Master Harold and the Boys

“Master Harold”. . and the Boys is not an overtly political play, but a depiction of “a personal power? struggle With political implica-tions. ” The only definition that the South African system can conceive of in the relationship of White to Black is one that humiliates black people. This definition “insinuates itself into every social sphere of existence, until the very language of ordinary human discourse begins to reflect the policy that makes black men subservient to the power exercised by white children.
” In the society depicted by Fugard White equals “Master” and Black equals “boy. It is an equation, continued Durbach, that ignores the traditional relationship of labor to man-agement or of paid employee to paying employer. During the course of the drama, Hally rapidly realigns the components of his long? standing friend-ship with Sam into the socio? political patterns of master and servant. Hally changes from intimate familiarity with his black companions to patroniz-ing condescension to his social inferiors. It is an exercise of power by Hally, himself a “boy” who feels powerless to control the circumstance of his life and therefore seeks some measure of autonomy in his interaction with Sam and Willie.
Robert Brustein, in a review in the New Repub-lic, described’ ‘Master Harold” . . . and the Boys as the “quintessential racial anecdote,” and ascribed to Fugard’s writing “a sweetness and sanctity that more than compensates for what might be prosaic, rhetorical, or contrived about it. ” There is a sugges-tion that Fugard’ s obsession with the theme of racial injustice may be an expression of his own guilt and act of expiation. As Brian Crow noted in the Inter-national Dictionary of Theatre, Critical Overview 24 biographical in-formation, however, is not needed in order for the play to make its full impact in the theatre.

