The title of Alan Bennett’s play suggests something more stolid, more punctiliously academic than the vivacious comedy onstage, although no one could question his fine-grained portrait of life at a provincial British high school. Well, that doesn’t sound so interesting, and yet The History Boys is quite easily the most entertaining play of the season, packaging a fervent debate about the goals of learning and its current state of debasement in a tale told with humor that challenges the audience even while flattering merely by daring us to listen. And listen we must.
Here are eight accomplished seniors at a school in the north of England, preparing to take their A-level exams, which will determine whether or not they qualify for Oxford or Cambridge. They are concluding their final semester under the eccentric tutelage of the Falstaffian Hector (Richard Griffiths), a familiar type, incapable of pragmatism, drunk on the words of the poets and the human lessons of history, fulsome in his love of learning for no reason other than the joy of sharing knowledge. Well, also, perhaps, for the steady supply it guarantees him of young men whose bodies are as variously nubile and accessible as their minds (though, while his attentions to the latter are tenderly omniscient, his preying on the former is limited to brief fondlings during extracurricular rides on his motorcycle).
Hector’s classes range blithely across literature and art, old movies, show tunes and vaudeville. He understands education in its literal meaning, which is less the infusion of knowledge than the drawing out from within.
This year, however, the striving headmaster (Clive Merrison) is itchy with anxiety and ambition; in the past his students have done well but never well enough. And so he has brought in a ringer, the young Oxford graduate Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), whose sole purpose is to give the boys an extra dab of polish that will turn them into Oxbridge material. He is to make them, in a word, glib. Irwin’s attitude is that mastering history is all about performance, and that the only taboo is predictability. He advocates flipping the conventional wisdom on its head for no other reason but to provoke, knowing that the examiners will be so bored with all the well-reasoned, by-the-book papers that anyone who shows creative thinking will have an extra edge. Find something nice to say about Stalin. Challenge the British point of view regarding the origins of the first World War.
Mediating between Hector and Irwin is the play’s sole female character, Mrs. Lintott (Frances de la Tour, martini dry), mostly inured to such conflicts since having concluded that history is little more than a lot of male cocksmanship that in the end does the world little good.
It is a weird coincidence that The History Boys should have arrived on Broadway at the same time as the death of Muriel Spark, who created Hector’s prototype. For Miss Jean Brodie was no less devoted to her girls’ intellectual, moral, and spiritual education than Hector is to that of his boys, nor any less, well, twisted in certain goals.
In the New York Observer, the British critic John Heilpern argued that Hector’s diddling is common and therefore insignificant, something with which I quite disagree, though Jean Brodie’s determining the manner in which certain girls will lose their virginity, and with whom, seems to me more sinister by comparison, and in an even darker work.
More importantly, I found myself sympathizing with Irwin despite his unabashed philistinism. When he urges the boys to go beyond Mozart, to study the moderns, I thought, why not? After all those years in Hector’s humid greenhouse, some mold was bound to grow. His unconventionality betrays a certain conventionalism. And Bennett stacks the deck mightily against Irwin, no less so than in the play’s smug epilogue.
Who cares? There