Master Harold... and the Boys | Study Guide

Athol Fugard

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Master Harold... and the Boys | Themes


Racism and Segregation

"Master Harold"... and the Boys is set in 1950 South Africa when the system of segregation called apartheid was introduced, the same year in which the Population Registration Act was passed in South Africa. This law classified all South Africans as belonging to one of the following categories: white, Bantu (all black Africans), or Colored (those of mixed race). A fourth category—Asian (Indian and Pakistani)—was later added. This law marked the start of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning "apartness," and the stated aim of apartheid was to keep the races separate. The policy also kept the white minority in a position of privilege. Apartheid laws determined where people of the various races could live and work, who they could marry, and who they could socialize with. Against vigorous resistance, the policy of apartheid continued in South Africa until the early 1990s.

Even before racial segregation was legally formalized as apartheid, it was practiced in South Africa. This can be seen in "Master Harold"... and the Boys. Although it is 1950 at the start of the play, Hally and Sam think back to an incident years before, in which Hally sat on a whites-only bench where Sam could not join him. Even before 1950, Hally's mother referred to her black employees—grown men—as "boys." The play is thus also about the prehistory of apartheid in South Africa.

Blatant expressions of racism woven throughout the play paint a picture of socially promoted racism in South Africa. During Hally and Sam's discussion of "men of magnitude," Sam says he is "all right with oppression" when trying to make meaning of the words oppression, vestiges, feudal system, and abolished in a passage in Hally's history text, suggesting that a black African living in South Africa would know a lot about oppression. Later, Hally recalls hiding out in Sam and Willie's room in the Jubilee Boarding House when he was a boy. This was a business his mother owned before owning the tearoom. Jokingly, Hally refers to Sam and Willie's room as "the servants' quarters." However, Sam and Willie are and always were employees of Hally's mother, not family servants. As the play progresses, the audience learns about the racist attitude of Hally's drunkard father and how Hally can find humor in his father's racists jokes. The fact that Hally can mock Sam and spit in Sam's face shows that despite all Sam has done for Hally, the color of Sam's skin makes him inferior in Hally's eyes.

Playwright Athol Fugard explores the theme of racism not only through the dialogue but also through two symbols: the "whites-only" bench Hally sits on and the dance contest, which is an image of peaceful coexistence, the opposite of apartheid. Thus, Fugard shows how even the most innocuous activities of everyday life, in South Africa—a tearoom, a homework essay, a dance contest—are infused with the injustice of apartheid's racial hierarchy.

Progress, Vision, and Action

One of themes of "Master Harold"... and the Boys is how societies can be changed for the better. Both Hally and Sam believe in progress, but they have different ideas of how change will happen. Hally is confident human civilization is on an upward trend of increasing liberty. When Sam and Hally stumble onto the topic of the way black man are caned as a punishment in prison, Hally turns away from the topic by saying, "Things will change, you wait and see." The implication of Hally's attitude is that he and Sam don't need to do anything but wait for things to get better. Hally's attitude is also reinforced by what he learns in school. One of his history assignments is to choose "men of magnitude," great figures in history who have changed the world. In history classes Hally learns French emperor Napoleon I (1769–1821) freed the peasants of France, and Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910) educated "his" serfs, and "we" (white South Africans) freed "your ancestors" (black South Africans, Sam's ancestors). With this last statement Hally is looking back to the fact that South Africa abolished slavery in 1835, but he is ignoring the segregated reality of present-day (1950s) South Africa.

Sam's view of progress is less focused on "men of magnitude." Instead Sam thinks about what ordinary people do in their everyday lives. When Sam puts forth ballroom dancing as a dream of peaceful coexistence, Hally derides it for being only a dream. "It starts with [dreaming]," Sam admits; but then, in Sam's view, people go on to actually make change, attempting to realize their ideals. Sam also denies he is a visionary when Hally tells him, impressed, "You've got a vision!" On the contrary, Sam says, "Not just me. What I'm telling you is that everybody's got it." That is, everyone has a vision of ideal society, and everyone can work to attain it. Sam counsels Hally to not remain in his isolated sphere of racist privilege within apartheid society. Using the symbol of the "whites-only" bench as a stand-in for apartheid, Sam tells Hally, "All you've got to do is stand up and walk away from it." Sam's use of the phrase "stand up" shows Hally himself must take action, rather than "wait and see" how things get better.

Morality and Manhood

In "Master Harold"... and the Boys Sam tries to teach the other characters what it means to be a man. But this attempted education occurs against a backdrop of racism, in which Sam's own masculinity and even his humanity are not always recognized. The title of the play—"Master Harold"... and the Boys—includes several references to diminished manhood. "Master" is the honorific typically given to a wealthy boy in English society; a grown man would be addressed as "sir" or by his noble title. Therefore a boy who is called "master" is one who expects to grow up into a privileged, comfortable manhood. In the play's title, "the boys" are not minors; they are two middle-aged black men. In racist South African society, black men are always considered lesser than white men, and this is encoded in addressing them as "boys."

Paradoxically it is one of these "boys," Sam, who instructs the other characters, and the audience, in what it means to be a man. At the start of the play Sam is gently chiding Willie about beating his dance partner and sometime lover, Hilda. Sam thinks this is no way to act, but the gentleness with which he instructs Willie also implies the beatings aren't that big a deal. Compared to the wrenching pain with which father-son relationships are portrayed, violence against women comes off more like a bad habit than a moral failing. But Sam is successful, and by the end of the play Willie has resolved to ask forgiveness from Hilda.

Similarly it is Sam who teaches Hally how to be a man, standing in for Hally's useless natural father. Sam has some traditional ideas about conduct: treat women nicely; respect your elders. But he also has moments of great bravery, being a man when it costs him dearly. At the end of the play, when Hally has recklessly jeopardized their friendship, Sam is the one who makes the first move toward reconciliation. "I've got no right to tell you what being a man means if I don't behave like one myself," says Sam. What he means by "behaving like a man" in this instance means admitting his own faults and offering to reconcile with the boy who has insulted him.

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