Master Harold and the Boys

Athol Fugard’s play Master Harold and the Boys portrays a White teenager, Hally’s experiences, along with those of Willie and Sam, his Black (and much older) servants. The play is set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in the apartheid era (1950, to be precise). It takes place at the Tea Room of St. George’s Park, owned by seventeen-year-old Hally’s parents. The family managed to survive in a culture threatened by prejudice and racism. The play opens with Willie and Sam preparing for a competition in ballroom dancing (Rose 1). The implications of White South Africans’ apartheid mentality will be examined in this paper, as will Fugard’s effort to defend his actions that added to societal cruelty. The first part of the three-part play — “A World without Collisions” — discusses Sam’s idea of ballroom dance as a symbol of utopian society; Hally’s skepticism with regard to the matter is emphasized here. The second part, “Crippled Relationships,” outlines Hally’s troubled relationship with his biological father, together with the former’s relationship with his substitute father figure, Sam. The third and final part, “Men of Magnitude,” deals with the historic context of an important discussion between Sam and Hally (Fugard 9). “Master Harold and the Boys” delves into the social and psychological dynamics of character relationships’ power, in the Apartheid era.

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Social Dynamics

The character dynamics in Fugard’s play are interesting; the character that signifies Fugard represents the only individual capable of liberating himself from apartheid. Harold’s (Hally) racist biological father is caught up in his corrupt behavior, while Willie and Sam — the black servants at the tea room — are ensnared by apartheid. The only character who still appears to be free to decide on his life is young Harold (Fugard 9). The play portrays personal and familial struggles brought about by apartheid. The tale of two black brothers (one fairer-skinned and the other darker) who were meant to accept and deal with how their skin tone determines how they are treated by others as well as how they behave towards one another is told in this play. “Master Harold and the Boys” also dramatizes a sister and brother estranged for over a decade. Fugard confronts the mentality of prejudice and racism passed down from one generation to the next, which was absorbed into the White culture without even consciously believing in it, or choosing to agree to it. Apartheid is directly attacked in Fugard’s work. The collaborative efforts that resulted from Winston Ntshona’s and John Kani’s improvisations on inspired occurrences brought great praise to the works of Fugard, in addition to an understanding among readers worldwide on the effects of apartheid. The Island, another work of Fugard, is a tale of fellow prison inmates Winston and John who co-produce a theatrical version of the play ‘Antigone’ for other inmates at their prison, questioning the political motives for imprisoning and punishing Antigone as well as the men (Jordan 8).


Statements following a detention under the infamous Immorality Act deal with the love affair of a white female with a black male, in an age when any sort of inter-racial fraternization was forbidden. Since apartheid was coming to an end during the late eighties to early nineties, Fugard dealt with the fresh challenges posed to post-apartheid South African society. Fugard, voicing his disapproval of the decision made by the ANC (African National Congress) to prevent entry into African schools and education, in general, to black students, depicts a black and a white student debating the rights and values concerning education, bearing in mind latest governmental action (Fugard 9).

Thus, the apartheid system dominating 50’s South Africa (i.e., the period in which this play is set) is observed in Master Harold and the Boys, as it lies at the heart of Fugard’s message. The Black community’s marginalization pervaded all layers of the nation’s society — all blacks (including their children) were coerced into being subservient to whites. Hence, it is ironic that an apartheid-age Black individual possessed the inner mettle and the heart to impart life skills to an advantaged white boy, having more physical and social superiority. The racist culture espoused by apartheid went practically unchecked all through the fifties as well as during the next 30 years. By the year 1982, most free countries around the globe recognized apartheid as a grave injustice against humankind. Activist groups like Amnesty International struggled to eradicate this fundamentally racist culture, going through a lot of trouble, publicizing the criminal treatment meted out in South Africa to its majority community of Black Africans. Blacks bold enough to speak out against governmental policies were more often than not apprehended and incarcerated (Fugard 9).

Clearly, with political associations, the system of apartheid in the White-Black relationship degraded the Blacks. The above definition of apartheid pervaded all societal spheres, till even everyday social discourse started reflecting the policy, which made Blacks subservient to White children’s power. In the setting, Fugard portrayed White corresponds to “Master,” while Black corresponds to “boy.” According to Enrol Durbach, the above equation overlooks the conventional labor-management, or employee-employer, relationship, or the contractual correlation among freely consenting partners (Rose 7).

The play’s depiction of a white boy striking a Black adult isn’t particularly astonishing. However, it would be extraordinary if a Black man fought back, in 50’s South Africa. Thus, the man’s frustration and rage could only be let loose upon someone more piteously dispossessed of respect and dignity than himself — a black woman. In other words, the white boy strikes the black male who, in turn, strikes the black female. In this culture, oppression spirals down in a pyramid of abasement — as is shown by Fugard in the relationship of Willie with his maltreated dance partner, who is unable to bear the abuse any longer. Also, Sam’s endeavor to explain, conventionally, his service’s nature, is revoked by Hally’s use of the of apartheid (Rose 8).

