The career of South African playwright Athol Fugard has been inextricably linked with the history of Apartheid. A vocal opponent of the system, he was subjected to government surveillance and suppression of his plays while writing for and organizing multiracial casts. Drawing inspiration from traditions spanning Brecht to vaudeville, his works focused on representing the effects of Apartheid on social and personal interrelations.
In his 1982 play Master Harold…and the Boys, Fugard plays out the effects of Apartheid on a personal level. Set in 1950, in a small tea room, Harold, called Hally, a teenaged white South African, waits out a rainy afternoon with his family’s two black servants, Willie and Sam. Waiting to hear from his mother, who has gone to see his father in the hospital, Hally’s conversations with the men range from school, to the ballroom dance, to reminiscence of his childhood with them. In their interaction, it becomes clear that Sam has filled a fatherly role for Hally, of which the boy’s own father’s drunkenness and instability deprived him.
Hally eventually learns that his mother will be bringing his father home, and with him the abuse and tumult that follows in his wake, and he lashes out at Sam. Directing his anger toward his father onto his father-substitute, the casual racism that has flitted through their earlier talks now turns to a demand, for the first time, for the deference he feels owed by the black man. No longer can they be Sam and Hally; he will be Master Harold, opening a void between them, across which Sam can only extend hope for change in the future.
In Hally’s sudden change of attitude, Fugard reveals a window into the forces that drive prejudice and cruelty. Unable to prevent his mother from acquiescing to his father’s return, Hally finds himself afraid and suddenly powerless. Recoiling from this sense of helplessness, he channels his pain onto others over whom he can regain a sense of relative power. A lifetime of shared care is thrown away, victim to his need to reassert control and security. This order’s success is illusory, Fugard observes, as Hally rejects the only source of real care he has known, the damage striking the oppressor and the oppressed in equal share.
And yet there is Sam’s hopeful note on which Fugard leaves us, the idea that one day better natures will prevail. To some degree, it is the kind of blind wish necessary for the oppressed to continue on under these conditions, but perhaps also, it is the author’s insight into his country. In 1982, when Master Harold…and the Boys premiered, it was banned in South Africa. In 2009, Apartheid officially ended fifteen years before, a movie adaptation was filmed there.
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