Master Harold…and the boys

Athol Fugard


Welcome to the world of “Master Harold”…and the boys, a poignant and compelling play by the renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard. 🎭 Set in the early 1950s in apartheid South Africa, this masterpiece dives deep into themes of racism, human dignity, and the complexities of personal relationships against a backdrop of societal oppression.

Athol Fugard, born in 1932, is one of South Africa’s most distinguished playwrights, known for his commitment to social justice and the powerful, often autobiographical, narratives he weaves. His works frequently explore the human spirit’s resilience in the face of systemic racism and societal constraints. “Master Harold”…and the boys is no exception, offering a window into Fugard’s world, reflecting on his own experiences growing up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

The play falls into the genre of drama, specifically focusing on the interactions among its three main characters over the course of a single rainy afternoon. Its setting in the St. George’s Park Tea Room, owned by Hally’s (Harold’s) family, becomes a microcosm for the larger apartheid society outside its walls.

Through its intimate exploration of personal relationships amidst political and social turmoil, “Master Harold”…and the boys not only sheds light on apartheid-era South Africa but also speaks universally to the enduring issues of prejudice, dignity, and the potential for personal growth and reconciliation. Let’s dive deeper into this powerful narrative and uncover the layers of meaning behind Athol Fugard’s words. 🌍✨

Plot Summary

“Master Harold”…and the boys unfolds in the St. George’s Park Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, during the apartheid era. The play centers on three characters: Hally, a seventeen-year-old white boy, and two middle-aged black men, Sam and Willie, who work as waiters in the tea room owned by Hally’s parents. The narrative takes place over the course of a single afternoon, capturing a series of events that profoundly affect the relationships among the trio.

Exposition — The play begins with Willie practicing ballroom dancing for an upcoming competition, receiving guidance from Sam. Hally arrives from school and joins them, initiating conversations that range from trivial matters to profound discussions about significant historical figures and social injustices.

Rising Action — As they interact, the play reveals the deep, complex relationship between Hally and the two men, particularly Sam, who has been a father figure to him. The conversations become increasingly serious, touching on topics like art, education, and apartheid, highlighting the stark contrast between their personal camaraderie and the societal norms that keep them apart.

Climax — The tension reaches its peak when Hally receives a phone call about his father’s return from the hospital. The prospect of his father’s return, a man depicted as racist and crippled, disturbs Hally and triggers a transformation in him. Hally’s fear and resentment towards his father lead him to assert his authority over Sam and Willie, culminating in a cruel act of spitting in Sam’s face.

Falling Action — The act of spitting represents a tragic breakdown in their relationship, underscoring the destructive power of apartheid’s racial divisions. Sam and Willie’s reactions to Hally’s behavior reveal their deep hurt but also their dignity in the face of dehumanization.

Resolution — The play concludes with Hally left in turmoil, filled with shame and regret. Sam extends an olive branch by suggesting that the bench he once made for Hally, symbolizing apartheid’s separation, could one day be a place where they can sit together as equals. The play ends on this note of hopeful, yet unresolved, tension, reflecting the complexities of human relationships within the context of a deeply divided society.

“Master Harold”…and the boys is a powerful narrative that captures the essence of human connection, the corrosive effects of apartheid, and the possibility of redemption, making it a timeless reflection on dignity, prejudice, and the potential for personal and societal change.

Character Analysis

In “Master Harold”…and the boys, Athol Fugard presents characters that are richly developed, complex, and deeply human. Their interactions provide a penetrating look into the societal constructs of apartheid South Africa and the personal struggles that intertwine with these oppressive structures.

