The History Boys
Bennett's setting is a northern grammar school and his focus is on the varied methods of training post A-level students for life. The headmaster, obsessed with league-tables and results, wants them all to be Oxbridge candidates. To this end, he engages a young historian, Irwin, who knows that the key to exam success lies in singularity and that "the wrong end of the stick is the right one". In the opposite camp is the gentle English master, Mr Hector, who argues that exams are the enemy of education . Hector is a fan of the poet Wysten Hugh Auden many of whose poems focused on the ways in which words revealed and concealed emotions eh Hector believes “words alone are certain good” Bennett appears to write his play in praise of Hector and his non-utilitarian approach to education. Hector character is portrayed somehat sympathetically considering that he is essentially abusing his trust as a teacher in “fiddling” with the boys. Bennett appears to be against the Headmasters approach of only being concerned with cold facts and numbers. At the same time however, Bennett is fair enough to show that in history, above all, you need a certain grounding in facts before you can begin to achieve interpretation. Bennett complicates the issue by making Hector an amiable character who likes to grope the boys as they ride pillion on his motor-bike and by making Irwin a closeted homosexual terrified of acting on his impulses. What is astonishing is how much territory Bennett manages to cover: the teaching and meaning of history, inflexible and imaginative approaches to education, and the idea, as in Forty Years On, that a school has the potential to be a metaphor for English life. It is no accident that the play is set in the eighties, when the arguments between humanism and pragmatic functionalism were at the very height. The play is also blissfully funny, not least in a scene where Hector improves the boys' French by getting them to impersonate the...
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