Abuse, oppression, and inequality are among the dominant features of the racism that “Master Harold”… and the boys takes as its main theme, but Athol Fugard also shows us that these more general aspects of racism are, to some extent, color blind. We learn very quickly, for example, that Willie’s dancing partner, Hilda, has run away because he gives her a “hiding” whenever she misses her steps, and, what’s more, his previous dancing partner, Eunice, ran away from him for the same reason. Hally, likewise, is a victim of physical abuse at school, where he’s given blows with a ruler when he acts out. Hally’s story of being hit with a ruler through his pants, however, prompts Sam to describe how black South Africans are held by the ankles with their pants down and their shirts over their heads to receive “strokes with a light cane” in prison. For good measure, the officers throw in a healthy dose of psychological abuse by “talk[ing] to you gently and for a long time” between each stroke. We imagine he speaks from personal experience, and see that even the systems of abuse are unequal.
Abuse also comes slinking in when the societally sanctioned forms of inequality are challenged: Hally is given “a rowing” when he’s caught spending time with Sam and Willie in the servants’ quarters, and we, the readers or audience, begin to see a broader picture of how young white children are forcibly shoehorned into adopting the oppressive beliefs of the preceding generations, just as, it’s implied, Willie beats Hilda because beatings are the only form of correction he knows. The characters’ experiences with abuse and physical punishment even alter the language they use to describe the world, such as when Hally says some great man is going to make society more just and equal by getting up to “give history a kick up the backside and get it going again.”
Considering the prevalence of inequality and abuse in the play, it comes to seem all the more urgent to seize on the moments when, through some accident, gross inequality is neutralized. It is a touching feature of the story, a glimmer of hope, and a rare moment of equality among the characters, when Hally, like Sam and Willie, doesn’t have the money to play a song on the jukebox. In that instant, the three are on equal footing. But such a moment is also potentially perilous. What happens if Hally decides, because he is white, that he is entitled to more? The play leaves us wondering whether the more significant moment in Hally’s life, the period of his childhood when his emotionally and physically crippled father and figuratively crippled family life seemed to provide an opportunity for mutual exchange and education in Sam and Willie’s quarters, has been squandered, and the potential for change lost.
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality ThemeTracker
Abuse, Oppression, and Inequality Quotes in "Master Harold" … and the Boys
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!
Tried to be clever, as usual. Said I was no Leonardo da Vinci and that bad art had to be punished. So, six of the best, and his are bloody good.
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… and the one that gives you the strokes talks to you gently and for a long time between each one.
I’ve heard enough, Sam! Jesus! It’s a bloody awful world when you come to think of it. People can be real bastards.
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.
“...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.
I tried [referring to reading The Origin of the Species]. I looked at the chapters in the beginning and I saw one called “The Struggle for an Existence.” Ah ha, I thought. At last! But what did I get? Something called the mistiltoe which needs the apple tree and there’s too many seeds and all are going to die except one…! No, Hally.
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.
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You’re right. We musn’t despair. Maybe there’s some hope for mankind after all. Keep it up, Willie.
HALLY: He’s a white man and that’s good enough for you.
SAM: I’ll try to forget you said that.
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
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.
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…