Master Harold and the Boys Critical Analysis
Master Harold… and the Boys Athol Fugard’s Master Harold… and the Boys is an instant classic that does a superior job at encompassing the complex of racial hierarchies and interracial friendships that existed in South Africa in the mid-20th century. Set in 1950 the play follows the everyday lives of its two main protagonists: Hally, a white, seventeen year old male discontented with his schooling, and Sam, a middle-aged, black servant of Hally’s family.
During this period the rigid racial structure of Apartheid remained dominant in the nation, institutionalizing the already understood separation of disenfranchised blacks and privileged whites.
These de jur social classifications cannot however denounce the observable friendly relationship that Hally and Sam share. With Sam practically having raised Hally due to the boy’s drunk for a father the racial tensions of the relationship seem initially to be nonexistent.
This all changes during the moment of engagement when the primary opposing force of the work is revealed: Hally’s alcoholic father is rumored to be returning home from the hospital despite his family’s cries against the act. Distraught and trapped between his filial duties and disdain for the man who neglected him, the underlying racial tensions of the play come to light with this recognition. In order to compensate for his lack of control in the situation, Hally takes to hurling insults at Sam, who is actively trying to pacify the marauding emotions of a teenage boy to no avail.
The audience is left asking themselves the dramatic question: “Will Hally cross the precariously small line between venting his anger and becoming overtly racist? ” More broadly as well we can ask, “What are the implications of an oppressive racial hierarchy on interracial friendships? Within the text the protagonist Sam appears to be the voice of reason as well as the primary proponent of peace (Jacobus, 1395).
From reprimanding his foil character Willie for beating his wife to restraining himself with saint-like temperance during the climax, Sam never acts illogically or violently (Jacobus, 1410). Contrarily, Sam displays inquisitive preplanning by relating a story prior to Hally’s fall from grace that serves only to color the boys shame after his regrettable act during the climax. The super-objective of Sam therefore is to maintain order and harmony in an otherwise chaotic household rooted in an already racially oppressive regime.
Tactics such as relating a heartfelt memory in the form of a story (distraction), attempting to reason with Hally as to convince him to check his reaction (reasoning), and when all else fails parental-like reprimanding (appeal to authority) all reinforce the image of Sam as a peaceful, reasonable protagonist. Opposite this cool, collective nature exists our second protagonist: Hally. Hosting underlying supremacist ideology, Hally exhibits all of the emotional inconsistencies of a teenage boy along with the inability to properly handle stress.
From the point of attack until the moment of engagement one can see examples of Hally talking down to Sam despite the age difference and authoritative roles between the two. “God, you’re impossible. I showed it to you in black and white. It’s the likes of you that kept the Inquisition in business. It’s called bigotry… (Jacobus, 1399). The super-objective for this troubled youth is the solidification of authority as to pacify his sense of helplessness due to his father’s return.
Unable to convince his mother of detaining his father at the hospital for a longer time, Hally slips from the angry boy he once was upon initially hearing the news into an irate, power-starved child (Jacobus, 1409-1410). This shift in personality further enforces the dramatic question as Hally edges ever closer to the point of no return in his language, chastising Sam and directing his anger towards a “safe” target protected by the racial hierarchy.
The introductory incident in Master Harold… and the Boys is the moment when Hally receives a call from his mother stating his father’s desire to return home. Eventually convinced of the impossibility and distracted by his school work, the thought nevertheless preoccupies our young protagonist’s mind, coloring each action and reaction throughout the rest of the play. The moment of engagement is closely married to the introductory incident in this work as the audience’s intriguing moment is parallel to Hally’s emotional commitment to the idea of his father’s return.
Unable to divorce his mind from this subtle inkling of helplessness, Hally’s tone sharpens considerably as he attempts to solidify his own authority through discourse with Sam coupled with sharp remarks. “Don’t try to be clever, Sam. It doesn’t suit you. Anybody who thinks there’s nothing wrong with this world needs to have his head examined. ” (Jacobus, 1403). The major peripetie of the work occurs when Hally’s mother phones again to confirm his worse fear: his father is adamant about his return home.
