Apartheid as a Cycle of Abuse in ‘Master Harold… And the Boys’

Athol Fugard’s 1982 play “Master Harold”… and the Boys takes plays in a 1950’s South Africa suffering under the Apartheid act and tells the story of a white seventeen year-old boy, Hally, as well as two of his parents black servants, Willie and Sam. The play begins with a more light-hearted tone, as Willie, Sam, and Hally dance together and have a wonderful time, which hints to the audience that Apartheid is not the way life should be. However, as the play continues Hally receives two phone calls from his mother regarding his father. The first phone call dampens his mood significantly, but after the second phone call Hally’s outlook is completely changed from what it was in the beginning of the play. He no longer treats Sam and Willie well and is no longer optimistic about race relations.

Hally’s phone call with his father is used as a device to show audiences that, much like Hally’s relationship with his father, Apartheid is damaging, toxic, and perpetual and systemic abuse. One of the clearest effects the second phone call has on Hally is the sense of fear it instills in him through the rest of the play. His sense of fear is initially present in the phone call itself, particularly through the lines “(Loudly) I said I hope you know what you’ve let us in for! It’s the end of the peace and quiet we’ve been having… (Softly) Where is he? (Normal voice) He can’t hear us from in there” (Fugard 48). In these lines, Hally goes from brashly and “loudly” yelling at his mother to “softly” asking where his father is. Only after Hally hears that his father is in another room does he return to his normal speaking voice. His inability to even speak above a whisper when he thinks his father might be in the same room as the phone truly shows how much fear of his father Hally carries. The difficulty Hally has in using his voice around his father speaks volumes about how toxic and damaging their relationship must be, and the same toxicity is paralleled later in the way Hally speaks to Sam and Willie. Once they get into a disagreement, he lashes out them, saying “My mother was right. She’s always warning me about allowing you to get too familiar” (Fugard 53). Despite the excellent discourse they had in the beginning of the play, Hally has been muted by his fear of his father, and so he feels the need to mute others around him who he feels superior to, as a bully would.

The phenomenon of cyclical abuse has been well documented, and a recent study conducted by psychologist Barbara Lopes corroborates the idea that Hally’s fear leads him to treat Sam and Willie differently, as she writes “Bullying has been considered as a traumatic experience that can lead to paranoid ideation” (Lopes 254). Rather than seeing Sam and Willie as the friends they were before the phone call, Hally becomes paranoid and pushes them away to forcibly create distance in the same way he feels distanced from his father. The toxic power dynamic between Hally and his father is further evidenced by the moment Hally speaks directly to his father. Hally spoke to his mother in a mostly normal way, though he was very much on edge. However, when Hally’s father comes on the phone, the stage direction reads “(When he speaks again, his tone changes completely)” (Fugard 49). Hally’s complete change in tone is indicative of a deep-seated problem between he and his father, as it indicates that Hally does not feel he can be himself around his father, and likely feels incredibly insecure around him. His insecurity is further evidenced by Hally awkwardly calling his father “chum” despite clearly being in constant fear while talking to him (Fugar 49). Much like his fear, he takes out his insecurities on Sam and Willie, particularly in the line “Jesus, I wish you would stop trying to tell me what I do and what I don’t know” (Fugard 54). Sam and Willie are only trying to help in that moment, but Hally feels the need to lash out at them, largely due to the inferiority complex his father instilled in him. Hally’s inferiority complex reaches new heights when he tells Sam “To being with, why don’t you start calling me Master Harold, like Willie” (Fugard 54), seemingly only to further assert his dominance over Sam and to feel some semblance of power following a conversation with his father in which he felt utterly powerless.

Literary critic Errol Durhach takes note of Hally’s shift in attitude in his writing, particularly in a passage that reads “Like quicksilver, he shifts from intimate familiarity with his black companions, to patronising condescension to his social inferiors, to an appalling exercise of power over the powerless ‘boys’” (Durbach 506). Hally’s attitude shift is certainly appalling, in much the same way the way Hally’s father treats him is appalling, and though there’s no excuse for it, audiences can see that Hally’s mistreatment of Sam and Willie is his way of (poorly) coping with his abusive father. Perhaps the most unfortunate and disheartening aspect of Hally’s father abusing Hally is that Hally is resigned to it. In one line he voices his true opinion of his father, “Then you and the nurses should have held him down, taken the crutches away,” only to immediately retract his statement by saying “I know only too well he’s my father” (Fugard 48). Hally has feelings of rebellion towards his father, but ultimately, he holds them inside and outside of a moment of expression, he is totally resigned to the status quo. After the end of the phone conversation, he tells Sam and Willie “Life’s a fuck-up and it’s never going to change…There’s no maybe about it. It’s blunt and brutal fact. All we’ve done this afternoon is waste our time” (Fugard 50). Not only is saying something is “never going to change” about as resigned to a situation as someone can get, he applies the sentiment towards repairing race relations, which Sam, Willie, and Hally were doing through dance earlier in the play. As critic Shon Yoonhee puts it, “The re-creation of their joined history combines moments of enthusiasm and illumination with a reflective sense of the meaning of each remembered occasion,” (Shon 84) so in fact, the discourse in the beginning of the play was not useless, and in reality, progress and mutual understanding is never a waste of time, yet Hally has been made to feel it is because he is resigned to the world being unfair and inequitable due to the unfair and inequitable relationship he has with his Dad.

The phone call at the end of “Master Harold”… and the Boys demonstrates how the cycle of abuse is so damaging and contagious it can hinder relations between people who would otherwise get along. It breeds fear, toxicity, and resignation to a broken system. Furthermore, Fugard uses the second phone as a greater metaphor for the effects of Apartheid on the general population of South Africa. People began to fear one another because they were separated and inevitably felt the fear of the unknown, which (for some people) led to a toxic bitterness between races, and an overall resignation to Apartheid being the status quo. Fugard’s metaphor and allegorical device is extremely potent, and now doubt showed audiences all over the world how damaging Apartheid is, and moreover how damaging any relationship can be when people do not approach each other with open minds, and when people forget to forgive.

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