Examines Apartheid Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In his play “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys, South African playwright Athol Fugard incisively probed the psychology of racism and the effects of apartheid.

Summary of Event

Set in the St. George’s Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on a rainy afternoon in 1950, “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys begins as Sam Semela and Willie Molopo, two black waiters, discuss the forthcoming ballroom dancing championship, which Willie and his girlfriend Hilda Samuels have entered. They are soon joined by Hally, the seventeen-year-old white boy whose mother runs the tea room, though she is now at the hospital from which, to Hally’s distress, his ill and disabled father is soon to return home. After convincing himself that there must be some mistake in that, Hally discusses with Sam his day at school. Soon they revert to a long-established pattern, as Hally teaches Sam from his textbooks. A discussion of moral reformers in history ensues, as they consider Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, Sir Alexander Fleming, Leo Tolstoy, and Jesus Christ as examples of a “man of Magnitude” in society, “intrepid social reformer[s]” who are not “daunted by the magnitude of the task undertaken.” When Sam asks “Where’s ours?” Hally can only answer that South Africa’s may not yet have been born. Theater;drama Apartheid;literature and theater [kw]“MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys Examines Apartheid (Mar. 12, 1982) [kw]Apartheid, “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys Examines (Mar. 12, 1982) “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys (Fugard)[Master Harold and the Boys] Theater;drama Apartheid;literature and theater [g]North America;Mar. 12, 1982: “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys Examines Apartheid[04810] [g]United States;Mar. 12, 1982: “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys Examines Apartheid[04810] [c]Theater;Mar. 12, 1982: “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys Examines Apartheid[04810] Fugard, Athol Mokae, Zakes Glover, Danny Ivanek, Zeljko Price, Lonny

Articulate and well-read, although he admits he has not understood such authors as Darwin and Sigmund Freud, Hally is moderately precocious and clearly enjoys his thoughtful exchanges with Sam. He is also quick-tempered, contemptuous toward religion, and particularly disdainful toward his father, whose favorite reading matter comic books he dismisses as “rubbish” and “mental pollution.” Hally recalls the first lesson that he and Sam shared, and Sam claims that Hally started passing his exams only in order to do better than Sam. Hally also recalls many happy times hanging around the servants’ quarters. His happiest memory is a lyrically described incident in which Sam first taught Hally to make and fly a kite during an outing in a public park. Life, Hally says, has gotten “so bloody complicated since then.”

A telephone call from Hally’s mother abruptly reveals another side of his character. Told that his father will be coming home from the hospital, Hally initially tries to assert adultlike control over the situation, disrespectfully telling his mother to order his father back to bed, since “if he’s going to behave like a child, treat him like one.” He is then quickly apologetic, acknowledging, childlike, his fear that she will “give in to him.” Finding that he has no control over events at the hospital, he brusquely orders Willie and Sam to work.

Beginning his homework, Hally bitterly remarks on“the principle of perpetual disappointment” that he deems “a fundamental law of the universe.” Assigned to write an essay on “an annual event of social or cultural significance,” he is distracted by Sam and Willie’s rehearsal for the dance competition. Reasserting his authority, he “gives Willie a vicious whack on the bum” with a ruler when, provoked by Sam’s teasing, Willie disrupts Hally’s concentration. After initially disdaining all dancing as unintellectual, Hally decides to write his essay about the dance competition, which Sam then describes, using its harmony and gracefulness as a metaphor for “the way we want life to be.” The essay’s title will be “A World Without Collisions.”

With a second telephone call from the hospital, reality again intrudes, disrupting the vision of harmony and accord. Hally berates his mother, threatening to leave home and driving her to tears; when his father is put on the line, his tone changes again, offering genial encouragement to his “chum” whose release is supposedly welcome news. Emotionally distraught, Hally destroys the composition and launches into an embittered tirade on “the All-Comers-How-to-Make-a-Fuckup-of-Life Championships.” When Sam urges him to restrain the worst of his abuse, which cruelly derides his father, Hally becomes more enraged, swearing, giving orders, and reminding Sam of his “place” as a servant and a black man. He threatens that Sam might lose his job and insists on being called “Master Harold” not “Hally” from now on. He then tells an ugly racist joke about “a nigger’s arse” a joke that is, he says, a favorite of his father’s and his own. In response, Sam drops his pants and underpants, presenting his backside “for Hally’s inspection”; after a pause, Hally spits in Sam’s face. Calling Hally a coward, Sam angrily agrees to call Hally “Master Harold” and threatens to hit him, but he is restrained by Willie.

