on 2 March 2005
The latest play from Alan Bennet proves both funny, thought-proking and currently hugely successful at the NT. The characters are all beautifully created and lovable, from the confused homosexual youth Posner to the stressed, icy Headmaster, obsessed with league tables and results. The witty one liners and amusing comments,especially from Mrs Lintott, contribute to an extremely funny backdrop to a deeply serious play, where the issues of the purpose of education, homosexuality and the inevitable competition of youth are addressed and debated. The "History Boys" themselves successfully represent the thousands of hopeful Oxbridge candidates each year, all of them experiencing the highs and the lows of studying and the joy of learning, making this play a timeless jem.
The teacher Hector, whom Richard Griffiths is currently portraying with great conviction at the NT, is intellectually brilliant and extremely impressive, and yet, he is just a fallible human being with temptations and desires that finally get the better of him. This point is so tragic and powerful it evokes great sympathy from the reader and adds to the effectiveness of the play.
A thoroughly enjoyable play to light up both the stage and the mind. It is one of the rare plays that you feel you can watch time and time again, learning something new each time.
on 7 April 2006
I saw The History Boys on their Australian tour and since it was sold out and I could not see it again I had to buy this audio version to satisfy my desire.
I'm not sure that all of the magic of the stage production is able to carry through to an audio play, but it is good listen anyway.
It is an incredibly witty piece of entertainment, thoroughly enjoyable, and reminded me so much of my own school memories of the all boys school I went to. The struggle between the two intelligent school teachers - Irwin and Hector - over the souls of the boys they teach could perhaps appear unlikely to those who missed out on having such teachers, but it reflects my experience as well. Bennett wavers (or seems to) between taking sides in their not unimportant dispute, but (or therefore?) is good enough of a writer or human being not to load the dice in the favour of one over the other.
More superficially: Samuel Barnett (my favourite) sings and acts wonderfully, all the boys are mischievously fun, and the cast is all round excellent.
on 28 May 2006
I have seen the History Boys twice at the National Theatre, the first time with the cast that appears on this BBC CD recording. Bennett has produced a gem of a play, dark in places of course but full of light and shade especially when the ensemble cast are fully in their stride. The musical interludes are a joy and the CD version gives full rein to the superb Richard Griffiths. One can only really appreciate this play in full by experiencing the live version on stage. But for fans of Bennett, this beautifully crafted BBC radio production is one that will be taken from the CD rack on a regular basis for an evening's listening. Thoroughly recommended.
on 10 August 2008
The play blends comedy with tragedy and has many layers and themes. Whilst the story is ostensibly about education and, in particular, the teaching of talented pupils on the cusp of adulthood it is also a subtle study of the human and personal relationships between teacher and pupil, pupil and pupil and teacher and teacher. Hector, the confident but eccentric, eclectic and iconoclastic history teacher is contrasted with Irwin, a generation younger than him, who is clever, confused and insecure. The boys have warmed to Hector's maverick style and methods which includes role playing and a very broad cultural range - from Gracie Fields to Housman. They tolerate Hector's fondness for fondling their genitalia when on his motor bike with equanimity clearly seeing it as a harmless foible rather than a pederastic threat.
The boys themselves are sharply contrasted and skilfully characterised. Dakin, is handsome and self-confident attracting not only the lovestruck and guilt-ridden Posner but also the Headmaster's secretary the "fair Fiona" and eventually Irwin as well. Rudge is the sporting hearty who despite his lack of overt academic competence has sufficient other qualities and connections to get him into Oxford. The play is about the "anarchy of adolescence" and whilst the fact of Hector's homosexuality runs through the story and is ultimately Hector's downfall "The History Boys" is not primarily about sex. The sexual confidence and promiscuity of Dakin and the sexual confusions of Hector, Irwin and Posner are neatly contrasted however and this theme may well be autobiographical.
The idea that culture is not sharply divided into highbrow and lowbrow is one of Hector's beliefs and he is as comfortable in the genre of Hollywood as he is in the classics. This seems to be a plea for tolerance and understanding and for the need to trawl widely in order to grow and to learn - especially early in life. The belief that in education anything goes so long as it helps the pupil's development contrasts sharply with the headmaster's wish to stick to the curriculum and to get results above all. For Hector entry to Oxbridge will (or should) come from a rounded education as much as from curriculum adherence. For Irwin the need is to play the game so that in the Oxbridge entrance exams and interviews taking the conventional line is to be avoided in favour of articulating a contrary position in order to be noticed.
