"Master Harold"...and the Boys

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"Master Harold"...and the boys
Master Harold and the Boys Penguin.jpg
Penguin Books edition
Written byAthol Fugard
Date premiered1982
Place premieredYale Repertory Theatre
New Haven, Connecticut
Original languageEnglish
SubjectA student moves from childhood innocence to poisonous bigotry.
SettingSt. Georges Park Tea Room, Port Elizabeth, South Africa, 1950

"Master Harold"...and the boys is a play by Athol Fugard. Set in 1950, it was first produced at the Yale Repertory Theatre in March 1982 and made its premiere on Broadway on 4 May at the Lyceum Theatre,[1] where it ran for 344 performances. The play takes place in South Africa during apartheid era, and depicts how institutionalized racism, bigotry or hatred can become absorbed by those who live under it. It is said to be a semi-autobiographical play, as Athol Fugard's birth name was Harold and his boyhood was very similar to Hally's, including his father being disabled, and his mother running a tea shop to support the family. His relationship with his family's servants was similar to Hally's as he sometimes considered them his friends, but other times treated them like subservient help, insisting that he be called "Master Harold", and once spitting in the face of one he had been close to.

The play initially was banned from production in South Africa.[2] It was the first of Fugard's plays to premiere outside of South Africa.[1]


Servants Sam and Willie are practising ballroom steps in preparation for a major competition, while maintaining Hally's mother's tea shop on a rainy day. Sam is the more worldly of the two. When Willie says his ballroom partner and girlfriend is lacking enthusiasm, Sam points out that Willie beats her.

Seventeen-year-old Hally arrives home from school, and cheerfully asks after the dancing progress. Sam mentors the boy, wishing to guide him through adolescence into manhood. Willie is the "loyal black"; who calls the white Afrikaner boy "Master Harold".

The conversation between the three moves from Hally's school-work, to an intellectual discussion on "A Man of Magnitude", where they mention various historical figures of the time and their contribution to society, to flashbacks of Hally, Sam and Willie when they lived in a boarding house. Hally warmly remembers the simple act of flying a kite Sam had made for him out of junk, made to cheer Hally up after he was embarrassed by his father's public drunkenness. Conversation then turns to Hally's 500-word English composition. The ballroom dancing floor is described as "a world without collisions"; a transcendent metaphor for life.

Almost immediately despair returns: Sam had early on mentioned why Hally's mother is not present; the hospital had called about his father, who has been there receiving treatment for complications from a leg he lost in World War I, to discharge him, and she had left to bring him home. However, Hally, indicating that his father had been in considerable pain the previous day, insisted that his father wasn't well enough to be discharged, and that the call must've been about a bad turn, rather than a discharge notice. A call from Hally's mother at the hospital confirms that Hally's father is manipulating the hospital into discharging him, although he is indeed not feeling any better than before, so it's still unofficial, and Hally remains hopeful that the discharge won't happen. A second call from Hally's mother later reveals that the discharge is official, and Hally's father is now home.

Hally is distraught about this news, since his father, who in addition to being crippled, is revealed to be a tyrannical alcoholic, and his being home will make home life unbearable with his drinking, fighting, and need for constant treatment, which includes demeaning tasks of having to massage his stump, and empty chamber pots of urine. Hally vents to his two black friends years of anger, and pain, viciously mocking his father and his condition. But when Sam chastises him for doing so, Hally, although ashamed of himself, turns on him, unleashing vicarious racism that he learned from his father, creating possibly permanent rifts in his relationship with both Sam and Willie. For the first time, apart from hints throughout the play, Hally begins explicitly to treat Sam and Willie as subservient help rather than as friends or playmates, insisting that Sam call him "Master Harold" and spitting on him, among other things. Sam is hurt and angry and both he and Willie are just short of attacking Hally, but they both understand that Hally is really causing himself the most pain.

