“Master Harold” … and the boys

views updated

“Master Harold” … and the boys

by Athol Fugard


A play set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1950; published in 1982.


Two black workers at a café and the white son of its owner come to grips with their relationship when the strains of the apartheid system become manifest.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Widely regarded as one of the most significant dramatists of the twentieth century, Athol Fugard (1932—) was born in Middleburg, South Africa, to white parents (of English and Afrikaner [Dutch] heritage). His childhood years in Port Elizabeth in the Cape Province would prove to be fertile soil for many of his dramatic responses to the apartheid regime, which dictated racial relations in his native land. Fugard’s boyhood experiences filtered directly into a series commonly called “The Port Elizabeth Plays,” which include the semiautobiographical “MASTER HAROLD” … and the boys, as well as The Blood Knot (1960), Hello and Goodbye (1965), and Boesman and Lena (1969). In Fugard’s own words, MASTER HAROLD is a play to “exorcise [the] personal guilt” he felt for failing to challenge the inequalities of the oppressive system of apartheid as a youth (Fugard in Jacobus, p. 1464). The play centers on the comradery between a white teenager and black workers which suddenly explodes to reveal racism born of a lifetime under apartheid.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

Nationhood and the beginning of racial separation

Racial tension in South Africa is not just a twentieth- and twenty-first-century phenomenon. The roots of the divisions between blacks and whites stretch back to Dutch colonization in the mid-1600s, when the native blacks chafed at the increasingly stringent trade terms of the powerful Dutch East India Company and at their lands being seized from them by force. As white settlers (mostly of Dutch, French, and German descent) grew in number, so did the economic gulf between blacks and whites. Land ownership fell increasingly into the control of whites, who used black slave labor to work “their” land. The British exacerbated the situation in the nineteenth century by taking a growing colonial interest in the region—early in the century because it could serve as a buffer against the French leader Napoleon and later because of the discovery of diamonds and gold in the region. British involvement angered the Afrikaners (whites of Dutch descent, earlier called Boers), who felt their rights to the gold and diamond reserves were being usurped. It also angered the Africans (blacks), for they became subject to a wide range of discriminatory labor practices under the British. Tensions between whites of British and of Dutch descent came to a head, erupting in the South African War in 1899, which ended in British victory in 1902. As one historian points out, “initially a war between Afrikaner and British, all South Africans were eventually pulled into it, White and Black” (Beck, p. 92). Ironically, before the war Britain had officially condemned Afrikaner discrimination against blacks. Yet afterwards the British victors allowed the country’s provinces, including those dominated by Afrikaners, to decide separately on the contentious issue of voting rights for blacks. Not one province, as it turned out, would grant these rights. Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner of South Africa who drafted the peace terms of the South African War, had earlier stated that blacks and whites would never be politically equal in the region. His prediction would be borne out in policy a few years later. In 1905, when a government committee met to decide on “native policy,” as illustrated below, there was strong popular white sentiment in South Africa for permanent separation of the races.

The ultimate end is a self-governing white Community, supported by well-treated and justly-governed black labour from Cape Town to Zambesi.

Alfred Milner,

British High Commissioner for South Africa, 1899
(Milner in Thompson, p. 144)

We Afrikaners are not the work of man, but a creation of God. It is to us that millions of semi-barbarous blacks look for guidance, justice, and the Christian way of life.

—D. F. Malan,

South African Prime Minister, 1948 (Malan in Pinchuck, p. 54)

Do not allow yourselves to be talked out of the biblical truth that God subdivided humanity into peoples and that He set boundaries for them. … The erasure of ethnic identities … is not the true message of the Bible.

—Andries Treurnicht,

founder of the S.A. Conservative Party, 1989 (Treurnicht in Thompson, p. 121)

Thereafter, Britain began to dissociate itself from South Africa, due largely to a sluggish economy and to an increasingly unruly white settler population. By 1910 the separation was complete. The country became the semi-independent Union of South Africa, ruled over by a united English-Afrikaner parliamentary government of whites, who were left to decide the race question.