The play is set in the 1980s - a time of social and political change and in a sense The History Boys is a refection of that change. The likes of Hector would never be accepted again and results driven headmasters became the norm. Bennett suggests that this is a regrettable consequence of the Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite focus in education on curriculum, standards and political-correctness.
on 1 December 2004
The play is about eight sixth-form students who are applying to oxbridge, and the teachers that help them through it. As with all plays I fully recommend seeing the (excellent) production which premiered at the National Theatre in May 2004 with Richard Griffiths as Hector.
By reading the play one discovers the questions that dictate our lives and do not appear in our education system today. Questions which really make you think about the point of literature, art, education, music and history.
Just great to read, but the jokes are much more apparent on the stage.
Set in the 1980s in a boarding school in the north of England, this Tony Award-winner for Best Play of 2006 is a dramatic comedy in which eight young "sixth-formers" prepare for the history examinations which will determine whether they are accepted at Oxford or Cambridge. No one from their school has been accepted in the past, and the headmaster is determined that this year will be different. To this end, he hires a young teacher, Irwin, to improve the students' "presentation" so that they will stand out from the crowd with the college examiners. His goal is to teach the students to think "outside the box"--not to be dull--when they answer questions.
Irwin's mission conflicts with the goals of the English and History teachers. Hector, the motor-cycle-riding English teacher, has taught the students reams of poetry, and they readily apply it in real-life situations. He has taught the French subjunctive (though it is not his subject) by conducting the class in French and having students pretend to be negotiating at a brothel. His classes are free-wheeling, often student-directed--taking the long view and valuing education for its own sake. The History teacher, Dorothy Lintott, has taught the facts: "They know their stuff. Plainly stated and properly organized facts need no presentation, surely," she remarks to the headmaster.
As the three teachers and the headmaster perform their duties, the eight students react as teenagers everywhere react, albeit a bit more politely. They banter and feed off each other's joking remarks, tease their teachers, get bopped on the head by Hector, challenge him to identify scenes from films (which they act out), and explore their favorite subject, sex. They are bright, charming, and disingenuous, and their conversations with each other and the faculty are spirited and quick-paced, keeping the audience constantly engaged and often laughing uproariously.
Bennett, whose recognition of humor in everyday life has become more sophisticated in the years since Beyond the Fringe, balances his humor with thoughtful observations about education and its value, as he also explores the subject of war. He provides additional commentary on his themes by including brief scenes which take place much later than the primary action. The play opens fifteen years after the main action, then flashes back to school days, before flashing forward five years, later in the play, as students reveal what has happened after college, thereby broadening the scope. Laugh-out-loud funny, thoughtful, and poignant in its moments of recognition, The History Boys is theatre at its best. Mary Whipple
on 21 February 2011
Authors often enough write a character who can act as their own voice in a play, but in The History Boys Alan Bennett seems to have provided at least five. The religious, musical Scripps, the homosexual late-developer Posner, and at different points all three of the teachers - all seem to have facets which the writer either recognises in himself or would like to be present.
On the face of it, it's not a gripping story - boys up for an entrance exam to the top universities, when they're already pretty much guaranteed a place at any other doesn't sound like a recipe for tension, but there's drama enough to keep you listening. Even the many set-piece speeches which are put into the mouths of all the major characters at different times don't cause attention to flag, but rather highlight concerns and issues that Alan Bennett has with education, history, culture and society - big topics, but ones which arise naturally out of the narrative.
Hector is of course the teacher that many teachers would like to be (apart from one obvious point!), and that students would like to have, transmitting culture enthusiastically and effortlessly. The fact that nowadays such unstructured teaching wouldn't have a chance is perhaps unfortunate.
The structured approach is represented by Mrs Lintott, who has got the boys through their A-levels with flying colours, and whom the dogged Rudge prefers, providing as she does 'Point A, Point B' as a guaranteed path to success in the exams.
Then Irwin, the new, very young, teacher, with at least two secrets. He's not actually a very nice person - a point which becomes clearer in the 'flash-forwards' (if there are such things), but in the context of the play we feel sympathy for him struggling with his feelings. Even the boys come at least to respect him, and in one case rather more than that.
Clive Merrison as the philistine headmaster obsessed with league tables is also magnificent, spitting and snarling as he attacks Hector's 'unpredictable' teaching methods.
In the modern climate, it's quite a feat to make a schoolmaster who tries to grope his pupils pitiful rather than a monster, but Alan Bennett manages it. To be honest, I think most people who went to an all-boys school more than a couple of decades ago could think of a few sad teachers who took let's say a personal interest in the prettier boys, and they were clearly recognised and seen as a joke.
The one point at which I found that the story diverged wildly from realism was in Posner's open gayness and the way the other boys dealt with it. I went through the same seventh-term Oxbridge mill as these boys, in an all-boys school, at about the time this story is set, and I can't think of a single boy in a school of 850 who was known to be gay. Not that there weren't any - by the law of averages there must have been a couple of dozen at least - but in an environment where liking classical music or not being any good at rugby would guarantee you a merciless flicking with wet towels, it's impossible to imagine the suicidal masochism of confessing to one straight boy that you're in love with another.
