How closely do the events of the play adhere to events in Fugard's own life?
Athol Fugard wrote "Master Harold"... and the boys as a way of dealing with a difficult incident from his own life, and therefore, the play is largely autobiographical. The setting is the same, as Fugard spent his youth at St. George's Tea Room and the Jubilee Hotel. He was also very close with the servants, so the characters of Sam and Willie are based on real people. Young Fugard (who also went by "Hally") had a terrible relationship with his father and remembered his youth as very tempestuous as a result of the old man's drinking problem and violent outbursts. The incident with the the kite is real. The spitting incident, which is also real, had a profound impact on Fugard, and his diary entries from that time reveal a young man who was tormented by his callous behavior towards his friend. The only major difference in the play is that in real life, Athol Fugard immediately regretted spitting at Sam, while the character of Hally in the play is confused and does not atone for his actions.
How, if at all, do each of the three main characters characters change by the end of the play?
Of the three characters, Willie changes the most. After observing the altercation between Sam and Hally, he realizes that he has been mistreating Hilda and should change his behavior. This is a clear reversal of his earlier, stubborn statements that Hilda deserved to be beaten. Sam does not fundamentally change by the end of the text, although it appears that he does come to terms with the fact that as Hally gets older, society's view of race will start to affect their relationship. However, he retains his characteristic hope, offering to make a new kite for Hally and dancing with Willie. As for Hally, it appears as though he changes drastically - going from Sam's genuine friend to a racist, cruel version of his father. However, Hally hints at these negative traits throughout the play. Sam brings out the best in him, while his interaction with his father brings out the worst side of Hally, and that is where the play leaves him.
What is the play's message about racism?
It is clear that the play takes place in a racially stratified environment, but Fugard does not address the racial issues on a macro scale. Instead, he reveals the effect of apartheid on the specific relationships between the characters in the play. Even when it seems like the characters can look beyond or even surmount apartheid society's ideas about about race, it quickly becomes apparent that they cannot ignore the way society views them. Hally is a perfect example. He is a white man who does not actively express his racism (like his father does). Nevertheless, he has clearly internalized the apartheid mindset and manifests it unthinkingly in his words and actions.
What role does apartheid play in the text?
Fugard does not directly address apartheid in the text. There is no specific mention of homelands, pass laws, or racial violence. However, it has a deep effect on the events of the play. There is a clear demarcation of socio-economic status by race. The black men are the servants, the white boy and his parents serve as the authority figures. Even before they start fighting, Hally speaks to Sam and Willie in a slightly derogatory way. He calls them children, even though Sam is the closest person to a father in Hally's life. When Hally spits at Sam, he reveals that he has internalized his father’s racist beliefs. Sam builds a dream around the idea of reform and enlightenment, citing countries that have moved past racial segregation - but this hope crumbles by the end of the play. In "Master Harold"... and the boys, Fugard shows his audiences how apartheid affected the lives of South Africans on a daily basis, even if the broader political and legal effects are not immediately manifest.
What are each character's flaws and merits?
Willie has a sweet, childlike nature which makes him agreeable in most situations. He holds a deep admiration for Sam, and, by the end of the play, he demonstrates the ability to recognize his own shortcomings and try to change them. He understands that he needs to control his violent urges. Sam, meanwhile, is kind, wise, patient, humorous, and perceptive. His flaw is believing in Hally too much. He truly thinks the young man will be able to overcome his upbringing and environment, and experiences deep disappointment when Hally does not prove to be that mature. However, he also closes the door towards any reconciliation. Hally is stubborn, naïve, volatile, and, unwittingly, racist. During the play, he behaves like a brat - his parents won't listen to him, so he takes it out on Sam and Willie, knowing they will not be able to strike back. However, Hally is also intelligent and holds many idealistic views. At the end of the play, he appears to be filled with regret, although he doesn't say it. There may be hope for him in the future.
Why do you think one critic refers to the play as a "romance"?
The critic John O. Jordan claims that “Master Harold” is not a tragedy but a romance. In the literary lexicon, a romance is a piece of work that evinces a desire to transfigure the ordinary world create the conditions of some lost Eden. A romance can anticipate a future in which old mortality and imperfections no longer exist. By this definition, "Master Harold"...and the boys is a romance. The characters exist in the tormented environment of apartheid. However, Sam and Willie's ballroom dancing fantasies represent the ideal future that all three of them dream of. Jordan comments about the end of the play: “Love story, happy ending, transfiguration of ordinary reality – all this and more are present when the jukebox comes to life and the two men begin to dance.”
What do the dance, the chair, and the kite symbolize?
The dance symbolizes a perfect world without racism and its concomitant tension. Using the metaphor of ballroom dancing, Willie, Sam, and Hally imagine a world in which different countries and groups of people do not “collide” with each other; they respect each other's space so that everyone can live and flourish. The kite symbolizes the possibility for freedom, and the afternoon of kite-flying unites Sam, Willie, and Hally. The chair, meanwhile, symbolizes white authority and power. When the chair is empty at the beginning of the play, it is simply waiting for Hally to come in and exercise his role as an authority (based only on his race). The symbol of the chair is echoed in the “Whites Only” bench, which prevents Sam from sitting with Hally to enjoy watching Willie struggle with the kite.
What is the importance of the conversation that Sam and Hally have about “social reformers” and “men of magnitude”?
In this conversation, Sam shows himself to be educated and thoughtful, with somewhat of a romantic nature. His initial choices for "men of magnitude" are Shakespeare, Jesus, and Abraham Lincoln, which Hally rejects. Sam eventually wins Hally's approval by suggesting Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin. Meanwhile, Hally chooses Darwin and Tolstoy, which represent his intellect and his respect for practical and science-based thought. However, the conversation itself says more about Hally's nature than his choices. He laughs when Sam chooses Abraham Lincoln, because Hally claims that Sam does not know what it was like to be a slave. Hally therefore reveals himself to be naive and shortsighted, unable to recognize that he lives in an environment that is in desperate need of a real social reformer (Mandela, perhaps?) and the true meaning of somebody who "benefit[s] all mankind" (19).
How does the omnipresent racism hurt the white characters in the play?
Frederick Douglass writes about his white mistress in his Autobiography, “The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.” In “Master Harold”... and the boys, Sam and Willie are affected by racism in an obvious way, because they are classified as second-class citizens based on their race. However, Hally is also an inadvertent victim of the racist society he lives in. The apartheid ideology has warped his mind, leading him to indulge his baser instincts like pride, cruelty, and ignorance. He seems genuinely ardent in his desire to witness progression in his society, but his innate racism prevents him from acting on these beliefs. Apartheid has affected him in a way that will be difficult to overcome, because it has tainted his deep-rooted beliefs and overall perspective more than he even realizes.
What role does the kite-flying incident play in the text?
This incident is not only a sweet but sad memory that embodies the relationship between Sam and Hally. It is also an example of Fugard's effective fusion of the personal and political aspects of the story. On the personal side, it is Hally's most cherished memory. He admits his skepticism at seeing Sam's rudimentary-looking kite, but describes his utter glee at seeing the kite fly. Meanwhile, Sam felt proud that he could help young Hally forget his problems with his father and enjoy the sunny afternoon. However, the political realities of their environment intrude on this blissful scene because Sam cannot sit on the same bench with Hally and watch Willie run around with the kite, because it is a public bench intended for for "Whites Only." Looking back, Hally still does not understand why Sam could not sit with him, revealing his privileged perspective. Sam, meanwhile, does not have the luxury of ignoring the realities of apartheid, even in his oldest friendships.