“MASTER HAROLD”…AND THE BOYS: Great Playwrights…make average directors

The Signature Theatre Company’s revival of “Master Harold”…and the boys by Athol Fugard – which he also directed – unexpectedly called to mind the necessity of the separation of church and state to a country’s success. Even though the play does not particularly delve into civic theology (religion is only mentioned in passing), Signature’s production served as yet another reminder of one of my more tried-and-true artistic tenets that’s just as crucial to the continued vitality of theatre as the ol’ ‘church and state’ adage is to government: the separation of a playwright from his play through the all-important intermediary of a director.

I don’t mind this art, but did it really need to have the subtlety of a sledgehammer?

As seasoned playwrights work their way to an increased amount of artistic liberty, their careers-worth of experience will often convince them – and their producers – that they should be entrusted with directing productions of their own plays. Whether a new work or a revival, this decision almost always brings about tepid results, largely because theatre is perhaps the most collaborative of artistic mediums, one for which the importance of factoring in as many different perspectives as possible is embodied in how many ‘perspectives’ consume that art on the part of the audience for any performance. Removing a director’s perspective from that collaborative alchemy often produces a palpable lack of the sort of diverse viewpoints that always should be in challenging conversation with each other in any production.

There are of course exceptions, the two strongest – and most recent – of which being St. Ann’s Warehouse production of Daniel Kitson’s Mouse – The Persistence of an Unlikely Thought and the Public Theater’s production of Richard Nelson’s THE GABRIELS: Election Year in the Life of One Family, both of which Kitson and Nelson, respectively, also directed. Yet these are very specific, new, and, frankly, peculiar works whose success relies so much on the writing and directing being on the exact same page to communicate their abnormal visions. “Master Harold”…and the boys is a far more conventional play (which doesn’t necessarily equate to being worse at all, though I personally do prefer more inventive fare), and as such a different, a visionary director would have brought a refreshing level of innovation to the playwright’s original text. 

For a revival of a popular play that has been a part of the American repertory for decades – such as “Master Harold”…and the boys ­– a director must face the monumental tasks of not only exploring elements hitherto ignored or perhaps even unrealized, but also incisively conveying from curtain up to curtain down how the play resonantly pertains to the current world outside of the theatre that has no doubt changed in some way since the play premiered. Perhaps Mr. Fugard claimed – both to himself and others – that he was uniquely positioned to helm a production of the play since no one else on Earth has probably seen as many productions of it as him, thus affording him more than enough experience in knowing firsthand what approaches to the play do and don’t work. But that in itself is almost the problem: Mr. Fugard most probably does have ‘more than enough’ knowledge of past productions, in that he’s too aware of what’s been done before to sufficiently deviate from the norm to shape a production tailor-made for today.

Instead of adopting such a novel approach, his production of “Master Harold”…and the boys feels textbook, both because it strives to pull off nothing more than what past productions have previously achieved, and also because what it does achieve is nothing more than can be gleaned in a perfunctory reading of the original text. If this was the production that Fugard had long envisioned but never been given the opportunity to stage – a convincing rationale in theory, even though he did direct the original Broadway production – then he should be patting himself on the back 35 years later for writing a text that very much captures his initial vision. But simply staging that vision now after 35 years’ worth of similar stagings – including two movies! – does not provide sufficient justification for this production’s existence because the experience of seeing it adds very little – if anything at all – to the easily accessible (and for a much cheaper price too!) original text. 

For fear of accidentally casting shade on the uniformly game ensemble of three (Leon Addison Brown, Sahr Ngaujah, and Noah Robbins), I must explicitly absolve them of bearing the brunt of this production’s shortcomings. One of a director’s most important jobs is to communicate their all-encompassing vision of the production to the cast, and as such that director is at fault if every performer succumbs to the same performance trappings. Fugard seems as apt as a director at eliciting in his actors the type of sensitivity to character that’s a signature of his writing, but like his vision for the rest of the production, he fails to challenge his cast to find layers to their characters previously unexplored. None of their performances will make audiences understand their characters anew, in the same way that this production won’t make them understand the play in a new way. Overall, the cast delivers committed, if not a bit emotionally distant performances.

But again, they cannot be blamed for that emotional distance because it pervades every aspect of the production, and thus the finger once again must be pointed in the direction of the playwright cum director. Perhaps this emotional distance is simply a result of the temporal distance Fugard has travelled with the play. To rephrase the aforementioned rationale he may have used to persuade himself and the powers that be that this production would be worthwhile: how can he be expected to make his audiences see the play through new eyes when his eyes as a director – the person whose eyes the audience must look through – can’t forget seeing the image of every previous iteration? His perspective on the play is inherently intertwined with its history, preventing him from fully being able to tap into how to allow the play to speak specifically to the present.