Unsurprisingly, in light of popular white sentiment, the new government enacted a series of restrictive laws designed to ensure separation of the races and domination by the white minority over the black majority, especially in the workforce. The Native Labour Regulation Act (1911) made it a crime for blacks to break a labor contract. The Mines and Works Act (1911) effectively restricted blacks to semiskilled and unskilled jobs in the mines. Perhaps most divisive was the Natives Land Act (1913), which formally separated South Africa into areas in which the respective races could own land. Blacks were allotted just 7.5 percent of the entire landmass, even though they comprised nearly 70 percent of the population. Further legislation deepened the divide. The Native (Urban Areas) Land Act (1923) limited the right of blacks to enter white towns, and the Wage Act (1925) forced employers to show preference to white over black workers when hiring.

The World War II years (1939-45) created a boom in the South African economy. Although there was debate for a time over which side of the war to join—many Afrikaners wanted to side with Hitler’s Germany—South Africa eventually aligned itself with the British and the Allies. Wartime mobilization created a huge demand for labor, particularly in the major cities, promoting a mass movement of blacks to urban areas (despite official ideology that they remain rural). So massive was the movement that by 1946 there were more blacks than whites in the cities (including Cape Town and Port Elizabeth). While most of the blacks worked in the city, they lived in squatter “villages,” or townships, just outside the city limits.

The implementation of apartheid

Given the mass movement of blacks to cities, and a high number of black labor strikes, many whites feared being “overwhelmed” by the black majority, particularly the conservative Afrikaners. They registered this fear in the critical election of 1948, when they voted into Parliament a majority of candidates from the National Party (NP), which ran on the platform that only complete racial separation could inhibit this “overwhelming.” The National Party wanted to make sure that blacks would receive no representation in Parliament and would essentially be restricted to “homelands.” These homelands would be designated by ethnic (or tribal) classification as first suggested by the Natives Land Act of 1913. Strict quotas were to be instituted on black migration to towns, and there was to be no hope of blacks gaining social or political parity with whites. Almost immediately, the new Afrikaner-dominated government set about ensuring its continued domination of blacks by passing a host of laws under the label of apartheid, meaning “separation.”

The first step was the banning of interracial relations. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1949), which outlawed any marriage between a white and a nonwhite, was followed shortly by the infamous Immorality Act (1950), which banned sexual relations between the same. (Fugard was later to make the Immorality Act the subject of a 1972 play, aptly entitled Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act.) Advancing the case of inequality, 1950 also saw the passage of the Population Registration Act, which formally classified South Africans into four official racial categories—white, native (black), Asian (mostly Indian), and “coloured” (mixed race)—and mandated the issuing of identity cards. But perhaps most crucial to apartheid was the Group Areas Act (1950), which empowered the government to forcibly remove a person from an area not designated for him or her. Predictably, authorities used the law to remove non-whites from the “white” areas, which again encompassed most of the South African landscape. From 1950 to 1976, a string of other laws designed to consolidate the apartheid system would be passed, but it was in the seminal year 1950 that the bedrock laws of the system were enacted. These laws relegated “natives” in the cities to semiskilled or unskilled jobs, in which they labored in the shadow of the ruling whites.

Black resistance and white dissent, 1910-50

From the outset, the racist laws met with resistance. In 1909 nonwhites objected to their absence from constitutional meetings in 1908-09 by holding the South African Native Convention. In 1912 discontented blacks founded the African National Congress (ANC); a group that would prove critical to the dissolution of apartheid, its initial aim was to, in moderate fashion, protest racial discrimination in South Africa. The ANC appealed to the British to intervene, but its complaints were largely left unanswered. The 1920s saw the rise and fall of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), a multiracial but black-dominated labor organization that attracted followers through the country’s black churches. The ICU sought to eliminate discrimination in South African society in a more militant fashion than the ANC, by enacting work stoppages, stealing livestock, and destroying property to get the government’s attention. Its efforts met with no concessions and the organization collapsed, but its strategy foreshadowed more militant opposition in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Organized resistance in the 1930s was light compared with the ICU actions of the 1920s. The ANC focused on education and self-improvement, distancing itself from direct confrontation with the government. Some members of the ANC disagreed with this strategy and splintered off into the All-African Convention (AAC), which took a more direct approach but avoided militarism. Then came World War II and the early 1940s, which saw the rise of more militant clashes of black labor groups with the government. An outbreak of strikes by newly formed black trade unions nearly crippled the economy. Notable was the strike of the African Mineworkers Union, beaten down by the police in 1946.

