Alan Bennett’s masterful “History Boys”
The History Boys
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Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. 2 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.
In a world that measures worth in dollars (or pounds) and that has traded education for specialized knowledge, have we lost some elements of what makes us uniquely human? That question, though it remains tantalizingly unanswered, is at the center of the sensational new play, “The History Boys,” which opened recently on Broadway.
The plot concerns a group of private school boys who are preparing for scholarship exams to get into Oxford and Cambridge. That, at least, is the basic plot, and Alan Bennett’s richly detailed and artfully written play is the greatest argument for the value of a traditional liberal arts education I’ve seen in years.
Of course, I’m biased. I grew up as a faculty child in a school not unlike the one Bennett writes about. It was a world where a facility with literature was demanded and expected. Language was celebrated, and knowledge for its own sake had an intrinsic value because it linked us as human beings to our culture, our tradition, and our common ground as thinking, feeling creatures.
When today’s teachers in the U.S. are worried over their jobs because of how their students perform on standardized tests, cramming information into students is an exercise in survival. The luxury to spend an afternoon discovering a poem and discussing it with an engaged and caring teacher is arcane—or more accurately, nonexistent.
The sense of loss permeates the play. Not just the loss of learning and culture, but the loss of innocence as the eight boys in the class—all at different stages of emotional and physical development, which Bennett conveys masterfully. It is also about the undefined losses and free-floating insecurities among the staff as they watch another year of boys go through the program and the lingering question of whether or not art and literature is sufficient compensation for the hardships of life. Again, Bennett leaves the question hanging, and the play is more powerful for that.
The central conflict of the play occurs when a coach is brought in to prepare the boys for the specific exams. This is directly at odds with the methods of the boys’ beloved teacher, Hector, who has a propensity for overstepping boundaries. Hector believes that the pure act of learning, feeling, exploring and experiencing has more to do with setting these young men up for a happy life than an ability to mechanically ace a test. His is a voice in the wilderness, particularly against the iron will of a new headmaster who is completely results-focused.
When Hector’s human failings intrude, tragedy befalls. At the same time, we watch the coach, Irwin, advance in the world in which issues such as truth are almost, if not completely, irrelevant. But what, Bennett asks, endures? Is it the shoddiness of TV documentaries that trade in shock value? Or is it an abiding sense of connection to a history, and humanity as reflect in our art, culture, and literature? Bennett sets up an engrossing argument without ever shortchanging on the narrative or the characters.
As directed by Nicholas Hytner, the show acquires a marvelous richness. The school comes to life, and the dynamics of the individual boys are beautifully played out. There is Dakin who is cocky, confident, and defining himself through sex; he is the boy everyone loves. Posner is the youngest boy, an out gay kid with an unabashed crush on Dakin. These are the two central characters in the group, but the rest are beautifully rendered and all essential to the sense of life—and fun that is an integral part of the fabric of the school. Sexual tension, braggadocio, and the antics familiar to adolescent boys abound. And throughout, we see the faculty who have seen it all before but amused anew at the scenes playing themselves out in the new group of boys.
Mrs. Lintott, in particular, the only woman in the play, is a marvel. Her solid, if understated, femininity is a necessary foil for the male energy—both old and young—that permeates the school and in itself becomes a comment on the role of women in a culture that celebrates men but relies on the strength and dependability of women.
The cast is uniformly superlative. Richard Griffiths as Hector gives a wonderful performance that is a mass of contradictions reflecting a tormented soul who, nonetheless, has his art and literature to console him. No less tormented is Irwin, and Stephen Campbell Moore gives an extraordinary performance that ultimately wrests a level of worldly success from anger, slight and a pronounced chip on his shoulder. Taken together, the two men represent different approaches to the questions Bennett poses—though neither is capable of a complete answer.
The boys are all exceptional, particularly Dominic Cooper as Dakin, Samuel Barnett as Posner, Jamie Parker as Scripps, and James Corden as Timms, a wise-cracking heavyset young man. Frances de la Tour is brilliantly controlled and dry as Mrs. Lintott whose presence consistently adds depth and resonance to the scenes in which she appears.
Ultimately, as the threads of the story are drawn together, we are aware that we have been led on the most wonderful journey that makes equal cases for feeding the soul and doing what works. It is a unique conundrum of our time and culture, and while we may have guides, our lives are uniquely our own to shape as we will. That is our reward; the price is we must live our choices.