"MASTER HAROLD" . . . and the Boys Analysis

Athol Fugard

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys is a one-act play using only three characters. All of the action takes place in one hundred consecutive, uninterrupted minutes of real time on a rainy Thursday afternoon at the St. George’s Park Tea Room. Influenced by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, Athol Fugard uses minimal sets and props. The set design is a simple box with three walls and the fourth side open to the audience. The furnishings are sparse: one table and chair at centerstage, other tables and chairs stacked in the background, a phone, and a jukebox. Fugard uses music and dance to add movement to the play. Throughout, Willie Malopo and Sam Semela practice the waltz and the foxtrot for a ballroom dancing competition. Early in the play, Willie sings Count Basie’s “You the Cream in My Coffee, You the Salt in My Stew,” and other songs are sung or played on the jukebox throughout the play.

Less than fully scripted, finite entities, Fugard’s plays are existential—happening at the moment of performance as living theater. As the play opens, heavy rain keeps customers away, so the waiters have little to do but practice dancing. Sam has set a place at the centerstage table for Hally to eat his dinner. When the boy comes in from school, he takes for granted that the place is for him. The familiar routine suddenly breaks when Hally learns that his mother is not at the tea room, but at the hospital visiting his sick father. Hally senses that something is wrong because the hospital does not allow visitors on Thursdays. At first he thinks, and subconsciously hopes, that his father may be worse, or even dead. Embarrassed by his father’s alcoholism and amputated leg, Hally has enjoyed his absence.

Telephone calls from Hally’s mother help move the plot forward. Although the audience hears only Hally’s side of these conversations, his responses expose what she is saying to him; he is horrified to learn that his father is being released from the hospital. As Sam tries to stop Hally from talking cruelly about his father, the bond between waiter and boy is quickly established. During a brief phone conversation with his father, Hally lets down his guard and demonstrates his frustration by accusing Sam and Willie of meddling.

The emotional shifts between characters are initially small, but they increase drastically as the play progresses. The audience learns that for years, Hally had relied on Sam as a father-figure. In one remembered scene, Sam built Hally a kite out of scraps and made him fly it in a public park. The boy was initially ashamed of the kite, but its flight made him proud. Sam left Hally alone to fly the kite because the park was for white people only. At the end of the play, the audience learns that some time before the kite episode, Hally had asked Sam to go with him to a local tavern where his father had passed out from drinking too much. Hally had to go in first to ask permission for Sam to enter the whites-only establishment. Humiliated, Hally followed behind as Sam carried the drunk home.

Sam tries to dissuade Hally from hating his real father too much. Tensions turn racial when Hally lashes out and attempts to hurt Sam by saying “You’re only a servant here, and don’t forget it.” For a moment, the boy discards years of friendship and adopts his parents’ attitude that white people should not be friendly with black servants. Hally asserts his manhood by telling Sam to call him “Master Harold.” Sam, who had always called his friend by the familiar name “Hally,” warns that if he calls him “Master Harold” once, he will do so forever, and their friendship will be broken. After Hally jokes about an African’s backside not being “fair,” Sam drops his pants and shows the boy the truth—that his rear is just as dark as his face. Hally attempts to assert his racial superiority by spitting on Sam. The man is infuriated and initially wants to hit the boy, but as Hally’s intellectual superior, he controls his emotions and merely calls him “Master Harold.” Signaling the end of their friendship, these words are more condemning than physical violence. Hally tries feebly to get out of the situation, but Sam takes control and guides their relationship to a fresh start. Hally learns that being a man means not always resorting to hatred and violence. The play ends with the jukebox playing Sarah Vaughan singing “Little man you’re crying . . . Little man you’ve had a busy day.”

