Customer Reviews: The History Boys: A Play
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on March 20, 2006
THE HISTORY BOYS, Alan Bennett's play (and now also a screenplay) is about a group eight teenage boys being groomed by their teachers and headmaster to pass the examination that hopefully will admit them to either Oxford or Cambridge University, and from there to who knows what kind of position of priviledge and leadership in the larger world. It takes place in the 1980s (a Pet Shop Boys song is the most current cultural reference in the play), and it is clear that the world, like the eight boys themselves, is in a period of transition. The boys, like boys everywhere, are easily distracted by sexual thoughts and are eager to impress one another and rattle their teachers. The two key influencers on their young lives are the English teacher, Hector, and a history teacher, Irwin. Hector plays yin to Irwin's yang. He floods the boys with poetry and literary quotations, encourages them to enact scenes in French, lets them quote movie dialogue in the hopes of stumping him and winnng the pool he forces them to contibute to, and fondles them as opportunity allows on the back of his motorcycle. Irwin, on the other hand, is a more cynical influence. The headmaster has called him in to teach the boys to perform, knowing that the examiners will be looking to be dazzled by memorable eccentricities rather than swayed by the accuteness of their thoughts, breadth of their reading, or depth of their wisdom. "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance. It's entertainment. And if it isn't, make it so." While everyone seems to be proceeding in earnest, the audience can't help but feel all these efforts are of little use in a world that is rapidly changing. As another teacher, Mrs. Lintott, observes about the boys' futures in the closing scene of the play, "[They are] pillars of a community that no longer has much use for pillars," aptly encapsulating the play's melancholic, post-colonial mood.

Readers should be alerted that there are two distinct versions of the script available--one for the play as originally performed in London and New York (2004/2005) and the filmscript for the 2006 BBC/Fox Searchlight Films release. Both are good and both tell essentially the same story. Bennett's dialogue, as always, is witty, honest, and right on the money. His themes broad and important, his characters deeply flawed but lovable nonetheless.

If you're a purist, you'll probably want to buy the play script (ISBN 0571224644). It includes a 20+ page introduction by Bennett in which he gives the reader useful background information about the changing face of the British educational system over the past several decades.

But the screenplay (ISBN 0865479712) has its merits too. The nice thing about the film is that it was produced using all the principals responsible for the success of the play: Nicholas Hytner directed both, employing the same cast. By the time the film was shot, the actors had internalized their parts and were able to bring them to the screen with apparent ease and confidence. As Hytner's introduction to the filmscript makes clear, the lack of "big-name" stars and his and Bennett's firm commitment to the careful preservation of all the play's best features made financing the picture a real challenge. But it seems they succeeded (a DVD of the film is due out in April 2007).

Hytner's introduction in the screenplay is thoughtful and will be of interest to people who like to reflect on film adaptation; Bennett's "Film Diary" is typical Bennett, full of dry wit and bemused reflections on his unanticipated success. The script itself seems to follow the play closely (and includes scenes that ultimately needed to be cut to achieve the desired length, suggesting perhaps that the financers who ultimately stepped forward weren't exactly always silent partners). The scene directions (totally lacking in the play script) help the reader understand the many time- and scene-shifts that happen over the course of the story. But the real treat in the screenplay edition are the 43 photographs showing the cast and crew at work. This collection of stills and candid shots are clear evidence that everyone involved with this production was fully engaged and loving the experience.
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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 involving eight young "sixth-formers" who are preparing for the history examinations necessary for entrance into Oxford or Cambridge. No one from their school has been accepted at either university 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. Irwin's goal is to teach the students to think "outside the box"--not to be dull--when they answer questions.

This 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 to 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's use of humor has become more sophisticated in the years since Beyond the Fringe, and he balances it here with thoughtful observations about education and its value, while 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. n Mary Whipple
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on February 19, 2006
I spent a summer in London on foreign exhange studying theatre and literature. While there I saw this play at the National Theatre. It blew my mind and touched my soul. Although I will admit my own bias as a future English teacher - I believe this play did an amazing job bringing to light questions regarding what it means to be an "educator" in a way that connects with us all. Do we teach kids in such a way that they acheive maximum acedimic success, or do we place the emphasis on teaching them literature in a manner that gives them the keys to understanding the world for themselves? To we teach them to understand with their minds or with their hearts?

There is also a darker current in which child molestation and sexual power are examined frankly and unabashedly with no judgements or prior assumptions. Bennett does an excellent job of keeping out of the way and allowing his characters to defend themselves without blurring the lines of morality and ethics. The dialogue is sparklingly witty and smart and although there are many characters they each have a distinct spirit. I couldn't help but fall in love with nearly every character in this play.

