Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1379
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 backside with a ruler and the "I-allow-you-a-little-freedom-and-what-do-you-do-with-it" speech show that Hally resists acknowledging the changes and accompanying complications that will inevitably take place when his father returns home.
In the ensuing ballroom dancing discussion (Fugard himself was a dancing champion in his teens), Sam describes the dance finals "like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don't happen." Sam's view of the world as dance floor contrasts sharply with Hally's nostalgic view of life as the right size in the old Jubilee Boarding house. Hally wants things to remain static, to never change. Sam, on the other hand, wants the world "to dance like champions instead of always being a bunch of beginners at it." There are no collisions in Sam's view because the participants have discovered ways of moving around the dance floor without bumping into one another; symbolically, this is Sam's hope that the world can live together peacefully without prejudice or inequality. Hally appears momentarily convinced at the end of this discussion: "We mustn't despair. Maybe there is hope for mankind after all." But then the phone rings and Hally's world shatters with the news that his mother will be bringing his father home.
At this point, Hally's demeanor becomes "vicious" and "desperate," and at the end of the conversation Hally is "desolate." He slams books and smashes the bottle of brandy his mother had told him to get for his father. With reckless words and ugly laughter, Hally mocks his crippled father, insinuating him into the dance metaphor as the ones who are "out there tripping up everybody and trying to get into the act." His childhood world is now smashed beyond recognition as Hally swears at Sam and chastises him for meddling in something he knows nothing about.
Hally's adolescent posturing leads him to demand that Sam call him"Master Harold, like Willie [does]." Because he cannot control the events surrounding his father's homecoming, Hally lashes out at the convenient targets of Willie and Sam, people he feels he can control. The youth's petulance manifests itself with a vengeance. Hally lets fly with a racist comment and compounds the ugliness of the offense by insisting that it is a "bloody good joke." Hally's final act of naked cruelty is to spit in Sam's face. For Hally, the bond with Sam is forever broken. The demarcation between master and servant is clearly defined.
Although sorely tempted to repay violence with violence, Sam remains the gentle father, the true friend, the moral teacher. Having removed the symbol of servitude (the white servant's jacket) that distinguishes him as a "boy," Sam presents the personal rather than political response to Hally's indignities—an extended hand and the offer to try again and "fly another kite." But Hally has shamed himself beyond compassion and cannot respond to Sam's final lesson.
Errol Durbach wrote in Modern Drama that the final dramatic images—the rain of despair, the wind where no kites fly, the hopelessness of relationships ripped apart by racist attitudes, the comforting music that elicits compassion for children who are a victims of their own upbringing, and "the image of a world where 'Whites Only' leave two black men dancing together in an act of solidarity"—represent Fugard's movement between hope and despair, qualified only by the realization that '"Master Harold' grows up to be Athol Fugard and that the play itself is an act of atonement to the memory of Sam and 'H.D.F.' [Harold David Fugard]—the Black and White fathers to whom [the play] is dedicated."
So, then, back the original question—what is the play about if not political straggle? It is a play about fathers and sons, and how those roles can be both supportive and destructive. It is a play that illustrates how relationships can be strained by factors beyond the participants. It is a play that offers suggestions and gestures for forgiveness and compassion. It is a play ultimately about race. Not black, or white, or red, or yellow, or brown, but human.
Source: William P Wiles, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221
Many writers have noted the conflict between idealism and reality in Athol Fugard's Master Harold... and the Boys. Dennis Walder, for example, describes a "gap between the ... harsh, even violent reality" that the play's characters endure, and the "ideal world imagined by Sam" with his "idea of dancing as a paradigm of universal harmony" [Athol Fugard, Macmillan, 1984]. Others have noted a second, closely related conflict: that between self-esteem and self-loathing Frank Rich observes, "Fugard's point is simple enough: before we can practice compassion ... we must learn to respect ourselves" [New York Times, May 5,1982], But no writer has pointed out that both conflicts are neatly summarized within the play by one more conflict: that between looking up and looking down.
This last conflict is especially suited to a play, because the audience can see characters looking up or down. And Fugard, who usually directs the premieres of his plays, is especially sensitive to the theatre's physical possibilities, as other writers have observed. In his published notebooks, Fugard states, "Only a fraction of my truth is in the words," adding that the rest resides in "the carnal reality of the actor in space and time" (171) Thus, it is no surprise that the conflict between looking up and looking down in Master Harold emerges through visual elements as well as through dialogue.
