Both "Master Harold and the Boys" and "Death of a Salesman" take place in tumultuous periods in their respective countries' history. These periods provide the backdrop for both plays and the basis for many of the thematic elements present in the narratives. Using the conditions imposed by apartheid in South Africa and the aftermath of World War II in the U.S, both dramas explore the response of a contained group to certain stressors.
"Master Harold and the Boys" takes place during the apartheid era in South Africa, the period in which racial segregation and discrimination were institutionalized in the country. Social reform is a major thematic element discussed in the play, with Sam and Hally stopping to discuss what it truly means to be a “social reformer”. Each suggests his own examples of “a man of some magnitude”, but while Sam’s first instinct is a man who has made tangible societal and racial progressions, Abraham Lincoln, whereas Hally suggests Charles Darwin, a man who only reformed society in terms of high-browed intellectual dialogue. Darwin's theory of evolution didn't help improve conditions for slaves in 19th century America or blacks in apartheid-era South Africa. Rather, he suggested a concept that only the intellectuals and aristocrats of Europe were really exposed to.
"Death of a Salesman" follows the Loman family in the aftermath of the second World War and chronicles their catastrophic financial failures. The World War II era occurred 30 years after the American Great Depression and the era that followed was idealized as a "golden age" for the United States, a period of unbridled capitalist success in the face of Soviet Communism. Willy possesses a similarly romanticized perception of life and work as he continuously contends that Biff and Happy will be successful, even when all evidence points to them being wholly unsuccessful. When discussing Biff's work ethic with his wife Linda, Willy rationalizes that "Certain men just don’t get started till later in life. Like Thomas Edison." The most apt comparison in Willy's opinion for Biff, a kleptomaniac who threw away his college education, is Thomas Edison. Willy operates under the assumption that there is always hope for his sons even when, with the financial reality of a working class family and his sons' blatant lack of work ethic.