’Master Harold… and the boys’, the most personal of Athol Fugard’s plays, was born out of a shameful moment that took place during the celebrated playwright’s childhood in Port Elizabeth
HAROLD Athol Lanigan Fugard — or "just plain Hally" until he "bullied, blackmailed, and bribed everyone" into calling him Athol — is one of South Africa’s greatest writers, having written at least 20 plays and one novel, Tsotsi, the film of which won an Oscar in 2006.
Apart from directing and acting in his own plays, Fugard also played Jan Smuts in the movie Gandhi and had a small role in The killing fields.
Port Elizabeth is the setting for many of his plays. Settings include New Brighton (Sizwe Banzi is dead and The island, both with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and The coat), Korsten (The blood knot), Algoa Park (A lesson from aloes), Valley Road (Hello and goodbye), the Swartkops mudflats (Boesman and Lena) and Skoenmakerskop (Marigolds in August).
Jeanette Eve, writer of A Literary Guide to the Eastern Cape, calls Fugard the city’s "foremost literary figure". He has consistently referred to himself as a "regional" writer.
None of his plays are more personally painful than ’Master Harold… and the boys’.
The play is set in the St George’s Park Tearoom, his mother Elizabeth’s "pride and joy". She supported the family by running the tearoom for 30 years. In Cousins: A memoir, Fugard calls it "a place where we all came together to tie and untie that rosary of knots that is every family’s unique history".
Following a production of the play by the Roundabout Theatre Company, Fugard told playwright and director Randy Gener: "Watching the play is a rather painful journey down memory lane for me. I go back in time to that rainy day in the tearoom in Port Elizabeth in 1950 when the three of us — Sam (Semela), Willie (Malopo) and me — were there together and all of that happened."
Semela and Malopo were waiters at the tearoom. They had also worked in Mrs Fugard’s Jubilee Boarding House.
Fugard refers to the incident in his autobiographical Notebooks 1960-1977. Writing in March 1961, he recounts meeting Semela, who had been working for his family for 15 years, again. He says he realised Semela "was the most significant — the only friend of my boyhood years".
"On terrible windy days when no one came to swim or walk in the park, we would sit together and talk," Fugard says. "Can’t remember now what precipitated it, but one day there was a rare quarrel between Sam and myself. In a truculent silence we closed the café, Sam set off for home to New Brighton on foot and I followed a few minutes later on my bike.
"I saw him walking ahead of me and, coming out of a spasm of acute loneliness, as I rode up behind him I called his name, he turned in mid-stride to look back and, as I cycled past, I spat in his face.
Don’t suppose I will ever deal with the shame that overwhelmed me the second after I had done that
"Don’t suppose I will ever deal with the shame that overwhelmed me the second after I had done that."
In the play, Fugard provides more detail of that day. The play opens with Willie and Sam cleaning up the tearoom towards the end of the afternoon, breaking to discuss and practise ballroom dancing steps for an upcoming contest at the New Brighton Centenary Hall.
Hally walks in, wearing school clothes. Easy conversation flows between the three. Among other things, they talk about the boarding house. Sam recalls the "little boy in short trousers" who got into trouble for always hanging around the "servants’ quarters".
Hally recalls Sam making a kite for him. "Little white boy in short trousers and a black man old enough to be his father flying a kite. It’s not every day you see that," he says. It would be just as strange "if it had been me and my Dad … cripple and a little boy".
The chat is interrupted by a phone call from Hally’s mother. She is preparing to take Hally’s father home after a stay in hospital. Hally encourages her to tell a white lie to keep him in hospital. "You know what it’s going to be like if he comes homes," he tells her.
Hally is clearly upset and Sam encourages him to do his homework. Hally decides to write his English essay on ballroom dancing. Sam explains that finalists don’t collide on the floor — "it’s beautiful because that is what we want life to be like".
Mrs Fugard calls again. His father is home. "Then just remember to start hiding your bag away again, because he’ll be at your purse before long for money for booze," the boy tells his mother.
Sam encourages Hally again to write his essay, but Hally retorts: "Do you want to know what is really wrong with your lovely little dream, Sam? It’s not just that we are all bad dancers… You left out the cripples." He continues in a similar vein.
Sam tells Hally: "Take back those words and ask for forgiveness! It’s a terrible sin for a son to mock his father with jokes like that."
Hally: "You’re only a servant in here and don’t forget it."
