Bennett’s The History Boys: Telling Witty Tales of School

Alan Bennett’s The History Boys is all the good things you’ve surely heard about it. I’ve seen Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed National Theatre production twice now and doubled my pleasure. Mr. Bennett has written a wonderfully engaging play about an English obsession—schooldays. It sparkles with wit and intelligence, and it couldn’t be better acted. And I’m hopelessly biased about it.

At least my bias should convince you of the play’s authenticity. Mr. Bennett’s autobiographical drama is about a group of adolescent schoolboys in a North of England state school who are specially tutored to get into Oxford or Cambridge, and it coincides exactly with the experience of my own schooldays growing up in Manchester, England.

I was taught by a version of Mr. Bennett’s adored teacher, Hector—played by the magnificent Richard Griffiths—who believes in education for its own glorious sake. And I was also taught by a pushy type like his young opportunist Irwin (the excellent Stephen Campbell Moore), who knows how to spin the truth like a glib politician and impress all with his flippant, effortless superiority to beat the class system.

We even had a master who “fiddled” harmlessly with us—as poor old Hector fondles the balls of the boys who ride on the back of his motorbike. The gesture, however, is quite normal in English schools—“more appreciative than investigatory,” as Mr. Bennett delicately puts it. So not to worry. Nobody else did.

Along with six or seven others, I was—to quote the poet Frances Cornford from the play—“Magnificently unprepared / For the long littleness of life.” I was specially tutored in history, as the smart-ass class in The History Boys are. Mr. Bennett wittily adapts one of the oldest jokes in England about it:

“How do I define history?” muses one of the classmates when asked for a definition. “It’s just one fucking thing after another …. ”

When you see The History Boys, imagine the fire these lower-middle-class lads with the wrong accents and the wrong backgrounds are being put to. My Oxford entrance exam, like Mr. Bennett’s, consisted of a major paper in history, plus further exams in English literature, Latin and French, and a two-hour general essay. You opened an envelope with your heart in your mouth to find three subjects listed. “Choose one essay topic only. Do not write on both sides of the paper.” Then, if you were lucky, you were “passed along” and asked to an interview.

This is the extraordinary coincidence: In my first week at Oxford, I saw Alan Bennett, then a professor of medieval history with a First Class degree (the equivalent of cum laude), strolling down the High Street looking very much as he does today, like an owlish student or a vicar (as an actor, he has actually played more vicars than vicars). I even wrote home about seeing him that first week, for this son of a Leeds butcher who would become a national treasure was already famous. Though he went on to teach at Oxford for a while, he was already the toast of Broadway in the early 1960’s with England’s first modern satirical revue, Beyond the Fringe.

Mr. Bennett’s breakthrough as a playwright, Forty Years On, was also set in a school, though it was a posh one, like Eton. (The dotty headmaster was played by Sir John Gielgud, and one of the child actors was Keith McNally, who became New York’s most successful restaurateur). The History Boys continues England’s fascination with schooldays—from the sentimental Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Terence Rattigan’s portrait of cringing, schoolmasterly failure, The Browning Version, to the popular novels the British were all raised on, like Tom Brown’s Schooldays and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

But Mr. Bennett’s achievement with his new play is to make its theme about two rival teachers and educational systems a metaphor for England. Set in the Thatcherite 1980’s, the choices the boys face mirror the state of once-proud Britain itself—real knowledge and values versus cynical success, truth and fun versus humorless, ambitious, pragmatic achievement. The History Boys is about memory and its perversion, and it’s about what it takes to beat the system and win.

“Paradox works well and mists up the windows,” Irwin, the confident phony, advises. Paradox, like foggy British understatement and a superior sense of irony, goes a long way in English circles. It makes you seem clever.

Thus Irwin can announce smoothly, “The loss of liberty is the price we pay for freedom …. ” Small wonder the handsome, superficial opportunist becomes the successful media pundit and government advisor while his rumpled, idealistic rival Hector is left drowning, though possibly waving.

The History Boys is both an engaging morality tale and part social satire that, in one hilarious scene performed in Churchillian French, becomes purest farce. Mr. Bennett has written a memorable farce or two—among them one about the search for the truth about Kafka, unusually entitled Kafka’s Dick. The new play has a more ambitious canvas than his recent entertaining portraits in damp defeat and embarrassing suburban aloneness, Talking Heads. It’s by far his best play since his tragedy of English history, The Madness of George III.

There’s no fury and resentment in Mr. Bennett, however. He’s more slyly acerbic, and his tone is often one of droll affection. He sides sympathetically with Hector’s world of certain old musty English values, like taking pleasure in the enduring greatness of such poets as Housman, Auden, Larkin and Stevie Smith, or taking time to enjoy the lilting melodies of the music-hall songs that your parents sang and their parents before them—or mimicking the clipped, faux sophistication of Noël Coward’s ludicrously upper-class Brief Encounter, the delights of Cole Porter’s soigné “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and the melodramatic camp of the last cigarette scene in Now, Voyager.

They’re all part of a good liberal education! Hector’s message is that there’s a lesson even in a vintage movie. “Now, Voyager—sail thou forth to seek and find.” Anyone? Walt Whitman, of course. Class, as it were, dismissed!

Teachers like Alan Bennett’s unworldly, hugely enjoyable Hector are essential to us, and they’re becoming as obsolete as stone drinking fountains. The play pays touching tribute to those unsung heroes of our youth who were humane teachers like him. Hector is someone who only hits the students he likes. He is the one who taught us the apparently irrelevant things we never forgot. Lonely, half-wasted, unreconciled Hector is privately and sorrowfully the epitome of “un”: “Un-kissed. Un-rejoicing. Un-confessed. Un-embraced.” But, as played by Richard Griffiths, he is un-equaled.

The production is blessed with two of the finest character actors in England. The genius of Mr. Griffith, who’s quite a presence, resides in his stillness. If theater is eavesdropping on strangers, Mr. Griffith compels us to listen to him with quiet, magical ease and authority. We even find ourselves sitting and listening intently to Hector as he discusses the beauty of a Thomas Hardy poem—of all surprising things. And we enjoy it!

Frances de la Tour—second only to Maggie Smith in her perfect comic timing and dry humor—is the other gift of the production as its only female. Playing the capable, sometimes explicitly frank teacher, Mrs. Lintott, Ms. de la Tour—who’s renowned in England—is the kind of brilliant character actress who can make a small cameo role memorable. She has comparatively little to play with here, yet she makes her indelible mark. To hear her Mrs. Lintott announce to us all halfway through the play, “I have not hitherto been allotted an inner voice,” is an education in itself.

The boys—all eight of them—are a first-rate ensemble and exactly, rudely right. This is how it was, I thought to myself. This is how we were! You might even find yourself rooting for these adolescent know-alls with their whirling hormones and doubt. They don’t seem like Oxford material, though the sexually confused Posner (a very appealing performance from Samuel Barnett) is based by Alan Bennett on his anxious 16-year-old self.

The History Boys is, finally, an affecting memory play. It’s the outcome of those days when the future playwright didn’t know where he was—or where he was going, except perhaps to Oxford—and it’s a delight.