The History Boys: Ahead of the Class

history boys

The British love Alan Bennett. One of the top
ten living icons, according to the BBC, the Yorkshire native is
celebrated for his combination of sharp wit and dead-on observation
of British society. With The History Boys, the film based
on his award-winning play, Bennett casts his satirist’s eye
on the educational system, and though his work seems quite culturally
specific, you don’t have to be English to appreciate Bennett’s
humor, as jokes about everything from the Crucifixion to masturbation
pepper what is in essence a universal story about growing up.

In the northern industrial city of Sheffield circa 1983 (think
The Full Monty), a class of precocious teenage boys vies
to become the first students from their school ever to be accepted
to the illustrious universities of Oxford and Cambridge. While Americans
might not appreciate the difference between the new British universities
of the 1960s, to which most working-class Sheffield boys would have
been destined, and the ancient institutions of Oxbridge, it’s
clear that it would be akin to comparing a community college with
the Ivy Leagues. In order to make the boys’ bid successful
and improve the school’s status in the national standings,
the headmaster (Clive Merrison) recruits a young Oxford graduate
to polish the boys’ rough edges. Tom Irwin (Stephen Campbell
Moore) is “five minutes older” than the boys themselves.
He immediately upsets the balance in what had become a comfortable
academic environment ruled by the history teacher (and only authoritative
female presence) Mrs. Lintott (the formidable Frances de la Tour),
and the eccentric Hector (Richard Griffiths), whose classes—a
hodgepodge of poetry, role-playing, and music—are generously
titled “General Studies.” A figure of fun to the boys
and an embarrassment to the administration, Hector has a penchant
for motorbikes and awkward gropings of whichever boy he convinces
to ride pillion. But Hector’s expansive approach to learning
provides the real conflict as he is expected to concede to Irwin’s
no-nonsense, goal-oriented teaching style. More alike than they
realize, each teacher has his own interpretation of success as they
prepare the boys for what is supposed to be the most important test
of their lives.

Yet the entrance exams merely provide a focal point in the boys’
attempts to define themselves and their world. Questions of who
is or is not Oxbridge material lead to interrogations of religion,
sexuality, authority: Scripps (Jamie Parker), the sensible one,
tries to reconcile a potential career in the Church with a teenage
boy’s sex drive. Dakin (Dominic Cooper), the charmer, though
carrying on an affair with the school secretary (Georgia Taylor),
discovers an unwonted desire to please wherever Irwin is concerned,
and Posner (Samuel Barnett), the runt of the litter, comes to terms
with being both the only Jew and the only openly homosexual student
at the school. There’s never a false note sounded as the boys
struggle to puzzle out their future, nothing forced as there so
often is when a piece is translated from stage to screen (see, for
example, the over-acted adaptation of the Broadway musical Rent).
This is surely due, at least in part, to the fact that most of the
cast originated their roles in the first run of the play at London’s
National Theatre so that they have now become, two years on, like
second skins. As well, the film marks the second time Bennett and
director Nicholas Hytner have teamed up to bring their production
from the National Theatre to the screen (after The Madness of
King George
in 1994), and clearly, the collaboration works:
the adaptation is both faithful to the spirit of the original and
able to stand alone as a cinematic creation in its own right.

Ultimately, whether the boys get into their chosen schools almost
(almost!) ceases to matter as the connections between teachers
and students and between the boys themselves are brought to the
fore, and the strict distinctions on which they based their assumptions—between
boy / man, straight / gay, Sheffield / Oxbridge—are challenged,
and begin to melt away. What makes this enlightenment possible,
Bennett suggests, even while highlighting the absurdity of academic
institutions, is learning and knowledge for their own sakes. It
is Hector who identifies the joy inherent in the learning process
as he explains, “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. And 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.”

Bennett’s text, both the literary artifact and its performance,
are full of those ‘best moments.’ Whether it’s
the questioning of one’s sexuality, the pining over an unattainable
crush or just general adolescent angst, a hand is extended in solidarity.
We’ve all been there, The History Boys seem to say,
no matter where we’ve come from.

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