Study Guide

Master Harold... and the boys Summary

By Athol Fugard

Master Harold... and the boys Summary

The play opens in a run-down Tea Room on a rainy day in 1950 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It's not mentioned, but apartheid is the law of the land. Two black men, Willie and Sam, dance as they clean the floor, practicing for an upcoming ballroom dancing competition. Sam gives Willie a hard time because he's run his dance partner off. It turns out Willie has a bad habit of beating up his girlfriends, and for some reason, they don't seem to like it. The tearoom's empty because the rain is keeping customers away. Only one table is set, waiting for someone to come in for lunch.

In walks Hally, a seventeen-year-old white boy. He's home from school and teasingly cheers on the guys as they dance. Hally's mother owns the tearoom; Sam and Willie work for her, as they'd done when Hally was little and his mom owned a boarding house. Hally finds out that his mom has gone to the hospital to see his dad, and seems worried that his dad might be coming home from the hospital (yes, you read that right—he doesn't want that to happen).

Sam, who's been doing homework with Hally ever since Hally was a little boy, gets into a deep discussion with him about who's the most important social reformer of history. Hally dismisses Sam's suggestion of Abraham Lincoln, telling Sam he's never been a slave so he shouldn't be so sentimental about Lincoln. They settle on Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin.

Hally reminisces about his childhood at the Jubilee Boarding House, a place that he hated except for Willie and Sam's room. He spent a lot of time in there to avoid his troubled family and the strange residents of the boarding house. Hally's favorite memory is the day that Sam made Hally a kite. Hally had his doubts that the rickety-looking kite would fly, but it soared, and Sam left it tied to a bench for Hally to enjoy. It was a real high point in Hally's life.

The phone rings and Hally argues with his mother, who says that his father wants to come home. Afterward he argues with Sam about whether or not ballroom dancing is an art form. Hally thinks it's just silly entertainment, but Sam convinces him with his smooth moves. Hally gets the bright idea to write about the competition for his homework assignment, which is an essay about a cultural event.

Hally's inspired by Sam's ideas about how ballroom dancing is a metaphor for the perfect world, where everyone knows their steps and no one ever bumps into each other like they do in the real world with its wars and collisions. Reality intrudes via yet another call from mom, who says she's on the way home with his dad. Hally goes into a rage after he hangs up, and Sam takes the brunt of it.

Hally decides he's had enough of all this dancing nonsense and orders Sam and Willie back to work. The world's a disaster and nothing's going to change. He tells Sam to start showing him more respect by calling him "Master Harold," like his father thinks he should. He starts treating him like a servant instead of a friend. Despite his lifelong friendship with Sam, Hally suddenly turns into a typical product of the South African apartheid system. In a shocking scene, Hally tells a racist joke and spits in Sam's face. Sam and Willie hold back the urge to teach him a painful lesson, and Sam reveals that the day he made the kite, it was to cheer up Hally because he was so ashamed of his drunken dad's behavior. He couldn't even stay at the bench with him because it was marked for whites only. He warns Hally that if he doesn't walk away from that bench, he might always be alone.

Hally's silent for a long time. We can tell he's really ashamed by what he's just done but doesn't know how to deal with it. Sam eventually recovers from his anger and offers a chance for them to start over in their relationship. After the speech, Hally just leaves for home. Willie comforts Sam and uses his bus fare to play "Little Man" by Sarah Vaughan on the Tea Room jukebox. The two men dance it out.

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