Recreating the Playwright's Images: Directing Athol Fugard's MASTER HAROLD . . . and the boys

by Roger Schultz
Theater Arts Section
Speech and Communications Department
Texas A&M

A Paper Presented as Part of the
Directing and Acting Panel
7 October 1994

Allow me to begin by thanking the arrangers of this conference for scheduling this affair the day after we opened MASTER HAROLD . . . and the boys and giving me nearly the whole day to read the reviews and temper the inflated egos of my actors. (Those of you who direct know how time- consuming and exhausting it is--as a result this paper, which is not yet finished, was thrown together, literally, in a couple of hours yesterday before dress rehearsal and today between classes. If it is a little disjointed I ask your understanding.)

Allow me also to share with you the high regard in which I hold Fugard and the high regard in which others hold him. 'His plays are timeless,' declares Mel Gussow of the New York Times.'He is one of the few living dramatists who can be talked about in terms of greatness.' (Mel Gussow, 'Fugard's Humanism,' South Africa Literature Series I Stephen Gray, ed., Johannesburg: 1982, p. 94.) In fact, Time calls him 'The greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world.' (William A. Henry, III, 'Enemy of the People,' Time 18 April 1988, p.81.) 'There may be be 2 or 3 living playwrights in the world who can write as well as Fugard,' claims Frank Rich of the New York Times, 'but I'm not sure that any of them has written a recent play that can match Master Harold.' (New York Times 5 May 1982.) And, according to Robert Brustein, the 'Dean' of American theatre critics and Director of Boston's ART, 'Fugard may become the first playwright in history to be a candidate for canonization.' (Andre Brink, 'All of Me: Andre Brink Interviews Athol Fugard,' Leadership Vol. IX, No. 3, April 1990, p.75.')

And about the play: According to Ron Cohen of Women's Wear Daily, 'Fugard's uncompromising commitment as an artist [in Master Harold] brings a rare nobility to the stage.' (Women's Wear Daily 5 May 1982.) In The Wall Street Journal, Edwin Wilson calls Master Harold, 'A remarkable play that provides an incomparable theatre experience.' (Wall Street Journal, 7 May 1982.) And, '`Master Harold' is that rare theatre experience;' declares Douglas Watt of The New York Daily News, 'a perfect work of art!' (New York Daily News 5 May 1982.)

And finally, allow me to share with you the similar quotes from similar sources regarding my work as a director. (Shuffle through a few pages finding nothing and saying nothing.) Thank you.

Realizing that this conference is centered around the generic classification of dramatic literature, I couldn't resist the urge to 'tweak' you scholars just a little.

Ahhhh!! 'Generic classifications'--the nearly infinite variety from that veritable flower garden of literary criticism. 'Tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,' (Hamlet II.ii, 406-7) and so it goes, on and on in the words of 'this counselor . . . most secret, and most grave,/ who was in life a foolish prating knave.' (III.iv, 214-15.)

'What is in a name?' (or for that matter, a genre)

'A rose (or play) by any other name would smell as sweet. ..'

I'm not convinced that the use of the various genres as a means of classifying the various forms of plays is a good thing. While he did not invent the generic terms 'comedy' and 'tragedy,' it may be that Aristotle is to blame, since he began much of the classification by his constant references to them in The Poetics. (Or maybe it was just sloppy work by his student whose notes we call The Poetics.) And, I not so sure we should thank Plautus for further confusing the issue by coining the term 'tragicomedy.' If only Aristotle had stuck with his distinction between the narrative and the dramatic we may have been better off. It may be that our attempts to categorize lead us to preconceived notions about what we are to see. We have struggled for years to define tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, melodrama, farce, etc. And yet there are, no doubt, as many definitions of each as there are scholars in this room.

So, today, paraphrasing Aristotle via Bywater (Ingram Bywater, 'Poetics,' Aristotle Friedrich Solmsen, ed., New York: 1954.) 'Our subject being Poetry, I propose to speak . . . [not] of the art in general ,[nor] of its species and their respective capacities. . .' (The Poetics 1447a,1-2) but of 'the manner in which each kind of object is represented (1448a,19-20) . . . . as though they were actually doing the things described.' (23) 'This in fact . . . is the reason for plays being termed dramas, because in a play the personages act the story.' (29-30)

A quick glance at the title page of the text tells us that Fugard is not about to be trapped by generic classifications. Throughout the play he makes wonderful use of both the humorous and the serious, juxtaposing them, to create what he calls a 'drama.' I would like to deal with his work using that term.

