Archive for the ‘Bennett, Alan’ Category

Cover of 'The History Boys'Sometime in the 1980s, in a middle-of-the-road state school in England, a group of boys take their O Levels and achieve such good results that the inevitable beckons — they could apply to any university in the land, but it is deemed desirable that they try for Oxford and Cambridge. Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys, evokes this betwixt-and-between period in their lives, when, flush with success, they must prepare for their futures — but what are we to see as the most important aspect of their futures? To Hector, a teacher of studied eccentricity, whose classes embrace everything from French lessons (situation: visit to a brothel), to memorising scenes from movies, to having poetry off “by heart”, the future is something that will make poetry valuable to the boys. To Mrs Lintott, a woman with a solidly academic approach, the future is when the depth of their knowledge of history and their ability to discuss historical events coherently will be tested. But to Irwin, a new teacher, recruited by the headmaster to add a bit of “polish” to his boys before they make the grand attempt at entering Oxbridge, the future will be dependent on presentation — on how much dash and verve and originality they can show, never mind solidity or anything that might be thought of, by common consensus, as reasonable.

So this is a play about the boys and their teachers, but it is no Dead Poets’ Society or Mr Holland’s Opus or any of those tales that are about teachers that inspire and students that learn. Yes, there are teachers here that inspire, but the beauty of Bennett’s play is that he isn’t content to stick to this accepted power relation between teacher and taught; what he gives us instead is a play rich with ambiguity, with students who are far from being children and are sometimes more powerful as adults than their teachers, and teachers who aren’t sacred idols but flawed instead, human beings seeking out some sort of affirmation and only sometimes getting it. These are students old enough to pass judgement on their teachers, as if they were their peers — and also old enough to sometimes refrain from passing judgement.

The key point of the play is the process of preparation for the Oxbridge entrance and the different views to this taken by each of the teachers, but it is their discussion of how to write history that imprints itself on the mind, fraught as it is with various ideas of ethics, philosophy, story-telling, logic, and understanding why human beings do what they do. Mrs Lintott is conservative, reasonable; Hector empathetic and poetic; Irwin ruthless in the pursuit of detachment and originality. In their discussion of writing history, each is exactly as in their classrooms otherwise. Bennett never really favours one over the others; what we get is a sense of how these approaches clash and combine in the boys’ listening and their own attempts at writing history and making connections between what has happened in the past — connections that sometimes match up to and even surpass those their teachers are capable of making.

Because these are intelligent boys and their teachers are not always more intelligent. Crucial to the play is the fact that Hector, beloved by the boys and deeply opposed to the sort of instrumentality of education that Irwin assumes, has a penchant for giving the boys lifts on his motorbike and feeling them up while he does so. This is tolerated by the boys, who seem completely aware of how to handle it, exasperating and intrusive as it may be, but when the headmaster finds out about it, he immediately takes on the role of protector, asking Hector to resign. It is another matter that for him, this is an excuse, something he can grasp at, for getting rid of Hector, whose teaching style he finds problematic.

And then there isĀ  handsome, sharp-witted, arrogant Dakin, who the shy, gay, Jewish boy Posner is in love with, who carries on an affair with the headmaster’s secretary and is fascinated with Irwin. But Irwin himself is seeking a sort of affirmation — he isn’t telling the truth about being at Cambridge, and shies away from Dakin’s pointed focus on him, until at last, Dakin is not only using Irwin’s argumentative tricks better than Irwin himself, but also managing to fascinate the new teacher in return.

I’ve read reviews of the film version that took issue with the variety of homosexual attractions allowed to thread through the play. Big deal. If they were heterosexual relationships, nobody would complain about their existence; they’d become perhaps a ‘natural expression of burgeoning sexuality’. I think they’re gently handled, and if the boys are a trifle more accepting that we might expect from a bunch of unsophisticated teenagers, that is only a problem for a text that takes itself very literally, that aims at reproducing reality. I doubt that such reproduction is Bennett’s motive at all and looking at the play as such is taking a reductionist view of a fine piece of writing.

This isn’t, in other words, simply a play about learning lessons for life, though it actually takes the accepted structure of such a tale and manages to subvert it most thoroughly. By the end, we know what shape the future of each of the boys has taken. And here, again, Bennett gives us the unexpected, with more questions about what the boys’ education really did for them. The last lines of the play are “Pass it on boys. That’s the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on” — almost the closing of a play about learning from the previous generation and passing on this edification to the next. But this play isn’t that, and it is up to the reader or the audience to decide how much irony this conclusion has been steeped in.

Bennett’s playscript is prefaced with an essay on the background of the British schools system portrayed in the play; it makes much of the sociological context very clear and highlights some of the important questions the play brings up, about education and its forms, purposes and relationship with the life of the mind in the wider world. It’s an essay that is both informative and surprisingly moving, as Bennett recalls his own time as a boy trying out for Oxford and Cambridge and what these two universities meant to the state school boys of his generation.

And then, the play begins. Comparisons with the film version, made with a screenplay adapted from the play, are inevitable, not least because the stage cast as an ensemble reprised their roles on film. It is a good enough film, but it actually ends up being more upbeat and certain of itself than the play is, which is a problem, for the strength of Bennett’s play lies in its comfort with its own ambiguity, its willingness to desist from giving us all the answers. Reading the play, some understanding of what the literality of the filmic experience robs becomes evident; there is obviously much more room for interpretation in a playscript without clear scene changes or stage directions. The dialogue becomes as symbolic as it is realistic, the boys in my mind’s eye sitting on chairs in the darkness as a spotlight roves among them. Scenes that in the film seemed to lead nowhere, to be a lot of conversation, take on the weight of philosophical discourse on the imagined stage — and miraculously manage to carry it, while still being scenes in a classroom. This is absolutely a play to read for its dialogue. It’s keenly heard, wryly funny, and full of the echoes of classrooms we’ve all been in, writing we’ve all loved, people we’ve all known. His History boys are clever and unruly, full to different extents of the mixture of smugness and seeking that is youth.

I watched the film version well before I read the play, and I have to admit that I loved the film because I thought it was talking about the things I cherish — literature, poetry, learning what isn’t obviously useful — and because it affirmed what I thought about them. Then I read this play and found that it was about so much more. What Bennett is interested in here is the very concepts of youth and experience and education. And what he gives us at the end of the play is not clarity, not transparent, fixed understanding, but, much more fruitfully, a spur to thought.


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