Master “Hally” Harold is the seventeen year old lead of Athol Fugard’s work, a white boy of South African descent, son of his mentor Sam’s employer. Sam is one of two black waiters employed by his family’s business, the St. George’s Park Tea Room. The focus of the play is of the two men’s mutual educating of the other.
The younger of the two, Hally takes great pride in his “educating” Sam on book knowledge, the things that he has learned in reading or the classroom, whereas the elder Sam spends his days educating Hally on the ways of life and the world, showing him how important it is to take pride in oneself and the things that can be accomplished by your own hands. Hally has been caught in a dastardly position being a young man desperately in search of his place in this world as he rapidly approaches manhood, and being the only son of an immensely racist drunkard in the face of South African apartheid.
Hally has found himself stuck between the ideologies of his inadequate father and the teachings of his gifted mentor. He battles himself for both loving and being ashamed of his white South African roots and alcoholic father. This play is about the corrosive power and denunciation of racism, ignorance and hatred in a society where those elements are all that surround you. Hally is a very bright young lad torn by his implied societal position and his loyalties to the man whom he feels has afforded him life’s greatest lessons, a black waiter who works for his father, Sam.
Hally is a tortured and tormented soul; even the title of the play denotes the societal position of these individuals-Hally is referred to as Master Harold, a seventeen year old boy while Sam and Willie are grown men referred to as boys. The division between the races is clear, there is no “distortion of the political significance” (Jordan pp. 461) of the setting in which this work takes place, white is better than black and can in no socially significant way be mixed without ill regard.
The only comfort to be found in the underlying premise of this work is the fact that Harold does not initially feed into the views of his father and society. He, in the beginning sees what great things he can learn from these black African men and chooses to err on the opposing side of his father’s views of race relations. It is not until Hally begins to feel trapped and cornered by his father’s impending release from the drunkard ward of the local hospital that he slips into the standard ideology of a white male finding his path during South African apartheid.
He turns on his mentor, spits in his face and throws a total tantrum because he has not learned how to deal with all the scrapes and cuts that can come of being a man in this world. The introduction of Hally’s drunkard father back into the home is the unadulterated reason for his abruptly abusive and racist behavior toward “the boys”. His underlying fear is that he won’t be able to stand up for himself and his true beliefs if his father is present.
Deep down I don’t feel that Hally believes himself to be any greater or more important than Sam or Willie but he is aware that society feels him to be superior to these two men and that he has yet to find it within him to give his own personal ideals a voice. He has spent all of his life under foot of one of the most racist men in South Africa, yet in the face of that socially and paternally enforced racism Hally has, for the most part, allowed himself to remain open-minded to the gifts and understandings of others, realizing that everyone has something to offer.
His father’s hospital stay afforded Hally the time he needed to reflect on his own thoughts to determine what his outlook on this world would be. He was able to live without the weight of race long enough to become comfortable with himself as an individual and the other individuals surrounding him without regard to race or social standing.
Being the intelligent lad that he is, he realizes that his father coming home means a lot for the way that he has been living his life, he is inevitably going to have to make some changes; he will either have to change the way that he views the world and begin fully subscribing to his father’s way of thinking, or he will have to find his own manhood and let his father know how he really feels. Hally is a clay chameleon being molded to fit whatever situation he finds himself in; he harbors an immense amount of disgust and disdain for his father and it is apparent at every turn except when he is speaking to his father.
When engaging with the patriarch of his family Hally appears loving, caring and compassionate. He does not allow his hatred for his father’s world views to be seen by the man who gave him life, instead he hunts for the underlying love and respect that a son should have for his father as a man, and harnesses that love long enough to engage in an empathetic exchange. The fact that this young man has named the cycle of life the “principle of perpetual disappointment” speaks volumes of his outlook on the daily affairs of this world.
He feels that having his father present in the home will just complicate the lives of everyone else around without justification; his father is just an impediment of unnecessary worth, a hurdle to be overcome if Hally ever desires to see himself find true happiness. As far as Hally is concerned, where reference is made to life being a dance as discussed in the play, it is his thought that no one knows the moves, no one man has all of the steps in order because no one can fully hear the music; as such the voluntary reality that these men discuss throughout the play could never exist.
Just the thought of his father coming home changes Harold for the worse. Even in remembering the night that Sam strapped Harold’s father to his back and carried him home from the bar in the rain or the day that Sam took Harold under his wing and taught him not only to ‘fly a kite’ literally but symbolically by spreading his wings as a man and learning to fly on his own. The kite was merely a symbol to teach Harold how important it is to find his own way in this world, not to follow his father’s mind or anyone else’s other than his own.
Yet where Sam felt that all these things made he and Harold closer, forging a bond that could not be broken, Hally instead turns on Sam stressing that he no longer refer to him as Hally but as Master Harold, signifying the social position and difference between the two. He does the one thing that Sam would have never expected him to do; he takes the position of the superior being and reduces Sam to a “nigger” thereby inflicting upon his former mentor an irreversible wound.
