The play opens in St. George's Tea Room in Port Elizabeth (South Africa) on a cold and rainy day. Most of the tables and chairs, save one, have been cleared; that table has a single place setting and a stack of comic books. There is a display of old cakes and some advertisements for soda and sweets. Sam, a black man in his forties, is sitting at the table and reading the comic books. He is dressed as a waiter. Another black man, Willie, mops the floor. It is 1950.
Willie sings a song and dances with an imaginary partner. He asks Sam to watch him, and Sam counts the steps as Willie starts his series of moves. Sam advises him to look happy and relax, but Willie is clearly frustrated. Sam encourages Willie, saying that when he and Hilda dance they should look like a man and woman in love.
Willie scoffs and says he has no romance left for Hilda. He claims that she is cheating on him and calls her a whore. He complains that Hilda has not been showing up for practice and makes trouble by reporting him to "Child Wellfed," saying he is not paying child support even though he is.
Sam asks Willie when he last beat Hilda, and Willie admits that he gave her a "hiding" that Sunday. Sam laughs and points out that the hiding is the reason Hilda has not come to dance practice for the past three days. Sam warns Willie to stop beating Hilda or he will lose her like he lost Eunice. Willie just scowls. To lighten the mood, Sam jokes with Willie about using his own pillow for the quickstep. Willie finally gets annoyed and Sam apologizes for teasing him.
Sam stands up and shows Willie the dance. Meanwhile, Hally (short for Harold), a seventeen year old white boy in a school uniform, enters. He watches the dance and then claps, giving Sam "first place." Willie springs up and announces, "At your service, Master Harold!" (9). Hally asks Willie about the competition. He does not understand the subtle jokes between Willie and Sam about his missed practices.
Hally slumps at his table and complains about the rain. He asks after his father, and Sam says that there is a possibility that Hally's dad is coming home from the hospital. Hally is visibly disconcerted upon hearing this news and grills Sam and Willie about what they overheard Hally's mom say on the phone. After exhausting the topic, Hally eats his soup and leafs through the comics, which he calls filth. Finally, he decides that Sam and Willie must have misheard his mom because his dad needs three more weeks of treatment.
Hally asks about the dance again and brings up Hilda. The older men joke about Willie having a problem with his "leg," which is a masked reference to Hilda's supposed infidelity. At one point, Willie throws a rag at Sam to shut him up but it hits Hally instead; Hally yells at them to act their age.
Hally then muses again about his parents and concludes that his mother must still be in the hospital with his father, who must still be ill. Satisfied with his conclusions, Hally eats his soup and opens a textbook. Sam opens another and laughs at a comical drawing Hally made. Hally says it is a depiction of his teacher and the drawing got him in trouble. As a punishment, the teacher gave Hally six lashes on his behind - he has moved past the usual lashes on the hand.
This first selection of the play (as there are no acts or scenes) sets the stage for the dynamics between the main characters, introduces major symbols (ballroom dance and the chair), and subtly establishes the world of patriarchal, apartheid-era South Africa. Fugard purposefully kept the setting and the staging of the play very simple; there are no set changes or decorative elements onstage. The real drama emerges from the interactions between the characters instead of from external forces. All of the action occurs in real time, although a few characters reminisce about the past and look forward to the future. This tension between past and present appears throughout the play.
It is important for the audience/readers to know that the events of the play are highly autobiographical. Athol Fugard went by "Hally" when he was young in order to avoid using his given name, Harold, which was his father's name. Hally's parents in the play are based on Fugard's family, and the setting is based on the restaurant that Fugard's mother ran in South Africa. The characters of Sam and Willie are based on two men who worked at the hotel. In real life, Fugard befriended them in order to escape his spiteful, racist father. Fugard modeled certain plot points after a striking moment from his own past, which "Master Harold"... and the boys allowed him to confront and work through.
It is immediately apparent that Willie is less intelligent than Sam. He is is prone to quick anger and, unfortunately, to domestic violence, but is still somewhat goodhearted and loyal. By the end of the play, Willie demonstrates that he has learned a valuable lesson about how to treat people. He is stubborn and insecure, but clearly enjoys learning how to ballroom dance. Sam, meanwhile, is educated and civil, patient and humorous. He knows how to tease both Willie and Hally and still ensure their affection.
Hally's character will develop more as the play proceeds, but his entrance into the room is like a whirlwind. He is rather disheveled, loud, and full of complaints about his parents. It is possible to feel sympathy for him already, though, for it is clear there is something going on with his father that makes him anxious and flustered. Although "Master Harold"... and the boys is only one act, there are three informal divisions within the plot. Sam and Willie's conversation at the beginning, Hally's arrival, and after his departure when Sam and Willie are alone again. Thus, Hally's presence inaugurates the main events of the play, catalyzing the conflict and the eventual climax.
The chair is a powerful symbol in the play. The stage directions call for Hally's empty chair and place setting to be waiting for him when he arrives. Critic John O. Jordan writes that the chair is "a symbol of white power and privilege." It is a visual link to the "Whites Only" bench that will come up later in the play, a reminder of the omnipresent white supremacy. Sam and Willie are moving and standing throughout most of the play, which reinforces their position of servitude. This chair and its function (providing a place for the white man to sit) is a direct contrast to the black servants' ballroom dancing. It alleviates the tediousness and utilitarian nature of standing all day (see further analyses for a deeper examination of the role of dance in the play).