Fugard begins establishing the significance of looking down the moment the play begins. As the curtain rises, the audience sees Sam and Willie, two black servants working in a restaurant in the apartheid South Africa of 1950. Willie is on his knees, scrubbing the restaurant floor This task forces him to look down, and as Russell Vandenbroucke notes, his image "is an inescapable reminder of the role blacks are expected to play" in his society [Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard, Theatre Communizations Group, 1985]. Thus, looking down is associated with an oppressive reality.
Fugard then begins associating looking up with achieving the ideal world symbolized by dance. Just seconds into the play, Willie rises from scrubbing the floor, begins practicing a dance step, and asks Sam for pointers. Part of the advice Sam gives is "Don't look down'" Sam tells Willie that dancing should ' look like romance,'' which he defines as a "love story with happy ending." In the widely available videotape of the play, Sam looks upward as he says, "It must look like romance." Significantly, the actor playing Sam on the videotape, Zakes Mokae, previously played the role on Broadway under Fugard's direction
After Sam's comment, Fugard further establishes the conflict between ideal and real. Willie counters Sam's idealistic vision by describing his own reality: Hilda, his girlfriend and dance partner, has no teeth; she has told authorities that he is behind in child support payments to her; he suspects that she has been sleeping with other men and that her child is not really his son; she cannot keep up with the beat when they dance; and because he has beaten her in frustration, she now refuses to come near him, thus leaving him not only estranged from his lover, but also without a partner for the upcoming ballroom dance competition. Facing this reality, Willie has trouble looking up toward an idealistic vision.
Soon Hally, the restaurant owner's teenage son, enters His superior position is immediately established visually, as Willie jokingly springs to attention and salutes him. But when the ensuring dialogue reveals Hally's indifference to his exams and Sam's subtle strategies to help him pass them, we realize that Hally lacks self-esteem and that Sam tries to improve the boy's self-image.
Fugard then associates high self-esteem with looking up, as Hally recalls the time that Sam made him a kite. Typically, Hally had assumed that the project would fail, as he states, "I thought, 'Like everything else in my life, here comes another fiasco '"But the kite did fly and, Hally recalls, "I was so proud of us!... I had a stiff neck the next day from looking up so much.''
Not until late m the play does Sam reveal why he made the kite, in the process revealing one reason for Hally's low self-esteem. He reminds Hally of the time Hally' s father passed out in a bar and had to be carried home by Sam—with Hally, still a child, forced to accompany Sam to enable him to enter the whites-only bar. With Hally following behind, Sam had earned the father home past crowds of staring people, and then had to clean him up from having "messed in his trousers." Sam adds,
After we got him to bed you came back with me to my room and sat m a comer and earned on just looking down at the ground And for days after that1 You hadn't done anything wrong, but you went around as if you owed the world an apology for being alive I didn't like seeing that'. If you really want to know, that's why I made you that kite. I wanted you to look up, be proud of something, of yourself....
But by this point, the hope the Hally will look up has faded, for he has subjected Sam to a vicious attack climaxed by his spitting in the black man's face. Thus, Hally has destroyed his relationship with his best friend and surrogate father; he has turned away from Sam's vision of universal cooperation; and he has increased his own burden of shame, thus lowering his self-esteem still further.
At the end it is Willie, not Hally, who begins to look up and share Sam's vision. He states that he will apologize to Hilda, promise not to beat her anymore, and “romance with her from beginning to end." Then he plays the restaurant's juke box and asks Sam to dance, saying, "Let's dream.... You lead, I follow."
Although the stage directions do not specify it, in performance the men's gazes undoubtedly reflect the reversal that has taken place involving Willie and Hally. Because Willie has finally internalized the lessons Sam has been teaching, during the final dance sequence he surely cannot violate Sam's earlier injunction, "Don't look down1" In contrast, because Hally is repeatedly described as ashamed of his outburst, at the end he is surely avoiding Sam's eyes, looking at the floor just as he did after his father passed out in the bar. The actor who played Willie on the videotape, longtime Fugard associate John Kani, never lets his gaze drift downward during the closing dance sequence; while Matthew Brodenck, as Hally, looks down almost constantly during the final portion of the play.
