The History BoysReviewed by Richard Thomson
The History Boys
By Alan Bennett
The National Theatre (UK)
24–28 Feb (Sold Out)
Opening night of the New Zealand International Arts Festival. There's a sense of importance and occasion among the crowd at the St James, even if some of them were not sufficiently awed to remember to turn their cell phones off. This is serious fun. The gentleman next to me had spent the day in Auckland, listening to Bill Clinton, and this was apparently the first of 40 festival events on his schedule. He was clearly ready to fork out serious money to be entertained.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that The History Boys would be a play that lived up to the highest expectations. It's supremely witty, complex and sad, and rather beautiful. I sat for two and a half hours in eager anticipation of each new scene as the lights darkened on the last. There were a few early minutes when it seemed the actors' voices struggled to fill the theatre - but it could be that my ears needed that time to become attuned to the south Yorkshire accents. I'm not sure.
The History Boys asks a simple but ambitious question. What is the purpose of education? Along with caustic criticism of the answers proposed by the educational esablishment, Alan Bennett provides his own more nuanced response; but it's an answer that despite the rapturous applause could not possibly be thought of as resonating with any mainstream expectations of senior secondary education in this country. Nor, you suspect, in Britain.
Bennett's hero, Hector, is acknowledged by his headmaster as an excellent teacher, but one whose accomplishments are utterly impossible to assess. Already you'll be getting the drift. In telling Hector's story, the play is both smart and thoughtful - although given the choice, Bennett puts himself firmly in the latter camp. The kind of camp where showing off your knowledge in an exam is thought to be somehow indecent. A camp that encompasses W H Auden and schoolboys practicing French by pretending to be in a Parisian bordello.
Those are also examples of a very English view of the world. The History Boys is particular in its Englishness, and this was the thing I had wondered most about beforehand. Would this play, transported to New Zealand, struggle for air?
Apparently not. The reasons for this are interesting and worth examining.
One is our own fast-diluting Englishness. We're still familiar with jokes about the licentious French. And we have a diffidence of our own towards intellectual showoffs. (Although ours is rooted in a robust antipathy towards smartarses, rather than any ideas about knowledge having a higher purpose.) When the headmaster decides the boys must study for entry to Oxford or Cambridge rather than Bristol or Durham Universities, he invokes a league table New Zealanders (especially older generations) will be familiar with.
We too have an obsession with rankings and achievement when it comes to educating our children. Hector is a teacher for whom the great love of his life is poetry, and although it's an affair that's far from simple, it's difficult to imagine that his was the kind of pedagogy the New Zealand schools who opted to offer Cambridge International Exams had in mind.
The History Boys covers its own specific historical trajectory; boys at school in the avaricious Britain of Margaret Thatcher grow up into the moral wasteland of the Britain led by Tony Blair. We have a parallel experience of our own.
The most sensitive of the boys ("I'm small, I'm Jewish, I'm homosexual. I'm fucked.") grows up to be alone in a cottage with only online friends, for whom he adopts fake personas. It's a bleak vision, and its extreme isolationism is perhaps the biggest lament in the play, because in the end Bennett does come up with a simple answer to the question he's asking. Pass it on, says Hector. That was all I ever tried to do.