  • Hally — Hally, short for Harold, is a seventeen-year-old white boy who has grown up with Sam and Willie, the black waiters in his parents’ tea room, as significant figures in his life. Despite the deep bond and affection he shares with them, particularly with Sam, Hally is deeply conflicted. As he navigates his turbulent relationship with his alcoholic and disabled father, Hally projects his frustrations and insecurities onto Sam and Willie. His transformation over the course of the play—from a jovial, enlightened young man to a perpetrator of racial humiliation—reflects the insidious nature of apartheid’s indoctrination and the painful process of coming of age in a deeply divided society.
  • Sam — Sam is a middle-aged black man who works as a waiter in the tea room. He is wise, patient, and serves as a father figure and mentor to Hally. Sam’s relationship with Hally is one of the play’s emotional cores; he tries to teach Hally about dignity, respect, and the complexities of life under apartheid. Sam’s deep understanding of social injustices and his efforts to shield Hally from them highlight his strength and compassion. However, the play’s climax reveals the limitations imposed by societal norms on their relationship, as Sam is forced to confront the bitter truth of their societal roles.
  • Willie — Willie, another middle-aged black waiter, is less central to the story but plays a significant role in illustrating the play’s themes. His dedication to ballroom dancing and his interactions with Sam and Hally provide comic relief and a sense of normalcy within the tea room’s confines. Willie’s struggles with his own personal issues, including his relationship with his dance partner, whom he admits to beating, further complicate the play’s exploration of power dynamics and personal accountability.

Character Analysis Summary

CharacterPersonality TraitsMotivationsDevelopment
HallyConflicted, intelligent, immatureTo find a father figure, to navigate his place in a racist societyTransforms from open-minded to embodying apartheid’s racism
SamWise, patient, caringTo mentor Hally, to navigate apartheid with dignityFaces the limitations of his role, remains hopeful
WillieSimple, dedicated, flawedTo win a ballroom dance competition, to improve his personal lifeProvides comic relief, reveals complexities of abuse

The characters in “Master Harold”…and the boys are compelling portrayals of individuals caught in the web of apartheid’s societal norms. Their personal journeys, relationships, and struggles highlight the complex interplay between personal growth, societal pressures, and the quest for dignity and understanding in a divided world.

Themes and Symbols

“Master Harold”…and the boys, a powerful narrative set against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa, is rich with themes and symbols that delve into the human condition, societal injustices, and the possibility of reconciliation. Here’s an exploration of some of the major themes and symbols present in Athol Fugard’s poignant play.

  • Apartheid and Racism — The overarching theme of the play, apartheid represents not just a political system but a deeply ingrained societal division that affects personal relationships. The play examines how systemic racism seeps into the personal lives of its characters, transforming and challenging their interactions.
  • Coming of Age — Hally’s journey is emblematic of a painful coming of age, where innocence is lost to the realities of an unjust world. His struggles with his identity, his family, and his moral compass reflect the tumultuous process of growing up in a society marked by profound inequality.
  • Father-Son Relationships — The play explores various facets of father-son relationships, both biological and surrogate. Hally’s complex relationship with his disabled and bigoted father contrasts with the nurturing and educational bond he shares with Sam, highlighting the diverse forms of fatherhood and their impact on young men’s development.
  • Dignity — Amidst the degradation of apartheid, the theme of dignity emerges as a beacon of hope. Characters like Sam exhibit dignity as a form of resistance against the dehumanizing effects of racism, suggesting that personal integrity can triumph over societal oppression.
  • Freedom and Confinement — The characters’ interactions within the confines of the tea room symbolize the larger societal constraints imposed by apartheid. The play contrasts physical mobility, such as Willie’s ballroom dancing, with the social immobility enforced by racial segregation, reflecting on the broader theme of freedom versus confinement.


  • The Kite — A symbol of childhood innocence and the potential for unity, the kite that Sam builds for Hally represents a fleeting moment of cross-racial harmony. It serves as a poignant reminder of what could be possible in a world free from prejudice.
  • Ballroom Dancing — Ballroom dancing symbolizes an ideal world of order and beauty, a stark contrast to the messy realities of apartheid. It represents the characters’ aspirations for a society where harmony and equality prevail over division and discord.
  • The Bench — Sam’s story about the bench that was once designated “Whites Only” serves as a powerful symbol of apartheid’s racial divides. However, it also becomes a symbol of hope for change, as Sam suggests that one day he and Hally could sit on it together as equals, envisioning a future beyond apartheid’s constraints.

Through these themes and symbols, “Master Harold”…and the boys navigates the complexities of human relationships, societal injustice, and the enduring quest for dignity and equality. Fugard’s play remains a profound and insightful exploration of the human spirit’s resilience in the face of systemic oppression.