In the scale of things, that's a minor point though, and the fact that I've listened to this play at least three times now (as well as seeing the film and the play) should make it obvious enough that I don't begrudge any of the five stars.
on 29 October 2010
Not quite forty years on from Forty Years On, Alan Bennett returned to the subject of a school and education in a play that seems to have acquired a great deal of affection from its audience. Where the school in his earlier play was an unreal place, a model for the wider English society Bennett was mocking, The History Boys takes a more realistic approach to its subject(s). Personally, I've always regarded The History Boys as a minor work. Against that, I must admit that I also believe the strength and emotional power of much of Alan Bennett's work derives from the fact that it is so often in a minor key, frequently focussing on apparently mundane and constricted lives. In contrast, the film of The History Boys seems all to ready to settle for sentimentality. Bennett's wit and humanity is much in evidence, as in all his work, but it seems marred by a sentimentality he avoids elsewhere. This might in part be simply down to the mechanics of film. Matched with appropriately wistful music, Richard Griffiths' delivery of the line "Pass it on, boys, pass it on" can't help but raise a tear. And the central argument around which the narrative is constructed, that the kindness and teaching methods represented by Hector are under threat from the more utilitarian and aggressive approach favoured by Irwin and the Headmaster, is a difficult one to make in terms of a play without falling prey to sentimentality, for all that Bennett consciously avows any nostalgia for his own schooldays in his typically lengthy introduction to the playtext.
Reading the play text, it's particularly interesting to see what was cut, and what was changed. The film elides the flash forwards to Irwin's later career, leaving it as simply a rueful acknowledgement of where he went after his teaching, which is probably a change for the better. Also improved is the happier ending granted to Posner. The play is harsher, but oddly less convincing. It's also a very gay play, which is again slightly unconvincing, but also rather sweet. It doesn't quite ring true. Dakin seems largely unconcerned about Posner's obvious desire for him, whilst they all seem to regard Hector's indiscretions as little more than a minor inconvenience. I went to a relatively liberal school in the 1990s, and I don't believe the sixth formers I knew would have been so accepting of either an obviously gay teacher or homosexuality in general. On the other hand, a friend has described his own school experiences to me as "We were a very gay year!", so who knows. In the context of the work of a writer who, on the evidence of his autobiographical writing and occasional public remarks has apparently struggled somewhat with publicly acknowledging his sexuality, now feels happy to write a play which is so openly concerned with both a gay man and a gay teenager is rather moving. The play's treatment of some of its homosexual characters feels freer and more open than any of his past work.
Is it a bad play? I find I don't care. Whatever its faults of sentimentality and nostalgia, the play is still angry about many of the right things, funny, and despite it all, intensely moving. Minor work or not, I love this play.
on 13 August 2011
Unless you can get yourself to a theatre to watch The History Boys in all it's glory, I really would recommend that you read this instead of watch it. Yes, the film is good, you will enjoy it's wit and humour and joy (Alan Bennett still created it after all) but you dont get an inch of how brilliant the characters are or how well it is written. And above all else, huge chunks are moved about or left out completely from the film. I wouldn't have wanted to lose a line of it.
Not everyones cup of tea admittedly, it has a certain tone that is lost on some and relished by others, as well as a host of literary and cultural references that lend themselves to a certain age group (being only 17 when I first read it meant I relied heavily on my English teacher to explain).
The real praise for this play comes, though, from the fact that I was made to read it as part of my A levels, and still loved it afterwards. I'm now wishing that I hadnt given my copy back to the school, as I keep wanting to look up quotes and favourite lines.
It truly is brilliant, and is definately worth the afternoon it takes to read.
My only problem now is frantically searching for a production of it, because really, the film doesnt do it justice.
Bennett's writing is dry, incisive and haunting. This is the film script he wrote with the director Nicholas Hytner for the film adaptation of the play that was staged to huge critical acclaim at the National Theatre in London, also directed by Hytner. This book is a slim volume with an introductory essay by Hytner on how and why they chose to film the play, a short film diary by Bennett, which despite its brevity still has some stand out lines in it, and the screen play itself. There are also stills from the filming. The play deals with a group of eight teenage boys poised to sit the Oxbridge exams, and how they go about learning with two distinctly different teachers, the lascivious and anarchic Hector and the new blood Irwin. It is about growing up and also deals with what education is for. It is handled deftly, lightly and with great poignancy and is a real asset for anyone interested in understanding more about either the play, the film or both.