‘Master Harold…and the Boys’ – Opening Scene Commentary


The juxtaposition of the ideal world and reality is a prominent theme explored throughout this extract from Athol Fugard’s ‘Master Harold…and the boys’. Thus conflict is further reflected through the theme of escapism and a desire for a better world, which is evident in the characters of Sam and Willie. Furthermore, Fugard depicts Sam’s dominant and, to a degree, fatherly role within the relationship between the Sam and Willie.


The extract is awash with images of the degradation of reality in contrast with images of an idealised world, which can only be achieved through escapism. The use pathetic fallacy in the description of the ‘wet and windy Port Elizabeth afternoon’ reinforces the dismal reality that the characters are forced to endure. However, by remaining inside the tea room the characters are seen to be somewhat insulated and protected from the cruel exterior. They are thus able to create a safe haven or barrier against the racism that was rife within South Africa during the 1950s. Moreover, the element of comedy which emerges as a result of Willie’s dancing juxtaposes with the cruel outside in order to create a warm internal environment. However, in spite of the fact that they are isolated within the tea room, it is apparent that their haven has been invaded by the exterior through the presence of the ‘few sad ferns’. The personification of the ferns reemphasises the dismal weather outside and their presence serves to indicate that reality endures and neither Sam nor Willie can fully escape into a world of fantasy.


In addition, the relative poverty of the tea house serves as a constant reminder of the harsh and cruel reality. This poverty is indicated through the phrases, ‘a simple meal’, ‘a few stale cakes’ and ‘a not very impressive display’. The relatively small quantity of cakes, advertising handouts and ferns depicts the relative poverty of the environment as well as the fact that the tea house has fallen on hard times. Moreover, the reference to the meal as being ‘simple’ has connotations of it being minimal, plain and basic thereby depicting the lack of wealth and status associated with the setting. Furthermore, the images of isolation, which are apparent through the phrases, ‘stands apart’ and ‘solitary’, depict the lack of wealth due to the lack of furnishings. However, these images of isolation in addition to the fact that Sam and Willie remain isolation indoors, serves to illustrate the fact that the escapism, which is apparent throughout the extract, as well as the overcoming of social and racial barriers can only occur in seclusion and is not apparent throughout society due to the presence of the apartheid regime.


However, these images of a cruel and harsh reality are juxtaposed with images of escapism and indicate an attempt to create a romanticised and idealised world. The image of the ‘comic books’ is a clear reference to an idealised reality and are employed by Sam as tool by which to escape reality. This is evident through the stage direction, ‘Sam absorbed in his comic book does not respond’. However, the symbol of a comic book is also, to a degree, childish and thereby undermines their attempt at escapism and the creation of an ideal world. Moreover, Willie’s singing is an additional attempt at escapism and indicates an attempt to forget reality. The simple rhymes and repetition through the words ‘money’ and ‘honey’ as well as ‘name’ and ‘game’ reinforces the idealised and romantic nature of the song; however is also reminiscent of slave songs thereby undermining the idealised world that he is striving to create.


Furthermore, references to ballroom dancing are made throughout the extract thereby reemphasising their attempt to rise past the social barriers in order to create a fantasy or romanticised and idealised world. Willie is described as ‘stand[ing and] thinking for a moment’ before ‘he launches into an intricate ballroom step’. Through this phrase it is evident that Willie is initially unsure of himself; however the word ‘launches’ has connotations of determination and thereby indicates a resolution to attempt to change his reality. The ‘intricate’ nature of the ballroom dancing contrasts with the unrefined environment and has connotations of complexity and difficulty hence indicating the elaborate nature of the action. Sam utilises words such as ‘glide’, ‘smooth’ and ‘romance’ in conjunction with ballroom dancing thereby depicting the fantastical nature of the actions and illustrating an attempt to smooth the edges of reality. The soft sounds of the words ‘love’, ‘smooth’ and ‘romance’ depict an element of delicacy as well as emphasise the contrast between the harsh reality and the idealised world that they are attempting to create. This romanticised image of ballroom dancing is highlighted by the references to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who are seen to be the epitome and personification of the romance ballroom dancing and the idyllic reality which thus ensues.