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys opens on the set where the entire play takes place, a tea room in the South African city of Port Elizabeth in 1950. The tables and chairs have been stacked on one side; the room also contains a few shabby plants and a serving counter with stale cakes and a modest display of candy, cigarettes, and soda. A telephone and an old jukebox are arrayed between advertising placards and a crudely lettered blackboard with the prices of some basic items. Sam is sitting at a table, leafing through a comic book, while Willie is mopping the floor and singing up-tempo blues. Pausing in his work, Willie tries a few dance steps with the mop as his partner. He is trying to perfect his dancing style for an important ballroom dance contest to be held soon. Sam is coaching and encouraging him.

It is clear that there is not much work to do and that their lives are not particularly eventful. Willie is enthusiastic and eager but uneducated and not at all reflective. Sam is more composed and thoughtful but also clearly deprived of any formal educational experience. Their lives do not extend beyond the local community and the tea room. From their banter, it is evident that they are good friends.

As Sam demonstrates a dance step, exhibiting a surprising proficiency, Hally arrives, having just returned from school. Clearly, he has a very friendly relationship with the two men. The three discuss Hally’s troubled relationship with his crippled father. The extent of the boy’s relationship with Sam and Willie is developed through reminiscences ranging back to Hally’s first tentative entrance into the “boys’” quarters before he was ten years old. Their recollections are so vivid that they seem to coexist with the present. The audience begins to realize that Sam is a kind of surrogate father for Hally, the true source of his education and moral guidance, while Willie is like an amiable older brother. The delight that Hally and Sam share in exploring major ethical questions indicates their mutual delight in mental agility and shows their respect and deep affection for each other. They seem to be wryly aware of the incongruity of this comaraderie between a comic-book-reading black man and a literate, articulate white boy.

Although the play is one continuous act without intermission, the first section concludes with a dialogue in which Sam comments on Hally’s story of a day when Sam designed and built a kite and then flew it successfully in spite of the boy’s doubts and initial embarrassment about the project.

The mood of nostalgia is abruptly altered when Hally receives a telephone call from the hospital where his father periodically goes for treatment. Hally is troubled by his father’s drinking, sympathetic about his handicap, and saddened by his own inability to understand or help. His declaration that “the principle of perpetual disappointment” rules the universe contrasts sharply with the kite story and introduces an undercurrent of anxiety. Visibly upset by the conversation, Hally retreats to do his homework.

Sam and Willie begin to joke about the dance contest, and Hally, not engaged by his assignment to write about a historical ceremony, is drawn back into their conversation. Sam explains to Hally how the dance contest is a symbol of living beauty that expresses the best of human nature through action. Hally begins to appreciate the fact that black South African culture is neither primitive nor empty; the discussion also reveals how subtle and intelligent Sam actually is. Hally responds with characteristic enthusiasm and begins to see the possibility of basing his homework assignment on a journalistic description of the contest, thus joining both of his worlds. At the height of their excitement at the vision of “a world without collisions,” however, the telephone, a harbinger of unrest, intrudes once again.

The third section of the play begins with Hally’s side of a long conversation with his mother and then his father. This marks a dramatic turning point, as his father’s imminent arrival brings Hally’s conflicting feelings of affection and uncertainty to the surface. Sam tries to offer some comfort and counsel, but the problem is too deep-rooted for his wisdom and good nature. Hally takes out his anger, fear, and frustration on Sam, baiting him until Sam is driven to respond. Resorting to the tactic of adopting a bogus position of superiority to cover up his feeling of inadequacy, Hally begins to order Sam around, demanding to be called “Master Harold.” Sam warns him of the consequences—“I’ll never call you anything else again”— but this threat does not deter Hally, driven now by shame and a kind of psychological momentum. Hally tells one of his father’s terrible jokes, involving a pun on the color connotations of the word “fair,” and Sam, now pushed too far at last, drops his trousers as a comment on the joke’s stupid central image. Hally, in desperation and confusion, spits in Sam’s face.