At this point all civil facades are dashed by Hally in a vain attempt to solidify his own importance though coupled with the genuine emotional struggle of a young boy at odds with his father. Searching for an outlet the rising action of the play takes a dramatic turn from a slight incline to a steep hill as Hally visibly changes gears from distraught and confused to violently offensive. “And I’m telling you you don’t! Nobody does. (Speaking carefully as his shame turns to rage at Sam. ) It’s your turn to be careful, Sam. Very careful! You’re trading on dangerous ground. Leave me and my father alone! (Jacobus, 1409). Here, the author transitions the rising action from its lackadaisical yet worrisome progression to a full sprint towards a disastrous climax as Hally finds a socially acceptable outlet for his rage. During the climax the dramatic question posed is answered: Hally indeed steps far over the line into not only overtly racist but derogatory territory, going so far as to spit in Sam’s face when he attempts to defend himself. Sam’s super-objective of pacifying the situation is obvious as relations between the two protagonists degrade ever further as Hally relentlessly attacks Sam.
From consoling Hally and letting him know he is empathetic to attempting to reason with the rogue boy, Sam can’t seem to escape the teenagers wrath as Hally goes so far as to grab Sam by the arm and force him to listen to the irate ramblings of a destitute youth. Super-objectives clash as Hally refuses to relent and release his foothold of authority despite taking the friendship into dangerously precarious territory. “…Then I have to ask ‘What, chum? ’ and then he says: ‘a nigger’s arse’… and we both have a good laugh. ” (Jacobus, 1410).
At this point the climax is in full swing, but it is not yet complete as Hally still refuses to desist. After suffering enough of the young “master’s” blatantly racist comments Sam decides to show Hally his “arse”, a reasonable action considering the stunningly distasteful joke just delivered by Hally. Instead of realizing the pain he has caused his lifelong guardian, the pious boy instead spits in the face of Sam in order to further satisfy his authority. Enraged at this disrespectful act, Sam mulls over the idea of striking the boy the put him in his place.
Realizing the implications of this perceived action (either death or exile), the Basuto servant instead decides to relate the rest of the kite story to Hally, providing details that were previously omitted. It was not due to work that Sam was unable to join Hally on the park bench many years ago; it was due to the racist institution of apartheid that barred interracial friendships and meeting points. Framing the entirety of the play, apartheid was the social system in which the nation of South Africa institutionalized racism in 1948.
Dividing the major cities into racial sections, the majority ethnicity, blacks, were not allowed to interact with whites other than for work opportunity. Horrendously oppressed and misrepresented, the minority of whites controlled nearly every aspect of life for the disenfranchised majority including establishing “native” provinces in the north to which many blacks were relocated despite having no affiliation with the region. As one can assume the judicial system was also heavily skewed in this atmosphere, resulting in most interracial cases being ruled in favor of the rich white minority.
It is with this knowledge that one can begin to understand why Sam would take such abuse with no apparent grievance. It is not only due to his love for Hally that he restrains himself, but the racist reality in which the story takes place that drives Sam into the arms of complacency (Cornwell). This heartfelt relation completely nullifies Hally’s defenses as the young boy is left speechless and self-loathing and the falling action of the play leaves the audience stunned. Still impacted by the news of his returning father, Hally now realizes that his senseless pursuit of authority has only brought ruin to his most cherished relationship.
The system of apartheid introduced a failsafe in which even a powerless white teenager could exert utmost authority over a well-spoken and respectable black man; unable to satiate his need for power elsewhere Hally instinctively turned towards this hostile system for reassurance rather than to the arms of his oldest comrades. One is left considering the implications of the thematic question: what are the implications of an oppressive racial hierarchy on an interracial friendship? The answers are obvious less glamorous than they are pitiable. Works Cited
Cornwell, Gareth. “’A Teaspoon of Milk in a Bucketful of Coffee:’ The Discourse of Race Relations in Early Twentieth-Century South Africa. ” English in Africa 38. 3 (2011): p. 9-33. Belk Library Information Commons. Web. 2 Oct. 2012. < http://0-ehis. ebscohost. com. wncln. wncln. org/ehost/detail? sid=c33825fd-b951-4f8c-ac22-a04d51f7a864%40sessionmgr104&vid=1&hid=101&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=72102587> Jacobus, Lee A. Master Harold… and the Boys. 2009. The Bedford Introduction to Drama. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 1394-411. Print.