Tolstoy's Presence in Fugard's "Master Harold" ... and the Boys: Sam's Pacifist Christian Perseverance and "A Case of Illness

By Urban, David V. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Tolstoy's Presence in Fugard's "Master Harold" ... and the Boys: Sam's Pacifist Christian Perseverance and "A Case of Illness


Urban, David V., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


THE anticipated release in late 2010 of a movie version of Athol Fugard's "MASTER HAROLD" ... and the boys promises increased scholarly examination of Fugard's original 1982 drama, a play considered by many scholars to be Fugard's finest work. (2) For those who may not know the play, a summary is in order. Set in 1950 apartheid South Africa, the play takes place on a rainy afternoon in a Port Elizabeth tea room and has three characters: seventeen-year-old Hally (Harold), whose family owns the tea room, and Sam and Willie, two black men who are the family's longstanding employees. As the play begins, Willie laments his dim prospects in an upcoming dance competition. He complains that his girlfriend and dance partner Hilda won't practice with him. Sam tells Willie to treat her properly. After Hally enters, his close but patronizing relationship with Sam becomes evident. Fancying himself Sam's educator, Hally discusses with Sam certain men of magnitude whom they admire for bettering the world. The three characters reminisce, and Hally affectionately remembers when Sam built him a kite that they flew together.

A phone call from Hally's mother informs Hally that his alcoholic, crippled father wants to return home early from his present hospitalization. The frustrated Hally eventually yells at both men and hits Willie. Sam attempts to soothe Hally by describing the dancing championships. Hally becomes intrigued and begins to write an essay about the championships to fulfill a school assignment. Sam's description of the dance floor as "a world in which accidents don't happen" (45) genuinely moves Hally, who connects this hopeful image with a greater hope for a better world. The conversation is interrupted by another call from Hally's mother, who confirms that his father has come home. Hally explodes into a rant against his father; when Sam implores him to stop, Hally tells Sam and Willie his father's racist joke about "a nigger's arse" (55). He eventually spits in Sam's face, exiting the tea room ashamed but without apology. After Hally departs, Willie promises Sam that he'll apologize to Hilda, and he puts his bus fare money in the juke box so that the two men can hear a Sarah Vaughan song. They dance together as the play ends.

A deeper understanding of both Hally's and Sam's respective characters as well as their relationship can be gained by examining their aforementioned men of magnitude discussion. (3) During this conversation, Hally reveals his ignorance and immaturity on a number of levels, but a particularly striking aspect involves his professed admiration for Leo Tolstoy, whom Hally claims to admire for his "social reform and literary genius" (21). Hally even demonstrates his adolescent hubris by comparing himself to Tolstoy, telling Sam that "Tolstoy may have educated his peasants, but I've educated you" (23). But Hally's stated respect for Tolstoy is deeply ironic, for in the course of the play his words and actions explicitly contradict both the radical egalitarianism and Christian pacifism that Tolstoy himself championed, thus demonstrating both Hally's ignorance of the great man with whom he tries to identify and his own pitiful self-absorption. By contrast, Sam, whose knowledge of Tolstoy seems limited to basic information learned from Hally, actually exemplifies Tolstoy's philosophy of egalitarianism and Christian pacifism and, perhaps most significantly, demonstrates a compassionate dignity toward his difficult "master" in a manner strikingly reminiscent of Tolstoy's Gerasim, the kindly peasant servant who cares for the dying Ivan in The Death of Ivan Ilych. Of particular interest is how Sam, like Gerasim, perseveres in an unpleasant task for his "master" because he recognizes that Hally's regrettable behavior is brought about by, to use Gerasim's phrase, "a case of illness" (47).

HALLY'S first ironic disconnect with Tolstoy involves the youth's failure to live up to Tolstoy's philosophy of radical egalitarianism even though Hally himself makes favorable reference to it. …

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