Eventually, as Sam and Willie prepare to leave the tearoom, Hally says: "Sam…" [Sam stops and looks expectantly at the boy. Hally spits in his face. A long and heartfelt groan from Willie. For a few seconds Sam doesn’t move.]
Sam wipes his face with a handkerchief: "And you’re a coward, Master Harold. The face you should be spitting in is your father’s … but you used mine, because you think you’re safe inside your fair skin…
"You don’t know all of what you’ve just done… Master Harold. It’s not just that you’ve made me feel dirtier than I’ve ever been in my life… I mean, how do I wash off yours and your father’s filth?"
The play is set in 1950. But Fugard wrote it much later. It saw the light of day only in 1982.
At its premier on March 12 1982 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Fugard directed Danny Glover as Willie, Zakes Mokae as Sam, and Zeljko Ivanek as Hally. Mokae won a Tony award for his role as Sam and Fugard for his directing. Glover won the Theatre World Award.
Apartheid was alive and kicking in the 1980s, and Fugard had frequently fallen foul of the South African authorities. For instance, after his 1961 play, The blood knot, was released, government withdrew his passport.
It was largely for this reason that ’Master Harold… and the boys’ premiered outside the country. It was Fugard’s only play to do so.
Fugard told Gener: "If you were to look at my work during the apartheid years, ’Master Harold’ is the least political and the most personal of all my plays. The circumstances, the incidents that compelled me to write that play, actually happened to me when I was a schoolboy. It’s very, very autobiographical.
"Sam and Willie were these two beautiful black men who became my surrogate fathers in my youth," Gener quotes Fugard as saying.
"My own father, who I loved very much, was a very weak man. A boy, at a certain point in his life, needs an image of a real man in his life.
"Two black men provided me with that image of manhood, which was a problem in South Africa because you were taught to think of black men as inferiors. That was the double bind, the problem that the play looks at."
If I had thought that it was all right to commit so ugly an act against another human being, I don’t think I would be talking to you today
In the same interview, Fugard says: "The shame that I felt was the thing that saved me. If I had thought that it was all right to commit so ugly an act against another human being, I don’t think I would be talking to you today.
"One might almost say that what I did to Sam that afternoon opened my eyes to what was happening to me — to what society was doing to me — and it was the beginning of my journey out of the prejudices that characterised white South Africa."
Gener says ’Master Harold’ is generally considered Fugard’s best play, "spurred by an obsessive need to atone for what he did — to slay a restless ghost".
Of the 30-year gap between the incident and the writing, Fugard has said: "All my plays, of course, have gone through long periods of gestation, something akin to a literary pregnancy, but the need to atone for what I did started much earlier than the actual writing of the play.
"I had made several attempts to write little scenarios about Sam and Willie, but none of it got off the ground. One day, when I suddenly put the image of myself next to that of Sam and Willie, I realised that all those previous attempts lacked a very important element — myself.
"The moment I saw myself in the same room with Sam and Willie, the play fell onto the page. Because of its intensely personal nature, because it involved such a strong shame factor, I really needed to grow well beyond it before I could turn around and look back at it."
Fugard invited Semela to the play’s South African premier in 1983. But he never got to see it.
On March 21, 1983, the Rand Daily Mail reported: "Sam Semela is dead and Athol Fugard mourns. Semela died in his New Brighton home three weeks ago, a brand new suit hanging in his cupboard, an airline ticket to Johannesburg unused.
"Tomorrow night he would have been guest of honour at the Market Theatre. There he would have seen a portrayal of himself centre stage; he would have witnessed in graphic, emotion-charged detail the effect he had had on the life and work of a boy nicknamed ’Hally’."
The newspaper continued: "The viciousness [of the incident], and Fugard’s ongoing struggle with it, are there to be seen in the playwright’s most personal dramatic statement to date … in which Sam Semela lives on, his dignity, his innate wholeness intact."
Researched by Janette Bennett with acknowledgments and thanks to:
• Cousins: A memoir by Athol Fugard (Witwatersrand University Press, 1994)
• Notebooks 1960-1977 by Athol Fugard (Theatre Communications Group, 1984)
• ’Master Harold… and the boys’ by Athol Fugard (Oxford University Press, 1983)
• Jeanette Eve: A literary guide to the Eastern Cape by Jeanette Eve (Double Storey Books, 2003)
• Jeanette Eve — unpublished notes
• Rand Daily Mail, March 21, 1983
• http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/fc/summer03/fugard.htm — interview by Randy Gener