Sunday, August 10, 2008

The History Boys

The play blends comedy with tragedy and has many layers and themes. Whilst the story is ostensibly about education and, in particular, the teaching of talented pupils on the cusp of adulthood it is also a subtle study of the human and personal relationships between teacher and pupil, pupil and pupil and teacher and teacher. Hector, the confident but eccentric, eclectic and iconoclastic history teacher is contrasted with Irwin, a generation younger than him, who is clever, confused and insecure. The boys have warmed to Hector's maverick style and methods which includes role playing and a very broad cultural range - from Gracie Fields to Housman. They tolerate Hector's fondness for fondling their genitalia when on his motor bike with equanimity clearly seeing it as a harmless foible rather than a pederastic threat.

The boys themselves are sharply contrasted and skilfully characterised. Dakin, is handsome and self-confident attracting not only the lovestruck and guilt-ridden Posner but also the Headmaster's secretary the "fair Fiona" and eventually Irwin as well. Rudge is the sporting hearty who despite his lack of overt academic competence has sufficient other qualities and connections to get him into Oxford. The play is about the "anarchy of adolescence" and whilst the fact of Hector's homosexuality runs through the story and is ultimately Hector's downfall "The History Boys" is not primarily about sex. The sexual confidence and promiscuity of Dakin and the sexual confusions of Hector, Irwin and Posner are neatly contrasted however and this theme may well be autobiographical.

The idea that culture is not sharply divided into highbrow and lowbrow is one of Hector's beliefs and he is as comfortable in the genre of Hollywood as he is in the classics. This seems to be a plea for tolerance and understanding and for the need to trawl widely in order to grow and to learn - especially early in life. The belief that in education anything goes so long as it helps the pupil's development contrasts sharply with the headmaster's wish to stick to the curriculum and to get results above all. For Hector entry to Oxbridge will (or should) come from a rounded education as much as from curriculum adherence. For Irwin the need is to play the game so that in the Oxbridge entrance exams and interviews taking the conventional line is to be avoided in favour of articulating a contrary position in order to be noticed.

The play is set in the 1980s - a time of social and political change and in a sense The History Boys is a refection of that change. The likes of Hector would never be accepted again and results driven headmasters became the norm. Bennett suggests that this is a regrettable consequence of the Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite focus in education on curriculum, standards and political-correctness.