For Fugard as playwright and for me as director, work begins, not with consideration of form or generic classification or even with ideas but with images-here defined as 'vivid visuals and/or aural/oral imitations or representations of events or individuals...From the very first, the generative--the seed of what energy's involved and goes on to produce a play--comes from images, not ideas,' declares Fugard, '. . . something I have to see or hear, not think, but see or hear,' (Athol Fugard, 'Writer and Region,' Statements: Occasional Papers of the Phelps- Stokes Fund No. 2, March 1987, p. 19.) that leads to crafting of the play. Once finished, however, the text of the play is still an incomplete work of art. It comes to life only on the stage.

My job, as a director, is to take those images which have been put into a narrative form (and that is all the text is) and recreate them in dramatic form. My job is to manifest these images and send them on to the audience. To use the dancing metaphor, which Fugard employs so beautifully in this play-he creates the text and my job is to 'follow his lead'-to take not only the images which he explicitly supplies, but to create additional images which are implied in the narrative text.

In Master Harold, Fugard has given us the overall image of sublime memories juxtaposed with grotesque reality. In a more specific sense the play is composed of a number of central images--ballroom dancing, kite making and flying, and institutionalized racism all of which are presented in a metatheatrical motif to create in the tea room a microcosm of our racist and bigoted world.

Before we examine these images let me briefly recount the plot. 'Master Harold' is Hally, a precocious white South African teenager, and 'the boys' are Willie, a colored man, and Sam, a black man, both of whom work for his family and are old enough to be his father. It is 1950 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and as the play opens, Hally, on his way home from school, stops in at the family- owned tea room, where Willie and Sam are cleaning up and practicing their ballroom dancing in preparation for the 'event of the year' in New Brighton-a black township just outside Port Elizabeth. As Hally talks and jokes with the two men with whom he has enjoyed a nearly life-long camaraderie, familiarity, and affection, they begin to share common memories. He also shares his learning with them as they share the stuff of their daily lives with him.

The mood is easy and calm, until Hally learns that his crippled, alcoholic father is about to be released from the hospital and will be home again, where his presence is painfully disruptive. Despite Hally's desperate admonitions, his mother is either too weak or too frightened (or both) to try to prevent his release. Then Hally, suddenly angry, frustrated and afraid, turns viciously on Willie and Sam, lashing out at them as he's never done before. In the horrifying climax, each character's anguish is illuminated in a blaze of emotional devastation as Sam 'drops his trousers . . . and presents his backside for Hally's inspection,' and Hally 'spits in his face,' (Athol Fugard, 'Master Harold' . . . and the boys New York: 1982. P. 61.) and we are made to understand how the underlying realities of place and time can come to dominate what we do and who we are. The plot is derived from an actual incident in Fugard's life and he presents it as a picture of himself as a youth caught in emotional turmoil as he made the inescapable move from the innocence of childhood to the poisonous bigotry of 'mature' adulthood.

Among the most obvious images Fugard uses is that of life as a dance-a vision of a world in which 'accidents don't happen; a vision of a world without collisions.'

The play begins with two simultaneous rituals: 1) the boys preparing the dilapidated old tea room for the next business day: as the curtain rises it is a mess, chairs and tables piled on top of one another, floor half scrubbed, windows dirty, etc.; and 2) the boys preparing for the ballroom dancing contest-dancing around the room with invisible partners.

The play ends with 1) the tea room prepared--all the tables and chairs set, the floor scrubbed and the windows washed; and 2) the boys continuing their dancing, gliding effortlessly through the clutter of the tea room.

The final image of Sam's (and, I might add, Fugard's) 'world without collisions' is foreshadowed in a couple of scenes as Hally, Sam and Willie simultaneously and alternately dance and reminisce. For example, just before the climax of the play, the room is partially set up and we see Sam explaining 'a world without collisions' to Hally as Willie glides around the cluttered room. When the dream world is interrupted by the 'bump' from Hally's Mom-- the final telephone call--Willie bumps into a chair and his dream, like Hally's, is destroyed.

This final image is only suggested by Fugard. While he indicates that the Boys are in the process of cleaning the room, he mentions very little specific action. What we have done is prepared the tea room for tomorrow. And in the course of so doing we have set up a difficult obstacle course which only experienced dancers could negotiate-a tea room resembling a crowded ballroom dance floor complete with the archetypal mirrored glass ball. An image of a safe world inhabited only by the Boys as, having violently bumped into Hally, they continue to dream of a world without collisions. This image is representative of a ritual they have completed many times before as they playfully dance through their cluttered day.

