Hally is a "seventeen-year-old white boy" (193). In some ways he's a typical high school kid; he draws funny pictures of his teachers, complains about his homework, and gets into philosophical debates with his buddy Sam. It's all regular teenaged stuff. When we first meet him, we see a friendly, cynical, super-smart, somewhat arrogant kid who seems sophisticated for his age. He arrives from school in a pretty cheerful mood.
Hally's cheerful because his abusive alcoholic father is in the hospital for treatment and it looks like he'll be there for a while. He's enjoying the break from the family conflict and having to take care of his disabled dad (he's an amputee), which is exhausting. His family life has been a disaster since he was young, and it's made him cynical and bitter about the world in general.
HALLY. I oscillate between hope and despair for this world. (393-394)
He's dreading his father's eventual return from the hospital:
HALLY. You know what it's going to be like if he comes home….Well then don't blame me when I fail my exams at the end of the year… (962-964)
He's burdened by all the responsibility and resents his dad for it. He even has to manage his mother, who's not very good about standing up to his father. When he finds out that his father's on the way back home, things go downhill really quickly and we get a look at the darker sides of this kid's personality. Despair starts to win out over hope. And even though his friendship with Sam and Willie was what's always gotten him through tough times, they bear the brunt of his misery.
Hally's main interest, other than complaining about his home life, seems to be the life of the mind. He believes that education is the way to go about improving society, like his hero Leo Tolstoy did. When he sees that a friend left comic books for his dad to read when he gets home from the hospital he gets rid of them because they are "mental pollution" (263). He knows about Nietzsche, Socrates Alexandre Dumas, Dostoevsky, and Karl Marx—challenging stuff for a seventeen year-old without the benefit of Shmoop. Actually, he's somewhat of an intellectual snob.
He's smart enough to know that the society he lives in can be pretty brutal. After Sam describes a beating he got in jail, Hally says,
HALLY. I've heard enough, Sam! Jesus! It's a bloody awful world when you come to think of it. People can be real bastards.
SAM. That's the way it is, Hally.
HALLY. It doesn't have to be that way. There is something called progress, you know. (382-387)
So apartheid's on the way out because young boys like Hally will be social reformers. Whew! We're glad that's done with.
Oh wait. For all his talk about social reform and progress, he doesn't see how he's saturated with racist attitudes. He takes liberties with Sam and Willie that maybe aren't meant to be offensive but still let us know how much he's been influenced by the culture. Like telling them to shut up and get back to work when they interrupt his studying. Or mocking their love of dancing. Hally doesn't see that the way he talks down to Sam and Willie is not the tone of a social reformer. He's pretty egocentric and can't really see past his own problems. He deals with things intellectually and doesn't really see how his own emotions operate. He's not really a compassionate kid even with all the smart talk about making the world a better place. Spoiler alert: it gets ugly. More on that later.
At the core of Hally's character we can see that he's really just a lonely little kid. His parents never appear onstage, just Willie and Sam, and he says that as a child he only felt safe when he was in their room:
No joking, if it wasn't for your room, I would have been the first certified ten-year-old in medical history. (710-711)
Hally spends time reminiscing about the happy times in Sam's room, how they'd play checkers and do homework and hide from the drunks and prostitutes living in his mother's boarding house. He has one particularly fond memory, the day Sam made him a kite:
You went a little distance from me down the hill, you held it up ready to let it go…"This is it," I thought. "Like everything else in my life, here comes another fiasco." Then you shouted, "Let it go, Hall!" and I started to run. I don't know how to describe it, Sam. Ja! The miracle happened! I was running, waiting for it to crash to the ground, but suddenly there was something alive behind me at the end of the string […] I looked back…I still can't believe my eyes. It was flying! (29).
This passage shows us two things. First, it's a total contrast to Hally's memories of his father, which are all about absence, shame, sadness, and anger. Second, it makes Hally's eventual humiliation and rejection of Sam even more shocking and sad.
Hally's transition into "Master Harold," turning his friend Sam into an object of scorn, really comes out of this conflict. Hally doesn't feel loved or cared for by his father, but he takes out his hurt on Sam and Willie. His father's a bigot. It's as though by becoming a white man and demeaning his black friends he's trying to get close to his parents. He morphs into his father, in a way.
We see this happen gradually during the course of the play. Every time Hally gets a call from his mother from the hospital, he gets more upset and more hostile to Sam. Fugard makes some genius moves in structuring the play that way. The more threatening his father gets in his life (i.e., safely away in the hospital; maybe coming home from the hospital, on his way home from the hospital), the more Hally acts like him.
