"Master Harold" … and the Boys

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Themes and Colors
Racism Theme Icon
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Theme Icon
Ignorance vs. Learning, Education, and Wisdom Theme Icon
Cripples and Broken Things Theme Icon
Dance and Dream Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in "Master Harold" … and the Boys, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dance and Dream Theme Icon

Social dances like the foxtrot, quickstep, and waltz feature prominently in “Master Harold”… and the boys. The action of the play both begins and concludes with dance, and it is punctuated throughout with dancing lessons, and discussions about the significance of dance itself. Dance, it turns out, is an escape from the world as it is into a world without collisions, a world that seems effortless, an ideal, a dream. The significance attributed to dance in the characters’ discussions gives the actual dancing in the play a symbolic weight and deep, emotional charge—things, one might argue, inherent in the abstract, liquid gestures of dance itself. A synchronized cultural dance is the kind of dream that might be achieved if the races began to learn from, exchange, and deal with one another equally.

One thing Sam teaches Willie is that dance, though it appears effortless when we see two masters working synchronously, is an internal struggle, a strenuous balance between rigid over-stiffness and sloppy disorder. The grace and beauty of the dance and dancer depend on this tension between internal strain and the outward appearance of graceful ease. Dancers must suspend themselves in between, in between struggle and ease, order and chaos, just as dreamers are suspended in a state in between being asleep and awake. Something very similar could be said for the strain of maintaining a just and equitable society. One of the implicit messages of “Master Harold” is that we as a society, like Willie with his dancing lessons, have a lot of work to do, that we need a lot of practice, and one of Sam’s arguments is that dreaming is the first practical step toward achieving the thing about which you dream.

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Dance and Dream Quotes in "Master Harold" … and the Boys

Below you will find the important quotes in "Master Harold" … and the Boys related to the theme of Dance and Dream.
"Master Harold" … and the Boys Quotes

SAM: That’s your trouble. You’re trying too hard.
WILLIE: I try hard because it is hard.
SAM: But don’t let me see it. The secret is to make it look easy.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker), Willie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam and Willie are at work in St George's tea room, but because there are no customers, Sam has been reading comic books and Willie has been singing and practicing a ballroom dance routine. Willie has asked Sam to judge his dancing, and Sam responds that Willie is "too stiff" and looks like he is trying too hard, advising Willie that "the secret is to make it look easy." This exchange immediately establishes a dynamic wherein Sam, who is slightly older and has more experience of the world, imparts knowledge and advice to Willie. As in this instance, this advice often takes the form of telling Willie the "proper" way to conduct himself. 

Note that Sam's words here have a double meaning, born out of the symbolic significance of ballroom dance in the play. It's certainly true that giving the appearance of effortlessness is an important element of dance; at the same time, Sam's advice is also relevant to his and Willie's status as black South Africans in the Apartheid era. Their subordinate social position and role as servants to the white family who own the tearoom means life is certainly hard for them, yet Sam's words suggest that they must not reveal this outwardly. Maintaining a smooth, effortless "performance" is arguably important in order to retain a sense of dignity, or simply to stay employed and out of trouble. Either way, Willie's advice proves that life for black South Africans is akin to a complex dance, requiring skill that must be practiced and perfected via shared knowledge. 


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Love story and happy ending! She’s doing it all right, Boet Sam, but it’s not me she’s giving happy endings. Fuckin’ whore!

Related Characters: Willie (speaker), Sam
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Following his advice about making dance look effortless, Sam has told Willie that ballroom dance must look "happy," evoking glamour and romance. Willie has asked what romance is, and when Sam explains that it is a "love story with a happy ending," Willie responds that his dance partner, Hilda, is giving others "happy endings," and he calls her a "fuckin' whore." Again, this passage emphasizes how Willie's rough and ignorant nature contrasts with the wisdom and restraint shown by Sam. Willie's violent anger towards Hilda suggests he enacts the frustration he feels as a result of his own oppression on her. Indeed, he blames Hilda for the fact that he does not have "happy endings," and his habit of beating her is an example of a cycle of abuse, an important theme in the play.  

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.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Having remarked at the awfulness of the world, Hally has conceded that "there is something called progress," saying that at least people aren't burned at the stake anymore. When Sam skeptically points out that there is still a death penalty, Hally responds that he too "oscillate[s] between hope and despair," but that "one day somebody is going to get up and give history a kick up the backside." Hally's choice of words conveys the deep level of violence that permeates all aspects of South African society and affects the psychology of all the characters in the play. Note the irony of the fact that Hally cannot even contemplate a more peaceful, compassionate world without framing it in violent terms. 

