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Athol Fugard’s play, “Master Harold and the Boys,” is at its core a play that examines the complex race relations between two black servants and their white employer and the conditions of South African apartheid. The excerpt from “Master Harold and the Boys” sheds light on the psyche of individuals during apartheid in South Africa, revealing the injustices of the times, the capacity for hope, and the fragility of friendship.
Athol Fugard uses an extended metaphor to illustrate the injustices of apartheid in South Africa. In the passage, Sam, a black servant employed by Hally’s family, compares living life peacefully to a graceful dance. Sam comments that “we’re bumping into each other all the time.” The act of “bumping into” someone does not refer to the physical action, but rather paints a picture of conflicts of that people have with each other. Sam mentions countries bumping into each other, personifying countries as individuals with their own problems. This is external conflict; conflicts that arise from doing everything wrong and without guidance, or as Sam explains, from not knowing the steps and a lack of music. Sam hints at the external conflict between countries and even socioeconomic classes, but not whites and blacks. Sam’s omission of a statement depicting blacks and whites is surprising due to the fact that the context of the play revolves around this race relation. However, Sam declares, “We’re sick and tired of it now.” The word “we’re” signifies that Sam is a part of a group that is tired of all the bumping, tired of all the conflict. With that subtle word yet profound shift, Athol Fugard has shifted the reader from external conflict of the surrounding environment to the conflict within the psyche of those oppressed under apartheid. The use of the word is ambiguous. Sam does not directly expand on the group he includes himself in. through inference, Sam is referring to Blacks living under apartheid. Collectively, they have suffered the injustices too long. Sam presents Halley with questions about how long he must remain a second-class citizen and Hally can only reply with admiration for his “vision,” sadly one-step above being just a dream. The shift, from hope to desperation, established a tone of surfacing frustration. Sam’s language changes, and rightly so, as he pleads for an answer to all his woes. Athol Fugard uses an extended metaphor and a shift in tone to illustrate the injustices of apartheid in South Africa and the conflicts brewing, externally and internally.
The universal capacity of hope of a people enduring tough and arduous circumstances is revealed through an extended metaphor and the response of the other character present, Hally. Similar to Hally, the reader and audience may wonder why Sam and Willie value the dance competition so much. Previously, Hally insults Sam unknowingly by saying the dance is not beautiful. To Sam, this is like saying a peaceful coexistence is not beautiful because Sam has equated a peaceful life to dancing. Sam cherishes his “vision” of life without bumping into other people, without conflict, without apartheid. Sam illustrates the capacity for hope. He is an older man who has lived under apartheid his entire life, not seeing an end. Still, he finds hope through dancing and enjoying the life that he has. Sam holds frustrations as to when these conflicts will end, but by holding onto dance, he holds onto his vision of a life without injustices. Fugard again takes the reader and audience on a journey through the psyche of a people suffering under tough circumstances. The dance represents a life without apartheid, the life that Sam wishes he had. However, Fugard subtly contrasts Sam and Hally and their perspectives on the word. Sam possesses an optimistic outlook on life. On the other hand, Hally possesses a pessimistic attitude. Hally only sees people bumping into each other. Sam sees the bumping, the conflicts, and the struggles but still continues to hope for something better. Fugard illustrates the importance of having hope and a vision of the future when faced with tough circumstances. Hally, because of his pessimistic attitude, cannot confront his problems directly and seems to be a ball of string slowly unraveling. Sam, although he is less educated and less valued in society, still enjoys his life and has a strong resolve. The comparison of the two attitudes and their respective emotional conflicts show that hope is a necessity when faced with struggles. Through Sam’s wishes for the future, Hally’s negative and contrasting attitude, and Hally’s deep admiration for the Sam show that the capacity for hope is a necessity when dealing with life situations and is a feature of the plight of South Africans suffering under apartheid.
Furthermore, Athol Fugard exposes the fragility of friendship through the relationship between Sam and Hally. Sam and Hally’s friendship is rooted in a long history of continually spending time together. Hally recalls memories with Sam as if Sam was his biological father. In this passage, Sam and Hally talk to each other freely, free of the restraints of race because they are good friends. In the stage directions, Athol Fugard depicts the “deep and sincere admiration” Hally has for Sam even though he is a black man. The relationship between Sam and Hally seems built upon a strong foundation. However, the Whites only bench that Sam is forced to leave Hally sitting on as a child foreshadows the end of the relationship between the two individuals. Hally brutally insults Sam and uses racial slurs and jokes to degrade him during a fury of anger and frustration at his biological father. The end of the relationship between Sam and Hally shows the fragility of friendship when a tender nerve is hit—that tender nerve being race. If Sam represents a capacity for hope, the Hally represents a capacity for hate. This broken relationship between Sam and Hally, which capsizes in a few moments, forces the reader an audience to reexamine their own views on racism. What would it take for anyone to cross the same thin line that Hally crossed? This passage and its relationship with the text as a whole shows that friendship is fragile, especially when in the minds of some individuals lies anger hate and racism.
“Master Harold and the Boys” examines the relationship between the races in South Africa during apartheid and submerges the reader into the psyche of those experiences this historical era. Fugard, with his poignant and carefully chosen words, expands on the injustices of apartheid, the necessity of the capacity for hope, and the fragility of friendship when battling deep-rooted beliefs such as racism. Fugard paints a picture of apartheid while simultaneously confronting the reader with choices such as right or wrong, hope or hate, and compassion or racism.
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