The election of 1948, which brought victory to the Afrikaner-dominated National Party (NP), also brought about the downfall of the United Party, which had ruled South Africa in one form or other since 1910. While United Party members were not for integration, they felt that complete separation of the races was impossible and that the labor situation needed to be stabilized in South Africa’s cities. (The NP’s victory, it turned out, was due largely to the rural vote.) As the NP became the dominant force in white politics, the mostly black African National Congress (ANC) took the lead in resistance to white minority rule. In 1949 it assumed more confrontational tactics when its younger members—among them Nelson Mandela—succeeded in adopting a policy of boycotts, work stoppages, and the like. The activities begun by ANC members in the 1950s and the government’s defiant retaliations would largely define the turbulent struggle over apartheid in the second half of the twentieth century. Many outbursts would occur in major cities of the Cape Province, where Fugard sets his play.

The Play in Focus

The plot

“MASTER HAROLD” … and the boys is designed to be performed continuously, without intermission, primarily because there are no act or scene divisions but also because there are no logical breakpoints in the action. Almost the entire first half is devoted to defining the relationship among the three characters. The play opens with two black waiters, Sam and Willie, practicing for an upcoming ballroom-dance championship at their place of employment, the St. Georges Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth. Sam, clearly the expert on the dance, attempts to


The 1950s, gave rise to a ballroom-dance craze that caught on in various parts of the world, including South Africa, largely because of its enduring British heritage. The ballroom dancing known to South Africans, blacks and whites, was in great part influenced by the so-called “English style,” which included dances like the Quickstep and the Foxtrot. (Both are mentioned in the play.) Dance competitions, in vogue since the end of the Second World War, were extremely well-attended mass entertainments attracting South Africa’s various racial groups in the urban centers. It was said that to be an audience member at such competitions was to witness “physical discipline” akin to “classical ballet” (Franks, p. 195.) This resonates in the play when Sam, in recalling the careful precision of the dance competition, confidently states that in these events “accidents don’t happen” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 500. By the early 1960s South Africa had members sitting on the prestigious International Council of Ballroom Dancing, which helped regulate such competition.

convey to Willie the need to “make it smooth. … And give it more style” (Fugard, “MASTER HAROLD“… and the boys, p. 7). Willie, while enthusiastic about the competition, expresses frustration with Sam’s directions. In doing so, he reveals that he is practicing without his partner, Hilda, because, Willie reluctantly admits, he “gave her a hiding [beating]” four days ago (MASTER HAROLD, p. 9).

During Sam and Willie’s practice session, Hally, the 17-year-old (white) son of the tea room’s owners, returns from a morning at school. His interchange with Sam and Willie indicate that they have been friends since Hally was a young boy. It furthermore becomes clear that their relationship flowers in the absence of Hally’s parents; he gleefully but “conspiratorial[ly]” whispers to the waiters that they have the afternoon to spend together (MASTER HAROLD, p. 12). Hally’s momentary worry about his hospitalized, crippled father—the worry is that he will come home prematurely, giving the audience the first sense of their strained relationship—is quickly dismissed. It fades into a pleasant passing of the afternoon. Much of the time revolves around Hally’s homework, which bores Hally but interests Sam. Hally soon launches into a mini-lecture on “Social Reformers,” which quickly escalates into a spirited debate on great reformers in society. Even though Sam has had little formal schooling, he can hold his own in the debate because he’s been “educated” by Hally, or so Hally says (MASTER HAROLD, p. 26). Hally’s mini-lecture segues into a recollection of their long friendship, ending with the time Sam constructed a kite for Hally to fly on an otherwise “useless, nothing-to-do afternoon” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 31). The incident makes him realize how significant Sam has been in his young life.

