The History Boys
by Alan Bennett
"The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours." (p.56)
Today is the birthday of British playwright and humorist Alan Bennet. I note this because, when in January, 2007, I began this blog in earnest, it was Bennett, more than anything else, that was the inspiration for my doing so; specifically, his play The History Boys and the film version of it that had premiered a few months earlier.
The play is a great read for many reasons and all of them deeply resonated with me. Most important was the devotion to the importance of language (centered on the "dictionary" boy role of Posner) and music and ideas, more clearly emphasized in the play than in the screenplay for the film (also written by Bennett).
The play contrasts the differing perspectives on education of the two lead teachers (Hector and Irwin). Without the need to "open up" demanded by film Bennett focuses on the schoolroom and uses subtle effects to effect his dramatic purpose. One aspect of the play that stands out is the multiple narrators throughout the drama. Bennett is at his epigrammatic best and the audiences in New York showed their appreciation of this as noted by the reviews. He is successful in creating a delightful dramatic and comedic portrayal of ideas, all while evoking the spirit of bright young scholars at a key turning point in their lives. With reference to and in the spirit of Shakespeare he dramatizes events in and outside of the classroom touching on both the desires of the heart and the wonders of imaginative young minds.
The battle between educational styles centers on the approaches to teaching of the teachers Hector (the idealistic humanist) and Irwin (practical and pragmatic). The foundation for the boys is Mrs. Lintott's straightforward, perhaps old-fashioned, approach to teaching history which has produced "well taught" boys; however that is not enough to assure them success in achieving entrance to Oxford or Cambridge. The headmaster, in his "wisdom" adds into the mix a young teacher just up from Oxford to give the students an "edge". It is his, Mr. Irwin's, pragmatic method which uses paradox and the subjunctive. He aims to turn the historical facts upside-down, with little regard for the "truth" of the situation providing the "history boys" the ammunition to go to battle with the methods of Hector, the humanistic "general studies" teacher who attempts to enlist the boys into a conspiracy against the world and the "education" they are supposedly receiving.
"Mrs. Lintott: They're all clever. I saw to that.
Hector: You give them an education. I give them the wherewithal to resist it."
"Scripps: But it's all true.
Irwin: What has that got to do with it? What has that got to do with anything?"
With all of this battle of educational styles there added an undercurrent of eroticism, both due to the nature of education itself, as Hector points out, and due to the psychological tensions among Dakin and his two admirers, Posner and Irwin. This combination, which explodes at times to produce riveting moments of theater, is what makes this play great. That and the magnificent literary style of Bennett that has continued to inspire me to this day.