There is a glimmer of hope for reconciliation at the end, when Sam addresses Hally by his nickname again and asks to start over the next day, harkening back to the simple days of the kite. Hally, horrified about what he's done, is barely able to face Sam, responding without looking up "It's still raining, Sam. You can't fly kites on rainy days, remember," then asks Willie to lock up the tea shop, and walks out into the rain, as Sam mentions that the bench Hally sat on as he flew the kite said "Whites Only" but Hally was too excited to notice it, and that he can (figuratively) leave it at any time. The play ends while Sam and Willie console each other by ballroom dancing together.

Critical reception[edit]

John Simon, writing for New York magazine, was measured in his review:

Fugard has now perfected his way of writing plays about the tragedy of apartheid; he avoids the spectacular horrors and concentrates instead on the subtle corrosion and corruption, on the crumbling of the spirit for which the cure would be heroic action that may not be forthcoming, which the blacks try to assuage with the salve of dreams, the whites with the cautery of oppression.

— John Simon, "'Two Harolds and no Medea." (May 17, 1982)[3]

Frank Rich of The New York Times praised the performance at the original Broadway premiere:

There may be two or three living playwrights in the world who can write as well as Athol Fugard, but I'm not sure that any of them has written a recent play that can match 'Master Harold' ... and the Boys. Mr. Fugard's drama - lyrical in design, shattering in impact - is likely to be an enduring part of the theater long after most of this Broadway season has turned to dust.

— Frank Rich, "'Master Harold,' Fugard's drama on the origin of hate." (May 5, 1982)[1]

Andy Propst of Time Out ranked it the 42nd greatest play of all time.[4]

Casting history[edit]

The principal casts of notable productions of Master Harold... and the Boys

Production/Role Hally Sam Willie
1982 Yale Repertory[1] Željko Ivanek Zakes Mokae Danny Glover
1982 Original Broadway[1] Lonny Price Zakes Mokae Danny Glover
2003 Broadway Revival Christopher Denham Danny Glover Michael Boatman
2012 South African Revival[5] Alex Middlebrook Tshamano Sebe Themba Mchunu
2013 South African Revival (in Afrikaans) Hennie Jacobs Terence Bridgette Christo Davids
2016 Signature Theatre - New York Noah Robbins Leon Addison Brown Sahr Ngaujah

Ivanek left to make the film The Sender in 1982, which is why he was replaced by Price.

The Afrikaans version was translated by Idil Sheard as Master Harold en die Boys.


1985 film[edit]

Fugard adapted the play for a television film produced in 1985, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg starring Matthew Broderick, Zakes Mokae and John Kani.

2010 film[edit]

A feature film version of the play was produced in South Africa in 2009 starring Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland) as Hally and Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Mission Impossible 1–3) as Sam. The film was directed by Lonny Price (who played Hally in the original Broadway cast) and produced by Zaheer Goodman-Bhyat, Mike Auret, Nelle Nugent and David Pupkewitz.


Source: Playbill (vault)[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e Rich, Frank (May 5, 1982). "STAGE: 'MASTER HAROLD,' FUGARD'S DRAMA ON ORIGIN OF HATE". The New York Times. Retrieved 13 September 2015.
  2. ^ "Master Harold...and the Boys" (Press release). The Colony Theatre Company. 26 September 2007. Retrieved 2008-10-01.
  3. ^ Simon, John (17 May 1982). "Two Harolds and no Medea". New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC. 15 (20): 76. ISSN 0028-7369.
  4. ^ "50 Best Plays of All Time: Comedies, Tragedies and Dramas Ranked". Time Out New York. Retrieved 2020-04-16.
  5. ^ Fick, David."BWW Reviews: New 'MASTER HAROLD' Production at the Fugard Packs an Emotional Punch" Archived 2013-03-29 at the Wayback Machine BroadwayWorld, March 26, 2013
  6. ^ " Master Harold...and the Boys 1982 Broadway" Playbill (vault), retrieved November 29, 2017

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]