"MASTER HAROLD" . . . and the Boys Critical Overview
by Athol Fugard

"MASTER HAROLD" . . . and the Boys book cover
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Critical Overview

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 646 words.)