However, this invocation of violence is not the only disturbing element within Hally's comment. His optimism that "things will change" is undermined by his suggestion that "somebody"––i.e. somebody other than Hally himself––will change them. As the play reveals, this passive reliance on the idea of social change tends to lead to cycles of cruelty and abuse, not progress. Hally appears unaware that, as a white South African, the burden of building a better world rests disproportionately on him. Meanwhile, Hally is dismissive of Sam's cynicism and is unable to see why Sam would be more inclined to "despair" than hope.  

“...Napoleon regarded all people as equal before the law and wanted them to have equal opportunities for advancement. All ves-ti-ges of the feu-dal system with its oppression of the poor were abolished.” Vestiges, feudal system and abolished. I’m all right on oppression.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam is looking at Hally's schoolbooks, and has asked Hally what the word "magnitude" means. The two discuss Hally's chances of success in each of his exams; Hally says he will not do well in math, but will "scrape through" in history. Sam reads aloud a passage about Napoleon from Hally's history textbook, noting that he has difficulty with the terms "vestiges," "feudal system," and "abolished," but not with "oppression." There are multiple layers of meaning in this passage. First, note the contrast between Sam's curiosity about Hally's schoolbooks and Hally's distinct lack of enthusiasm about his own education. Sam's limited vocabulary shows that he has not had access to the same educational resources as Hally, yet he remains keenly interested, while Hally childishly views his schooling as a chore rather than a privilege.

The passage that Sam randomly chooses to read is also significant. While the textbook claims that Napoleon "regarded all people as equal" and abolished feudalism, this is not actually correct, and reflects the strong bias of Hally's colonial education. In reality, Napoleon was opposed to feudalism in France, but in favor of French colonial rule, including the practice of slavery. Indeed, he sent armed forces to Haiti to restore slavery following uprisings that resulted in the former slave Toussaint Louverture seizing power.

Sam's inability to say many of the terms in Hally's textbook can be interpreted as evidence of the way educational expertise and authority is misused in order to portray colonizing powers in a good light. Meanwhile, Sam's comment "I'm all right on oppression" suggests that oppression is a universal, irrefutable historical fact, and one that Sam is intimately acquainted with through being a black South African. 

Don’t get sentimental, Sam. You’ve never been a slave, you know. And anyway we freed your ancestors here in South Africa long before the Americans. But if you want to thank somebody on their behalf, do it to Mr. William Wilberforce. Come on. Try again. I want a real genius.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam and Hally are still discussing "men of magnitude." Having expressed dissatisfaction at Hally's choice of Charles Darwin, Sam suggests Abraham Lincoln instead. In response, Hally accuses Sam of being misguidedly sentimental and points out that "we freed your ancestors here in South Africa long before the Americans." He also claims that William Wilberforce, a British abolitionist who played a large role in ending slavery in most of the British empire, would be a better person for Sam to look up to. This exchange exemplifies the ignorant, patronizing attitude with which Hally treats Sam. He dismisses Sam's identification with slaves ("you've never been a slave yourself") while using the pronoun "we" to describe the white colonizers who ended slavery in South Africa ("we freed your ancestors here"). 

Hally's reasoning reveals just how biased and warped his view of progress really is. Although there are significant differences between the colonial regimes in the USA and South Africa, Hally's suggestion that the Dutch and British rulers were somehow more compassionate or progressive than the Americans is absurd, especially considering that the play is set during Apartheid. Such thinking reveals how little understanding Hally has of the reality of Sam's life, despite their close proximity and friendly relationship. His manner of speaking to Sam further emphasizes his haughty, belittling attitude. Phrases like "you know," and "come on, try again" sound like the language a teacher would use with a student, despite the fact that Hally is in fact a schoolboy and Sam a middle-aged man. 

…I got another rowing for hanging around the “servants’ quarters.” I think I spent more time in there with you chaps than anywhere else in that dump. And do you blame me? Nothing but bloody misery everywhere you went.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Having debated at length about who counts as a man of magnitude, Hally and Sam have finally settled on Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin. Hally boasts that he has "educated" Sam just as Tolstoy educated "his peasants." The two of them recall memories together, and Hally mentions that he was beaten for spending time in the "servants' quarters." Despite its friendliness, this conversation highlights the stark inequality in Hally and Sam's relationship. At the same time, Hally's words reveal the extent to which he has been coerced into assuming a superior social position to Willie and Sam. The fact that Hally is punished for spending time with his family's servants may incline the audience to view Hally more sympathetically. 

