Bennett, Alan (2004). The History Boys. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.
2006 Tony Award for Best Play
Think back to your last year of high school and all the pressures you faced. You probably took the SAT at least once. If you did what your counselor told you to, you enrolled in a rigorous slate of classes, applied to 3-5 colleges, waited anxiously for months for those colleges to accept you, and (hopefully, but probably not) fought off senioritis. Add to that all the pressure you faced from your parents. What if, on top of all that the weight of your school–your community, really–was also on your shoulders? For eight English schoolboys, that is exactly the case in The History Boys.
These boys are from a working-class town in England that tends to send its graduates to more of the local (read: less prestigious) universities, but this year, things are different. Eight students–more than in any other year–did well enough on their graduation exams that they get the chance to apply to Oxford and Cambridge. This means the guys will get extra help during a special school session, but it also means that the pressure is on them, as well as their teachers.
Each teacher has a different style, one other teachers might recognize as their own. There is Mrs. Lintott, the history teacher, who is relentless about the importance of facts and dates. There is Mr. Hector, the literature teacher, a romantic whose meandering lessons seem frivolous but ultimately stress a love for culture. Finally, there is Mr. Irwin, a young new teacher brought in specifically to coach the students for their tests and interviews. More than anything else he is pragmatic, drilling into the the students the necessity not just to be right, but to be interesting as well:
IRWIN At the time of the Reformation there were fourteen foreskins of Christ preserved, but it was thought that the Church of St John Lateran of Rome had the authentic prepuce.
DAKIN Don’t think we’re shocked by your mention of the word ‘foreskin’, sir.
CROWTHER No, sir. Some of us even have them…
IRWIN Has anybody been to Rome?
No? Well, you will be competing against boys and girls who have. And they will have been to Rome and Venice, Florence and Perugia, and they will doubtless have done courses on what they have seen there. So they will know when they come to do an essay like this on the Church on the eve of the Reformation that some silly nonsense on the foreskins of Christ will come in handy so that their essays, unlike yours, will not be dull.
Think bored examiners.
Think sixty, think a hundred and sixty papers even more competent than the last so that the fourteen foreskins of Christ will come as a real ray of sunshine.
Come the fourteen foreskins of Christ and they’ll think they’ve won the pools (19).
Comparing and contrasting the three instructors (and also the results-driven Headmaster) will have both teachers and students discussing the nature of education. Is there one be-all and end-all to pedagogy? Or do a variety of pedagogies complement each other? It is evident in the play that Lintott’s approach is “the foundation” (as other characters repeatedly call it), Irwin’s thinking will get them where they need to be, and Hector’s approach will show them how to enjoy it all, first and foremost for their own pleasure, but also for the accomplishment of great things.
For Hector, the finest moments come thusly: “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” (56). This snippet of dialogue is an open door to discussions of how reading can provide emotional sympathy or intellectual like-mindedness regardless of when or where the author first wrote the words down. There is a timelessness in literature which can lead us farther down our roads if we are willing to learn. This is worth passing on to anyone looking for a reason to read.
Hector is clearly the most beloved of the teachers, yet some inappropriate behavior with his students costs him dearly. His actions are either the simple yearnings of an old man, the crimes of an authority figure abusing that authority, or a bit of both. Again, students can compare Hector with Macbeth, and perhaps they can even see a bit of the tragic in him. These circumstances may cause a few sensitive students to cringe, although the ability of the students in the play to shrug it off (one of them even serenades Hector with The Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin”) will bring some levity to the matter.
All this aside, The History Boys will resonate with classes looking for an acclaimed play that is still appealing to high school students. There is power and purpose in education, and the tradition of schooling the young is one that has been, and will continue to be, noble and hopeful. One simply needs to participate. As Hector tells his students at the end of the play, “Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on” (109).
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