"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, 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.
The play was initially banned from production in South Africa. It was the first of Fugard's plays to premiere outside of South Africa.
The play recounts the long, rainy afternoon that Hally ("Master Harold") spends with Sam and Willie, two middle-aged African servants of his parent's household. Sam and Willie have cared for seventeen year old Hally his whole life.
At the start of the play Sam and Willie are practicing ballroom steps in preparation for a major competition. Sam is quickly revealed as being the more worldly of the two. When Willie, in broken English, describes his ballroom partner and girlfriend as lacking enthusiasm, Sam correctly diagnoses the problem: Willie beats her if she doesn't know the steps.
Hally then arrives home from school. Sam is the unacknowledged yet de facto mentor to the boy since childhood, and has always treated Hally as his nephew/ward. Sam hopes to skillfully guide Hally through the difficult passage from childhood into manhood. And hopefully thereby, takes up those values and viewpoints of an adult; and a man, that Sam, has over the years lain down; and, that all men try to leave as their legacy of shepherding an adolescent boy into manhood. Willie, for his part, has always played the "loyal black"; who has always called the white Afrikaner boy (now young man) "Master Harold"; As if, as a man of fifty, he was addressing a superior; even when Hally was six.
The conversation between the three moves from Hally's school-work, to an intellectual discussion on "A Man of Magnitude", 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; we later learn that Sam made it to cheer Hally up after he was embarrassed greatly by his father's public and continuing drunkenness. Conversation then turns to Hally's 500-word English composition. The play reaches an emotional apex as the beauty of the ballroom dancing floor ("a world without collisions") is used as a transcendent metaphor for life.
Almost immediately despair returns: Hally's tyrannical alcoholic father has been in the hospital because of medical complications due to the leg he lost in World War II, but it appears that today he is coming home, when he really isn't well enough to do so. Hally is distraught about this news, since his father being home will make home life unbearable with his drinking, fighting, and need for constant treatment. He unleashes on his two black friends years of anger, pain and vicarious racism from his father, creating possibly permanent rifts in his relationship with them. 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 responds "It's still raining, Sam. You can't fly kites on rainy days, remember," then 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.
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.
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.
The principal casts of notable productions of Master Harold... and the Boys
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.
Fugard adapted the play for a television movie produced in 1985, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg with stars, Matthew Broderick, Zakes Mokae, and John Kani.
A filmed 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 Emmy Award-winning director Lonny Price (who played Hally in the original Broadway cast) and produced by Zaheer Goodman-Bhyat, Mike Auret, Nelle Nugent and David Pupkewitz.1982 Drama Desk Award Outstanding New Play
1983 London Critics' Circle Theatre Award for Best Play
1983 London Evening Standard Award for Best Play