"MASTER HAROLD" . . . and the Boys Essays and Criticism
by Athol Fugard

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A Chronicle of Human Relations

(Drama for Students)

What happens to the overall effect of a play when the societal forces that shaped it have changed to the point where the playwright himself says: "[A] political miracle has taken place in my time."? Such might appear to be the case for Athol Fugard and his play "Master Harold".. and the Boys The South African system of apartheid—legislated separation of the races—has been dismantled; free and open elections have been held; a black man, Nelson Mandela, has been elected president of the country. The power of whites, regardless of their age or station, to subjugate and humiliate blacks with the full blessing of the government and society at large has evaporated. The question that begs to be asked, then, is: What is this play about if not about political struggle?

By focusing attention on the adolescent antagonist Hally, Fugard creates a more personal drama— a drama rooted in the uncertainties of a youth who attends a second-rate school and whose parents own and operate a third-rate cafe. Displaying "a few stale cakes." '"a not very impressive display of sweets," and "a few sad ferns in pots," the St. George's Park Tea Room hardly seems the seat of power. And. the arrival of Hally. in clothes that are "a little neglected and untidy" and drenched from the heavy rains that keep customers away, does little to prepare the audience for the play's explosive confrontation.

When Hally enters the cafe, it appears that he is glad for the lack of patrons so that he and Sam and Willie can have a "nice, quiet afternoon." There is the implication that both he and the two men have enjoyed these types of days in the past. Hally's world, however, begins to crumble when Sam informs him that his mother has gone to the hospital to bring his father home. Hally's annoyance at the comic books piled on the table—"intellectual rubbish"—changes into fury when Willie throws a slop rag at Sam, misses, and hits Hally. Hally swears and tells both Willie and Sam to "stop fooling around." Hally calls Sam back to have him explain what Hally's mother said before she left for the hospital He convinces himself that his father is not coming home, that Sam heard wrong, and that the world he has created for himself will continue undisturbed.

His willingness to shift the discussion to the varieties of textbook learning and then to the more important learning gleaned from the servants quarters at the old Jubilee Boarding House under the tutelage of Sam and Willie, indicate Hally's inability to accept that his life is about to change once again. Hally returns to the comfort of the historical past, discussing Joan of Arc, World War I, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and William Shakespeare with Sam. He also returns to his own familiar past and the flying of a homemade kite that Sam made for him.

It is the kite that provides Hally with the defining moment of his young life—a black man and a young white boy enjoying each other's company and a shared accomplishment. Hally says "I don't know how to describe it, Sam Ja! The miracle happened!" Hally appears to want to return to the safety of their shared past when he mentions to Sam that "[i]t's time for another one, you know." The uncertainties of adolescence challenge Hally's place, not only in the world at large but in his family as well. Of his time spent with Sam he summarizes: ''It's just that life felt the right size in there... not too big and not too small. Wasn't so hard to work up a bit of courage. It's got so bloody complicated since then."

Hally's violent reaction to the news that his father is indeed returning home (the stage directions describe Hally as "seething with irritation and frustration") clearly illustrate the complications Hally must now face. "Just when things are going along all right, without fail someone or something will come along and spoil everything. Somebody should write that down as a fundamental law of the Universe The principle of perpetual disappointment " Hally's attack on Willie's...

(The entire section is 6,313 words.)