Because of Hally's actions, audiences are utterly harrowed by the play's end. But if we look beyond the play to the reality behind it, there is hope. Since the play is based on actual events from Fugard's childhood, we know that in real life, the boy who spat in the face of a black man named Sam outgrew his anger and racism, and even used the incident to create a play celebrating a vision of universal cooperation. And South Africa has not only abolished apartheid, but has elected a black man as its president. Perhaps things, and people, are finally looking up.
Source: Brian Sutton, Fugard's "Master Harold . and the Boys" in the Explicator, Volume 54, no. 2, Winter, 1996, pp. 120-23
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3713
In this play, dredged out of Athol Fugard's painful memories of a South African adolescence, at least one event stands out in joyous recollection: the boy's exhilarating, liberating, and ultimately transcendent experience of flying a kite made out of tomato-box slats, brown paper, discarded stockings, and string. From the scraps and leavings of the depressingly mundane, the boy intuits the meaning of a soul-life; and he responds to the experience as a "miracle." "Why did you make that kite, Sam?" he asks of the black servant whose gift it was—but the answer is not given until much later in the play. Nor can Hally recollect the reason for Sam's failure to share in the experience of high-flying delight.
HALLY... You left me after that, didn't you'' You explained how to get it down, we tied it to the bench so that I could sit and watch it, and you went away 1 wanted you to stay, you know. I was a little scared of having to look after it by myself
SAM (Quietly) I had work to do, Hally.
In the final moments of the play Sam provides the simple explanation: the kite had been a symbolic gift to console the child against the degrading shame of having to cope with a drunken and crippled father—an attempt to raise his eyes from the ground of humiliation:
That's not the way a boy grows up to be a man1 But the one person who should have been teaching you what that means was the cause of your shame If you really want to know, that's why I made you that kite. I wanted you to look up, be proud of something, of yourself.
The second question has an answer more readily understood by one familiar with apartheid's so-called "petty" operations:
I couldn't sit down there and stay with you It was a "Whites Only" bench You were too young, too excited to notice then But not anymore If you're not careful ... Master Harold .. you're going to be sitting up there by yourself for a long time to come, and there won't be a kite in the sky.
This, in essence, is the psychopathology of apartheid. Growing up to be a "man" within a system that deliberately sets out to humiliate black people, even to the point of relegating them to separate benches, entails the danger of habitual indifference to the everyday details that shape black/ white relationships and, finally, pervert them. It is not merely that racial prejudice is legislated in South Africa. It 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. Hally, the seventeen-year-old white boy whose affectionately diminutive name is an index of his social immaturity, is "Master Harold'' in the context of attitudes fostered by apartheid. And the black man who is his mentor and surrogate father is the "boy"—in all but compassion, humanity, and moral intelligence.
This, finally, is the only definition that the South African system can conceive of in the relationship of White to Black; and Hally, with the facility of one habituated to such power play, saves face and forestalls criticism by rapidly realigning the components of friendship into the socio-political patterns of mastery and servitude. Like quicksilver, he shifts from intimate familiarity with his black companions, to patronizing condescension to his social inferiors, to an appalling exercise of power over the powerless "boys" simply by choosing to play the role of "baas'':
HALLY Sara1 Willie' (Grabs his ruler and gives WILLIE a vicious whack on the bum) How the hell am I supposed to concentrate with the two of you behaving like bloody children' [ ..] Get back to your work. You too, Sam (His ruler) Do you want another one, Willie''
(SAM and WILLIE return to their work HALLY uses the opportunity to escape front his unsuccessful attempt at homework He struts around like a little despot, ruler in hand, giving vent to his anger and frustration)
Within the culture portrayed in the play there is nothing particularly remarkable about a white child hitting a black man. It would have been unheard of on the other hand for a black man, in the South Africa of the 1950s, to strike back. His anger and frustration could be unleashed only upon those even more pitifully dispossessed of the human rights to dignity and respect. The white child hits the black man, and the black man hits the black woman. It is a system in which violence spirals downwards in a hierarchy of degradation—as Fugard shows in Willie's relationship with his battered dancing partner who can no longer tolerate the abuse.
A very simple racial equation operates within apartheid: White = "Master''; Black = "Boy" It is an equation which ignores traditional relationships of labour to management, of paid employee to paying employer, or contractual relationships between freely consenting parties. And Sam's attempt to define the nature of his employment in conventional terms is countermanded by Hally's application of the equation:
HALLY You're only a servant here, and don't forget it [, ] And as far as my father is concerned, all you need to remember is that he's your boss
SAM (Needled at last) No, he isn't I get paid by your mother
HALLY Don't argue with me, Sam!
