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The History Boys: A Play Paperback – April 4, 2006
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“Nothing could diminish the incendiary achievement of this subtle, deep-wrought and immensely funny play about the value and meaning of education . . . In short, a superb, life-enhancing play.” ―The Guardian
“Brilliantly funny . . . The History Boys is moving, disquieting: one follows it with a heart brimful . . . His finest work in decades.” ―Financial Times
About the Author
Alan Bennett is a renowned playwright and essayist whose screenplay for The Madness of King George was nominated for an Academy Award. He lives in London, England.
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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."
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.