Style and Tone

Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”…and the boys is celebrated not only for its compelling narrative and complex characters but also for its distinctive writing style and tone, which play a crucial role in conveying the play’s themes and emotional depth. Let’s delve into these aspects:

  • Intimate and Conversational — Fugard’s style in this play is notably intimate, focusing on the nuanced conversations between Hally, Sam, and Willie. This conversational approach allows for a deep exploration of character psychology and relationships, making the audience feel like silent participants in the tea room.
  • Symbolic and Layered — The dialogue and stage directions are rich with symbolism, serving multiple layers of meaning. For instance, ballroom dancing and the kite are not just elements of the plot but symbols that enrich the narrative with themes of freedom, hope, and the potential for racial harmony.
  • Realism Mixed with Idealism — Fugard strikes a delicate balance between realism and idealism. While the play’s setting and social dynamics are rooted in the harsh realities of apartheid, the characters’ discussions often venture into idealistic territory, contemplating a world free from racial segregation and hatred.
  • Tension and Release — The tone of the play oscillates between moments of light-hearted banter and intense emotional confrontation. This dynamic creates a compelling rhythm that keeps the audience engaged, reflecting the unpredictable nature of human relationships.
  • Poignant and Reflective — Throughout the play, the tone is deeply poignant, inviting the audience to reflect on the impact of apartheid on personal relationships. Fugard’s ability to infuse the narrative with a sense of longing and reflection encourages a deeper understanding of the play’s themes.

Key Points

  • The intimate setting and conversational style make the audience feel closely connected to the characters and their dilemmas.
  • The use of symbolism adds depth to the narrative, inviting multiple interpretations and reflections on the play’s themes.
  • The balance between realism and idealism highlights the characters’ struggles and hopes within the confines of a racially divided society.
  • The alternating tone between tension and release mirrors the complexities of human emotions and relationships under apartheid.
  • The overall poignancy of the play stimulates contemplation and empathy, making “Master Harold”…and the boys a timeless piece of literature that resonates with audiences worldwide.

Fugard’s writing style and the tone of “Master Harold”…and the boys significantly contribute to the mood and atmosphere of the play, making it an enduring masterpiece that continues to engage and move audiences with its exploration of human dignity, racism, and reconciliation.

Literary Devices Used in Master Harold…and the boys

Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”…and the boys is a rich tapestry woven with various literary devices that enhance the play’s themes, characters, and emotional impact. Here’s an analysis of the top 10 literary devices Fugard employs:

  1. Symbolism — Symbols like the kite, ballroom dancing, and the “Whites Only” bench enrich the narrative with deeper meanings. They reflect themes of freedom, harmony, and the societal divisions of apartheid, respectively.
  2. Irony — The play is replete with situational irony, especially in the transformation of Hally from a friend to an oppressor, highlighting the tragic irony of apartheid’s influence on personal relationships.
  3. Foreshadowing — Early conversations and interactions hint at the underlying tensions and the eventual breakdown between Hally and Sam, subtly preparing the audience for the climactic confrontation.
  4. Metaphor — The act of ballroom dancing serves as a metaphor for an ideal society where individuals move in harmony, contrasting sharply with the reality of apartheid.
  5. Allusion — References to historical figures and events, such as Abraham Lincoln and the emancipation of slaves, serve to contextualize the play’s themes within a broader historical and moral framework.
  6. Pathos — Fugard’s use of emotional appeals, particularly in the depiction of Sam and Hally’s relationship, evokes sympathy and understanding from the audience, highlighting the human cost of racial segregation.
  7. Dialogue — The play’s dialogue is not only a means of character development but also a device for revealing the complex layers of friendship, authority, and societal roles, offering insights into the characters’ psyches and the dynamics of power and resistance.
  8. Imagery — Vivid descriptions, such as the image of the kite flying above the segregated society, create powerful visual metaphors for the play’s themes of aspiration and constraint.
  9. Juxtaposition — Fugard juxtaposes moments of light-heartedness and profound sadness, emphasizing the contrast between the characters’ personal bonds and the societal pressures that strain these relationships.
  10. Motif — The recurring motif of ballroom dancing, with its emphasis on grace and discipline, underscores the theme of finding order and beauty amidst chaos, serving as a recurring symbol of the characters’ aspirations for a better world.

