Title: The History Boys
Author: Alan Bennett
Number of Pages: 144
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The History Boys, a play by Alan Bennett, is an absolutely wonderful play, and was made it to quite a movie, as well (which I’ll talk about a bit more later). The play focuses on a group of boys whom are all trying to get in to Cambridge and Oxford with the help of three core faculty members: their female history teacher, they’re gay male “general studies” teacher, and a new teacher – Irwin – a young man wh is responsible for teaching the boys how to be original enough to actually get in to Oxford and Cambridge.
The play’s main male lead, Dakin, is a cocky student who is used to getting what he wants. He’s an intelligent boy, who uses his intelligence to manipulate those around him. Its fantastic! I’m in love with him. So much so that there is a serious need for me to re-do my list of most desirable male fictional leads. The best part of the play, however, is what it has to say about the study of history in and of itself. The play, through Irwin, advocates for taking history and spinning it on its head. See Stalin as an evil human being? Irwin tells the boys to find something – ANYTHING – good to say about Stalin and make the case that maybe he wasn’t so evil after all. Writing an essay on the Church at the eve of the Reformation? Mention the 14 foreskins of Christ to really make a bang. Part of it speaks to the general hipocracy and the lengths students will go to in order to make sure that their essays stand out above the rest. As a student, I recognize this method and know that, in all honesty, there is quite a bit of truth to how effective it is. On the other hand, its an admonission to look at the other side of the story – the side of history that perhaps the loser would have told, or the side that no one gives much thought to in the cultural lexicon. As a lover of history (particularly the untold history) I found this aspect of the play to be quite intriguing as well.
One of the other things I loved about the book had to do with the relationship between Hector (the gay “general studies” professor) and the boys. Hector takes the boys home from school on his motorcycle (a different boy daily) and, on the way home, reaches behind him and begins to fondle the boys. At first, as a reader, I was really, really surprised at this. However, to both Hector and the boys, this isn’t something worth paying attention to. It is merely something that happens – a course of action chosen by their eccentric teacher that all the boys must deal with. A personality quirk. Later, when Dakin begins to hit on Irwin, the question of the line between teacher and student, a line which has already been blurred, is erased almost entirely. And, while I am adamantly against inappropriate student-teacher relations, it adds a dimension to the play that really make it an even more worthwhile read.
The movie of The History Boys was perhaps even more enjoyable than the play, if for no other reason that seeing the play enacted almost always adds even more layers of depth. The only main critique that I had of the movie was that the British accents, although wildly authentic, made some of the dialouge hard to understand, and made some of the plot points a bit hard to catch. There is also a lot of French spoken throughout the story, which – for someone who doesn’t speak French – was a little bit distracting, although not entirely unwelcome. There is also quite a bit of poetry quoted throughout the story, particularly the poetry of Auden. Which, for someone who wishes she knew more poetry than she does, is absolutely fanstatic. Perhaps thats another contributing factor to why I liked both the movie and the play so much – the boys are adorable, they’re clearly intelligent, and they spend their days talking about poetry and art and history and hitting on other really cute, intelligent boys (you heard me right. Boys with tragic stories and insurmountable flaws hitting on other boys with tragic stories and insurmountable flaws is one of my favorite things in the world). The movie starred the original cast that opened the show which leant, in my opinion, to the legitimacy of the movie, in addition to providing a familiar point of reference in later readings of the play. Its always been a dream of mine to go to Oxford or Cambridge for graduate school, and so watching the boys in this movie go through what they go through is a kind of life-reference point for me, as well.
All in all, although there are some definite adult themes running through the play, I couldn’t have been happier with the time I spent reading it. Happy reading (or, I guess, watching!)