Study Guide

Master Harold... and the boys Introduction

By Athol Fugard

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Master Harold... and the boys Introduction

Everybody knows that getting older isn't easy. You've got to figure out your place in the world, get along with people you would never have chosen to cross paths with if it were up to you, and even, ugh, be fair, responsible, and reasonable.

And if you think that's hard for human beings, just imagine how hard it is for whole countries to come of age. After Europe's colonization spree of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, lots of nations decided to rebel against their imperial invaders and emancipate themselves.

Much like moving out of the nest, not having a curfew, and discovering that the dishes don't clean themselves everyday, gaining independence has its pros and cons. South Africa is one nation that went through huge growing pains as it tried to work outs its post-colonial identity. Throughout the second half of the 20th century black and white South Africans were legally kept separate (and definitely not equal) by a system called apartheid (read up here) that allowed the white minority a monopoly on leadership, education, and wealth. Blacks and "coloreds" (mixed race) were told where to live, what jobs they could do, and what they could own.

Athol Fugard's 1982 play "Master Harold" …and the Boys uses the relationship between a teenage white boy and his mother's two black employees to point out the conflicts, class and race divisions, and injustice that plagued the young nation under apartheid. Hally, the boy, takes out his frustrations with his parents on his friends Sam and Willie, two adult black men that work in his mother's café and whom he's known and loved all his life.

The play is among Fugard's most famous works, and it's intensely autobiographical, based on an incident between Fugard and an older black friend that made Fugard deeply ashamed and disgusted with himself. He wrote the play after years and years of guilt and regret as a way of confronting this terrible thing he did to his trusted friend and mentor.

No surprise, the anti-apartheid play was banned in South Africa. It premiered in March of 1982 at the Yale Repertory Theatre with Danny Glover playing Willie, and opened on Broadway in November, 1982. When it finally was performed in South Africa in 1983, it left much of the audience in tears.

The 1980s were an important moment in the history of apartheid, when the rest of the world started to take notice and isolated South Africa in an effort to put pressure on the government to change its racial policies. (Source)

This play was a really important part of the consciousness-raising efforts that made outsiders aware of the situation in South Africa. Fugard was a tireless advocate for the end of apartheid in his homeland. But rather than hitting us over the head with his political viewpoint, he tells a small and personal story of a relationship between a white kid and his two black best friends.

"Master Harold" …and the boys won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play in 1982, as well as the London Critics' Circle Theatre Award and London Evening Standard Award, both for best play in 1983. It was nominated in 1982 for a Tony Award for Best Play, too. Not too bad, right?. It hit the small screen in 1985 when Fugard himself adapted it for a TV movie (with an awesome young Matthew Broderick as Hally), and in 2010 a South African version finally made it to the big screen. If you have a beating heart, it's not an easy play to read or watch.

What is Master Harold... and the boys About and Why Should I Care?

Have you ever done something you're ashamed of? We mean really, really ashamed of? Something that broke every rule you ever set for yourself, that went against all your values, that made you hate yourself for a while? We'll give you a minute to think about it.

Time's up. If Shmoop were to try and read your mind, we'd guess the shameful thing involved doing something terrible to someone you loved, maybe a best friend, maybe someone in your family, someone who trusted you. Shmoop, as always, can relate. These things have a way of torturing you.

In "Master Harold"… and the boys, Hally, aka Master Harold, turns on the person he's always felt closest to, the older man who always protected him and tried to help him grow up into a man who could hold his head up. In the totally heartbreaking and shocking climax of the play, Hally decides to try to destroy his best friend Sam; instead, he destroys his own self-respect. After his outburst, he's speechless with shame; you can tell he hates himself for it. He doesn't apologize, though. He's paralyzed by what it would mean for a white boy to humble himself in front of a black man. He turned on Sam because he could, because he knew that because of his race (and his basic decency), Sam wouldn't fight back.

Sam understood, and Shmoop understands, that we all have experiences like this, moments we wish we could just erase from our life and beg for a do-over. So what really matters is what we do next. At the end of Master Harold, Fugard doesn't let us know what Hally does, if he tries to repair the relationship with Sam or refuses to take responsibility. Is his shame too much to handle or does he learn from it? As one reviewer wisely said, the ending is ours to write. And we don't think he just meant the ending of this particular story.

Being grown-up is just so hard sometimes.

Master Harold... and the boys Resources


Just Can't Get Enough History
Learn all about apartheid in South Africa with this e-book published by the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.

Homage to a Great One
A web site dedicated to Athol Fugard.

Movie or TV Productions

Matthew Broderick stars in this TV movie. He does a killer Afrikaans accent and is a pretty convincing Hally.

Sam's Mission: Impossible
A 2010 adaptation of the play for the big screen.

Articles and Interviews

The Social Reformer
An article about Fugard's fight against racism.

Lunch Time
An interview with Fugard.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Athol Fugard
Massively detailed article about his life and work.


Kind of a Big Deal
Athol Fugard won a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

Need more Fugard?
There's a documentary about Athol Fugard for those of you who can't get enough.

Grab the Popcorn
Watch the movie version of the play here. It's awesome, ISHO.


Celebrity Moment
Athol Fugard talks about meeting Nelson Mandela.

Getting Old Is Not For Sissies
An interview with Athol Fugard.


Did We Mention Fugard is an Intense Guy?
A photograph of the author.

Dancin' Scene
A photograph from the premiere of "Master Harold"…and the boys. Recognize Danny Glover?

Spitting Image
Sorry, we couldn't resist. Here's a photo of Hally Fugard around the age he was when he spit on Sam Semela.

In Case You Didn't Get It
Apartheid in South Africa extended all the way to its beaches.

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