The threat of violence ebbs, although Sam tells “Master Harold” that he has been made to feel dirtier than ever in his life; it seems the lessons in compassion and common humanity that he tried to teach Hally over the years have failed. Hally confesses his love for his father, which Sam acknowledges as appropriate, notwithstanding the shame the boy also manifestly feels. Sam reveals the reason he made Hally the kite years ago: to console the boy after an embarrassing incident involving the father’s public drunkenness. He also discloses that their day in the park had to be curtailed because, under the laws of apartheid, the park bench was designated for whites’ use only. Referring both to the kite and to their disrupted relationship, Sam urges Hally to “try again,” noting that much teaching and learning have been going on. After Hally leaves, the play ends with implicit promises of reconciliation. Willie and Sam rehearse another dance as the jukebox plays Sarah Vaughn’s recording of “Little Man, You’ve Had a Busy Day.”


With the production of “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys, Athol Fugard’s twelfth play, the South African playwright and director offered his most personal dramatization to date of the impact of apartheid in his native land and, more broadly, of the psychology of racism in general. This three-character, one-act play was based on an autobiographical incident in which, in a moment of anger, the young white Fugard had deliberately spat in the face of Sam Semela, a black employee in his mother’s boardinghouse and tea room. Semela had been not only Fugard’s only friend throughout his school years but also virtually a surrogate father to him, and their relationship had been one of mutual love, trust, and admiration. Fugard was instantly overcome with shame and guilt for his rash act, and the play is, on a personal level, a public act of atonement. Furthermore, it is a poignant, ironic, yet often humorous probing of the psychological impact and social underpinnings of racism, with a conclusion that offers hope for a more compassionate future. “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys (Fugard)[Master Harold and the Boys]

First performed at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1982, amid mounting international pressures for political and economic sanctions against the South African government, Fugard’s play provided a clear and widely accessible example of the insidious and destructive effects of apartheid in particular and of racism in general. Its seemingly simple plot belies the complexity of the relationships among the characters, and Fugard has painstakingly structured its multiple ironies, many of which are based on fundamental dualities. Thus, for example, Hally’s allegiances are divided between his biological father and his spiritual father Sam, toward both of whom he feels both love and resentment. With Sam, he is both teacher and pupil; he shares his school lessons, but in many ways he learns from Sam important lessons in compassion and integrity that cannot be gleaned from books alone. Juxtaposed against Hally’s relentless intellectuality, Sam’s knowledge originates in the heart rather than the mind: Sam appreciates and instructs Hally about the beauty, emotion, and pleasure of the dance and of life itself.

Although Hally is said to be seventeen years old, he often seems prepubescent, particularly in his disavowal of any interest in the opposite sex and in some of his more immature outbursts. His character is poised between “man” and “boy,” as he vacillates between expressions of fully adult authoritarianism and childlike intemperateness. The title “master” is applicable in several ways: as a title befitting a young boy, as a synonym for “teacher,” and as a term for a person in a position of politically or racially based authority. Fugard was himself considerably younger than seventeen when the actual incident took place. Presumably, the character was made older in order to cast more experienced actors in the role who would be better able to credibly convey the complexity of Hally’s emotional conflicts and motivation.

The play’s climactic act of violence is averted as Willie restrains Sam from striking Hally, but undercurrents of violence much of which is socially sanctioned pervade the play. Hally describes being beaten at school for drawing a caricature of his math teacher, but he seems eager to change the subject when Sam details the far more brutal beatings that the police routinely administer to blacks. Willie admits having beaten his erstwhile dance partner Hilda, the mother of his child; although at the end of the play he resolves not to do it again, his promise may not wholly reassure. As a black woman, Hilda who is never seen in the play remains its most marginalized character, doubly victimized on the basis of race and gender but having less recourse than any other victim of violence in the play.

