Master Harold... and the Boys | Study Guide

Athol Fugard

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Master Harold... and the Boys | Quotes

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Willie is talking about his dance partner and sometime lover, Hilda Samuels. This quotation gives the flavor of the way the uneducated Willie speaks; he says "finish" instead of the past participle "finished." Sam, his coworker at the tearoom, is a self-taught man with a more sophisticated way of speaking.

What Willie says here also reflects the overall shape of the play. At the beginning, Willie is pessimistic about Hilda, thinking everything between them is finished. But by the end of the play he has resolved to ask Hilda for forgiveness and hopes to dance with her again. This is the case with other relationships in the play. Hally realizes he loves his father and cannot simply be done with him. Although Hally takes a step that threatens to end his relationship with Sam, the friendship is also on the way to being repaired by the end.

2.

Flicker of morbid interest.


Narrator, Section 1 (Dance Practice and History Lessons)

Sam and Hally have been discussing the punishment of caning used at Hally's school. Sam mentions it is also used in jail, where it seems he has endured it. He describes how the prisoner is caned after his trousers are removed, and Hally exhibits a "flicker of morbid interest" (an interest in unpleasant things, especially death and disease). This stage direction shows the state of Hally's awareness: he knows this is a terrible way to treat prisoners, but for a moment he is fascinated. The description of the caning also reflects the relative social status of Hally and Sam, a white boy and black man, with the black man receiving a schoolboy's humiliating punishment carried out with extra cruelty.

After Hally shows this morbid interest, the play moves on. A play about apartheid could have focused on the physical suffering of black South Africans in jail or the suffering apartheid laws caused. Fugard did write such plays, including The Island (about Robben Island Prison) and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (about South Africa's harsh and arbitrary pass laws). However, such topics have the potential disadvantage of awakening an audience's morbid interest, particularly a white audience's. "Master Harold"... and the Boys steers clear of this pitfall by being set in a tearoom where the black men are not under threat of gross physical violence. The dynamics of violence are there, in Hally's act of spitting, but without serving up black suffering for a white audience's delectation, or morbid delight.

3.

But things will change, you wait and see.


Hally, Section 1 (Dance Practice and History Lessons)

Hally and Sam have just been discussing the punishment of caning in use in prisons in South Africa. They have also just been talking about the reforms made by French Emperor Napoleon I (1769–1821) and the ways jurisprudence, or the philosophy of law, has changed since the time of Joan of Arc. Hally is confident humankind is making progress. However, his wording also betrays his passivity. He advises Sam to "wait and see" things change. Sam is aware people have to undertake action to change things. This is evident in his discussion of dancing as the image of human harmony. The dance is a dream, but Sam says, "it starts with that," meaning change starts with a dream or image. People have to do something with the inspiration; that is Sam's point.

Sam has just read a passage from one of Hally's history books, about reforms made by French Emperor Napoleon I (1769–1821). Sam stumbles slightly over this sentence from the history book: "All ves-ti-ges of the feu-dal system with its oppression of the poor were abolished." He then tells Hally he needs help understanding the words vestiges, feudal system, and abolished. But he is "all right on oppression," meaning, he knows what the word oppression means. Sam's turn of phrase is an example of dramatic irony, which occurs when an audience knows more than a character. Hally doesn't seem to pick up on it, but audiences would be aware that a black man in South Africa in 1950 would undoubtedly know about oppression.

5.

Tolstoy may have educated his peasants, but I've educated you.


Hally, Section 1 (Dance Practice and History Lessons)

Sam and Hally have been talking about people his history books call "men of magnitude"—great historical figures. Hally has mentioned the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), who apparently had progressive views about the education of peasants in Czarist Russia. Hally then makes an analogy; just as the benevolent landowner Tolstoy educated "his" peasants, Hally the benevolent white boy believes he has educated Sam. The analogy also sets up another possible parallel: perhaps Sam belongs to Hally in some way, just as Russian peasants belonged to the landowners.

However, the truth turns out to be very different from what Hally imagines. Sam is a great deal wiser than Hally, and Sam has been educating Hally. Sam has attempted to instill a sense of pride in Hally, who is ashamed of his alcoholic father.

6.

Sam, Willie ... is he in there with you boys?


Willie, Section 2 (Sam and Hally Reminisce)

Willie is imitating Hally's mother, who is asking whether Hally is hiding in Sam and Willie's room at the Jubilee Boarding House. This is one of the ways playwright Athol Fugard brings female characters into this all-male play, by having men discuss or quote women. Willie is also discussing something that shows one of Hally's character traits: he likes the company of Sam and Willie and even prefers it to the company of his own family. Now the boarding house is gone, but Hally continues the tradition by coming to the tearoom to do his homework in the company of Sam and Willie. The quotation from Hally's mother also shows the customary way of referring to black men under apartheid. They are called "boys," as though they had a lesser status than white men.

7.

In fact, I was shit-scared that we were going to make fools of ourselves.


Hally, Section 2 (Sam and Hally Reminisce)

Hally is talking about going to the park to fly Sam's homemade kite. At the time Hally had been damaged by his father's behavior. Not long before the kite-flying incident, Hally's father got so drunk in public he had to be carried home. Hally's shame for his father becomes something he feels about himself and anyone associated with him. Presented with a new kite and the chance to fly it, Hally's primary response is to fear being publicly shamed.

8.

Little white boy ... and a black man old enough to be his father flying a kite.


