Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is a very English play, in a very fine production by Nicholas Hytner from the Royal National Theatre. Even after the enthusiastic daily reviews, to see whether or not it succeeds with an American public will be an interes- ting test of several kinds of cultural disparity between the two nations. Underneath the fun and the bubbling verbal wit that are hallmarks of Bennett’s work, the play deals curiously with a variety of social, political, and aesthetic matters, in ways that aren’t always dramatically justifiable and on terms that people may find puzzling or even un- palatable. Facilely accepted, both here and in London, as a “good play,” it’s in fact more like a good set of tricks concealing a play that’s hardly been written.
Set in a British public school in the mid 1980s, The History Boys deals with a rivalry between two teachers, one near retirement age and one newly arrived. The old “master,” Hector (Richard Griffiths), is a humorous humanist, a polymath whose general-studies course covers everything from English poetry and French conversation to the popular culture of the recent past. Regarded by the boys affectionately, but as something of a standing joke, he presides over an anarchic classroom that, in its rowdier moments, suggests a Montessori kindergarten pushed onto a higher cerebral plane.
In contrast, Hector’s young rival, Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), has been hired for the term to teach the boys precisely what will get them into Oxford or Cambridge—not the facts, which they’re already well up on thanks to their history master, Dorothy Lintott (Frances de la Tour), but the “polish” that will enable them to impress the examiners with their astuteness, verbal gymnastics, and mental flexibility. Like the lawyer in Gilbert & Sullivan who opines, ” ‘Yes’ is but another and a neater form of ‘no,’ ” Irwin teaches the boys how to make even the simplest and most self-evident proposition mean its opposite; he turns the boys, Hector complains, into “journalists.”
While we watch much of this through the prism of Hector’s classroom, which gives Bennett the chance to throw in everything from a Gracie Fields song to a hilarious whorehouse scene improvised in adolescent French-class diction, the playwright also toys with a constantly shifting perspective: The story flashes back from a prologue showing Irwin, now a political eminence, at a later stage in his career; characters within a scene frequently turn to address the audience directly, supplying backstory, inner feelings, or some other hidden aspect of the situation; the action itself jumps from the class to encounters in the faculty room or the headmaster’s office; the set changes are covered by fast-cut film sequences of the boys or the masters outside the school. Beautifully calibrated by Hytner at top speed, with excellent performances all round, the effect is to dazzle.
But what’s underneath? In essence, The History Boys is just a sort of audience-friendly rewrite of Stoppard’s Jumpers, an academic war waged between a humanist and a moral relativist, in which it’s announced from the beginning which one we are to like. The humanist is flawed, ineffectual, and doting, his destruction coming partly from his own weakness; his adversary is calculating, dishonest, manipulative. Bennett’s work is better structured than Stoppard’s, and better grounded in believably human terms, but the intellectual parameters are essentially the same and essentially one-dimensional.
Bennett closes his play with the glib notion that Hector’s method produces “the only education worth having,” but that “we don’t have time for his kind of teaching anymore.” Yet Hector’s approach, with its deliberately anti-systematic way of flinging cultural materials randomly at the boys’ heads, doesn’t seem that far from Irwin’s way of subverting all common assumptions, though the latter is admittedly shallower, and is presented to the boys frankly as a flimflam act by which they can get ahead. We’re presumably supposed to be offended, like the parents of the one Jewish boy in the group, when Irwin applies his doublethink tactics to the Holocaust, but the exchange of ideas in the scene sounds much like a reasonable way to help a classful of intelligent youngsters confront this unique and ungovernable topic—and the boys’ answers show them as healthily alert to the trickery of Irwin’s arguments.
If Irwin is rather glibly indicted—we first see him supporting a bill in Parliament that will “abolish trial by jury”—Hector is overidealized, a sardonic and slightly twisted but lovable Mr. Chips. The playwright keeps Irwin’s private life, if it exists, a fastidious secret; Hector’s kink for the boys is carefully spelled out as something impermissible to society but harmless to its victims, a point on which American audiences may well differ with Bennett. The improbable catastrophe that concludes the play is cooked up out of Hector’s kink, in a manner altogether too dramaturgically convenient, and the final irony—a surprising number of the boys get into Oxford or Cambridge but go on to lead less than stellar lives—may strike the English as a grave social indictment, while Americans are likely to find it neither surprising nor particularly relevant to the play’s substance.
Still, one can’t beat the performances: Moore, de la Tour, and Clive Merrison as the clueless headmaster create memorable portraits out of very flimsy materials; the boys are all excellently boyish in their variegated ways. Griffiths’s jowly-mumbly, late-Laughton manner put me off at first, but his easy command of emotional shading builds Hector into a character of increasing stature and complexity, despite the facile uses to which Bennett puts him.