Alan Bennett’s Cheats’ Charter Inspires Smashing New Play

The hit play of the London season is Alan Bennett’s hilarious and touching The History Boys , brilliantly directed by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre, and I can only hope all the exciting talk about its transfer to Broadway comes true. Put simply, Mr. Bennett has written a wonderful play about England. Put less simply, he seems to have written a major play about the art of cheating in exams without being dishonest.

In a confessional program note, the playwright admits to cheating in two of the most important examinations of his life-to get his scholarship to Oxford and his coveted First Class Honors Degree in history. The issues involved inspired The History Boys . But when the somewhat eccentric Mr. Bennett says he cheated, keep in mind that he once genuinely considered becoming a vicar for no better reason than he looked like one.

Far from needing to cheat at anything, he could easily have become an Oxford don or a history professor. His rationalism put an end to his career in the clergy. His scholarly self-deprecation was theater’s gain. But his notion of cheating in exams would scarcely be shared by anyone else-least of all when getting into a decent college today is achieved at any price and 3-year-olds of my acquaintance are tutored to get into play school.

The young Mr. Bennett “cheated” by reducing everything he knew to a set of show-off notes and eye-catching quotations that could be adapted to answer more or less any basic question and impress the usually bored examiners at Oxford. He knew how to shine it on, thereby appearing well-educated and clever under false pretenses. In other polished words, he was “spinning” his education as much as any smiling politician spins the news.

The History Boys is set in a working-class state school in the North of England during the 1980’s (which coincides with Mr. Bennett’s schooling in Leeds during the 1950’s). There, the goal of a group of specially tutored 16- and 17-year-olds is to get into Oxford or Cambridge. The play is part social satire, part morality tale and, in one hysterically funny scene that’s spoken in Churchillian French, purest farce. (Mr. Bennett, after all, is the dramatist of a memorable farce or two, among them one about Kafka entitled Kafka’s Dick ).

But the center of The History Boys revolves around the rivalry of two teachers and two opposed systems. There’s the elderly Hector (perfectly played by the great Richard Griffiths), who believes in “useless” knowledge, or knowledge for its own sake-call it poetry, or old-fashioned learning that’s intended to open minds.

The unworldly Hector is the kind of teacher who hits you only if he likes you. His class even has what he calls “Silly Time” (silliness is the safety valve of the British). The boys act out a movie for Hector to guess the title; bets are placed on the outcome. Paul Henreid and Bette Davis in Now Voyager are a cinch for him, of course. But even here, there’s a discreet lesson: “Now Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find” (Walt Whitman).

It’s a literary play that way. Fear not! The accessible Mr. Bennett, unlike Tom Stoppard, is “un-clever.” And Hector’s enthusiasms are rich: Don Giovanni ; Brief Encounter (up to a point); the songs of Piaf; a particular kind of English melancholy and yearning; King Lear ; the nostalgic ghosts of music hall; the power of language; the poetry of Larkin, Hardy, Elliot, Stevie Smith, Pascal (“The heart has its reasons which reason knoweth not”).

Hector’s rival is the pushy young teacher Irwin (the excellent Stephen Campbell Moore), a flashy pragmatist who believes that knowledge for its own sake isn’t “useful.” “History nowadays is not a matter of conviction,” Irwin says (with chilly conviction). He wants the smart, pimply class to be trained like slick thoroughbreds in superficiality. “Truth” is not an option. The bored Oxford examiner will awaken from his effortlessly superior slumber if, for example, he’s presented with an argument that Pearl Harbor took the Japanese by surprise rather than the Americans.

Small wonder the fraudulent Irwin becomes a BBC TV “culture” pundit and government advisor. Advising members of Parliament on how to present a case for abolishing trial by jury and the presumption of innocence, he comes up with one of Mr. Bennett’s lovely aphorisms: “The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom …. “

I can vouch for Mr. Bennett’s premise for the play, incidentally. A generation after him, I “cheated” to get into Oxford. Like the adolescents in The History Boys , a privileged few of us were specially tutored for three months at a state school in the North of England to shine in the exam. My subject was history, with minor papers in French and Latin. Happy days! But the showoff crunch came with a general essay everyone had to write in about 90 minutes or less. You opened an envelope and had a choice to write about one of only two subjects. Can you imagine ?

I’m having a heart attack just recalling it. But when I opened the envelope, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. One of the subjects read simply, “Status-discuss.”

By some miracle, I’d read Vance Oakley Packard’s The Status Seekers and could therefore compare vulgar American status with the charm of England’s snobbery and its unfortunate class system. As the apt line in The History Boys goes, “An amused tolerance always comes over best. Paradox works well and mists up the windows.” I did exactly what Mr. Bennett did in his Oxford exams (though without the guilt): I dragged in everything I sort of knew with sparkling quotations to match-including learned thoughts about the outcast status of Malvolio; the dropout status of Hamlet; the status of getting into Oxford; the necessity of A.E. Housman’s English country idyll versus the urban blight; and, of course, the fury of the working-class outsider in Look Back in Anger , which I seem to have been writing about ever since.

Does The History Boys have any flaws? Does the curtain go up before every show? It’s a lengthy play (but not if you enjoy it). Though it’s set in the Thatcherite 1980’s, its sense of period isn’t specific. Mr. Bennett is clearly on old Hector’s side (but aren’t we all?). There’s so much fun and wit here-including Mr. Bennett’s portrait of hormonal adolescents and those ancient, unsung, anonymous heroes of our youth we now acknowledge as brave souls and good teachers. Why, even Hector’s fumbling gropes with his indifferent students riding on the back of his motorbike are forgivably performed “more in benediction than gratification.”

Mr. Hytner’s cast is just perfect: all eight schoolboys, the superb Mr. Griffiths, the farcically ignorant headmaster of Clive Merrison and Frances De La Tour’s dry, witty teacher, Mrs. Lintott. Ms. De La Tour is among the leading character actors in England, a nation of character actors, and she’s second only in comedy to Maggie Smith. “I have not hitherto been allotted an inner voice,” her Mrs. Lintott confides to us more than halfway through the play. Ms. De La Tour’s delivery of the line is an education in itself.

The History Boys happily continues British theater’s preoccupation with schooldays. From Goodbye Mr. Chips to Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version with its wronged teacher cringing in failure, to Another Country’s Etonesque breeding ground of the British spies Burgess and McLean, school has often served as a stage metaphor for the state of England, for its class system and the songs it sang “on a braver day.” Hector is an English Jean Brodie in his own eccentric fashion. He’s essential to us and he’s obsolete-drowning, not waving.

The play also reminds us that Mr. Bennett’s breakthrough Forty Years On , more than 30 years ago, was set in a private school with Sir John Gielgud playing the nutty headmaster. (A child actor named Keith McNally, who became the renowned New York restaurateur, was also in the cast.) Alan Bennett has thus come memorably full circle, and he’s gone far beyond his popular, minor-key Talking Heads and written a smashing new play. Let’s hope it comes to New York soon.

I’m off on a thoroughly deserved vacation. See you in the brave new season, everyone.