An Unsentimental Education
By Caridad Svich
The History Boys
By Alan Bennett
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.
Oxford 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.
The 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.