Just then, the phone rings and Hally speaks to his mother, who is at the hospital visiting his father. Learning that his father may indeed be coming home to resume his round of alcohol abuse agitates Hally, who convinces his mother to dissuade his father from leaving the hospital. After the phone conversation, Sam’s attempts to be conciliatory are met with frustration and anger: “Life is a plain bloody mess, that’s all. And people are fools” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 38). The topic turns to Hally’s homework, which is to write a composition on a significant cultural or historical event, but his frustration persists. The men resume their dancing (while Hally does his homework), and a playful scuffle ensues, during which Sam’s criticism of Willie stops abruptly, thanks to a slap with a ruler and a Hitler-like tirade from Hally on how he’s been “too lenient with the two of [them]” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 42). Sam defuses the situation by persuading Hally that the dance competition is a significant cultural event, a worthy subject for his composition. Hally buys into this while Sam and Willie attempt to recreate the tension and other feelings generated at such a competition. In the process, Hally arrives at his thesis: the dance competition is a microcosm of global politics.

The phone rings again. Hally learns that his father has been discharged, which sends him into a fit of rage at his mother. She forces him to talk to his father on the phone, and in a strained conversation, Hally struggles to quell his fury. After the call, he lapses into a depression, and when Sam tries to cheer him up, Hally responds with another tirade—this time about the futility of life. It becomes clear as he rants that his father is at the center of his frustration: “the cripples are also out there tripping up everybody … and it’s all called the All-Comers-How-To-Make-A-Fuckup-of-Life Championship” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 56). Sam, who can no longer stand Hally’s mockery of his father, admonishes him for his behavior. Infuriated, Hally turns on Sam and invokes race to vent his anger, insinuating that even an alcoholic cripple is automatically superior to Sam if the cripple is white. In a heated exchange, Hally attempts to erase the familiar relationship he has with Sam, insisting that Sam call him “Master Harold” instead of Hally. This prospect leaves a bad taste in Sam’s mouth: “If you make me say it once, I’ll never call you anything else again” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 59). Hally’s behavior grows still uglier as he gleefully recalls a racist joke his father often tells about the buttocks of a black man—to which Sam responds by showing his own backside in defiance. Hally, seemingly defeated, calls Sam over but spits in his face when he comes. This is the last straw for Sam, who now feels that the friendship has suffered an irrevocable blow, though he realizes the true target of Hally’s gesture is his father, whom Hally has been afraid to face. In a tirade of his own, Sam recalls how, from a very young age, Hally was forced to deal with his father’s shortcomings and that the kite episode was designed to help him feel better about himself: “You hadn’t done anything wrong but you went around as if you owed the world an apology for being alive” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 64). Hally, completely flattened, begins to exit. Sam stops him and expresses the hope that they might “fly another kite” someday soon, but Hally leaves in a state of confusion (MASTER HAROLD, p. 65). The play ends with Sam and Willie once again trying to find joy and hope in the dance.


Boet: “Brother.” Afrikaans term of affection, e.g. “Boet Sam.”

Boy: A pejorative term for a black male, regardless of age.

A cooldrink: A soft drink.

Haai: An expression of surprise, shock, or disbelief. A variation of it is Haaikona , which indicates more urgency.

Ja: Yes.

Struesgod: A mild oath a contraction of “As true as God.”

