The History Boys
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 26, 2006
As I was leaving the Broadhurst Theatre after The History Boys, I overheard one patron say to another, "Well, that certainly was great theatre." And, as far as it goes, I have to agree: if you enjoy seeing a play that's clever and funny and reasonably intelligent without being particularly demanding, then I can unequivocally recommend this one.
But if you're seeking depth, or authenticity, or intellectual challenge and engagement, then I'm afraid The History Boys doesn't fill the bill at all; at least not for me. For it failed the most critical test that I have for a drama, which is whether I believed it or not. Alan Bennett's much-acclaimed play, glib more often than smart, didn't ring true for me, not for a minute.
It's about a group of eight boys—young men, really—who are studying for their university entrance examinations. (A helpful program note explains that in Britain in the 1980s, when The History Boys takes place, Oxford and Cambridge had their own exams that bright students would bone up for in special intensive semesters at grammar schools; that's what's going on in the play.)
The boys include Dakin, the best-looking and most confident among them; Scripps, Dakin's friend, wise and introverted; Timms, oversized and something of the class clown; Rudge, a jock who knows he's outclassed by the smarter boys here but is nevertheless determined to get into a "name" school; and Posner, who is younger, Jewish, insecure, very bright, and just realizing that he is gay and in love with Dakin. (The other three boys—Akthar, Crowther, and Lockwood—figure less prominently in the story.)
Their teacher, at the beginning, is a quaint old gent named Hector who alternately teases and badgers the boys to memorize a variety of objectively useless information (poems, Gracie Fields songs) in an effort to instill them with a love of learning. But Headmaster isn't satisfied with Hector's methods—he wants the school's reputation to be enhanced, and getting a boatload of students into top universities is what's called for. So he hires a hotshot young teacher named Tom Irwin to tutor the boys specifically for the exams and provide them with tools and techniques to master them. (He's sort of like a one-man Kaplan test-prep center.) Irwin's teaching methodology is all about making impressions and standing out; about selecting from what one has learned to accomplish very specific objectives. The contrast between Irwin's pedagogy and Hector's more noble brand of same is the crux of Bennett's drama.
But there's some melodrama lurking just beneath the surface. Hector, it seems, is a bit of a pedophile: afternoons, he drives some of the boys home on his motorcycle and he diddles with their private parts en route. Headmaster's wife catches him in flagrante. And so now Headmaster has to decide what to do with his errant teacher, and the history boys have to figure out what to make of the conflicting and even contradictory signals they're receiving from their elders.
The story takes a fairly predictable path, with Hector emerging as a heroic figure despite having done (apparently for quite some time) a most unheroic thing. And Irwin emerges as a sort of coward, not to mention a hypocrite, despite having produced precisely the results that Headmaster (and, presumably, the boys themselves) desired.
Bennett's writing is entertaining but largely uninspired, and some of the stretches he makes here defy credibility. Dakin, who is very proud of the affair he is having with Headmaster's secretary, suddenly sets his sights on seducing Irwin, which seemed to me a most unusual thing for a heterosexual teenage boy to do. Headmaster, a horror of a stuffed shirt if ever there was one, speaks unguardedly about his sex life to Mrs. Lintott, another teacher at the school (her purpose in the play, as she herself tells the audience at one point, is solely to receive confidences from the other characters); Mrs. Lintott, a consummate professional if ever there was one, joltingly interrupts a classroom session to complain about womankind's overall lack of influence in historical events (itself a surprising judgment in that era of Margaret Thatcher). These tangents and others like them feel entirely gratuitous: one is aware of Bennett making his play racier and juicier in hopes of making it more likable.
As for the play's central dramatic tension, involving Hector's fondling of his students—well, I had real trouble believing that an English teacher of around 60 years of age could drive a motorcycle at 50mph with one hand while the other was somehow behind him doing the dirty business noted; certainly not one built along the lines of Richard Griffith, the very overweight actor who portrays Hector here.
Structurally, I kept on having troubles with The History Boys as well. Bennett indulges, as so many contemporary dramatists do, in a loose narrative form that allows characters to step back and forth through the fourth wall as the playwright requires. Scripps does this the most, but other boys talk directly to us from time to time, and so does Mrs. Lintott in the most self-conscious example of this practice. Scenes begin with what appears to be a particular class commencing, only to be cut short some five or ten minutes later by the bell—that didn't feel real to me at all.
Bob Crowley's set design looks good, but it turns out to just be a higher-rent version of the same design used by low-budget theatre companies everywhere, which is to say that it consists of some tables and chairs that get rearranged in between scenes, over and over again, endlessly and without the benefit of much in the way of technology. The many set changes are masked by film segments depicting the boys wandering around a campus that we never see on stage, or occasionally by musical numbers performed live by Scripps and Posner. (The film segments pose another problem: the understudies aren't in them, and so at performances such as the one I attended when an understudy is in the show, the film version of his character doesn't match the live one. And one more thing: the actors in the film look younger than the ones on stage; indeed some of the "boys," nearly two years after the play had its London debut, have trouble convincing us that they are 18-year-olds.)
Now all that said, and as noted, The History Boys is an entertaining bit of theatre. The musical interludes—a rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" sung in glorious harmony, among others—are fetchingly executed (though I kept wondering which high-school-age boys in the 1980s would care to spend their time singing such songs). Some of the set pieces, especially one in which Hector (inexplicably) is conducting the class in French, are quite funny. And the acting is all first-rate, with particular standouts being Frances de la Tour as the unflappable Mrs. Lintott, Jamie Parker as the slightly enigmatic yet highly likable Scripps, James Corden as rambunctious Timms, and Russell Tovey as the ambitious Rudge. Richard Griffiths, in a performance that will undoubtedly be cited by various award bodies this season, is perhaps too comfortable in the role he originated; there's a showiness to his portrayal that jars slightly with the tone of the rest of the acting. Nicholas Hytner's staging is strong throughout.
I like that The History Boys considers subjects that are more challenging and enlarging than what is often attempted in a Broadway play. But I was disappointed that the consideration is so superficial. I'd venture to say that if this play hadn't come to us from England with its National Theatre credentials and its handful of London awards, it would not now be playing at the Broadhurst Theatre and winning the kind of acclaim that it has. We have good American playwrights with interesting stuff on their minds; what we don't have is a theatre establishment that embraces and nurtures them the way the UK does. And there, perhaps, is the real lesson to be learned.