SAM Then don't say he's my boss
HALLY He's a white man and that's good enough for you
What needles Sam is the thought of being paid for his work by a bigot who shows him none of the simple human respect that is everyone's most urgent need in Fugard's world—the white child's in a family that shames him, and the black man's in a culture that humiliates him. It is the common denominator that Sam and Hally share; and the ultimate goal of "Master" Harold's power-play is to secure his own desire for self-respect at the expense of a man whose native dignity proves all but impervious to these attempts to "boy" him. It is a self-defeating and self-destructive ploy, imposed by threat and blackmail upon a relationship which has all the potential for mutual comfort, support, and love. It is the human content of their shared affection that Hally is about to petrify into the equation of apartheid:
HALLY To begin with, why don't you also start calling me Master Harold, like Willie
SAM[.. ] And if I don't?
HALLY You might lose your job.
SAM (Quietly and very carefully) If you make me say it once, I'll never call you anything else again [ ] You must decide what it means to you.
HALLY Well, I have. It's good news Because that is exactly what Master Harold wants from now on Think of it as a little lesson in respect, Sam, that's long overdue. [.. JI can tell you now that somebody who will be glad to hear I've finally given it to you will be my Dad Yes1 He agrees with my Mom. He's always going on about it as well. “You must teach the boys to show you more respect, my son."
"Teaching respect'' loses all semantic value in the context of apartheid. It means coercion by threat, just as "showing respect" means acquiescence through enforced abasement. It is easy to teach Willie respect—one does it with the stick, and with impunity because Willie lacks the necessary sentiment of self-regard to oppose such treatment. His predictable response is to insist that Hally whack Sam as well—the sole comfort of the wretched being to recognize fellow-sufferers in distress. But Hally cannot command Sam's respect; and if he cannot win it, his only recourse is to humiliate Sam to the point where, by default, his own pathetic superiority supervenes. Finally, the only power left to Hally is the wounding power of bigotry supported by a system in which "black'' is, ipso facto, base. Echoing his father's words, associating himself with the very cause of his shame, he spreads the "filth" he has been taught in a racist joke—the penultimate weapon in his arsenal of power. It is a crude pun about a "nigger's arse" not being "fair"; and one senses, in the numb incredulity of the two black men, an irreversible redefinition of their relationship with their white charge. In the ensuing silence, he belabours the pun—the double meaning of "fair'' as light in colour and just and decent—and is ensnared in the moral implications of his bid for respect through insult and abuse:
SAM You're really trying hard to be ugly, aren't you? And why drag poor Willie into it9 He's done nothing to you except show you the respect you want so badly. That's also not being fair, you know . and I mean just or decent.
And to underscore the embarrassment that Hally has brought upon himself, Sam performs an action of rebuke through self-abasement that reveals both the reality and the vulnerability of the "nigger's arse"—the thing that the Master feels at liberty to mock at and kick: "He drops his trousers and underpants and presents his backside for HALLY's inspection." His nakedness is clearly no laughing matter. It calls in question the justice and decency and fairness of an entire system which can encourage a child so to humiliate a man. Its indictment is Dostoyevsky in its power to shame.
Hally's countermeasure is to exercise his power to degrade with impunity: he spits in Sam's face, saving his own by fouling another's and, in so doing, placing Sam forever in the role of "boy" to his "Master''. It is a gesture of contempt and angry frustration, the adolescent's protest against his own sense of degradation—horribly misdirected against the wrong source, as Sam instantly realizes: "The face you should be spitting in," he says, "is your father's . . but you used mine, because you think you're safe inside your fair skin ... and this time I don't mean just or decent." It is Hally's "white" father who ensures the "principle of perpetual disappointment" in the boy's life—the crippled alcoholic who must be dragged out of bars fouled in his own excrement, whose chamber pots must be emptied by the boy, and whose imminent return from the hospital provokes in Hally the thought of further humiliating servitude. But it is Hally's black "father" who must bear the brunt of his anguish and his shame. Sam has become his "spitting boy'' just as Willie had been his "whipping boy", the recipient of a contempt which he cannot reveal to his father whom he both loves and despises. This is the moment, Fugard admitted in an interview, "which totally symbolized the ugliness, the potential ugliness waiting for me as a White South African."
