Study Guide

Master Harold... and the boys Coming of Age

By Athol Fugard

Coming of Age

(WILLIE lets fly with his slop rag. It misses SAM and hits HALLY)
[. . .]
HALLY. Act your bloody age! (Hurls the rag back at WILLIE) Cut out the nonsense now and get on with your work. (314-316)

In order to fully capture the irony of this scene, we have to imagine it being staged. Two 40-something-year-old men are arguing, messing around as they work, and the seventeen-year-old is their supervisor, telling them to act their age and disciplining them. Hally's trying to step into adulthood by lording it over Willie and Sam. It's very jarring when you see the play—this kid bossing around the older men and knowing he can get away with it.

HALLY. [. . .] It's just that life felt the right size in there…not too big and not too small. Wasn't so hard to work up a bit of courage. It's got so bloody complicated since then.
(The telephone rings. SAM answers it) (944-948)

Hally's nostalgia for Sam and Willie's old room at the Jubilee Boarding House is about feeling safe. He wants to feel like he can handle life, like its problems aren't too big for him. In the years since, as he's entered adolescence, things have gotten "complicated." Hally probably knows that his relationship with his black friends will get more complex now that he's growing up.

HALLY. [. . .] (The telephone) [. . .] Order him to get back into bed at once! If he's going to behave like a child, treat him like one….All right, Mom! I was just trying to…I'm sorry….I said I'm sorry…. (954-973)

Just as he told Willie and Sam to act their age earlier, here he is instructing his mother to treat his father like a child. We can see that Hally's been prematurely pushed into adulthood by having to take care of his alcoholic and disabled father and managing his mother's inability to deal with the situation. But he's still a kid; he shouldn't have to be in this position and he feels pretty helpless about it. His solution is to become bossy and controlling, when he's really feeling out of control of his life and his world.

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 behaving like bloody children!
[. . .]
(SAM and WILLIE return to their work. HALLY uses the opportunity to escape from his unsuccessful attempt at homework. He struts around like a little despot, ruler in hand [. . .]) (1139-1151)

This is too much. First it's "act your age;" then it's telling his mom to treat his dad like a child; but spanking a grown man is really crossing the line. It's as though everyone in the play were a child, taking turns being in charge. (See our brilliant psychological analysis of previous quote.)

SAM. [. . .] Are we never going to get it right?...Learn to dance life like champions instead of always being just a bunch of beginners at it? (1409-1411)

"Beginners." While Hally's struggling to come of age in a really messed-up society, Sam realizes how hard it is to grow up when, really, no one actually knows what they're doing. We're all new at every age unless we reflect and try to learn from what's around us.

HALLY. (Pause as HALLY looks for something to say) To begin with, why don't you also start calling me Master Harold, like Willie.
[. . .]
SAM. (Quietly and very carefully) If you make me say it once, I'll never call you anything else again. (1681-1689)

Hally descends to the point of making Sam call him "Master Harold" instead of "Hally." This doesn't really have anything to do with respect or Hally growing up; it has to do with humiliation. When Sam says that he'll only ever call him that if he has to do it even once, he means that their intimacy and friendship will be broken forever.

SAM. [. . .] A long time ago I promised myself I was going to try and do something, but you've just shown me…Master Harold…that I've failed. [. . .] You're ashamed of so much!...And now that's going to include yourself. That was the promise I made to myself: to try and stop that happening. (1793-1830)

Part of growing up white in the apartheid system, for Hally anyway, means taking on the guilt and shame of the injustice that privileges him. Unfortunately, instead of breaking away like the social reformers he admires, he makes himself worthy of all that shame by debasing Sam.

SAM. [. . .] You hadn't done anything wrong, but you went around as if you owed the world an apology for being alive. I didn't like seeing that! That's not the way a boy grows up to be a man!...But the one person who should have been teaching you what that means was the cause of your shame. If you really want to know, that's why I made you that kite. I wanted you to look up, be proud of something, of yourself…(Bitter smile at the memory) (1833-1841)

Sam has clear ideas of what it means to grow up, to be a man. Unfortunately, Hally's father was too busy getting wasted to teach Hally anything about growing up. He modeled an idea of manhood that meant having contempt for black South Africans. One thing is clear: Sam believes that shame keeps us from growing up and maturing.

SAM. [. . .] Hally…I've got no right to tell you what being a man means if I don't behave like one myself, and I'm not doing so well at that this afternoon. Should we try again, Hally?
HALLY. Try what?
SAM. Fly another kite, I suppose. It worked once, and this time I need it as much as you do.
HALLY. It's still raining, Sam. You can't fly kites on rainy days, remember. (1866-1874)

Here's a real piece of role modeling about what it means to be a man; it means taking responsibility for your own actions, something Hally's been sorely lacking. Hally's at a crossroads in this scene. He can grow up or stay stuck in his world of intolerance.

"Johnny won your marbles,
Tell you what we'll do;
Dad will get you new ones right away;
Better go to sleep now,
Little man you've had a busy day." (1915-1921)

This Sarah Vaughan tune plays on the jukebox at the end of the play as Sam and Willie dance together. Fugard's message? Hally's a little kid crying over his lost toys, and his privileged position as a white child will make everything all right.

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