"Master Harold" … and the Boys

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"Master Harold" … and the Boys Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Athol Fugard's "Master Harold" … and the Boys. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Athol Fugard
Like Hally’s mother in “Master Harold”… and the boys, Athol Fugard’s mother, Elizabeth, owned a general store, the St. George Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. In an interview after its publication, Athol Fugard acknowledged that “Master Harold” was written in part to atone for an incident between him and a black friend and mentor really named Sam who worked in his mother’s store. When he was 10 years old, young Athol, who also went by the name “Hally” at that time, had an argument with Sam that culminated in his spitting in Sam’s face. Athol’s father, Harold, like Hally’s father in the play was also disabled. He worked as a Jazz pianist. Athol studied Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Capetown but dropped out before graduating in order to travel. After hitchhiking to northern Africa, he spent two years working on the steamer ship, the S.S. Graigaur, an experience he would later chronicle in his writing. But Fugard credits his time working as a clerk in the Native Commissioners’ Court in Johannesburg in the late 1950’s and 1960’s for giving him a keen awareness of racial injustice. He has written over thirty plays in addition to several novels. His wife Sheila and daughter Lisa are also novelists. He now lives with his wife in San Diego, CA, where he teaches writing at U.C. San Diego.
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Historical Context of "Master Harold" … and the Boys
The establishment of apartheid in South Africa in 1948 sets the political and social context for “Master Harold”. The abolition of slavery in the U.S. starting with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st 1863 and followed by the ratification of the 13th Amendment on April 8th 1864 are relevant historical precursors to the abolition of South African apartheid in 1994. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement, which peaked in the 1960’s, saw the expression of many parallel and poignant condemnations of racism and oppression though the institutions of racism—and the battle against them—persist to the present day.
Other Books Related to "Master Harold" … and the Boys
The works of South African writer J. M. Coetzee, including his most celebrated novel, Disgrace, also explore the complex racial dynamics of apartheid and post-apartheid era South Africa. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind takes the dissolution of slavery in the southern United States at the end of the Civil War as its theme, and it too addresses a sea change in the societal structures of racism. Flannery O’Connor's short stories, including “Everything that Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” often feature racial tensions in Jim Crow era southern U.S., and Harriet Beacher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a social novel written in large part to condemn the practice and inherent racism of American slavery. These, like “Master Harold”… and the boys, are all works by white authors that address and, to varying extents, seek to subvert racism and prejudice. There is an incredibly long list of stunning works from the other side, works by black abolitionist, socially conscious, and/or activist authors who either directly address issues of race or who, through the context of their stories alone, illustrate and condemn societal prejudices and racism. These works include, but are by no means limited to the novels Black Boy by Richard Wright and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the works of James Baldwin, including his collection of essays Notes of a Native Son, the poetry and plays of Langston Hughes, and the poetry, plays, and novels of the black South African writer, Zakes Mda.
Key Facts about "Master Harold" … and the Boys
  • Full Title: “Master Harold”… and the boys
  • When Written: 1981-82
  • Where Written: South Africa
  • When Published: 1982
  • Literary Period: Post-Colonial realism
  • Genre: Play
  • Setting: Port Elizabeth
  • Climax: Hally storms out of his mother’s shop after demanding that his black friend and would-be mentor, Sam, refer to him henceforward as “Master Harold.”
Extra Credit for "Master Harold" … and the Boys

First Staging: Because of what the conservative government of South Africa saw as radical racial content, “Master Harold”… and the boys was banned from the stage in that country. As a result, it debuted at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1982.

His Own Demons: Despite his social activism, Athol Fugard seems to have felt himself to be the inheritor of white South African racism. He sometimes cast himself to perform as his most vicious and antagonistic white characters in his plays.