“Master Harold” …and the boys, by the white South African playwright Athol Fugard, is a naturalistic play set in a Tea Room in Port Elizabeth on a rainy day in 1950. Two black servants, Sam and Willie, and their white master’s son Hally (‘Master Harold’), have deep conversations about the good time they had together when Hally was young. In the beginning of the play, Sam and Willie, practice their dancing techniques and talk about an upcoming dance contest. Fugard has created first impressions of situation and characters in the opening of the play by using set design, stage directions, duologue as well as speech and tone. The opening of the play is interpreted as being up to Hally’s first entry. Firstly, the unprofessional and for the audience surprisingly casual and light-hearted situation is created by Fugard’s choice of set design, stage directions and duologue. Secondly, Sam and Willie’s relationship is proven of unequal status, yet intimate and deep, by the difference in speech and tone, and by the choice of topics in the duologue. Finally, initial perceptions of a childish and rude Willie and an intelligent and experienced Sam are constructed through mostly speech and tone.
The unprofessional impression of the Tea Room and the carefree and easy going ambiance is created by set design and stage directions, and duologue. Firstly, the amateurish impression of the business is created by the blackboard on which an untrained hand has chalked up the prices of the items, and by the few sad ferns in pots in the room. Furthermore, the fact that Fugard has chosen to clear all tables to one side, suggests that the business is not doing well, because the Tea Room is not likely to be expecting any customers. Secondly, the audience notices immediately that the mood in the room is casual, by letting Willie start off with singing a song as he mops down the floor.
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This strong mood is then reinforced when Willie suddenly gets up and starts dancing, Sam eagerly encouraging and correcting Willie’s dance technique. The audience must have been surprised by this casual situation, because one must not forget that at the time of the performance, around 1982, apartheid in South Africa was considerably further developed than the setting of the play. The fact that two black men, obviously workers, are without supervision of a white person and that they are enjoying themselves during work must have raised a sense of unease from the spectators, unsure how to react.
The relationship between Sam and Willie is profound, yet Sam seems to have a higher status compared to Willie, as suggested by Fugard’s choice of topic of conversation and by the contrast between the terms of address and physical position. To begin with, the way in which both men communicate is very informal. Willie uses plenty of swear words, like “fuckin’ whore” or “bitch”, whereas Sam uses a higher register, but is still joking around with Willie (“How’s your pillow with the quickstep?”).
This use of language suggests that both men feel at ease and that they have known each other for a very long time already. A sense of intimate relationship is also created by the topics of conversation. Willie is very open with Sam about his relationship with Hilda Samuels, as when he talks about the problems buying food for their baby of which he isn’t even sure it is his son (“Only his hair looks like me.”); he shows no hesitation to discuss the matter with Sam.
Sam even knows that Willie often beats up his girlfriend, suggesting that they have been living alongside for a long time. The audience realises that it is watching an intimate conversation, which makes them attentive, curious and involved in the discussion. Secondly, Sam’s higher social position is suggested by the contrast between the way Sam addresses Willie and vice versa, almost like a teacher-student relation. Sam suggests improvements for Willie’s dance technique, as “Don’t look down!” or “But you’re too stiff!”, as well as how he could be more successful in his relationships with girlfriends (“You hit her too much.”) and Willie reacts willingly to take up the advice.
... All three characters in the play - Sam, Hally and Willie - are successful creations in communicating Fugard's point of view to the reader ... . He is intelligent, articulate and enjoys a generally affectionate relationship with the two waiters in his mother's employ. Hally ... better South Africa. It is also used by Sam to suggest that the relationship between Hally and himself is retrievable:" Should ...
Also, Sam demonstrates the dance as it should be, suggesting that Sam is more experienced. Lastly, a subtle but symbolic detail is the physical positioning of Sam and Willie at the very beginning of the play: Willie is mopping down the floor on his knees, working, while Sam is flicking through a comic book, standing, and obviously not working. Fugard has visualised their relationship by the contrast between kneeling and sitting, and working and relaxing, and this can in fact be applied to the entire rest of the play.
Sam is portrayed as a confident, intelligent and experienced character through his speech and tone. The way Sam guides Willie through the learning process of the quickstep, and even demonstrates a much more accomplished dance than Willie, indicates he is a skillful dancer himself. Fugard has made the audience feel sympathy towards Sam, as he encourages Willie, “Look happy, Willie! Relax Willie!”, although Willie is a hopeless dancer.
Fugard represents Willie’s character as slightly vulnerable, unexperienced, and as a bad lover through his reactions to Sam’s teasing, the difficulties he has with learning the quickstep and through his description of his relationship with girlfriends. Willie is very quickly frustrated by Sam’s advice, like “Yesterday I’m not straight … today I’m too stiff!” and “I try hard because it is hard.”. Willie’s incapability to cope with Sam’s teasing once even results in a small brawl between the two of them: “It’s finish between us.” Furthermore, Willie is clearly a bad love partner, confirmed when he describes his girlfriend as a “whore” and a “bitch”, but which is, quite ironically, provoked by himself hitting his girlfriend every once in a while. This, together with his vulgar choice of language, results in an aversion from the audience to Willie.
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To conclude, Fugard has managed to create strong first impressions in the opening of the play in terms of situation and characters. He has used set design, stage directions and duologue to create an unprofessional and casual ambience. In terms of characters, Fugard has succeeded in associating strong characteristic features to Sam and Willie, both intimate friends, yet separated in a way by an intellectual line.