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Jamie Parker (Scripps),  Andrew Knott (Lockwood), Dominic Cooper (Dakin),  James Corden (Timms) inNicholas Hytner's London National Theatre production of Alan Bennett's "The History Boys." Photo: Joan Marcus
An Unsentimental Education
By Caridad Svich

The History Boys
By Alan Bennett
Broadhurst Theatre
235 W. 44th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200


Alan Bennett's comedies are deceptively simple on the surface. They live in an ambiguous register where high and low comic tonalities co-exist without highlighted demarcation, and where the aspect of tragedy can take over at any moment. It's tempting to call Bennett's writing Chekhovian, but there is an odd reserve to his work (especially his later plays) that is intrinsically English. Perhaps this is why, aside from the Talking Heads monologues seen several seasons ago at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City, his major plays have not received significant productions in the United States. The History Boys may indeed change that.

This affectionate, bittersweet work, set at a minor public boys' school in the north of England during the Thatcher years, is currently playing a 20-week engagement at the Broadhurst Theatre, with the original British cast from Nicholas Hytner's Royal National Theatre production. It is full of grace and fluidity, notwithstanding its large cast (twelve principals and five ancillary roles) and broad canvas. It looks at the lives of young men as they are coming of age, and at the academic political maneuverings around them, covering some familiar terrain (there are strong echoes of Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society and the classic Goodbye Mr. Chips). Bennett has something far more ambitious in mind in telling this story, though.

The History Boys is a deeply funny, heartbreakingly anguished exploration of a societal shift initiated in Thatcher's administration, from an education system devoted to the values of culture and knowledge to one driven by results and numbers. Focusing on eight Oxbridge scholarship candidates, the play pits an older, progressive teacher named Hector (played with wit, gravity and force by Richard Griffiths) against Irwin, a rigid but cunning young teacher with a gauche sensibility (played by Stephen Campbell Moore). The ruthless but not unkind Headmaster (Clive Merrison) initially takes no sides and only wants his students to get ahead.

Richard Griffiths (Hector), Frances de la Tour (Mrs. Lintott), Stephen Campbell Moore (Irwin) in "The History Boys." Photo: Joan MarcusOxford and Cambridge are the glamorous academic destinations offered if the young men play their exams right, and the assumption is that a bit of judicious lying is necessary. Irwin is brought in to teach the boys to cut corners, to dress up history in their essay-writing, not necessarily retaining what they learn but simply using it to convenient advantage. Hector is the teacher devoted to infusing his students with a love of books, words, and even the necessary un-necessaries of life (bad pop songs, old melodramatic films and kitsch), whereas Irwin is devoted to ladder-climbing, whatever the cost.

For students who do not possess the necessary family connections or upper-class standing to smooth access to Oxbridge, cutting corners and sticking to results (regardless of the quality of the content) is seen by the Headmaster as the only way to move forward. The characters apply this attitude to society's progress as well, so it reads as Bennett's gloss on Thatcher's England. The play is a lament, however breezy on its surface, for the lost values of a past time.

Complicating Bennett's thesis, and typical of the ambiguity of his writing, is the fact that Hector, the beloved teacher, is a pedophile who has been "innocently abusing" his students for years. The plot pivots on Hector's "outing" and ultimate dismissal from his position. Bennett's sympathy with him--and all his other characters as well, even the smug Headmaster and the dull but astute Irwin--is a sign of great empathy. The playwright does not belittle the troubling aspects of Hector's deviance; in fact, he calls into question the various levels of sexual awakening demonstrated in the play. Central to the somewhat friendly academic rivalry between Hector and Irwin is the unrequited love triangle between Posner, a late-blooming gay student (played with effortless grace by Samuel Barnett), Irwin, and another student named Dakin, a handsome, bisexual go-getter (played with appropriately arrogant charm by Dominic Cooper). Posner is not-so-secretly infatuated with Dakin; Dakin is playing the field and has his sights set on Irwin; Irwin is attracted to Dakin but reluctant to act upon his attraction. Both Posner and Irwin want to be Dakin: the object of everyone's affection, the easygoing "star" of the school.

One could easily assume that all Bennett does is show the vagaries of sexual awakening in late adolescence (Irwin is only a few years older than the students), but the fact that the play centers in large part on the manner in which Hector, the tradition-bearer, is removed from his post signals that Bennett also wants to address the ingrained, long-standing abuse suffered by boys at public schools in England--the casual legacy of damage inherited by generations. That the play does this without seeming to have an ax to grind is what keeps its tension alive.

Richard Griffiths as Hector in Alan Bennett'e "The History Boys." Photo: Joan MarcusThe last several seasons have seen several dramas dealing directly or tangentially with pedophilia (Noah Haidle's Mr. Marmalade, Bryony Lavery's Frozen, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, to name a few). Yet Bennett's delicate, complex, and unbearably light approach to the subject is particularly refreshing and disturbing. He manages to weave the subject as part of the greater fabric of education, asking more general questions about what young people ought to be taught and how they should be socialized--which gives the play considerable breadth. Griffiths portrays Hector as a man completely outmoded in dress and manner but nevertheless crucially aware of his outmodedness. As he loses himself and yet tries to continue to impart his love of Auden, Hardy and Orwell to his spirited charges, he captures the devastating realization that, in this new world (Thatcherite England, with its newly installed National Curriculum), the love of learning will be replaced by the love of efficient progress. As Irwin tells his students, "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance. It's entertainment. And if it isn't, make it so."

In a disarming way, Bennett, by concentrating his empathy on Hector while both mocking and admiring the resolve of the likes of Irwin, makes a case both for and against. Irwin stands for that new brand of faux historians who turn TV celebrities on the strength of their ability to bend and even distort aspects of history. Throughout the drama, Bennett bemoans such substitutions of glib, half-learned information for substantial, earned knowledge. However, he also casts a decidedly affectionate eye on the students who manage to appreciate and incorporate both schools of thought. His most chastising and unexpected indictment is of the appealingly sensitive yet ultimately wayward Posner, whose dilemma of unrequited love is poignantly captured when he sings "Bewitched (bothered and bewildered)" from Kismet early on. Posner's fate, which I will not reveal here, is cruel. Bennett remarks through the voice of the school's lone female teacher, Mrs. Lintott (played with remarkably dry wit by Frances de la Tour), that Posner, the student who most took all his lessons to heart (both Hector's and Irwin's), was the one least capable of living in society.

Despite his obvious allegiance to Hector, Bennett seems to recognize that loving words and knowledge too much can be a person's ruin. Thus, ultimately, The History Boys is about the decidedly unsentimental education offered by life.


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