Book Review : The History Boys by Alan Bennett

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I just finished reading the book. It’s a week since I saw the movie and I was knocked off my feet. I’ve been knocked off my feet again. It’s a brilliant play, it is incredibly well written and it got under my skin in a way that little else has done in all my years of reading. It made me smile and it made me laugh, but it also broke my heart a little.

It’s a fairly lighthearted story on the surface. It raises important questions about education and what it’s for and so on, but it has lots of layers and characters who are charming while being all too human. The characters are flawed and they feel very real. You read the play and you can’t help but feel that yes, this could very well have happened somewhere, sometime.

The story is set in 1983 and it is set in a state school called Cuttler’s in Yorkshire. It is a story about eight boys who’ve just got their A level exam results. They’ve all done well and they’re getting ready to take their university entrance examinations. The headmaster is keen that they try to get into Oxford or Cambridge. They have one term left before they have to take the exams and they are all going in for history.

Their teachers are teaching them the way they always have. Mrs Lintott teaches History and Mr Hector teaches Literature and Language, or  General Studies as the headmaster calls it. These teachers don’t see the point of these kids trying for Oxford and Cambridge. They studied at Durham and Sheffield, universities that are less esteemed, but they got a good education nonetheless.

As far as they are concerned, which university the kids go to, has nothing to do with how well they learn or where they end up, in the future. But the headmaster is keen on Oxford and Cambridge, so he hires a new teacher, a Mr Irwin who is young and who, unlike the other teachers did actually study at Oxford.

His brief is to get these kids into Oxford or Cambridge by whatever means he can. He meets the boys and he realises that he doesn’t actually have to teach them anything. They know everything they need to know and more. Both Hector and Mrs Lintott have made sure of that.

But their approach, particularly Hector’s is the kind that believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake or as he says in the beginning of the play, “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” He’s quoting A E houseman here. Hector’s mission in life is to give the boys a love of literature and reading.

He makes them learn poems and songs by heart. There is a very interesting exchange about poetry in the play (between Hector and one of his students) that I will quote here:

Timms : Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.

Hector : You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.”

Timms : I don’t see how we can understand it, sir. Most of the stuff that poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector : But it will, Timms. It will. And when it does, you’ll have the antidote ready! Grief, Happiness. Even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.

He doesn’t care for exams, seeing them as the arbitrary things they are. He’s trying to equip his students for life, or so he believes anyway. Irwin, on the other hand is all about the exams. He goes about teaching the students short cuts and tricks to get the examiner’s attention.

He talks about Stalin in one scene and he says that everyone knows that Stalin was a monster, but if you want to stand out from the crowd then find something to say in his defense…dissent for dissent’s sake, not because you truly believe in it, but because taking a position that is different from the rest means that you will stand out, you will get noticed.

So the book is basically about these two teachers and their approach to teaching. Everybody wants a teacher like Hector, but Hector will not help you pass exams and you do need to pass exams. Examiners are not going to care how much literature, poetry and history you know. They care about the questions and the answers, do you have them or not.

The play doesn’t attempt to answer this question, it just puts it out there. It’s something for the audience to think about and mull over. If this was all, the play would be good. What makes it great is all the sub plots…the stories of the students and the teachers:

A Jewish boy who is small and who never feels like he quite fits in with the others because he matured late and because he’s gay. And he’s in love with another of the boys who of course, doesn’t care for him.

Another boy who is a devout Christian and holds fast to his faith while missing out on a lot of stuff that is normal for boys his age.

And another who has a girlfriend, but doesn’t let that stop him from hitting on Irwin who happens to be gay.

And of course Hector, who though a brilliant teacher, is a bit of a creep. He gives the boys rides on his motorcycle while reaching back every now and then to lay a hand on their knee or to grope them even. He never takes it any further and the boys just groan or roll their eyes at him. They are all eighteen years old and they are well able to take care of themselves, so he’s not a real threat to them and he knows it. They don’t like what he does, but they put up with him anyway.

The crux of the play, though, is that question about education, what it is and what it’s for.  The final scene is a round up of all the boys and what they’ve done with their lives. One of the boys gets into Cambridge, but it doesn’t work out for him because he put so much into getting there, that once he was there, he had nothing left.

They all went to Oxford or Cambridge, something that no one from their school had ever done before. They were all smart and full of life when they were at school, they were special, but none of them ended up doing anything extraordinary with their lives. So what was all that effort for really?

Like I said, the play raises a lot of interesting questions. It has a wonderful set of characters that you can’t help but love. It is funny, sarcastic, witty and poignant. It will stay with you long after you’ve read it because it is full of insights into life and literature, learning and being. It is full of quotations, songs, poems, dialogues from movies and other plays even…all of them interesting and all of them special.

But the words that will stay with me the longest are Bennett’s own. Here is my favourite dialogue in the play:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and peculiar to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, someone even who is long dead. and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours…

 

Daily Trivia : Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’

It was on 22nd January, 1938 that Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town was premiered at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. The play has a fairly simple theme, but it became immensely popular and is now considered an American classic with universal appeal.

Our Town is set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners and it is the story of  the relationship between two young people, George Gibbs and Emily Webb, whose childhood friendship blossoms into romance, and then culminates in marriage.

Emily dies in child birth. She is then given the opportunity to go back and relive any one day of her life. She decides to revisit her 12th birthday, a day that stands in her memory as the happiest day of her life.

Emily comes back to life just for that one day and she finds herself experiencing every moment with an intensity and joy that he had never felt when she was actually alive and she regrets that she hadn’t lived as well as she could have.

“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you,” she says as she takes her place among the dead.

Our Town was revolutionary for its time because Wilder decided not to use any scenery and almost no props. He thought that they got in the way of seeing the play as truly universal, and he wanted his play to be more like the great Greek tragedies.

So he got rid of the excess visuals and he added the group of the dead people of Grover’s Corners, who commented on the goings on, much like a Greek chorus.

The play opened in Princeton and then it moved to Boston, where it was a flop. The Boston critics gave it poor reviews, it played to half-empty houses, and some audience members even walked out, including the wife of the governor of Massachusetts.

But two New York theater critics, Brooks Atkinson and Alexander Wolcott, convinced the director and producer to give it another try and bring the show to New York.

It did much better there, although people were divided in the way they felt about it. Some found it inspiring and others depressing. 

Our Town won the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and it is now estimated that on average, it is performed at least once every night somewhere in the world.