The pervasiveness of such violence heightens the contrast between the beauty of the idealized world, which is symbolized by the dance, and the harshness of the real world, which is characterized by hostility, resentment, and racism. Similarly, the kite-flying incident lyrically evokes an idealized, idyllic world that was for Hally a time of innocence predating an awareness of racism and socially mandated injustice. That Hally will in fact grow up to be Athol Fugard (whose first name is, in fact, Harold and whose childhood nickname was Hally) is the primary basis of hope in the play’s resolution, however tentative its insistence that the climax is not an irrevocable moment of existential self-definition that it would otherwise seem to be, a portrait of the bigot as a young man.

This play, like Fugard’s others, makes no overtly political or polemical statement, a fact that brought criticism from the ideological Left in South Africa and elsewhere; at the same time, the South African government temporarily banned the play following its premiere in the United States. Notwithstanding such objections, “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys stands alongside Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) as an intimately personal act of atonement, remarkable for its eloquent understatement, psychological insight, and emotional power. “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys (Fugard)[Master Harold and the Boys] Theater;drama Apartheid;literature and theater

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amato, Rob. “Fugard’s Confessional Analysis: ’MASTER HAROLD’ . . . and the Boys.” In Momentum: On Recent South African Writing, edited by M. J. Draymond et al. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1984. Begins with an account of the temporary ban on “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys in South Africa, then examines the play’s climax and its autobiographical aspects, discusses the theme of hegemonic control of consciousnesses, and relates the play to Fugard’s admiration of and literary indebtedness to Albert Camus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durbach, Errol. “’MASTER HAROLD’ . . . and the Boys: Athol Fugard and the Psychopathology of Apartheid.” Modern Drama 30 (December, 1987): 505-513. Assesses the fundamental need for respect among Fugard’s characters, both within the family units that typically shame his whites and within the culture that inherently humiliates blacks. Maintains that Fugard’s “family history play” is not a drama of political protest per se and notes its oscillation between hope and despair.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gussow, Mel. “Witness.” The New Yorker, December 20, 1982, 47-94. Insightful and extensive biographical profile of Fugard appeared shortly after “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys was first produced on Broadway. Describes Fugard’s family background, discusses the play’s rehearsal process, and details the subsequent events in the relationship between Fugard and Sam Semela.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Post, Robert M. “Racism in Athol Fugard’s ’MASTER HAROLD’ . . . and the Boys.” World Literature Written in English 30 (Spring, 1990): 97-102. Usefully establishes the play within the context of Fugard’s other writings, South African history, and the development of apartheid. It also cites a number of reviews of the initial production.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Victims in the Writings of Athol Fugard.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 16 (July, 1985): 3-17. Overview of Fugard’s plays and his novel Tsotsi (1980) emphasizes that his characters are victims of the theory and practice of apartheid, with which they cope through dreaming and imagining.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seidenspinner, Margarete. Exploring the Labyrinth: Athol Fugard’s Approach to South African Drama. Essen, Germany: Blaue Eule, 1986. Provides chapter-length historical background on contemporary South African drama and on Fugard’s career. Focuses on Fugard’s development from an “involved liberal writer” to a “courageous pessimist” and from “universalism to solitude.” Includes an appendix that lists relevant historical dates and legislative measures from 1652 to 1986. Also features a list of first performances and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985. Excellent study of Fugard’s works examines the plays closely and comprehensively, paying particular attention to intellectual and historical contexts. Based on many conversations with Fugard and others. Offers analyses of influences, crosscurrents, language, style, and critical reputation. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. London: Macmillan, 1984. Brief introductory volume surveys Fugard’s works through “MASTER HAROLD” . . . and the Boys and draws on meetings, interviews, and correspondence with the playwright as well as performers, collaborators, and friends. Includes photographs, with several from initial productions of the plays in South Africa and elsewhere, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wells, Ronald A., ed. Writer and Region: Athol Fugard. New York: Anson Phelps Stokes Institute for African, Afro-American, and American Indian Affairs, 1987. Brief booklet contains Fugard’s address to the Phelps-Stokes Institute titled “Writer and Region.” Also features essays by Karen K. Jambeck (“Images of the Land: The Drama of Athol Fugard”) and Ronald A. Wells (“Athol Fugard and South Africa”).

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