Study Guide

Master Harold... and the boys Competition

By Athol Fugard


SAM. You got it. Tapdance or ballroom, it's the same. Romance. In two weeks' time when the judges look at you and Hilda, they must see a man and a woman who are dancing their way to a happy ending. What I saw was you holding her like you were frightened she was going to run away. (82-87)

What does Sam's advice say about love? He's telling Willie that he must convince the judges that he and Hilda are headed for happily ever after, whether it's true or not. The way to win, in the dance competition anyway, is to seem happy and in love, not necessarily be it. That might tell us something about the way Sam and Willie have to live their lives.

HALLY. Bravo! No question about it. First place goes to Mr. Sam Semela.

WILLIE. (In total agreement) You was gliding with style, Boet Sam. (197-200)

Hally walks into Willie and Sam's practice session and immediately takes the position of judge. It's fun and games; he knows they're preparing for a contest. But it also tells us something about the relationship between the men and the boy; he easily slips into the role of referee, calling the shots. He's comfortable with authority even though he's much younger and has no knowledge of dance.

HALLY. You nervous?

SAM. No.

HALLY. Think you stand a chance?

SAM. Let's just say I'm ready to go out there and dance. (207-210)

Let's break down this quick back-and-forth to figure out what motivates the two characters. Hally wonders if Sam's nervous, whether he has confidence in his abilities to win the dance contest. Sam, however, says he isn't nervous and, rather than worrying about his score, just wants to dance. Hally's motivated by external factors like judges and scores; Sam seems to be internally motivated by his own desires.

SAM. You should be grateful. That is why you started passing your exams. You tried to be better than me. (670-671)

A little friendly competition can actually be good for a person's grades, it turns out. Sam thinks that Hally started doing well in school when he started teaching Sam because he wanted to be better than him. His desire to beat Sam translated into better grades. Why do you think he felt competitive toward Sam?

WILLIE. You and Sam cheated [at chess].

HALLY. I never saw Sam cheat, and mine were mostly the mistakes of youth.

WILLIE. Then how is it you two was always winning?

HALLY. Have you ever considered the possibility, Willie, that it was because we were better than you? (782-787)

Poor Willie. While Sam comes across as a pretty sharp character, Willie's not exactly the brightest crayon in the box. His attitude toward competition is that if he loses it must be unfair or rigged. He isn't willing to face the fact that differences in ability might actually influence the outcome of a competition.

HALLY. [. . .] There were occasions when we deliberately let you win a game so that you would stop sulking and go on playing with us. Sam used to wink at me when you weren't looking to show me it was time to let you win.

WILLIE. So then you two didn't play fair.

HALLY. It was for your benefit, Mr. Malopo, which is more than being fair. (789-796)

Do you have any older relatives that either let you win or mercilessly beat you at games or sports when you were a kid? Did it teach you a lesson about winning, losing, or sportsmanship? Did it seem fair?

SAM. [. . .] We're getting ready for the championships, Hally, not just another dance. (1233-1235)

Sam finally lets his true feelings show about the competition. Up until now he's seemed cool as a cucumber, ready to just dance regardless of what happens. Here, though, he shows a little bit of pride – he's made it to the championships, which means that he's actually a pretty good dancer. The stakes are higher now.

SAM. [. . .] And then, finally, your imagination also left out the climax of the evening when the dancing is finished, the judges have stopped whispering among themselves and the Master of Ceremonies collects their scorecards and goes up onto the stage to announce the winners. (1253-1258)

It's interesting that the climax of the dance competition is just before the judges' decision is announced. All action is suspended; there is no more dancing, but there's no winner yet, either. It's kind of like the play itself: by the end of it we don't know what Hally will do. We're all just holding our breath.

SAM. Maximum of ten points each for individual style, deportment, rhythm and general appearance.

[…] HALLY. [. . .] And penalties? [. . .] For doing something wrong. Say you stumble or bump into somebody…do they take off any points? (1368-1375)

Sam explains the dance competition judging system to Hally, with its overall categories. Hally doesn't seem to understand though; his confusion about punishment is laughable to Sam, who knows that no one ever stumbles or bumps into anyone on the dance floor. Sam is about earning points while Hally is about losing them; it says something about their optimistic vs. cynical outlooks on life.

SAM. (Reading from the history textbook) "Napoleon and the principle of equality." Hey! This sounds interesting. "After concluding peace with Britain in 1802, Napoleon used a brief period of calm to in-sti-tute…"

HALLY. Introduce.

SAM. "…many reforms. Napoleon regarded all people as equal before the law [. . .]." (469-476)

If you thought that Fugard just chose a random historical fact to have Sam read in the play, we'd like to invite you to think again. Check out the content: Napoleon declaring everyone equal means the end of competition between classes, or races—at least, in a perfect world. Hally learns about equality when it comes to Napoleon, but doesn't seem to notice the inequality in his own world.

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