Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on June 22, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

“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.

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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.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832

Anger and Hatred
"Master Harold''... and the Boys presents in vivid detail what happens in a society constructed in institutional anger and hatred (apartheid). The policies of the South African government in the mid-1950s legislated a certain amount of hatred and anger between whites and blacks. Sam, long a victim of these official and traditional policies, has attempted to transcend the hatred and anger. He acts as a surrogate father to Hally, fortifying the boy's sense of well-being (both through kind acts such as building the kite and through allowing the boy to teach him what he learned in school) and imparting his wisdom to Hally in a series of life lessons (his dance hall metaphors for peaceful coexistence). That a seventeen-year-old can spit in the face of a black man without even the thought of repercussions shines a harsh light onto the institutional policies of hatred that were fostered in South Africa.

Hally must also cope with his own feelings of anger and hatred toward his father, feelings that are conflicted by his simultaneous love for his father. After each of the telephone calls, Hally becomes dark and sullen. The humanitarian affirmations he had been espousing prior to the phone calls evaporate into confusion and anger. Even though Sam is the recipient of the most vicious insult, it is his father who is the true focal point of Hally's rage. Societal taboos and restrictions prevent Hally from telling his father what he really thinks. Those same societal influences allow Hally to redirect his anger and frustration to Sam without fear of consequences. The aftermath, however, is far more destructive than any punishment, as Hally must carry with him the knowledge that he has gravely wronged one of his truest friends.

Human Rights
The South African system of apartheid comes under heavy attack in "Master Harold"... and the Boys despite the fact that apartheid is not directly addressed in the play. Instead, it is the society that the system has created that is criticized. It is not merely that racial prejudice is legislated in South Africa This prejudice weasels its way into every facet of life, so much so that the language begins to reflect the disparity of power where black men are forced by law to be subservient to white children. The young Hally with the appropriately immature nickname transforms into "Master Harold" in the context of the prejudicial attitudes promoted by apartheid. On the other hand, Sam, the white boy's mentor and surrogate father, is regarded as the "boy," a second-class citizen who is looked down upon. Yet Sam's maturity and honor are clearly shown in his compassion, humanity, and sense of what is right and wrong.

Within the culture of the play, there is nothing unusual about a white child hitting or degrading a black man. It would have been unheard of for the black man in the South Africa of the 1950s to strike back, however. His anger and frustration could only be released on those even more dispossessed: black women and children. The white child hits the black man, the black man hits the black woman, the black woman hits the black child. It is a system in which violence spirals downward in a hierarchy of degradation, as evidenced in Willie's abusive relationship with his dancing partner.

Rites of Passage
Hally has two courses of action open to him in his journey toward maturity—the loving, reasoned way of Sam or the indifferent, humiliating way of Hally's father and the rest of South African society. Sam offers Hally more than one opportunity to break with institutional forms of racism and embark on a new course. Sam is tempted to strike back after Hally spits in his face but, instead, tries to turn the occasion into a positive learning experience that will guide the boy towards better relationships with his fellow man.

For Sam, the appropriate action is in virtue rather than violence, in reasoning rather than rage. Sam trusts in his capacity to move Hally to shame through exemplary behavior and an appeal to morality. He forgives the white boy who doesn't know any better and behaves like a "man" in order to teach Hally the basics of honorable behavior. In a challenge to change what has happened through an act of personal transformation, Sam extends his hand toward Hally in a gesture of reconciliation. "You don't have to sit up there by yourself," he says, recalling Hally's feeling of 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." The invitation to "walk away'' is a chance to leave Hally's past behind, to abandon the ways of apartheid and become an honorable adult. Hally, however, is paralyzed by both shame and the ingrained attitudes fostered by society; he cannot break free of them to begin his journey as a "man."

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