Athol Fugard: "Master Harold" . . . and the Boys

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Source: Penguin Plays edition. New York: Penguin, 1984.

During most of the last four decades, Athol Fugard has dedicated his art to fighting apartheid, remarkably keeping together an all-black theater troupe in extremely difficult conditions and appearing in many of his own plays as often unsympathetic white characters. Many of his plays were banned in his homeland, and were premiered instead at the Yale Repertory Theatre. He is generally considered the finest South African playwright, and his works have been widely performed abroad. The brief 1973 play we will see on video, Sizwe Banzi is Dead was developed partly through improvisation with the other actor involved, deriving its content from the everyday lived experience of blacks in South Africa. It is part of a trilogy which includes The Island and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act. Since the collapse of apartheid, he has turned away from this subject toward more personal works.

Of all his plays, none is more personal than "Master Harold" . . . and the Boys; because it relates a boyhood incident which involved himself and which haunted him for years until he tried to atone by writing this play in 1982.

In 1950, Fugard was 17. It was in these years that apartheid began (starting in 1948). The play has been criticized for not overtly acknowledging this fact, yet awareness of increasing racial tension may lurk in the background. If we see the play as reflecting the world as viewed by "Master Harold," he may not have absorbed the impact of these changes.

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4 Note the distinctly unromantic words to the song Willie sings at the beginning. Boet means "brother" or "comrade."

5 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the most famous dancing team in Hollywood. Why do you think Willie has to understand romance through their image?

6 Sarah Vaughan was a great American jazz singer, some say the greatest ever. "Struesgod"="It's true as God" or "I swear by God it's true." "Wellfed"="Welfare." Since both Willie and Hilda are black, his remark that only the baby's hair looks like him is probably sarcastic.

7 "Hiding"=beating.

8 Count Basie: leader of the one of the most famous jazz bands ever, very popular with dancers.

9 Watch Hally's relationship with Sam and Willie. How friendly is he with them? Does he treat them as an equal? Do they treat him as an equal? Are there tensions between them?

11 Like Tarzan, Jungle Jim was a white hero in black Africa, extremely popular in the forties and fifties but exercising a baneful influence on people's notions about Africans.

12 "Bum"=rear end. Speakers of English slang think it's hilarious that Americans walk around with the words "BUM Equipment" plastered across their chests.

15 What is Hally's reaction to learning about how black prisoners are beaten? Does he see it as a racial issue?

16 "Naught"=zero.

18 What does Sam mean when he says "I'm all right on oppression?" Napoleon, paradoxically, helped to institute modern laws while sometimes behaving in an extremely tyrannical fashion.

19 Why is it ironic that Hally has hidden Darwin in the Theology section of the library?

20 How does Hally react to Sam's choice of Abraham Lincoln as a hero? Note the strong influence of America on this culture. Can you characterize this influence? What sort of things are influential? On whom? Why would Julius Caesar be an attractive play to somebody like Sam?

21 Hally's knowledge of Tolstoy is somewhat scrambled. He wrote War and Peace 1865-1869, long before he abandoned literature to become a full-time social reformer, working in common with the serfs on his estate. War and Peace is notoriously one of the longest novels in the Western canon.

23 Why does Sam know about so many of the great figures of history?

24 "Donkey's years," a common English cliché for "many years," punning on "donkey's ears."

25 Characterize Hally's relationship to Sam and Willie when he was younger. "Certified": certified insane.

26 The Nazis used Joe Louis' defeat at the hands of the German Max Schmeling in 1936 as a demonstration of the superiority of the white race. However, when Louis defeated him in one round in 1938 to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world, the event was celebrated across America, especially by American blacks, who felt his victory was not only a blow against fascism but against American racism. Clearly he became an idol in South Africa as well. It is not clear whether it is Willie's or Fugard's memory that is at fault in remembering a longer fight. A photo of movie star Rita Hayworth in a swimsuit was the most famous pinup in World War II.

28-30 What does the kite story tell us about Hally? Try to distinguish between what must be going through the minds of the men and what is going on inside Hally throughout this scene.

31 Note how Hally compares a little boy with a crippled father to a white boy with a black man.

32-33 What do we learn about Hally's father?

35 How does Hally change in his attitude toward the men after the phone call?

38 Note how Hally goes from bad to worse in his treatment of Sam and Willie during the following scenes. Why is he behaving so badly? What does his behavior reveal about him? What are the cruelest things he says?

40 Why does Hally realize "he has to be careful?"

43 Is Hally's choice of an essay topic a compliment or an insult to the blacks?

46 How does Sam turn the dance contest into a metaphor for their lives?

49 "Kip and a toss in your old Uncle Ned;" "snack and drink in your bed." Note that the comics are for Hally's dad.

54 What does Sam mean by saying "If you make me say it once, I'll never call you anything else again."

56 In many cultures "mooning" is an extreme insult, a gesture of contempt. What is Sam's diagnosis of what's wrong with Hally?

57 Earlier Hally told Sam that he'd failed in educating him. Note how Sam more seriously says the same of his attempt to educate Hally.

58 What was it that Sam tried to prevent? What is the significance of the story of the bench? How does Sam behave toward Hally after his long speech to the boy?

60 Note how Sam's example influences Willie. What do you think is the significance of the song at the end of the play?

This play has been accused in some quarters of personalizing racism and avoiding confrontation of its systemic, societal qualities. What do you think of this argument? What do you think is the significance of the play's title?


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Notes by Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University, Pullman 99164-5020.

Version of February 14, 1996.

This page has been accessed times since June 6, 1997.