Hally, Section 2 (Sam and Hally Reminisce)

Hally is talking about a time he flew a kite with Sam, and he's reflecting on how "strange," as he says, the two of them must have looked. The name for South Africa's formal system of racial hierarchy, Apartheid, literally means "apartness" in Afrikaans, the Dutch dialect many South Africans speak. Apartheid held sway in South Africa from 1950 to the early 1990s. So it might have been unusual to see black and white people socializing together at the time the play is set, in 1950. However, a black servant and a white child would probably not attract much attention.

Hally also indirectly comments on Sam's role in his life. He describes Sam as old enough to be his father. In fact Sam had pledged to himself he would help Hally out after he saw the disgraceful way Hally's father acted. Sam decided he would teach Hally to have confidence and not feel ashamed of himself. Thus, Sam does not only look like a father to Hally; he is a father to Hally.

9.

You want to get into the story as well, do you?


Hally, Section 2 (Sam and Hally Reminisce)

Hally has been talking about turning the kite-flying incident into a short story. He complains the story has "no drama," and Willie remarks, "And me," meaning he's not in the story either. There is a dramatic irony in Hally's question here: "You want to get in the story as well, do you?" Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows more than the characters about something the characters say. The audience is watching "Master Harold"... and the Boys, so they can see Willie is in the story the play tells. But Willie is not as central to Hally's story as Sam is. Sam is a father figure to Hally and also to Willie. Thus, Willie's "me too" is slightly childish, and Hally indulges Willie's childish wish to be "in the story."

10.

It was you who start me ballroom dancing.


Willie, Section 3 (A Disturbing Phone Call)

Willie is talking to Sam, who got him into ballroom dancing. Willie says, "Before that I use to be happy." He claims Sam and his girlfriend or dance partner, Miriam, introduced Willie to Hilda and started them dancing. Therefore, now that Hilda has left and Willie is unhappy about the dance contest, Willie thinks Sam is to blame. Sam laughs at Willie's ridiculous reasoning.

Willie's line of argument parallels that of Caliban in the William Shakespeare (1564–1616) play The Tempest. The slave Caliban says to his master, Prospero, "You taught me language; and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!" Caliban the slave means he has gotten nothing from the gift of language except the ability to curse, which he then employs in cursing his master.

Sam and Willie are coworkers, not master and slave, but in another way their relationship is similar to that of Caliban and Prospero. Sam teaches Willie. He teaches Willie how to be a man, giving him advice on how to treat Hilda. He teaches Willie how to dance, trying to get him to relax and look like he's enjoying himself. Both Caliban and Willie are right about one thing: learning new things can also mean acquiring new problems. Eventually, this is something Hally must face as well, if he is going to learn to walk away from his privileged position under apartheid.

11.

Not just me. What I'm saying to you is that everybody's got it.


Sam, Section 4 (The Dance Contest)

Hally and Sam have been talking about ballroom dancing. Sam has explained that nobody collides on the dance floor at a ballroom dance contest, and this gliding ease is an image of "the way we want life to be," says Sam. Hally responds, "You've really got a vision, Sam!" Sam responds that everyone has this vision; everyone can see in ballroom dancing an intimation of the smooth, strife-free way they would like to live. This points to a key difference between Hally and Sam's worldviews. Hally thinks "every age ... has got its social reformer." This implies people should just wait for their age's social reformer to make things better. Sam's view is more inclusive. He believes everyone is capable of seeing how the world ought to be.

12.

He certainly was trying to teach people to get the steps right.


Hally, Section 4 (The Dance Contest)

Hally and Sam are discussing Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948). Sam says, "Remember [Gandhi] ... going without food to stop those riots in India?" Sam is perhaps referring to a hunger strike Gandhi went on in 1947 to stop riots in Calcutta over Muslim and Hindu tensions. Continuing the metaphor of dance as a way of peaceful coexistence, Hally says Gandhi was trying to teach people the right steps. Hally's view of social change is still focused on great men leading change, rather than people undertaking change for themselves.

13.

The truth? I seem to be the only one ... who is prepared to face it.


Hally, Section 5 (Master Harold and Reconciliation)

Sam has been warning Hally to be careful, and Hally asks, "Of what? The truth?" Sam wants Hally to tread lightly when he talks about his father. Perhaps Sam is adhering to a general principle of showing respect to one's parents, or perhaps he doesn't want Hally to deny he loves his father. Hally, for his part, claims to be the only one willing to face the truth. However, as so often happens when Hally is hurt, he retreats to an overly bleak view of life. "The way things really are," according to Hally at this moment, is that "the cripples are also out there [on the dance floor] tripping up everybody." In part Hally is right—Sam's dream of peaceful coexistence will have to come to terms with the fact that people sometimes want to harm one another. But Hally's idea of "the truth" is too one-sided and too bleak.

Hally is speaking about his father, whom he has just been calling "a cripple." This admission is what Hally has been hiding through the whole play. If he could just dismiss his father as "a cripple," as he calls him, Hally would have an easier time. But in addition to stealing money and bringing shame on the family, Hally's father is also loved.

15.

All you've got to do is stand up and walk away from it.


Sam, Section 5 (Master Harold and Reconciliation)

Sam is talking to Hally about the "whites-only" bench Hally sat on after flying the kite. The bench had a nice view from the hilltop, but Sam could not join Hally there. As Sam talks, the bench becomes a symbol of the position of white privilege within apartheid. Sam can choose to stay on the bench—to remain within apartheid. But if he does, "you're going to be sitting up there by yourself for a long time to come," says Sam. Hally's other choice, according to Sam, is to leave apartheid behind—stop participating in it and upholding its values. To do this, Hally needs to "stand up and walk away" from the bench, and from the system of apartheid.

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