A paternal system

Despite official attempts at the complete separation of blacks and whites, the wartime boom of the early 1940s brought thousands of “natives” (later officially called Bantu) to the cities of South Africa. This was especially true in the Cape Province, considered the most liberal of the four provinces that comprised the apartheid-era nation (the other three being Transvaal, Natal, and the Orange Free State). This may be because blacks “have had a longer period of contact with whites in the Cape than in [the other provinces] … especially … around Fugard’s Port Elizabeth home” (Vandenbroucke, p. xv). The legislation that formed the apartheid system officially and practically limited blacks to semiskilled and unskilled jobs. Positions as servants in white households and small businesses were common. Sam and Willie’s connection to Hally’s family’s business would have been usual for the day, particularly in the Cape. Also usual is the fact that any sense of stable employment could evaporate at a moment’s notice, given any white person’s power of discretion and the police’s power of action. In the drama, Hally reacts to Sam and Willie’s playful rough-housing by observing that if “a customer had walked in … or the Park Superintendent,” their jobs would be finished (MASTER HAROLD, p. 42). The Group Areas Act would have allowed the police to “remove” Sam and Willie from the city and force them to relocate to one of the rural “homelands” designated for blacks. Even in the liberal Cape, though, blacks and whites did not live in close proximity to each other, despite their co-existence in the workplace. The reality for “native” city workers was residence in designated “townships” that might be far from the city in which they worked, or closer if there was an (illegal) squatter community outside the city limits. In the play, Willie makes a reference to the long bus ride from Port Elizabeth to his suburb (New Brighton), a considerable trek for anyone to walk. In a powerful moment, Willie chooses to forego his bus fare and walk home to make the play’s final expression of brotherhood: a jukebox dance with Sam.

While racial attitudes in the Cape in the 1950s may have been more relaxed than in South Africa’s other provinces, the supremacist ideologies among whites—particularly Afrikaners—still held sway when relationships were challenged. Hally echoes racist rhetoric in his tirades, and, in a gesture ostensibly designed to link him to history, Fugard instructs the actor playing Hally to “strut … around like a little Hitler” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 42). Despite the fact that it is ultimately dismissed by Willie as the act of a “little boy,” the rhetoric is a product of what Fugard refers to as a “massive assault … on the soul”: the ingraining of white supremacist attitudes from generation to generation (MASTER HAROLD, p. 62; Fugard, Cousins, p. 42). Hally’s attempt to assert domination, from a 1950s South African standpoint, has sharp teeth to it: legally he had power over the fate of the “boys.” The relationship among the three, despite its tender moments, constantly has an “unseen specter” of apartheid-inspired inequity—one that becomes visible when Hally, unable to vent his frustrations toward his father, uses Sam as a scapegoat. It is a paternalistic relationship—strikingly similar to master-slave ideology in the pre-Civil War American South—in which Hally (and, by extension, his parents) are in a position to either reward or punish the black men in their employ. The only real boy here, Hally is in a position of authority that conditions him to pervert the age relationship and call the black men “boys.”

The audience sees an example of exactly how the “punishment” can be meted out when an early instance of horseplay is met with the boy Hally’s “vicious whack on the bum [buttocks]” of the man, Sam, just as a parent would discipline a child (MASTER HAROLD, p. 42). The fact that Hally’s parents are never seen in the play—only “heard” through Hally’s conversations with them—reinforces the idea that there is a paternalistic “specter,” the apartheid authority, hanging over Sam and Willie’s heads. It is no small irony to note that over their years together Sam’s relationship to Hally has been akin to that of father and son. Sam has provided Hally with the example the real father never furnished, showing Hally “the way a boy grows up to be a man” (MASTER HAROLD, p. 64).

Sources and literary context

Athol Fugard has unabashedly admitted that this play is the most autobiographical of his works. Hally is Fugard’s partial projection of himself into the world of the play. (Fugard’s parents even called him Hally, instead of Harold, his given name [his full name is in fact Harold Athol Lanigan Fugard]). Sam Semela and Willie Malopo, on whom the two other characters are based, were real men in Fugard’s Port Elizabeth adolescence. Also there actually was a St. Georges Park Tea Room, which his parents owned and in which Sam and Willie worked. Of Sam, Fugard recalled that:

There was an ambivalence in my relationship with him: a love-hate thing. And as a little white boy, ten or eleven years old, I had authority over this powerful mature man of about twenty-eight. [In the play, Sam is fifty.]