On the other hand, Hally's reasoning for why he was "hanging around the 'servants' quarters'" in the first place conveys the thoughtless and selfish side of his character. His claim that he was seeking to avoid the "bloody misery" in the rest of his household rudely implies that there is no other reason why he would spend time with Willie and Sam; it also shows his lack of consideration of the different kind of misery Willie and Sam themselves experience as black South Africans in a position of servitude. 

The sheer audacity of it took my breath away. I mean, seriously, what the hell does a black man know about flying a kite?...If you think I was excited and happy, you got another guess coming… When we left the boarding house to go up onto the hill, I was praying quietly that there wouldn’t be any other kids around to laugh at us.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Related Symbols: The Kite
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has asked Sam to guess his "best memory," before telling him that the memory began one afternoon when Hally was bored and went to Sam's room, where he found Sam constructing something out of wood. In this part of the speech, Hally describes his shock at discovering Sam was making a kite, and his fear that the kite wouldn't fly and that other kids would laugh at them. Although he is telling the story to please and entertain Sam, he interweaves explicit racism into his account ("what the hell does a black man know about flying a kite?"). Clearly, it does not even occur to Hally to consider how this comment would make Sam feel. 

Hally's description of the memory also reveals the bizarre logic of the racism that defines the world around him. The idea that Sam's race would make him unable to make a kite is completely nonsensical, and Hally's use of the word "audacity" shows how restrictive and narrow the expectations placed on black South Africans were. At the same time, the story also highlights the way in which racism has even indirectly harmed Hally himself, by making him ashamed of his association with Sam and anxious that other white children will ridicule him. 

HALLY: You explained how to get it down, we tied it to the bench so that I could sit and watch it and you went away. I wanted you to stay, you know. I was a little scared of having to look after it by myself.
SAM: (Quietly) I had work to do, Hally

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Kite
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has recounted that, despite his low expectations, the kite Sam made flew brilliantly and that it was "the most splendid thing" he had ever seen. He recalls that Sam walked away and explains that he had wanted him to stay, but Sam quietly responds that he had work to do. This is an emotionally climactic moment within the play, exemplifying the complex tensions and pressures caused by the powerful racist forces that dominate South African society. While Sam claims that he left Hally with the kite because he had work to do, in reality it was because he realized they were on a whites-only bench, and thus it was illegal for Sam to be there.

Hally's ignorance of the true reason why Sam left highlights how sheltered he is from the reality of the racist nation he lives in. Importantly, Sam's lie about having work to do proves that he is also forced to be complicit in keeping Hally in this ignorant, sheltered state. There are several possible explanations for why Sam does not tell Hally the truth. One reason could be that it would be considered improper for Sam to discuss racist laws in front of Hally; by not mentioning it, Sam acts in a manner akin to the effortless way of dancing he encourages Willie to adopt. On the other hand, it is also plausible that Sam feels protective of Hally, and wants to preserve his childhood innocence even if this means misleading him about the true nature of the society in which they live. 

Don’t try to be clever, Sam. It doesn’t suit you. Anybody who thinks there’s nothing wrong with this world need to have his head examined... If there is a God who created this world, he should scrap it and try again.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally's mother has phoned to tell him that his father will be coming home from the hospital. Hally begs for this not to happen, but with no success. Furious, he has begun to boss Sam and Willie around, exclaiming that life is a "plain bloody mess" and that people are fools who deserve the bad things that happen to them. When Sam comments that if that's true then Hally shouldn't complain, Hally snaps back at him, telling him not to be clever. Once again, Hally's concern about the state of the world––which on the surface could indicate compassion and sensitivity––is undermined by his otherwise rude and selfish behavior. He treats Sam and Willie in a patronizing, scornful way, and only seems to care about injustice when he personally is affected.

I’ve been far too lenient with the two of you. But what really makes me bitter is that I allow you chaps a little freedom in here when business is bad and, what do you do with it? The foxtrot! Specially you, Sam. There’s more to life than trotting around a dance floor and I thought at least you knew it.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam, Willie
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has been behaving in an increasingly cruel and strict manner with Sam and Willie, even rapping Willie on the bum with his ruler. Having at first complained that the two men were distracting him from his homework, Hally then abandons his homework and begins strolling around with the ruler in his hands "like a little despot," telling Sam and Willie that he has been "too lenient" with them. The manner in which Hally quickly assumes the role of a pompous, unforgiving ruler is disturbing. Although the chronology of events makes it clear that Hally's obnoxious behavior directly results from his fear of his father, Hally's sudden change of character suggests that compassion and friendship give way all too easily to cruelty. 

