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November 22, 2004

The History Boys - Alan Bennett

Posted by Elaine Sternberg

Alan Bennett's The History Boys
directed by Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertory May 2004 - April 2005

After so many revivals of mediocre musicals, it's a pleasure to encounter an intelligent, moving, literate, and extremely funny new play (with music) at the Lyttelton Theatre: The History Boys by Alan Bennett.

Nearly forty years on from his first play, Forty Years On, Bennett again focuses on the nature of education. The History Boys is set in a Sheffield grammar school in the early 1980s, where a league-table obsessed headmaster is determined that eight boys should sit, and succeed at, the Oxbridge entrance exam. To improve the boys' chances, he asks Irwin, a history supply teacher, to convey his presumed Oxford polish to the candidates.

Irwin advises the boys to ignore truth, and to take a contrarian view - no matter how outrageous - on any topic; according to Irwin, the best way to ensure examination success is to titillate jaded examiners by subverting facts. In a prologue set many years later, we see Irwin fulfilling his duplicitous nature as a politician, even as he denies that role:

I am in government, not politics,
he asserts arrogantly. Invoking a phrase that could have come from virtually any recent government minister, he claims that a soundbite is sufficient for justifying the abolition of trial by jury.
The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom
he proclaims, while shamelessly admitting the meaninglessness of the phrase.

Irwin's approach to history, life and literature is contrasted with that of Hector, a charismatic, Falstaffian English master (played by Richard Griffiths), who espouses a more traditional view of education. The headmaster despises Hector, not because he is a bad teacher, but because

it is impossible to measure or quantify his results.
Contemptuous of 'general studies', Hector fills the hours instead with the closest he considers acceptable to real education: inculcating the boys with a love of literature and language, by inspiring them to absorb, and learn by heart, poetry, drama, music and philosophy. Hector tells the boys:

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 you have it, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

According to Hector, it is not just that

exams are the enemy of education.
Even more strongly, he asserts that
education is the enemy of education.
So opposed is the romantic Hector to the utilitarian approach evinced by Irwin and the headmaster, that he would prefer the boys to eschew using what they have learned if it would help them to get ahead.

Conflicting approaches to education are a central theme of The History Boys, as they were in The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury's novel of 1970s university life. But although it is clear that Bennett's sympathies lie with Hector, he is wrong to suggest that knowledge is sullied or undermined by being put to use. Nor, contra Hector, is seeking to explain something - even something as profoundly horrible as the Holocaust - equivalent to explaining it away. Conversely, not all that the unscrupulous Irwin says is false. However slight the relation between education and exams or credentials, it is nevertheless true that the highest marks are unlikely to be won by conventional or pedestrian scripts.

The educational theme is complicated by a subplot. It emerges that Hector fondles the boys who accept pillion rides on his motorbike. Although the favoured boys ('his privates they', as it were) accept this "benediction" with a weary tolerance, the headmaster seizes the opportunity to dismiss Hector, with tragic results.

It is not clear, however, what we are to make of these developments. Is it that traditional approaches to education are so immensely valuable, that Hector's habits are unimportant by comparison? Is it that liberal education is so broadening that it permits the boys to be wiser than contemporary 'experts' who would condemn Hector's acts as child abuse? Is it that any attempt to combine traditional and examination-oriented approaches to education is doomed to disaster, like the fateful motorbike ride taken by Hector and Irwin?

No answers are given by Mrs Lintott, an uninspired history teacher (played by Frances de la Tour) who comments sardonically on the action. Though no doubt characteristic of many teachers, she reveals little but her own deep-seated disillusion and misanthropy. History is

masculine ineptitude, [with] women following behind with the bucket;
she manages to find feminist fuel even in the ontological aphorisms of the Tractatus.

Mrs Lintott and the caricature headmaster are the weakest points of the production. Played by Clive Merrison as a screeching semi-hysteric, the headmaster, though again perhaps a recognisable educational type, is nevertheless at odds with an otherwise realistic production that is crisply directed by Nicholas Hytner. The rest of the performances are superb. Stephen Campbell Moore convincingly portrays the meretricious Irwin both as a young teacher and as a mature minister. The boys are uniformly excellent, displaying impressive acting and musical ability. Outstanding even in that company were Samuel Barnett, as the conflicted, Jewish Posner, Dominic Cooper as Dakin, the boy desired both by his fellow students and the masters, and Jamie Parker, as Scripps, who not only acts and sings, but also provides much of the piano accompaniment.

In sum, this is an engrossing, entertaining, intelligent and witty play that deserves to be seen.
Elaine Sternberg 2004

Dr Elaine Sternberg is a philosopher and the author of Just Business: Business Ethics in Action, Oxford University Press, 2000.

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