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The History Boys
National Theatre, London


Rhona Foulis

At first glance, a play about a class of A-level boys studying for their Oxbridge entrance exams might seem to be middle-class cultural self-indulgence. But, back by popular demand, the history boys are causing a scintillating stir on the South Bank.

In a boys' grammar school in Sheffield, teachers Hector and Irwin prepare eight potential Oxbridge candidates. Each adopts a different approach to teaching, as Bennett mediates upon the nature and value of education. Old-timer Hector is an unconventional English teacher. In a hilarious scene in the first act, he lets his boisterous students practise their French by improvising a scene in a brothel. Uptight headmaster Felix bursts in, only to be drawn into the bizarre scenario as English is 'interdit'. Hector's habit of locking the classroom door is a symbolic gesture of shutting out 'the system', the results-driven bureaucracy of examinations and league tables, which he abhors and with which Felix is obsessed. Instead, Hector nourishes his pupils with poetry, fills them up with cultural knowledge, not for the exam, but for life: 'Learn it now, know it now and you'll understand it whenever.'

Irwin is the polar opposite of Hector. The young history teacher swaggers into school, confident in his knowledge of how to play the system, astute in the art of 'blagging it'. Irwin encourages his pupils to pervert the 'facts' of history, to turn history into 'a performance', 'entertainment', so that 'truth' becomes only a relative value. But Irwin's method is not a stimulating, postmodern mode of interrogation: it is unashamed game playing, rhetoric and meretricious show, privileging style over content. As Scripps says, 'Arguing for effect. Not believing what you're saying. That's not history. It's journalism'. In a system driven by examinations and results, education is a means to an end.

At the play's own end, we learn the career paths of these history boys. None have achieved anything like their potential, none appear fulfilled, all are disillusioned. The general conclusion of dissatisfaction with the education system leaves the audience wondering: what did the pupils learn for? Likewise, what have the teachers taught for? Hector breaks down in the classroom: 'What made me piss my life away in this God-forsaken place?' But before the curtain closes, the ghost of Hector answers his own question, speaking beyond the stage, to an inspired audience. With the knowledge that has enriched Hector's own life, 'Take it, feel it and pass it on.' And so we do.

To Bennett's rich text, Nicholas Hytner and his cast (including Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths) have brought animated energy and cheeky charm, relishing the wonderful humour of the play. Between scenes, clips of corridor antics are projected on an overhead screen, as a sexy 1980s soundtrack pounds through the auditorium of the Lyttleton Theatre. With eight cocky and hormonal schoolboys, there are indeed strong sexual layers to the production. The 'stud' amongst the class, Dakin, reveals his nascent sexuality, amusingly perceiving sexual conquest with the headmaster's secretary as a war-like occupation of territory. But the boys discover sexual relations in more ways than one. To many (myself included), the relationship between Hector and his pupils is uncomfortably pederastic, especially as Hector's sexual advances are dismissed in the end and his character redeemed as a kind of tragic hero.

Despite this, Bennett's first play of the twenty-first century confirms him as a brilliant, brilliant writer, gifted with sharp wit and sensitive observation of character. Bennett is well aware that he has created a homosocial culture on stage: the wry Mrs Lintott (the only female character in the play) comments on the gender bias of history as 'masculine ineptitude': 'History is women following behind with the bucket'.

The History Boys is uproariously funny, but cleverly turns to a tone of gentle seriousness, its social message refusing to be dismissed as mere comedic fun. If you were to fault it, you could say that in its intellectual scope, the play is perhaps too clever and overly dense, packed with cultural and literary allusions - but that is Bennett's genius. He reveals his intelligence through his characters, whilst making them gutsy individuals in their own right, and not just mouthpieces for his arguments. The classroom quips fire back and forth amidst stirring recitations of poetry and pop cultural quotations. Bennett is indeed a master craftsman of language, with an almost Shakespearean ability to play upon the interpretation of words. In a nod to Shakespeare, Posner quotes from King Lear: 'Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say'. Bennett's tender plea for integrity resonates throughout this stunning play.


Till 26 April 2005

 

 
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