The overwhelming shame of the actual event is recorded in the section of Fugard's Notebooks dealing with his childhood memories of growing up in Port Elizabeth. But he sets the play five years later, in 1950, that annus mirabilis of Apartheid legislation; and Fugard's political point of view is nowhere more clearly revealed than in his location of the encroaching ugliness of South Africa's destiny in a personal rather than a national failure of moral decency. Despite the statutory enforcement of racist laws in the 1950s, apartheid (like charity) is seen to begin at home, in the small details of everyday existence.
There is no sense, in the play, of the Nationalist Government's Population Registration Act of 1950 with its racial system of classification by colour, the Group Areas Act of 1950 which demarcated the areas of permissible domicile for the races and controlled the ownership of property in those areas, the 1950 Amendment to the Immorality Act which prohibited sexual contact across the colour bar, or the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 which empowered the minister of Justice to ban suspect individuals without trial or right of appeal—indeed, without even notifying the detainee of the nature of his offence. There is nothing of Kafka's nightmare about Fugard's world, nothing of the political absurdity of Vaclav Havel's vision of man's soul under totalitarianism. Nor does he invoke the ridiculous terms of the Separate Amenities Act which, in 1953, would subject a black man sitting on a "Whites Only" bench ("reserved for the exclusive use of persons belonging to a particular race or class, being a race or class to which he does not belong") to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds or imprisonment not exceeding three months, or to both.
Fugard's is not a drama of political protest nor an expose of a corrupt regime entrenched in its position of power. His detractors on the militant Left call him bitterly to task for failing to fight against the system, just as his Right-wing detractors point to the obsolescence of his political vision—to the disappearance of "Whites Only" signs on South African benches in the 1980s. Plays like Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act or Sizyve Bansi is Dead may, indeed, seem anachronistic after the rescinding of the Immorality Act and the Pass laws with which they deal. But the psychopathology of apartheid in Fugard's drama is quite distinct from Government policy. There is no guarantee, when the letter of all the 1950's legislation has passed into oblivion, that the attitudes which informed its spirit will disappear as well. The Laws are crucial historical background to Fugard's world, but these attitudes are the substance of his most insistent misgivings about apartheid's operation upon human relationships.
In the absence of explicit political comment, it might seem tendentious to equate the social awkwardness of a troubled teenager with government policy Hally's condescending attitude towards his "boys", his failure to share with them any of the chocolate and cake and ice-cream that he is constantly consuming—these may be evidence of an ingrained arrogance and selfishness rather than a culturally conditioned attitude to an "inferior" race. But these unobtrusive details underscore the more overt acts of insulting racism in the play. Having whacked one “boy'' with a ruler and spat in the other's face, his last shamefaced act is to remove the wretched day's takings from the cash register— essentially small change—and tell Willie to lock up for him. One entrusts the “boy'' with the keys to the tearoom, but not with the few coins which might tempt him to play the juke-box or take the bus home. One may give a "boy'' some cake or chocolate, but never offer it. Every social gesture, within the South African context, becomes an affirmation or a negation of the principle of apartheid; and every act is more or less political.
Against the petty and unconscious cruelties of Hally, Fugard juxtaposes the magnanimity of Sam: the compassionate father, the good friend, the moral teacher. He offers a solution to the predicament, again in personal rather than political terms—a response so lacking m revolutionary fervor as to alienate, once again, the new generation of post-Sowetan critics of Athol Fugard's drama. Mastering his violence and the desire to strike Hally for spitting at him, Sam carefully considers the strategy of aggression with Willie, and they both agree to suffer the indignity in stoical resignation:
WILLIE [ .] But maybe all I do is go cry at the back He's little boy, Boet Sam Little white boy. Long trousers now, but he's still little boy.
SAM (His violence ebbing away into defeat as quickly as it flooded) You're right. So go on, then, groan again, Willie. You do it better than me.
Though struck to the quick, they endure the insult with weeping and groaning rather than striking back. There is no revolution in the St. George's Park Tearoom—but not because the black man is culturally conditioned to patience, nor for fear of putting his job in jeopardy. In Fugard's world, as in Prospero's, the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance, in humane reasoning rather than fury; and Sam trusts, once again, to his capacity for moving Master Harold to shame through moral suasion and exemplary behavior. He forgives the little white boy who knows no better, and behaves like a “man'' in order to teach him the rudiments of "manly" behavior. Turning the other cheek may not be politically expedient as a response to apartheid, but where problems are engendered at the personal level it is only at the personal level that they may be resolved.