This is achieved primarily through an audience’s empathy with the loving relationship between Hally and Sam and its violation through Hally’s inability to cope with his emotional turmoil over his father, and its expression in racism. If to what extent the play manages. . . to transmute autobiographical experi-ence into a larger exploration or analysis of racism in South Africa is arguable; what seems quite cer-tain is its capacity to involve and disturb audiences everywhere. Yet not all critical reaction to Fugard’s work has been positive. Failing to see the play’s wider message on racism, Stephen Gray saw “Master Harold” as nothing more than a play about apart-heid. In a 1990 New Theatre Quarterly article, Gray noted that South Africa’s dissolution of apartheid has made the play obsolete, stating that it “feels like a museum piece today. ” Other negative criticism found the play’s black characters to be falsely represented As Jeanne Colleran reported in Modern Drama, “To some black critics, the character of Sam is a grotesquerie.
His forbearance and forgive-ness, far from being virtues, are embodiments of the worst kind of Uncle Tom? ism. ” Such reproach prompted Fugard to clarify his intentions during the Anson Phelps Stokes Institute’s Africa Roundtable. As Colleran reported, Fugard stated that his inten-tion was to tell a story: “I never set out to serve a cause. . . . The question of being a spokesman for Black politics is something I’ve never claimed for myself. ” Such criticism for “Master Harold” was spo-radic, however The majority of Critics and audi-ences embraced the playas important and thought? rovoking. Commenting on Fugard’s ability to fuse theatricality with strong political issues, Dennis Walder wrote in Athol Fugard, “Fugard’s work. . . contains a potential for subversion, a potential which, I would suggest, is the hallmark of great art, and which qualifies his best work to be called great. ” In this essay Wiles examines Fugard’ splay as a political drama, taking into account the dissolution of the apartheid system in South Africa and how that affects contemporary perceptions of the work. He concludes that the play is still relevant as a chroni-cle of human relations.
What happens to the overall effect of a play when the societal forces that shaped it have changed to the point where the playwright himself says: , , [A] political miracle has taken place in my time. ” Such might appear to be the case for Athol Fugard and his play “Master Harold”.. and the Boys The South African system of apartheid? legislated separation of the races? has been dismantled; free and open elections have been held; a black man, Nelson Mandela, has been elected president of the country. The power of whites, regardless of their age or station, to subjugate and humiliate blacks with he full blessing of the government and society at large has evaporated. The question that begs to be asked, then, is: What is this play about if not about political struggle? By focusing attention on the adolescent antago-nist Hally, Fugard creates a more personal drama-, a drama rooted in the uncertainties of a youth who attends a second? rate school and whose parents own and operate a third? rate cafe. Displaying “a few stale cakes,” “a not very impressive display of sweets,” and “a few sad ferns in pots,” the St.
George’s Park Tea Room hardly seems the seat of power. And, the arrival of Hally, in clothes that are “a little neglected and untidy” and drenched from the heavy rains that keep customers away, does little to prepare the audience for the play’s explosive confrontation. When Hally enters the cafe, it appears that he is glad for the lack of patrons so that he and Sam and Willie can have a “nice, quiet afternoon. ” There is the implication that both he and the two men have enjoyed these types of days in the past.
Hally’s world, however, begins to crumble when Sam in-forms him that his mother has gone to the hospital to bring his father home. Hally’s annoyance at the comic books piled on the table? “intellectual rubbish”? changes into fury when Willie throws a slop rag at Sam, misses, and hits Hally. Hally swears and tells both Willie and Sam to “stop fooling around. ” Hally calls Sam back to have him explain what Hally’s mother said before she left for the hospital He convinces himself that his father is not coming home, that Sam heard wrong, and that the world he has created for himself will continue undisturbed.
His willingness to shift the discussions to the varieties of textbook learning and then to the more Important learning gleaned from the servants quar-ters at the old Jubilee Boarding House under the tutelage of Sam and Willie, indicate Hally’s inabili-ty to accept that his life is about to change once again. Hally returns to the comfort of the historical past, discussing Joan of Arc, World War I, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, and William Shake-speare with Sam. He also returns to his own familiar past and the flying of a homemade kite that Sam made for him.
It is the kite that provides Hally with the defin-ing moment of his young life?? a black man and a young white boy enjoying each other’s company and a shared accomplishment. Hally says, “I don’t know how to describe it, Sam Ja! The miracle happened! ” Hally appears to want to return to the safety of their shared past when he mentions to Sam that “[I]t’s time for another one, you know. ” The uncertainties of adolescence challenge Hally’s place, not only in the world at large but in his family as well. Of his time spent with Sam he summarizes: “It’s just that life felt the right size in there. . . ot too big and not too small. Wasn’t so hard to work up a bit of courage. It’s got so bloody complicated since then. ”
Hally’s violent reaction to the news that his father is indeed returning home (the stage directions describe Hally as “seething with irritation and frustration”) clearly illustrate the complications Hally must now face. “Just when things are going along all right, without fail someone or something will come along and spoil everything. Somebody should write that down as a fundamental law of the Universe The principle of perpetual disappoint-ment” Hally’s attack on Willie’s backside WIth a ruler and the “I? llow? you? a? little? freedom? and-? what? do? you? do? with? It” speech show that Hally resists acknowledging the changes and accompany-ing complications that will inevitably take place when his father returns home. In the ensuing ballroom dancing discussion (Fugard himself was a dancing champion in his teens), Sam describes the dance finals “like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don’t happen. ” Sam’s view of the world as dance floor contrasts sharply With Hally’s nostalgic view of life as the right size in the old Jubilee Boarding house. Hally wants things to remain static, to never change.
Sam, on the other hand, wants the world “to dance like champions instead of always being a bunch of beginners at it. ” There are no collisions in Sam’s view because the participants have discovered ways of moving around the dance floor without bumping into one another; symbolically, this is Sam’s hope that the world can live together peacefully without prejudice or inequality. Hally appears momentarily convinced at the end of this discussion: “We mustn’t despair. Maybe there is hope for mankind after all. ” But then the phone rings and Hally’s world shatters with the news that his mother will be ringing his father home. At this point, Hally’s demeanor becomes “vicious” and “desperate,” and at the end of the conversation Hally is “desolate. ” He slams books and smashes the bottle of brandy his mother had told him to get for his father. With reckless words and ugly laughter, Hally mocks his crippled father, insinuating him into the dance metaphor as the ones who are “out there tripping up everybody and trying to get into the act. ” His childhood world is now smashed beyond recognition as Hally swears at Sam and chastises him for meddling in something he knows nothing about.
Hally’s adolescent posturing leads him to de-mand that Sam call him “Master Harold, like Willie [does]. ” Because he cannot control the events sur-rounding his father’s homecoming, Hally lashes out at the convenient targets of Willie and Sam, people he feels he can control. The youth’s petulance manifests itself with a vengeance. Hally lets fly with a racist comment and compounds the ugliness of the offense by insisting that it is a “bloody good joke. ” Hally’s final act of naked cruelty is to spit in Sam’s face. For Hally, the bond with Sam is forever broken.
The demarcation between master and ser-vant is clearly defined. Although sorely tempted to repay violence with violence, Sam remains the gentle father, the true friend, the moral teacher. Having removed the symbol of servitude (the white servant’s jacket) that distinguishes him as a “boy,” Sam presents the personal rather than political response to Hally’s indignities? an extended hand and the offer to try again and “fly another kite. ” But Hally has shamed himself beyond compassion and cannot respond to Sam’s final lesson.
Errol Durbach wrote in Modern Drama that the final dramatic images? he rain of despair, the wind where no kites fly, the hopelessness of rela-tionships ripped apart by racist attitudes, the com-forting music that elicits compassion for children who are a victims of their own upbringing, and “the image of a world where ‘Whites Only’ leave two black men dancing together in an act of solidari-ty”? represent Fugard’s movement between hope and despair, qualified only by the realization that “‘Master Harold’ grows up to be Athol Fugard and that the play itself is an act of atonement to the memory of Sam and ‘H. D. F. [Harold David Fugard]? the Black and White fathers to whom [the play] is dedicated. ”
So, then, back the original question? what is the play about if not political struggle? It is a play about fathers and sons, and how those roles can be both supportive and destructive. It is a play that illustrates how relationships can be strained by factors beyond the participants. It is a play that offers suggestions and gestures for forgiveness and compassion. It is a play ultimately about race. Not black, or white, or red, or yellow, or brown, but human.

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