These literary devices are instrumental in deepening the audience’s understanding of the play’s complex themes and emotional landscape, showcasing Fugard’s mastery in using language and narrative structure to explore the human condition against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa.

Literary Devices Examples

Let’s delve into examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in “Master Harold”…and the boys, providing a clearer understanding of how Athol Fugard employs these devices to enrich his narrative.


  1. The Kite
    • Example: Sam’s memory of flying a kite with Hally.
    • Explanation: Represents a moment of innocence and potential unity beyond racial divides.
  2. Ballroom Dancing
    • Example: Willie practicing for the dance competition.
    • Explanation: Symbolizes an ideal world of harmony and grace, contrasting the play’s context of apartheid.
  3. The “Whites Only” Bench
    • Example: Sam’s story about making a bench for Hally.
    • Explanation: Highlights the institutionalized segregation of apartheid, yet also represents hope for a shared future.


  1. Hally’s Transformation
    • Example: Hally’s descent from a friendly young man to someone who spits in Sam’s face.
    • Explanation: Illustrates the tragic irony of apartheid’s corrupting influence on personal relationships.


  1. The Rainy Weather
    • Example: The play’s setting on a rainy afternoon.
    • Explanation: Foreshadows the emotional storm and climax between Hally and Sam.


  1. Ballroom Dancing as Society
    • Example: Sam’s description of ballroom dancing as a metaphor for life.
    • Explanation: Represents an ideal society where everyone moves in harmony, counter to apartheid’s reality.


  1. Historical Figures
    • Example: Mention of Abraham Lincoln.
    • Explanation: Alludes to themes of emancipation and justice, paralleling the struggle against apartheid.


  1. Sam and Hally’s Relationship
    • Example: Sam’s attempt to comfort Hally about his father.
    • Explanation: Evokes sympathy for their constrained relationship under apartheid’s shadow.


  1. Conversations on Art and History
    • Example: Hally, Sam, and Willie’s discussions.
    • Explanation: Reveals deeper insights into characters’ perspectives on life and society.


  1. The Flying Kite
    • Example: Sam’s description of the kite flying high.
    • Explanation: Creates a vivid image of freedom and transcendence above societal constraints.


  1. Joy and Pain
    • Example: The interplay between light-hearted banter and the play’s dramatic climax.
    • Explanation: Highlights the stark contrast between personal affection and the impact of apartheid.


  1. Repetition of Ballroom Dancing
    • Example: Continuous references to the upcoming dance competition.
    • Explanation: Emphasizes the theme of seeking order and beauty in a chaotic world.

These examples underscore the depth and complexity of “Master Harold”…and the boys, showcasing how Fugard uses literary devices to weave a rich, multi-layered narrative that explores themes of racism, human dignity, and the possibility of reconciliation against the backdrop of apartheid South Africa.

Master Harold…and the boys – FAQs

Q: What is the historical context of “Master Harold”…and the boys? A: “Master Harold”…and the boys is set in 1950s South Africa during the apartheid era, a period of institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the government. The play reflects the social and political environment of the time, highlighting the impacts of apartheid on personal relationships and social interactions.

Q: Who are the main characters in the play? A: The main characters are Hally (Harold), a seventeen-year-old white boy, and two middle-aged black men, Sam and Willie, who work as waiters in Hally’s parents’ tea room. Their complex relationships form the heart of the play’s narrative.

Q: What are the key themes in “Master Harold”…and the boys? A: Key themes include racism and apartheid, the complexity of human relationships, coming of age, dignity, and the power of hope and dreams, particularly as symbolized through ballroom dancing and the kite.

Q: How does the play address the issue of apartheid? A: The play addresses apartheid by showcasing the deeply personal effects of systemic racism on the characters’ lives and relationships. It reveals how apartheid’s legal and social structures infiltrate personal interactions, leading to moments of conflict and revelation.

Q: What is the significance of ballroom dancing in the play? A: Ballroom dancing symbolizes an ideal of perfection and harmony, contrasting with the flawed and segregated world outside the tea room. It represents a world where racial divisions are nonexistent, and people can interact with grace and dignity.