Relationships between the White and Black People

It is imperative to keep in mind the apartheid system of 50’s South African society (which is the period in which this play is set), since it lies at the heart of the playwright’s message. The Black community’s marginalization pervaded all layers of the nation’s society — all blacks (including their children) were coerced into being subservient to whites. Hally adopts a visibly superior tone while conversing with Sam; he is also smug on account of teaching Sam throughout the time they have known each other. At a particular instance in the story, Hally spits in Sam’s face; the latter is helpless and has to remain unresponsive because of the nature of his relationship with Hally. Hence, it is ironic that an apartheid-age Black individual possessed the inner mettle and the heart to impart life skills to an advantaged white boy, having more physical and social superiority. At the play’s close, when Hally understands how he spoilt their relationship, it is both his pride as well as societal values that prevent him from offering Sam — his friend and mentor — an apology. Sam’s argument that the dance contest was symbolic of the global economic and political scenario contradicts a perceptive intelligence that is beyond his educational qualification, and he has tried imparting a share of his naturalistic knowledge to Hally — the (obviously) better educated boy. Unfortunately, Hally gives in to social privilege and power, making the momentous decision to change the relationship between Sam and him; he decides to perceive his old mentor and friend as an inferior, black man. It is, to some extent, understandable that Hally, who’s character is shown as absolutely powerless and vulnerable within his family, feels the need for self-assertion for reclaiming a degree of power. He goes about this by the only manner he knows — a way that is socially acceptable as well as condoned, during apartheid-age South Africa. What he had to relinquish in return for the change in his individual dynamic and ill-timed transition from childhood to adulthood remains to be seen (Fugard 11). The passage indicated above disheartens the whole ballroom metaphor of Sam, by shattering all aspects used by Sam for romanticizing the idea. For instance, while the dance steps are meant to be graceful and in harmony, Hally claims that all are ignorant of the steps. Without steps, music, or rhythm, nothing remains, but the picture of a disordered, music-less, and boisterous group of individuals on the ballroom floor. The image neither appeals, nor is beautiful; further, the scene’s ugliness is intensified by the incorporation of cripples who trip other dancers. It is evident that Hally’s view of the paradise described by Sam is the stark truth of the dystopia prevalent in society during that era (Fugard 11).

The discussion takes an inquisitive turn when Hally explains the ‘social reform’ idea to Sam — a solution that was precisely what South Africa badly needed. Sam and Hally start discussing potential examples of great men they regard as having influenced society in a positive way. Hence, Fugard makes a statement in regard to societal progress and eradication of apartheid. Apartheid crusaders could profit from such figures as French leader, Napoleon; furthermore, Fugard proves that Hally’s earlier statement regarding wavering to and fro between despondency and hope for society’s future is drivel, particularly when he is unable to appreciate the real historical importance of an influential figure like Napoleon. Moreover, Hally regards Charles Darwin as his icon of magnitude as Darwin revolutionized science — man’s origins and what all of it means. Clearly, Hally believes Darwin is more significant, owing to his valuable contributions to society (Urban 25).


In spite of the unresolved dispute at the play’s ending, as well as the apartheid mindset of a non-existent equality between all races, Fugard effectively demonstrates that individuals of diverse cultures can surmount barriers for forging emotional bonds and living in harmony. The play, Master Harold and the Boys, portrays the playwright’s vision of an ideal world wherein no racial hindrances exist within society, for appeasing his guilt in being a part of the unjust apartheid regime previously. While there are underlying racial issues, superficially, Hally and Sam’s racial and civil differences don’t come in between their relationship till the play’s end, when the former wholly embraces the societal attitude of apartheid and White supremacy. The paper starts by discussing Fugard’s figurative application of ballroom dance for representing an ideal society. While Willie and Sam hope for a perfect world where all is graceful and in order, like ballroom dancing, Hally is cynical of this sort of utopia, owing to people like his biological father. Hally loathes his crippled, alcoholic father, and despite treating Sam as an inferior human being, Hally considers him a replacement for his own biological father. Sam inculcates feelings of self-worth in Hally by making a kite; he urges Hally to hold up his head figuratively as well as literally, while flying it and while experiencing life. Hally, on the other hand, never wholly respects Sam, owing to societal racial implications. While discussing figures of historical importance, the playwright parallels Sam with Christ and Tolstoy (Ben 7). Debatably, Sam is Fugard’s representation of an ideal society. Ballroom dancing is one among the clearest images of the splendor of equality, in spite of its rigid white conventions. Hally is even shown to title his homework assignment “Ballroom Dancing as a Political Vision;” this is precisely why Fugard has introduced a ballroom dancing theme in the play. Ballroom dance goes beyond cultural and language barriers; its practitioners overcome international differences much more successfully compared to politicians (RICH, para 17). Furthermore, ballroom dancing is, in Sam’s view, his hope for their society’s future. According to him, one wouldn’t be aware of what he is going for without a dream. Clearly, Fugard depicts his hope of a society that works in harmony to conquer racial divides and put an end to racism. Though Hally, being only a child, wasn’t able to alter the system, he grew into Fugard, the white writer who attempted to inform the world of apartheid society’s atrocities. By refraining from contributing to social apartheid in his adulthood and facing personal guilt via the play, Fugard aided in preventing apartheid beliefs’ propagation. The menace was ultimately eradicated in the year 1994. Master Harold and the Boys can be regarded as an autobiographical approach of the playwright to a (Urban 28).

Works cited

Ben Florman and Justin Kestler, LitCharts Editors. “LitChart on “Master Harold” … and the Boys.” 12 Nov 2015.

Fugard, Athol. ” Master Harold” — and the Boys. Vintage Books USA, 2009.

Jordan, John O. “Life In The Theatre: Autobiography, Politics, And Romance In ‘Master Harold’…And The Boys.” Twentieth Century Literature 39.4 (1993): 461. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

RICH, FRANK. “STAGE: ‘MASTER HAROLD,’ FUGARD’S DRAMA ON ORIGIN OF HATE.” The New York Times, 5 May 1982. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.

Rose, Amanda, Apollo Amoko, and Sidney Homan. “Master Harold and the Boys: Fugard’s Autobiographical Approach to a .” Web. 2 Dec. 2015.

Urban, David V. “Tolstoy’s Presence In Fugard’s “Master Harold” … And The Boys: Sam’s

Pacifist Christian Perseverance And “A Case Of Illness.”Renascence 62.4 (2010):

311-326. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 Nov. 2015.