Regardless of his friendly relationship to Sam, Hally clearly believes that––as a white person––it is natural for him to rule over Sam and Willie, even though they are much older than he is. Indeed, the tone Hally adopts implies that he is wiser and more mature than Sam and Willie, although it is obvious from Hally's behavior that he is still very much a child with a naïve and somewhat foolish understanding of the world. Hally's comment that there is "more to life" than the foxtrot is misguided, considering the dance represents fundamental themes of struggle, harmony, and propriety within the world of the play. It is also ironic that Hally is precociously scolding Sam for taking the foxtrot too seriously, considering the reality of Sam's life is far more harsh and complicated than Hally's. 

There’s no collisions out there, Hally. Nobody trips or stumbles or bumps into anybody else. That’s what that moment is all about. To be one of those finalists on the dance floor is like… like being in a dream about a world in which accidents don’t happen.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker), Hally
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has mentioned that he has to write about a significant cultural event for his homework, and is considering writing about the ballroom dance competition in New Brighton. Sam has described and reenacted the event along with Willie, and when Hally asks if the dancers are given penalties when they bump into one another, Sam explains that the dance competition is "like being in a dream" in which people don't bump into each other. This passage illustrates the symbolic significance of ballroom dance within the play, and shows why Sam and Willie are so invested in it. Unlike the real world, in the ballroom all people work together in harmony, without "accidents" or conflict. Sam admits that this is only an unrealistic "dream," but remains committed to pursuing it if only in the realm of dance. 

It’s beautiful because that is what we want life to be like. But instead… we’re bumping into each other all the time. Look at the three of us this afternoon… Open a newspaper and what do you read? America has bumped into Russia, England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man… People get hurt in all that bumping, and we’re sick and tired of it now.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam has described the ballroom dance competition at New Brighton, and explained to Hally that there are no collisions there. He tells Hally "this is what we want life to be like," and reflects that instead, news of the world is filled with conflict: "England is bumping into India, rich man bumps into poor man." Sam's words further emphasize the symbolic importance of dance, especially to black South Africans whose lives are dominated by tension and discord with the ruling whites. Note that the example of England bumping into India makes an explicit connection between ballroom dance and colonialism. 

Sam's choice of words is reminiscent of the way adults might teach young children about conflict, using gentle metaphors that obscure the violent reality of such struggles. His statement that people are "sick and tired" of being hurt by "all that bumping" could indicate that black South Africans may be on the verge of revolting against the oppression to which they are subjected; however, the overall impression of his speech seems more to indicate the necessity of escaping this oppressive reality in the "dream world" of dance. 

You’re right. We musn’t despair. Maybe there’s some hope for mankind after all. Keep it up, Willie.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Willie
Related Symbols: Ballroom Dance
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has asked Sam if it is enough to throw oneself into the "dream" of ballroom dance, and Sam responds that this dream can be the start of actual progressive action. Hally concludes that the United Nations is "a dancing school for politicians," and announces that he now feels more hopeful about the future of mankind. This sudden change of opinion illustrates the power of art to inspire optimism; however, Hally's newly hopeful mindset soon shatters, implying that this power is somewhat limited. Note the irony of the fact that Sam and Willie remain consistently hopeful while Hally is quick to resort to a pessimistic, resentful attitude. Although all three characters experience struggle, Hally is arguably in a far better position due to his social, racial, and economic status. 

HALLY: He’s a white man and that’s good enough for you.
SAM: I’ll try to forget you said that.

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Hally has spoken to his mother and father on the phone and grown increasingly upset and furious at the prospect of his father being home again. Sam has tried to comfort him, but this only results in fighting. Hally reminds Sam that Hally's father is Sam's boss, and when Sam protests that his boss is actually Hally's mother, Hally responds that his father is a white man and "that's good enough for you." This exchange emphasizes the ease with which the nuance and complexity within Hally and Sam's relationship can be erased by the overarching racism that governs both their lives. Hally's words serve as a reminder that no matter what else happens, he will always be able to hurt and belittle Sam simply through invoking race. 