(Vandenbroucke, p. 185)

This statement hints at the guilt Fugard has admitted to having injected into the play as a result of his tacit acceptance of apartheid relations in boyhood. He speaks here generally and more specifically of an incident he recalls in his relationship with Sam that mirrors the starting turn of events in the play. After a “rare quarrel” started by something that Fugard no longer remembers, Sam Semela began walking home. Infuriated, Fugard rode his bicycle to catch up with him. Then, as Fugard recalls,

As I rode up behind him, I called his name, he turned in mid-stride to look back and, as I cycled past, I spat in his face. Don’t suppose I will ever deal with the shame that overwhelmed me the second after I had done that.

(Fugard, Notebooks, p. 26)

In addition to his pangs of guilt over the incident with Semela, Fugard draws on his sometimes stormy relationship with his father.

I was dealing with the last unlaid ghost in my life, who was my father. Our relationship was as complex as Master Harold expresses it in the play. I had a resentment at his infirmity (Fugard’s father was crippled due to a childhood injury—he fell down the gangway of a ship) and other weaknesses, but, as Master Harold says, “I love him so.”

(Fugard in Vandenbroucke, p. 190)

Among these “other weaknesses,” Fugard goes on to explain, were his father’s alcoholism and bigotry.


“I vaguely recall shyly ‘haunting’ the servants’ quarters in the well of the [Jubilee] hotel—cold, cement-gray world—the pungent mystery of the dark little rooms—a world I didn’t understand.… Sam, broad-faced, broader based—he smelled of woodsmoke.… Realize how he was the most significant—the only—friend of my boyhood years. On terrible windy days when no one came to swim or walk in the park, we would sit together and talk. Or I was reading—Introductions to Eastern Philosophy or Plato and Socrates—and when I had finished he would take the book back to New Brighton.”

(Fugard, Notebooks, p. 25)

In addition to the relationships that inform the play, MASTER HAROLD is chock full of references to details in Fugard’s own life. For example, the name of the dance band that Willie and Sam will dance to at the competition, the Orchestral Jazzonians, was the name of Fugard’s father’s dance band before Fugard was born. But some of the dramatic details differ from those in real life too, and Fugard is quick to point out the differences. In his memoir Cousins, he discusses the character Hally’s professed distaste for the “boring” days at the Jubilee Boarding House, which his parents operated prior to their purchase of the St. Georges Park Tea Room. Fugard seemingly reprimands Hally for calling it that: “Hally is being a little unfair. Those years in the old Jubilee were not as bad as he makes out” (Fugard, Cousins, p. 64). Reviewing Fugard’s memoirs and interviews, one senses that his MASTER HAROLD characters are more of a fanciful (yet genuinely remorseful) dialogue with the past than a realistic representation of it. Yet, ironically, it is a highly realistic play. It dares to “let life happen” and hold the conflict until quite late in the play, giving the audience the impression that an authentic life experience is occurring, in both its slow moments and its frenzy.

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Apartheid revisited

Apartheid was still very much a fact of South African life in 1982, but the shape and strength of it had changed in response to many forces, both internal and external. Cracks in the apartheid hull began to appear as early as the 1950s, when a government commission determined that the so-called designated “homelands” for blacks—which were supposed to become self-sustaining—would never be so because of the poor land on which they sat. The previously weak African National Congress grew in membership and influence as blacks heeded its calls for nonviolent resistance to segregation. But resistance was met with increasingly hard-line enforcement of the system. A 1960 police massacre of 69 peacefully protesting blacks in the black township of Sharpeville was one of the many flashpoints in the crackdown. International censure of South Africa for the Sharpeville incident prompted the government to withdraw from the British Commonwealth and declare its total independence as The Republic of South Africa in 1961. The government also outlawed the ANC and its related organizations, and enforced more stringently the Group Areas Act, so that ANC members felt they had little choice but to turn to strategic acts of violence. This turn of events led, in 1963, to the capture and sentencing of Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment, as part of a ruthlessly efficient government counter-strategy to eliminate the insurgencies.

