The History Boys

Alan Bennett
Faber and Faber

While many people read novels and biographies, relatively few, other than theatre professionals are tempted to read play scripts. The History Boys is a prime example of a text that is worth reading for its own sake but also offers alternative pleasures.

For those that have seen a play, it is often fun to relive the experience by reading the script soon afterwards. The joys of a wonderful evening at the National Theatre flood back and some of those lines that one didn't quite catch can be relished.

If people live a little too far away from London to have seen the play then they will not get the complete experience from reading the script and, in particular, Richard Griffiths has to be seen on stage rather than just imagined. However, reading the words is an awful lot better than missing out completely and with a playwright like Alan Bennett, the philosophy and language are two major components in any of his work.

The book also provides a 23 page introduction from the almost inevitably self-deprecating Bennett, in which he explains the genesis of the play. The style is a delight and his wit crackles, often almost as much as it does in the play.

The plot addresses a battle that takes place between two school teachers with completely different philosophies. Their battleground is eight pupils from the Oxbridge class of a grammar school in Sheffield during the 1980s.

Hector, "his door locked against the future", is very much the tragic hero, as he propounds his view that education is an end in itself and throws around literary quotes with abandon. By contrast, Irwin, 30 years his junior, has been drafted in by headmaster to introduce a more "journalistic" approach to passing exams.

Felix, their headmaster, who is not above chasing his secretary, has a Thatcherite win-at-all-costs attitude and with it, a high degree of hypocrisy.

Bennett has a knack of writing quotable lines that say so much about both his philosophy and his characters. Hector's struggle can be summed up with his quote that "you give them the education. I give them the will to resist it". Irwin, who will eventually become a sneering TV historian, has a different angle "history nowadays is not a matter of conviction, it's a performance". That says it all.

Perhaps though, it is the boys that should have the last say, as they come to the conclusion that "most of the stuff poetry's about hasn't happened to us yet" to which Hector retorts that poetry is for posterity and "we're making your deathbeds here". He nearly got it right.

This is all splendid stuff and though Bennett can be a little too schematic, particularly with his division of teachers into three opposed classes, the idealist, the realist and the conman, this is a splendid read. It is not a substitute for the real thing but it adds much to the enjoyment and understanding of the play.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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