The History Boys is a play set in Sheffield during Thatcher's reign in the 1980s, and we follow a group of eight grammar school boys as they prepare to sit their Oxbridge entrance exams. A young maverick History teacher is employed in order to polish them for these exams, and Mr Irwin's teaching style clashes with that of Mr Hector, their eccentric General Studies teacher. The boys are torn between Hector's idealistic, romantic view of how they should be educated and Irwin's more modern and ruthless method which involves turning conventional arguments on their heads in order to stand out from the other scholarship candidates, regardless of whether the boys believe what they are writing.
Characters & Themes
The most interesting thing about the play is that, despite the title, it's not actually about the students at all. The teachers are the strongest characters, as there are too many boys for them all to have particularly clear personalities. Although she features less than the other characters, Mrs Lintott really stands out for me. As the play's only female character, she holds her own against the men and gets some of my favourite lines in the play - "History's not such a frolic for women as it is for men...What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket." The lack of female characters isn't necessarily a bad thing as it's a reflection of the very male environment in which the boys have been educated, which means that the real world may come as something of a shock to them - "it may not have crossed your minds that one of the dons who interviews you may be a woman."
The issue of sexuality is one of the main themes of the play, because what else would you expect from a group of eighteen-year-old boys? It crops up in various forms, from Posner and his "spaniel heart" pining after classmate Dakin to Hector's inexpert fondling of his pupils as they ride home on the back of his motorcycle. Although this may sound like very dodgy territory, given the nature of Hector's character it's an expression of his misguided and slightly pathetic attempts to connect with his students. A lot of the relationships within the play walk the thin line between intellectual idolisation and sexual interest, and as Hector himself says, "the transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act".
Q: Is there still room for Hector's style of teaching, or is the modern way more beneficial?
Irwin provides the boys with the tools which will get them into university, while Hector's method sees exams as the enemy of true education - "it's just the knowledge...the pursuit of it for its own sake" - and it's clear that for this reason, the boys feel uncomfortable using the things they learn with Hector to help them in their exams. The hierarchy of higher education is also touched on and getting into Oxford and Cambridge is the ultimate goal regardless of whether or not it's the best fit for the boys. The main draw of Oxbridge is the prestige that goes along with it - "Your parents want it. The Headmaster certainly wants it. I wouldn't waste the money...Go to Newcastle and be happy." These ideas are still relevant as today's teenagers have to decide whether attending university is worth the ever-increasing tuition fees, despite how keen schools are to send their pupils onto higher education. Unfortunately, in a world dictated by grades and league tables and with the price of education continuing to rise, it can be hard to see a place for Hector's style of teaching any more. The romantic in me wishes that this weren't the case and this is probably why I love The History Boys as much as I do.
There was something about the theme of the importance of education combined with all the historical and literary references that instantly spoke to the slightly pretentious intellectual in teenage Hannah, and I still adore it to this day. As with any play, the action is carried by the dialogue which in this case is absolutely spot on. It's full of warmth and wit, excellently showcasing Bennett's one-liners and tongue-in-cheek humour, as well as being incredibly poignant with some utterly tragic and moving scenes. I want to keep this review spoiler-free so I won't say too much, but every time the ending comes around, it brings a tear to my eye.
Of course because this is a play, it was intended to be performed rather than read. Thanks to Nicholas Hytner's 2006 film adaptation, you don't have to sit with your fingers crossed until your local theatre puts on a production. Since the text was adapted for the screen by Alan Bennett himself and features the original cast who brought the roles to life onstage (including some familiar faces who have gone on to have very successful acting careers), it's a bloody good adaptation which perfectly captures the spirit of the text. Even if you're not a massive fan of reading plays or don't think you'll ever get around to picking up this book, I would really recommend the film.
I'll end with with my favourite quotation, which tends to be most people's favourite. Although it may be a little clichéd, there's a very good reason why this quote makes such an impression on people, particularly those who are avid readers.
Have you read or seen The History Boys? If so, let me know in the comments! Do you think that Hector's style of teaching is still relevant today?