The final image is that of harmony among men. Unfortunately, at the time the play is set and the time of its composition, it was harmony between two black men or, as we play it, between a black man and colored man. However, we have the knowledge that it was the white man, Hally (Athol) who went on to write about Sam's dream. It was 'Hally' who in the end learned the lesson that was being taught on that rainy afternoon.

Like the dancing image, that of the kite also appears throughout the play. For our audience, the image is introduced even before they enter the theatre. The kite, or at least the image of a kite in flight, became the promotional logo for the show. The original design included a string enclosure completely surrounding the flyer's hand-a representation of an individual who is surrounded by a constricting society and who is free only in the dream of flying the kite.

Closely aligned with the image of the kite, perhaps included in with it, is the image of the 'whites-only bench.' While the kite conjures up images of togetherness, the bench presents an image of separateness or to use the Afrikaans term 'apartheid.'

As long as the 'whites only bench' exists and Hally continues to make use of it, the kite will only be a memory of youth. Throughout our production the characters move freely about the entire tea room-where, at least after hours, there are no 'whites only' benches. It is not until near the end of the play, that they are separated. Here Sam and Willie remain behind the counter creating the image of servants waiting to, in Hally's words, '. . . get on with [their] job[s].' (Fugard, Master Harold, p. 58.) But even this picture changes as Sam reaches out one last time for Hally.

In addition to the obvious freedom implied by a soaring kite and the obvious communion, control and bonding between the kite and its handler, the kite making and flying is presented as something of which to be proud. The kite in this sublime memory is not a newly purchased, 'store-bought' kite fresh from the factory but a recently completed 'homemade' kite constructed from the litter and the garbage of their lives. It is not something new, something from the outside foisted upon their lives but something made from the scraps of their lives. Their kite is a phoenix. It once flew and as we see in the 'new South Africa' it may fly again.

The images of the kite and the dance are presented through a metatheatrical motif-everything is acted out. This is the result of the few stage directions Fugard gives, which not only imply 'acting out the story' but demand that the characters 'perform' for one another. For example, as Hally recreates the image of their early bonding and conjures up the memory of the old Jubilee Boarding House he exclaims: 'I bet I could still find my way to your room with my eye closed.' To which Fugard adds, '(He does exactly that.)' (Fugard, Master Harold, p. 28.) And later, as Sam describes the finale to ballroom dancing context the text reads: 'SAM. (Onto the chair to act out the M.C.).' (Fugard, Master Harold, p. 48.)

The 'let's pretend' images of the play occur not only in the stage directions but in the dialogue as well. For example, once Hally completes his recreation of the setting for the Old Jubilee he exclaims 'Right, so much for the stage directions. Now the characters.' (p. 30) and he proceeds to describe Sam and Willie. Here, following Fugard's implicit lead, we proceeded to act out as much of the narration of the text as possible. Sam and Willie 'act out' Hally's continued description turning the narrative into the dramatic. Each man takes up a chair as a representation of his bed. Willie even uses his apron as a blanket to cover up his as Hally, now a director, works to bring the scene to life.

All of this 'play-acting' helps to reinforce one final image-the world of the tea room as a metaphor for, or microcosm of, the rest of South Africa which we, in turn, see as a microcosm for the world. As with the other images we follow Fugard's lead. He sees his hometown as representative of all of South Africa, which, while we might like to think otherwise, is not that different from the rest of the world. 'In Port Elizabeth,' he declares, 'I think, you have a microcosm in a microcosm.' There are, he says, 'black, white, Indian, Chinese, and Colored (mixed race). It is also very representative of South Africa in the range of its social strata, from total affluence on the white side to the extremest poverty of the non- white.' (Fugard, Statements, p. 16.)

Fugard has noted that the circumstances of his life have set him in opposition to the previous government's apartheid policy and makes it clear that in his plays he is, to use his own words, 'judging my own people for what they have done to themselves, done to the Black people in that country, done to the Colored people in that country, done to the Indian people in that country, done to the Chinese people in that country. My sense of myself as judge came about without my realizing it; it came out of a sense of the common humanity of all people in that country.' (Fugard, Statements, p. 16.) Hopefully, the series of images simulated by our recreation of the formal apartheid of South Africa, will help to make our audiences aware of the informal 'separateness' which still lingers in our society and breeding the same kind of institutional racism we see in Hally.

We have tried to extend the image through the multicultural casting specifically casting the play not with two blacks but, in the apartheid terms, with a black man and a colored man.

Roger Schultz
Texas A&M