“Master Harold”…and the boys is a multifaceted, stirring testament to the cruelty of apartheid in South Africa. It is Athol Fugard’s most frequently performed and most popular play. Based on events from Fugard’s life, Master Harold is renowned for its evocation of painful memories from South Africa’s troubled history. He strikingly portrays the pervasive racism and patriarchy of the time while working to exorcise his own personal demons.
When Athol Fugard was a child, his mother managed the Jubilee Residential House and the St. George Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Meanwhile, Fugard’s father was disabled, which kept him from working. He was also an alcoholic, going in and out of hospitals, and he held extremely racist opinions. The younger Fugard went by “Hally” as a young man and was very close to two of his family’s older black servants, Sam and Willie. When he was ten, Fugard had an argument with Sam and spat on him. He wrote in his journal that he immediately felt regret and shame. This journal entry served as the inspiration for “Master Harold”.
In a 1982 interview, Athol Fugard explained that he wrote the play “at one level, in an attempt to understand how and why I am the man that I am.” In the same interview, Fugard accused his father of being “full of pointless, unthoughtout prejudices,” but that his mother’s “outrage over the injustice of [South African] society” helped him to develop his progressive moral perspective.
Fugard was forbidden from staging his plays in South Africa because white and black actors could not be onstage together. As a result, Fugard directed the world premiere of “Master Harold”… and the boys at the Yale Repertory Theater in March 1982. Zakes Mokae played Sam, Danny Glover played Willie, and Zeljko Ivanek was Hally. A few months later, the play moved to the Lyceum Theater on Broadway. It received excellent reviews. The New York Times critic wrote that the play “forced [the audience] to confront our own capacity for cruelty – and to see all too clearly just who it is we really hurt when we give in to it.”
By March of 1983, the South African ban on the play was lifted, and “Master Harold”… and the boys premiered at a theater in Johannesburg. The Times reviewer for the South African show observed that audience members were “visibly stunned… many, blacks and whites, were crying.”
The New Yorker proclaimed that the play works on two levels: “as the story of a loving but lacerating relationship between a black man and a white boy; and…as a powerful political statement about apartheid.” In 1989, Time Magazine called Fugard “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world.”
In 1985, “Master Harold”…and the boys was adapted into a television movie starring Matthew Broderick and Mokae. A film version starring Freddy Highmore and Ving Rhames was released in 2010. The play has gone through numerous revivals at playhouses, theaters, and colleges throughout the world.
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