Master Harold ... and the Boys by Athol Fugard

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BBC Radio 4, 15 January 2011

Set in South Africa in 1950, at the height of the apartheid era, Master Harold … and the Boys is an autobiographical text, in which Fugard tries to rid himself of guilt for the way in which he treated his African servants as a teenager. His whole life at that time had been shaped by the ideology of Empire – a respect for Britain and British history, its military campaigns, and a belief that the natives should be ‘civilized’ through factual education. He had no understanding of what true ‘education’ comprised – a knowledge of human feeling and a respect for cultural difference.


Marion Nancarrow’s production, recorded in Cape Town, divided the play into three movements. The first, which might be called ‘colonial’ in theme, saw Hally (Andrew Laubscher) bragging about the way in which he had ‘civilized’ his servants, teaching them to play chess, recite the dates of important battles and learn new English vocabulary. In the second movement Harold moved somewhat, as he tried to understand why his two servants Willie (Sizwe Msutu) and Sam (Wiseman Sithole) spent their leisure time practising ballroom dancing rather than pursuing their studies. However Hally’s attitude changed in the final movement, as he expressed his basic prejudice against the African people – not because he actively disliked them – but because he felt his identity as a white supremacist was under threat.


This part of the production was dramatically shocking: Hally spat at Sam, and then paused slightly, as if expecting some reaction. Sam did not respond in kind, but simply changed his mode of address; now the teenager was no longer known by the childish soubriquet 'Hally' but the more formal ‘Master Harold.’ While Harold’s father was a cripple, Harold himself was an emotional cripple, unable to see beyond his own prejudices. By contrast the two Africans pursued their lives, carrying out their orders yet looking forward to their leisure-time when they could enjoy the ebb and flow of ballroom-dancing. The theme of dancing was important; it suggested continuity and stability, uninterrupted by orders from their white employers. The fact that both Africans could perform western dances – the tango, or the foxtrot – suggested they were far better mimics than the whites.


Sound-design assumed an important role in this production: the thump-thump-thump of Sam’s heavy boots on the wooden floor, as he walked up to confront Harold after the teenager had spat at him; the swish of the Africans’ coat-tails as they glided across the floor; the tinkle of cutlery as they cleared up the tea-room where they worked, immediately prior to closing-time. Such sounds emphasized the Africans’ commitment – not only to their jobs (in spite of white provocation) but their leisure-activities, where whites were conspicuously excluded.