The long-suppressed anger in Sam and Willie surges beyond Sam’s desire to control it, and in his own pain and disappointment, he asks Willie, “Should I hit him?” The tension is riveting. Willie, in a momentary reversal, speaks with the maturity normally associated with Sam, “He’s a little boy, Boet Sam. Little white boy. Long trousers now, but he’s still little boy.” The mood softens from anger into sadness and resignation as Sam ruefully tries to accept his failure to build bridges with Hally. The boy seems helpless, and Sam generously does not abandon him. Admitting that he needs help too, he asks Hally, “Should we try again?” Too confused to respond, Hally walks off the stage. Willie realizes that Sam needs his help now, and as the play concludes, in a gesture of brotherhood, he promises Sam that he will control his temper and work on his dancing. The play closes with Willie putting his carfare into the jukebox, so that the last voice one hears is Sarah Vaughan’s, singing a consoling blues tune while Sam and Willie dance together. “You lead. I follow,” Willie suggests.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Port Elizabeth

*Port Elizabeth. City on the southern coast of South Africa. A strictly segregated city at the time of the play, Port Elizabeth is inhabited only by white families like the family of seventeen-year-old South African boy Harold (Hally), by a small merchant class of Indian origin, and by the black servants of these groups. Most black workers like Willie, who is employed in the tearoom owned by Hally’s parents, might have jobs in Port Elizabeth, but they come into the city by bus from black townships and neighborhoods including New Brighton, Kingwilliamstown, and the other localities represented in Willie’s blacks-only dance competition. Hally has lived so long as one of the privileged whites in segregated areas that he is usually unaware that others’ movements are more restricted than his own. Until Sam tells him near the end of the play, he goes for years without realizing that the reason Sam did not stay on the park bench and fly the kite with Hally is that the bench was restricted to whites only.

St. George’s Park tearoom

St. George’s Park tearoom. Shop owned by Hally’s mother. Like most South African businesses in white areas, the owners and customers are white, but the employees are black. The play takes place in the tearoom, where Hally enjoys the power and privilege of being the owner’s son, lording his position over the employees. The dynamic added by the tearoom itself allows the play to resonate beyond the themes of history and race.

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Athol Fugard is primarily concerned with the interaction of black and white culture in “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. His dramatic devices draw the audience into the character and changing moods of the three people on stage, in a gradual widening and deepening that moves toward the heart of their beliefs and fears. He uses only one basic set, but each feature of the set is used to make an important point. The telephone is a link to the always troubling and sometimes threatening outside world, and when it rings, a major change in emphasis is signaled. The chairs and tables are arranged to no particular purpose, to stress the emptiness of Sam and Willie’s work. The jukebox remains inert until the end, when its music underscores the quiet goodness of the black men.

The world of the play, like the lives of the characters, is built essentially through language, for the imagination is the only faculty on which the characters can rely to brighten their bleak prospects. Most of the dramatic moments of the play occur through sudden revelations that carry the characters to new levels of understanding. In the early stages of the play, Sam and Willie are preparing for the dance contest, all easy banter and old jokes. They are relaxed and following familiar patterns of conversation. When Hally arrives, the mood changes rapidly, as Fugard forces the characters into a new awareness of themselves through the introduction of alternate viewpoints. Ideas build in an associative progression as Sam and Hally trade insights on political leaders and theoreticians until they both pause, glowing with delight at the agility of their argument. This plateau leads to another ascent into perception, as Hally and the men begin to reminisce about the early stages of their relationship. The re-creation of their joined history combines moments of enthusiasm and illumination with a reflective sense of the meaning of each remembered occasion. In the kite-flying scene and the description of the forthcoming dance contest, the tea room is transformed into a realm of motion and color through Fugard’s skillful use of ricocheting dialogue. After each of these efforts reaches a peak, a shift in focus reduces the intensity, but the energy is retained in reserve, so that the structure of the play is a series of leaps to a higher level of understanding.

