40 pages 1 hour read

Athol Fugard

Master Harold and the Boys

Fiction | Play | YA | Published in 1982

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Summary and Study Guide


“Master Harold”…and the boys, a one-act play by South African playwright Athol Fugard, premiered on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater in 1982. The play, which is set in 1950, draws on Fugard’s own experience growing up during South Africa’s apartheid era. It explores a complex relationship between 17-year-old Hally, a white boy, and Sam and Willie, two Black men who are servants in Hally’s family’s tea room. The play was initially banned in South Africa because it was considered too critical of apartheid, so it premiered in the United States. “Master Harold”…and the boys won several awards the year it premiered, including a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play; London Critics’ Circle Theatre Award, Best Play (1983); and Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Play, which went to Zakes Mokae (Sam), a South African actor. The play explores the racial dynamics in apartheid South Africa and the ways that systems of power can engender shame and alienation.

This guide is based on the 1982 Borzoi Book edition of the text.

Content Warning: This guide discusses anti-Black racism, ableism, alcohol addiction, and domestic violence. The play includes ableist language, which is included in this guide only in direct quotes, and racial slurs, which are obscured.

Plot Summary

The play opens in a tea room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on a rainy day. Two Black employees, Sam and Willie, are reading comic books and practicing ballroom dancing, respectively. Willie is hoping to win a dance competition in two weeks, but he is unsure of his skills. Sam tries to encourage him, but Willie admits that his girlfriend, Hilda, is refusing to practice with him. Sam suggests that Willie stop beating her whenever she messes up the dance steps. The two argue briefly but reconcile. Sam demonstrates the dance steps for Willie; Sam is a better dancer.

Hally, the 17-year-old white son of the tea room’s owner, enters on his way home from school. Sam calls him “Hally” while Willie calls him “Master Harold.” Hally is friendly with both, and Sam informs him that his mother has gone to the hospital, most likely to bring his father home. Hally is distressed by this news, though he tries to hide his feelings. He talks with Willie about the dance competition, but abruptly scolds him when he feels that Willie’s behavior is even slightly out of line. Hally calls his house and is relieved when his mother does not answer, thinking that perhaps she is not bringing his father home after all.

The conversation shifts to social reform. Hally suggests that each age has a social reformer who changes things for the better, but if that person has yet to be found, there is nothing to do but wait for things to improve. Hally and Sam name people they consider to be great: Sam names Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, Jesus Christ, and Alexander Fleming, while Hally names Charles Darwin and Leo Tolstoy. Sam enjoys the game; Hally has been teaching him about history, geography, and other subjects for several years now. The three of them reminisce about Hally’s childhood, when he would often visit Sam and Willie’s room and insist on playing checkers. One day, Sam made a kite and flew it in the park with Hally. Hally remembers that day as a moment of great freedom, though he wonders why Sam tied the kite to the bench where Hally sat and then left. Sam says that he left because he had to return to work.

Hally’s mother calls, informing him that she is indeed bringing his father home. Hally’s father has had his leg amputated and has an alcohol addiction along with various health problems, and Hally begs his mother to insist that he stay in the hospital. He is a cruel man who steals his family’s money to pay for alcohol. Hally hangs up and takes out his homework. He must write a short essay on a culturally significant annual event. Willie practices his dancing again, but he is still unsure what to do about Hilda. Sam starts teasing Willie again, and Willie gets increasingly worked up until Hally suddenly loses his temper. He hits Willie with a ruler and forbids Sam and Willie from dancing in the shop. He orders them to go back to work.

Sam tries to gently persuade Hally that ballroom dancing is its own art form and that it has value, and Hally initially refuses to see his point. When Hally realizes that the ballroom dancing competition happens each year, he decides to write about it for his essay even though he knows his teacher will disapprove of him writing about a Black cultural event. He asks about the points system, wondering if points are deducted when people collide with one another. Sam says that people never collide while dancing. The characters extrapolate that concept to describe “a world without collisions” (47), which is a political ideal of global and, more specifically, racial harmony. Hally’s mother calls again, and Hally has a brief but angry conversation with her. He then speaks to his father, forcing himself to sound happy that he is coming home.

The conversation shatters Hally’s idealism, and he decides that there will never be a world without collisions because people like his father will always get in the way. He goes on an angry rant about his father’s cruelty and how much Hally hates caring for him when he is at home. Sam urges him to stop speaking ill of his father. Hally turns his anger on Sam. He tells Sam to call him “Master Harold,” and Sam tells him to be very careful. If Hally insists on being called “Master Harold,” Sam will never call him anything else, and the friendship between them will be broken. Hally doubles down, telling a racist joke and then spitting in Sam’s face. Sam coldly calls him “Master Harold” just as Hally starts to regret what he has said. Sam and Willie both contemplate hitting Hally but decide against it.

Sam reminds Hally of how he has helped him over the years, including helping him bring his father home from a bar when he was too drunk to stand. He tells Hally that the day they flew the kite, he left Hally alone because he was sitting on a “Whites Only” bench. Just as Hally is about to leave the tea room, Sam stops him, calls him “Hally” again, and suggests that the two of them try flying another kite. Hally points out that they cannot fly a kite in the rain; they will have to wait for better weather. Sam tells Hally that if he chooses to, he can get up from that bench any time. Hally leaves, and Willie tries to cheer Sam up by agreeing to apologize to Hilda and to stop beating her. Willie and Sam dance together in the tea house.