"I oscillate," says the precocious Hally early in the play, "between hope and despair for this world.... But things will change, you wait and see." On the whole, Sam's politics are ranged on the side of hope—the hope born, initially, of a naive vision of reform and racial harmony but modulating, in the final scenes, to the more somber hope of salvaging the scrap of value remaining in his relationship with the little white master. He dreams of a world transformed by some benevolent reformer— a savior-like Napoleon for whom all men were equal before the law, or another Abraham Lincoln who fought for the oppressed, or a Tolstoy, or Gandhi, or Christ; and he envisions life as a celestial ballroom in which no accidents occur, in which powers are harmoniously aligned on the global dance floor. But, like Hally, he is forced to acknowledge the harsh reality of things: we go on waiting for the "Man of Magnitude", he admits, bumping and colliding until we're sick and tired. All that remains is the small gesture, the little act of decency that may turn a fragment of the dream into something real. This, finally, is what he hopes for. He takes off his servant's jacket and returns in clothes that no longer distinguish him as a "boy"; he addresses Hally by the affectionate diminutive once again; and he offers, very simply, the chance to "fly another kite.'' "You can't fly kites on rainy days," says Hally—and the rain and the wind squalling beyond the windows of the tearoom assume the depressing and hopeless condition of the entire South African situation. Better weather tomorrow? No one is sure.
At this point in the Yale Repertory production of the play, the excellent Zakes Mokae playing Sam extends his hand tentatively towards Hally in a gesture of appeal and reconciliation as important to his well-being as to the boy's; and he challenges him to change the situation through an act of personal transformation which flies in the face of his cultural and political conditioning: "You don't have to sit up there by yourself,'' he says, recalling the boy's isolation on the "Whites Only" bench. You know what that bench means now, and you can leave it any time you choose. All you've got to do is stand up and walk away from it." But ingrained attitudes die hard. Paralyzed by shame but incapable of extending himself towards the black man, Hally hesitates and then walks out into the rain as Sam's hand crumples in its gesture.
If anyone has learned a lesson from this bleak afternoon of moral instruction it is the simple, inarticulate Willie who, in his effort to comfort Sam, endorses his dream-ideal of life as a ballroom. He vows never to beat up his partner again, and slips his bus fare into the juke-box which "comes to life in the gray twilight, blushing its way through a spectrum of soft, romantic colours." "Let's dream," he says. And the two men sway through the room to Sarah Vaughan' s melancholy lullaby to an unhappy child—"Little man you're crying." The final dramatic image is suffused with the ambiguous tonalities typical of Fugard's best work: the rain of despair beyond the windows, the wind in which no kites fly, the hopelessness of a situation where people are driven apart by racist attitudes, the consoling music which evokes our compassion for children who are casualties of their upbringing, the hope that shame and embarrassment might induce change in a morally receptive child, the delusory political vision of racial harmony on the South African dance floor, and the image of a world where "Whites Only" leave two black men dancing together in an act of solidarity. It is a typically Fugardian oscillation between hope and despair, qualified only by the realization that "Master Harold" grows up to be Athol Fugard and that the play itself is an act of atonement and moral reparation to the memory of Sam and "H.D.F."—the Black and the White fathers to whom it is dedicated.
It would clearly be misleading to claim that "Master Harold" . .. and the boys addresses the growing complexity of apartheid politics m the South Africa of 1987. It is a "history" play—a family "history" written, like O’Neill’s Long Day's Journey into Night, as an exorcism of the tormented ghosts of his childhood; but it is also a phase of South African "history", an anachronistic backward glace to a time when black men in their stoical optimism still dreamed of social change and when white boys might have been able to grasp the implications of “Whites Only'' benches and choose to walk away from them. It deals with a rite of passage clumsily negotiated, a failure of love in a personal power-struggle with political implications. Alan Paton, writing in the same time-frame of history, projects a similar vision of tenuous hope for racial harmony—and also the dreadful consequences of its deferment. Msimangu, the black priest in Cry, the Beloved Country, speaks the powerful subtext beneath the action of Fugard's play:
But there is only one thing that has power completely, and that is love Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.
He was grave and silent, and then he said somberly, I have one great fear m my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating
Source: Erroll Durbach, "Master Harold and the Boys: Athol Fugard and the Psychopathology of Apartheid" in Modern Drama, Volume XXX, no 2, December, 1987, pp. 505-13.
See eNotes Ad-Free
Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.