When he comes back from school at the beginning of the play (Dad in the hospital and probably staying for a while), he's pretty chipper and playfully teases his friends about their dancing:
HALLY. Bravo! No question about it. First place goes to Mr. Sam Semela. […] Not long to the big event, hey! (194-195; 202)
Then he hears from Sam that there's been a phone call from his mother, calling from the hospital. He gets worried; why is his mom there on a non-visiting day? Fugard tells us "His mood has changed" (249), and so has his attitude towards Sam. Master Harold starts making an appearance:
HALLY. Act your bloody age! (Hurls the rag back at WILLIE) Cut out the nonsense now and get on with your work. And you too, Sam. Stop fooling around. (316)
Hally manages to convince himself that his Dad's taken a turn for the worse and that's why his mother had to go to the hospital. So he's safe, and he calms down. He re-engages Sam as his equal and gets involved in philosophical discussions about the state of the world. He even allows Sam to tease him.
HALLY. You've got a phenomenal memory!
SAM. You should be grateful. That is why you started passing your exams. You tried to be better than me. (They laugh together. WILLIE is attracted by the laughter and joins them). (669-673)
They keep going with their debates about great men and social reform. Sam's safe, too, for now. Hally doesn't say anything deliberately hurtful for a while, but he makes this interesting observation after Sam nominates Abraham Lincoln as a "man of magnitude."
HALLY. I might have guessed as much. Don't get sentimental, Sam. You've never been a slave, you know. (536-537)
Seriously, what a clueless thing to say given the fact that Sam lives as a completely powerless black man under South African law. Fugard's showing us how even a kid like Hally, who loves and respects Sam, sees Sam through the eyes of apartheid society.
And how about this:
HALLY. It's deeply gratifying, Sam, to know that I haven't been wasting my time in talking to you. (Strutting around proudly) Tolstoy may have educated his peasants, but I've educated you. (640-643)
Just some intellectual arrogance? Maybe. But it has some ominous overtones, right? They continue their friendly intellectual competition, and Hally starts reminiscing about his days with Willie and Sam at the old boardinghouse. They remember a high point of Hally's life, when Sam made him the kite that miraculously flew. Hally can admit he would've been lost without them. He wishes he was back in their room, when life was simple. Everyone's still safe.
Ring, ring.. life intrudes. Hally's mother calls from the hospital saying dad wants to come home. Hally's furious she's even considering allowing it. Hally falls apart and Master Harold returns again. When Sam tries to console him, he says,
HALLY. Don't try to be clever Sam. It doesn't suit you. (1030)
HALLY. Please, Sam! Just leave me alone and let me get on with it. I'm not in the mood for games this afternoon. And remember my Mom's orders…you're to help Willie with the windows. Come on, now, I don't want any more nonsense in here. (1054-1058)
Sam knows when to back off, so he and Willie start practicing dancing again. Hally's mad that they're distracting him, and he smacks Willie on the butt with his ruler. Hard.
HALLY. Sam! Willie! (Grabs his ruler and gives WILLIE a vicious whack on the bum.) How the hell am I supposed to concentrate with the two of you acting like bloody children!
Get back to your work. You too, Sam. [raises] his ruler Do you want another one, Willie? (1138-1141; 115-1146)
He's treating them like bloody children. It starts getting really, really ugly, thanks to Master Harold:
This is a business establishment, not a bloody New Brighton dancing school. I've been far too lenient with the two of you. […] But what really makes me bitter is that I allow you chaps a little freedom in here when business is bad and what do you do with it? The foxtrot! Specially you, Sam. There's more to trotting around a dance floor and I thought at least you knew it. (1147-1166)
Well, at least he said "chaps" and not "boys."
Sam ignores the derogatory remark and challenges Hally about the pleasure of dancing. After being a generally obnoxious pain in the butt for a while about it, Hally thinks he might write about the dance competition for his assignment to write an essay about a cultural event. It's a big concession on his part, but Master Harold tells Sam he'll have to convince the teacher it's anthropological study of how the "culture of a primitive black society includes its dancing and singing. To put my thesis in a nutshell: the war-dance has been replaced by the waltz." (1037)
Hally says he's just saying this to convince his teacher, but it sure trips a little too easily off the tongue, we'd say. Fugard's showing us that even though Hally's not being deliberately offensive, he's unaware of the biases he's picked up from the apartheid culture. They're almost automatic.
The saintly Sam (see his character analysis) manages to let that one go and schools Hally in the details of ballroom dancing. Master Harold retreats for now, and Hally praises Sam's description of ballroom dancing as a "world without collisions."
HALLY. (Deep and sincere admiration of the man) You've got a vision, Sam! […] But is that the best we can do, Sam…watch six finalists dreaming about the way it should be? […] We mustn't despair. Maybe there's some hope for mankind after all. Keep it up, Willie. (1412-1413; 1419-1420;1437-1439)
Ring..ring…this can't be good.
