Themes and Meanings
“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys is an examination of the psychological structure behind the rules of South African society and a consideration of how it might be altered. Hally’s crippled father—never seen on the stage—embodies the whole system. His debilitating disease is the racism that has ruined his country’s dreams; his “gamy” leg is a symbol of infirmity, but it is not as serious as the psychotic hatred that has reduced the man to drunken ranting. The crucial problem is essentially moral and spiritual. Hally is tied to his father by family, heritage, and history, but he is torn between an understandable love for what he has been trained to accept as his birthright and his instinctive response to Sam and Willie, who have become the locus of his most humane impulses. In the course of the play, he is forced to confront a choice: Either he can follow the immoral legacy of his biological and historical family, or he can accept the responsibility of dealing with his whole country and his true nature. Without an attempt at the latter, his soul will wither and sicken like his father’s.
As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that Sam and Willie, much more than Hally’s absent mother and frequently hospitalized father, constitute his real family. Sam has undertaken Hally’s education, trying to help him see beyond the limits of his experience. Sam is the boy’s guide and fellow explorer on the road to knowledge. Willie accompanies them, almost like a mascot, the embodiment of physical exuberance as a balance to Sam’s stress on mental development. The depth of Sam’s character becomes all the more remarkable to the viewer as it becomes apparent how limited are his and Willie’s lives. Immensely patient, he cultivates the life of the mind even though he has no prospects for intellectual exchanges beyond his conversations with Hally. He is acutely aware of the fragility of the bond between him and the white boy, but his faith in Hally’s humanity and his love for the boy compel him to continue.
The poison that has infected his father’s generation has touched Hally too. When his frustration at his father’s (that is, white South Africa’s) failures becomes too great, he falls into the same racist trap that caused the trouble in the first place. Athol Fugard uses this ironic cycle to expose the psychological basis for apartheid in terms of the need to find a scapegoat to direct attention away from one’s own inferiority. The playwright is suggesting that in addition to the economic advantages of the availability of cheap black labor, apartheid offers white people the opportunity to cover up their own inadequacies by inculcating the belief that they are superior simply because they are white. The challenge for Sam is to make Hally see this not only in terms of theoretical arguments about ideal governments but also in terms of individuals; the challenge for Fugard is to make Hally convincing both in his prejudice and in his sharp perceptions, so that the contradictions of his position are effectively dramatized. The fact that Hally is intelligent, articulate, and likable is a measure of how completely the system has damaged everyone in the country: In moments of stress, even Hally is governed more by his racist training than by his best human instincts.