Master Harold and the Boys Critical Analysis

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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...
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