Sam's response that he will "try to forget" Hally's words highlights the seemingly infinite patience with which he treats Hally. Indeed, throughout the play Hally has oscillated between friendliness and racist cruelty; thus the existence of his and Sam's friendship relies on Sam repeatedly forgetting the offences Hally commits. This deliberate act of forgetting can be seen as the opposite of learning. Hally reveals that he has not truly learned the importance of kindness and justice, and Sam in turn deliberately erases his knowledge of Hally's racist sentiment. 

HALLY: To begin with, why don’t you start calling me Master Harold, like Willie.
SAM: Do you mean that?
HALLY: Why the hell do you think I said it?
SAM: If you make me say it once, I’ll never call you by anything else again

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam (speaker), Willie
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Hally gets angry at Sam, tells him to stop bossing him around, and orders Sam to start calling him "Master Harold." Shocked, Sam warns Hally that if he is forced to call him that once, he will never go back to calling him Hally. This is a climactic moment in the play, in which Sam and Hally's friendship reaches a dramatic breaking point. Up until this interaction, Hally's treatment of Sam has swung wildly between kindness and cruelty, and so far Sam has mostly tolerated this, deliberately ignoring Hally's callous behavior.

However, Sam's words here point to the fact that calling Hally "Master Harold" would represent an irreparable rupture in their relations, such that their friendship would become another broken thing with no chance of recovery. This claim demonstrates the significance of the word "master," a term that has more potential for damage than all the explicitly racist insults that Hally has thus far used. Sam can perhaps dismiss these insults as childish foolishness; however, by insisting that Sam calls him "Master Harold," Hally positions himself as the authority, and Sam as the inferior. 

If you ever do write it as a short story, there was a twist in our ending. I couldn’t sit down there and stay with you. It was a “Whites Only” bench. You were too 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.

Related Characters: Sam (speaker), Hally
Related Symbols: The Kite
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam has returned to the story of the kite, recalling that the episode happened a few days after Hally's father had drunkenly passed out and soiled himself in the Central Hotel Bar, and that Hally had been severely depressed afterwards. He then reveals that the true reason why he left Hally alone on the bench while they were flying the kite was because it was a whites-only bench, and he warns Hally that if he continues with his current behavior he may find himself sitting alone on the bench "for a long time to come." This speech emphasizes the dramatic change in Sam and Hally's relationship. Sam no longer feels compelled to protect Hally's innocence, and instead forces Hally to confront the reality of the racist world in which they live. 

This moment is a powerful example of education. Although Sam has had little formal schooling and thus theoretically is less knowledgable than Hally, the story of the kite reveals how naïve and ignorant Hally really is. Sam, on the other hand, understands the true nature of the world and has carefully controlled the way in which he reveals this nature to Hally. Up until this point, Sam's patience with Hally can be interpreted as a loving, protective gesture, designed to preserve Hally's childish innocence. However, Sam's words of warning point to the danger of remaining in this "innocent" state in the midst of a deeply unjust world. Although as a white person Hally benefits from structural racism, Sam reminds him that harboring racist views is itself harmful because it prevents connection to other people. 

HALLY: I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.
SAM: You sure of that, Hally? Because it would be pretty hopeless if that was true. It would mean nothing has been learnt in here this afternoon, and there was a hell of a lot of teaching going on…

Related Characters: Hally (speaker), Sam (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Sam has revealed what really happened on the day of the kite; Hally, dejected, has asked Willie to lock up and goes to leave. Sam has asked if it's possible for them to "try again," but Hally responds that he doesn't know, repeating "I don't know anything anymore." This exchange evokes a tension in the way in which education, ignorance, and power operate. While Sam insists that "there was a hell of a lot of teaching going on" during the course of the afternoon, Hally claims not to "know anything anymore." Keeping in mind the context of Hally's heavily biased, colonial education, this moment seems to imply that for those in positions of power, gaining knowledge can feel like becoming ignorant. 

This passage also illustrates the complex nature of the connection between knowledge and optimism. Hally's claim not to know anything seems closely related to his increasingly defeated, pessimistic outlook; meanwhile, Sam says "it would be pretty hopeless" if Hally truly felt he had not learned anything that afternoon. While it is fairly common to associate optimism with a kind of ignorant naïveté, Sam and Hally's exchange indicates that perhaps it might be necessary to have a hopeful attitude in order to acquire knowledge and understanding, even if that understanding in turn reveals the world to be a rather bleak place.