However, these images of fantasy are undermined and proven to be only temporary due to the fact that Willie is unable to dance properly as ‘he falters’ revealing only ‘a reasonable degree of accomplishment’ and is described as a ‘mildly comic figure’. This indicates that despite his desperation he is unable to fully immerse himself in his fantasy which will eventually break down. The idyllic world created as a result of the ballroom dancing is immediately undermined by the fact that Willie’s partner is ‘imaginary’ thereby indicating that the fantasy will ultimately fail to induce a better reality. Additionally, the repetition of the phrase ‘it must look’ emphasises that this is simply pretense and indicates that despite the fact that it is a fantasy there are rules that must be complied with such as one ‘must look happy’ and it ‘must look like romance’. Moreover, the reference to Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts, who are both white people, indicates that even within their fantasy power and dominance by white individuals ensues and black men are degraded.


Furthermore, throughout this extract Athol Fugard explores the dominance of Sam within his relationship with Willie. Despite the fact that both characters are in positions of servitude, it is apparent that there is a difference between their statuses. The difference in the positions of Sam and Willie at the beginning of the extract is a paralinguistic feature which serves to immediately place Sam in a position of dominance. Sam is described as ‘leaning on the table, his head cupped on one hand as he pages through one of the comic books’ whereas Willie is located ‘behind him, on his knees, mopping down the floor with a bucket of water and a rag’. It is not only their actions, however, furthermore, their relative positioning which indicates that Willie is inferior to Sam who is thereby able to assume a position of dominance. Moreover, their attire segregates the two as Sam ‘wears the white coat of a waiter’ thereby seemingly more pristine and refined whereas Willie ‘has his sleeves and trousers rolled up’ indicating more manual labour. In addition, despite the fact that both characters utilise slang, thus presenting a more naturalistic tone, such as ‘Ja’ and ,’Ag no man’, it is Willie who seems less educated through his grammatical mistakes in phrases such as, ‘I am relax’ and ‘Is hard to remember all those things’.


Fugard, depicts a close relationship between the two through the use of the word ‘Boet’, meaning brother, as well as through the friendly and supportive atmosphere which is evident through Sam’s ‘encouraging’ tone. Throughout the extract Willie assumes a role of dependence upon Sam as it is Willie who initially asks Sam for attention when he states ‘Hey Sam’, ‘Hey, Boet Sam’. This is further evident through his use of questions such as ‘Where?’ and ‘Glide?’. However, he is also portrayed as somewhat childish through the use of short sentences such as ‘I’m getting it. The quickstep.’ which indicates his excitement and his desire to impress Sam. This desire for acceptance and to impress is evident through his question ‘Well?’ after ‘he repeats the step’ as well as due to the fact that he is ‘desperate but still dancing’. However, his childlike qualities are not only expressed through his desire to impress, but, furthermore emerge due to his hypocritical and demanding nature. Willie’s speech is filled with imperatives such as, ‘Look now and tell me’ as well as ‘mustn’t talk’ thereby depicting his demands. Furthermore the harsh ‘t’ consonants within ‘mustn’t talk’ indicate his anger at Sam’s invasion and thus render him hypocritical due to the fact that despite asking for guidance he is unable to accept the criticisms. Additionally, Willie’s childlike nature is apparent through the phrase, ‘You make me make mistakes’. The alliteration within this phrase is accusatory and indicates his anger and frustration as well as his inability to take criticisms and thus his need to blame Sam for his shortcomings. These accusations are emphasised the repetition of the word ‘you’ as well as the ellipses in the phrase ‘Yesterday I’m not straight…today I’m too stiff’ which suggest frustration and desperation.


In order to counterbalance Willie’s reliance, Sam assumes the role of a fatherly figure and mentor. Sam is seen to use short, succinct phrases such as ‘Everywhere. Try to glide through it’ and ‘Exactly’ in order to reassert his control and dominance. Moreover, He is seen to be truthful and matter of fact through phrases such as ‘No, you’re not’ and ‘You asked me and I’m telling you’.


Ultimately, it is apparent that throughout this extract Athol Fugard portrays the struggle to escape and create a world of fantasy in the presence of a cruel and harsh reality. Moreover through the exploration of the dynamic of the relationship between Sam and Willie, Fugard creates a friendship which attempts to counter the ugly nature of reality.