The events of "Master Harold" ... and the boys take place within the historical context of South African apartheid. Even though there is no discussion of the actual laws or conditions of this forced segregation, apartheid permeates the characters’ behavior, beliefs, and status in society. Hally is deeply fond of Sam, who is more of a father figure than Hally's biological dad. However, from the beginning of the play, Hally makes some insensitive toss-away comments about race. Later, though, he lets out his anger about his father by spitting in Sam’s face. Hally has proven unable to exercise control over the situation with his father. However, he knows that because Sam is black, he cannot retaliate against Hally, his white master. In this way, Hally selfishly abuses the structure of apartheid and creates an irreparable rift in his relationship with Sam.
Inside St. George's Tea Room, there is clearly real affection and sense of camaraderie between Hally, Sam, and Willie. Hally has always found solace in the presence of these older men. He enjoys spirited intellectual debates with Sam and gently teases Willie. However, outside the cafe, this friendship is at odds with the institutional racial divide of South Africa. The politics of apartheid slowly encroach on the bond between Willie, Sam, and Hally over the course of the play. Sam and Willie also share a meaningful friendship that is not complicated by race. Willie’s respect for Sam leads him to take his friend's advice and apologize to Hilda at the end of the play. Sam and Willie's friendship thus helps to ameliorate Sam's disappointment in Hally after he reveals himself to possess the same racism that his family propagates.
Hally’s father never appears on stage but his imminent return catalyzes the main arc of the play, just as he exercises power over his son in his absence. Hally's father is an alcoholic bully who wields power disproportionate to his physical and mental condition simply because he is white and middle class. Hally is profoundly ashamed of his father’s behavior but refuses to admit his feelings. Regardless, Hally’s father has impacted his son's perspective in many ways without him realizing it. Hally is arrogant, prickly, and depressed. He has a tendency to lash out when he feels powerless. In addition, Hally has internalized his father’s racism which manifests itself in his treatment of Sam and Willie. Hally cringes and subordinates himself before his father, even after he mocks his mother for doing so. In fact, Sam has been more of a father figure to Hally, but the apartheid mindset prevents Hally from understanding the importance of Sam in his life.
Coming of Age
As a seventeen-year old boy, Hally is at an important stage in his life. He is growing up and trying to decide where he belongs in the world and what he believes in. In some ways, Hally demonstrates potential to overcome the apartheid mindset that his parents embrace. He possesses intellectual curiosity, holds a sincere commitment to atheism, and celebrates Sam's vision of hope. Like many teenagers, though, Hally is prone to fits of anger, depression, apathy, and stubbornness. He lashes out at some of the only people who care for him and revels in his power over the black servants. He lacks self-awareness. Fugard leaves Hally in a vague position at the end of the play - it is unclear whether he will learn from his mistakes or if he will further burrow himself in his bitterness and despair.
From the very first scene to the very last scene, ballroom dancing is one of the most prevalent symbols in the play. At first, dancing is source of amusement and entertainment for Sam and Willie. It is a hobby for them, something to aspire to outside the humdrum tedium of work. Over the course of the play, dance emerges as an important cultural mainstay for the the black community. Sam evokes the dance competition as a symbol of an ideal world in which people can live together in harmony without colliding with each other. Dance provides a safe space for Sam and Willie, away from the struggles of apartheid-era South Africa.
Fugard subtly threads the message of nonviolence throughout the play. After Hally spits on Sam, the normally patient Sam badly wants to hit the boy. He checks himself, however, and asks for Willie's advice. Willie, who has the tendency to beat his girlfriend, realizes that Sam should desist. Willie prevents a "collision" between Sam and Hally, effectively diffusing their spat. Earlier in the play, Sam evokes Mahatma Gandhi as an example of someone trying to teach India's British colonizers how to "dance" without colliding, and Hally agrees. However, all the intellectualizing in the world cannot suppress Hally's misdirected anger, which leads him to spit in Sam's face. While Hally seems determined to bump into Sam, though, Sam eventually steps back. He and Willie end the play dancing alone together.
Teaching permeates the text and the plot of "Master Harold" ... and the boys. Sam teaches Willie to dance, patiently explaining the steps to him. Hally teaches Sam what he learns in school, giving the older man access to an education that his race prevents him from obtaining. Sam tries to teach Hally how to become a decent man and avoid turning out like his father. However, Hally revolts against Sam's advice, refusing to learn the lessons Sam is trying to teach him. Hally's outburst does not mitigate the importance of Sam's actions, but it does illustrate the difficulty in combating apartheid's cruel influence.
Master Harold… And the Boys Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Master Harold… And the Boys is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.