prompted Fugard to clarify his intentions during the Anson Phelps Stokes Institute's Africa Roundtable. As Colleran reported, Fugard stated that his intention was to tell a story: "I never set out to serve a cause.... The question of being a spokesman for Black politics is something I've never claimed for myself."
Such criticism for "Master Harold" was sporadic, however The majority of critics and audiences embraced the play as important and thought-provoking. Commenting on Fugard's ability to fuse theatricality with strong political issues, Dennis Walder wrote in Athol Fugard, "Fugard's work... contains a potential for subversion, a potential which, I would suggest, is the hallmark of great art, and which qualifies his best work to be called great."