In the most theatrical moment of the play, language becomes both an energizing agent and a pivot to establish the play’s ultimate conflict. The confrontation that arises between Hally and Sam is actually an expression of the conflict within Hally: between his corrupt legacy and his real education in humane values. Beginning in verbal combat, the confrontation moves toward a physical gesture so out of character that the world of the play stops completely, poised between disintegration and a mysterious future. The crucial nature of the exchange between Sam and Hally is underscored by the fact that they are using their wit counter to their real inclinations, exchanging insults and attacking what they had previously treasured. The sickness within South African society, the immoral system of Apartheid, explodes in a monstrous, destructive form through the words Sam and Hally use. The subconscious demon each has tried to suppress escapes and must be dealt with. The coarsening of the language shapes the mood of dangerous anger, and Hally’s desperate, anguished physical attack on Sam produces the most intensely felt moment of stillness in the play, the heart of darkness seen in angry light. It seems as if the energy of the imagination has been drained and lost. Yet between the terrible stillness that threatens to engulf the stage and the motion of life that has claimed it previously, the bridging power of Fugard’s language is employed for a last time to reconnect the dual tendencies of the South African psyche.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Separate and Unequal
In the mid-twentieth century, the country of South Africa was dominated by the policy of...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

"Master Harold''... and the Boys is a drama set in the St. George's Tea Room on a wet and windy...

(The entire section is 636 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1950s: In South Africa, the system of apartheid legislates the separation of the races. Black people are forced to live in...

(The entire section is 255 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the South African system of apartheid. Compare that system to the segregated system of "separate but equal" that existed in the...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Selected Stories, a collection of short stories by Nobel-Prize winning author Nadine Gordimer A white South African like Fugard,...

(The entire section is 187 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Brustein, Robert, Review of "Master Harold" in the New Republic, Vol 186, No 25, June 23, 1982, pp. 30-31.


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(Great Characters in Literature)

Benson, Mary. “Keeping an Appointment with the Future: The Theatre of Athol Fugard,” in Theater Quarterly. VII, no. 28 (1977), pp. 77-87.

Bragg, Melvyn. “Athol Fugard, Playwright: A Conversation with Melvyn Bragg,” in The Listener. December 5, 1974, p. 734.

Durbach, Errol. “ ‘MASTER HAROLD’ . . . and the Boys’: Athol Fugard and the Psychopathology of Apartheid.” Modern Drama 30 (December, 1987): 505-513. A thorough analysis of the political atmosphere of black/white relationships as portrayed by Fugard in comparison with the reality in South Africa.

Freed, Lynn. “Vividly South African: An Interview with Athol Fugard.” Southwest Review 78 (Summer, 1993): 296-307. A detailed account of apartheid and the interpersonal repercussions it caused. Discusses Fugard’s impact as a playwright as well as his antiapartheid themes.

Fuchs, Anne. Review of Athol Fugard: A Bibliography, by John Read. Research in African Literature 24 (Spring, 1993): 137-139. Reviews Fugard’s themes as they relate to the black/white relations in Africa through the 1950’s. Includes background information on Fugard.

Fugard, Athol. “Fugard on Fugard,” in Yale Theater. I (Winter, 1973), pp. 41-54.

Fugard, Athol. Notebooks, 1960-1977, 1984.

Gussow, Mel. “Witness,” in The New Yorker. LVII (December 18, 1982), pp. 47-94.

Kavanagh, Robert Mshengu. Theater and Cultural Struggle in South Africa, 1985.

Post, Robert. “Victims in the Writing of Athol Fugard.” Ariel 16 (July, 1985): 3-17. Well-written essay that includes a comprehensive interview with the playwright regarding the characters in his work. Excellent analysis of the black “boys” of “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys. Post also analyzes the whites as victims of a society poisoned with prejudice and misinformation.

Richards, Lloyd. “The Art of Theater VIII: Athol Fugard.” The Paris Review 31 (Summer, 1989): 129-151. Provides a discussion of the playwright’s background and analyzes Fugard’s talent for character and conflict development.

Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard, 1985.