Hally took his opportunity to put Sam in his place and let him know that no matter what Sam has been to him or done for him and his family over the years that he is not immune to the underlying hatred that erodes the human conscience in instances such as the time period in which this play has been set. Sam tries to make clear the implications of Harold’s actions and stresses the significance of what he has done to him, and their relationship, until the young lad comes to his senses and admits the effect that his love for his father has on him and his behaviors.
Hally is fully dependent upon Sam for his understanding of this world because Hally can’t even understand himself. He lashes out at Sam because Sam is the closest person to him and sometimes it’s just easier to hurt the ones you love because you know better what will hurt them than a stranger, but I feel that another reason why he lashed out at Sam in such a way was because beneath it all he knew that Sam could always see his heart and his true intentions.
Sam was able to discern and decipher the complex feelings that Hally had for his father and the emotions provoked by the idea of his father’s return. I understand the impressionable minds of youth but this young man is seventeen years old, it is time for him to stop relying on things like his relationship with Sam and to start making a way for himself.
In a world full of adults you can’t just act out whenever you want to lashing out at those around you and always expecting people to be as forgiving as Sam was in this instance because it is my thought that the fact of the matter is-Hally was releasing some pinned up thoughts and emotions that he has been harboring, waiting for the day that he could release that portion of his father’s essence which he holds within him. There is no doubt that the relationship previously held between the two has forever been changed.
Because he is seventeen years old the world says that it is time for this young lad to become a man, but he is not ready. He’s still relying upon others to tell him what he thinks and how he really feels. If he can’t handle the complexity of his thoughts and emotions for his father how could he ever hope to handle a life out in the world on his own. Harold knows that racism and hatred are wrong, both a lose thread eroding the fabric of life, but that makes no difference to him, when put in a position of discomfort he lashed out at Sam and Willie in the same manner that one would expect of a small child.
In his article Boehmer makes it clear how often Fugard uses his main character to bring about the realization of conditions of separateness by shining a light on the trappings of historical pains, that his inevitable alienation has given representation to ordinary lives and not necessarily unique and therefore ‘dramatic’ situations” (Boehmer pp. 165). That is the point which commands emphasis in our analysis because there is nothing particularly special or significant about the setting of this play other than the backdrop of the apartheid era.
Without knowledge of this story having taken place during the apartheid era these events could have taken place in any part of the world at any time throughout history. ‘Master Harold’ was no special case; he was a seventeen year old boy like any other seventeen year old boy enthralled in the decision to either follow in his fathers footsteps or to tread his own path. Cummings piece says that Fugards’ work “dramatizes the racial situation in South Africa” (Cummings pg.
2), this is true insofar as Fugard has taken the apartheid struggle and turned it into a dramatic work, as have many other artists, but not in such a way as for the thoughts or ideas of the characters within the play to have been exaggerated because just like I said, Hally was no special case. There was no need of exaggeration because we see young men like Hally everyday, unsure of themselves or their place in this world, worried that if they make a decision for their life that it may be the wrong one so they choose to sit idly in their comfort zone too afraid to venture into any unfamiliar territory.
For Hally it would have been widely unfamiliar for him to stand up to his father and say, ‘thank you father, for giving me life, but my thoughts of this world should be formed of my own volition, not handed down from generation to generation’ and it is until just such young men can do that very thing that the older ideals of racism and hatred will begin to falter.
Cummings is right about one thing though, the simplicity of the setting does largely contradict the complexity of the characters (Cummings pg. 2) but I think that it must be understood that if the setting and characters would otherwise be in constant competition with each other and no one would be able to follow the play. The characters are what carry the work. If Hally had no minutiae to set his character apart and was just another seventeen year old lead, there would be nothing pivotal to hold this play together.
All the little details are what make these characters so profound and the work of such high quality; it would be a detriment to the production if anyone was to ever tamper with the formula.
Fugard, Athol. “Master Harold … and the Boys”. New York: Penguin Plays (1982). Boehmer, Elleke. “Review: Speaking from the Periphery”. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Jan. , 1989), pp. 161-166. Cummings, Mark. “Reclaiming the Canon: A World Without Collisions: “ “Master Harold”…and the Boys” in the Classroom”.
The English Journal, Vol. 78, No. 6 (Oct. , 1989), pp. 71-73. Jordan, John O. “Life in the Theatre: Autobiography, Politics, and Romance in “Master Harold”…and the Boys”. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 39, No. 4, Athol Fugard Issue (Winter, 1993), pp. 461-472. Solomon, Alisa. “Review: [untitled]-Reviewed work(s): …Master Harold…and the Boys by Athol Fugard”. Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1983), pp. 78-83.