The only instance of the direction communicating anything not found in the original text may have actually been unintentional: the decision to black out a majority of the Irene Diamond Stage by building the walls and ceiling of the cafe setting much closer than the space dictates was probably an attempt to increase the set’s claustrophobia. These close quarters most probably were intended to symbolize the social immobility inflicted upon those living on either side of systematic racism such as apartheid, but the rectangular window created by the set being surrounded by black walls all around looked like a literal window into the past, a fitting symbol for Fugard’s entire directorial approach.

A revival by its very existence is an innate portal to a bygone era, and as such they cannot be commended solely for accomplishing this feat, symbolized here by the production design. Truly significant revivals probe deeper than such superficial presentations to frame the original texts not only as an opportunity to revisit the past but also, and far more importantly, as temporally-tinged yet pressingly – perhaps even presciently – relevant reflections of the present. Without changing the directorial means by which Fugard tells his story, this “Master Harold”…and the boys comes off like a distant time capsule only reflecting the past – one that’s still relevant today, but most of the past is – as opposed to what it should have been: a long-gestating, reflective time bomb that’s been unknowingly ticking for years, waiting to explode the audience’s expectations, conceptions, and perceptions of the play and its issues as only a work exclusively made for today can. Revivals need to allow the original plays to reach out, grab the audience, and explain to them exactly how it speaks to them right now. By not overcoming the aforementioned distant approach to this production, Fugard ultimately just basically gently indicates to the audience that they shouldn’t forget his play.

What makes “Master Harold”…and the boys such a frustrating case study in this phenomenon is that so many of its themes are in fact some of the most relevant social topics in America – and maybe even the world – today. Much of the play can be seen as an exploration of the differences between those privileged enough to study oppression and those forced to suffer through that oppression, and how as much as the former would like to believe they understand the latter, their interactions in the play speak to the nearly insurmountable chasm between learned experience and lived experience. On a deeper level, the tragic conclusion to these interactions reaffirms an individual’s inability to escape systematic racism; no matter how enlightened someone in power may seem, in moments of insecure weakness, they can too easily resort to making themselves feel more empowered by exploiting the power structures built in their favor.

Since this production did inspire these thoughts, one can argue that it indeed reflected contemporary culture, but that had less to do with the strength of this production and much more to do with the excellence of the original text (there’s a reason that “Master Harold”…and the boys was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play when it premiered on Broadway). Fugard wrote an expertly crafted play, one whose dramatic conclusion will always affect an audience because his consistently top-notch character development perfectly feeds into the ending.  

But at least for me personally, the final minutes did not emotionally devastate me in the way that they should have because of the aforementioned distance between the play’s world on stage and the audience’s world just past the lip of the stage. Strong connections can of course be drawn between the two, but for this revival to have truly resonated, it needed to sufficiently alter the way the play is usually directed so that a majority of it felt like it was staged for today, not just staged today. Far too much of the production feels like a relic, and though antiques may be admired, they often need to undergo subtle renovations to bear a significant dramatic purpose that’s more than just revisiting a bygone yet still related era. And simply put, Mr. Fugard – like most other playwrights who try to direct revivals of their past work – has lived with the play for too long to be the person best equipped to determine the best way for it to be staged in way focused on today.

There can of course be exceptions where a playwright engages in a contemporary conversation with his previous self (though I’ve actually never seen a successful one), but for the most part, all such playwright-directed revivals suffer from a serious lack of a complex multiplicity of voices in the room that robs these revivals of the sort of nuanced, theatrical depth that makes them worth paying to see instead of relying on the far cheaper recourse of reading the original plays.

On a completely unrelated note, I just wanted to end by celebrating Mr. Fugard’s far-too-rare achievement of conveying meaning through the grammatical syntax of his title. Master Harold and the Boys would have been a fine title, but the specific quotes, ellipses, and capitalizations of “Master Harold”…and the boys deftly speaks to the themes of the play. First, the quotes around “Master Harold” connect to the two black characters’ tenuous relationship between calling the white character – technically their boss, despite being a child and a sort of friend – the more formal, society-dictated “Master Harold” instead of the more natural, friendlier “Harry.” The question of which of these two monikers more accurately reflects their relationship is perhaps the central question of the play (the end of which, combined with the title, is most probably Fugard’s answer). The ellipses capture how the two black characters in the play – like all black people in apartheid states – would be considered afterthoughts to the far more important white character, and Fugard’s decision not even to capitalize “Boys” (which would be grammatically correct) further reinforces their disenfranchised, insignificantly small status in their society. If only he had devoted as much thought to his direction of this revival as he did the formation of the play’s title back in the day…

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