It's not. Mom's calling to say that she and Dad are on their way home from the hospital, and Master Harold comes roaring back to life.
SAM. (Quietly) That sounded like a bad bump, Hally.
HALLY. (Having a hard time controlling his emotions. He speaks carefully) Mind your own business Sam. (1527-1529)
Hally's temporary hopes for mankind are smashed by the news. He says that all their talk has been just a dream, "and a bloody useless one at that. Life's just a f***-up and it's never going to change." (1554-1556) Sam can't talk him out of this time.
HALLY. The truth? I seem to be the only one around here who is prepared to face it. We've had the pretty dream, now it's time to wake up and have a good long look at the way things really are […] and it's all called the All-Comers-How-to Make-a-F***up-of-Life-Championships. (another ugly laugh) Hang on, Sam. The best bit is still to come! Do you know what the winner's trophy is? A beautiful big chamber pot […] full to the brim with piss. And guess who I think is going to be this year's winner. (1590-1602)
Now we see the connection between Hally's contempt for the world for the world and his despair and anger about his father. Sam sees this as being a dangerous road for Hally to go down and tries to stop him from dissing his father, but Hally loses his mind with rage.
HALLY. Just get on with your bloody work and shut up.
SAM. Swearing at me won't help you.
HALLY. Yes, it does! Mind your own f***ing business and shut up!
SAM. Okay, if that's the way you want it, I'll stop trying. (He turns away. This infuriates HALLY even more)
HALLY. […] All that concerns you, Sam, is to try and do what you get paid for—keep the place clean and serve the customers. [..] My mother is right. She's always warning me not to get too familiar. […] (No response from SAM) You're only a servant here and don't forget it. (Still no response, and HALLY is trying hard to get one) And as far as my father is concerned, all that you need to remember is that he's your boss. (1640-1651)
SAM. (needled at last) No he isn't. I get paid by your mother.
HALLY. He's a white man and that's good enough for you. (1652-1656)
Shmoop is on the verge of tears thinking about what happens next. Hally demands that Sam call him "Master Harold" from that moment on. Sam warns him that if that happens, it's no more Hally. Ever.
HALLY. […] that is exactly what Master Harold wants from now on. […] I can tell you now that somebody who will be glad to hear I've finally given it to you will be my Dad. Yes! He agrees with my Mom. He's always going on about it as well. "You must teach the boys to show you more respect, my son." (1698-1707)
Can Master Harold get any worse? Yes he can, Shmoopers. He tells Sam a provocative racist joke about a n*****'s arse. Sam finally stops being gracious and drops his pants to show him the real thing. Hally calls him over, as if to apologize. Instead, he spits in his face. His transformation seems complete.
Sam nails the reason for what's happened. He describes the scene where one day he and young Hally picked up his dad at the bar and carried him home, even had to clean up his soiled underwear and pants. He knows how ashamed Hally was about that. Hally sadly admits that he loves his Dad, and Sam knows that that's the conflict—the father who should have been teaching Hally to be a man was the very person who made him ashamed. Hally just can't 100% hate his father. He's torn in both directions. The result is that Hally hates himself, and now probably even more so because of what he's just said and done.
When Hally gets up to leave the tearoom, Sam makes a gentle attempt at reconciliation, but Hally walks out into the rain. He seems ashamed, but it's as if he's crossed a line and knows it. As much as he loves and reveres Sam and their long history of friendship (not to mention Sam's attempt to understand and forgive the ugly outbursts), in the end he can't escape the pervasive attitudes of racism in his culture. His father taught him well. As long as he's feeling OK, he can overcome these attitudes to some extent. But as soon as the pressures of life close in, he can't resist them.
One reviewer explains it this way: "Mr. Fugard's point is simple enough: Before we can practice compassion—before we can, as Sam says, 'dance life like champions,'—we must learn to respect ourselves. It is Hally's self-hatred that leads him to strike at the black man and his crippled Dad and, in this sense, the boy is typical of anyone who attacks the defenseless to bolster his own self-esteem.
We have to feel sorry for poor, poor Hally. He's in a lose-lose situation. To accept Sam as an equal, he has to reject everything he's learned from his father and the society he lives in. (Fugard knows how risky that is.) But becoming a Master Harold in 1950's South Africa means becoming hateful and belittling to people you love. We hope Hally gets the point. Fugard himself said "Two black men provided me with that image of manhood, which was a problem in South Africa because you were taught to think of black men as inferiors. That was the double bind, the problem that the play looks at." (Source) Maybe Hally learns his lesson after all.