Study Guide

Master Harold... and the boys Violence

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SAM. When did you last give her a hiding?

WILLIE. (Reluctantly) Sunday night.

[…] SAM. Hiding on a Sunday night, then Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday she doesn't come to practice…and you're asking me why? (125-131)

A "hiding," for those of you who are lucky enough not to know, is a beating. Willie takes it upon himself to punish his girlfriends when they make him mad and afterward they go into hiding so that he can't find them. The double meaning of beating and concealment make this a great word to use to describe such shameful violence.

SAM. You hit her too much. One day she's going to leave you for good.

WILLIE. So? She makes me the hell-in too much.

SAM. (Emphasizing his point) Too much and too hard. You had the same trouble with Eunice. (133-137)

When Willie says that Hilda makes him "the hell-in", he means that she makes him mad or frustrated. He's using that as an excuse for his violent behavior towards her, but Sam reminds him that the problem is his, not his girlfriend's. This violent attitude towards women isn't the main thrust of the play, but its presence is just another reflection of the violent society the characters live in. Willie's cluelessness about his violent behavior mirrors Hally's lack of awareness of how he demeans his friends.

SAM. Beating her up every time she makes a mistake in the waltz? (Shaking his head) No, Willie! That takes the pleasure out of ballroom dancing. (140-142)

You can say that again, Sam. Yeah, the prom wouldn't be as fun if every time you screwed up a move in the Macarena you got a whooping. But all jokes aside, the simple division between pleasure and violence that Sam points out is an important one; it shows how the violence the characters experience drains the joy out of their lives.

(WILLIE lets fly with his slop rag. It misses SAM and hits HALLY)

HALLY. (Furious) For Christ's sake, Willie! What the hell do you think you're doing!

WILLIE. Sorry, Master Hally, but it's him….

HALLY. Act your bloody age! (Hurls the rag back at WILLIE) (309-315)

When Willie throws the slop rag at Sam you could see it as somewhere between a practical joke and an actual expression of frustration; he's not digging all Sam's ribbing. But when Hally throws it back, it's truly violent. He uses the rag to express his rage, and to show Willie he's the boss.

SAM. They make you lie down on a bench. One policeman pulls down your trousers and holds your ankles, another one pulls your shirt over your head and holds your arms…

HALLY. Thank you! That's enough.

SAM. …and the one that gives you the strokes talks to you gently and for a long time between each one. (He laughs) (374-381)

Sam's description of police violence is presented as comedic; he laughs as he tells about the torture he's experienced. Hally's reaction is to stop listening—he'd rather not know about what goes on during interrogations. The racial aspect of this violence makes it possible for Hally to ignore it – he won't ever have to experience what Sam, a black man, does. Why do you think Sam is laughing?

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. We don't exactly burn people at the stake anymore. (382-388)

Hally believes that humanity is less violent because the methods of suppressing one another have changed. Rather than burning someone at the stake, we now have beatings and torture. We're not exactly sure if we'd call that progress, but Hally seems to gain some hope from it.

HALLY. Correct. If [Joan of Arc] was captured today, she'd be given a fair trial.

SAM. And then the death sentence. (390-392)

Oh, wait, scratch the comments on burning at the stake. Hally and Sam have put their finger on one of the ironies of modernity. Our methods for violence might be more progressive (i.e., no more burning witches), but we still get the job done (e.g., electrocution, hanging, firing squad, lethal injection...).

HALLY. Somebody was always complaining about the food, or my mother was having a fight with Micky Nash because she'd caught her with a petty officer in her room. (702-705)

Hally grew up in a fairly chaotic environment, so perhaps that's why he behaves the way he does. It might not seem so bad – just complaining and arguing, but when it's as constant as he describes it, we can see how it would affect a young kid. Hally's used to bickering and conflict; it comes easily, and it shows in his behavior. As soon as he gets stressed out, he goes on the attack.

(Sam and Willie start to tidy up the tea room. Hally doesn't move. He waits for a moment when Sam passes him.)

HALLY. (quietly) Sam…

(Sam stops and looks expectantly at the boy. HALLY spits in his face. A long and heartfelt groan from Willie. For a few seconds Sam doesn't move.) (1755-1761)

Coming right after Hally tries to provoke Sam by telling a demeaning racist joke, this particular instance of violence is almost unbearable to read or watch. It's not just the fact that one character hurts another; rather it's the humiliation of a grown man being reduced to an object of total contempt by a boy he loves. And the understanding that the black man's helpless to respond with violence.

WILLIE. [. . .] (A dangerous few seconds as the men stand staring at the boy. WILLIE turns away, shaking his head) But maybe all I do is go cry at the back. He's little boy, Boet Sam. Little white boy. Long trousers now, but he's still little boy.

SAM. (His violence ebbing away into defeat as quickly as it flooded) You're right. (1784-1790)

As Willie and Sam stare at Hally, the stage is supposed to be filled with danger, according to the stage directions. What is the risk? The two men are bigger, stronger, and more experienced than Hally, and he just insulted and humiliated them. The potential for violence is always there, but the societal restraints on the older men keep them from acting on it in this case. The men know that in this society, it would only take a word from Hally to get them thrown into prison.

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