The tide against apartheid did not truly begin to turn until the 1970s, when a series of events began to signal the sharp decline of the system. In 1973, the United Nations declared apartheid to be a crime against humanity, and four years later it banned arms sales to the country. The year 1976 saw the worst of the flare-ups of government responses to internal black resistance in Soweto (a township outside Johannesburg), when a protest of black high-school students was met with tear gas and bullets. At least two children were killed. Enraged Soweto residents rioted, igniting many government structures, sparking, in return, more police violence. Lasting for months, the cycle of violence ended, according to official records, in the deaths of 575 victims, many of them black teenagers. Meanwhile, labor unrest was on the rise, enfeebling the South African economy. The government reacted by emphasizing the “rural essence” of its black citizens, despite their having gone on strike as urban laborers. To reinforce this idea, it, one by one, declared the homelands “independent states.”

Assistance to black resistance groups by newly independent (and anti-apartheid) neighboring African states, along with growing international opposition to apartheid, began to take a toll on the already stumbling South African economy. The early 1980s saw some white officials try to reform apartheid, but the prime ministership of P. W. Botha (1978-84) remained committed to white power. The government introduced some reforms that toned down “petty apartheid” policies (separate restroom facilities, etc.) in the 1980s, but it meanwhile made thousands of arrests of anti-apartheid activists. It would take an increasing divergence of viewpoints within government and mounting international pressure to bring down apartheid. The system finally collapsed in the decade following Fugard’s play, paving the way for the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president in 1994.


Fugard felt that it would be problematic to premiere “MASTER HAROLD” … and the boys in South Africa for several reasons. Most notable were its intense connection to real figures in his life and the possibility that the local censors would ban it. So “Master Harold” … and the boys debuted at the Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut, on March 12, 1982. This was the first time Fugard chose to debut one of his plays outside South Africa. Frank Rich of The New York Times echoed best the highly positive reception of the Yale premiere, noting that Fugard, in composing the play, “has journeyed so deep into the psychosis of racism that all national boundaries quickly fall away, that no one is left unimplicated by his vision” (Rich, p. 17). In South Africa, the play was, as expected, banned by the government at first. It took exactly a year for the drama to be staged in Johannesburg, and then it struck a powerful chord. The interracial audience was “visibly shaken and stunned.… Many, blacks and whites, were crying” (Lelyveld, p. 22). On the other hand, the play, and Fugard’s work in general, has met with some sharp criticism. “Fugard, as a white man,” say the critics, “cannot acceptably describe South African racism and its capitalistic exploitation of blacks.” (Durbach in Wertheim, p. 136). Perhaps the strongest retort is the continuing popularity of “MASTER HAROLD” … and the boys, which, among all of Fugard’s works, is often declared his masterpiece. Even now, in the post-apartheid era, the play resonates with audiences, compelling them to face the ugliness of inner, learned racial codes and ideologies.

—Christopher Mitchell

For More Information

Beck, Roger B. The History of South Africa. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Franks, A. H. Social Dance: A Short History. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.

Fugard, Athol. Cousins: A Memoir. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1997.

_____. Notebooks 1960-1977. New York: Knopf, 1983.

_____. “MASTER HAROLD” … and the boys. New York: Samuel French, 1982.

Jacobus, Lee A. “Introduction to ‘MASTER HAROLD’ … and the boys.” In The Bedford Introduction to Drama. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2002.

Lelyveld, Joseph. “’Master Harold’ stuns Johannesburg Audience.” New York Times, 24 March 1983, 22.

Pinchuck, Tony. Introducing Mandela. Cambridge: Totem, 1994.

Rich, Frank. “Theater: World Premiere of Fugard’s New Play.” The New York Times, 17 March 1982, 17.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Vandenbroucke, Russell. Truths the Hand Can Touch: The Theatre of Athol Fugard. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985.

Walder, Dennis. Athol Fugard. New York: Grove, 1985.

Wertheim, Albert. The Dramatic Art of Athol Fugard: From South Africa to the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

About this article

“Master Harold” … and the boys

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


“Master Harold” … and the boys