Interpretation and criticism

Interpretation and criticism are not new to art, there are and and have been opinions on and appreciations of art for a long time in history. Works of art or literature which are famous today did not carry such weight in their times, and this is due to the redefined understanding of such works. This redefined understanding has come about through a definite attempt to reach at the explicit and implicit meanings embedded in the work of art. But as with everything else, interpretation carried to the extreme can have its flip side. What Sontag is talking about here is the importance of taking in the immediacy of experience, and retaining it while doing the analysis, without totally losing this thrill of the senses in the process.
At the time when Sontag wrote this, pop art was very popular, which had room only for experience, but hardly much for interpretation. This was also a fall-out of the fact that art critics just before this time were very eager to categorize every work of art into certain theories and pre-conceived notions, which made way for a very forced manner of looking at things.
It is also true that music needs to be analyzed in order to be learned, and this involves the dissection of their beloved medium for music lovers who also yearn to master it. But after one has absorbed the technicalities of music, they become a sort of second nature, and do not hinder the love and appreciations of the art form. In fact, when one is aware of how exactly the music is made, the enjoyment becomes keener. It is just a matter of going through the difficult transitional learning phase without losing interest or ardor.
From our discussion here it is clear that analysis and interpretation are necessary in order to appreciate and gain an understanding of art. But it is important to do this while keeping fresh the immediate experience that art provides, so as to fully enjoy it and not impose any meanings that even the artist may not have intended in the first place.
Athol Fugurd does follow Norman’s rules to an extent but not to the letter. To start off with, the central issue of apartheid or in the modern context, the need for self respect and compassion for the disadvantaged does not appear in the very beginning. Hally comes in only after the characters of and dynamics between Willie and Sam are fully established. We do not come across the theme until the middle of the play, when Hally makes casual references abut blacks: I mean, seriously, what the hell does a black man know about flying a kite I’ll be honest with you, Sam, I had no hopes for it. But the theme is not directly introduced in the beginning as required by Norman’s rule.
The main characters, Hally and Sam have an extraordinary relationship which comes unraveled towards the end of the play. Through the metaphor of the Man of Magnitude, we see their aspirations of becoming bigger and better than they are, they admire men like Darwin, and Gandhi. Hally also wants to make things work : Just when things are going along all right, without fail someone or something will come along and spoil everything. Hally wishes this were not so, that God himself would undertake to defeat the principle of perpetual disappointment. Sam wants beauty, even if it is transient and can be captured in a few hours of waltzing and foxtrots, and we see him dancing away with Willie in the end. But Hally gets it horribly wrong with Sam, and since this is an autobiographical work by Fugurd, maybe writing the play is his way of setting things right. The audience does identify with both these main characters and their passion, and though Hally is not exactly a likeable character, one can empathize with his youthfulness and his fate of being born to a crippled and self-destructive parent, so Norman’s second and third rule are followed, however tenuously.
Through various flashbacks we see the main characters do other things like, carrying Hally’s father in after his drunken binge or make and fly a kite, so it may seem like they are free to digress from their aspirations. But for Wally the incident of his father’s drunken binge was a test of his filial love, the love he unconsciously gives Sam when his father makes him feel ashamed. Sam creates a thing of beauty when he makes the kite, which gives the small boy something to be proud of instead. So though we see detours taken by the main characters, they actually follow Norman’s fourth rule and stick to their aspirations and passions.
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In a recent interview reprinted in the Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, contemporary American playwright Marsha Norman said that she believes there are absolutely unbreakable rules for writing plays, and it doesn’t matter how good you are, you can’t break them and still have a successful play. These unbreakable rules according to Norman are:
1. You most state the issue at the beginning of the play. The audience must know what is at stake.
2. The theater is all about wanting things that you can or can’t have or you do or do not get. The main character has to want something with such a passion that the audience is interested, that it connects to that passion.
3. The main character has to be likeable. It has to matter to the audience whether he gets what he wants or not.
4. The action cannot stop for detours. On the way to trying to get what he wants, the main character cannot stop and do something else. He might do that in a novel, but not in a play.
You have to evaluate Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the boys according to Norman’s criteria. To what extends does Master Haroldand the boys follow Norman’s rules for writing a good play Would Norman think it is a successful play Your answer should give concrete evidence from the text to support your assertions. Avoid generalizing and try not to substitute plot summary for analysis. Also, make sure that you are thinking about the written version, and not the film version.
Not at all. Fugard’s play is rooted in those times, but the enduring issues it treats–the need for self-respect and compassion for others in misfortune–transcend time and give his play a universality of undiminshed power. The drama lingers in the mind, particularly in this revival. The performances ring so true that watching the play is an act of eavesdropping on a very private experience.
The story concerns a young, white South African boy (Master Harold, or Hally as he is called–the same nickname Fugard had in his youth) and his relationship to two black servants (the boys–Sam and Willie). As the play progresses, we learn of Hally’s alcoholic father and the obvious distress the father causes the boy. For solace, Hally had turned to the two servants when he was younger, and the affection between him and Sam, in particular, is palpable.
Fugard lets the story unfold gradually. We get to know something of Hally and his relationship to his parents. Hally has learned his studies with the help of Sam, and Hally treats Sams learning with callow condescension. Sam and Willie are ballroom dancing enthusiasts, excited by a forthcoming competition. Sam describes the competition, so that Hally can write about it for a homework assignment. Steven Anthony Jones’ performance as Sam gives full measure to the poetic writing that Fugard employs in this part of the play. The language and imagery soar, as we are carried aloft on sentiments of beauty tinged with humor.
Suddenly the tone changes. Where the first hour had a genial, ambling pace, now Fugard increases its intensity. Hally learns his father is coming home from the hospital and is upset by the news. In his frustration he lashes out at Sam–a classic example of misdirected anger hurting a loved one. This leads to the climax of the play, where Hallys injurious and injudicious behavior towards Sam will permanently threaten their relationship.
Perhaps it is the autobiographical nature of the story that has made it possible for Fugard to craft such a subtle work. The political aspects of the story, the facts and implications of living under apartheid, are made clear without preaching. But it is the human relationships, the obvious concern of an older man for the young boy, that are especially affecting. We care for each of the three characters. The torments they endure because of external forces makes their condition particularly poignant.
Jones’ performance as Sam could not be better. He is grand and caring and vulnerable. He moves skillfully through the complexity of the role, without calling attention to his acting. As Master Harold, Jonathan Sanders gives an extraordinary performance for someone so young. He is able to convey the confusion and anger of this unhappy boy and then make the change to a hardened exterior veneer–his armor against further unhappiness.