Q: How does “Master Harold”…and the boys explore the theme of coming of age? A: The play explores coming of age through Hally’s interactions with Sam and Willie, and his struggle to reconcile his affection for them with the societal expectations placed upon him as a white young man. His journey reflects the painful process of confronting and internalizing societal prejudices.

Q: Can “Master Harold”…and the boys be considered autobiographical? A: Yes, to some extent. Athol Fugard has acknowledged that the play is semi-autobiographical, drawing on his own experiences and relationships growing up in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The character of Hally is based in part on Fugard himself.

Q: What is the climax of the play? A: The climax occurs when Hally, in a moment of anger and frustration, spits in Sam’s face, symbolizing the tragic rupture of their relationship and highlighting the destructive impact of apartheid’s racial divisions.

Q: What does the “Whites Only” bench symbolize in the play? A: The “Whites Only” bench symbolizes the racial segregation enforced by apartheid. It also represents the personal and societal barriers between Hally and Sam, but towards the end, it suggests the possibility of overcoming those divisions.

Q: What message does “Master Harold”…and the boys convey about reconciliation and hope? A: Despite its portrayal of the harsh realities of apartheid, the play conveys a message of reconciliation and hope through the characters’ relationships and the symbols of the kite and ballroom dancing. It suggests that understanding, forgiveness, and mutual respect can transcend societal divisions, albeit acknowledging the complexities and challenges involved.


What is the setting of “Master Harold”…and the boys?A park in JohannesburgA school in Cape TownA tea room in Port ElizabethA library in Durban
Who builds a kite for Hally in the play?WillieSamHally’s fatherA stranger
What symbolizes hope and racial harmony in the play?The rainThe kiteBallroom dancing shoesThe “Whites Only” bench
What does ballroom dancing represent in the narrative?A competitive sportA leisure activityAn ideal world of order and beautyA school subject
How does Hally’s relationship with Sam and Willie change over the course of the play?It remains constantIt deterioratesIt improves significantlyIt becomes professional
What triggers Hally’s aggressive behavior towards Sam?Losing a dance competitionThe news of his father coming homeA failed examSam’s refusal to work
What is a major theme of the play?The importance of educationAdventure and explorationRacism and apartheidThe benefits of hard work
Which character tries to practice ballroom dancing?HallySamWillieHally’s mother
What does the “Whites Only” bench symbolize?FriendshipApartheid’s racial segregationEconomic disparityEducational inequality
What message does the play convey about reconciliation and hope?They are unattainable idealsUnderstanding and respect can transcend societal divisionsThey are not worth pursuingOnly possible in a fictional world

This quiz is designed to test your comprehension of “Master Harold”…and the boys, focusing on its setting, characters, symbols, themes, and the overall message. Each question targets key elements of the play to ensure a deep understanding of its complexities and nuances.


Identify the literary devices used in the following paragraph from “Master Harold”…and the boys:

“The solitary kite flying high above the sea symbolized not only the freedom and dreams beyond reach but also the delicate balance between hope and despair. As Sam described the kite’s dance against the backdrop of a divided society, his words painted a vivid picture of resistance against the invisible chains of apartheid. This moment, though fleeting, offered a glimpse into a world where the harsh lines of segregation could blur, suggesting that unity and understanding were not entirely out of reach.”


  1. Symbolism: The kite represents freedom, dreams, and the possibility of overcoming societal constraints.
  2. Imagery: Descriptions like “flying high above the sea” and “the kite’s dance against the backdrop of a divided society” create vivid images in the reader’s mind, enhancing the narrative’s emotional impact.
  3. Metaphor: The “delicate balance between hope and despair” and “invisible chains of apartheid” are metaphors that deepen the text’s meaning, comparing abstract concepts to tangible objects to highlight the complexities of living under apartheid.
  4. Allusion: The reference to “a divided society” alludes to the historical context of apartheid in South Africa, grounding the narrative in real-world social and political issues.
  5. Juxtaposition: The juxtaposition of hope and despair, along with the contrast between freedom (the kite) and constraint (apartheid), emphasizes the conflicting emotions and realities faced by the characters.

This exercise is designed to help students recognize and understand the use of literary devices in “Master Harold”…and the boys, facilitating a deeper appreciation of Athol Fugard’s craftsmanship in conveying themes, emotions, and societal critiques through his writing.