Study Guide

Master Harold... and the boys Dissatisfaction and Disillusionment

By Athol Fugard

Dissatisfaction and Disillusionment

HALLY. (A world-weary sigh) I know, I know! I oscillate between hope and despair for this world as well, Sam. But things will change, you wait and see. One day somebody is going to get up and give history a kick up the backside and get it going again. (393-397)

Hally claims to "oscillate between hope and despair," but we have to say that he seems to be stuck on the despair setting in this play. He doesn't seem to have much real hope for the social reformers who will get history moving again; it's more like he just wishes they were around but doesn't see any way for things to change. Maybe he sees his own personal family struggles and how nothing seems to change.

HALLY. [. . .] "This is it," I thought. "Like everything else in my life, here comes another fiasco." (857-859)

"Everything" in life is a fiasco? Hally's despair about his family situation seems to color his thinking about the world in general. He's dissatisfied with his life even as a young boy; he expects the kite that Sam makes for him to fail, because he considers everything else to be a failure. He's grown accustomed to being disappointed.

HALLY. I don't know. Would have been just as strange, I suppose if it had been me and my Dad…cripple man and a little boy! Nope! There's no chance of me flying a kite without it being strange. (Simple statement of fact—no self-pity) (923-927)

Now we're getting down to the heart of the matter. It's not clear why Hally has had such a terrible childhood, but we start to see that part of his dissatisfaction has to do with his father's disability. It's affected the way that Hally thinks about himself, as different and "crippled" as his father. We know that he has enormous shame about his father's drinking and his disability, and Sam tries to convince Hally that it doesn't reflect on him.

SAM. Is he better?

HALLY. (Sharply) No! How the hell can he be better when last night he was groaning with pain? This is not an age of miracles!

SAM. Then he should stay in hospital.

HALLY. (Seething with irritation and frustration) Tell me something I don't know, Sam. (999-1004)

Hally's under a lot of pressure. His father's pain eats away at him, but he has no power to make sure his father stays at the hospital rather than coming home. His powerless is what leaves him hopeless.

SAM. He's at least got you at night.

HALLY. (Before he can stop himself) And we've got him! Please! I don't want to talk about it anymore. (Unpacks his school case, slamming down books on the table) Life is just a plain bloody mess, that's all. And people are fools. [. . .] They bloody well deserve what they get.

SAM. Then don't complain. (1020-1029)

Sam gives Hally a taste of his own medicine. If people deserve what they get, then Hally deserves his bleepin' mess of a life, right? The irony here is that all the people on stage have dissatisfying lives, and really none of it is their own fault. Whether it's racial inequality or physical illness, all the characters are suffering.

HALLY. [. . .] Anybody who thinks there's nothing wrong with this world needs to have his head examined. Just when things are going along all right, without fail something or somebody will come along and spoil everything. Somebody should write that down as a fundamental law of the Universe. The principle of perpetual disappointment. If there is a God who created this world, he should scrap it and try again. (1030-1038)

Hally must not have heard of Murphy's Law, which sounds a lot like his new fundamental law of the Universe. He uses the language of physics or science to express his emotional disappointment. It's almost as though academic discourse is the only way he knows how to give credit to something; if it's too sentimental he discounts it, but by making it a law of the universe he can actually begin to deal with his unhappiness. He intellectualizes everything. When you do that and ignore feelings, it's guaranteed that those feelings come back to bite you.

SAM. [. . .] People get hurt in all that bumping, and we're sick and tired of it now. It's been going on for too long. (1407-1409)

On the surface it sounds like Sam's talking about bad dancing – people bumping into one another on the dance floor. But what he really means are the ways people hurt one another, work against each other rather than together. We see this happening before our eyes in the play.

SAM. St. George's Park Tea Room…Yes, Madam…Hally, it's your Mom.

HALLY. (Back to reality) Oh, God, yes! I'd forgotten all about that. S***! Remember my words, Sam? Just when you're enjoying yourself, someone or something will come along and wreck everything. (1448-1453)

Reality intrudes into Hally's reminiscing and talking about dancing when his mother calls. It immediately knocks him off track and brings him down. Rather than take satisfaction as the norm and see the troubles as temporary, he takes dissatisfaction as the normal state of affairs and sees joy as fleeting. It's a recipe for misery. In his defense, when things are miserable at home for a child, that's the basic emotional tone of his life. It's hard to stay happy anywhere else.

(HALLY gets up abruptly, goes to his table and tears up the page he was writing on)
HALLY. So much for a bloody world without collisions.

SAM. Too bad. It was on its way to being a good composition.

HALLY. Let's stop bulls***ting ourselves, Sam.

Hally and Sam have composed an idealized version of the world. They use the dance floor as a metaphor for life; if everyone stuck to their steps and paid attention to others, they wouldn't be running into one another, making each other miserable. But Hally gives up, literally tearing up their ideals and hopes.

SAM. [. . .] I couldn't sit down there and stay with you. It was a "Whites Only" bench. You were young, too excited to notice then. But not anymore. If you're not careful…Master Harold…you're going to be sitting up there by yourself for a long time to come, and there won't be a kite in the sky. (SAM has got nothing more to say. He exits into the kitchen, taking off his waiter's jacket) (1844-1851)

The kite in this section is sort of like Hally's essay; it represents a higher ideal. The problem is that Hally's becoming so disillusioned that he's going to lose all connection with the social reforms he admires, along with losing the people who love him and care about him. He isn't satisfied with the way things are, but he also doesn't want to make the effort to change. Change is hard, m'kay?

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