I cannot recommend this play any more highly. Buy it, rent it, borrow it, steal it - whatever you do - READ IT.
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on January 22, 2007
The Stern Librarian saw this play on Broadway the same night as Iman--how beauty-packed the audience was that night. Those poor History Boys to have to perform to those dual points of radiance! I rarely read plays after seeing them performed, but I bought this volume on the way out of the theater. First, to read Alan Bennett's introductory essay, which is a characteristically funny and brave bit of autobiography. He reveals, among other things, the extent to which the actors created their own roles, the story of his own scholarship examinations, and his own brush with the type of historical detachment and journalistic flourish practiced by Irwin. The second reason I bought the play was to spend more time with that outsize, brilliant Hector. So many of his allusions went over my head during the play that I longed to savor them: snatches of poetry from Hardy, Housman, Whitman, Shakespeare; campy bits from Now, Voyager and Brief Encounter; dancehall songs. Hector's teaching that all knowledge is precious unless it is of any use will leave you wanting to be his lifelong pupil, if not a passenger on his motorcycle. The Stern Librarian (I'm not afraid of Virginia Wolfe).
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First, many thanks to the Amazon friend who recommended THE HISTORY BOYS by Alan Bennett; I doubt I would have discovered it on my own. And reading it was a treat. It is a contemporary play (winner of the Tony Award for best play in 2006) that is sophisticated, moderately literary, humanely compassionate, and witty - even, at times, laugh-out-loud funny. It is, however, quite British, but enough survives transport across the ocean to have made it nonetheless rewarding and engaging for this American reader. And more so than most plays, it reads easily and naturally as a work of fiction, as a novella.

The plot is relatively simple. A grammar school in the north of England finds itself with eight unusually talented male students in the sixth form (i.e., seniors in high school). The headmaster determines to pull out the stops to get as many as possible admitted to Oxford or Cambridge. So, in September, he hires Irwin, himself only recently awarded a teaching diploma, to teach the boys history and, more importantly, how to succeed on the Oxbridge entrance exams. Irwin teaches the boys to be clever, to stand out, to be learnedly contrarian, to have an angle. Facts and "the truth" are not the desiderata - or, as Irwin tells his charges: "History nowadays is not a matter of conviction. It's a performance. It's entertainment." (And how many popular British historians of the past quarter century does that encapsulate?)

As an example, Irwin begins his first lecture by stating, "At the time of the Reformation there were fourteen foreskins of Christ preserved, but it was thought that the church of St John Lateran in Rome had the authentic prepuce." The boys think he perhaps is trying to shock them and then their discussion begins to turn, sophomorically, to which of them have foreskins. But Irwin then confronts them with his pedagogical point: "some silly nonsense on the foreskins of Christ will come in handy" in the event the Church on the eve of the Reformation is one of the subjects of the entrance exams; for a bored examiner reading one hundred and sixty competent papers, "the fourteen foreskins of Christ will come as a real ray of sunshine."

Strenuously opposed to the relativistic, sensationalist teaching of Irwin is Hector, the entrenched, elderly teacher of "General Studies" (primarily, English literature). Hector finds Irwin's approach to history to be "flip", "glib", and even worse, "journalism." He believes that the teachers should be educating their charges for life and for death, not for entrance exams. Needless to say, one of the themes of THE HISTORY BOYS is the purpose of education. Broadly perceived, the question is: To cheat or not to cheat?

In addition to matters of pedagogy, the history boys also learn about life and making their way in the world. One is Jewish and an outsider. Another is a rugby-player and not quite as intellectually facile as his mates. Some are sexually supercharged, and there is more than an undercurrent of homosexuality. Most of the play takes place in the three months leading up to the boys' entrance exams. A portion takes place shortly after the exams and three other brief segments are set many years later, so that, eventually, the reader learns the careers of the history boys as well as something about the later lives of Hector and Irwin.

The play is sprinkled with references to cultural works and figures - including, notably, Larkin, Auden, Hardy, Wittgenstein, and (yes) The Pet Shop Boys. For the most part THE HISTORY BOYS sparkles, drawing its energy from the high spirits of the eight young men. But it also has its sober moments and the occasional insightful comment, such as this one from Hector:

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours."
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on November 17, 2013
Alan Bennett began delighting the theater-going world almost before he needed to shave, being one of the mad troupe of "Beyond the Fringe" that tromped onto Broadway as college smart-alecks and ended up with a Tony. Bennett starts by making us laugh, and ends by making us wonder, in every sense of the word. In "The History Boys" (also a Tony winner)we meet eight English boys who are being groomed for Oxford and Cambridge scholarships. But just how do these young and randy scholars best impress their examiners? Each of the four adults coaching them has a different idea, and the sparks fly in every direction as the boys are readied for their examinations. Language, laughs, love and lust--everything comes up for discussion. "Pass it on, boys; pass it on!" And Bennett certainly passes it on to us, for which this reader is hugely grateful.
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on February 5, 2016
I wanted to read the play after seeing it on stage. I missed a lot of the dialogue with accents. It is an amazing play, and it is delicious to toss about with friends after seeing it. But the book did not provide the insight I was looking for. There are NO stage directions. The students on stage were wonderful, I was amazed with their mannerisms consistently during the performance. Perhaps my previous teaching experience makes me more aware of students' actions, responses, body language, etc. I do enjoy reading plays, sometime intentionally for the stage directions. The playwright is trying to provide insight for the reader, and it is lacking here. It is interesting to know how much is related to Alan Bennett's experiences as a student.
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Although I work in the theater, I read this play with no thought of staging it, or even imagining it staged. It is just a pure play of ideas -- brilliant, intriguing, often funny ideas -- jostling together in a kind of imaginary space, with very little of the mechanics of stage-directions and settings. Indeed, although I am sure that Nicholas Hytner's original staging at Britain's National Theatre and again on Broadway must have been brilliant, the description of it in the foreword sounds cumbersome compared to the rapid shifts in time and place that can be taken for granted on the page. And the few minutes of the film version that I caught on television the other day just clogged the characters and situations with a lot of irrelevant detail you would not even have had on the stage. So read this play by all means, not as a stand-in for some other medium, but as an artwork in itself, as rich, free, and evocative as a poem.

This study of a group of sixth-formers (high-school seniors) studying for entrance examinations to Oxford and Cambridge perhaps meant more to me because I share some of the background. In a long personal introduction which is alone worth the price of the book, Bennett describes visiting the glittering fairyland of an ice-bound Cambridge in December 1951 to take his exams (though he ultimately went to Oxford). I made the same journey seven years later, but with significant differences. I came from a school that traditionally sent its pupils to Oxbridge whereas Bennett, like the characters in this play, came from a public high school in the North where such goals were less usual. I entered in the sciences (turning to the arts later) and remember little of any special grooming for success; Bennett's schoolboys are history majors, and their preparation goes way beyond cramming them with the facts, but presenting them as well-rounded young men with an original turn of mind.

These tasks in the play are entrusted primarily to two very different teachers. Hector (both his surname and nickname) teaches his acolytes behind closed doors, leavening a heady diet of English poetry with re-enactments of old movies; his classes are a smorgasbord of cultural references. He also mixes his pedagogy with a little pederasty, which is mostly tolerated by the boys who ride behind him on his motorcycle. The other teacher, Irwin, is a much younger man just arrived from Oxford himself. He has developed a technique for impressing the examiners by turning fixed ideas on their heads, and having just enough facts at one's fingertips to back up even such controversial positions. He suggests, for instance, that Britain got into the First World War for commercial advantage. "All this mourning," he says, "has veiled the truth. It is not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember." One of the most telling passages in the play comes when Hector and Irwin, now sharing a class, try to apply their respective methods to the Holocaust, both failing utterly to encompass its truth.

Alan Bennett admits to using the Irwin method to cheat (as he calls it) on his own exams. But it is clear he had a Hector behind him also: he turned out to have one of the most brilliant and widely cultured minds of his generation. And one of the funniest.
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on August 24, 2015
The History boys is a delightful comedy of culture with unforgettable characters. It may seem on the surface to be about the English public school system and the common problems of getting into college in any country, but it is more than that. It is about the joy and the human spirit which triumphs even while people fail and social customs change because they are old and stale.
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on June 9, 2007
Disclaimer: I am reviewing the original script and have never seen the play. I would LOVE to see the play, because at times the script was confusing. For instance, characters who are not in the scene suddenly have lines. And then, just when you think they've entered stage left, you see that they're not there after all, and therefore must have lines upstage left so the audience can hear their thoughts. You can't be sure, however, as Bennett is chary about his stage directions.

Despite all that, the play was fun to read if only for its rich use of literary allusions. It is burgeoning with quotes from A.E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Walt Whitman, and other poets flung far and wide. The literary banter comes chiefly in the presence of the English professor called Hector. Then, so as not to disappoint those attracted by the title, there are numerous scholarly discussions about history (chiefly WWI and WWII). Professor Irwin is the vehicle for much of THIS discussion, and his unique take on how we should view the past is part of what makes this play admirable. So, if you are (or were) the type who loves (or loved) all those late-night intellectual discussions in the college dormitory, you might find wheat among the chaff of this play.

Speaking of, what worked less than the sterling intellectual wordplay (and idea play, if you will) was the soap opera aspect. Hector, for instance, has a penchant for more than just educating boys and he comes off as more pitiable than pitiful. Irwin, too, though much more respectable, gets sucked in to the melodrama by, of all characters, the most handsome blade among the boys (Dakin, who was last seen seducing the headmaster's secretary before he decided to proposition his professor). It all pushes the envelope and gets a bit unbelievable, at least in written form, as the characters act and speak in ways that do not follow character OR seem to change without sufficient time elapsed to make the behavior reasonable. The beneficiary of all this is the female professor, Mrs. Lintott, who alone comes off as intelligent, reasonable, and clear-thinkingly free of that pesky testosterone. Bottom line: I liked the play but had trouble suspending my disbelief to accommodate all of the sexual intrigue.
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