Course Hero. "Master Harold... and the Boys Study Guide." Course Hero. 29 Mar. 2019. Web. 14 Aug. 2020. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Master-Harold-and-the-Boys/>.
Course Hero. (2019, March 29). Master Harold... and the Boys Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Master-Harold-and-the-Boys/
(Course Hero, 2019)
Course Hero. "Master Harold... and the Boys Study Guide." March 29, 2019. Accessed August 14, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Master-Harold-and-the-Boys/.
Course Hero, "Master Harold... and the Boys Study Guide," March 29, 2019, accessed August 14, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Master-Harold-and-the-Boys/.
For the purpose of summary and analysis, the play has been separated into five sections and given descriptive titles.
"Master Harold... and the Boys" takes place on a single afternoon and is confined to one setting, the St. George's Park Tea Room. Playwright Athol Fugard did not break the play into acts or scenes. To make discussion easier, this study guide divides the play into five sections.
It is 3:30 in the afternoon in the St. George's Park Tea Room. The year is 1950. The tearoom is closed for the day and the furniture stacked away, except for one table and chair. Sam sits at the table reading a comic book, and Willie mops the floor, singing while he works. Sam and Willie discuss a dance contest Willie plans to compete in. Willie demonstrates his moves for Sam, who critiques. Willie reveals that his dance partner, Hilda, hasn't shown up to practice in a few days. "You hit her too much," Sam tells him. Hilda is also the mother of Willie's child, but he hasn't been giving her enough money for the baby, so she "reports me to the Child Wellfed," as Willie says. "And how do I know is my baby?" Willie complains.
Sam tries to give Willie some tips on dancing. As Sam is demonstrating the quickstep, Hally arrives at the tearoom. Sam tells Hally the hospital phoned; he thinks Hally's father is coming home. Hally is not at all happy about the prospect of his father's return. He was hoping his father would be in for three weeks, at least. He tries to find out more, but Sam doesn't know anything. Goofing around, Willie throws a rag at Sam and accidentally hits Hally. "Sorry, Master Hally," says Willie. "Act your bloody age!" Hally rebukes him.
Hally talks about school. He mentions the schoolroom punishment of caning, and Sam tells him how caning is done in jail. At first Hally listens with "morbid interest," but then he cuts Sam off, not wanting to hear any more. "It's a bloody awful world," Hally remarks. But he believes in progress. "Things will change, you wait and see," says Hally.
Sam reads aloud from Hally's mathematics textbook, Hally occasionally correcting his pronunciation. The conversation drifts to who is considered a "man of magnitude," a "social reformer" or a great figure to look up to. Hally proposes British evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin (1809–82). Sam proposes 16th president of the United States Abraham Lincoln (1809–65). Hally scoffs, saying, "We freed your ancestors here in South Africa long before the Americans" freed their slaves. After discussing other figures, including English antislavery abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759–1833) and Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), Hally settles on Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming (1881–1955), a discoverer of penicillin. "I've educated you," Hally claims, since Sam has been reading his textbooks for years.
There are no women onstage in "Master Harold"... and the Boys, but the play comments on relationships between the sexes through the offstage characters of Hilda and Hally's mother. As Sam and Willie practice dancing, audience members learn how Willie treats Hilda, the mother of his child: he beats her. Presumably, they are not married; Hilda has not taken Willie's last name, Malopo, but goes by her own name, Samuels. She is apparently in relationships with other men. Their child is an ongoing shared responsibility, but they appear not to live together. Initially, Willie seems to see nothing wrong with beating Hilda—as a woman, she is subordinate to him. Sam chides Willie about the beatings, gently correcting Willie to say he has given her a "bad hiding" rather than a "good hiding."
The gentleness of Sam's criticism of Willie can be interpreted in various ways. Sam is a kind, gentle man. For example, custom dictates that Sam show deference to Hally, but Sam goes further and is actively generous and kind to Hally. So in gently chiding Willie about beating women, Sam might just be taking care not to shame him. Then again, the casualness with which the beatings are discussed could indicate that Sam doesn't really understand domestic violence as a grave problem. It is a topic for teasing, rather than a denunciation of Willie.
This first section of the play establishes the relative status of Sam, Willie, and Hally. Sam is like Willie's natural superior; he is a few years older and many years wiser. He is also Willie's superior within the hierarchy of the tearoom: Sam waits tables and Willie mops. Their dynamic reflects this power relationship: Sam teases and Willie submits to being teased, even if under protest. As a white, Hally is Sam and Willie's social superior under apartheid. Even so, he expresses this superiority differently with regard to Sam and Willie. Willie calls Hally "Master Hally," although Sam does not. And when Hally gets angry, he lashes out at both men, but the only one he hits is Willie.
An important dynamic is established in this first section of the play: when Hally feels overwhelmed by shame about his father, he lashes out at the two black men. Here at the beginning of the play his target is primarily Willie, although he rebukes both Sam and Willie. When Hally feels diminished by his father's failure and low social standing, he tries to shore himself up by asserting his status as a white man and a boss. This is exactly what Hally will do at the end of the play, with grave results.
The scene of Sam reading from Hally's textbook also shows an important aspect of their relationship. Hally has shared his schoolbooks and lessons with Sam for years. "I've educated you," Hally claims. This statement sets up an instance of dramatic irony; it turns out Sam is the one who educates Hally. Later in the play Sam will educate Hally in how to treat others ethically, and he also educates Hally through his ideas about dance. Here in the first section, the audience can see Hally thoughtlessly assuming he is Sam's intellectual superior because he has gone to school. When Sam struggles to say, "Napoleon used a brief period of calm to institute" laws or reforms, Hally abruptly corrects him, thinking the word is introduce. However, the word institute fits the context better; laws and reforms are instituted. Hally does not see that Sam is often smarter (and wiser) than he is.